Tag Archives: George Pickett

The Battle of the North Anna

May 23, 1864 – General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia attacked a force from the Federal Army of the Potomac as it crossed the North Anna River.

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

On the morning of the 23rd, Lee reunited his army when Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s corps arrived. Lee arranged the forces to defend both Richmond and the vital railroad intersection at Hanover Junction:

  • Hill’s corps held the army’s left flank, extending northwest
  • Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s corps held the right flank, extending east
  • Major General Richard H. Anderson’s corps held the center, which curled along the North Anna
  • Confederates from both Ewell’s and Anderson’s corps guarded Hanover Junction
  • Confederates under Major Generals John C. Breckinridge and George Pickett were in reserve

Meanwhile, the Federal army began gathering near Mount Carmel Church, about a mile north of the North Anna on the Telegraph Road. Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, issued orders:

  • Major General Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps would move west and cross the North Anna at Jericho Mills
  • Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps would move south down the Telegraph Road and cross the North Anna using the Chesterfield Bridge
  • Major General Horatio G. Wright’s VI Corps would follow Warren
  • Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s IX Corps would follow Hancock

Lee did not expect a confrontation; he guessed that any activity in his front would be just a diversion for another effort by Grant to move southeast around the Confederate right flank. He wrote his wife that Grant had “become tired of forcing his passage through us.” As such, only a small Confederate force guarded Chesterfield Bridge, and all other crossings on the line were undefended. Moreover, Lee was suffering from exhaustion and acute diarrhea, making him unable to ride his horse. This gave Grant a great opportunity to smash through Lee’s army if he brought his full force to bear.

The Confederates rested during the day, but due to dwindling supplies, the men received just a pint of cornmeal and a quarter-pound of bacon. They were unaware that the Federals were approaching. On the Confederate left, Warren’s men finally found the undefended Jericho Mills after getting lost in the woods, and the three divisions were across the North Anna by around 4:30 p.m.

Based on the ease in which he crossed, Warren reported to headquarters, “I do not believe the enemy intends holding the North Anna.” Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac under Grant, ordered Warren to establish a beachhead on the southern bank and build defenses. Learning that the Confederates were guarding the Virginia Central Railroad ahead, Warren deployed his men in line of battle and advanced.

Lee received word that Federals had crossed on his left flank, but he still believed that this was either just a scouting expedition or a ruse. He directed A.P. Hill to dispatch just one division, under Major General Cadmus M. Wilcox, with artillery support to meet the threat. The Confederates were outnumbered five-to-two (i.e., 15,000 to 6,000).

Wilcox’s Confederates attacked the surprised Federals around 6 p.m. and nearly broke their line. However, the Federals regrouped, and their artillery atop a bluff overlooking the North Anna held the Confederates at bay. Warren’s overwhelming forces began flanking Wilcox, who ordered a withdrawal when no reinforcements were forthcoming.

Warren sustained 377 casualties while Wilcox lost 730. Warren’s men built defenses on their beachhead at Jericho Mills. Lee admonished Hill for failing to bring up the rest of his corps to support Wilcox: “General Hill, why did you let those people cross here? Why didn’t you throw your whole force on them and drive them back as (‘Stonewall’) Jackson would have done?”

To the southeast, Hancock’s corps approached Chesterfield Bridge. Hancock dispatched a probing force, and then reported upon their return, “No crossing of the river can be forced here at present, as all accounts agree that the enemy are in force, and there is a creek between us and the river, with obstacles.” Hancock deployed his artillery, and a two-hour cannon duel ensued. Lee was nearly killed by a cannonball that lodged in the door of the house where he was observing the action.

When the duel ended, Hancock ordered an attack. Quickly overwhelmed, the Confederates fled across the bridge to the south bank. Grant later wrote, “The bridge was carried quickly, the enemy retreating over it so hastily that many were shoved into the river, and some of them were drowned.” Federal sharpshooters prevented the Confederates from burning the bridge after crossing, and Confederate artillery fire prevented Hancock’s men from crossing the bridge. The Federals dug entrenchments on the northern bank instead.

