Tag Archives: Army of Northern Virginia

Battles at Fair Oaks and Hatcher’s Run

October 27, 1864 – Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant’s Federal forces moved to assault both ends of the Confederate siege line stretching from Richmond to Petersburg.

After failing to dislodge the Federals from north of the James River, General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, warned his top officers, “We must drive them back at all costs.” The Federal forces, under Grant’s overall command, continued trying to extend the ends of their line both east of Richmond and southwest of Petersburg. Lee notified Adjutant General Samuel Cooper that if Grant stretched the Confederate defenders any further, “I fear it will be impossible to keep him out of Richmond.”

Panicked Confederate officials hurriedly conscripted all able-bodied men in Richmond and forced them into the fortifications outside the city. Citizens loudly protested this as an act of tyranny, and the press reported that most of the “involuntary soldiers” deserted as soon as they could.

Meanwhile, Lee’s Confederates gave up trying to take back Fort Harrison and built fortifications closer to Richmond that minimized the fort’s usefulness to the Federals. On the 13th, the Federal X Corps under Major General Alfred H. Terry (Major General David B. Birney had relinquished corps command due to illness and died later this month) advanced and discovered these new defenses. Lieutenant General Richard H. Anderson’s Confederates inflicted heavy losses on the Federals north of the Darbytown Road and drove them off.

Both sides settled back into the tedium of the siege outside Richmond and Petersburg. Lieutenant General James Longstreet returned to active duty as Lee’s top corps commander. Longstreet had been severely wounded at the Battle of the Wilderness, which partially paralyzed his right arm and forced him to learn to write with his left hand.

Longstreet resumed command of the First Corps, which had since been commanded by Anderson. These troops defended the siege lines north of the James River. Lee gave Anderson command of a new Fourth Corps, which consisted of two divisions. Its duty was to guard Petersburg against a direct assault should the siege lines be broken.

The siege lines now stretched from north of the James (southeast of Richmond), southward around the east and south of Petersburg, and then curled to the southwest below the city. The Federals had not been able to cut either the Boydton Plank Road or the South Side Railroad, which entered Petersburg from the southwest and west to supply the Confederates.

Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac besieging Petersburg, suggested to Grant that the Confederate right on the Boydton Plank Road was vulnerable to attack. And if the road was captured, the Federals could continue moving and seize the South Side Railroad. Grant approved Meade’s request to attack and developed a plan:

  • II Corps under Major General Winfield Scott Hancock on the Federal left would cross Hatcher’s Run on the Vaughn Road and then move north to seize the Boydton Plank Road.
  • IX Corps under Major General John G. Parke on the Federal right would attack the Confederates defending the road north of Hatcher’s Run.
  • V Corps under Major General Gouverneur Warren and a cavalry division under Brigadier General David M. Gregg would support Parke.

The attack force consisted of 43,000 Federals, while the Confederate defenders numbered no more than 12,000. To gain an even greater advantage, Grant planned to strike the other end of Lee’s defense line at the same time. He directed Major General Benjamin F. Butler to lead elements of X and XVIII corps to the Darbytown Road and Fair Oaks, east of Richmond.

The Federals moved out against Lee’s left (southeast of Richmond) and right (southwest of Petersburg) on the 27th. When news of these movements reached Richmond, Confederate officials put their last reserves on the defense lines. Longstreet’s troops held Lee’s left as Butler’s Federals moved along the Darbytown Road and north toward Fair Oaks.

Confederates under Major Generals Charles W. Field and Robert F. Hoke repelled the Federal attackers and neutralized Fort Harrison in just a few hours. This was the easiest Confederate victory in this sector of the siege line to date. Butler lost 1,103 men, including about 600 taken prisoner, and 11 battle flags. Longstreet lost just 451.

Meanwhile, the Federal force southwest of Petersburg moved out at 7:30 a.m. in heavy rain. Hancock advanced as planned and seized the road near Burgess’ Mill by noon. Per his orders, Hancock waited there until Parke and Warren joined him. But Parke met strong resistance from Major General Cadmus M. Wilcox’s Confederates, and Warren’s men struggled over the rough terrain before being repulsed by Wilcox south of Hatcher’s Run.

