July 26, 1864 – As the Petersburg siege continued, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant directed the Army of the Potomac to launch an ancillary attack on the Confederate defenses southeast of Richmond.
Grant, the overall Federal commander, resolved that the Federals needed to “do something in the way of offensive movement” toward Richmond. This would divert Confederate attention and resources from both the siege of Petersburg and the tunneling expedition outside that city, 22 miles south of the Confederate capital.
According to Grant’s plan, Federal cavalry would ride beyond the Confederate lines and wreck track on the Virginia Central Railroad, which linked Richmond to the fertile Shenandoah Valley. Infantry would advance in support of the cavalry to threaten (and possibly capture) Richmond.
Grant directed Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, to send forces north of the James River, “having for its real object the destruction of the railroad on that side.” Grant added, “It is barely possible that by a bold move this expedition may surprise the little garrison of citizen soldiery now in Richmond and get in.” If so, “Concentrate all the force possible at the point in the enemy’s line we expect to penetrate.”
Meade assigned Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps and two divisions of Major General Philip Sheridan’s Cavalry Corps to the mission. They were to cross the James River at Deep Bottom, 10 miles southeast of Richmond, where troops of Major General Benjamin F. Butler’s Army of the James at Bermuda Hundred had built a pontoon bridge.
Sheridan would ride ahead, threatening Richmond and wrecking the railroad north and west of the city. Hancock would confront the Confederates at Chaffin’s Bluff and prevent enemy forces from opposing Sheridan. The Federals moved out on the night of the 26th. They crossed the James and occupied a bridgehead held by X Corps of the Army of the James.
General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia defending both Richmond and Petersburg, heard rumors of such a drive on Richmond. He believed this would be just a diversion from the main action outside Petersburg, but as a precaution he quietly sent Major General Joseph B. Kershaw’s division north of the James before Grant had even issued his orders.
The Federals began crossing the James at 3 a.m. on the 27th. Advancing toward Chaffin’s Bluff, Hancock met unexpected resistance near where the New Market Road intersected Bailey’s Creek. Nevertheless, the Federals overwhelmed the Confederates and captured four 20-pound Parrott guns.
Hancock took positions east of Bailey’s Creek, between the New Market Road to the southwest and Fussell’s Mill to the northeast. The Federals were suddenly pinned down by Confederate fire from the divisions of Kershaw and Major General Cadmus M. Wilcox. The fighting diminished while Lieutenant Generals Richard H. Anderson and Richard Ewell argued over which of them was the ranking Confederate commander.
Upon reconnoitering the enemy positions west of Bailey’s Creek, Hancock reported, “The works appeared to be filled with men, and a number of pieces of artillery were in position. After a careful examination of the position it was decided that the chances of successful assault were unfavorable, and it was determined to maneuver to the right, with the view of turning the position.”
Sheridan’s troopers moved beyond Hancock’s right and began probing up the Darbytown Road, which ran northwest to Richmond. Brigadier General Alfred T.A. Torbert seized the high ground around Fussell’s Mill, but a Confederate counterattack drove him off.
Lee, learning of this activity north of the James, dispatched another infantry division under Major General Henry Heth and a cavalry division under his son, Major General W.H.F. “Rooney” Lee. Reinforcements from the Richmond garrison also hurried to strengthen the defenses in front of Hancock and Sheridan.
Grant arrived at the scene late that afternoon and was surprised to see such strong Confederate resistance. He reinforced Hancock’s infantry with a brigade from XIX Corps and issued orders for the Federals to turn the enemy’s left (north) flank the next day. This would enable Sheridan to ride northwest and raid Richmond.
On the 28th, Sheridan’s Federals moved to assault the Confederate left, but the Confederates preemptively attacked their right with three brigades under Kershaw. The dismounted Federals took refuge just below a ridgeline and repelled a Confederate charge with their repeating carbines. The Federals took 300 prisoners and two battle flags while losing a cannon.
Despite the Federal success, Lee’s swift decision to bolster the Confederate defenses prevented Sheridan from moving toward Richmond or the Virginia Central Railroad as planned. Hancock positioned his forces so they could withdraw back across the James, and the Federals began returning to the Petersburg line that night.
The Federals sustained 334 casualties in this operation. Grant reported to Washington, “We have failed in what I had hoped to accomplish.” Even so, Grant had drawn several Confederate units north of the James, leaving only 18,000 men to defend Petersburg. Grant concluded, “I am yet in hopes of turning this diversion to account.” Federal hopes now shifted to the tunneling expedition.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 22209; Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 70; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 439-41; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 474-76; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7809; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 546-48; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 204