That night, Wright’s VI Corps arrived on the opposite bank in support of Warren. Burnside’s IX Corps came up on Wright’s left near Ox Ford, and Hancock remained entrenched in front of Chesterfield Bridge to Burnside’s left.

Lee finally realized that a major engagement was developing, and he would not give up Hanover Junction without a fight. He worked with his engineers through the night to establish an inverted V-shaped line. The apex was at Ox Ford, with the left extending southwest and the right extending southeast to Hanover Junction.

As the Confederates formed this new line, it appeared to the Federals as if they were retreating and leaving just a token force at Ox Ford. But if Grant tried attacking that point, the two sides of the inverted V could split his army. A.P. Hill’s corps would hold Warren and Wright at Jericho Mills, while Anderson and Ewell faced Burnside and Hancock at Ox Ford and Chesterfield Bridge. Breckinridge and Pickett remained in reserve. Lee said of Grant, “If I can get one more pull at him, I will defeat him.”

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Crocker III, H.W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008), p. 84-87; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20312; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 412; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 443; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 132-34; Jensen, Les D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 535; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 507; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 551

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Northern Virginia: Showdown at the North Anna

May 22, 1864 – General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia arrived at the North Anna River ahead of the Federal Army of the Potomac, once again blocking Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant’s southeastern movement toward Richmond.

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

Lee had anticipated that Grant would move southeast again and shifted his forces to protect Hanover Junction, where the Virginia Central and the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac railroads intersected two miles south of the North Anna. From this point, Lee could defend Richmond, secure his right flank, and protect the railroads. But he would be just 23 miles from the Confederate capital.

Grant had hoped to either coax Lee into a battle on open ground or reach the North Anna first, but he did neither. When he realized that Lee’s Confederates were already on the North Anna, he halted the brief Federal pursuit down the Telegraph Road. The remaining Confederates moved south down this road and joined the main army:

  • Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s corps guarded the railroad intersection at Hanover Junction
  • Major General Richard H. Anderson’s corps lined up on Ewell’s left around 12 p.m.
  • Major General John C. Breckinridge’s two brigades from the Shenandoah Valley and Major General George Pickett’s five brigades from Richmond were held in reserve behind Ewell
  • Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s corps was still heading south to join the main army

Lee informed President Jefferson Davis that Grant may stay on the other side of the Mattapony (now Mattaponi) River from the Confederates so he could relink with Major General Philip Sheridan’s cavalry, which had joined the Army of the James after their raid and fight at Yellow Tavern. Lee reported:

“It appeared… that he (Grant) was endeavoring to place the Matapony river between him and our army, which secured his flank, and by rapid movements to join his cavalry under Sheridan to attack Richmond–I therefore thought it safest to move to the Annas to intercept his march, and to be within easy reach of Richmond.”

Grant transferred the Federal supply base from the depots at Belle Plain, Aquia Landing, and Fredericksburg to Port Royal, farther down the Rappahannock River. Through the day, Grant and Major General George G. Meade positioned their Federals:

  • Major General Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps moved west of Milford Station, north of Hanover Junction
  • Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps moved between Milford Station and Hanover Junction
  • Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s IX Corps moved between Warren and Hancock
  • Major General Horatio G. Wright’s VI Corps held Guinea Station in the rear

Meade wrote his wife:

“We expected to have another battle, but the enemy refuses to fight unless attacked in strong entrenchments; hence, when we moved on his flank, instead of coming out of his works and attacking us, he has fallen back from Spottsylvania Court House, and taken up a new position behind the North Anna River; in other words, performed the same operation which I did last fall, when I fell back from Culpeper, and for which I was ridiculed; that is to say, refusing to fight on my adversary’s terms. I suppose now we will have to repeat this turning operation, and continue to do so, till Lee gets into Richmond.”

Lee wrote Davis the next morning, assessing the situation and opining that the Federal army, “as far as I am able to judge, has been very much shaken.” Lee also responded to a proposal in which his army would fall back and join forces with the Confederates under P.G.T. Beauregard bottling up Benjamin F. Butler’s Army of the James at Bermuda Hundred; the combined force would move north to defeat Grant and then move south to defeat Butler.

