Tag Archives: August V. Kautz

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

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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