Tag Archives: Army of the Potomac

The Dinwiddie Court House Engagement

March 31, 1865 – Confederates repelled a Federal advance in the southwestern sector of the Petersburg siege lines, but the Federals would not be denied for long.

Confederate Gen R.E. Lee | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

The heavy rains had finally stopped by the morning of the 31st. Confederate infantry and cavalry from the Army of Northern Virginia held Five Forks, a key intersection protecting the South Side Railroad west of Petersburg. General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate army, ordered this force to move south and drive Major General Philip Sheridan’s Federal cavalry corps out of Dinwiddie Court House. This would secure Five Forks and isolate Sheridan from infantry support to the east.

As Lee inspected the lines, he saw a gap between Sheridan and Major General Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps. He therefore ordered Lieutenant General Richard H. Anderson’s Fourth Corps, which by now consisted of just a single division, to attack and turn Warren’s left (west) flank away from Sheridan. In all, about 19,000 Confederates opposed some 50,000 Federals in the southwestern sector of the Petersburg lines.

Warren’s Federals held the Boydton Plank Road. To their right (east) was Major General Andrew A. Humphreys’s II Corps. Warren informed Humphreys:

“I cannot take up any regular line of battle on account of the woods and swamps, but have assembled each division at a point so they can fight in any direction with the line refused… I don’t think your left could be turned, even if I moved away, without you having full information.”

Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, notified Warren, “Owing to the weather, no change will today be made in the present position of the troops. Three days’ rations of subsistence and forage will be brought up and issued to the troops and the artillery, and every one authorized to accompany them.” The Federals were unaware that a Confederate attack was imminent.

Maj Gen Philip Sheridan | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Meanwhile, Sheridan planned an attack of his own, as Brigadier General Thomas C. Devin, known as “Sheridan’s hard hitter,” advanced his division north toward Five Forks. The Federals were unexpectedly met by a Confederate assault from their left, led by Major General George Pickett. Devin’s men gradually fell back across the rain-soaked ground, as Devin notified Sheridan that both his flanks were under threat and Dinwiddie might have to be abandoned.

Sheridan brought up his other two divisions and secured a defense line about a mile north of Dinwiddie. The Confederates charged around dusk, but the Federals held firm as Sheridan instructed all regimental bands to come up to the front and play joyful music as loud as possible to jar enemy morale.

Sheridan then ordered Brigadier General George A. Custer to lead his division in a counterattack, telling Custer, “You understand? I want you to give it to them!” However, this effort came to nothing as the men and horses became tangled in the mud. Both sides fell back out of firing range as the sun set.

Three miles east, Warren ordered his lead division under Major General Romeyn B. Ayres to seize the White Oak Road because this was “essentially necessary to the safety of our position.” The Federals were suddenly met by Anderson’s charging Confederates. Ayres reported: “As the troops arrived within about fifty yards of the White Oak road, the enemy’s lines of battle rose up in the woods and moved forward across the road into the open. I saw at once that they had four or five to my one.”

Ayres tried holding his ground, but some Confederates moved around and attacked his left flank, thus forcing him to fall back into Major General Samuel W. Crawford’s division. Crawford’s men broke as well, and the Federals retreated to a branch of Gravelly Run. Warren ordered them to hold there while he brought up his last division, under Major General Charles Griffin.

Griffin’s men, led by Brigadier General Joshua L. Chamberlain’s brigade, advanced and slowly regained all lost ground. The Federals ultimately seized the White Oak Road, which cut Anderson’s men off from Pickett’s to the west. Also, Warren dispatched a brigade westward to threaten Pickett’s left flank as he confronted Sheridan. Meade reported to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, that Warren had stopped the Confederate advance, and Humphreys was sending a division to Warren’s support. Grant asked:

“If the enemy has been checked in Warren’s front, what is to prevent him from pitching in with his whole corps and attacking before giving him time to entrench or return in good order to his old entrenchments? I do not understand why Warren permitted his corps to be fought in detail. When Ayres was pushed forward he should have sent other troops to their support.”

By nightfall, Pickett had won a tactical victory, but the Confederates had failed to drive Sheridan out of Dinwiddie or prevent the Federal cavalry and infantry from joining forces. Recognizing the danger of his position, Pickett fell back to protect Five Forks. His infantry held the line to the left while Major General Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry held the right. There was still a three-mile gap between this force and Anderson’s to the east.

