- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 11, 2008

Alaska is known for extraordinary tales of survival in its severe winters, but not for its links to the Civil War. Yet it has one with Lyman E. Knapp.

Maj. Knapp, a 24-year-old schoolteacher from Stratton, Vt., fought at Gettysburg and the siege of Petersburg and somehow survived to the spring of 1865. On April 1, 1865, Knapp and his regiment, the 17th Vermont, had lived in the trenches outside of Petersburg for eight months. As spring came to Virginia, the Confederate defenses began to melt just like the snow, and hopes of the siege ending began to rise with the temperatures.

Despite these favorable signs, Knapp could not help but ponder his and the regiment’s chances in the attack that was sure to come. The 17th Vermont and her sister regiments in Griffin’s Brigade, Gen. Robert B. Potter’s division of the 9th Corps, would have to cross about 500 yards of open ground filled with mud and obstacles under Confederate rifle and artillery fire.

If these attacking troops reached the Confederate trenches, they faced determined Confederate infantry who would furiously defend their positions, as Knapp and the 17th Vermont had learned from bitter experience.

Nearly a year before, the 17th Vermont was a new regiment with 581 men. It entered the Wilderness on May 5, 1864, and after five months of heavy fighting, only 86 men remained fit for duty. Among the fallen were Knapp’s two predecessors, Maj. William Reynolds, killed at the Crater along with most of the regiment’s line officers on July 30. A few months later, the recently promoted Maj. Henry Eaton was killed at Popular Grove Church on Sept. 30 along with nine men , 40 men wounded, and 27 men listed as missing.

After Popular Grove Church, Knapp commanded the regiment as one of the few officers fit for duty. Knapp was promoted to major, but the 17th Vermont saw little action for the remainder of 1864 and the first few months of 1865 beyond trench life with its occasional sniping and picket duty.

By April 1, 1865, the 17th Vermont had 300 men present for duty as reinforcements filled out the regiment. Soon after dark, as Knapp expected, orders came down from brigade to attack the next day.

The brigade’s plan was to send 300 axmen to clear a path through the obstacles just before dawn. Shortly thereafter, the rest of the brigade would attack and clear the Confederate trench line to the left of Fort Mahone and support its sister brigade’s attack to capture this fort. Then with the rest of the division they would assault the Confederate defenses along the Jerusalem Plank Road to capture Petersburg.

However, at 10 p.m., Knapp received new orders that the brigade was to attack at once. Griffin’s brigade formed into two battle lines of three regiments abreast and it probed the Confederate picket line, capturing 249 Confederates. Despite this success at midnight, Knapp received orders from brigade reinstating the original attack orders and to withdraw. So the 17th Vermont, with the rest of the brigade, returned with their prisoners to their starting positions and got some rest.

At 4:30 a.m. on April 2, Union artillery opened fire and three companies from Griffin’s brigade charged and captured a small redoubt and its cannon as the axmen ran to cut a path through the obstacles. Behind them, the brigade moved in column at its best speed through the mud and debris between the lines.

As Knapp and the 17th Vermont reached the Union’s advance picket line, Confederate fire erupted, causing them to seek cover. From a trench, Knapp assessed the situation when a Confederate mortar shell exploded nearby, wounding him and seven of the 15 men with him.

Despite his third wound of the war, Knapp got the 17th Vermont moving again and supported the brigade’s attack. This assault captured a quarter mile of Confederate trench and nearly 500 Confederates prisoners by 9:30 a.m. Soon after, Fort Mahone was captured. However, this ended the Union’s success in this area as Confederate troops regrouped and prevented further Union advances and recaptured Fort Mahone later that day.

Despite this setback, other Union attacks breached the Petersburg defenses, causing Gen. Robert E. Lee to withdraw his army that night. The 17th Vermont lost 10 killed and 39 wounded that day, but the rest of the regiment marched into Petersburg the next morning with Griffin’s brigade. Knapp was breveted lieutenant colonel for his meritorious actions at Petersburg, and a week later Lee’s surrender ended the war for him.

Knapp was discharged with the 17th Vermont on July 14, 1865, but his public service was not over. He returned to teaching but left this position, becoming a newspaper editor and in his spare time studied law. After passing the bar, he practiced law for nearly a decade. In 1876, Knapp became a county probate judge and involved in local politics.

In 1893, Knapp was called again to Federal service when President Benjamin Harrison selected him to serve as Alaska’s third territorial governor. After his four-year term, he and his family stayed in Alaska for a few more years, then moved to Oregon and Washington state, where he practiced law for the rest of his days.

Knapp probably thought he had little chance of surviving the Petersburg siege or the war, but he beat the odds. He survived a blizzard of shot and shell in the woods of Virginia and Petersburg, thus giving him the character fit for the wilds of Alaska.

Eric C. Ward is a military historian and free-lance writer from Laurel.

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