Tag Archives: August V. Kautz

Virginia: More Fighting and Prisoner Exchange

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lee responded the next day:

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

Grant finally answered on the 20th:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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References

Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 21532, 21539-57; Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 153-54; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 467, 470; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 506-07; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7975; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 799-800; Sommers, Richard J., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 177, 393; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 204-05

The Battle of Chaffin’s Bluff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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References

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

The Battle of Ream’s Station

June 29, 1864 – A Federal cavalry force was nearly destroyed while trying to raid two railroads supplying the Confederates in Petersburg, Virginia.

Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant assigned two Federal cavalry divisions to destroy track on the South Side Railroad running west to the Shenandoah Valley, and the Weldon Railroad running south to North Carolina. The divisions were led by Brigadier Generals James H. Wilson and August V. Kautz. The force consisted of 3,300 troopers, 12 guns, and a supply train.

The Federals set out on the 22nd, riding west from their lines to the Weldon and then moving southward along the line to Ream’s Station. They destroyed large amounts of track before turning northwest to Dinwiddie Court House and then to Ford’s Station on the South Side Railroad, 14 miles southwest of Petersburg.

Gen W.H.F. “Rooney” Lee | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

The Federals skirmished with Major General W.H.F. “Rooney” Lee’s pursuing Confederate horsemen along the way. But they did not meet significant resistance because most of the Confederate cavalry had been sent to stop Major General Philip Sheridan’s Federal cavalry raid in the Shenandoah Valley.

Over the next two days, Wilson and Kautz rode west to the Burkeville junction on the Richmond & Danville Railroad, and then southwest along that line. The troopers wrecked 60 miles of track and several supply depots. They also attracted a growing number of fugitive slaves as they continued fending off Rooney Lee’s pursuit.

The Federals tried to destroy the bridge spanning the Staunton River on the 25th, but a force of just 900 infantrymen stopped them near Roanoke Station. The Confederates ran trains up and down the tracks to trick the Federals into thinking reinforcements were arriving. This delayed them long enough for Lee’s troopers to attack from behind and drive the Federals off before they could destroy the bridge.

Wilson and Kautz rode east, back toward the main Federal army. Three days later, their exhausted men and horses reached Stony Creek Depot on the Weldon Railroad. By this time, Major General Wade Hampton’s Confederate cavalry had returned from fighting with Sheridan and now blocked any further progress while Lee again attacked the Federal rear. This forced Wilson and Kautz to take a roundabout path north toward Ream’s Station, leaving the fugitive slaves that had been following them behind.

The cavalrymen expected the Federal II and VI corps to be holding Ream’s Station, but those troops had been driven back to the Jerusalem Plank Road a week before. Confederate infantry under Major General William Mahone blocked the Federal front while Lee’s cavalry hit the Federal left around noon. Nearly surrounded, the Federals managed to break out, but they spiked their guns and burned their wagon train in the process.

Kautz’s forces rode southeast and reached the Federal lines later that night. Wilson rode farther south before turning east, crossing the Blackwater River and then turning north. His men returned to the Federal lines in early July. The Federals had successfully destroyed railroad track as ordered, which seriously disrupted Confederate communications. But they sustained about 1,500 casualties and lost all their guns and supplies. The Confederates quickly repaired the damage, and Grant looked for other ways to harass the Confederate army at Petersburg.

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References

Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 22184; Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 53-63; 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 9231-94; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 460-61, 463; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 214; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 526-28; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 833

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

The Second Battle of Petersburg Begins

June 15, 1864 – Federal forces advanced on the vital transportation center of Petersburg, south of Richmond, and missed a prime opportunity to capture the city.

Gen W.F. Smith | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

As the Federal Army of the Potomac began crossing the James River on the 14th, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, steamed up the James to confer with Major General Benjamin F. Butler, commanding the Federal Army of the James at Bermuda Hundred, a peninsula formed by the James and Appomattox rivers. Major General William F. “Baldy” Smith’s XVIII Corps was also arriving at Bermuda Hundred to reinforce Butler’s army.

Grant expected Butler to break through the Confederate defense line in his front, move southwest, and attack Petersburg, the key railroad city 22 miles south of Richmond. If the Federals took Petersburg, they could starve Richmond into submission. Butler had tried doing this on the 9th with a portion of his force, but now Grant instructed him to use a much larger force, including Smith’s entire XVIII Corps.

Smith would have 16,000 men in four divisions to face less than 5,500 Confederates spread out between Bermuda Hundred and Petersburg. Smith would also be reinforced by Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps from the Army of the Potomac, which had crossed the James and would be marching toward Petersburg from the east. As Grant prepared to return to the Army of the Potomac, he informed Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck at Washington that the Federals would capture Petersburg before the Confederates could hurry reinforcements to save the city.

Butler’s Federals built a pontoon bridge spanning the Appomattox River. They would begin their advance the next morning, led by Brigadier General August V. Kautz’s cavalry. This was the same cavalry force that had come up late and was driven off by a much smaller force in the failed attack on the 9th.

