Category Archives: Military

Grant Crosses the James

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.

Federal General U.S. Grant | Image Credit: Wikispaces.org

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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References

Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 493-96; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20349, 20357-66, 22151; Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 34, 36-38; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 422-23, 425-26; 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 6660-80, 8192-202, 8923-53; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 454-55; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7472-506; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 169; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 71-72; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 519-23; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 739; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 304-05; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 394, 551, 557-79

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The Battle of Brice’s Crossroads

June 10, 1864 – Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest scored one of his greatest victories against the Federal effort to stop his Confederates from harassing Major General William T. Sherman’s supply lines.

Brig Gen S.D. Sturgis | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Sherman, the Federal commander in the Western Theater, ordered Brigadier General Samuel D. Sturgis to lead a force into northern Mississippi to find and destroy the railroads useful to Forrest’s Confederate command. Forrest had continuously harassed Sherman’s supply line on the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad, and Sherman wanted him eliminated once and for all.

Sturgis left Collierville, Tennessee, with 8,100 infantry and cavalry, along with 400 artillerists and 22 guns. His specific instructions were to “proceed to Corinth, Mississippi, by way of Salem and Ruckersville, capture any force that may be there, then proceed south, destroying the Mobile and Ohio Railroad to Tupelo and Okolona, and as far as possible toward Macon and Columbus.”

Major General Stephen D. Lee, the new Confederate commander of the Department of Alabama, Mississippi, and East Louisiana, directed Forrest to leave his Tupelo, Mississippi, headquarters and raid the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad with 2,200 cavalrymen and six guns. But before Forrest could cross the Tennessee River, he received urgent orders to turn back and face Sturgis, whose Federals were advancing on Ripley, Mississippi.

Unsure where Sturgis might attack, Forrest’s troopers rode back and took positions between Tupelo and Corinth. Sturgis’s first objective was the Mobile & Ohio Railroad running through Tupelo, but he had no reliable information on Forrest’s whereabouts and could expect no help from civilians. Moreover, the Federals did not reach Ripley until the 7th due to heavy rain and mud. They had advanced just 50 miles in a week, and their supply train was so far behind the main column that the men were reduced to half-rations.

Sturgis held a council of war to decide whether to turn back due to the incessant rain and delays. Sturgis’s officers recommended pressing forward regardless, and Sturgis obliged. The Federals headed southeast from Ripley the next day. Forrest had initially thought they were moving to reinforce Sherman, but the southeastern movement compelled him to guess they were targeting Tupelo instead. He therefore began planning to attack the Federals before they got there.

Brig Gen N.B. Forrest | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

On the night of the 9th, the Federals camped about nine miles northwest of Brice’s Crossroads, a heavily forested area about 20 miles north of Tupelo. Forrest issued orders for his three columns to converge at the crossroads and block Sturgis’s advance. Forrest would be close to his supply base while Sturgis’s supplies were still coming up. Forrest also had civilians providing him with key information on the Federal movements. Forrest said:

“I know they greatly outnumber the troops I have at hand, but the road along which they will march is narrow and muddy; they will make slow progress. The country is densely wooded and the undergrowth so heavy that when we strike them they will not know how few men we have.”

The rain stopped on the 10th, giving way to extreme heat and humidity. Taking the heat and mud into account, Forrest guessed that the Federal cavalry would come up first, which he could defeat before the Federal infantry arrived. Sure enough, Brigadier General Benjamin H. Grierson’s 3,300 Federal cavalrymen were in the lead, knocking back the Confederate pickets, crossing Tishomingo Creek, and reaching Brice’s Crossroads at 9:45 a.m.

A small Confederate force arrived, which Grierson pushed east down the road to Baldwyn about a mile. The rest of Forrest’s command arrived around 11:30 and turned the tide, pushing the Federals back to Brice’s. Grierson called for Sturgis to bring up the infantry, but when the troops finally came up at 1:30 p.m., they were exhausted from hurrying to the front and hungry from being on half-rations.

