May 4, 1864 – Another front opened in Virginia, as Major General Benjamin F. Butler’s Federal Army of the James boarded transports at Yorktown to move up the James River.
Butler had assembled a force of about 33,000 men in two corps on the Virginia Peninsula between the York and James rivers. Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, assigned Butler to advance up the James and cut the Richmond & Petersburg Railroad, which would prevent men and supplies from reaching General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia from south of Richmond.
The Federal transports were to drop Butler’s army off at Bermuda Hundred, a peninsula formed by the James and Appomattox rivers, 18 miles southeast of Richmond. From there, the Federals were to advance 10 miles west to the railroad. On the night of the 4th, the transports steamed around the tip of the Virginia Peninsula and entered the James.
The Richmond authorities quickly learned that a fleet of about 200 enemy ships was moving up the James, which included ironclad escorts and transports conveying at least 30,000 troops. The warships cleared the torpedoes and other obstructions in the river for the transports to get through safely. This advance coincided with Grant’s in northern Virginia, thus placing the Confederate capital under serious threat from both the north and south.
One of Butler’s divisions disembarked at City Point, about nine miles northeast of Petersburg, while the rest of the fleet continued upriver. After passing the mouth of the Appomattox River, Butler’s other five divisions unloaded at the Bermuda Hundred plantation landing. Federal cavalry rode out to threaten the Weldon Railroad outside Petersburg.
Panicked Confederate officials called on General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding the Department of Southern Virginia and North Carolina, to send troops to stop the Federals before they advanced any further. Beauregard, 65 miles south of Petersburg at Weldon, North Carolina, answered that he was “indisposed” (i.e., too sick to leave) and deferred to his second-in-command, Major General George Pickett.
Pickett hurried troops to guard the railroads at Petersburg. Fewer than 5,000 men (3,000 at Richmond and 2,000 at Petersburg) faced Butler’s 33,000 Federals, and many of these were government clerks being hastily armed. This was the easiest opportunity the Federals ever had to seize Richmond, Petersburg, or both.
By the 6th, the Federals had advanced to within 15 miles of Richmond to the northwest and seven miles of Petersburg to the southwest. But instead of cutting the Richmond & Petersburg Railroad as ordered, Butler directed his men to build entrenchments across the peninsula neck at Bermuda Hundred. He then sent a brigade to probe ahead, but the troops ran up against just 600 hastily assembled Confederate defenders and fell back.
The Confederates had been reinforced to about 2,700 men by next morning. Led by Major General Bushrod R. Johnson, these troops guarded the railroad near Port Walthall Junction. Butler deployed a force of about 8,000 Federals, and after a two-hour fight, the Federals pushed Johnson’s flank back while destroying a quarter-mile section of the track and telegraph line.
The Federals sustained just 289 casualties, but Butler recalled the troops at nightfall as he planned to advance with an even bigger force the next day. The Federals began deriding Butler’s “stationary advance.” Pickett directed Johnson to withdraw south behind Swift Run Creek; this better protected Petersburg, but it left a larger portion of the railroad vulnerable to destruction.
As Butler spent the 8th slowly preparing his advance, Beauregard reported that he would be well enough to take the field again soon (“The water has improved my health.”). In the meantime, Confederate reinforcements continued arriving at Petersburg and Richmond to strengthen the defenses.
The next day, Butler sent 14,000 men from Major General William F. “Baldy” Smith’s XVIII Corps toward Petersburg to destroy the railroad, but they soon ran into the Confederate defenses on the southern bank of Swift Run Creek. Johnson deployed a Confederate brigade to conduct a reconnaissance in force, but it was quickly driven back at Arrowhead Church. The Federals then approached Johnson’s main line, but their half-hearted assault was repulsed.
Major General Robert Ransom, Jr. ordered his Confederates to reconnoiter the Federal positions on the 10th, and they inadvertently came across a Federal regiment behind the lines destroying the railroad at Chester Station. Ransom’s men pushed the regiment back, but Federal reinforcements arrived to stem the tide. Both sides fell back to end the minor engagement.
By the time Butler learned of this action, he received word from Washington that the Army of the Potomac had scored major victories in northern Virginia. He therefore pulled back from Swift Run Creek and returned to his west-facing Bermuda Hundred entrenchments. From there, he decided to forego Grant’s order to destroy the railroad in favor of a direct attack on Richmond, which he believed to be vulnerable. Butler also noted that Grant planned for the Armies of the Potomac and the James to link outside Richmond, and he wanted to be ready.
“Baldy” Smith and Major General Quincy A. Gillmore, commanding X Corps, both informed Butler that Petersburg could be captured if they bridged the Appomattox and assaulted the city from the east. Butler rejected their suggestion, opting instead to turn north toward Richmond. Butler optimistically notified Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, “We can hold out against the whole of Lee’s army. General Grant will not be troubled with any further reinforcements to Lee from Beauregard’s force.”
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