Tag Archives: Army of the James

The Battle of the Weldon Railroad

June 23, 1864 – Fighting broke out clashed as the Federals sought to extend their left flank and cut the railroad south of Petersburg, Virginia.

As the Federal Armies of the Potomac and the James settled in to besiege Petersburg, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, called for infantry and cavalry detachments to attack two railroads supplying the Confederate troops defending the city:

  • The Weldon Railroad, which ran south to Weldon, North Carolina, and then to one of the Confederacy’s few remaining seaports, Wilmington, North Carolina;
  • The South Side Railroad, which ran west to Lynchburg in the Shenandoah Valley.

At this time, the Federal siege line stretched from northeast of Petersburg to the Jerusalem Plank Road, southeast of town. Grant assigned two cavalry divisions under Brigadier Generals James H. Wilson and August V. Kautz to ride beyond the Jerusalem Plank Road and raid both the Weldon to the west and the South Side farther northwest.

Grant also ordered a large Federal infantry force to extend the left flank beyond the Jerusalem Plank Road and support the cavalry attack on the Weldon. Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac, selected II and VI corps under Major Generals David B. Birney and Horatio G. Wright for this assignment. President Abraham Lincoln, who had come from Washington to meet with Grant, visited with some troops of VI Corps as they prepared.

Troops from Major General Benjamin F. Butler’s Army of the James on the Bermuda Hundred peninsula northeast of Petersburg would be brought down via water to replace Birney and Wright on the siege line. The plan called for II and VI corps to cross the Jerusalem Plank Road and turn northwest toward the Weldon Railroad, while the cavalry troopers attacked the railroad farther south. The Federals moved out on the 21st.

Lt Gen A.P. Hill | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Confederate scouts quickly reported that the Federals were trying to extend their lines toward the Weldon. General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia defending Petersburg, directed cavalry under Major General W.H.F. “Rooney” Lee to confront the Federal horsemen and Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s Third Corps to confront the infantry.

By noon on the 22nd, Federal cavalry had cut the Weldon Railroad at Reams’s Station, about seven miles south of Petersburg. However, the difficult terrain had slowed the infantry’s advance, and the two corps then became separated in the swamps and thickets south of Petersburg.

Hill deployed Major General Cadmus M. Wilcox’s division to keep VI Corps occupied on the right (south) while the divisions under Major Generals William Mahone and Bushrod R. Johnson attacked II Corps on the left. The Confederates furiously assaulted the exposed left flank and rear of II Corps. Brigadier General Francis C. Barlow’s Federal division quickly collapsed, and Brigadier General John Gibbon’s division fled for safety. A soldier wrote, “The attack was to the Union troops more than a surprise. It was an astonishment.”

Action of 22 June | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

The Confederates pushed the Federals back to the Jerusalem Plank Road, where they stabilized their lines as darkness ended the fighting. The next day, Meade ordered Wright to advance, but when Wright’s advance line suffered heavy losses, he refused to move the rest of his corps. At 7:35 p.m., Meade notified Wright, “Your delay has been fatal.”

The Confederates suffered 572 casualties in this battle, while the humiliated Federals lost 2,962, including some 1,700 captured. The Weldon Railroad remained firmly in Confederate hands. However, the Federals did wreck some of the track, and their left was slightly extended across the Jerusalem Plank Road. Grant would make many more attempts to extend his left in the coming months.

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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 22175; Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 53-63; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 429; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011-01-26), Loc 9231-94; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 459-60; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7763; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 526-28; 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

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The Siege of Petersburg Begins

June 20, 1864 – Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, announced to his subordinates, “I have determined to try to envelop Petersburg.”

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

The Federal Army of the Potomac and XVIII Corps of the Army of the James had been unable to penetrate the Confederate defenses east of Petersburg after four days of costly fighting. Grant therefore resolved to duplicate his siege of Vicksburg by starving Petersburg into submission. Since Petersburg was Richmond’s main source of supply from the south, it was hoped that the fall of Petersburg would topple Richmond as well.

The 110,000 Federals were opposed by no more than 50,000 Confederates from General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and General P.G.T. Beauregard’s Department of Southern Virginia and North Carolina. Lee officially absorbed Beauregard’s department into his army on the 19th.

Lee had to prevent the Federals from seizing any more ground that could force him to fall back to Richmond. The capital had to be protected from any potential surprise attack, and all railroads had to continue functioning to supply the defenders. Therefore, Lee’s men began constructing an east-facing defense line that stretched 22 miles from Richmond to Petersburg.