Lee stated that if Beauregard did not plan to attack Butler, “no more troops are necessary there than to retain the enemy in his entrenchments.” Meanwhile, “General Grant’s army will be in the field, strengthened by all available troops from the north, and it seems to me our best policy to unite upon it and endeavor to crush it. I should be very glad to have the aide of General Beauregard in such a blow, and if it is possible to combine, I think it will succeed.”

In response to Davis’s fear that a retreat by Lee’s army might damage troop morale, Lee wrote, “The courage of this army was never better, and I fear no injury to it from any retrograde movement that may be dictated by sound military policy.”

Lee did not expect Grant to attack at Hanover Junction; he guessed that Grant would try flanking him to the southeast again. However, the Federals began deploying for battle on the night of the 22nd, determined to cross the North Anna. The relentless marching and fighting that had not stopped since May 5 would continue.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 412; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 443; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 132; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 507

The James River Campaign Begins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 18-19, 28; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 399-401, 403; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 5300-20, 5329-39, 5348-58, 5378-427, 5455-65; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 428-31, 433; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 492-95; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 723; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 198; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 57-58, 227-28, 739

The Virginia Peninsula: The Army of the James

April 28, 1864 – Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant ordered Major General Benjamin F. Butler and his new Federal army to begin moving up the Virginia Peninsula from Fort Monroe by May 5.

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

Grant’s idea of having all major Federal armies launch simultaneous offensives included mobilizing the forces on the peninsula between the York and James rivers. These troops were organized into the Army of the James, a force of about 33,000 men led by Butler. The army consisted of two wings:

  • Major General William F. “Baldy” Smith led XVIII Corps, or Butler’s right wing. Smith had come east with Grant from Chattanooga, having impressed Grant with his engineering prowess in opening the “cracker line.”
  • Major General Quincy A. Gillmore led X Corps, or Butler’s left wing. Gillmore and his troops had been transferred from the Department of the South after several failed attempts to capture Fort Sumter and Charleston.

On a visit to Butler’s headquarters at Fort Monroe in early April, Grant directed him, “When you are notified to move, take City Point with as much force as possible. Fortify, or rather intrench, at once, and concentrate all your troops for the field there as rapidly as you can.” Grant stated “that Richmond is to be your objective point, and that there is to be cooperation between your force and the Army of the Potomac.”

Grant notified Butler on the 28th, “If no unforeseen accident prevents, I will move from here on Wednesday, the 4th of May. Start your forces on the night of the 4th, so as to be as far up the James River as you can get by daylight the morning of the 5th, and push from that time with all your might for the accomplishment of the object before you.” Hoping to eventually link the Armies of the Potomac and the James for a drive on Richmond or Petersburg, Grant wrote:

“Could I be certain that you will be able to invest Richmond on the south side, so as to have your left resting on the James above the city, I would form the junction there. Circumstances may make this course advisable anyhow. I would say, therefore, use every exertion to secure footing as far up the south side of the river as you can, as soon as possible.”

If Confederates blocked his way, Butler was to “attack vigorously” to either capture Richmond or “at least detain as large a force there as possible.” Grant hoped that Butler could keep the Confederates in the area occupied so they could not reinforce General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, currently camped on the south bank of the Rapidan River.

Butler consulted with Rear Admiral Samuel P. Lee, commanding the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron. Butler wanted Lee’s vessels to transport troops up the James and Appomattox rivers and provide gunboat support. However, Lee told Butler that the ironclads could not move as far up the James as Butler needed because of shallow water, and the Appomattox could only support wooden ships. Nevertheless, Lee pledged “intelligent and hearty co-operation” wherever possible.

S.P. Lee informed Navy Secretary Gideon Welles that Butler expected him to assemble a fleet in four days, which was virtually impossible. Lee also explained that the Confederates had mined both rivers with torpedoes that could easily destroy the Federal ships. Welles wrote in his diary that Butler’s “scheme is not practical, yet it has the sanction of General Grant. It must, however, be a blind, intended to deceive the enemy, and to do this effectually he must first deceive our own people.” Welles continued:

“A somewhat formidable force has been gathered in General Butler’s department, and there is no doubt but that General B. himself fully believes he is to make a demonstration up James River. It may be that this is General Grant’s intention also, but if it is, I shall be likely to have my faith in him impaired. Certainly there have been no sufficient preparations for such a demonstration and the call upon the Navy is unreasonable.”