Both sides held their ground and traded fire until Forrest’s troopers worked their way around both Federal flanks, and Confederate artillery poured canister into the enemy line. Sturgis contracted his line into a semicircle around the crossroads, facing east.

Confederates attacked the bridge over the Tishomingo around 3:30 p.m., and although they were repulsed, they caused enough confusion among the Federals for Sturgis to order a withdrawal. The Confederates continued attacking the Federals as they funneled onto the Tishomingo bridge, causing them to flee in panic and leave most of their wagons and guns behind.

Some Federal officers called on Sturgis to counterattack, but he replied, “For God’s sake, if Mr. Forrest will let me alone, I will let him alone! You have done all you could, and more than was expected… Now all you can do is to save yourselves.”

The Confederates chased and harassed the Federals all the way back to Memphis. This was one of Forrest’s most remarkable victories of the war. His men captured 176 wagons and 16 guns while sustaining 492 casualties (96 killed and 396 wounded).

This was one of the Federals’ most embarrassing defeats in the Western Theater, as Sturgis was routed by a force a third of his size. The Federals lost 2,240 men (223 killed, 394 wounded, and 1,623 captured). However, Sturgis did prevent Forrest from wreaking havoc on the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad, which Forrest had planned to do before having to come back to face the Federals in northern Mississippi.

After this failed expedition, Sturgis remained in Memphis “awaiting orders.” When Sherman learned of the defeat, he exclaimed, “There will never be peace in Tennessee until Forrest is dead!”

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 173; Bearss, Edwin C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 79; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 520; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Crocker III, H.W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008), p. 189-90; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 418, 422-23, 425; 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 7626-36, 7647-87, 7698-718, 7784-94; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 447, 450-51, 453-55; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 512-13, 515-16, 519, 521; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 748; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 346; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 729-30

Hunter Terrorizes the Shenandoah Valley

June 8, 1864 – Brigadier General George Crook’s Federals from West Virginia joined forces with Major General David Hunter’s Army of the Shenandoah and prepared to drive southward “up” Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley from Staunton.

Maj Gen David Hunter | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

The day after his victory at Piedmont, Hunter became the first Federal commander to lead a force into the key town of Staunton. From there, Hunter was to join forces with Crook and move south to destroy the Virginia Central Railroad at Lynchburg. Federal troops destroyed all warehouses, barns, mills, workshops, and railroad factories in their path. They then looted and pillaged Staunton and vicinity, causing seething resentment among Valley residents.

Upon learning of Piedmont, General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, detached Major General John C. Breckinridge to return west and take the Valley back. However, Breckinridge had just 2,100 men in two brigades to reinforce the 4,000 Piedmont survivors in protecting the vital railroad junction at Lynchburg.

Meanwhile, Crook’s Federal Army of the Kanawha joined with Hunter, giving the combined force 18,000 men and 30 guns. Both Crook and his cavalry commander, Brigadier General William W. Averell, urged Hunter to continue south to Lynchburg as ordered, but Hunter opted to instead advance on Lexington to the southwest and then march through the Blue Ridge at the Peaks of Otter to get to Lynchburg.

Hunter’s new “Army of West Virginia” headed out of Staunton on the 10th. In response to harassment from Confederate partisans, Hunter directed his troops to live off the land, which included looting civilian homes and farms. Breckinridge reported that Hunter was moving up the Valley to either Lexington or Lynchburg, but his force was too small to stop the Federals.

President Jefferson Davis asked Lee to clear the Federals out of the Valley, but Lee said he could only do so by detaching an entire corps in the face of the opposing Army of the Potomac. Lee concluded, “If it is deemed prudent to hazard the defense of Richmond… I will do so.”

Crook’s Federals reached Lexington around 12 p.m. the next day and entered the town after driving off a small Confederate cavalry force. Hunter stopped to visit the grave of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson before ordering his men to burn the Virginia Military Institute, where Jackson had taught before the war. Hunter accused the school administrators of teaching a “treasonous” curriculum and sending cadets out to fight Federal troops at New Market. Hunter did not know that Lee had buried George Washington’s silver beneath VMI for protection.

