Tag Archives: Ambrose E. Burnside

The Battle of Deep Bottom Run

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.

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

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.

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References

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

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The Battle of the Crater

July 30, 1864 – An ill-fated plan to detonate gunpowder under the Confederate trenches at Petersburg, Virginia, resulted in a disastrous Federal defeat.

As Federals and Confederates faced each other from opposing fortifications east of Petersburg, the 48th Pennsylvania of Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s IX Corps had tunneled beneath the Confederate line in hopes of planting gunpowder and blasting a hole in the enemy works. After creating a gap, Federal forces would rush through, capture Petersburg, and then move north to Richmond.

The 511-foot tunnel ended beneath Elliott’s Salient. It included an incline for drainage and shafts for ventilation. Two shafts at the tunnel’s end each contained 4,000 pounds of gunpowder, and they were linked to a single fuse that ran back to the Federal lines. The explosives were set to detonate at 3:30 a.m. on the 30th.

The Confederates believed that the Federals were tunneling under them but could not find where. General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, decided that a Federal raid toward Richmond was just a diversion for an attack on the Petersburg lines, and alerted the troops at 2 a.m. on the 30th to be ready.

When the fuse did not ignite as planned, two volunteers from the 48th entered the mine and discovered it had burned out. They re-lit the fuse, and the tremendous blast occurred at 4:45. A Confederate later wrote, “A fort and several hundred yards of earth work with men and cannon was literally hurled a hundred feet in the air… (it was) probably the most terrific explosion ever known in this country.” Major General Bushrod R. Johnson, commanding Confederates in this sector, recalled:

“The astonishing effect of the explosion, bursting like a volcano at the feet of the men, and the upheaving of an immense column of more than 100,000 cubic feet of earth to fall around in heavy masses, wounding, crushing, or burying everything within its reach, prevented our men from moving promptly to the mouth of the crater and occupying that part of the trench cavalier which was not destroyed, and over which the debris was scattered.”

The blast instantly killed hundreds of Confederates, including nearly 300 from the 19th and 22nd South Carolina. The debris buried a regiment and an artillery battery, effectively putting an entire brigade out of action. When the dust settled, a crater had formed that was about 170 feet long, 70 feet wide, and 30 feet deep. A gap was opened all the way to Petersburg.

Burnside’s plan called for Brigadier General James Ledlie’s division to lead the assault into the crater, supported by the divisions of Brigadier Generals Orlando Willcox and Robert Potter. Brigadier General Edward Ferrero’s division of U.S. Colored Troops would follow the white divisions.

Ledlie’s men hesitated before advancing, as if shocked by the damage the explosion had caused. When they advanced, they marched straight into the crater instead of to either side, and the troops of Willcox and Potter followed them. Soon, thousands of Federals were in the crater with no way of scaling the steep slope to get back out. The Confederate survivors quickly regrouped, lined the crater’s rim, and fired down into the Federals below.

The Battle of the Crater, Sketched by Alfred Waud | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Around 9 a.m., Burnside ordered Ferrero’s black soldiers forward, but they soon became trapped with all the other Federals. The Confederates were enraged at the sight of uniformed black men and killed several, even after they surrendered. The Federals lacked leadership because Ledlie and Ferrero “passed a bottle of rum back and forth” in a bombproof during the battle.

Meanwhile, Major General William Mahone’s Confederates counterattacked against Federals west of the crater and drove them back, reestablishing the Confederate line and ending any chance for a Federal drive on Petersburg. Mahone’s artillerists then began pouring fire into the crater, turning it into a “cauldron of hell.” After three charges, the Federals were all either killed, wounded, captured, or driven back to their lines.

Meade ordered Burnside to withdraw his troops at 9:30, but Burnside did not forward the order to the front until after noon. By that time, the Confederates had reformed their lines and swept any surviving Federals away with a bayonet charge. Lee reported at 3:25 p.m.: “We have retaken the salient and driven the enemy back to his lines with loss… Every man in it has today made himself a hero.”

