By Paul R. Spitzzeri
This is the fifth post on the Civil War diary of Charles M. Jenkins, who was the only Los Angeles resident to fight for the Union Army during that conflict. The diary, owned by the Historical Society of Southern California, is on temporary deposit with the Homestead Museum.
As mentioned in the previous post, the end of March 1865 found Jenkins and his fellow soldiers heading westward as Robert E. Lee retreated with his remaining Confederate forces, hoping to link up with another rebel army in North Carolina to continue the war. On the 1st of April, Jenkins noted that his unit returned to the scene of the skirmish they’d had with the rebels the previous day [original spelling, grammar and punctuation are as written], “and passed over the battlefield. I saw a great number of dead. Some were burnt as the woods were a fire. We have driven the rebs 5 miles and taken two lines of works [meaning earthworks, which are large mounds of soil that could be used for defense].”
The next day, Jenkins wrote that his company “tride to folow the rebs but could not find them untill dark when they open [fire] on us. I was on the scermish [skirmish] line all night.” After the fighting was over, he heard it “Reported that Richmon is ours.”
On the 3rd, he recorded that his unit “took two pieces of artilery and 400 prisnors and there wagon train . . . last night I laide on the Scermish line all night. This is hard work.” He did hear that the “A.P. Hill corps is cut off and I think that the Infantry will capture all of it today.” Ambrose Powell Hill, a Confederate general, was, in fact, killed that during that battle of April 2 at Petersburg, VA.
After a brief rest, Jenkins’ unit was ordered to march “back on the enimes left flank.” While on that pursuit, on the 5th, he recorded, in a very matter of fact way that “this morning I dismounted a colored gentleman and found my self mounted,” meaning that, after his horse had been turned loose because he could no longer ride, Jenkins effectively stole a local black man’s animal for his use.
On the 6th, after vigorously pursuing the Confederates to Burkeville, VA, Union forces, “soon came in site of rebs train. We wente for them but did not succeed.” However, a young rising star came to the fore in this engagement:
Custer charged them and captures twelve guns and twelve thousand prisnors and three Gen[eral] officers and eney quantity of wagons.
George Armstrong Custer distinguished himself in several key battles during the war, positioning him for his future ascent in the Army, a decade before his disastrous end at the Battle of Little Big Horn. The following day, Jenkins further noted that:
Last night the rebs shelled us on the road and killed two men and wounded a number. We had to retreate Custer came in to Prince Edward CH [Courthouse] with thirty Battle Flages. We have not run across eney rebs to day as they are on the run. We will not Scare them up to day I think.
These engagements from the Battle of Sailor’s Creek proved to be fatal for Lee and the Confederate Army. Notably, on the 8th, Jenkins recorded that he was placed on picket duty “and had to Stand post.” While doing so, he continued, “I wente to a house and ordered breakfast for thirteen which the nigors got for me.” He also indicated that “Gen Custer charged the rebs to day and captured four trains of cars and fourty peaces of artilery. We were on the Scermish line all night.” Finally, Jenkins observed that “today four years ago the war comenced.” What he may have meant was that, on April 8, 1861, South Carolina’s constitution was ratified as it seceded from the United States, though hostilities did not begin until four days later.
On Sunday, April 9, Jenkins wrote:
This morning the ball opened rather easely the rebs shelled us but it had little or no effect. We dismounted and formed a Scermish line but were soon called in and Gen Lee Surender his armey and we have his armey Surounded. Sheridon & Lee are on nutral groun wating U.S. Grant who will be here soon.
This was followed on the 10th with the report that:
This morning every thing is peace as Lee Surendered his armey yesterday at 9 oclock A.M. to Sherdon and Grant came up in the after noon to arange maters. They have agreed to Parole them and give them all personal property. We mooved to day and camped near prospect Station.
After almost exactly four years since the famed shots at Fort Sumter were fired, the war was finally over. For Jenkins, however, there were still more to do as a soldier.
First, as his unit headed back for Burkeville, he recorded something striking: “I see in every house a man as we pass by Somthing that I never Saw before in Virginia. Every body weares a Smile both femail and mail.” As his company headed toward Petersburg, rain made travel difficult on muddy roads. On 14 April, Jenkins was camped at the Nottoway County courthouse and wrote that, though he had been “in the saddle” for nearly fifty days and “we have had no time to wash our faces,” he was consoled by the fact that “we will have good times now for I think that the war is Over.”
Despite heavy downpours, Jenkins and his fellow soldiers were, on the 15th, “ordered to discharge our arms and I never heard as heavey firing in my life as there is 25 thousand Cavlrey here.” It was not until “Yesterday it was reported that A Lincon was killed by Booth. We all thought it was a Sell But I am afraide it is true.”
Being on the march, there was evidently little more to say about one of the key events in American history and, by the end of the day on the 18th, Jenkins was in camp five miles outside of Petersburg. It was there on the following day that, “To day the news of Lincon death was confermed.” In addition, the report that Confederate general Joseph Johnston, whom Lee was hoping to join before he capitulated at Appomattox, surrendered to Union general Philip Sheridan in North Carolina, effectively ending any further major resistance.
After a few days in Petersburg, Jenkins’ regiment was on the move once more, heading southwest towards North Carolina, and pockets of gunfire and cannonading were reported on the way. The reason for the march, Jenkins stated was “to help Shermon out of the Confedrecy with a whole skin.”
Jenkins’ unit got near the Virginia-North Carolina border “when Sherdon recived orders that Johonson [Johnston] surendered.” From there, the march turned back for Petersburg and this had just begun when, on the 29th, Jenkins wrote, “I heard that Booth was killed on the Rapadam by one of Bakers Detectives.” As April concluded, Jenkins was camped along the Nottway River and moving quickly towards Petersburg.
The next post follows Jenkins in his post-war travels and the gradual move towards his being mustered out for the return home to Los Angeles.