Federals attack works at Hatcher’s Run | Image Credit: Harper’s Weekly, Vol. VIII, No. 412 (19 Nov 1864)

The failure of Parke and Warren to achieve a breakthrough left Hancock isolated. Lieutenant General A.P. Hill directed a counterattack led by Major General Henry Heth’s infantry and Major General Wade Hampton’s cavalry. They came upon Hancock’s flank, which Warren had not come up to protect. Hancock managed to fend off the assaults, and Meade let him decide to either fall back or hold firm until Warren and Parke reinforced him. Having no faith in either Warren or Parke, Hancock withdrew that night, relinquishing the road.

The Federals sustained 1,758 casualties (166 killed, 1,028 wounded and 564 missing). The Confederates lost about 1,000 men, a much greater proportion of those engaged (8 percent versus the Federals’ 4 percent). Confederate losses included two of Hampton’s sons, Lieutenants Wade (wounded) and Preston (killed).

On the morning of the 28th, the Confederates discovered that Hancock was gone and took back the Boydton Plank Road. This ended combat operations on the Richmond-Petersburg lines for the year. The works now stretched nearly 35 miles, with both sides spending the fall and winter patrolling, picketing, sharpshooting, and continually strengthening defenses.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 22242; Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 154-57; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 475-76, 479; 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 13231-41, 12023-43; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 509-10, 514-15; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7975-88, 8000-12; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 584, 589-90; Sommers, Richard J., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 169, 179-80, 393; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 95-96, 204-05

Virginia: More Fighting and Prisoner Exchange

October 6, 1864 – General Robert E. Lee discussed prisoner exchanges and made one more effort to take back Fort Harrison, southeast of Richmond.

Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia was rapidly shrinking due to combat, illness, and desertion. He therefore contacted Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, to discuss the possibility of informally renewing the prisoner exchange cartel.

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

Grant had suspended prisoner exchanges because the Confederates had refused to include slaves-turned-soldiers. This suspension had caused a widespread manpower shortage in the Confederacy, but it also doomed thousands of Federal prisoners to disease and death in southern prison camps, where officials lacked the necessities to care for them. In all, about 100,000 Federal and Confederate soldiers currently languished in various makeshift prisons.

As fighting raged around Peebles’ Farm, Lee wrote Grant, “With a view of alleviating the sufferings of our soldiers, I have the honor to propose an exchange of prisoners of war belonging to the armies operating in Virginia, man for man, or upon the basis established by the cartel.” Grant replied on the 2nd:

“I could not of a right accept your proposition further than to exchange those prisoners captured within the last three days, and who have not yet been delivered to the commanding General of Prisoners. Among those lost by the armies operating against Richmond were a number of colored troops. Before further negotiations are had upon the subject, I would ask if you propose delivering these men the same as white soldiers.”

Lee responded the next day:

“In my proposition of the 1st inst., to exchange the prisoners of war belonging to the armies operating in Virginia, I intended to include all captured soldiers of the United States, of whatever nation and color, under my control. Deserters from our service and negroes belonging to our citizens are not considered subjects of exchange, and were not included in my proposition. If there are any such among those stated by you to have been captured around Richmond, they can not be returned.”

Grant finally answered on the 20th:

“I shall always regret the necessity of retaliating for wrong done our soldiers, but regard it my duty to protect all persons received into the army of the United States, regardless of color or nationality; when acknowledged soldiers of the Government are captured, they must be treated as prisoners of war, or such treatment as they receive inflicted upon an equal number of prisoners held by us.”

Thus, Grant and Lee were still at an impasse on the subject of whether former slaves now serving in the Federal army would be treated like all other soldiers.

Meanwhile, Lee met with President Jefferson Davis at Chaffin’s Bluff on the 6th. Unable to launch a major offensive before winter due to his dwindling numbers, Lee said, “We may be able, with the blessing of God, to keep the enemy in check until the beginning of winter. If we fail to do this the result may be calamitous.”

