June 12, 1864 – The Federal Army of the Potomac began moving to cross the James River below Richmond, while General Robert E. Lee struggled to find where the Federals had gone.
Major General George G. Meade’s Federal army had run out of room north of the James to operate against Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and the Confederate capital of Richmond. Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, therefore devised a bold plan to move the 100,000-man force across the 2,000-foot-wide river before Lee discovered the movement; the Federals could then threaten both Richmond and Petersburg to the south.
Grant kept a diversionary force in Lee’s front at Cold Harbor while he began shifting the rest of the army to the south, beyond Lee’s right flank. Grant had also launched two other diversions in the form of Major General Philip Sheridan’s raid on Trevilian Station and Major General Benjamin F. Butler’s breakout at Bermuda Hundred. He hoped these diversions would keep Lee unaware that the main maneuver would be crossing the James.
Lee shifted his forces to defend against what he thought would be a renewed attack on Cold Harbor. His lack of manpower compelled him to wait for Grant to make the first move. Lee informed President Jefferson Davis that the Federals were strengthening their entrenchments, which indicated that a part of Grant’s army was pulling back to advance to the James.
Meanwhile, Grant and Meade prepared to somehow make the massive Federal army disappear from Lee’s front. This entailed moving over 100,000 men, 49 artillery batteries, and thousands of supply and ammunition wagons before the Confederates discovered that they were gone. If Lee found out, he could attack the Federals as they crossed the James and destroy them. Grant’s daring gamble began on the night of the 12th:
- Federal cavalry that had not joined Sheridan’s raid secured a crossing on the Chickahominy River, 15 miles downstream from Cold Harbor.
- Major General Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps marched to the Chickahominy, crossing the next day and turning west to feign a threat to Richmond.
- Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s IX Corps followed Warren but then continued south past Warren toward the James.
- II and VI corps under Major Generals Winfield Scott Hancock and Horatio G. Wright held the trenches before following Burnside southward on two parallel roads.
- The troops of Major General William F. “Baldy” Smith’s XVIII Corps marched to White House on the Pamunkey River, where they boarded transports bound for Bermuda Hundred on the south bank of the James.
Grant transferred the Federal supply base to City Point, near Bermuda Hundred. Engineers led by Captain George H. Mendell selected an area on the James between Fort Powhatan and Windmill Point, about 10 miles downriver from City Point, to build a pontoon bridge for part of the army to cross.
The Federals moved flawlessly, leaving Lee completely unaware of Grant’s intentions for the first time. Confederate artillerist Robert Stiles wrote:
“When we waked on the morning of the 13th and found no enemy in our front we realized that a new element had entered into this move, the element of uncertainty. Thus far, during the campaign, whenever the enemy was missing, we knew where, that is, in what direction and upon what line, to look for him; he was certainly making for a point between us and Richmond. Not so now–even Marse Robert, who knew everything knowable, did not appear to know what his old enemy proposed to do or where he would be most likely to find him.”
Lee learned that the Federal trenches were empty on the morning of the 13th, after he had sent Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s Second Corps west to the Shenandoah Valley. Furious, Lee responded by shifting Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s Third Corps southward to block what he thought would be a thrust around his right flank toward Richmond. Lee also shifted Lieutenant General Richard H. Anderson’s First Corps southward so the Confederate army covered both White Oak Swamp and Malvern Hill. Lee posted a division at Drewry’s Bluff on the James as well.
Warren’s Federals and the cavalry faced off against Hill and guarded all the Confederate approaches to the rest of the Federal army, which was marching behind Warren to the southeast. The Federals and Confederates skirmished as they built fortifications. Lee reported the action to Richmond that night:
“At daylight this morning it was discovered that the army of General Grant had left our front. Our skirmishers were advanced between one and two miles, but failing to discover the enemy were withdrawn, and the army was moved to conform to the route taken by him. He advanced a body of cavalry and some infantry from Long Bridge to Riddell’s Shop, which were driven back this evening nearly two miles, after some sharp skirmishing.”
However, Lee was still unaware of Grant’s main movement toward the James. The next morning, Lee was about to order Hill to attack when he learned that the Federals were gone once more. Lee’s army was too small to launch a full-scale assault on the Federals, and Lee’s cavalry was too weak to conduct a reconnaissance in force. It was not until late morning that Lee realized what Grant may be attempting, and he notified President Davis at 12:10 p.m.:
“… I think the enemy must be preparing to move south of James River. Our scouts and pickets yesterday stated that Genl Grant’s whole army was in motion for the fords of the Chickahominy from Long Bridge down… It may be Genl Grant’s intention to place the army within the fortifications around Harrison’s landing, which I believe still stand, and where by the aid of his gunboats, he could offer a strong defense. I do not think it would be advantageous to attack him in that position…”
Three hours later, Lee reported, “Genl Grant has moved his army to the James River in the vicinity of Westover. A portion of it I am told moved to Wilcox’s Landing, a short distance below… I apprehend that he may be sending troops up the James River with the view of getting possession of Petersburg before we can reinforce it. We ought therefore to be extremely watchful and guarded…”
Meanwhile, Grant reported to Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck at 1 p.m. on the 14th:
“Our forces will commence crossing the James today. The enemy shows no signs yet of having brought troops to the south side of Richmond. I will have Petersburg secured, if possible, before they get there in much force. Our movement from Cold Harbor to the James River has been made with great celerity and so far without loss or accident.”
The men of Hancock’s corps were ferried across the James all day, and engineers completed the pontoon bridge around midnight. Spanning 2,200 feet, this was the longest and most flexible bridge ever built in the war. It involved linking 101 pontoon boats and anchoring them against the strong current over a river that was nearly 100 feet deep in the center. This remarkable project involved 450 engineers working from both banks, and it took just seven hours to complete.
Burnside’s corps crossed during the night, and the rest of the army crossed using either the bridge or ferryboats the next day. The 60,000 men using the bridge had orders to keep the waves calm by not marching in step. The cavalry, the 35-mile wagon train, and about 3,500 heads of cattle also crossed on the bridge. Lincoln responded to Grant’s message: “Have just read your dispatch of 1 p.m. yesterday. I begin to see it. You will succeed. God bless you all. A. Lincoln.”
Beauregard’s Confederates observed “Baldy” Smith’s Federals heading up the James toward Bermuda Hundred. Beauregard sent a frantic message to Lee stating that if he did not send reinforcements to Petersburg immediately, only God Almighty could save the city. Lee said, “I hope God Almighty will.”
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Tagged: A.P. Hill, Ambrose E. Burnside, Army of Northern Virginia, Army of the Potomac, George G. Meade, P.G.T. Beauregard, Richard H. Anderson, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, Virginia Campaign, William F. "Baldy" Smith