The James River: Drewry’s Bluff

May 15, 1864 – Opposing armies assembled at Drewry’s Bluff, about five miles from Richmond on the James River, and both commanders planned to attack.

Maj Gen B.F. Butler | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Major General Benjamin F. Butler, commanding the Federal Army of the James, had landed at Bermuda Hundred, 15 miles southeast of Richmond and seven miles northeast of Petersburg. He opted not to attack either city, but instead to destroy the Richmond & Petersburg Railroad connecting them. There were only 2,000 Confederates initially on hand to oppose the Federals, but Butler’s hesitant advance gave reinforcements time to arrive.

After being repulsed by a much smaller force at Swift Creek, Butler ordered yet another withdrawal back to his entrenchments across the peninsula neck at Bermuda Hundred. As the Federals fell back, General P.G.T. Beauregard arrived from Weldon, North Carolina, to take personal command of Confederate forces. Beauregard replaced his second-in-command, Major General George Pickett, who was on the verge of collapse from the stress of the Federal threat.

Five Confederate brigades under Major General Robert F. Hoke soon arrived, along with a brigade from the Charleston defenses. This gave Beauregard about 20,000 troops, still less than Butler’s 33,000-man army. However, Butler had done little to capitalize on his numerical advantage since landing on the 5th, having merely skirmished at Port Walthall and Swift Creek, and torn up some railroad track and telegraph lines.

When Butler finally set his sights on Richmond, Beauregard anticipated it and strengthened Confederate defenses at Drewry’s Bluff and Fort Darling, which guarded the approach to the capital on the south bank of the James River. Beauregard dispatched seven brigades under Hoke in hopes of luring Butler out into an open battle.

Butler moved out of his defenses once more on the 12th, a week after landing. This time the force numbered about 16,000 Federals. They marched west and then turned north at the railroad. The next day, they pushed Hoke’s Confederates from the outer works at Drewry’s Bluff back into the main defense line. However, Butler ordered his men to stop and dig trenches. Not only was the Federals’ advance delayed, but they could expect no support from Federal warships on the James because the water was too shallow.

Sensing Butler’s incompetence, Beauregard prepared to counterattack. He devised a characteristically grandiose strategy that called for:

  • General Robert E. Lee pulling back toward Richmond and transferring 10,000 men from the Army of Northern Virginia to reinforce Beauregard
  • Beauregard using the reinforcements to destroy Butler
  • Beauregard moving north to join forces with Lee in destroying the Army of the Potomac

President Jefferson Davis visited Beauregard at Drewry’s Bluff on the 14th and explained that Lee had no reinforcements to spare. Moreover, Davis did not want Lee to fall back any closer to Richmond, and Beauregard did not need any more men to destroy the Federals under Butler’s timid leadership. Instead, Davis issued orders transferring all available troops from South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida to reinforce the Confederates at Drewry’s Bluff.

Beauregard organized his 10 brigades into three divisions under Major Generals Robert F. Hoke and Robert Ransom, Jr., and Brigadier General Alexander Colquitt. Leaving just a small force to guard Petersburg, Beauregard planned to attack Butler’s right on the 18th and push him back to Bermuda Hundred. When his superiors urged him to attack sooner, Beauregard moved the assault up two days.

By the 14th, Butler had assembled his army in front of Drewry’s Bluff, with Major General William F. “Baldy” Smith’s XVIII Corps on the right and Major General Quincy A. Gillmore’s X Corps on the left. To prevent a preemptive Confederate attack, the Federals strung telegraph wire between tree stumps to impede an enemy advance. This was the first use of wire entanglements in Virginia (it had been done at Knoxville last year).

Butler planned to attack the next day, but “Baldy” Smith warned him against it, so he postponed the attack and strengthened his defenses. This gave Beauregard ample time to prepare for his own attack.

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References

Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 403, 406; 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 5387-97, 5455-503; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 434, 437-39; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 499-502; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 536-37; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 723; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 57-58, 227-28, 739

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