The Federals sustained 3,798 casualties (504 killed, 1,881 wounded, 1,413 missing or captured), while the Confederates lost 1,491 (361 killed, 727 wounded, 403 missing or captured). Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Weld of the 56th Massachusetts, hiding in a bombproof, recounted a harrowing tale about how the Confederates handled black prisoners:

“Pretty soon the rebels yelled, ‘Come out of there, you Yanks.’ I walked out, and the negro who had gone in there with me, and Captain Fay came out also. The negro was touching my side. The rebels were about eight feet from me. They yelled out, ‘Shoot the nigger, but don’t kill the white man’; and the negro was promptly shot down by my side… I got over the embankment all right, and was walking to the rear, when I saw a negro soldier ahead of me. Three rebels rushed up to him in succession and shot him through the body. He dropped dead finally at the third shot. It was altogether the most miserable and meanest experience I ever had in my life.”

Colonel William Pegram, commanding a Confederate artillery battalion, wrote his sister after the battle:

“I think over 200 negroes got into our lines, by surrendering and running in, along with the whites, while the fighting was going on. I don’t believe that much over half of these ever reached the rear. You could see them lying dead all along the route to the rear. There were hardly less than 600 dead–400 of whom were negroes. As soon as we got upon them, they threw down their arms in surrender, but were not allowed to do so. Every bomb proof I saw, had one or two dead negroes in it, who had skulked out the fight and been found and killed by our men. This was perfectly right, as a matter of policy… It seems cruel to murder them in cold blood, but I think the men who did it had very good cause for doing so. I have always said that I wished the enemy would bring some negroes against this army. I am convinced, since Saturday’s fight, that it has a splendid effect on our men.”

Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, wired Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck, “It was the saddest affair I have witnessed in the war. Such opportunity for carrying fortifications I have never seen and do not expect again to have.” Grant later called this battle “a stupendous failure… and all due to inefficiency on the part of the corps commander and the incompetency of the division commander who was sent to lead the assault.”

This disaster at the crater marked a new level of Federal incompetence. A court of inquiry later reported that “the first and great cause of the disaster was the employment of white instead of black troops to make the charge.” Ledlie was censured and later resigned from the army. Ferrero was also censured but later somehow promoted to major general. Burnside was relieved as commander of IX Corps for not providing an escape route.

The Federals lost a total of 6,367 men in July with no ground gained. The Confederates lost around 3,000. These losses, along with the crater fiasco and the recent Confederate invasion of Maryland and Pennsylvania, demoralized the northern war effort and lessened President Abraham Lincoln’s chances for victory in the upcoming election.

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 175; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 472; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 22233; Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 67-68, 72-73, 75-89; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 441; 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 11144-225, 11268-78, 11289-99; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 478; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7857-69; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 645-46; Linedecker, Clifford L (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 76; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 547-49; 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. 759-60; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 256; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 190, 428, 577-79

Petersburg: Federals Poised to Attack

July 29, 1864 – The final preparations were made to detonate gunpowder in a tunnel below the Confederate lines at Petersburg.

By this time, the miners of the 48th Pennsylvania under Lieutenant Colonel Henry Pleasants had completed digging the tunnel under enemy fortifications at Elliott’s Salient, outside Petersburg. The Pennsylvanians planned to mine the tunnel with gunpowder and blow a hole in the Confederate line, but they had been waiting three days for the material to arrive. The Confederates believed that the Federals had dug a tunnel, but they could not find it.

Maj Gen A.E. Burnside | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

The 48th belonged to Major General Ambrose Burnside’s IX Corps. Burnside had approved the project and reported to Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, that it was completed. Burnside warned, “It is altogether probable that the enemy are cognizant of the fact that we are mining, because it is mentioned in their papers, and they have been heard to work on what are supposed to be shafts in close proximity to our galleries.”

However, Burnside expressed confidence that if the Federals used the tunnel within three days, it was “probable that we will escape discovery.” Thus, it was “highly important, in my opinion, that the mine should be exploded at the earliest possible moment consistent with the general interests of the campaign.”