Hunter set up headquarters in the VMI superintendent’s home, the only building on campus not burned. He also directed his troops to burn Washington College and turn the main building into a horse stable. Outraged, Virginia Governor John Letcher publicly called on the citizens to oppose “the vandal hordes of Yankee invaders.” When Hunter learned of this, he ordered Letcher’s Lexington home burned for issuing “a violent and inflammatory proclamation… inciting the population of the country to rise and wage guerrilla warfare on my troops.”

The looting and destruction continued for three days, during which a Federal soldier wrote, “Many of the women look sad and do much weeping over the destruction that is going on. We feel that the South brought on the war and the State of Virginia is paying dear for her part.” But during this time, Hunter suffered two setbacks:

  • Major General Philip Sheridan’s cavalry, assigned to join him in the drive on Lynchburg, was stopped by Confederate horsemen under Major General Wade Hampton.
  • Confederate partisans led by Colonel John S. Mosby continuously raided Hunter’s supply lines, forcing him to wait at Lexington until all his cavalry could come up.

These setbacks gave Breckinridge more time to prepare defenses at Lynchburg.

Confederate Gen. Jubal Early | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

On the night of the 12th, Lee decided on a daring gamble. He would detach Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s Second Corps from his army and send it west. These Confederates would absorb Breckinridge’s force, secure Lynchburg, and drive Hunter’s Federals out of the Valley. Early was to then move north “down” the Valley and cross the Potomac River into Maryland. From there, he would turn southeast and threaten Washington.

This would leave Lee’s Confederates dangerously outnumbered against the Army of the Potomac, but Lee hoped that Early’s offensive would compel Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant to detach forces, or even withdraw the army altogether, to protect Washington. It may even provoke Grant into launching a hasty attack that could give Lee an opening to destroy his force.

Early received written orders to move out at 3 a.m. on the 13th. He was “to strike Hunter’s force in the rear, and, if possible, destroy it; then to move down the Valley, cross the Potomac near Leesburg in Loudon County, or at or above Harper’s Ferry… and threaten Washington City.”

Early was to leave with all three of his divisions (8,000 men) and an artillery battalion. Early renamed his corps the Army of the Valley and led it out of the Cold Harbor trenches on the morning of the 13th. The troops boarded trains and headed west to Lynchburg, just as Hunter’s Federals finally left Lexington.

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References

Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 493-94; Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 176; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20411; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 420-23, 425; 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 6359-69, 6398-408, 6522-41, 6561-91, 9314-34; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 451, 454-55; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7472-84; Lewis, Thomas A., The Shenandoah in Flames: The Valley Campaign of 1864 (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 50-59; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 21; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 516, 519-20; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 738-39; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 376-77, 454

The Battle of Trevilian Station

June 7, 1864 – Major General Philip Sheridan’s Federal cavalry launched a raid intended to draw Confederate attention away from the Army of the Potomac’s impending crossing of the James River.

Federal Major General Philip Sheridan | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Major General George G. Meade’s Federal Army of the Potomac, with Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant in overall command, continued facing off against General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia in front of Cold Harbor, northeast of Richmond. Grant was planning to sidestep Lee to the south, across the James River, and he assigned Sheridan’s Cavalry Corps to create a diversion.

Sheridan’s troopers were to ride around Lee’s left (north) flank and link with Major General David Hunter’s Army of the Shenandoah at Charlottesville. This would draw Lee’s cavalry away from discovering the James crossing, while Hunter and Sheridan “break up the (Virginia Central) railroad connection between Richmond and the Shenandoah Valley and Lynchburg.” The combined force was also to destroy the James River Canal.