The Petersburg Front, 29-31 Mar 1865 | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Sheridan planned a frontal assault on Pickett and Fitzhugh Lee the next day. In conjunction, he wanted infantry to march through the gap and come up on Pickett’s left and rear. The nearest infantry was Warren’s V Corps, but Sheridan wanted Major General Horatio G. Wright’s VI Corps, which had served under him in the Shenandoah Valley, to join him. Sheridan wrote Grant on the night of the 31st: “If the ground would permit I could, with the Sixth Corps, turn the enemy’s right, or break through his lines; but I would not like the Fifth Corps to make such an attempt.” Grant later wrote:

“I replied to him that it was impossible to send Wright’s corps because that corps was already in line close up to the enemy, where we should want him to assault when the proper time came, and was besides a long distance from him; but the 2d and 5th corps were on our extreme left and a little to the rear of it in a position to threaten the left flank of the enemy at Five Forks, and that I would send Warren… and put himself in communication with Sheridan as soon as possible, and report to him.”

Just as the men of V Corps settled down from the all-day fight, Warren received orders to march them westward all night to link with Sheridan by dawn. This proved extremely difficult, not only because the troops were exhausted, but because they would have to move in darkness across swollen creeks, swamps, and mud. They also had to stop and build a 40-foot bridge to span Gravelly Run. Warren informed Meade of the delay, but this was not forwarded to Sheridan, who wrote Warren at 3 a.m. on the 1st:

“I am holding in front of Dinwiddie Court-House, on the road leading to Five Forks, for three-fourths of a mile, with General Custer’s division… I understand you have a division at J. Boisseau’s; if so, you are in rear of the enemy’s line and almost on his flank. I will hold on here. Possibly they may attack Custer at daylight; if so, have this division attack instantly and in full force.”

Sheridan did not receive any specific details as to where Warren was or when he might arrive. He also knew nothing about the difficulties Warren’s men faced in trying to reach Sheridan’s line. Moreover, Sheridan did not trust Warren, so if there was to be any delay in arriving in time for the next day’s fight, Warren would get the blame.

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 214; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 574; Catton, Bruce, The Army of the Potomac: A Stillness at Appomattox (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1953), p. 346-49; Catton, Bruce. Grant Takes Command (Open Road Media. Kindle Edition, 2015), p. 441-43; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 22419; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 552; 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 17855-95, 18091-101; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 572-73; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 8312-36; Grant, Ulysses S., Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (New York: Da Capo Press, 1982 [original 1885, republication of 1952 edition]), p. 533; Kennedy, Frances H. (ed.), The Civil War Battlefield Guide (Christopher M. Calkins, The Conservation Fund, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1990), p. 273-75; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 658-61; 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. 845; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 487-88; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 219-20, 261-62, 821

Petersburg: Both Sides Prepare to Attack

March 30, 1865 – General Robert E. Lee planned a Confederate assault, while Major General Philip Sheridan pleaded with the Federal high command to launch an attack of his own.

By this time, most of the Federal and Confederate manpower involved in the siege of Petersburg and Richmond was concentrated southwest of Petersburg, on the extreme right flank of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Lee arrived in this sector on the morning of the 30th to inspect positions and confer with his commanders at Sutherland Station.

Lee ordered Major General George Pickett’s Confederate infantry division and Major General Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry to move west, beyond the right flank, and occupy Five Forks. This was a key intersection that Lee needed to hold if he was going to continue receiving supplies from the South Side Railroad. From Five Forks, Pickett and Fitzhugh were to drive Major General Philip Sheridan’s Federal cavalry away from Dinwiddie Court House, five miles south.

To the east, Lieutenant General Richard H. Anderson’s Fourth Corps was posted on the extreme Confederate right. Anderson’s men held the White Oak Road, including Burgess’s Mill, but there was a four-mile gap between these troops and those under Pickett and Fitzhugh. R.E. Lee worked to plug this gap before the Federals could exploit it.

Maj. Gen. P.H. Sheridan | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Sheridan’s troopers at Dinwiddie were supported by II and V corps from the Army of the Potomac under Major Generals Andrew A. Humphreys and Gouverneur Warren respectively. Warren’s corps was the closest to Sheridan, with Humphreys’s corps farther east. Pickett and Fitzhugh Lee hoped to not only drive Sheridan away from Dinwiddie, but to isolate him from Warren and Humphreys as well.

