June 6, 1864 – Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant proposed moving the massive Federal Army of the Potomac across the James River, and a Federal opportunity to capture Petersburg was squandered.
After the Federal defeat at Cold Harbor, the marching and fighting that had taken place for nearly 30 straight days briefly stopped. The Federals had sustained over 50,000 casualties in the past month, and criticism of Grant’s strategy was getting louder within the army. However, President Abraham Lincoln remained supportive, telling a group of New Yorkers on the day after the Cold Harbor repulse, “My previous high estimate of Gen. Grant has been maintained and heightened by what has occurred in the remarkable campaign he is now conducting…”
The Federals were now closer to Richmond than they had been since June 1862. They had also inflicted losses on General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia that could not be replaced. But they had not destroyed Lee’s army, and they had not captured Richmond. And they had run out of room to maneuver north of the James River. Previous Federal commanders had fallen back to regroup and come up with a new strategy, but Grant would not. He wrote to Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck on the 5th:
“A full survey of all the ground satisfies me that it would be impracticable to hold a line north-east of Richmond that would protect the Fredericksburg Railroad to enable us to use that road for supplying the army… My idea from the start has been to beat Lee’s army if possible north of Richmond; then after destroying his lines of communication on the north side of the James River to transfer the army to the south side and besiege Lee in Richmond, or follow him south if he should retreat.
“I now find, after over 30 days of trial, that the enemy deems it of the first importance to run no risks with the armies they now have. They act purely on the defensive, behind breastworks, or feebly on the offensive immediately in front of them, and where in case of repulse they can instantly retire behind them. Without a greater sacrifice of human life than I am willing to make all cannot be accomplished that I had designed outside of the city. I have therefore resolved upon the following plan.
“I will continue to hold substantially to the ground now occupied by the Army of the Potomac, taking advantage of any favorable circumstance that may present itself until the cavalry can be sent west to destroy the Virginia Central Railroad from about Beaver Dam for some 25 or 30 miles west. When this is effected I will move the army to the south side of James River, either by crossing the Chickahominy and marching near to City Point, or by going to the mouth of the Chickahominy on north side and crossing there. To provide for this last and most possible contingency, several ferry-boats of the largest class ought to be immediately provided…
“The feeling of the two armies now seems to be that the rebels can protect themselves only by strong intrenchments, whilst our army is not only confident of protecting itself without intrenchments, but that it can beat and drive the enemy wherever and whenever he can be found without this protection.”
Disengaging from the Confederate army and moving 100,000 men across the wide James River was a major gamble because the Confederates could attack and destroy the Federal army as it crossed. Also, Grant could expect no more reinforcements to replace his losses, as Halleck notified him on the 6th, “I inclose a list of troops forwarded from this department to the Army of the Potomac since the campaign opened–48,265 men. I shall send you a few regiments more, when all resources will be exhausted till another draft is made.”
Grant therefore planned three diversions from the main crossing:
- Major General Philip Sheridan would lead two cavalry divisions to raid the Virginia Central Railroad in the Confederate rear.
- Major General Benjamin F. Butler’s Federal Army of the James would try breaking out of Bermuda Hundred below the James.
- A portion of the Army of the Potomac would feign another attack on Cold Harbor.
Moving south of the James River would cut Lee’s supply line coming into Richmond from the south. It would also threaten the vital railroad town of Petersburg. If the Federals captured Petersburg, Richmond would most likely follow. As Lee said, “We must destroy this army of Grant’s before he gets to the James River. If he gets there, it will become a siege, and then it will be a mere question of time.”
General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding the Confederates bottling up Butler’s Federals at Bermuda Hundred, warned the Confederate high command that Grant may next target Petersburg. President Jefferson Davis discounted this in a message to Lee: “Our scouts give no information as to the arrival of troops from below, and if none have come I cannot believe the attack to be of much force.” Lee acknowledged that Grant might consider such a move, but he did not believe Grant could pull it off without detection.
Meanwhile, Butler prepared his part of Grant’s diversion. Butler’s original plan called for Federal cavalry under Brigadier General August V. Kautz to break through Beauregard’s line and raid Petersburg. But Major General Quincy A. Gillmore, commanding X Corps, insisted that since he was the senior officer, he should lead his infantry in the attack, with Kautz’s cavalry in support. Butler agreed.
The Federal infantry crossed the Appomattox River at 3:40 a.m. on the 9th, which was more than three hours behind schedule. The cavalry remained several more hours behind. Brigadier General Henry A. Wise defended Petersburg with just 1,000 Confederates, most of whom were either convalescents or prisoners freed from the local jail. Although the Federals outnumbered them four-to-one, Gillmore ordered frequent halts in the advance that gave the Confederates time to organize as strong a defense as possible.
As Gillmore stopped to consolidate his troops, Kautz’s troopers rode to within 150 yards of Petersburg. Wise shifted his defenders to hold off Kautz, leaving a path into the city wide open for the Federal infantry. But by the time Gillmore realized this, Beauregard was sending reinforcements from Bermuda Hundred to close the gaps. The Confederates easily repelled the half-hearted Federal attack in what became known as the “Battle of the Patients and the Penitents.”
Butler, who had constantly feuded with Gillmore, relieved him of command and ordered him arrested for disobedience and incompetence. Gillmore demanded a military tribunal to clear his name, but before it could be convened, Grant canceled Butler’s charges and reassigned Gillmore to another department.
Beauregard notified Richmond, “This movement must be a reconnaissance connected with Grant’s future operations. Without the troops sent to General Lee I will have to elect between abandoning lines on Bermuda Neck and those of Petersburg. Please give me the views of the Government on the subject.” Lee, still thinking that Grant’s main effort would be against Richmond, believed the attack on Petersburg was just a feint.
Davis asked Lee if he could spare any men to send to Petersburg, but Lee could not. Lee wrote, “The pause in the operations of Gen. Grant induces me to believe that he is awaiting the effect of movements in some other quarter.” But what Lee thought was a “pause” was really Grant creating diversions while preparing for his main movement across the James River.
Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 492; Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 175; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 19-20, 27, 33-54; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 421-22; 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 6212-22, 6232-42, 6301-21, 6340-60, 6426-65; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 450; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7460; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 514-15, 518; Sommers, Richard J., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 177