Navy officials were not the only ones doubting Butler’s probability for success. “Baldy” Smith distrusted Butler as army commander and persuaded Grant to install a staff officer to watch over Butler’s preparations. But Smith wrote disappointedly that the appointed officer “is very fixed in letting Butler have his own way with all minutia.”

Smith also wrote Major General William B. Franklin, a corps commander in the Army of the Gulf, complaining that Butler would make the upcoming campaign “full of unnecessary risks and of the kind that may produce the most terrible disaster.” Despite the negativity among the Federal high command regarding this campaign, Butler notified Grant that it would begin on schedule and in accordance with Grant’s instructions.

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

Meanwhile, Confederate officials assigned General P.G.T. Beauregard to command the new Department of North Carolina and Southern Virginia. Beauregard had formerly commanded the Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, which mainly consisted of defending Charleston Harbor. The department, formerly commanded by Major General George Pickett, had just 10,000 men to stop the Army of the James.

When Beauregard arrived in late April, he was told that the new Federal army on the Peninsula was led by Major General Ambrose E. Burnside, not Butler. Guessing that the Federals would target the Richmond & Petersburg Railroad south of the James River, Beauregard notified his superiors, “Every indication is that Burnside will attack Richmond via Petersburg. Are we prepared to resist him in that direction? Can the forces of this Department be concentrated in time? are questions worthy of immediate consideration by the War Department?”

If Beauregard could be reinforced, he asked, “could I not strike Burnside in rear from Petersburg, if he advanced on Richmond from Yorktown?” President Jefferson Davis urged Beauregard to place more emphasis on North Carolina: “The capture of Newbern, and the possession of the (Pamlico) Sound by our vessels, increased as they may be by the addition of others, will relieve the necessity for guarding the whole line of the railroad as proposed.”

Beauregard’s scouts reported that 60,000 Federals were on the Peninsula, and Pickett added that “50,000 are at Yorktown and Baltimore, 10,000 of whom are negroes. All or most of the troops reported at Portsmouth have gone to Yorktown. There are moving and landing troops at night… the enemy will either advance up the Peninsula or will move by transports down river to the James.”

On the 28th, Pickett passed along more accurate intelligence stating that the force numbered about 30,000 men and was led not by Burnside, but by “Baldy” Smith. Beauregard went to oversee operations in North Carolina, and Pickett was directed to reconnoiter around Suffolk and Portsmouth to gather more information about the impending Federal advance.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; 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 2678-98; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 420; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 486-87; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 704, 788; Sommers, Richard J., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 177

North Carolina: Confederate Deserters Executed

February 15, 1864 – Thirteen men who deserted the North Carolina militia to join the Federal army were executed by Confederate officials, even though they had never officially belonged to the Confederate army.

Confederate forces withdrawing from New Bern captured several Federal troops near Beach Grove and identified 22 of them as former members of the North Carolina Home Guard. They had served in J.H. Nethercutt’s battalion of the 66th North Carolina, under Brigadier General Robert F. Hoke. The men had apparently deserted and joined the Federal cause when rumors swirled that the Home Guard would be drafted into the Confederate army.

Confederate Gen George Pickett | Image Credit: BlogSpot.com

Major General George Pickett, commanding the Confederate Department of North Carolina, confronted these prisoners and exclaimed, “God damn you, I reckon you will hardly ever go back there again, you damned rascals; I’ll have you shot, and all other damned rascals who desert!” He later told his subordinates, “We’ll have to have a court-martial on these fellows pretty soon, and after some are shot the rest will stop deserting… every God-damned man who didn’t do his duty, or deserted, ought to be shot or hung.”