The pouring rain continued throughout the 30th and slowed movements to a crawl. Sheridan sent one of his divisions under Brigadier General Wesley Merritt to probe the Confederate defenses, and skirmishing ensued until Merritt finally withdrew. Warren’s men also conducted probing actions which delayed Pickett from reaching Five Forks until around 4:30 p.m. The Confederates deployed along the White Oak Road, and Pickett and Fitzhugh agreed to attack in the morning.

Meanwhile, Sheridan planned to advance on Five Forks the next day, despite the continuing rain. He directed Brigadier General George A. Custer’s division to corduroy the roads so the advance could proceed. However, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, finally gave in to pleas from his staff officers to postpone the action until the rain stopped.

Grant notified Sheridan that it was “impossible for us to do much until it dries up a little, or we get roads around our rear repaired.” Therefore, he was to hold his position with a token force and withdraw the rest until the weather improved. Sheridan, believing “that a suspension of operations would be a serious mistake,” rode as fast as he could to Grant’s headquarters on the Vaughan Road near Gravelly Run. Sheridan later recalled that upon his arrival:

“General Grant began talking of our fearful plight, resulting from the rains and mud, and saying that because of this it seemed necessary to suspend operations. I at once begged him not to do so, telling him that my cavalry was already on the move in spite of the difficulties, and that although a suspension of operations would not be fatal, yet it would give rise to the very charge of disaster to which he had referred at City Point, and, moreover, that we would surely be ridiculed, just as General Burnside’s army was after the mud march of 1863.”

Sheridan insisted that he could destroy Lee’s right flank if he had infantry support. When a staff officer asked Sheridan how he expected to find forage for 13,000 men and horses, Sheridan snapped: “Forage? I’ll get all the forage I want. I’ll haul it out if I have to set every man in the command to corduroying roads, and corduroy every mile of them from the railroad to Dinwiddie. I tell you I’m ready to strike out tomorrow and go to smashing things.” Liking what he heard, Grant wrote out new orders for Sheridan:

“If your situation is such as to justify the belief that you can turn the enemy’s right with the assistance of a corps of infantry entirely detached from the balance of the army, I will so detach the Fifth corps and place the whole under your command for the operation. Let me know, as early in the morning as you can, your judgment in the matter, and I will make the necessary orders. Orders have been given Ord, Wright and Parke to be ready to assault at daylight tomorrow morning. They will not make the assault, however, without further directions… If the assault is not ordered in the morning, then it can be directed at such time as to come in co-operation with you on the left.”

Major General Horatio G. Wright and Major General John G. Parke commanded VI and IX corps respectively. These two corps had been assigned to hold the Petersburg line to the northeast, and both Wright and Parke reported that the Confederate line across from them was so thin that they could easily break through. They were poised to do so as soon as word arrived that Sheridan had succeeded.

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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. 520; Catton, Bruce, The Army of the Potomac: A Stillness at Appomattox (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1953), p. 344-46; Catton, Bruce. Grant Takes Command (Open Road Media. Kindle Edition, 2015), p. 441-42; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 552; 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 18091-101; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 572; Kennedy, Frances H. (ed.), The Civil War Battlefield Guide (Christopher M. Calkins, The Conservation Fund, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1990), p. 273; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 660; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 219-20; Winik, Jay, April 1865: The Month That Saved America (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), p. 78-79

The Lincoln Visit Continues

March 26, 1865 – An ugly incident occurred at a military review as President Abraham Lincoln continued his visit with the Federal armies besieging Richmond and Petersburg.

Pres. Abraham Lincoln | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

President and Mrs. Lincoln were quartered on the steamboat River Queen near the headquarters of Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander. Their son Robert, who was serving on Grant’s staff, came aboard to have breakfast with his parents on the morning of the 25th. They could hear the fight at Fort Stedman taking place just eight miles away, and after Robert explained what was happening, Lincoln telegraphed Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton: “Robert just now tells me there was a little rumpus up the line this morning, ending about where it began.”

