Tag Archives: Gouverneur Warren

The Second Battle of Petersburg: Day Four

June 18, 1864 – Federal forces launched yet another assault on the Petersburg defenses, but by this time General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia was arriving to resist.

By the morning of the 18th, Lee’s entire army (except for a corps in the Shenandoah Valley and a division at Bermuda Hundred) was now either at Petersburg or on its way there. The Confederates had abandoned their fortifications east of Petersburg the previous night and now manned new defensive works about a mile closer to the city.

Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, issued orders for an all-out assault that morning, in which the Federals were to seize the enemy fortifications “at all costs.” The battle began at dawn, with Major General William F. “Baldy” Smith’s XVIII Corps and Major General David B. Birney’s II Corps advancing on the Federal right, or the northeastern and eastern sectors of the line.

Action east of Petersburg | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Birney’s Federals easily stormed through the defenses before realizing that the Confederates had fallen back to stronger works. They did not approach the new fortifications a mile west until mid-morning. The Confederates expected the Federals’ approach and sharply repulsed them. This indicated to the Federal commanders that Lee’s army had arrived to reinforce General P.G.T. Beauregard’s defenders.

Lee personally arrived in Petersburg at 11 a.m. Beauregard later wrote that Lee was “at last where I had, for the past three days, so anxiously hoped to see him–within the limits of Petersburg.” The two commanders inspected the defenses, and Beauregard proposed counterattacking the Federal left flank. Lee demurred, arguing that the men were too exhausted to take the offensive. Thus, the Confederates would stay in their defenses.

Near noon, Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s IX Corps came up on Birney’s left to assault the eastern and southeastern sectors of the line. Major General Orlando Willcox’s division suffered particularly terrible losses, emerging from the fight with just 1,000 men uninjured.

Major General Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps came up on Burnside’s left and attacked Rives’s Salient, where the Confederate line ended at the Jerusalem Plank Road south of Petersburg. The Confederates repelled this assault and seriously wounded Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain, known for his heroic stand at Gettysburg. Not expecting Chamberlain to survive, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, promoted Chamberlain to brigadier general.

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

After sustaining heavy losses for no gain, the Federal corps commanders would not comply with Meade’s orders to renew the assaults. Meade angrily wrote one commander, “What additional orders to attack you require I cannot imagine.” He wrote another, “Finding it impossible to effect cooperation by appointing an hour for attack, I have sent an order to each corps command to attack at all hazards and without reference to each other.”

The renewed attack started at 6:30 p.m., but several Federal units would not advance. Those that did were repelled with severe losses. The 1st Maine Heavy Artillery, a unit of new gunners converted to infantry, prepared to charge, but nearby veterans warned them against it. The Maine troops charged anyway and sustained the worst loss of any regiment in any single battle of the war–632 of 850 men. The survivors became known as the “Bloody First Maine.”

When the fighting ended that night, the four-day battle for Petersburg was over. Meade reported to Grant, “It is a source of great regret that I am not able to report more success. Our men are tired, and the attacks have not been made with the vigor and force which characterized our fighting in the Wilderness; if they had been, I think we should have been more successful.”

Grant replied, “I am perfectly satisfied that all has been done that could be done, and that the assaults to-day were called for by all the appearances and information that could be obtained. Now we will rest the men and use the spade for their protection until a new vein can be struck.”

Grant had brilliantly moved the Army of the Potomac across the James River and into Lee’s rear, but he had followed that up with four days of futile and costly assaults. Since the 15th, the Federals sustained 11,386 casualties (1,688 killed, 8,513 wounded, and 1,185 missing or captured). Since Grant launched his offensive on May 4, he had lost almost 75,000 men, but reinforcements received during that time still left him with 110,000 troops.

The Confederates lost about 4,000 (200 killed, 2,900 wounded, and 900 missing or captured) since the 15th. Beauregard’s skillful defense of Petersburg was a remarkable feat considering the size of the enemy his men faced. Since opening the campaign, the Confederates suffered about 30,000 losses, which could not be replaced. The combined forces of Lee and Beauregard defending Petersburg numbered no more than 50,000 men.