Outside Petersburg, the Confederate line anchored on the Appomattox River to the north; it extended south and then west below the city to the Jerusalem Plank Road. Within this line, the Confederates defended three railroads needed for supplies:

  • The Richmond & Petersburg, which connected the two cities;
  • The South Side, which ran west to the Shenandoah Valley;
  • The Weldon, which ran south to North Carolina.

Federals began entrenching, and siege warfare soon replaced the open combat that had characterized this campaign since it began in early May. The Federal line east of Petersburg mirrored that of the Confederates. Grant sought to extend this line all the way around Petersburg until it reached the Appomattox River west of town, but for now he could only stretch it to the Jerusalem Plank Road, southeast of town.

Meanwhile, Grant endured heavy criticism in the North for incurring such a terrible loss of men in this campaign. Many noted that George B. McClellan had gotten much closer to Richmond two years before while losing far fewer men. Members of Congress began calling Grant a failure, and First Lady Mary Lincoln said more than once, “He is a butcher, and is not fit to be the head of an army.” All this prompted President Abraham Lincoln to calm his own “anxiety” by traveling to Grant’s headquarters at City Point on the James River to meet with him in person.

Lincoln left the Washington Navy Yard aboard the steamer Baltimore on the night of the 20th. He was joined by his son Tad and Assistant Navy Secretary Gustavus V. Fox. The Baltimore reached City Point the next morning, 16 hours later. According to Colonel Horace Porter of Grant’s staff:

“As the boat neared the shore, the general and several of us who were with him at the time walked down to the wharf, in order that the general-in-chief might meet his distinguished visitor and extend a greeting to him as soon as the boat made the landing. As our party stepped aboard, the President came down from the upper deck, where he had been standing, to the after gangway, and reaching out his long, angular arm, he wrung General Grant’s hand vigorously, and held it in his for some time, while he uttered in rapid words his congratulations and expressions of appreciation of the great task which had been accomplished since he and the general had parted in Washington.”

Lincoln told Grant, “I just thought I would jump aboard a boat and come down and see you. I don’t expect I can do any good, and in fact I’m afraid I may do harm, but I’ll put myself under your orders and if you find me doing anything wrong just send me right away.”

The men went into the after-cabin of the steamer, where Grant told Lincoln, “You will never hear of me farther than Richmond than now, till I have taken it. I am just as sure of going into Richmond as I am of any future event. It may take a long summer day, as they say in the rebel papers, but I will do it.” Lincoln replied, “I cannot pretend to advise, but I do sincerely hope that all may be accomplished with as little bloodshed as possible.”

The men had lunch, and then Grant escorted Lincoln out to inspect the troops in the new Petersburg siege lines. The men rode on horseback, and as Porter recalled of Lincoln:

“Like most men who had been brought up in the West, he had good command of a horse, but it must be acknowledged that in appearance he was not a very dashing rider. On this occasion, by the time he had reached the troops he was completely covered with dust, and the black color of his clothes had changed to Confederate gray. As he had no straps, his trousers gradually worked up above his ankles, and gave him the appearance of a country farmer riding into town wearing his Sunday clothes.”

The men inspected white troops, and then Lincoln accepted Grant’s suggestion to visit the black troops. Porter wrote that the black men were almost hysterical with excitement upon seeing “the liberator of their race”:

“Always impressionable, the enthusiasm of the blacks now knew no limits. They cheered, laughed, cried, sang hymns of praise, and shouted in their negro dialect, ‘God bress Massa Linkum!’ ‘De Lord save Fader Abraham!’ ‘De day ob jubilee am come, shuah…’ The President rode with bared head; the tears had started to his eyes, and his voice was so broken by emotion that he could scarcely articulate the words of thanks and congratulation which he tried to speak to the humble and devoted men through whose ranks he rode. The scene was affecting in the extreme, and no one could have witnessed it unmoved.”

Lincoln met with Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac. He also conversed with Grant and his staff that night. The next morning, the president met with Major General Benjamin F. Butler, commanding the part of his Army of the James trapped at Bermuda Hundred. Lincoln also visited with Rear Admiral Samuel P. Lee, commanding the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron. After inspecting the naval squadron, Lincoln returned to Washington, satisfied that Grant had matters well in hand.

The next day, Grant wrote Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck at Washington. Grant preemptively asked Halleck to not detach any troops from Grant’s army to defend the capital because, “The siege of Richmond bids fair to be tedious, and in consequence of the very extended lines we must have, a much larger force will be necessary than would be required in ordinary sieges against the same force that now opposes us.”