Although the fight was an easy Federal victory, Robert informed his father that the military review scheduled for that morning had to be postponed. Lincoln instead went to Grant’s headquarters and asked to visit the Fort Stedman battlefield. Grant initially refused to allow the president to be exposed to enemy fire, but he quickly reconsidered. The men took the military railroad to the headquarters of Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac.

Meade and his staff greeted Lincoln and took him on a tour of the battlefield, where men were still attending to the dead and wounded. Lincoln and Grant rode together on horseback and watched Federal troops from VI Corps drive off Confederate pickets.

The next morning, the presidential party took a steamboat up the James River to review part of Major General E.O.C. Ord’s Army of the James at Malvern Hill. Lincoln watched Federal cavalry cross the James en route to fighting at Petersburg and told their commander, “Little Phil” Sheridan, that “when this peculiar war began I thought a cavalryman should be at least six feet four inches high, but I have changed my mind. Five feet four will do in a pinch.”

First Lady Mary Lincoln | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

When the steamboat docked, Lincoln and most of the men rode to the review on horseback while Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Grant shared an ambulance. The rutted, muddy roads made the ride very uncomfortable; one bump even caused the passengers to hit their heads on the carriage ceiling. Mrs. Lincoln complained about the ride to Colonel Horace Porter, a member of Grant’s staff assigned to accompany the ladies.

The first lady was in a foul mood, possibly because she was out of her element among all the generals’ wives who had been living near headquarters and knew each other well. When Mrs. Lincoln arrived at the review, it had already started and she was enraged to see Mrs. Ord riding on horseback beside the president. Mrs. Grant tried calming the first lady, who snapped at her: “I suppose you think you’ll get to the White House yourself, don’t you?”

When Mrs. Ord tried joining the ladies, Mrs. Lincoln berated her until she cried. The first lady continued her tirade that night at a dinner for Grant and his staff aboard the River Queen. She scolded her husband and demanded that he remove Ord from command. Mrs. Lincoln spent most of the rest of the trip in her cabin before returning to Washington. Lincoln stayed behind to witness what would become the final phase of the war in Virginia.

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References

Catton, Bruce, The Army of the Potomac: A Stillness at Appomattox (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1953), p. 338; Catton, Bruce. Grant Takes Command (Open Road Media. Kindle Edition, 2015), p. 434-35; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 551; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 12206-17, 12228-38; 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 17549-69, 17706-56, 17875-95; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 709-10; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 656-58; McFeely, William S., Grant: A Biography (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1981), p. 211

The Battle of Fort Stedman

March 25, 1865 – General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia launched a desperate attack to break out of the siege lines at Petersburg.

By the night of the 24th, nearly half of Lee’s army was situated around Colquitt’s Salient across from Fort Stedman, a perceived weak point in the Federal line east of Petersburg. The Confederates were commanded by Major General John B. Gordon. The Federals at Fort Stedman belonged to Brigadier General Orlando Willcox’s division of IX Corps.

Fort Stedman | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Major General John G. Parke, commanding IX Corps, was in temporary command of Major General George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac while Meade was at City Point conferring with Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander. Grant was devising an offensive of his own and did not expect the Confederates to attack.

Confederate General John B. Gordon | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

The Confederates came out of their trenches at 3 a.m. on the 25th pretending to be deserters. They quickly silenced the Federal pickets as Confederate pioneers rushed up to destroy the abatis and other works guarding Fort Stedman. This enabled Confederate infantry to rush through and overrun the Federal defenders. Three groups of 100 Confederates charged and took the Federals by complete surprise. Gordon later wrote:

“Although it required but few minutes to reach the Union works, those minutes were to me like hours of suspense and breathless anxiety; but soon was heard the thud of the heavy axes as my brave fellows slashed down the Federal obstructions. The next moment the infantry sprang upon the Union breastworks and into the fort, overpowering the gunners before their destructive charges could be emptied into the mass of Confederates. They turned this captured artillery upon the flanking lines on each side of the fort, clearing the Union breastworks of their defenders for some distance in both directions. Up to this point, the success had exceeded my most sanguine expectations.”