However, a court-martial had no authority over these men because they had belonged to a state militia unit, not the national army. Nevertheless, two were executed by firing squad before Pickett even approved the creation of a court-martial to try the remaining 20 men. The Fayetteville Observer reported, “Among the prisoners captured by our forces near Newbern were several deserted from our army. We learn by an officer just from the spot that two of these have already been executed, and others are undergoing trial.”

The tribunal consisted of Pickett’s officers, headed by Hoke. According to one of the defendant’s brothers, “the court-martial refused to admit an attorney, or to receive any evidence in favor of the accused.” Major General John J. Peck, commanding the Federal District of North Carolina, received a list of 53 Federal prisoners who had once belonged to the North Carolina militia. He forwarded this list to Pickett and wrote, “I ask for them the same treatment, in all respects, as you will mete out to other prisoners of war.”

Before Pickett responded, seven men were found guilty and hanged less than 24 hours after the verdict. On the 14th, the remaining 13 men were found guilty and sentenced to death the next day. According to Reverend John Parris, chaplain of the 54th North Carolina:

“The scene beggars all description. Some of them were comparatively young men; but they had made a fatal mistake; they had only 24 hours to live, and but little preparation had been made for death. Here was a wife to say farewell to a husband forever. Here a mother to take the last look at her ruined son; and then a sister who had come to embrace, for the last time, the brother who had brought disgrace upon the very name she bore, by his treason to his country. I told them they had sinned against their country, and that country would not forgive; but they had also sinned against God, yet God would forgive if they approached Him with penitent hearts filled with a godly sorrow for sin, and repose their trust in the atoning blood of Christ.”

Nethercutt urged Hoke to intervene on the condemned men’s behalf, but Hoke told him (according to Nethercutt) that “he could do nothing, as he had an order for their execution.” Parris wrote:

“The 13 marched to the gallows with apparent resignation. Some of them I hope were prepared for their doom. Others I fear not. On the scaffold they were arranged in one row. At a given signal the trap fell, and they were in eternity in a few moments. The scene was truly appalling; but it was as truly the deserters’ doom. Many of them said ‘I never expected to come to such an end as this.’ But yet they were deserters, and as such they ought to have expected such a doom.”

Pickett replied to Peck’s letter the day after the executions. He told Peck that he had only executed 22 of the 53 men on the list, but because the list had been “so kindly furnished me,” it would help Pickett “bring to justice many who have up to this time escaped their just deserts.” Pickett wrote, “Your letter and list will, of course, prevent any mercy being shown any of the remaining number, should proper and just proof be brought of their having deserted the Confederate colors.”

Before Peck received Pickett’s reply, he was shown the article in the Fayetteville Observer stating that two men had been executed and the rest were awaiting trial. Peck wrote, “Having reported this matter to higher authority, I am instructed to notify you, that if the members of the North Carolina regiment who have been captured are not treated as prisoners of war, the strictest retaliation will be enforced.”

Peck warned Pickett that the Federals held “two colonels, two lieutenant colonels, two majors, and two captains” at Fort Monroe on the Virginia Peninsula “as hostages for their safety.” Peck received information from various sources, some accurate and some not, and he tried sorting it out with his superior, Major General Benjamin F. Butler, before learning the truth in March.

After the war, Nethercutt testified before a Federal war crimes commission regarding those executed: “As far as I can recollect, these men were never borne on the rolls and returns of the (66th North Carolina) regiment.” In response to the question why these men deserted before their unit was absorbed into the Confederate army, Nethercutt said that he did not believe “their sympathies were with the rebellion.”

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Pickett’s New Bern Campaign

February 2, 1864 – Confederates captured one of the largest Federal ships on the North Carolina coast, but their main mission was more difficult to accomplish.

Confederate Gen George Pickett | Image Credit: BlogSpot.com

Major General George Pickett, commanding the Confederates in North Carolina, sought to take back New Bern, one of the largest cities in the state, because the Federal warehouses there could feed Confederates in both North Carolina and Virginia through the winter. Pickett planned to advance on New Bern with three infantry columns, supported by Commander John T. Wood’s naval flotilla on the Neuse River.