Early on the 7th, Sheridan led 7,000 cavalrymen in two divisions north to New Castle Ferry on the Pamunkey River. The next day, Lee received word of Sheridan’s expedition and responded by dispatching two divisions of about 4,700 troopers and three batteries under Major Generals Wade Hampton and Fitzhugh Lee (with Hampton in overall command) to oppose him. This left Lee with hardly any cavalry, but he believed that since Sheridan and Hunter were both on the move, Grant would stay put until their mission was completed.

Hampton correctly guessed that Sheridan’s target was Trevilian Station, east of Charlottesville. Hampton’s men took a more direct route along the Virginia Central and got there first. Sheridan’s Federals struggled in the excessive heat and had to shoot several horses that broke down. President Jefferson Davis noted, “If our cavalry, concentrated, could meet that of the enemy, it would have moral as well as physical effects, which are desirable.”

On the 10th, Hampton placed his division three miles ahead of the Trevilian Station depot and Fitz Lee’s division near Louisa Court House, about five miles away. That night, Sheridan’s troopers camped near Clayton’s Store on the south bank of the North Anna River. The Federals noted large groups of Confederate scouts nearby, which indicated that an enemy force blocked their way up ahead. Sheridan prepared for battle.

Hampton learned from a spy that Sheridan would come from Clayton’s on two roads–one leading south to Trevilian and one leading southeast to Louisa. He deployed two brigades along the Trevilian road, with one brigade stationed behind breastworks protecting his left (west). Hampton then called on Fitz Lee to come up from Louisa and form on his right.

Action on 11 June | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

On the right, Brigadier General George A. Custer’s Federal brigade clashed with Lee’s Confederates on the Louisa road. Lee disengaged to join Hampton, but Custer took a more direct road and moved around Hampton’s right before Lee got there. Custer’s Federals then reached the station in Hampton’s rear, seizing all of Hampton’s unguarded supplies and 800 of his horses left when the troopers dismounted to fight.

Hampton responded by sending the brigade on his left to confront Custer. Lee soon came up on Hampton’s right and dispatched a force to deal with Custer as well. Finding himself nearly surrounded, Custer pulled back and, as he reported, “From the nature of the ground and the character of the attacks that were made upon me, our lines resembled very nearly a circle.”

Custer pulled his colors from their staff and stuffed them into his coat before the Confederates could capture them. The Confederates closed in, regaining all their wagons and horses, and even capturing Custer’s headquarters wagon. But then Sheridan launched a strong assault in Hampton’s front and on Lee’s right flank. This forced the Confederates to withdraw and saved Custer’s command. By that time, both sides were short on ammunition and exhausted from fighting in the oppressive heat.

Hampton’s men fell back west and entrenched themselves on the road to Gordonsville. Lee’s troopers withdrew east toward Louisa. This gave the Federals control of Trevilian Station. Sheridan planned to renew the assault the next day, but he received word that Hunter “was marching toward Lynchburg, away from instead of toward me, thus making the junction of our commands beyond all reasonable probability.” Sheridan therefore resolved to end the raid and return to the Army of the Potomac.

The next day, the Federals destroyed Trevilian Station and wrecked railroad track to the east and west. Sheridan dispatched part of his force to reconnoiter the Confederate positions to the west, and around 3 p.m. they found Hampton’s men in an L-shaped defense line about two miles northwest of Trevilian. Fitz Lee’s troopers had joined with Hampton earlier that day.

Action on 12 Jun | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

The Federals, led by Brigadier General Alfred T.A. Torbert, assaulted the smaller part of the “L,” which ran north-south parallel to the railroad. But despite seven charges, the Federals could not break the Confederate line. Lee’s troopers on the larger part of the “L” then swung southeast to attack the Federal right. The Federals held their ground until fighting stopped around 10 p.m. Torbert withdrew during the night.

Sheridan began his withdrawal back to Cold Harbor the next day. He kept his pace deliberately slow to prevent Hampton from returning to the Army of Northern Virginia for as long as possible. The Federals sustained 1,007 casualties (102 killed, 470 wounded, and 435 missing) in the fighting, while the Confederates reportedly lost 831, including about 500 taken prisoner. These were the most casualties of any cavalry battle in the war.