The rest of Gordon’s 12,000 men surged forward, quickly capturing Stedman and Batteries 10 and 11 on either side of the fort. Brigadier General Napoleon B. McLaughlen, commanding a Federal brigade in the sector, directed troops to retake Battery 11, unaware that Stedman was also in Confederate hands. He rode into the fort and later reported:

“Supposing that I had restored the only break in the line, I crossed the parapet into Fort Stedman on the right, and meeting some men coming over the curtains, whom in the darkness I supposed to be part of the picket, I established them inside the work, giving directions with regard to position and firing, all of which were instantly obeyed. In a few minutes I saw a man crossing the parapet, whose uniform in the dawning light I recognized to be the enemy’s, and I halted him, asking his regiment. This called attention to myself, and the next moment I was surrounded by the rebels, whom I had supposed to be my men, and sent to the rear, where I found General Gordon, to whom I delivered my sword, and was sent by him to Petersburg.”

The Confederates soon held a 1,000-yard section of the Federal line that included (from north to south) Battery 10, Fort Stedman, and Batteries 11 and 12. Gordon wrote:

“We had taken Fort Stedman and a long line of breastworks on either side. We had captured nine heavy cannon, eleven mortars, nearly 1,000 prisoners, including General McLaughlen, with the loss of less than half a dozen men. One of these fell upon the works, pierced through the body by a Federal bayonet, one of the few men thus killed in the four years of war. I was in the fort myself, and relieved General McLaughlen by assuming command of Fort Stedman.”

Gordon’s men started enfilading the Federal lines to the north and south, but Battery 9 to the north and Fort Haskell to the south held firm. The three groups of 100 men assigned to seize the railroad in the Federal rear stopped to eat captured Federal rations. And logistical problems prevented many Confederates from reaching the field, thus diluting the assault. Meanwhile, Federal troops were starting to assemble for a counterattack.

Brigadier General John F. Hartranft brought up his division and worked with Willcox to stem the Confederate advance before it reached Meade Station on the City Point Railroad. Meanwhile, Federal gunners trained their fire on the Confederates in Stedman and the surrounding batteries. Gordon informed Lee that the Confederates could not break through as hoped.

As Hartranft prepared to counterattack, he received a message from Parke to delay the action until reinforcements from VI Corps arrived. Hartranft reported: “I saw that the enemy had already commenced to waver, and that success was certain. I, therefore, allowed the line to charge; besides this, it was doubtful whether I could have communicated with the regiments on the flanks in time to countermand the movement.”

The Federals regained all lost ground by 7:45 a.m., and 15 minutes later Lee ordered the Confederates to disengage. Gordon wrote:

“It was impossible for me to make further headway with my isolated corps, and General Lee directed me to withdraw. This was not easily accomplished. Foiled by the failure of the guides, deprived of the great bodies of infantry which Lee ordered to my support, I had necessarily stretched out my corps to occupy the intrenchments which had been captured. The other troops were expected to arrive and join in the general advance. The breaking down of the trains and the non-arrival of these heavy supports left me to battle alone with Grant’s gathering and overwhelming forces, and at the same time to draw in my own lines toward Fort Stedman. A consuming fire on both flanks and front during this withdrawal caused a heavy loss to my command. I myself was wounded, but not seriously, in recrossing the space over which we had charged in the darkness.”

Many Confederates chose to surrender rather than risk death by retreating under heavy artillery and rifle fire. The Confederates suffered about 3,500 casualties, 1,900 of whom were captured. The Federals lost 1,044 men, about half of whom were captured. Despite being surprised, it took less than four hours for a single Federal corps to repulse the largest Confederate attack that Lee could hope to mount.

Grant and Meade concluded that Lee must have moved troops from his own right to launch such a massive attack on Fort Stedman. They therefore ordered an immediate assault on the undermanned Confederate defenders at Hatcher’s Run. This resulted in the capture of almost another 1,000 Confederate prisoners. By day’s end, the Confederates had suffered some 4,800 casualties while the Federals lost about 2,080.

The fighting on the 25th not only gained nothing for Lee, but it cost him vital portions of his outer defenses. This meant that Lee had no choice but to abandon Petersburg and Richmond. Grant hurried to launch his own offensive before Lee escaped.