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 19, 33-63; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 428-29; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 10974-85; 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 9231-62, 9305-15; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 459; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7741; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 629; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 524-28; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 536-37; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 812

Grant Devises a Bold New Strategy

June 6, 1864 – Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant proposed moving the massive Federal Army of the Potomac across the James River, and a Federal opportunity to capture Petersburg was squandered.

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

After the Federal defeat at Cold Harbor, the marching and fighting that had taken place for nearly 30 straight days briefly stopped. The Federals had sustained over 50,000 casualties in the past month, and criticism of Grant’s strategy was getting louder within the army. However, President Abraham Lincoln remained supportive, telling a group of New Yorkers on the day after the Cold Harbor repulse, “My previous high estimate of Gen. Grant has been maintained and heightened by what has occurred in the remarkable campaign he is now conducting…”

The Federals were now closer to Richmond than they had been since June 1862. They had also inflicted losses on General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia that could not be replaced. But they had not destroyed Lee’s army, and they had not captured Richmond. And they had run out of room to maneuver north of the James River. Previous Federal commanders had fallen back to regroup and come up with a new strategy, but Grant would not. He wrote to Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck on the 5th:

“A full survey of all the ground satisfies me that it would be impracticable to hold a line north-east of Richmond that would protect the Fredericksburg Railroad to enable us to use that road for supplying the army… My idea from the start has been to beat Lee’s army if possible north of Richmond; then after destroying his lines of communication on the north side of the James River to transfer the army to the south side and besiege Lee in Richmond, or follow him south if he should retreat.

“I now find, after over 30 days of trial, that the enemy deems it of the first importance to run no risks with the armies they now have. They act purely on the defensive, behind breastworks, or feebly on the offensive immediately in front of them, and where in case of repulse they can instantly retire behind them. Without a greater sacrifice of human life than I am willing to make all cannot be accomplished that I had designed outside of the city. I have therefore resolved upon the following plan.

“I will continue to hold substantially to the ground now occupied by the Army of the Potomac, taking advantage of any favorable circumstance that may present itself until the cavalry can be sent west to destroy the Virginia Central Railroad from about Beaver Dam for some 25 or 30 miles west. When this is effected I will move the army to the south side of James River, either by crossing the Chickahominy and marching near to City Point, or by going to the mouth of the Chickahominy on north side and crossing there. To provide for this last and most possible contingency, several ferry-boats of the largest class ought to be immediately provided…

“The feeling of the two armies now seems to be that the rebels can protect themselves only by strong intrenchments, whilst our army is not only confident of protecting itself without intrenchments, but that it can beat and drive the enemy wherever and whenever he can be found without this protection.”

Disengaging from the Confederate army and moving 100,000 men across the wide James River was a major gamble because the Confederates could attack and destroy the Federal army as it crossed. Also, Grant could expect no more reinforcements to replace his losses, as Halleck notified him on the 6th, “I inclose a list of troops forwarded from this department to the Army of the Potomac since the campaign opened–48,265 men. I shall send you a few regiments more, when all resources will be exhausted till another draft is made.”

Grant therefore planned three diversions from the main crossing:

  • Major General Philip Sheridan would lead two cavalry divisions to raid the Virginia Central Railroad in the Confederate rear.
  • Major General Benjamin F. Butler’s Federal Army of the James would try breaking out of Bermuda Hundred below the James.
  • A portion of the Army of the Potomac would feign another attack on Cold Harbor.

Moving south of the James River would cut Lee’s supply line coming into Richmond from the south. It would also threaten the vital railroad town of Petersburg. If the Federals captured Petersburg, Richmond would most likely follow. As Lee said, “We must destroy this army of Grant’s before he gets to the James River. If he gets there, it will become a siege, and then it will be a mere question of time.”

General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding the Confederates bottling up Butler’s Federals at Bermuda Hundred, warned the Confederate high command that Grant may next target Petersburg. President Jefferson Davis discounted this in a message to Lee: “Our scouts give no information as to the arrival of troops from below, and if none have come I cannot believe the attack to be of much force.” Lee acknowledged that Grant might consider such a move, but he did not believe Grant could pull it off without detection.

Meanwhile, Butler prepared his part of Grant’s diversion. Butler’s original plan called for Federal cavalry under Brigadier General August V. Kautz to break through Beauregard’s line and raid Petersburg. But Major General Quincy A. Gillmore, commanding X Corps, insisted that since he was the senior officer, he should lead his infantry in the attack, with Kautz’s cavalry in support. Butler agreed.