Sheridan claimed victory over Hampton, but his Federals did not link with Hunter as ordered. Also, the Confederates quickly repaired all the damage done to the Virginia Central Railroad, and the supply line reopened within two weeks. Nevertheless, this engagement erased any remaining doubt that Federal cavalrymen were at least the equal of their southern counterparts.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 21-25; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 423; 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 6369-79, 6407-17; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 451-54; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7414-25; Lewis, Thomas A., The Shenandoah in Flames: The Valley Campaign of 1864 (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 51-52; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 516-17, 519-21; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 739; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 551, 763

Grant Devises a Bold New Strategy

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.

Lt Gen U.S. Grant | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

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.

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References

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

The Battle of Piedmont

June 5, 1864 – Federals scored a decisive victory over a small Confederate force, which enabled Major General David Hunter to continue his southward march “up” Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.

Maj Gen David Hunter | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Hunter’s 8,500-man Federal Army of the Shenandoah moved up the Valley toward Staunton, where it was to be joined by Brigadier General George Crook’s Federals advancing from West Virginia. The combined force would then continue southward and destroy the Virginia Central Railroad at Lynchburg. This would cut off General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia from the Valley’s plentiful foodstuffs.

After defeating the Federals at New Market, Major General John C. Breckinridge had taken most of the Confederates out of the Valley to reinforce Lee’s army at Cold Harbor. Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, aimed to keep the Valley clear of Confederates, and he instructed the Army of the Potomac:

“To aid the expedition under General Hunter, it is necessary that we should detain all the army now with Lee until the former gets well on his way to Lynchburg. To do this effectually it will be better to keep the enemy out of the intrenchments of Richmond than to have them go back there.”

The largest Confederate force still in the Valley was Brigadier General John D. Imboden’s 3,000 cavalrymen. The troopers did their best to impede Hunter’s march up the Valley Turnpike before falling back behind the North River at Mount Crawford. There they blocked the path to Staunton.

Meanwhile, Lee called on Brigadier General William E. “Grumble” Jones, commanding the Confederate Department of Southwestern Virginia, to reinforce Imboden with as many troops as he could find. Imboden contacted Jones, “Is it possible for you to aid me?” Jones dispatched two cavalry brigades to stop Crook’s advance in West Virginia, then he led his remaining 2,000 men out of Lynchburg to reinforce Imboden on the 4th.

Hunter’s Federals reached Harrisonburg, eight miles north of Mount Crawford, on the 3rd. From there, Hunter “found the enemy occupying a strong intrenched position at Mount Crawford, on the North River.” The next day, Hunter moved to within striking distance, but despite outnumbering Imboden’s force, he opted to wait until Crook’s 10,000 Federals arrived before attacking.

In the meantime, Hunter kept part of his Federal army in the Confederates’ front as a diversion while moving the rest of his troops southeast to Port Republic. The Federals began crossing the South Fork of the Shenandoah River around 6 p.m.

When Jones and Imboden learned of Hunter’s movements, Imboden suggested falling back to better ground at Mowry’s Hill, about three miles south of the village of Piedmont. Jones directed all the infantry to relocate there while Imboden’s cavalry harassed Hunter’s Federals at Port Republic, about seven miles north of Piedmont.

On the rainy morning of the 5th, the Federals continued their southward advance, with Hunter’s cavalry easily driving off Imboden’s pickets. Imboden attacked with his main force, which made some progress until the Federal numbers proved too great to overcome. Imboden narrowly escaped capture as his troopers fell back toward Piedmont. Jones opted to make a stand in front of Piedmont instead of on Mowry’s Hill. Imboden objected, but Jones was the ranking commander.