However, Lee was still determined to take back Fort Harrison, which the Confederates had lost last month. Leaving a token force in the trenches between the fort and the capital, Lee planned to attack the Federals guarding the Darbytown and New Market roads. These Federals were commanded by Major General David B. Birney and Brigadier General August V. Kautz. Under Lee’s plan:

  • Brigadier General Martin Gary’s cavalry brigade and Brigadier General Edward A. Perry’s infantry brigade would attack from the north, hitting the Federals on their right flank and in their rear.
  • Major General Charles W. Field’s division would launch a frontal attack on the Federals from the west.
  • Major General Robert F. Hoke’s division would support the frontal attack on Field’s right (south).

If successful, the Confederates would roll up the Federal right and force them to retreat south toward the James River, abandoning Fort Harrison along the way.

At dawn on the 7th, the Confederates hit the Federal right and front, pushing Kautz’s 1,700 Federals southward as planned and capturing all eight of their guns. The Federals fell back from the Darbytown Road and joined Birney’s X Corps, which was firmly entrenched on the New Market Road and ready.

Field’s Confederates charged, but Federal artillery thinned their ranks. Field sent his entire division forward, but the Federals repelled this attack as well. Brigadier General John Gregg, commanding the famed Texas Brigade, was killed. Hoke did not come up as planned, causing confusion among the Confederates until Lee finally ordered them to fall back.

The Confederates sustained 1,350 casualties in their failed effort to take back Fort Harrison and drive the Federals to the James. The Federals lost just 399 men. Lee soon ordered his men to build fortifications closer to Richmond.

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References

Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 21532, 21539-57; Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 153-54; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 467, 470; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 506-07; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7975; 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. 799-800; Sommers, Richard J., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 177, 393; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 204-05

The Battle of Peebles’s Farm: Day Two

October 1, 1864 – Elements of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia prepared to renew their attack on Federals pushing to seize the final supply lines southwest of Petersburg, Virginia.

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

Federals from Major General George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac entrenched themselves at Peebles’ Farm. They consisted of V and IX corps under Major Generals Gouverneur Warren and John G. Parke, along with cavalry under Brigadier General David M. Gregg. The Federals had tried seizing the Boydton Plank Road and the South Side Railroad on September 30, but Confederates from General Robert E. Lee’s army had pushed them back.

The Confederates consisted of two divisions from Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s corps, led by Major Generals Henry Heth and Cadmus M. Wilcox, along with Major General Wade Hampton’s cavalry division. After driving the Federals back, they planned to renew the offensive on the 1st. Wilcox would attack IX Corps on the Federal left to the west, but the main Confederate attack would come from Heth against V Corps on the seemingly weak Federal right to the east.

Fighting opened with a Confederate artillery barrage designed to weaken the Federal lines. Heth’s troops drove off the Federal pickets but were sharply repelled by the Federals on the main line. Wilcox’s men captured several Federal skirmishers but did not go any further toward attacking IX Corps. Hampton tried getting into the Federal rear with his cavalry, but Federal troopers drove the Confederates off near the Vaughn Road.

Meade ordered Warren and Parke not to take the offensive until Brigadier General Gershom Mott’s division from II Corps arrived to reinforce them. Mott’s men were being transferred by a new railroad built exclusively to serve the Federals at Petersburg from their main supply base at City Point. But the trains were delayed, and the troops did not arrive until that night. Meade explained the delay to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, adding, “Generals Parke and Warren are ordered to attack early tomorrow morning,” and would “endeavor to effect a lodgment on the Boydton plank road.”

Parke reported to Meade on the morning of the 2nd, “Mott is now moving to take position on my left. As soon as he is in position I will advance the whole line.” The Federal V and IX corps, now augmented by Mott’s division, advanced west toward the Confederates guarding the Boydton Plank Road. The Federals easily pushed back pickets and skirmishers, but they stopped when they saw that the main defenses were stronger than expected.

Meade wrote Grant, “Without your orders, I shall not attack their intrenchments, but on being satisfied they are not outside of them I will take up the best position I can, connecting with the Weldon railroad and extending as far to the left as practicable, having in view the protection of my left flank, and then intrench.”

