May 16, 1864 – General P.G.T. Beauregard launched an attack on Major General Benjamin F. Butler’s Federals as they timidly approached Richmond from the south.
Butler’s 16,000 Federals from the Army of the James faced 18,000 Confederates under Beauregard at Drewry’s Bluff, which guarded the approach to the Confederate capital. Butler issued orders to attack at 6 a.m. but Beauregard planned to attack sooner, and he developed an intricate plan of action:
- Major General Robert Ransom, Jr.’s division would attack the Federal right, manned by XVIII Corps under Major General William F. “Baldy” Smith
- Major General Robert F. Hoke’s division would attack the Federal left, manned by X Corps under Major General Quincy A. Gillmore
- Major General W.H.C. Whiting’s two brigades would move north from Petersburg and cut off the Federal retreat
Butler’s army would then be either destroyed or at least forced to fall back from the Confederate capital and the vital Richmond & Petersburg Railroad. At 4:30 a.m., Ransom’s men began moving through heavy fog and slammed into Smith’s corps. The Confederates routed a brigade and captured 400 men including its commander, Brigadier General Charles Heckman. The Federal right flank bent but did not break. Ransom’s attack soon stalled.
On the Federal left, Gillmore did not receive Butler’s order for a 6 a.m. attack until 6:20. As he prepared to obey, Hoke’s Confederates appeared in the distance, led by the brigades of Brigadier General Johnson Hagood and Major General Bushrod R. Johnson. Hagood and Johnson hit the Federal center and captured some artillery, but the Federals held firm as the Confederate attack became disjointed in the fog.
The wire entanglements that the Federals had strung between the lines also lessened the force of the enemy assaults. A Federal officer asserted that the Confederates were “being piled in heaps over the telegraph wire.” A Confederate taken prisoner called the entanglements “a devilish contrivance which none but a Yankee could devise.”
The rest of Hoke’s division struck the Federal left but made no progress. Meanwhile, Butler ordered Gillmore to send reinforcements to the right, and then he ordered Smith to abandon the right altogether and fall back. To the south, Whiting’s Confederates met a single Federal division at Port Walthall Junction and halted, as Whiting feared that more Federals were coming. Butler received word that Confederates were in his rear, adding to the general confusion among the Federals. He issued orders to Gillmore:
“You must fall back, press to right, and get in rear of Smith’s corps. He will try and hold his ground until you get in his rear and clear the road to the intrenchments (at Bermuda Hundred), so that we may get behind the defenses. Push vigorously.”
The Federals fell back in driving rain about a mile before reforming their line at Half Way House around 2 p.m. About two hours later, after receiving word that Confederates from Richmond were crossing the James to confront him, Butler ordered a retreat to the Federal entrenchments at Bermuda Hundred. As he reported, “The troops have been on incessant duty for five days, three of which were in a rainstorm. I retired at leisure to within my own lines.”
Beauregard had driven Butler away from Richmond and the railroad, but he could not destroy Butler’s army. Beauregard accused Ransom, despite his successful initial attack, of lacking the aggression needed to finish the Federals off. Nevertheless, the Federals returned to the peninsula where Beauregard could seal the neck with a token force and ensure that Butler could not threaten Richmond or Petersburg anymore.
When Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, learned of this defeat, he remarked that Butler’s army was “as completely shut off from further operations directly against Richmond as if it had been in a bottle strongly corked.” This ended Butler’s failed campaign to cut the Richmond & Petersburg Railroad. Butler would also be no help to the Army of the Potomac, which was sustaining enormous losses against the Confederates in northern Virginia.
The Federals sustained 4,160 casualties (390 killed, 2,380 wounded and 1,390 missing) at Drewry’s Bluff, while the Confederates lost 2,506 (355 killed, 1,941 wounded and 210 missing). The Confederates came upon Bermuda Hundred the next day and built defenses of their own to keep the Federals and “Beast” Butler caged on the peninsula. Now three of Grant’s four offensives in Virginia had met with failure, and the fourth (the Army of the Potomac) tottered on destruction.
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