Jones’s troops held positions behind hastily built breastworks. Imboden’s cavalry linked with Jones’s right, but while Jones’s men faced north, Imboden’s faced east, thus forming an L-shaped line. The Confederates repelled the initial Federal attacks, but Federal guns disabled most of the Confederate artillery. Jones tried pulling back to align himself better with Imboden, but another Federal attack prevented that.

The Confederates then counterattacked, but the Federals held them off with their artillery and Spencer repeating rifles. According to Colonel William Ely of the 18th Connecticut, “Seeing an excellent opportunity to use cannon, I dispatched an orderly with a request for two howitzers, which came promptly and did excellent service, in knocking the rail pens in splinters amid great slaughter.”

As the Confederates returned to what was left of their breastworks, Jones ordered one of Imboden’s brigades to shift left, thus creating a gap in the line. The Federals quickly advanced to exploit the gap as a Confederate regiment scrambled to close it. Colonel Jacob Campbell of the 54th Pennsylvania recalled:

“Here for a short time a most desperate struggle took place, bayonets and clubbed guns were used on both sides, and many hand-to-hand encounters took place. So sudden and apparently so unexpected to the enemy was our movement on their flank that they were soon compelled to give way in great confusion, despite all efforts of their officers to rally them.”

As Jones urged his troops to hold firm, he was killed by a gunshot wound to the forehead. Jones’s death demoralized the Confederates, who wavered and then broke in retreat. They fled down the East Road to New Hope, where Imboden formed a rear guard that held off the Federal pursuit long enough for the main force to escape through the Blue Ridge. For the first time in the war, a Confederate force had been routed in the Shenandoah Valley.

That night, Brigadier General John C. Vaughn, commanding Imboden’s rear guard, reported to Lee: “My command is much scattered. The enemy is pursuing. I fear I will be forced to leave the Valley. Staunton cannot be held.” Even worse, the two Confederate brigades trying to hold Crook’s Federals back retreated upon learning of the defeat at Piedmont. Crook and Hunter would soon join forces and become too overwhelming for the Confederates to stop.

The Federals sustained 780 casualties (including 420 killed), while the Confederates lost 1,660, of which over 1,000 were captured. This battle finally cleared the region of Confederates, and as Hunter reported, “On the next day, June 6, I occupied Staunton without opposition.”

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 19-20; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 417-20; 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 6350-69; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 448-51; Lewis, Thomas A., The Shenandoah in Flames: The Valley Campaign of 1864 (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 42, 45-50; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 513-14, 516; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 737; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 376-77, 404, 584

The Cold Harbor Aftermath

June 4, 1864 – The Federal Army of the Potomac and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia glowered at each other after the Battle of Cold Harbor, while the Federal dead festered and the wounded languished on the battlefield.

Lt Gen U.S. Grant and Gen R.E. Lee | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

After the horrific Federal repulse, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, refused to request a truce to collect his dead and wounded. General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate army, refused to send a messenger suggesting a truce because all the dead and wounded were Federals and therefore Grant’s responsibility. Finally, Grant wrote Lee two days after the battle:

“It is reported to me that there are wounded men, probably of both armies, now lying exposed and suffering between the lines. I would propose that hereafter when no battle is raging either party be authorized to send to any point between the pickets or skirmish lines, unarmed men bearing litters to pick up their dead or wounded without being fired upon by the other party… any other method equally fair to both parties you may propose for meeting the end desired will be accepted by me.”

Colonel Theodore Lyman, staff officer to Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, delivered the message between the lines under a flag of truce. Lee, knowing there were no wounded Confederates in the field, replied at 11 p.m.:

“I fear that such an arrangement will lead to misunderstanding and difficulty. I propose therefore, instead, that when either party desires to remove their dead or wounded a flag of truce be sent, as is customary. It will always afford me pleasure to comply with such a request as far as circumstances will permit.”

The next day, Grant responded to Lee’s requirement of a truce flag to collect the survivors: “Your communication of yesterday is received. I will send immediately, as you propose, to collect the dead and wounded between the lines of the two armies, and will also instruct that you be allowed to do the same.” Grant proposed dispatching the burial details between 12 and 3 p.m.