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References

Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 572; Catton, Bruce, The Army of the Potomac: A Stillness at Appomattox (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1953), p. 336-39; Catton, Bruce. Grant Takes Command (Open Road Media. Kindle Edition, 2015), p. 434-35; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 22328-46; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 551; 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 17549-69, 17601-31, 17601-31, 17639-95, 17855-76; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 570; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 709-10; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 33-36, 38-39, 41, 78; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 656-58; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 279; 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. 844-45; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 365

Petersburg: Lee and Grant Prepare for Offense

March 24, 1865 – Federal Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant continued preparing to mount his spring offensive, unaware that Confederate General-in-Chief Robert E. Lee was preparing to attack first.

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

Nearly half of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia assembled near Colquitt’s Salient across from Fort Stedman, east of Petersburg, on the 24th. Lee hoped to break the Federal siege line and seize the railroad line supplying the Federals from City Point. Fort Stedman was manned by Brigadier General Orlando B. Willcox’s division of IX Corps and was not expecting an attack.

Grant, commanding the Federal armies besieging Richmond and Petersburg, had long feared that once the muddy roads dried, Lee would escape to the west. He therefore planned a major offensive to destroy Lee’s army before it could get moving. On the same day that the Confederates were making final preparations to attack Fort Stedman, Grant issued orders to his top three commanders (Major Generals George G. Meade, Philip Sheridan, and E.O.C. Ord):

“On the 29th instant the armies operating against Richmond will be moved by our left, for the double purpose of turning the enemy out of his present position around Petersburg and to insure the success of the cavalry under General Sheridan, which will start at the same time in its efforts to reach and destroy the South Side and Danville (rail)roads.”

Three divisions from Ord’s Army of the James would stay in the lines at Bermuda Hundred and east of Richmond, and IX Corps from Meade’s Army of the Potomac would stay in the lines east of Petersburg. All other Federals would turn Lee’s right flank southwest of Petersburg. Grant warned the commanders that their line could be spread dangerously thin due to the rough ground they needed to cover:

“The enemy, knowing this, may as an only chance strip their lines to the merest skeleton, in the hope of advantage not being taken of it, while they hurl everything against the moving column, and return. It cannot be impressed too strongly upon commanders of troops left in the trenches not to allow this to occur without taking advantage of it… the very fact of the enemy coming out to attack, if he does, might be regarded as almost conclusive proof of such a weakening of his lines.”

Grant was right: Lee’s lines were extremely weak. With only about 25,000 troops, Lee had to hold White Oak Swamp, east of Richmond, to Hatcher’s Run, southwest of Petersburg. This was a distance of about 35 miles, or less than 1,000 men per mile. And these men were poorly fed, clothed, and equipped. Conversely, Grant had over 100,000 troops in the Federal lines who were constantly supplied from the railroad running from their massive base at City Point on the James River.

Nevertheless, Lee hoped that capturing Fort Stedman would force Grant to contract his line to protect his supply base, thus leaving an opening to the southwest for Lee to escape. And if he escaped, he might be able to prolong the war long enough for the northern public to finally demand a ceasefire. The assault, set to begin before dawn on the 25th, was to be led by Major General John B. Gordon. The result could potentially decide the fate of the entire Confederate war effort.

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References

Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 572; Catton, Bruce, The Army of the Potomac: A Stillness at Appomattox (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1953), p. 335; Catton, Bruce. Grant Takes Command (Open Road Media. Kindle Edition, 2015), p. 429, 432-33; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 550; 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 17601-31, 17639-95; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 570; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 33-36, 38-39, 41, 78; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 656-58; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 365

Grant’s Spring Offensive Takes Shape

March 6, 1865 – Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, continued preparing to launch the spring offensive, which looked promising considering the growing number of Confederate desertions.

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

The Federal Armies of the Potomac and the James had held General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia under partial siege at Richmond and Petersburg since last summer. Grant hurried to mobilize these armies and destroy Lee before he could escape to the southwest and join forces with General Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederates in North Carolina.

Grant also planned to launch offensives in other theaters of operations to prevent Lee from being reinforced. In North Carolina, separate Federal armies were joining forces to keep Johnston away from Virginia. Major General E.R.S. Canby and Brigadier General James H. Wilson were moving into Alabama to seize the important factory town of Selma and the port city of Mobile. And Major General George Stoneman was leading a cavalry force into eastern Tennessee.

Grant also needed help from the navy to protect his supply base at City Point, on the James River. Grant sent a message to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles on the 4th: “The James River is very high, and will continue so as long as the weather of the past week lasts. It would be well to have at once all the ironclads that is intended should come here.”

