August 14, 1864 – Federal forces moved north of the James River to attack the supposedly weakened Confederate defenses outside Richmond.
Federal siege operations resumed after the Battle of the Crater. Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, wanted to court-martial Major General Ambrose E. Burnside for his role in the Crater fiasco. But Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, instead placed Burnside on “extended leave,” never to return to active duty. Major General John G. Parke took over Burnside’s IX Corps.
Meanwhile, Grant continued the slow extension of his siege line southwest of Petersburg while avoiding any direct confrontations. President Jefferson Davis told General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia under siege, “It is thought idle to attack your entrenchments but feasible to starve you out.”
Major General Benjamin F. Butler, commanding the Federal Army of the James pinned down at Bermuda Hundred, devised a plan to break his men out by building a canal across Dutch Gap, a 174-yard-wide neck of land in a bend in the James River. This would allow ships to bypass five miles of Confederate batteries and water impediments at Trent’s Reach and Drewry’s Bluff, thereby giving the Federals a clear shot at Richmond.
Federal troops, including many black soldiers, began digging under enemy artillery and sniper fire. Grant had little faith that the canal would work, but he let Butler go on with it because he was a troublesome political general, and this would keep him busy. The brutal project lasted until the end of the year, and the canal was not officially completed until the war ended. After the war, the Dutch Gap Canal became a useful shipping channel on the James.
As Butler’s men worked, Grant received word that Lee had weakened his army by sending reinforcements to Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s army in the Shenandoah Valley. Grant was told “that it was understood that three divisions of infantry went to Early in the first part of the week. Great secrecy was observed in the movement, and the troops were taken through the city mostly in the night.”
Learning that the troops were from Lieutenant General Richard H. Anderson’s corps stationed north of the James, Grant reported, “The enemy has sent north two if not three divisions of infantry, twenty-three pieces of artillery, and one division of cavalry.” Believing that Lee had sent Anderson’s entire corps, Grant estimated that no more than 8,500 Confederates remained in front of Richmond. But Lee had really sent just one infantry and one cavalry division, leaving the Richmond defenses more heavily guarded than Grant anticipated.
Grant assigned three units to confront the Confederates north of the James:
- Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps from the Army of the Potomac
- Major General James B. Birney’s X Corps from the Army of the James
- Brigadier General David M. Gregg’s cavalry division
Their target was Deep Bottom Run, 10 miles southeast of Richmond. Birney and Gregg crossed the James at Bermuda Hundred on the night of the 13th. Hancock’s men were loaded on transports to trick the Confederates into thinking they were going to Washington. They would then be brought back to reinforce Birney and Gregg. Grant explained to Meade:
“If the enemy are reduced as much in numbers as we have reason to believe they are, Hancock’s movements tomorrow may lead to almost the entire abandonment of Petersburg. Have this watched as closely as you can, and if you find this view realized, take such advantage of it as you deem best.”
The Federals landed at Deep Bottom at 9 a.m. on the 14th. Birney’s corps was to demonstrate against the Confederate right (south) flank, while Hancock tried turning the enemy left. Gregg’s cavalry would be to Hancock’s right, ready to ride into Richmond if an opening appeared.
The Federals advanced slowly in the summer heat, giving the Confederates time to bring up more men and guns to the earthworks. The attackers approached the Confederate defenses around midday and immediately realized they were stronger than expected. The Federals were forced to fall back.
Although the Federals north of the James were unsuccessful, Lee had done exactly what Grant wanted him to do–pull troops from south of the James to reinforce the northern sector. Grant therefore directed Major General Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps to try extending the Federal line to Globe Tavern, south and west of the weakened Petersburg defenses. North of the James, Hancock ordered Birney to link with his left. Many of Birney’s men fell out of line during the exhausting night march.
On the 15th, Hancock’s Federals struggled through the Tidewater woods, and Birney’s men took until 6 p.m. to adjust to the rough terrain, making it too late to attack that day. The next morning, the Federals attacked and pushed their way to within seven miles of Richmond. Birney’s troops penetrated the Confederate line at Fussell’s Mill, but neither Birney nor Hancock realized the line was broken due to the heavy foliage. Confederates under Major General Charles W. Field soon surged forward to plug the gap and hold the Federals off.
Both sides observed a ceasefire to collect their dead and wounded on the 17th, during which time Confederate gunboats on the James River prevented the Federals from renewing their assaults. The Confederates counterattacked Hancock’s lines on the 18th but were repelled. The opposing forces spent the next two days entrenching and skirmishing. Grant withdrew the Federals from above the James on the 20th, ending the fighting at Deep Bottom Run.
The Federals sustained 2,901 casualties, while the Confederates lost about 1,000. Grant did not achieve the breakthrough he hoped, but he prevented Lee from sending any more reinforcements to the Shenandoah Valley. Hancock’s corps was worn out, and he reported that his men did not conduct themselves well in this operation. The troops would be shifted southwest to join in the second of Grant’s two-pronged assault, involving Warren’s Federals below Petersburg.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 95, 98-99, 104, 112; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 447-48; 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 11279-89, 11434-55, 11500-10; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 485-87; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7869, 7881, 7918; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 554-56; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 617-18; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 231-32; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 812-13