However, Grant was proposing sending burial details under white flags while hostilities continued. This was not in accordance with military protocol in which all hostilities must be suspended while the details were in the field. Therefore, Lee responded that night expressing “regret to find that I did not make myself understood in my communication.” He stated that he would only consent to Federal burial parties if they were requested “by a flag of truce in the usual way.”

Grant finally wrote: “The knowledge that wounded men are now suffering from want of attention compels me to ask a suspension of hostilities for sufficient time to collect them in; say two hours.” Lee formally consented late that evening, and the gathering of dead and wounded finally began on the 7th, four days after the battle. By that time, only two survivors remained. The rest had either crawled back to their lines or died of wounds, thirst, or exposure. A member of the burial detail recalled:

“Four days of sun and rain, with the severe heat of summer, had passed over our slain, and the air was laden with insufferable putrescence. We breathed it in every breath, tasted it in the food we ate and water we drank. What seemed intolerable to us, was doubly so to the enemy, from their nearness to the dead, and from the fact that the prevailing winds, wafting over the field, carried the fumes directly to them. The granting of the truce was a necessity rather than a virtue.”

Another soldier recalled:

“Trenches were quickly dug, and into their depths the decomposed and unrecognizable bodies of men, who a short time before had been so full of life and daring, were hurriedly lowered–the brief time allotted for the humane purpose not permitting ceremony of any nature. It was nauseating to those who handled the disfigured corpses, while those to whom the duty of removing the wounded had been delegated performed their task with tender hands and bleeding hearts. In many instances maggots swarmed upon the wounds of those who had been maimed, presenting a revolting sight–one that no man, made however callous-hearted by war, would ever again wish to look upon.”

After burying the dead, Grant concluded his correspondence with Lee: “Regretting that all my efforts for alleviating the sufferings of wounded men left upon the battlefield have been rendered nugatory, I remain, &c., U.S. Grant, Lieutenant General.” A Federal officer explained Grant’s reluctance to collect the casualties:

“An impression prevails in the popular mind, and with some reason perhaps, that a commander who sends a flag of truce asking permission to bury his dead and bring in his wounded has lost the field of battle. Hence the resistance on our part to ask a flag of truce.”

Criticism of Grant intensified in the North and among his troops. Many noted that Lee had tactically won every engagement of the past month and inflicted a horrifying number of Federal casualties. Losing five men to Lee’s one, some began calling Grant “The Butcher.”

However, Grant’s supporters argued that the Federals were now closer to Richmond than they had been since 1862. They also noted that while Lee held Grant off for now, Lee had lost some 30,000 men of his own, and unlike Grant, he could not replace his losses. This forced Lee to stay on the defensive, while Grant retained the initiative.

Maj Gen G.G. Meade | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Meanwhile, Meade endured criticism of his own. In one instance that particularly enraged him, a correspondent for the Philadelphia Inquirer named Edward Crapsey had written an article applauding Grant for saving the army from an error that Meade had supposedly committed during the second day of the Battle of the Wilderness. Meade ordered Crapsey expelled from the army, asserting that he had merely reported “talk of the camp.”

The Federal provost marshal seized Crapsey and placed a sign on him reading “LIBELER OF THE PRESS.” As army bands played the “Rogue’s March,” Crapsey was placed backwards on a mule and paraded through the camps and out of the army. Under Meade’s order:

“The commanding general trusts that this example will deter others from committing like offenses, and he takes this occasion to notify the representatives of the public press that… he will not hesitate to punish with the utmost rigor all (such) instances.”

Fellow reporters opposed Crapsey’s expulsion by agreeing to omit Meade’s name from all future articles except when reporting Federal setbacks. They would also commend Grant for all future successes, essentially referring to Meade’s Army of the Potomac as Grant’s army.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 420-21; 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 6212-42, 6261-321, 6340-60; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7414; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 154-69; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 516-17; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 122-23; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 294-95; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q264