Burnside had been training Brigadier General Edward Ferrero’s division of U.S. Colored Troops to lead the Federal assault through the gap that would be caused by the explosives. According to Burnside’s plan, the Federals would “explode the mine just before daylight in the morning, or at about five o’clock in the afternoon. Mass two brigades of the colored division in rear of my first line, in columns of division… and as soon as the explosion has taken place, move them forward with instructions for the division to take half distance.”

Reinforcements would follow the black troops once they penetrated the Confederate line. Burnside wrote that after the line was broken, “It would, in my opinion, be advisable, if we succeed in gaining the crest, to throw the colored division right into the town.”

Four days after the tunnel’s completion, the gunpowder and fuses finally began arriving. However, Pleasants discovered that the fuses were not long enough to cover the 511-foot length of the shaft. Pleasants later testified, “They sent just whatever they had. It hardly ever happens that they require fuze for that distance.” Pleasants had also requested 12,000 pounds of gunpowder but received only 8,000. Nevertheless, as he recounted:

“The charge consisted of 320 kegs of powder, each containing about 25 pounds. It was placed in eight magazines, connected with each other by troughs half filled with powder. These troughs from the lateral galleries met at the inner end of the main one, and from this point I had three fuzes for a distance of 98 feet. Not having fuzes as long as required, two pieces had to be spliced together to make the required length of each of the lines.”

The magazines were sandbagged to direct the explosion upward.

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

With everything in place, Meade rejected Burnside’s plan to use the black division to lead the assault. According to Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Lyman of Meade’s staff, Meade argued “that these negroes were green and had never seen a great action; he had no right to run risks; if they failed people would justly say ‘Oh! You put forward the negroes to sacrifice them for nothing!’”

Meade seemed to lack confidence in the fighting ability of black troops. But according to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander:

“General Meade said that if we put the colored troops in front (we had only that one division) and it should prove a failure, it would then be said, and very properly, that we were shoving those people ahead to get killed because we did not care anything about them. But that could not be said if we put the white troops in front… I do not think it would have been proper to put them in front, for nothing but success would have justified it.”

Burnside explained that the black troops had been trained for this mission, and his “three white divisions had for 40 days been in the trenches in the immediate presence of the enemy, and at no point of the line could a man raise his head above the parapet without being fired at by the enemy. That they had been in the habit, during the whole of the time, of approaching the main line by covered ways, and using every possible means of protecting themselves from the fire of the enemy.”

When asked to reconsider, Meade said, “No, general, the order is final.” Burnside said, “Very well, general, I will carry out this plan to the best of my ability.” Demoralized, Burnside gathered the commanders of his white divisions and let them decide who would lead the assault.

The commanders drew straws and Brigadier General James Ledlie, a questionable leader known for drunkenness, was chosen. Brigadier Generals Orlando Willcox and Robert Potter would follow Ledlie, with Ferrero’s black division in the rear. The Federals made their final preparations on the afternoon of the 29th, with the mine set to be exploded at 3:30 the next morning.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 72-73; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 441; 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 11154-205; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 477; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 547-48; 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. 759; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 190

Petersburg: The Tunneling Expedition Begins

June 25, 1864 – A Federal colonel proposed opening a gap in the Confederate siege lines by digging a tunnel under them and detonating explosives.

Maj Gen A.E. Burnside | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s IX Corps of the Army of the Potomac held the center of the Federal siege line outside Petersburg. In their front, about 150 yards away, troops of General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia held a strong redoubt on high ground called Elliott’s Salient. A soldier of the 48th Pennsylvania (a regiment of anthracite coal miners from Schuylkill County) remarked, “We could blow that damn fort out of existence if we could run a mine shaft under it.”

The 48th’s commander, Lieutenant Colonel Henry Pleasants, himself a mining engineer, overheard the soldier and developed a plan that he submitted to his superior, Brigadier General Robert B. Potter. In later congressional testimony, Potter said:

“About the 24th of June, the idea of mining under the enemy’s works in my immediate front was suggested to me; in fact, I had thought of it before, and several others had thought the same thing… Pleasants… came to my quarters and suggested to me that he was familiar with mining, and that many of the men in his regiment were miners, and that they thought they could undermine one of the enemy’s works in my immediate front. After some conversation with him, I wrote a communication to General Burnside… suggesting this plan of mining the enemy’s works, and giving some of the details.”