Meanwhile, General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding the Confederates south of the James River, reported Smith’s arrival at Bermuda Hundred:

“Return of Butler’s forces sent to Grant renders my position more critical than ever, if not reinforced immediately; for the enemy could force my lines at Bermuda Hundred Neck, capture Battery Dantzler, now nearly ready, or take Petersburg, before any troops from Lee’s army or Drury’s Bluff could arrive in time. Can anything be done in the matter?”

General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia defending Richmond north of the James, sent Beauregard two divisions, but they would not arrive until late on the 15th. Until then, Beauregard had to hold Bermuda Hundred and Petersburg on his own, even though “I fear my present force may prove unequal to hold both.”

At Petersburg, Captain Charles H. Dimmock had designed a ring of fortifications that surrounded the city on three sides. The semicircular line ran from the Appomattox River to the northeast, south and west around town, and then back to the Appomattox west of Petersburg. With just 2,200 Confederates, Beauregard placed them all in the northeastern sector of the “Dimmock Line,” spaced 10 feet apart. Beauregard’s remaining 3,000 troops remained at Bermuda Hundred.

Kautz’s troopers advanced on the morning of the 15th as planned, but they met unexpected Confederate resistance northeast of Petersburg. The Federals were held up for two hours, during which Kautz decided that “our line was really weaker than the enemy’s in men.” Kautz withdrew just as he had done on the 9th, leaving the infantry to make the main assault on Petersburg without cavalry support.

Action northeast of Petersburg | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Brigadier General Edward W. Hinks’s division was the first to arrive. This included untested men of the U.S. Colored Troops who made two assaults and captured a cannon. Captain Charles F. Adams, Jr. recalled that several black men had vowed to avenge Fort Pillow, where Confederates had allegedly murdered black soldiers. Adams wrote, “The darkies fought ferociously. If they murder prisoners, as I hear they did… they can hardly be blamed.”

Smith arrived with his other two infantry divisions in front of northeastern Petersburg late that afternoon and assessed the defenses. They consisted of breastworks and trenches 20 feet thick, with 55 artillery redans. These defenses were much stronger than those at Cold Harbor, where Smith saw many of his men shot down 12 days before. He therefore proceeded cautiously, unaware that he faced just 2,200 defenders on the other side.

Smith ordered his guns forward to bombard the Confederate defenses before launching an infantry assault. However, the artillery was in the rear and took two hours to be brought forward. Meanwhile, Beauregard still had not received word from his superiors on whether to defend Bermuda Hundred or Petersburg, so he decided to begin pulling troops from the Bermuda Hundred line to reinforce the Dimmock line.

The Federal assault began at 7 p.m. Smith only sent forward skirmishers, which the Confederates would not fire on because they were expecting a large attack force to follow. According to Brigadier General E. Porter Alexander, the chief Confederate artillerist:

“Smith’s device was eminently successful. Our artillery would not fire at the skirmishers at all. They reserved their fire for the storming columns which they expected to follow. The skirmishers over ran and captured two redans at a salient where the line crossed the railroad to City Point, capturing about 250 prisoners and four guns.”

The Federals seized about a mile of fortifications and 16 guns; the black troops took five redans alone. This was enough to knock the Confederates out of the Dimmock line; they fell back to weaker defenses closer to Petersburg along Harrison’s Creek. According to Beauregard, “Petersburg at that hour was clearly at the mercy of the Federal commander, who had all but captured it.”

Hinks requested permission to lead his division into Petersburg. Smith, having heard rumors that Lee’s Confederates would soon arrive to reinforce the defenses, refused. Others urged Smith to use the bright moonlight to renew the assault, but he declined. Smith telegraphed Butler, “Unless I misapprehend the topography, I hold the key to Petersburg.”

Hancock soon arrived with advance elements of his II Corps. Although he outranked Smith, Hancock was unsure of his orders and unaware of how vulnerable Petersburg was. He therefore deferred to Smith’s judgment and planned to launch a joint attack with him the next day. A Federal soldier recalled that “the rage of the enlisted men was devilish.”

After midnight, Beauregard transferred the rest of his troops from Bermuda Hundred to Petersburg. This allowed Butler’s X Corps, led by Major General Alfred H. Terry, to advance and seize the Richmond & Petersburg Railroad. Butler could have continued forward and strategically wedged his army between Richmond and Petersburg, but he did not.

The Confederates from Bermuda Hundred and those from Lee north of the James arrived during the night to increase the Petersburg defense force to about 14,000 men. One of the Federals’ greatest opportunities to starve Richmond into submission and possibly end the war was lost. Grant told Illinois Congressman Elihu Washburne, “Unless my next move brings on a battle, the balance of the campaign will settle down to a siege.”

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 175; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 465; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Crocker III, H.W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008), p. 87-91; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 22151-60; Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 38-44, 57; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 426-27; 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 8923-9006, 9017-67; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 455-56; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7506-19; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 200-02; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 521-23; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 740, 795; Simon, John Y., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 699; Sommers, Richard J., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 177, 179-80; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 304-05; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 141-42, 577-79

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