The Federal infantry crossed the Appomattox River at 3:40 a.m. on the 9th, which was more than three hours behind schedule. The cavalry remained several more hours behind. Brigadier General Henry A. Wise defended Petersburg with just 1,000 Confederates, most of whom were either convalescents or prisoners freed from the local jail. Although the Federals outnumbered them four-to-one, Gillmore ordered frequent halts in the advance that gave the Confederates time to organize as strong a defense as possible.

As Gillmore stopped to consolidate his troops, Kautz’s troopers rode to within 150 yards of Petersburg. Wise shifted his defenders to hold off Kautz, leaving a path into the city wide open for the Federal infantry. But by the time Gillmore realized this, Beauregard was sending reinforcements from Bermuda Hundred to close the gaps. The Confederates easily repelled the half-hearted Federal attack in what became known as the “Battle of the Patients and the Penitents.”

Butler, who had constantly feuded with Gillmore, relieved him of command and ordered him arrested for disobedience and incompetence. Gillmore demanded a military tribunal to clear his name, but before it could be convened, Grant canceled Butler’s charges and reassigned Gillmore to another department.

Beauregard notified Richmond, “This movement must be a reconnaissance connected with Grant’s future operations. Without the troops sent to General Lee I will have to elect between abandoning lines on Bermuda Neck and those of Petersburg. Please give me the views of the Government on the subject.” Lee, still thinking that Grant’s main effort would be against Richmond, believed the attack on Petersburg was just a feint.

Davis asked Lee if he could spare any men to send to Petersburg, but Lee could not. Lee wrote, “The pause in the operations of Gen. Grant induces me to believe that he is awaiting the effect of movements in some other quarter.” But what Lee thought was a “pause” was really Grant creating diversions while preparing for his main movement across the James River.

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References

Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 492; Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 175; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 19-20, 27, 33-54; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 421-22; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 6212-22, 6232-42, 6301-21, 6340-60, 6426-65; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 450; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7460; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 514-15, 518; Sommers, Richard J., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 177

Armies Converge on Cold Harbor

June 2, 1864 – The Federal Army of the Potomac missed opportunities to penetrate the defenses of General Robert E. Lee’s Army of the Northern Virginia, but Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant ordered one more assault to take place.

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

As June began, Grant, the overall Federal commander, continued his relentless effort to move Major General George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac past Lee’s left flank. The armies faced each other along a seven-mile front that began at Atlee’s Station and Totopotomoy Creek to the north and ended at Old Cold Harbor and the Chickahominy River to the south.

Elements of both armies had fought for the desolate crossroads at Old Cold Harbor, about 15 miles northeast of Richmond, on May 31, with Major General Philip Sheridan’s Federal cavalry gaining control. Lee directed Lieutenant General Richard H. Anderson’s First Corps, supported by Major General Robert F. Hoke’s division, to dislodge the Federal troopers.

Sheridan maintained his tentative hold on the crossroads while waiting for infantry support from Major General William F. “Baldy” Smith’s XVIII Corps (recently transferred from the Army of the James) and Major General Horatio G. Wright’s VI Corps. But Smith got lost on his way to Cold Harbor, and Wright’s men conducted a 15-mile forced march through the night of the 31st and had not yet arrived by morning.

Due to miscommunication, Anderson deployed his troops piecemeal while Hoke’s men dug trenches. The Federals held off the weak Confederate attack with their Spencer repeating rifles, mortally wounding Colonel Lawrence Keitt, a prominent South Carolina politician. Anderson directed another assault, but this was repulsed as well.

Wright’s Federals began arriving around 9 a.m. and replacing the cavalrymen on the line. Although Grant wanted Wright to attack immediately, his men were exhausted and Wright did not know the enemy strength in his front, so he opted to wait until Smith arrived. Wright did not know that Smith was lost and would not get there for several hours.

When Smith’s troops finally arrived, they took positions to VI Corps’ right. As they prepared to attack, Meade worried that they did not have enough men. He therefore contacted Major General Gouverneur Warren, commanding V Corps, “Generals Wright and Smith will attack this evening. It is very desirable you should join this attack, unless in your judgment it is impracticable.”