Potter wrote Burnside that Pleasants–

“–is of the opinion that they could run a mine forward at the rate of from 25 to 50 feet per day, including supports, ventilation, and so on. It would be a double mine, for as we cannot ventilate by shafts from the top, we would have to run parallel tunnels, and connect them every short distance by lateral ones, to secure a circulation of air, absolutely essential here, as these soils are full of mephitic vapors.”

Burnside summoned Potter and Pleasants to his headquarters on the night of the 24th. Pleasants later testified that he “explained to him carefully the mode of ventilating the mine and everything about it. He seemed very much pleased with the proposition, and told me to go right on with the work.”

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

Burnside then sought approval from Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac, and Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, commanding all Federal armies. According to Meade:

“I sanctioned its prosecution, though at the time, from the reports of the engineers and my own examination, I was satisfied the location of the mine was such that its explosion would not be likely to be followed by any important result, as the battery to be destroyed was in a re-entering part of the enemy’s line, exposed to an enfilading fire, and reverse fire from points both on the right and left.”

Grant later wrote in his memoirs that he approved it only “as a means of keeping the men occupied.” Many Federal engineers called the project “claptrap and nonsense” because ventilation limitations prevented shafts from being longer than 400 feet. However, Pleasants devised an innovative and undetectable ventilating system for this shaft, which would eventually stretch 511 feet.

Digging started on the 25th, with the men using makeshift tools; a civilian’s theodolite enabled Pleasants to survey for direction and distance. As he testified, “My regiment was only about 400 strong. At first I employed but a few men at a time, but the number was increased as the work progressed, until at last I had to use the whole regiment, non-commissioned officers and all.”

A soldier of the nearby 13th Ohio watched the Pennsylvanians and later wrote:

“The dirt was carried out in cracker boxes and jute bags which had contained grain for the commissary department. The men working in the mine had only shirt and drawers on, and some were minus shirt even. I used to watch them popping in and out of the hole like so many brown gophers.”

The tunneling originated in a steep embankment behind the Federal picket line, out of Confederate view. Even so, on the last day of June, Confederate Brigadier General E. Porter Alexander, wounded by a sharpshooter, warned before taking leave that Federals were tunneling under Elliott’s Salient. But Confederate engineers, like their Federal counterparts, did not believe that men could dig a tunnel long enough to reach their lines. The work continued into July.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 67-68; 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 9305-15, 11144-54; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 461; Linedecker, Clifford L (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 76; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 528; 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. 758; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 190

The Second Battle of Petersburg: Day Four

June 18, 1864 – Federal forces launched yet another assault on the Petersburg defenses, but by this time General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia was arriving to resist.

By the morning of the 18th, Lee’s entire army (except for a corps in the Shenandoah Valley and a division at Bermuda Hundred) was now either at Petersburg or on its way there. The Confederates had abandoned their fortifications east of Petersburg the previous night and now manned new defensive works about a mile closer to the city.

Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, issued orders for an all-out assault that morning, in which the Federals were to seize the enemy fortifications “at all costs.” The battle began at dawn, with Major General William F. “Baldy” Smith’s XVIII Corps and Major General David B. Birney’s II Corps advancing on the Federal right, or the northeastern and eastern sectors of the line.

Action east of Petersburg | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Birney’s Federals easily stormed through the defenses before realizing that the Confederates had fallen back to stronger works. They did not approach the new fortifications a mile west until mid-morning. The Confederates expected the Federals’ approach and sharply repulsed them. This indicated to the Federal commanders that Lee’s army had arrived to reinforce General P.G.T. Beauregard’s defenders.

Lee personally arrived in Petersburg at 11 a.m. Beauregard later wrote that Lee was “at last where I had, for the past three days, so anxiously hoped to see him–within the limits of Petersburg.” The two commanders inspected the defenses, and Beauregard proposed counterattacking the Federal left flank. Lee demurred, arguing that the men were too exhausted to take the offensive. Thus, the Confederates would stay in their defenses.