Grant approved, but later he warned Meade that he might have to abandon this extension of the siege line “whenever the forces holding it are necessary to defend any other part of the line.” After holding a council of war on Peebles’s farm, Meade wrote Grant:

“We now hold securely to the Pegram house, with our left refused and the cavalry to the rear on the Vaughn and Duncan Roads. The left is a little over a mile from the Boydton plank road, and believed to be not over two miles from the South Side Railroad. Generals Parke and Warren are busily occupied intrenching in his position, and rendering it such that should the enemy turn the left they will have an available force to meet the movement.”

The fighting on and near Peebles’s Farm resulted in about 2,950 Federal casualties and 1,239 Confederate. This ended Grant’s fifth offensive against Petersburg, and it proved just as fruitless as the first four. The Confederates retained their hold on both the Boydton Plank Road and the South Side Railroad, which they used to feed and supply themselves. However, the Federals did extend their siege line farther south and west of Petersburg, which forced the Confederates to stretch their opposing line even thinner in defense. And the manpower on that line was rapidly shrinking due to casualties, illnesses, and desertions.

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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. 466-67; 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 11766-76; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 504; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 578; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 567-68; PetersburgSiege.org

The Battle of Peebles’s Farm

September 30, 1864 – While Federal forces attacked the Confederate siege lines north of the James River, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant directed the Army of the Potomac to attack the Confederate line southwest of Petersburg.

As Major General Benjamin F. Butler prepared his assault outside Richmond, Grant, the overall Federal commander, informed Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac at Petersburg, that “a movement will take place intended to surprise and capture the works of the enemy north of the James River between Malvern Hill and Richmond.”

Grant envisioned a two-pronged assault that would extend the lines of General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia until they broke. In conjunction with Butler’s move to the north, Grant instructed Meade, “As a co-operative movement with this you will please have the Army of the Potomac under arms at 4 a.m. on the 29th ready to move in any direction.”

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

Grant wanted Meade’s Federals to continue pushing southwest of Petersburg and seize the South Side Railroad, Lee’s last supply line via rail. Grant instructed Meade, “I will leave the details to you, stating merely that I want every effort used to convince the enemy that the South Side road and Petersburg are the objects of our efforts.”

The day after Butler’s Federals seized Fort Harrison and New Market Heights north of the James, Grant ordered Meade to attack Lee’s southernmost lines below Petersburg: “You may move out now and see if an advantage can be gained. It seems to me the enemy must be weak enough at one or the other place to let us in.”

Meade dispatched 16,000 Federals from V and IX corps under Major Generals Gouverneur Warren and John G. Parke for the assault. Brigadier General David M. Gregg’s Federal cavalry would guard the Federals’ left (south) flank. The Federals moved west in two columns toward the Confederate defenses along the Boydton Plank Road, which Lee was using in place of the Weldon Railroad (lost to the Federals in August) as a supply line.

Warren’s men led the advance before halting along the Squirrel Level Road and deploying for battle. The Federals then attacked and drove the Confederates back from Poplar Springs Church. Warren’s division under Brigadier General Charles Griffin captured the important Fort Archer on Peebles’s Farm.

Federals attacking a fort | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

The Confederates regrouped on a line closer to the Boydton Plank Road. Warren informed Meade at 2:20 p.m., “I will push up as fast as I can get my troops in order toward Petersburg on the Squirrel Level road.” However, Warren would not advance until Parke’s corps came up on his left and the Federals secured a connection to Globe Tavern.

During that time, Confederates from Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s corps under Major Generals Henry Heth and Cadmus M. Wilcox arrived and counterattacked. Warren’s Federals were knocked back into Parke’s, and the Confederates pushed them for over a mile until they entrenched at Peebles’s Farm. The Federals held firm until the Confederates disengaged for the night. Meade reported to Grant:

“About 4 p.m. General Parke was advancing to the Boydton plank road when he was vigorously attacked by the enemy, said by prisoners to have been two divisions of Hill’s corps. The fighting for some time till after dark was very severe, and after the Ninth Corps rallied and Griffin attacked it is believed the enemy suffered heavily.”

Grant told Meade that he “need not advance tomorrow unless in your judgment an advantage can be gained, but hold on to what you have, and be ready to advance. We must be greatly superior to the enemy in numbers on one flank or the other, and by working around at each end, we will find where the enemy’s weak point is.”