Despite maintaining their numerical advantage, most Federals were exhausted and demoralized after a month and a half of constant marching, fighting, and dying. Officers lost their tempers with each other and their men, and Meade acknowledged that “the moral condition of the army” was broken. Warren said, “For 30 days it has been one funeral procession past me, and it has been too much!”

With more direct assaults on the Confederate defenses out of the question, Grant looked to duplicate what he had done at Vicksburg and place Petersburg under siege.

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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. 498-99; Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 175; 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 22168; Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 48-53; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition), Loc 9137-219; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 457; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7636-48; 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. 524-25; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 469-70; 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. 740-41; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 394, 577-79, 812

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The Battle of Cold Harbor

June 3, 1864 – The Federal Army of the Potomac suffered one of its most horrifying defeats at a crossroads just nine miles northeast of Richmond.

Army dispositions on June 3 | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Before dawn, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander of Major General George G. Meade’s army, concentrated three Federal corps on a north-south line in front of New Cold Harbor:

  • Major General William F. “Baldy” Smith’s XVIII Corps from the Army of the James held the right (north)
  • Major General Horatio G. Wright’s VI Corps held the center
  • Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps held the left (south)
  • Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s IX Corps held the extreme Federal right a few miles north at Bethesda Church
  • Major General Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps was on Burnside’s left, moving south to link with Smith’s right

General Robert E. Lee had hurriedly assembled the bulk of his Confederate Army of Northern Virginia behind virtually impregnable defenses in front (east) of New Cold Harbor:

  • Lieutenant General Richard H. Anderson’s First Corps held the left (north), which included Major General Robert F. Hoke’s recently transferred Confederates
  • Major General John C. Breckinridge’s Confederates from the Shenandoah Valley held the center
  • Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s Third Corps held the right (south)
  • Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s Second Corps opposed Burnside’s Federals to the north

A correspondent described the Confederate defenses as “intricate, zig-zagged lines within lines, lines protecting flanks of lines, lines built to enfilade opposing lines… works within works and works without works.” Grant ordered the Federals to reconnoiter the enemy lines before the attack, but this was not done thoroughly enough to identify such strong defenses.

Federal bugles sounded at 4:30 a.m., and the assault began when about 60,000 men advanced in double-lines to break the Confederate line and open the road to Richmond. However, the Confederates held some of the strongest defensive works of the war, with their artillery poised to enfilade attackers. As the Federals marched to within 50 yards over open ground, they became easy targets. The Confederates opened a murderous volley that could be heard from Richmond.

On the Federal left, a division of II Corps managed to capture an advanced position, but the Confederates quickly drove them off in savage hand-to-hand fighting. In the center, Wright’s men were immediately pinned down by the overwhelming enemy fire. On the Federal right, Smith’s Federals emerged from a ravine and were quickly cut down by the waiting Confederates.

A Federal officer recalled, “The men bent down as they pushed forward, as if trying, as they were, to breast a tempest, and the files of men went down like rows of blocks or bricks pushed over by striking against one another.” A Federal soldier wrote, “We felt it was murder, not war, or at best a very serious mistake had been made.” The fight in the Cold Harbor sector of the line was over within 30 minutes.

Farther north, Warren stopped his movement to Smith’s right, thus allowing Confederate artillerists to turn all their guns on Smith’s men. Burnside’s Federals advanced and drove the enemy skirmishers off, but Burnside thought he had penetrated the first Confederate defense line and ordered a halt to regroup. He planned to renew the assault that afternoon.

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

The Federals all along the line were stopped by 7 a.m. Grant ordered a renewal wherever the enemy seemed most vulnerable, and Meade ordered the three corps on the left to attack again. Both Hancock and Smith resisted, with Smith calling a renewal a “wanton waste of life.” Wright’s men remained pinned down in the center. Grant finally agreed, writing Meade at 12:30 p.m., “The opinion of the corps commanders not being sanguine of success in case an assault is ordered, you may direct a suspension of further advance for the present.”