Warren dispatched a division under Brigadier General Henry H. Lockwood at 6 p.m. The Federals launched their attack, originally scheduled for that morning, at 6:30 p.m. The Confederates held firm south of the Mechanicsville Road, which connected Old and New Cold Harbor. North of the road, the Federals were met by murderous fire. Connecticut Lieutenant Theodore Vaill described it as:

“A sheet of flame, sudden as lightning, red as blood, and so near that it seemed to singe the men’s faces, burst along the rebel breastworks; and the ground and trees close behind our line were ploughed and riddled with a thousand balls that just missed the heads of the men.”

The Federals fell back. To their right, other Federal forces discovered a gap in the Confederate line and pushed through. But they soon found themselves in a ravine, surrounded on three sides. They fought their way out and fell back after taking hundreds of prisoners.

Farther north on the Old Church Road, Lieutenant General Jubal Early sent his Confederates forward in a probing action against the lines held by IX and V corps. The Federals repelled these attacks around 7 p.m. Later that night, Warren learned that Lockwood’s division had gotten lost on its way to Cold Harbor. Warren reported to Meade:

“In some unaccountable way, (Lockwood) took his whole division, without my knowing it, away from the left of the line of battle, and turned up in the dark 2 miles in my rear, and I have not yet got him back. All this time the firing should have guided him at least. He is too incompetent, and too high rank leaves us no subordinate place for him. I earnestly beg that he may at once be relieved of duty with this army.”

Meade agreed and replaced Lockwood as division commander with Brigadier General Samuel W. Crawford.

Fighting ended at nightfall, with the Federals sustaining about 2,650 casualties and the Confederates losing about 1,800. The Federals had pinned the Confederates into defensive works in front of New Cold Harbor, closer to Richmond than Old Cold Harbor. While the Federals were within striking distance, Meade was enraged that Grant had ordered an assault without first conducting reconnaissance. Meade also worried that the army was being spread too thin.

Grant was frustrated by the missed opportunities to break the enemy line. Convinced that an early morning attack would break through, he ordered Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps to make a night march and join the action at the crossroads the next day. Lee hurried the bulk of his army to the Cold Harbor sector of the line, where the Confederates quickly built strong fortifications that included breastworks, abatis, and entrenchments.

Lee also informed General P.G.T. Beauregard, whose Confederates held Major General Benjamin F. Butler’s Federals at Bermuda Hundred to the south, that Grant’s forces had shifted closer to the James River and requested reinforcements. Beauregard replied that he could send none without risking cutting communication between Richmond and Petersburg.

Lee countered by stating that, “as two-thirds of Butler’s force has joined Grant, can you not leave sufficient guard to move with the balance of your command to north side of James River and take command of the right wing of the army?” President Jefferson Davis directed Major General Robert Ransom, Jr., commanding Confederates at Richmond, to mobilize local forces to establish defenses at the Chickahominy River.

By morning, Lee had shifted the forces of Lieutenant General A.P. Hill and Major General John C. Breckinridge south to join Anderson and Hoke in front of New Cold Harbor. Early’s corps remained in the northern sector to face Warren’s V Corps and IX Corps under Major General Ambrose E. Burnside.

Warren received orders to shift to his left (south) to link with Smith’s corps, while Burnside was to fall back in reserve by Bethesda Church. Skirmishing occurred when Early’s men conducted a reconnaissance in force to determine where Burnside’s troops were going. However, Lee remained mainly focused on his right (south), around Cold Harbor.

Hancock’s advance elements did not begin arriving at the crossroads until around 6:30 a.m., and by this time most men on both sides were spent. They had been continuously marching and fighting for almost a month, inflicting a combined 70,000 casualties on each other. Captain Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., later wrote, “Many a man has gone crazy since this campaign began from the terrible pressure on mind & body.”

The oppressive heat added to the fatigue until a heavy afternoon rain cooled temperatures somewhat. Grant ordered the assault to begin at 5 p.m., but the rain and continued delays compelled him to reschedule for the next morning. During this time, the Confederates in front of New Cold Harbor were building the strongest defensive works of the war. Some makeshift forts had walls five feet high, and artillery covered every approach.

Lieutenant Colonel Horace Porter of Grant’s staff later wrote that he walked through the camps on the rainy night of the 2nd, and, “I noticed that many of the soldiers had taken off their coats and seemed to be engaged in sewing up rents in them.” But Porter soon “found that the men were calmly writing their names and home addresses on slips of paper and pinning them on their backs of their coats, so that their bodies might be recognized and their fate made known to their families at home.”

