June 15, 1864 – Federal forces advanced on the vital transportation center of Petersburg, south of Richmond, and missed a prime opportunity to capture the city.
As the Federal Army of the Potomac began crossing the James River on the 14th, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, steamed up the James to confer with Major General Benjamin F. Butler, commanding the Federal Army of the James at Bermuda Hundred, a peninsula formed by the James and Appomattox rivers. Major General William F. “Baldy” Smith’s XVIII Corps was also arriving at Bermuda Hundred to reinforce Butler’s army.
Grant expected Butler to break through the Confederate defense line in his front, move southwest, and attack Petersburg, the key railroad city 22 miles south of Richmond. If the Federals took Petersburg, they could starve Richmond into submission. Butler had tried doing this on the 9th with a portion of his force, but now Grant instructed him to use a much larger force, including Smith’s entire XVIII Corps.
Smith would have 16,000 men in four divisions to face less than 5,500 Confederates spread out between Bermuda Hundred and Petersburg. Smith would also be reinforced by Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps from the Army of the Potomac, which had crossed the James and would be marching toward Petersburg from the east. As Grant prepared to return to the Army of the Potomac, he informed Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck at Washington that the Federals would capture Petersburg before the Confederates could hurry reinforcements to save the city.
Butler’s Federals built a pontoon bridge spanning the Appomattox River. They would begin their advance the next morning, led by Brigadier General August V. Kautz’s cavalry. This was the same cavalry force that had come up late and was driven off by a much smaller force in the failed attack on the 9th.
Meanwhile, General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding the Confederates south of the James River, reported Smith’s arrival at Bermuda Hundred:
“Return of Butler’s forces sent to Grant renders my position more critical than ever, if not reinforced immediately; for the enemy could force my lines at Bermuda Hundred Neck, capture Battery Dantzler, now nearly ready, or take Petersburg, before any troops from Lee’s army or Drury’s Bluff could arrive in time. Can anything be done in the matter?”
General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia defending Richmond north of the James, sent Beauregard two divisions, but they would not arrive until late on the 15th. Until then, Beauregard had to hold Bermuda Hundred and Petersburg on his own, even though “I fear my present force may prove unequal to hold both.”
At Petersburg, Captain Charles H. Dimmock had designed a ring of fortifications that surrounded the city on three sides. The semicircular line ran from the Appomattox River to the northeast, south and west around town, and then back to the Appomattox west of Petersburg. With just 2,200 Confederates, Beauregard placed them all in the northeastern sector of the “Dimmock Line,” spaced 10 feet apart. Beauregard’s remaining 3,000 troops remained at Bermuda Hundred.
Kautz’s troopers advanced on the morning of the 15th as planned, but they met unexpected Confederate resistance northeast of Petersburg. The Federals were held up for two hours, during which Kautz decided that “our line was really weaker than the enemy’s in men.” Kautz withdrew just as he had done on the 9th, leaving the infantry to make the main assault on Petersburg without cavalry support.
Brigadier General Edward W. Hinks’s division was the first to arrive. This included untested men of the U.S. Colored Troops who made two assaults and captured a cannon. Captain Charles F. Adams, Jr. recalled that several black men had vowed to avenge Fort Pillow, where Confederates had allegedly murdered black soldiers. Adams wrote, “The darkies fought ferociously. If they murder prisoners, as I hear they did… they can hardly be blamed.”
Smith arrived with his other two infantry divisions in front of northeastern Petersburg late that afternoon and assessed the defenses. They consisted of breastworks and trenches 20 feet thick, with 55 artillery redans. These defenses were much stronger than those at Cold Harbor, where Smith saw many of his men shot down 12 days before. He therefore proceeded cautiously, unaware that he faced just 2,200 defenders on the other side.
Smith ordered his guns forward to bombard the Confederate defenses before launching an infantry assault. However, the artillery was in the rear and took two hours to be brought forward. Meanwhile, Beauregard still had not received word from his superiors on whether to defend Bermuda Hundred or Petersburg, so he decided to begin pulling troops from the Bermuda Hundred line to reinforce the Dimmock line.
The Federal assault began at 7 p.m. Smith only sent forward skirmishers, which the Confederates would not fire on because they were expecting a large attack force to follow. According to Brigadier General E. Porter Alexander, the chief Confederate artillerist:
“Smith’s device was eminently successful. Our artillery would not fire at the skirmishers at all. They reserved their fire for the storming columns which they expected to follow. The skirmishers over ran and captured two redans at a salient where the line crossed the railroad to City Point, capturing about 250 prisoners and four guns.”
The Federals seized about a mile of fortifications and 16 guns; the black troops took five redans alone. This was enough to knock the Confederates out of the Dimmock line; they fell back to weaker defenses closer to Petersburg along Harrison’s Creek. According to Beauregard, “Petersburg at that hour was clearly at the mercy of the Federal commander, who had all but captured it.”
Hinks requested permission to lead his division into Petersburg. Smith, having heard rumors that Lee’s Confederates would soon arrive to reinforce the defenses, refused. Others urged Smith to use the bright moonlight to renew the assault, but he declined. Smith telegraphed Butler, “Unless I misapprehend the topography, I hold the key to Petersburg.”
Hancock soon arrived with advance elements of his II Corps. Although he outranked Smith, Hancock was unsure of his orders and unaware of how vulnerable Petersburg was. He therefore deferred to Smith’s judgment and planned to launch a joint attack with him the next day. A Federal soldier recalled that “the rage of the enlisted men was devilish.”
After midnight, Beauregard transferred the rest of his troops from Bermuda Hundred to Petersburg. This allowed Butler’s X Corps, led by Major General Alfred H. Terry, to advance and seize the Richmond & Petersburg Railroad. Butler could have continued forward and strategically wedged his army between Richmond and Petersburg, but he did not.
The Confederates from Bermuda Hundred and those from Lee north of the James arrived during the night to increase the Petersburg defense force to about 14,000 men. One of the Federals’ greatest opportunities to starve Richmond into submission and possibly end the war was lost. Grant told Illinois Congressman Elihu Washburne, “Unless my next move brings on a battle, the balance of the campaign will settle down to a siege.”
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Tagged: Army of Northern Virginia, Army of the Potomac, August V. Kautz, Benjamin F. Butler, E. Porter Alexander, P.G.T. Beauregard, Petersburg Campaign, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, William F. "Baldy" Smith, Winfield Scott Hancock