This was the most lopsided Federal defeat since the ill-fated assault on Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg. The Federals sustained 7,000 casualties, while the Confederates lost less than 1,500. Lee telegraphed Richmond, “So far every attack has been repulsed.” President Jefferson Davis and other officials rode out from the capital to the battlefield.

Postmaster General John Reagan asked Lee, “General, if the enemy breaks your line, what reserve have you?” Lee responded:

“Not a regiment, and that has been my condition ever since the fighting commenced on the Rappahannock. If I shorten my lines to provide a reserve, he will turn me; if I weaken my lines to provide a reserve, he will break them.”

After Davis returned from the battlefield, he received a dispatch that Lee sent to Secretary of War James A. Seddon: “Our loss today has been small, and our success, under the blessing of God, all that we could expect.” While Cold Harbor was a resounding Confederate victory, continuous fighting over the past month had depleted the Army of Northern Virginia, and Richmond remained in grave danger.

That night, Meade wrote his wife, “I think Grant has had his eyes opened, and is willing to admit now that Virginia and Lee’s army is not Tennessee and (Braxton) Bragg’s army.” Grant told his staff, “I regret this assault more than any one I ever ordered.” He later wrote in his Memoirs:

“I have always regretted that the last assault at Cold Harbor was ever made. I might say the same thing of the assault of the 22d of May, 1863, at Vicksburg. At Cold Harbor no advantage whatever was gained to compensate for the heavy loss we sustained. Indeed, the advantages other than those of relative losses, were on the Confederate side.”

But Grant was not discouraged. He wrote his wife Julia, “This is likely to prove a very tedious job I have on hand, but I feel very confident of ultimate success.” Meade also wrote his wife, “Be not over-elated by reported successes, nor over-depressed by exaggerated rumors of failures. Up to this time our success has consisted only in compelling the enemy to draw in towards Richmond; our failure has been that we have not been able to overcome, destroy or bag his army.”

Since arriving at Cold Harbor on the 1st, the Army of the Potomac lost about 12,000 men. Since opening the spring offensive last month, Federal losses exceeded 50,000 killed, wounded, or missing. Charles Francis Adams, Jr. declared that the Federal army “has literally marched in blood and agony from the Rapidan to the James.”

Soldiers and civilians in the North began openly questioning Grant’s leadership, with some even denouncing him as a “butcher.” Indeed, scores of wounded Federals lay helpless between the lines because Grant refused to ask Lee for a flag of truce to collect them. But Grant would soon develop a new strategy that even Lee did not anticipate.

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 170-71; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Crocker III, H.W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008), p. 84-87; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 419; 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 6132-52, 6171-91, 6202-12; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 449; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7401; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 154-69; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 71-72; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 514-15; 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. 734-36; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 294-95; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 149-50, 551

Armies Converge on Cold Harbor

June 2, 1864 – The Federal Army of the Potomac missed opportunities to penetrate the defenses of General Robert E. Lee’s Army of the Northern Virginia, but Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant ordered one more assault to take place.

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

As June began, Grant, the overall Federal commander, continued his relentless effort to move Major General George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac past Lee’s left flank. The armies faced each other along a seven-mile front that began at Atlee’s Station and Totopotomoy Creek to the north and ended at Old Cold Harbor and the Chickahominy River to the south.

Elements of both armies had fought for the desolate crossroads at Old Cold Harbor, about 15 miles northeast of Richmond, on May 31, with Major General Philip Sheridan’s Federal cavalry gaining control. Lee directed Lieutenant General Richard H. Anderson’s First Corps, supported by Major General Robert F. Hoke’s division, to dislodge the Federal troopers.

Sheridan maintained his tentative hold on the crossroads while waiting for infantry support from Major General William F. “Baldy” Smith’s XVIII Corps (recently transferred from the Army of the James) and Major General Horatio G. Wright’s VI Corps. But Smith got lost on his way to Cold Harbor, and Wright’s men conducted a 15-mile forced march through the night of the 31st and had not yet arrived by morning.