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 170-71; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 462; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 417-18; 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 6093-103; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 447-48; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7320-31, 7343-55, 7367-78; 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. 512-14; 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. 733-34; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 294-95; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 149-50

The Second Battle of Drewry’s Bluff

May 16, 1864 – General P.G.T. Beauregard launched an attack on Major General Benjamin F. Butler’s Federals as they timidly approached Richmond from the south.

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

Butler’s 16,000 Federals from the Army of the James faced 18,000 Confederates under Beauregard at Drewry’s Bluff, which guarded the approach to the Confederate capital. Butler issued orders to attack at 6 a.m. but Beauregard planned to attack sooner, and he developed an intricate plan of action:

  • Major General Robert Ransom, Jr.’s division would attack the Federal right, manned by XVIII Corps under Major General William F. “Baldy” Smith
  • Major General Robert F. Hoke’s division would attack the Federal left, manned by X Corps under Major General Quincy A. Gillmore
  • Major General W.H.C. Whiting’s two brigades would move north from Petersburg and cut off the Federal retreat

Butler’s army would then be either destroyed or at least forced to fall back from the Confederate capital and the vital Richmond & Petersburg Railroad. At 4:30 a.m., Ransom’s men began moving through heavy fog and slammed into Smith’s corps. The Confederates routed a brigade and captured 400 men including its commander, Brigadier General Charles Heckman. The Federal right flank bent but did not break. Ransom’s attack soon stalled.

On the Federal left, Gillmore did not receive Butler’s order for a 6 a.m. attack until 6:20. As he prepared to obey, Hoke’s Confederates appeared in the distance, led by the brigades of Brigadier General Johnson Hagood and Major General Bushrod R. Johnson. Hagood and Johnson hit the Federal center and captured some artillery, but the Federals held firm as the Confederate attack became disjointed in the fog.

The wire entanglements that the Federals had strung between the lines also lessened the force of the enemy assaults. A Federal officer asserted that the Confederates were “being piled in heaps over the telegraph wire.” A Confederate taken prisoner called the entanglements “a devilish contrivance which none but a Yankee could devise.”

The rest of Hoke’s division struck the Federal left but made no progress. Meanwhile, Butler ordered Gillmore to send reinforcements to the right, and then he ordered Smith to abandon the right altogether and fall back. To the south, Whiting’s Confederates met a single Federal division at Port Walthall Junction and halted, as Whiting feared that more Federals were coming. Butler received word that Confederates were in his rear, adding to the general confusion among the Federals. He issued orders to Gillmore:

“You must fall back, press to right, and get in rear of Smith’s corps. He will try and hold his ground until you get in his rear and clear the road to the intrenchments (at Bermuda Hundred), so that we may get behind the defenses. Push vigorously.”

The Federals fell back in driving rain about a mile before reforming their line at Half Way House around 2 p.m. About two hours later, after receiving word that Confederates from Richmond were crossing the James to confront him, Butler ordered a retreat to the Federal entrenchments at Bermuda Hundred. As he reported, “The troops have been on incessant duty for five days, three of which were in a rainstorm. I retired at leisure to within my own lines.”

Beauregard had driven Butler away from Richmond and the railroad, but he could not destroy Butler’s army. Beauregard accused Ransom, despite his successful initial attack, of lacking the aggression needed to finish the Federals off. Nevertheless, the Federals returned to the peninsula where Beauregard could seal the neck with a token force and ensure that Butler could not threaten Richmond or Petersburg anymore.

When Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, learned of this defeat, he remarked that Butler’s army was “as completely shut off from further operations directly against Richmond as if it had been in a bottle strongly corked.” This ended Butler’s failed campaign to cut the Richmond & Petersburg Railroad. Butler would also be no help to the Army of the Potomac, which was sustaining enormous losses against the Confederates in northern Virginia.

The Federals sustained 4,160 casualties (390 killed, 2,380 wounded and 1,390 missing) at Drewry’s Bluff, while the Confederates lost 2,506 (355 killed, 1,941 wounded and 210 missing). The Confederates came upon Bermuda Hundred the next day and built defenses of their own to keep the Federals and “Beast” Butler caged on the peninsula. Now three of Grant’s four offensives in Virginia had met with failure, and the fourth (the Army of the Potomac) tottered on destruction.

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References
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 28; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 409-10; 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 5522-42, 5561-81; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 440; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 130; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 503-04; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 614; 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. 723; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 57-58, 227-28, 837

The James River: Drewry’s Bluff

May 15, 1864 – Opposing armies assembled at Drewry’s Bluff, about five miles from Richmond on the James River, and both commanders planned to attack.