Near noon, Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s IX Corps came up on Birney’s left to assault the eastern and southeastern sectors of the line. Major General Orlando Willcox’s division suffered particularly terrible losses, emerging from the fight with just 1,000 men uninjured.

Major General Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps came up on Burnside’s left and attacked Rives’s Salient, where the Confederate line ended at the Jerusalem Plank Road south of Petersburg. The Confederates repelled this assault and seriously wounded Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain, known for his heroic stand at Gettysburg. Not expecting Chamberlain to survive, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, promoted Chamberlain to brigadier general.

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

After sustaining heavy losses for no gain, the Federal corps commanders would not comply with Meade’s orders to renew the assaults. Meade angrily wrote one commander, “What additional orders to attack you require I cannot imagine.” He wrote another, “Finding it impossible to effect cooperation by appointing an hour for attack, I have sent an order to each corps command to attack at all hazards and without reference to each other.”

The renewed attack started at 6:30 p.m., but several Federal units would not advance. Those that did were repelled with severe losses. The 1st Maine Heavy Artillery, a unit of new gunners converted to infantry, prepared to charge, but nearby veterans warned them against it. The Maine troops charged anyway and sustained the worst loss of any regiment in any single battle of the war–632 of 850 men. The survivors became known as the “Bloody First Maine.”

When the fighting ended that night, the four-day battle for Petersburg was over. Meade reported to Grant, “It is a source of great regret that I am not able to report more success. Our men are tired, and the attacks have not been made with the vigor and force which characterized our fighting in the Wilderness; if they had been, I think we should have been more successful.”

Grant replied, “I am perfectly satisfied that all has been done that could be done, and that the assaults to-day were called for by all the appearances and information that could be obtained. Now we will rest the men and use the spade for their protection until a new vein can be struck.”

Grant had brilliantly moved the Army of the Potomac across the James River and into Lee’s rear, but he had followed that up with four days of futile and costly assaults. Since the 15th, the Federals sustained 11,386 casualties (1,688 killed, 8,513 wounded, and 1,185 missing or captured). Since Grant launched his offensive on May 4, he had lost almost 75,000 men, but reinforcements received during that time still left him with 110,000 troops.

The Confederates lost about 4,000 (200 killed, 2,900 wounded, and 900 missing or captured) since the 15th. Beauregard’s skillful defense of Petersburg was a remarkable feat considering the size of the enemy his men faced. Since opening the campaign, the Confederates suffered about 30,000 losses, which could not be replaced. The combined forces of Lee and Beauregard defending Petersburg numbered no more than 50,000 men.

Despite maintaining their numerical advantage, most Federals were exhausted and demoralized after a month and a half of constant marching, fighting, and dying. Officers lost their tempers with each other and their men, and Meade acknowledged that “the moral condition of the army” was broken. Warren said, “For 30 days it has been one funeral procession past me, and it has been too much!”

With more direct assaults on the Confederate defenses out of the question, Grant looked to duplicate what he had done at Vicksburg and place Petersburg under siege.

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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. 498-99; Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 175; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Crocker III, H.W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008), p. 87-91; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 22168; Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 48-53; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition), Loc 9137-219; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 457; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7636-48; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 200-02; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 524-25; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 469-70; 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. 740-41; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 394, 577-79, 812

The Second Battle of Petersburg: Day Three

June 17, 1864 – Federal forces from the Armies of the Potomac and the James launched another assault on Petersburg’s eastern defenses, as General Robert E. Lee was uncharacteristically slow to respond.