Due to miscommunication, Anderson deployed his troops piecemeal while Hoke’s men dug trenches. The Federals held off the weak Confederate attack with their Spencer repeating rifles, mortally wounding Colonel Lawrence Keitt, a prominent South Carolina politician. Anderson directed another assault, but this was repulsed as well.

Wright’s Federals began arriving around 9 a.m. and replacing the cavalrymen on the line. Although Grant wanted Wright to attack immediately, his men were exhausted and Wright did not know the enemy strength in his front, so he opted to wait until Smith arrived. Wright did not know that Smith was lost and would not get there for several hours.

When Smith’s troops finally arrived, they took positions to VI Corps’ right. As they prepared to attack, Meade worried that they did not have enough men. He therefore contacted Major General Gouverneur Warren, commanding V Corps, “Generals Wright and Smith will attack this evening. It is very desirable you should join this attack, unless in your judgment it is impracticable.”

Warren dispatched a division under Brigadier General Henry H. Lockwood at 6 p.m. The Federals launched their attack, originally scheduled for that morning, at 6:30 p.m. The Confederates held firm south of the Mechanicsville Road, which connected Old and New Cold Harbor. North of the road, the Federals were met by murderous fire. Connecticut Lieutenant Theodore Vaill described it as:

“A sheet of flame, sudden as lightning, red as blood, and so near that it seemed to singe the men’s faces, burst along the rebel breastworks; and the ground and trees close behind our line were ploughed and riddled with a thousand balls that just missed the heads of the men.”

The Federals fell back. To their right, other Federal forces discovered a gap in the Confederate line and pushed through. But they soon found themselves in a ravine, surrounded on three sides. They fought their way out and fell back after taking hundreds of prisoners.

Farther north on the Old Church Road, Lieutenant General Jubal Early sent his Confederates forward in a probing action against the lines held by IX and V corps. The Federals repelled these attacks around 7 p.m. Later that night, Warren learned that Lockwood’s division had gotten lost on its way to Cold Harbor. Warren reported to Meade:

“In some unaccountable way, (Lockwood) took his whole division, without my knowing it, away from the left of the line of battle, and turned up in the dark 2 miles in my rear, and I have not yet got him back. All this time the firing should have guided him at least. He is too incompetent, and too high rank leaves us no subordinate place for him. I earnestly beg that he may at once be relieved of duty with this army.”

Meade agreed and replaced Lockwood as division commander with Brigadier General Samuel W. Crawford.

Fighting ended at nightfall, with the Federals sustaining about 2,650 casualties and the Confederates losing about 1,800. The Federals had pinned the Confederates into defensive works in front of New Cold Harbor, closer to Richmond than Old Cold Harbor. While the Federals were within striking distance, Meade was enraged that Grant had ordered an assault without first conducting reconnaissance. Meade also worried that the army was being spread too thin.

Grant was frustrated by the missed opportunities to break the enemy line. Convinced that an early morning attack would break through, he ordered Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps to make a night march and join the action at the crossroads the next day. Lee hurried the bulk of his army to the Cold Harbor sector of the line, where the Confederates quickly built strong fortifications that included breastworks, abatis, and entrenchments.

Lee also informed General P.G.T. Beauregard, whose Confederates held Major General Benjamin F. Butler’s Federals at Bermuda Hundred to the south, that Grant’s forces had shifted closer to the James River and requested reinforcements. Beauregard replied that he could send none without risking cutting communication between Richmond and Petersburg.

Lee countered by stating that, “as two-thirds of Butler’s force has joined Grant, can you not leave sufficient guard to move with the balance of your command to north side of James River and take command of the right wing of the army?” President Jefferson Davis directed Major General Robert Ransom, Jr., commanding Confederates at Richmond, to mobilize local forces to establish defenses at the Chickahominy River.

By morning, Lee had shifted the forces of Lieutenant General A.P. Hill and Major General John C. Breckinridge south to join Anderson and Hoke in front of New Cold Harbor. Early’s corps remained in the northern sector to face Warren’s V Corps and IX Corps under Major General Ambrose E. Burnside.