The fighting north of the James, along with this fighting on the 30th southwest of Petersburg, stretched Lee’s army to the limit and forced a desperate shift of troops from one threatened front to the other. Lee informed Secretary of War James A. Seddon that while Grant extended his lines and increased his numbers, the Army of Northern Virginia could “only meet his corps, increased by recent recruits, with a division, reduced by long and arduous service.”

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 150, 155; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 464-65; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 502-03; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 576-77; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 567-68; http://www.petersburgsiege.org/peebles.htm

The Battle of Chaffin’s Bluff

September 28, 1864 – Major General Benjamin F. Butler, commanding the Federal Army of the James, planned to send 20,000 men north to seize Confederate Forts Harrison and Gilmer, which made up a vital part of the Chaffin’s Bluff defenses southeast of the Confederate capital at Richmond, Virginia.

After Federal forces captured the Weldon Railroad south of Petersburg in August, both sides returned to their siege lines and regrouped for much of September. Most of the action in Virginia this month occurred in the Shenandoah Valley, with Major General Philip Sheridan’s Federals scoring major victories over the Confederate Army of the Valley under Lieutenant General Jubal Early.

President Abraham Lincoln worried that General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia at Petersburg, would reinforce Early in the Valley. Lincoln wrote Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, “I hope it will lay no constraint on you, nor do harm anyway, for me to say I am a little afraid lest Lee sends re-enforcements to Early, and thus enables him to turn upon Sheridan.”

Grant replied, “I am taking steps to prevent Lee sending re-enforcements to Early by attacking him here.” This attack would consist of a two-pronged assault on Lee’s Confederates defending Richmond (i.e., their left flank) and those defending the South Side Railroad southwest of Petersburg (i.e., their right flank). Grant hoped to stretch the Confederate siege lines to their breaking point, thus leaving either Richmond, Petersburg, or both open to Federal capture.

Maj Gen B.F. Butler | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Preparations for the attack on Richmond involved reuniting Butler’s army, which consisted of two infantry corps (X under Major General James B. Birney and XVIII under Major General E.O.C. Ord), and Brigadier General August V. Kautz’s cavalry. According to Butler’s plan:

  • Ord’s 8,000 troops would cross the James on a pontoon bridge and attack Forts Harrison and Gilmer at Richmond’s southern defenses near Chaffin’s Farm.
  • Birney’s 10,000 troops and Kautz’s horsemen would cross on Ord’s right, 18 miles downstream, and attack the Confederates’ easternmost defenses at New Market Heights.

Butler received intelligence (which proved correct) that the Confederate garrisons were lightly defended. Activity swirled around Butler’s headquarters the night before the attacks, as the commanders studied 16 pages of orders for this operation. A New York Times correspondent wrote, “Portents of a coming something were unmistakable. In all my experience, I never knew a plan to be kept so profoundly secret.”

Lee, whose army was spread dangerously thin already, began shifting troops from the Petersburg sector under Lieutenant General Richard H. Anderson to reinforce Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s Confederate defenders outside Richmond. However, Butler’s secrecy ensured that the Confederates did not know where (or even if) an attack would take place.

On the night of the 28th, Ord’s Federals crossed the James at Aiken’s Landing and headed up the Varina Road, while Birney’s men crossed at Deep Bottom. Birney had orders to turn the enemy right at New Market Heights; this would push the Confederates away from Forts Harrison and Gilmer so Ord could capture them. Just 2,000 unsuspecting Confederates held New Market Heights against Birney’s entire corps.

Map of fighting at New Market Heights | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Birney’s Federals advanced through the thick fog on the morning of the 29th. Brigadier General Charles J. Paine’s division led the assault, with a brigade of black troops in the frontline. The blacks charged unsupported, and many were either taken prisoner or killed after they surrendered. Birney regrouped and sent Paine’s troops forward again, this time supported by Brigadier General Alfred H. Terry’s division on their right. However, the Federals were stopped again by ferocious enemy fire.

As the Confederate fire slackened, the Federals launched a third charge that finally overran the works. But they soon learned that the Confederates had withdrawn because of the results of the fighting at Forts Harrison and Gilmer, not because of their charges. Paine’s division sustained 800 casualties, most of whom were black troops.

