The Virginia Peninsula: The Army of the James

April 28, 1864 – Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant ordered Major General Benjamin F. Butler and his new Federal army to begin moving up the Virginia Peninsula from Fort Monroe by May 5.

Maj Gen B.F. Butler | Image Credit:

Grant’s idea of having all major Federal armies launch simultaneous offensives included mobilizing the forces on the peninsula between the York and James rivers. These troops were organized into the Army of the James, a force of about 33,000 men led by Butler. The army consisted of two wings:

  • Major General William F. “Baldy” Smith led XVIII Corps, or Butler’s right wing. Smith had come east with Grant from Chattanooga, having impressed Grant with his engineering prowess in opening the “cracker line.”
  • Major General Quincy A. Gillmore led X Corps, or Butler’s left wing. Gillmore and his troops had been transferred from the Department of the South after several failed attempts to capture Fort Sumter and Charleston.

On a visit to Butler’s headquarters at Fort Monroe in early April, Grant directed him, “When you are notified to move, take City Point with as much force as possible. Fortify, or rather intrench, at once, and concentrate all your troops for the field there as rapidly as you can.” Grant stated “that Richmond is to be your objective point, and that there is to be cooperation between your force and the Army of the Potomac.”

Grant notified Butler on the 28th, “If no unforeseen accident prevents, I will move from here on Wednesday, the 4th of May. Start your forces on the night of the 4th, so as to be as far up the James River as you can get by daylight the morning of the 5th, and push from that time with all your might for the accomplishment of the object before you.” Hoping to eventually link the Armies of the Potomac and the James for a drive on Richmond or Petersburg, Grant wrote:

“Could I be certain that you will be able to invest Richmond on the south side, so as to have your left resting on the James above the city, I would form the junction there. Circumstances may make this course advisable anyhow. I would say, therefore, use every exertion to secure footing as far up the south side of the river as you can, as soon as possible.”

If Confederates blocked his way, Butler was to “attack vigorously” to either capture Richmond or “at least detain as large a force there as possible.” Grant hoped that Butler could keep the Confederates in the area occupied so they could not reinforce General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, currently camped on the south bank of the Rapidan River.

Butler consulted with Rear Admiral Samuel P. Lee, commanding the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron. Butler wanted Lee’s vessels to transport troops up the James and Appomattox rivers and provide gunboat support. However, Lee told Butler that the ironclads could not move as far up the James as Butler needed because of shallow water, and the Appomattox could only support wooden ships. Nevertheless, Lee pledged “intelligent and hearty co-operation” wherever possible.

S.P. Lee informed Navy Secretary Gideon Welles that Butler expected him to assemble a fleet in four days, which was virtually impossible. Lee also explained that the Confederates had mined both rivers with torpedoes that could easily destroy the Federal ships. Welles wrote in his diary that Butler’s “scheme is not practical, yet it has the sanction of General Grant. It must, however, be a blind, intended to deceive the enemy, and to do this effectually he must first deceive our own people.” Welles continued:

“A somewhat formidable force has been gathered in General Butler’s department, and there is no doubt but that General B. himself fully believes he is to make a demonstration up James River. It may be that this is General Grant’s intention also, but if it is, I shall be likely to have my faith in him impaired. Certainly there have been no sufficient preparations for such a demonstration and the call upon the Navy is unreasonable.”

Navy officials were not the only ones doubting Butler’s probability for success. “Baldy” Smith distrusted Butler as army commander and persuaded Grant to install a staff officer to watch over Butler’s preparations. But Smith wrote disappointedly that the appointed officer “is very fixed in letting Butler have his own way with all minutia.”

Smith also wrote Major General William B. Franklin, a corps commander in the Army of the Gulf, complaining that Butler would make the upcoming campaign “full of unnecessary risks and of the kind that may produce the most terrible disaster.” Despite the negativity among the Federal high command regarding this campaign, Butler notified Grant that it would begin on schedule and in accordance with Grant’s instructions.

Gen P.G.T. Beauregard | Image Credit:

Meanwhile, Confederate officials assigned General P.G.T. Beauregard to command the new Department of North Carolina and Southern Virginia. Beauregard had formerly commanded the Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, which mainly consisted of defending Charleston Harbor. The department, formerly commanded by Major General George Pickett, had just 10,000 men to stop the Army of the James.

When Beauregard arrived in late April, he was told that the new Federal army on the Peninsula was led by Major General Ambrose E. Burnside, not Butler. Guessing that the Federals would target the Richmond & Petersburg Railroad south of the James River, Beauregard notified his superiors, “Every indication is that Burnside will attack Richmond via Petersburg. Are we prepared to resist him in that direction? Can the forces of this Department be concentrated in time? are questions worthy of immediate consideration by the War Department?”

If Beauregard could be reinforced, he asked, “could I not strike Burnside in rear from Petersburg, if he advanced on Richmond from Yorktown?” President Jefferson Davis urged Beauregard to place more emphasis on North Carolina: “The capture of Newbern, and the possession of the (Pamlico) Sound by our vessels, increased as they may be by the addition of others, will relieve the necessity for guarding the whole line of the railroad as proposed.”

Beauregard’s scouts reported that 60,000 Federals were on the Peninsula, and Pickett added that “50,000 are at Yorktown and Baltimore, 10,000 of whom are negroes. All or most of the troops reported at Portsmouth have gone to Yorktown. There are moving and landing troops at night… the enemy will either advance up the Peninsula or will move by transports down river to the James.”

On the 28th, Pickett passed along more accurate intelligence stating that the force numbered about 30,000 men and was led not by Burnside, but by “Baldy” Smith. Beauregard went to oversee operations in North Carolina, and Pickett was directed to reconnoiter around Suffolk and Portsmouth to gather more information about the impending Federal advance.


References; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 2678-98; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 420; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 486-87; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 704, 788; Sommers, Richard J., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 177

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