Welles quickly responded by directing Captain Oliver S. Glisson at Hampton Roads to bring ironclads up from Wilmington. Glisson responded early on the 5th: “Your telegram was received at 15 minutes after midnight; blowing a gale of wind at the time, U.S.S. Aries sailed at daylight this morning. The monitors are expected every moment from Cape Fear, and I shall send them up the river immediately.” Rear Admiral John A.B. Dahlgren, commanding the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, was notified to send two ironclads from his command north to City Point as well.

Another part of Grant’s preparation was to bring Major General Philip Sheridan’s Army of the Shenandoah, fresh off their resounding victory at Waynesboro, back to the Federal armies outside Richmond and Petersburg. With the Shenandoah Valley now firmly in Federal hands, Sheridan marched unopposed and arrived at Charlottesville on the 3rd.

Grant had urged Sheridan to destroy the Virginia Central Railroad, which was one of Lee’s main supply lines. The Federals spent two days finally getting this done before heading south toward the James River. Sheridan planned to wreck the James River Canal and then move east to join the spring offensive.

Sheridan’s Federals moved through Goochland Court House, Beaver Dam Station, and Hanover Court House on their way back east. Sheridan reached White House, on the Pamunkey River, on the 19th. Grant arranged for him to pick up fresh horses and supplies, and he wrote to Sheridan that once his force was ready, “Start for this place as soon as you conveniently can.”

Grant explained that he planned to move on Lee’s southwestern flank with 50,000 troops, and Sheridan’s men were needed to destroy the South Side and Danville railroads. Once that was done, Sheridan was to “then either return to this army or go on to Sherman (in North Carolina), as you may deem most practicable.” Whichever option Sheridan chose, “I care but little about, the principal thing being the destruction of the only two roads left to the enemy at Richmond.”

The next day, Grant sent Sheridan a more urgent message:

“I do not wish to hurry you. There is now such a possibility, if not probability, of Lee and Johnston attempting to unite that I feel extremely desirous not only of cutting the lines of communication between them, but of having a large and properly commanded cavalry force ready to act with in case such an attempt is made… I think that by Saturday next you had better start, even if you have to stop here to finish shoeing up.”

Grant also reported on the progress of the other offensives starting this month:

“Stoneman started yesterday from Knoxville with a cavalry force of probably 5,000 men to penetrate southwest Virginia as far toward Lynchburg as possible.… Wilson started at the same time from Eastport toward Selma with a splendidly equipped cavalry force of 12,000 men. Canby is in motion, and I have reason to believe that Sherman and Schofield have formed a junction at Goldsboro.”

Sheridan later wrote:

“The hardships of this march far exceeded those of any previous campaigns by the cavalry. Almost incessant rains had drenched us for sixteen days and nights, and the swollen streams and well nigh bottomless roads east of Staunton presented grave difficulties on every hand, but surmounting them all, we destroyed the enemy’s means of subsistence, in quantities beyond computation, and permanently crippled the Virginia Central railroad, as well as the James River canal, and as each day brought us nearer the Army of the Potomac, all were filled with the comforting reflection that our work in the Shenandoah Valley had been thoroughly done, and every one was buoyed up by the cheering thought that we should soon take part in the final struggle of the war.”

Meanwhile, to further hamper the Confederate war effort, the Federal high command encouraged enemy desertions by offering to pay deserters for bringing their rifles into Federal lines. Grant had asked Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton for permission to enact this program, and Stanton replied, “There is no objection to your paying rebel deserters for their arms, horses, or anything they bring in, a full and fair price. That kind of trade will not injure the service.”

Major General E.O.C. Ord, commanding the Army of the James around Bermuda Hundred, wrote how his troops promoted the program: “On the Bermuda front the order promising pay for arms and horses has been circulated with kites, bows and arrows, and newspapers.” One of Ord’s corps commanders, Major General John Gibbon, asked Ord to “send me more of General Grant’s orders and a man who understands your mode of fixing them to a kite.”