General P.G.T. Beauregard’s Confederates south of the James River had held firm against repeated Federal assaults on Petersburg, the vital railroad city 22 miles south of Richmond. The Confederate line ran northeast of Petersburg to south of the city. The Federals, under Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant’s overall command, held opposing positions to the east:

  • Major General William F. “Baldy” Smith’s XVIII Corps/Army of the James held the right (northeastern) flank.
  • Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps/Army of the Potomac held the center (east).
  • Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s IX Corps/Army of the Potomac held the left (southeastern) flank.
  • A division of Major General Horatio G. Wright’s VI Corps/Army of the Potomac was to support Smith’s exhausted Federals.
  • The remainder of Wright’s VI Corps was to move northeast and break the rest of Major General Benjamin F. Butler’s Army of the James out of Bermuda Hundred, a peninsula formed by the James and Appomattox rivers.
  • Major General Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps/Army of the Potomac was to come up on Burnside’s left and extend the Federal line to the Jerusalem Plank Road, south of Petersburg.

The Federal force numbered about 80,000 men. The main portion of General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia still had not crossed the James River, leaving Beauregard with only about 15,000 troops. But two of Lee’s divisions sealed off the Bermuda Hundred peninsula, effectively trapping Butler’s army once more.

Maj Gen A.E. Burnside | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Burnside’s Federals opened the day’s fighting when Brigadier General Robert B. Potter’s division charged just before sunrise and captured nearly a mile of the Confederate line, along with about 600 prisoners, four guns, and 1,500 small arms. Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac, notified Burnside at 7 a.m., “I am satisfied the main body of Lee’s army is not yet up, and it is of the utmost importance to do all we can before they get up.”

However, the Confederates fell back to another line of fortifications, and Potter’s Federals were pinned down by enfilade fire. The rest of Burnside’s corps came up to join the fray around 2 p.m.; this included a division led by Brigadier General James Ledlie, who was noticeably drunk during the battle.

Burnside made no progress because he was not supported by the other corps. Warren did not come up on Burnside’s left because Confederates blocked his men along the Norfolk & Petersburg Railroad. Hancock, who had been struggling with a wound from Gettysburg that had not yet healed, was forced to relinquish command of II Corps to Major General David B. Birney. Confederates in the northeastern sector repelled disjointed assaults by Smith and Wright.

Burnside and Birney launched a strong assault at 6 p.m., but the Confederates eventually drove the Federals back. Meade halted the fighting and issued orders for an attack all along the Confederate line the next morning. Brigadier General E. Porter Alexander, the chief Confederate artillerist, later wrote:

“The fighting was continuous and severe all day. Parts of our line were taken and retaken, but when the struggle finally ceased, which it did not do until near midnight, our lines were practically intact and Beauregard and what were left of his splendid little force had covered themselves with glory. For they had successfully stood off Grant’s whole army for three days.”

Beauregard established a new defense line closer to Petersburg, which ran along Taylor’s Creek to the Appomattox River. Meanwhile, Lee remained unconvinced that the entire Army of the Potomac was at Petersburg. He wired Beauregard that morning, “Can you ascertain anything of Grant’s movements? I am cut off now from all information.” That afternoon, Lee asked Beauregard, “Has Grant been seen crossing James River?”

Beauregard telegraphed Lee at 12:40 a.m.: “All quiet at present. I expect renewal of attack in morning. My troops are becoming much exhausted. Without immediate and strong reinforcements results may be unfavorable. Prisoners report Grant on the field with his whole army.” He dispatched three messengers to find Lee and tell him in person to hurry his army to Petersburg.

Beauregard later expressed frustration with Lee’s indecision: “The Army of Northern Virginia was yet far distant, and I had failed to convince its distinguished commander of the fact that I was then fighting Grant’s whole army with less than 11,000 men.”

Lee finally received positive confirmation that Grant and Meade had crossed the James from his son, Major General W.H.F. “Rooney” Lee of the cavalry. Lee prepared to send his army to Petersburg, led by Lieutenant General Richard H. Anderson’s First Corps. Anderson’s advance elements arrived before dawn on the 18th and immediately began strengthening the fortifications before the next Federal attack came.

As the sun rose, Beauregard now had about 20,000 Confederates in strong defenses. But they still faced 80,000 Federals preparing to launch a massive, overwhelming assault.

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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. 497-98; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 22168; Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 46-48; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 427; 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 9100-36; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 457; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7566-77; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 524; 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. 740; Sommers, Richard J., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 177; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 428, 577-79

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