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

Major General Benjamin F. Butler, commanding the Federal Army of the James, had landed at Bermuda Hundred, 15 miles southeast of Richmond and seven miles northeast of Petersburg. He opted not to attack either city, but instead to destroy the Richmond & Petersburg Railroad connecting them. There were only 2,000 Confederates initially on hand to oppose the Federals, but Butler’s hesitant advance gave reinforcements time to arrive.

After being repulsed by a much smaller force at Swift Creek, Butler ordered yet another withdrawal back to his entrenchments across the peninsula neck at Bermuda Hundred. As the Federals fell back, General P.G.T. Beauregard arrived from Weldon, North Carolina, to take personal command of Confederate forces. Beauregard replaced his second-in-command, Major General George Pickett, who was on the verge of collapse from the stress of the Federal threat.

Five Confederate brigades under Major General Robert F. Hoke soon arrived, along with a brigade from the Charleston defenses. This gave Beauregard about 20,000 troops, still less than Butler’s 33,000-man army. However, Butler had done little to capitalize on his numerical advantage since landing on the 5th, having merely skirmished at Port Walthall and Swift Creek, and torn up some railroad track and telegraph lines.

When Butler finally set his sights on Richmond, Beauregard anticipated it and strengthened Confederate defenses at Drewry’s Bluff and Fort Darling, which guarded the approach to the capital on the south bank of the James River. Beauregard dispatched seven brigades under Hoke in hopes of luring Butler out into an open battle.

Butler moved out of his defenses once more on the 12th, a week after landing. This time the force numbered about 16,000 Federals. They marched west and then turned north at the railroad. The next day, they pushed Hoke’s Confederates from the outer works at Drewry’s Bluff back into the main defense line. However, Butler ordered his men to stop and dig trenches. Not only was the Federals’ advance delayed, but they could expect no support from Federal warships on the James because the water was too shallow.

Sensing Butler’s incompetence, Beauregard prepared to counterattack. He devised a characteristically grandiose strategy that called for:

  • General Robert E. Lee pulling back toward Richmond and transferring 10,000 men from the Army of Northern Virginia to reinforce Beauregard
  • Beauregard using the reinforcements to destroy Butler
  • Beauregard moving north to join forces with Lee in destroying the Army of the Potomac

President Jefferson Davis visited Beauregard at Drewry’s Bluff on the 14th and explained that Lee had no reinforcements to spare. Moreover, Davis did not want Lee to fall back any closer to Richmond, and Beauregard did not need any more men to destroy the Federals under Butler’s timid leadership. Instead, Davis issued orders transferring all available troops from South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida to reinforce the Confederates at Drewry’s Bluff.

Beauregard organized his 10 brigades into three divisions under Major Generals Robert F. Hoke and Robert Ransom, Jr., and Brigadier General Alexander Colquitt. Leaving just a small force to guard Petersburg, Beauregard planned to attack Butler’s right on the 18th and push him back to Bermuda Hundred. When his superiors urged him to attack sooner, Beauregard moved the assault up two days.

By the 14th, Butler had assembled his army in front of Drewry’s Bluff, with Major General William F. “Baldy” Smith’s XVIII Corps on the right and Major General Quincy A. Gillmore’s X Corps on the left. To prevent a preemptive Confederate attack, the Federals strung telegraph wire between tree stumps to impede an enemy advance. This was the first use of wire entanglements in Virginia (it had been done at Knoxville last year).

Butler planned to attack the next day, but “Baldy” Smith warned him against it, so he postponed the attack and strengthened his defenses. This gave Beauregard ample time to prepare for his own attack.

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References

Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 403, 406; 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 5387-97, 5455-503; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 434, 437-39; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 499-502; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 536-37; 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. 723; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 57-58, 227-28, 739

The James River Campaign Begins

May 4, 1864 – Another front opened in Virginia, as Major General Benjamin F. Butler’s Federal Army of the James boarded transports at Yorktown to move up the James River.

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

Butler had assembled a force of about 33,000 men in two corps on the Virginia Peninsula between the York and James rivers. Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, assigned Butler to advance up the James and cut the Richmond & Petersburg Railroad, which would prevent men and supplies from reaching General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia from south of Richmond.

The Federal transports were to drop Butler’s army off at Bermuda Hundred, a peninsula formed by the James and Appomattox rivers, 18 miles southeast of Richmond. From there, the Federals were to advance 10 miles west to the railroad. On the night of the 4th, the transports steamed around the tip of the Virginia Peninsula and entered the James.