Grant wrote to Stanton on the 19th, “Will you please direct the Ordnance Department to send money here at once to pay for arms brought in by deserters. A great many are coming in now, bringing their arms with them.” Three days later, Chief Ordnance Officer F.H. Parker issued a directive: “It is arranged that you are to pay for arms brought in by deserters. They will be forwarded with their arms or with receipts from the provost-marshal here. Pay them at the rate of $8 per arm…”

Desertions in the Army of Northern Virginia totaled 2,934 between February 15 and March 18, or nearly 10 percent of Lee’s whole army. Some deserted for the money, but most left to ease the suffering of loved ones at home. Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, wrote to Grant, “Twenty-two deserters yesterday; twenty are reported this morning. The whole Confederate army appear to have had two days’ cooked rations and told to be on the alert; I think due more to an expected attack from us than any projected movement on their part.”

Meanwhile, Grant continued planning his offensive, which would start as soon as the Virginia roads were dried enough for his men, horses, and guns.

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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. 517; Catton, Bruce. Grant Takes Command (Open Road Media. Kindle Edition, 2015), p. 427, 429; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 542, 546-48; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 17835-65; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 561, 563-67; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 8134; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 646-47, 654-55

The Battle of Hatcher’s Run Ends

February 7, 1865 – The fighting in the southwestern sector of the Petersburg lines ended inconclusively, which by this time meant Federal victory because the dwindling Confederate Army of Northern Virginia could no longer afford to just hold off the enemy.

By the 7th, heavy fighting in the woods around the Boydton Plank Road had driven Federal forces back. Most of the Federals belonged to Major General Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps, with some under Major General Andrew A. Humphreys’s II Corps and Brigadier General David M. Gregg’s cavalry division. The Federals held the road, but they were south of Hatcher’s Run.

Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac, wrote to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander: “The ignorance I am under of the exact moral condition of Warren’s corps, and his losses from stragglers has restrained me from giving him positive orders to attack; but I have directed him to push out strong reconnaissances,” and Warren would decide “whether to attack or not.”

Meade then directed Warren to send one of his divisions out to renew the attack on the Confederates. In bitterly cold, wet weather, the Federals probed but found no substantial opposition. The ensuing skirmish resulted in the wounding of Confederate Brigadier General Moxley Sorrel. The Federals abandoned their vulnerable position on the Boydton Plank Road and moved southwest to occupy the Vaughan Road crossing of Hatcher’s Run.

Fighting involving Warren’s corps | Image Credit: Harper’s Weekly, Vol. IX, No. 426, 25 Feb 1865

Warren reported at 5:30 p.m. that “we have regained most of the ground we held yesterday, and drawn the artillery fire from the enemy’s works, and we can hold the south side of Hatcher’s Run toward Dabney’s Mill so long as may be required.” In this three-day fight, the Federals sustained 1,512 casualties (170 killed, 1,160 wounded, and 182 missing) out of some 35,000 engaged; the Confederates had about 14,000 engaged with casualties unknown.

Like all Federal offensives during the Petersburg campaign thus far, this ended with a Confederate repulse. However, the Federals were now three miles closer to the South Side Railroad, the last railway supplying the Confederates in Petersburg. This meant that the Confederate commander, General Robert E. Lee, now had to defend 37 miles of trench lines with only 46,398 men “present for duty.” And this number included many who were too sick for active service. Lee wrote to Secretary of War John C. Breckinridge on the 8th:

“All the disposable force of the right wing of the army has been operating against the enemy beyond Hatcher’s Run since Sunday. Yesterday, the most inclement day of the winter, they had to be retained in line of battle, having been in the same condition the two previous days and nights. I regret to be obliged to state that under these circumstances, heightened by assaults and fire of the enemy, some of the men had been without meat for three days, and all were suffering from reduced rations and scant clothing, exposed to battle, cold, hail, and sleet.

“I have directed Colonel Cole, chief commissary, who reports that he has not a pound of meat at his disposal, to visit Richmond and see if nothing can be done. If some change is not made and the commissary department reorganized, I apprehend dire results. The physical strength of the men, if their courage survives, must fail under this treatment. Our cavalry has to be dispersed for want of forage… Taking these facts in connection with the paucity of our numbers, you must not be surprised if calamity befalls us.”

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Civil War Trust: Battle of Hatcher’s Run; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 529; 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 16422-42; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 551; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 8098; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 20, 24-31; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 635-36; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 350, 577-79; Wikipedia: Battle of Hatcher’s Run