In Ord’s sector, the Federals had to charge over 1,400 yards of open ground, a desperate effort even with the benefit of fog. The Confederates were initially surprised by the enemy’s approach, but they quickly regrouped and poured heavy fire into the attackers. They killed hundreds of Federals in the first attack wave, including the wave commander, Brigadier General Hiram Burnham.

Federal charge on Fort Harrison | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

The subsequent attack waves were disorganized, but their sheer numbers overwhelmed the Confederates, and the Federals seized Fort Harrison by 7:30 a.m. The Federals then turned south to attack Fort Gilmer, the key to the Chaffin’s Farm defense line. The Confederate defenders at Gilmer had heard the firing at Harrison and were ready. They held firm with support from Confederate gunboats on the James, wounding Ord in the process. He was temporarily replaced as corps commander by Brigadier General Charles A. Heckman, with Major General Godfrey Weitzel replacing Heckman the next day.

Meanwhile, Kautz’s cavalry advanced down the Darbytown Road, but Confederate artillery drove them back. As the day ended, the Federals held Fort Harrison and New Market Heights, but the Confederates retained Fort Gilmer as they fell back to stronger, more compact defenses.

Ewell notified Lee that Fort Harrison had fallen. Fearing that this would open the road to Richmond, Lee hurried reinforcements to that sector and asked General Braxton Bragg, advisor to President Jefferson Davis, to call out all Richmond militia. Lee considered launching a night attack to retake Harrison but opted to wait until the next day. He reported that night, “The enemy still hold Battery Harrison on the exterior line. Our loss is very small.”

Both sides disengaged for the night, with the Confederates forming a new defense perimeter and the Federals fortifying against an expected attempt to retake Harrison the next day. Lee sent eight infantry brigades numbering 10,000 men north of the James for the impending assault.

On the 30th, the entrenched Federals easily repelled four desperate Confederate charges. Lee personally directed three of the assaults, fearful that losing Harrison might collapse his left flank. Brigadier General George J. Stannard led the strong Federal defense before being severely wounded in the final attack. Meanwhile, Federals made another effort to capture Fort Gilmer. Four companies of the 7th U.S. Colored Troops lost about half their men as they reached the fort’s ramparts, but the Confederates ultimately drove them off.

The Confederates who could not reclaim Harrison fell back to works between the fort and Richmond, beyond Federal gun range near Chaffin’s Bluff. This eventually became an even stronger line than the original one. Lee reported the loss of Harrison to the Confederate War Department that evening, as well as the loss of about 2,000 men in the two-day contest.

The Federals sustained 3,327 casualties (383 killed, 2,299 wounded, and 645 missing) out of about 20,000 engaged. Black troops comprised 1,773 of the total casualties, and of the 16 Congressional Medals of Honor earned by black soldiers in the war, 14 were awarded for this battle alone.

While the Confederates were now behind stronger defenses, Lee had no more men to reinforce either the troops stretching southwest of Petersburg or the Confederates in the Shenandoah Valley. Only a lack of effective Federal coordination prevented a major breakthrough that could have opened a path to Richmond.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 138-48, 150, 155; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 464-65; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Kindle Locations 11745-76; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 502-03; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7941-52, 7964; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 192; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 575-77; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 123-24; Sommers, Richard J., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 177, 179-80, 393

The Beefsteak Raid

September 5, 1864 – Major General Wade Hampton, commanding cavalry for the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, received information that a herd of cattle capable of feeding the hungry army was loosely guarded by Federals.

General Wade Hampton | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

The Confederates, still under siege around Petersburg, needed to come up with new ways to feed themselves, or else be starved into submission. General Robert E. Lee, the Confederate army commander, urged Hampton to target the Federal supply base at City Point, eight miles northeast of Petersburg at the confluence of the Appomattox and James rivers. Lee stated, “I judge that the enemy is very open to attack at City Point. A sudden blow in that quarter might be detrimental to him.”

