Tag Archives: Benjamin F. Butler

Petersburg: The Tunneling Expedition Continues

July 15, 1864 – As the Federals outside Petersburg settled in for long-term siege operations, Confederates finally began digging countermines to try to find the Federals supposedly tunneling under their lines.

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

During the first half of July, the combined Federal Armies of the Potomac and the James settled into fortifications running from northeast to southeast of Petersburg. Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac, issued orders declaring that operations would be conducted according to “regular approaches.”

This meant initiating siege tactics and gradually extending the Federal line until the defensive line of General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia broke. Federal crews began building railroad lines around the Petersburg perimeter, which would bring in supplies from City Point, at the confluence of the James and Appomattox rivers.

However, technically this campaign was not a siege because siege tactics were traditionally undertaken when an enemy was surrounded, and the Confederates were not. Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, sought to eventually move around the Confederate right flank and surround the enemy, but the Confederates were too strong to allow it.

Meanwhile, northern dissatisfaction with Grant’s performance increased. A cavalry raid in late June had failed, and it seemed that no real progress was being made outside Petersburg. An article in the New York World asked, “Who shall revive the withered hopes that bloomed on the opening of Grant’s campaign?” Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck confided in his friend, Major General William T. Sherman:

Entre nous, I fear Grant has made a fatal mistake in putting himself south of the James River. He cannot now reach Richmond without taking Petersburg, which is strongly fortified, crossing the Appomattox, and recrossing the James. Moreover, by placing his army south of Richmond he opens the capital and the whole North to rebel raids. Lee can at any time detach 30,000 to 40,000 men without our knowing it till we are actually threatened. I hope we may yet have full success, but I find that many of Grant’s general officers think the campaign already a failure.”

The enormous number of casualties shocked the administration so much that President Abraham Lincoln felt it necessary to respond to a message Grant had sent Sherman:

“In your dispatch of yesterday to General Sherman I find the following, to wit: ‘I shall make a desperate effort to get a position here which will hold the enemy without the necessity of so many men.’ Pressed as we are by lapse of time, I am glad to hear you say this; and yet I do hope you may find a way that the effort shall not be desperate in the sense of a great loss of life.”

Lincoln issued a proclamation on the 18th calling for 500,000 more volunteers to replenish the Virginia losses. To avoid another Wall Street crisis like that in May, Lincoln encouraged men to volunteer before the draft, which Lincoln ordered to take place after September 5 to fill any remaining quotas. This unpopular move endangered Lincoln’s reelection chances in the upcoming presidential election; a Democratic editor even said, “Lincoln is deader than dead.”

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

Major General William F. “Baldy” Smith, whom Grant respected due to his work on the “cracker line” into Chattanooga last year, was removed as XVIII Corps commander. His blunder at Petersburg on June 15 would have been enough cause for removal, but Smith had also feuded with his superior (Major General Benjamin F. Butler) and criticized Meade, which reflected on Grant. Smith’s lobbying in his own defense only made matters worse for him. He was replaced by Major General E.O.C. Ord.

The only potentially positive development for the Federals was the tunneling expedition, which had begun in late June. The 48th Pennsylvania, a regiment consisting mainly of anthracite coal miners, worked through most of July to tunnel under the Confederate lines at Elliott’s Salient, southeast of Blandford Cemetery.

Brigadier General E. Porter Alexander, the chief Confederate artillerist, had warned that the Federals were tunneling under their lines, but the Confederates did not start digging countermines until over two weeks later. They dug around Elliott’s Salient and other nearby redans, but they could not find the Federals beneath them.

The Pennsylvanians completed the tunnel on the 23rd. Lieutenant Colonel Henry Pleasants, commanding the 48th, later asserted that had his men been furnished with the proper mining tools, they “could have done it in one-third or one-fourth of the time.”

The main gallery was 511 feet long and five feet high. It was reinforced to withstand the weight of Confederate batteries overhead, and it was dug at a slight angle for drainage. Two lateral chambers extended on either side of the gallery for 75 feet at the end, enabling the Federals to detonate gunpowder directly below the enemy trenches. With the tunnel ready, the Federals now had to wait for approval up the chain of command to proceed with their plan.

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References

Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 64-93, 116-21; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 434; 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 9611-42, 9803-13, 11331-51, 11154-64; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 463, 468, 471, 473; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7809; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 540-42, 545; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 833; 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. 757-58; 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. 179-80; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 190; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q364

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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 Siege of Petersburg Begins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 19, 33-63; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 428-29; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 10974-85; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 9231-62, 9305-15; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 459; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7741; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 629; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 524-28; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 536-37; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 812

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

The Second Battle of Drewry’s Bluff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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References
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 28; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 409-10; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 5522-42, 5561-81; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 440; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 130; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 503-04; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 614; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 723; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 57-58, 227-28, 837

The James River: Drewry’s Bluff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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References

Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 403, 406; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 5387-97, 5455-503; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 434, 437-39; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 499-502; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 536-37; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 723; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 57-58, 227-28, 739