The Richmond authorities quickly learned that a fleet of about 200 enemy ships was moving up the James, which included ironclad escorts and transports conveying at least 30,000 troops. The warships cleared the torpedoes and other obstructions in the river for the transports to get through safely. This advance coincided with Grant’s in northern Virginia, thus placing the Confederate capital under serious threat from both the north and south.

One of Butler’s divisions disembarked at City Point, about nine miles northeast of Petersburg, while the rest of the fleet continued upriver. After passing the mouth of the Appomattox River, Butler’s other five divisions unloaded at the Bermuda Hundred plantation landing. Federal cavalry rode out to threaten the Weldon Railroad outside Petersburg.

Panicked Confederate officials called on General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding the Department of Southern Virginia and North Carolina, to send troops to stop the Federals before they advanced any further. Beauregard, 65 miles south of Petersburg at Weldon, North Carolina, answered that he was “indisposed” (i.e., too sick to leave) and deferred to his second-in-command, Major General George Pickett.

Pickett hurried troops to guard the railroads at Petersburg. Fewer than 5,000 men (3,000 at Richmond and 2,000 at Petersburg) faced Butler’s 33,000 Federals, and many of these were government clerks being hastily armed. This was the easiest opportunity the Federals ever had to seize Richmond, Petersburg, or both.

By the 6th, the Federals had advanced to within 15 miles of Richmond to the northwest and seven miles of Petersburg to the southwest. But instead of cutting the Richmond & Petersburg Railroad as ordered, Butler directed his men to build entrenchments across the peninsula neck at Bermuda Hundred. He then sent a brigade to probe ahead, but the troops ran up against just 600 hastily assembled Confederate defenders and fell back.

The Confederates had been reinforced to about 2,700 men by next morning. Led by Major General Bushrod R. Johnson, these troops guarded the railroad near Port Walthall Junction. Butler deployed a force of about 8,000 Federals, and after a two-hour fight, the Federals pushed Johnson’s flank back while destroying a quarter-mile section of the track and telegraph line.

The Federals sustained just 289 casualties, but Butler recalled the troops at nightfall as he planned to advance with an even bigger force the next day. The Federals began deriding Butler’s “stationary advance.” Pickett directed Johnson to withdraw south behind Swift Run Creek; this better protected Petersburg, but it left a larger portion of the railroad vulnerable to destruction.

As Butler spent the 8th slowly preparing his advance, Beauregard reported that he would be well enough to take the field again soon (“The water has improved my health.”). In the meantime, Confederate reinforcements continued arriving at Petersburg and Richmond to strengthen the defenses.

The next day, Butler sent 14,000 men from Major General William F. “Baldy” Smith’s XVIII Corps toward Petersburg to destroy the railroad, but they soon ran into the Confederate defenses on the southern bank of Swift Run Creek. Johnson deployed a Confederate brigade to conduct a reconnaissance in force, but it was quickly driven back at Arrowhead Church. The Federals then approached Johnson’s main line, but their half-hearted assault was repulsed.

Major General Robert Ransom, Jr. ordered his Confederates to reconnoiter the Federal positions on the 10th, and they inadvertently came across a Federal regiment behind the lines destroying the railroad at Chester Station. Ransom’s men pushed the regiment back, but Federal reinforcements arrived to stem the tide. Both sides fell back to end the minor engagement.

By the time Butler learned of this action, he received word from Washington that the Army of the Potomac had scored major victories in northern Virginia. He therefore pulled back from Swift Run Creek and returned to his west-facing Bermuda Hundred entrenchments. From there, he decided to forego Grant’s order to destroy the railroad in favor of a direct attack on Richmond, which he believed to be vulnerable. Butler also noted that Grant planned for the Armies of the Potomac and the James to link outside Richmond, and he wanted to be ready.

“Baldy” Smith and Major General Quincy A. Gillmore, commanding X Corps, both informed Butler that Petersburg could be captured if they bridged the Appomattox and assaulted the city from the east. Butler rejected their suggestion, opting instead to turn north toward Richmond. Butler optimistically notified Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, “We can hold out against the whole of Lee’s army. General Grant will not be troubled with any further reinforcements to Lee from Beauregard’s force.”

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 18-19, 28; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 399-401, 403; 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 5300-20, 5329-39, 5348-58, 5378-427, 5455-65; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 428-31, 433; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 492-95; 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. 723; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 198; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 57-58, 227-28, 739