Sergeant George D. Shadburne, one of Hampton’s top scouts, reconnoitered the area and reported, “At Coggins’ Point (six miles below City Point on the James) are 3,000 beeves, attended by 120 men, and 30 citizens without arms.” Such a catch could feed the Confederate army for weeks, so Lee quickly approved Hampton’s plan to capture the herd.

Hampton waited until Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, left his headquarters before striking. The command moved out at 1 a.m. on the 14th, consisting of 4,000 men in three brigades, including “several certified Texas cattle thieves.” Shadburne guided them as they tried confusing Federal scouts by riding southwest, beyond the Federal left flank below Petersburg, to Dinwiddie Court House.

The Confederates then rode southeast for 11 miles before turning northeast toward Coggins’ Point. By day’s end, they arrived at Wilkinson’s Bridge over Rowanty Creek. The next day, Hampton’s men continued northeast for 18 miles to the Blackwater River, where engineers repaired Cook’s Bridge. They crossed the river at midnight and prepared to attack Federal pickets at Sycamore Church, four miles from Coggins’ Point, at dawn.

Brigadier General Thomas L. Rosser’s Laurel Brigade led the dawn assault. They overwhelmed elements of the 1st D.C. and 13th Pennsylvania Cavalry, then surrounded the cattle before the Federals could stop them. With help from shepherd dogs they had brought, the Confederates rustled 2,468 of the 2,486 head of cattle. They also made off with 11 supply-filled wagons and 304 prisoners while losing just 61 men (10 killed, 47 wounded, and four missing).

Federal gunboats arrived too late to stop Hampton’s men, who herded the cattle back along the same route they had taken to get there. Rosser’s Confederates stopped to fight off Federal pursuers at Ebenezer Church that afternoon. The rest of the Confederates continued pushing the herd on a line that stretched nearly seven miles.

After an all-night ride, Hampton’s men delivered the cattle at 9 a.m. the next day. This was one of the largest cattle-rustling actions in American history, netting nearly two million pounds of beef at a time when Richmond had just a 15-day supply of meat to feed the Confederate army. This greatly helped the defenders outside Petersburg, who taunted the Federals with their own beef across the lines. It also earned Hampton’s cavalry the nickname the “cowboys.”

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References

Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 110-11, 115; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Kindle Locations 11734-55; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 494; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7918; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 37; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 569-70; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 336-37

 

The Second Battle of the Weldon Railroad

August 18, 1864 – Fighting broke out southwest of the Petersburg siege lines when Federals tried moving beyond the Confederates’ flank to sever the Weldon Railroad.

Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, knew that General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, had sent part of his force to the Shenandoah Valley. Grant also knew that Lee had reinforced the Confederate defenses in front of Richmond, north of the James River. Based on this, Grant guessed that Lee’s defense line outside Petersburg was weak and vulnerable to attack.

Maj Gen Gouverneur Warren | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Grant dispatched Major General Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps from the Army of the Potomac to cut the Confederates’ Weldon supply line running from Petersburg to Wilmington, and to divert attention from the Federal expedition north of the James. This was the first major Federal attempt since the Battle of the Crater to disrupt the Confederate siege lines at Petersburg.

When President Abraham Lincoln learned of Grant’s plan, he sent him an encouraging message: “I have seen your despatch expressing your unwillingness to break your hold where you are. Neither am I willing. Hold on with a bulldog grip, and chew and choke as much as possible.” Grant laughed upon reading this dispatch and told his staff, “The president has more nerve than any of his advisers.”

Warren’s Federals set out at 4 a.m. on the 18th, marching through rain and mud before arriving at Globe Tavern five hours later. They were about four miles south of Petersburg, and three miles south of the Confederate defenses. A division began wrecking the railroad while Brigadier General Romeyn B. Ayres’s division turned north to face any Confederate attempt to stop the operation. Ayres’s men struggled to maneuver in the dense woods and oppressive heat. Brigadier General Samuel W. Crawford’s division came up to support Ayres’s right.

Operations of Aug 18-19 | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding the Petersburg defenses while Lee was north of the James, called upon Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s Third Corps to confront the Federals. Hill dispatched two brigades under Major General Henry Heth and another brigade under Major General Robert F. Hoke. Fighting began under heavy rain.