As the month began, Pickett had moved within striking distance of the town, with the Federals unaware of his approach. Pickett traveled with Brigadier General Robert F. Hoke’s division as it came upon Batchelder’s Creek from the northwest. Federal advance units destroyed the bridges over the creek before retreating. Hoke’s men made makeshift bridges out of nearby logs and drove the Federals back into town. The Confederates halted on the night of the 1st, as Pickett awaited word from his other two columns and Wood’s navy.

Pickett’s second column, led by Brigadier General Seth M. Barton, advanced from the southwest with orders to destroy railroad tracks and telegraph lines along the way. The march was slowed by rain and mud, and locals warned Barton that the Federal defenses outside New Bern were “of the most formidable character, deemed by the enemy impregnable.” As Barton advanced, he came upon an unexpected line of Federal forts south of the Trent River. He reported:

“I was therefore unprepared to encounter obstacles so serious, and was forced to the conviction that they were insurmountable by any means at my disposal. Had it even been practicable to carry the fortifications on the south side of Trent, the possession of them would have been useless for the accomplishment of our object.”

Meanwhile, Pickett’s third column under Colonel James Dearing stopped at Fort Anderson, northeast of New Bern, where Dearing judged the fort too strong to take. Wood’s naval cutters began moving down the Neuse as planned, but two of Pickett’s three columns had not reached their objective in this operation, which relied on the precise execution of all its elements to succeed.

Pickett continued waiting to either receive word from his other column commanders or hear gunfire to the south. Hoke later wrote, “We remained in front of New Berne all day Tuesday (the 2nd) waiting Barton’s move, when, much to my disappointment, a dispatch was received from him stating that it was impossible for him to cross the creek.”

Federals soon discovered the Confederate presence, ruining the element of surprise. Pickett urged Barton to join forces with Hoke, but Barton stated he would have to try finding another place to cross the river. Pickett reported, “Thus, the earliest possible moment at which he could have joined me would have been the evening of the 3rd instant. I could not have attacked before the 4th instant.”

Infuriated, Pickett ordered a general withdrawal. He blamed Barton for the failure, but he also blamed General Robert E. Lee, who had devised the three-pronged plan. Pickett wrote, “Had I have had the whole force in hand, I have but little doubt that we could have gone in easily taking the place by surprise.”

But as it stood, this was a Confederate failure. The Petersburg (Virginia) Register reported simply that “the place was stronger than we anticipated.” Brigadier General Innis N. Palmer, commanding the Federals at New Bern, called his losses during Pickett’s operation “trifling.”

Cmdr J.T. Wood | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Meanwhile on the Neuse, Wood’s flotilla continued downriver as planned. Using muffled oars, the boats quietly came upon the U.S.S. Underwriter, a four-gun sidewheel steamer and the largest Federal ship in the area. The Federals discovered the approaching boats at 2:30 a.m. on the 2nd, when they were within less than 300 feet of the Underwriter. The alarms were sounded, but the Federals could not depress their guns low enough to fire on the attackers.

The Confederates boarded the vessel and engaged in vicious hand-to-hand combat. Acting Master Jacob Westervelt, commanding the Underwriter, was killed in the fighting. The Confederates captured the vessel, but they could not get her steam up, and the Federal shore batteries began firing on her. Wood ordered the ship burned to prevent recapture.

Wood relayed the valor of the Confederate marines to Colonel Lloyd J. Beall, Confederate Marine Corps commandant. Lieutenant George W. Gift, an officer in the Confederate flotilla, declared, “I am all admiration for Wood. He is modesty personified, conceives boldly and executes with skill and courage.” Confederate Navy Secretary Stephen R. Mallory called this action a “brilliant exploit,” and Wood later received the thanks of the Confederate Congress. But the Federals still held New Bern.

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References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 91-94; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 365-66; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 393-94; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 459-60; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 477, 524

Confederates Target New Bern

January 20, 1864 – Confederate commanders looked to take back a key point on the North Carolina coast to better feed their armies.

Federal forces had captured New Bern, one of North Carolina’s largest cities, in early 1862. Since then, the Confederates made sporadic attempts to take it back, but by this time, it had become an important objective because the Federal warehouses there could feed the Confederate armies through the winter.