The Confederates initially drove Ayres and Crawford back toward Globe Tavern, but the Federals were reinforced by Brigadier General Lysander Cutler’s division on Ayres’s left. They regrouped and advanced, and by nightfall they regained their original positions. Warren notified Crawford, “You have done very well indeed in getting forward through that difficult country. Make yourself as strong as you can and hold on. I will try and re-enforce you…”

Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, dispatched reinforcements from IX and II corps and ordered Warren to hold the railroad “at all hazards.” The Federals lost 836 men (544 killed or wounded, and 292 missing) in the action on the 18th.

Gen P.G.T. Beauregard | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

The Confederates were reinforced by Major General Rooney Lee’s cavalry division and Major General William Mahone’s infantry division. Beauregard wrote Lee at 8 a.m. on the 19th, “I will endeavor to-day to dislodge him with four brigades of our infantry and the division of cavalry you have promised. Result would be more certain with a stronger force of infantry.”

Skirmishing took place throughout the 19th as the heavy rain continued. Mahone’s Confederates approached Crawford’s division on the Federal right, concealed by the woods, and launched a fierce attack at 4:15 p.m. The Federals wavered to the point that two brigades nearly surrendered, and Crawford was almost captured trying to rally his men. Meanwhile, Heth attacked the Federal center and left, but Ayres’s men repelled him.

The arrival of Federal reinforcements enabled Warren to stabilize his position in vicious hand-to-hand combat. He lost another 2,900 men (382 killed or wounded and 2,518 missing or captured), but he ordered an “advance at daylight in every direction.”

The Confederates pulled back for the night, and Warren fell back a mile down the Weldon line. The Federals maintained control of the railroad; now only two other lines could feed Richmond and Petersburg: the South Side and the Richmond & Danville railroads.

Beauregard wrote on the 20th, “General Hill reports enemy still occupying part of railroad where he is fortifying. Am endeavoring to make necessary arrangements to dislodge him to-day, if practicable… Every available man who can be spared from (the Petersburg) trenches has been withdrawn. Shall try attack in the morning with all the force I can spare.”

Warren, who initially planned to advance, now reconsidered after seeing the carnage from the previous day’s fight. He wrote Meade, “I do not think with our present force we can hold a line across where I established the picket-line yesterday.” Skirmishing erupted throughout the 20th, as the Federals continued wrecking the railroad while pulling out of the underbrush and forming a new line two miles to the rear that connected to the Jerusalem Plank Road.

President Jefferson Davis expressed concern about the Federal presence on the railroad. Beauregard wrote that night, “Expect to attack early in the morning. No available force shall be left behind.” He hoped to follow up his success on the 19th with a complete victory, but the only force he could muster was Hill’s two divisions and a few more brigades under Heth and Mahone.

The Confederates launched an intense artillery barrage before renewing their assaults at 9 a.m. With ranks three-deep, Mahone struck the Federal left while Heth hit the center, but they could not dislodge the entrenched Federals from the railroad. Hill finally called off the attack, and the Confederates returned to their original siege lines, thus acknowledging they had permanently lost the Weldon Railroad as a supply line.

The Federals did not pursue, which frustrated Grant: “It seems to me that when the enemy comes out of his works and attacks and is repulsed he ought to be followed vigorously to the last minute with every man. Holding the line is of no importance whilst troops are operating in front of it.” In the four-day engagement, the Federals sustained 4,455 total casualties (198 killed, 1,105 wounded, and 3,152 missing) out of about 20,000 effectives, while the Confederates lost some 1,600 from about 14,000.

Without the railroad, the Confederates had to get supplies from Wilmington by unloading them from the railroad at Stony Creek and taking them by wagon train up the Boydton Plank Road running northeast into Petersburg. Even so, a Confederate staff officer optimistically noted, “Whilst we are inconvenienced, no material harm is done us.” After receiving reports of the fight at Globe Tavern, Grant quickly ordered Federal infantry and cavalry to strike the important Confederate supply line at Reams’s Station between Globe Tavern and Stony Creek.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 22242; Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 99-104; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 448-49; 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 11445-68; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 487-88; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7881-94; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 556-59; 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. 776; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 577-79, 812-13