Gen Robert E. Lee | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

New Bern was especially important to General Robert E. Lee, whose Army of Northern Virginia was finding it increasingly difficult to sustain itself in ravaged, war-torn Virginia. If Confederate forces could seize the town, they could use the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad to transport the foodstuffs and supplies north into Virginia.

Now that the Federal and Confederate armies in northern Virginia had gone into winter quarters, Lee wrote President Jefferson Davis, “The time is at hand when, if an attempt can be made to capture the enemy’s forces at New Berne, it should be done. I can now spare troops for the purpose, which will not be the case as spring approaches.”

Lee acknowledged that the Federal garrison at New Bern had been strongly fortified, but it “has been so long unmolested, and experiences such a feeling of security, that it is represented as careless.” So were the Federal gunboats patrolling the nearby waters.

Lee stated, “A bold party could descend the Neuse (River) in boats at night, capture the gunboats, and drive the enemy by their aid from the works on that side of the river, while a force should attack them in front.” To do this, and to secure the “large amount of provisions and other supplies” there, “a bold naval officer” and experienced men would be needed. Lee asked, “Can they be had?”

Davis responded two days later, “Your suggestion is approved, but who can and will execute it?” Davis stated that a naval fleet could not be assembled any time soon. He also suggested that Lee should lead the New Bern operation himself:

“You could give it form, which would insure success… without your personal attention, I fear such failures as have elsewhere been suffered… It would be well to send the brigade, and if circumstances permit, you had better go down; otherwise, I will go myself, though it could only be for a very few days, Congress being in session.”

Lee waited over two weeks to reply, “until the time arrived for the execution of the attempt on New Berne.” Without acknowledging Davis’s offer to personally lead the troops in the attack, Lee stated he would take command, “but I consider my presence here (in northern Virginia) always necessary, especially now, when there is such a struggle to keep the army fed and clothed.” Lee also reiterated the need for a gunboat fleet, writing, “With their aid I think success would be certain.”

Confederate Gen George Pickett | Image Credit: BlogSpot.com

Leadership ultimately devolved upon Major General George Pickett, who had taken command of the Department of North Carolina last fall. Pickett’s force would consist of 13,000 infantrymen, 900 cavalry troopers, and 17 guns. Lee worked with Brigadier General Robert F. Hoke, Pickett’s second-in-command, to develop the attack plan. It began with 14 naval cutters under Commander John T. Wood clearing the Federal gunboats off the Neuse River, thus “driving the enemy from their guns” on shore. Pickett would then launch a three-pronged advance:

  • An infantry force, Brigadier General Seth M. Barton’s 600 cavalry, and 14 guns would attack New Bern from the southwest, below the Trent River.
  • An infantry force, Colonel James Dearing’s 300 cavalry, and three guns would advance from the northeast and capture Fort Anderson, across the Neuse from New Bern.
  • Hoke’s division, joined by Pickett, would advance on New Bern from the northwest.

In addition to these joint army-navy operations, Brigadier General William H.C. Whiting, commanding Confederates at Wilmington, would move 35 miles southeast to attack the Federal garrison at Morehead City. Lee wrote Pickett, “Everything will depend upon the secrecy, expedition, and boldness of your movements.” Lee recommended troop placements and authorized Pickett to abort the attack if necessary. He then stated, “If successful, everything in New Berne should be sent back to a place of security.”

From there, Lee urged Pickett to oversee “the enemy driven from Washington, Plymouth, &c., and much subsistence for the army obtained.” Offering more specifics, Lee instructed, “If you have to use the telegraph, merely say, ‘The day is’–name the day of the month; he (Whiting) will comprehend. Commit nothing to the telegraph that may disclose your purpose.”

Lee directed Hoke to personally deliver the instructions to Pickett and “explain to him fully the plan of operations.” As Hoke moved his Confederates south into North Carolina, he was to coordinate efforts with draft officials “to get conscripts and recruits.”

The mobilization began on the 30th, and Pickett’s forces began arriving outside New Bern the next day. The operation continued into February.

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References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 91; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 393; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 524