Warren received orders to shift to his left (south) to link with Smith’s corps, while Burnside was to fall back in reserve by Bethesda Church. Skirmishing occurred when Early’s men conducted a reconnaissance in force to determine where Burnside’s troops were going. However, Lee remained mainly focused on his right (south), around Cold Harbor.

Hancock’s advance elements did not begin arriving at the crossroads until around 6:30 a.m., and by this time most men on both sides were spent. They had been continuously marching and fighting for almost a month, inflicting a combined 70,000 casualties on each other. Captain Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., later wrote, “Many a man has gone crazy since this campaign began from the terrible pressure on mind & body.”

The oppressive heat added to the fatigue until a heavy afternoon rain cooled temperatures somewhat. Grant ordered the assault to begin at 5 p.m., but the rain and continued delays compelled him to reschedule for the next morning. During this time, the Confederates in front of New Cold Harbor were building the strongest defensive works of the war. Some makeshift forts had walls five feet high, and artillery covered every approach.

Lieutenant Colonel Horace Porter of Grant’s staff later wrote that he walked through the camps on the rainy night of the 2nd, and, “I noticed that many of the soldiers had taken off their coats and seemed to be engaged in sewing up rents in them.” But Porter soon “found that the men were calmly writing their names and home addresses on slips of paper and pinning them on their backs of their coats, so that their bodies might be recognized and their fate made known to their families at home.”

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 170-71; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 462; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 417-18; 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 6093-103; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 447-48; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7320-31, 7343-55, 7367-78; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 71-72; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 512-14; 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. 733-34; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 294-95; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 149-50

Grant and Lee Shift Toward Cold Harbor

May 30, 1864 – General Robert E. Lee learned that Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant planned to move his Federals southeast once more, this time to Old Cold Harbor.

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

As the Federal and Confederate cavalries battled at Haw’s Shop, Lee entrenched the rest of his Army of Northern Virginia behind Totopotomoy Creek, west of the fighting and east of Mechanicsville:

  • Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s Third Corps held the left (northwestern) flank on a line along the creek running northwest to southeast.
  • Major General John C. Breckinridge, recently arrived from the Shenandoah Valley, lined his men to Hill’s right.
  • Major General Richard H. Anderson’s First Corps held the center, which curved southward, below the creek, to the Shady Grove Road.
  • Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s Second Corps held the right (southern) flank, anchored at Bethesda Church on the Old Church Road. Due to illness, Ewell was replaced as corps commander by Major General Jubal Early.

Federal infantry crossed the Pamunkey River on the 28th, northeast of Haw’s Shop near Hanovertown. By midnight, all four corps were across and building defenses on the river’s west bank. Grant, the overall Federal commander, directed the Army of the Potomac to move southwest toward Lee’s Confederates across Totopotomoy Creek:

  • Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps moved along the Richmond-Hanovertown Road to the creek, where Hancock saw the Confederates entrenched on the other side.
  • Major General Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps lined up on Hancock’s left (south).
  • Major General Horatio G. Wright’s VI Corps took positions to Hancock’s right (northwest), facing Hill’s Confederates.
  • Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s IX Corps was held in reserve near Haw’s Shop.
  • Major General Philip Sheridan’s Cavalry Corps operated near Haw’s Shop, protecting the roads to the Federal supply base at White House Landing.

President Jefferson Davis left Richmond to confer with Lee, whose army was now just 10 miles from the capital. Lee, still suffering from acute diarrhea, explained that supplies were low because the Federals had temporarily disrupted the Virginia Central Railroad. Lee also requested reinforcements.

Davis told Lee that he had asked General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding the Confederates holding the Federal Army of the James at bay below Richmond, to send troops north, but Beauregard had replied, “My force is so small at present, that to divide it for the purpose of reinforcing Lee would jeopardize the safety of the part left to guard my lines, and would greatly endanger Richmond itself.”

Beauregard traveled north that night and met with Davis and Lee at Atlee’s Station. The men discussed strategy and Beauregard reiterated his inability to send reinforcements. However, he did agree to reevaluate his situation when he returned to Bermuda Hundred to see if any of his 12,000 men could be spared. Davis and Beauregard left Atlee’s that night.

Lee’s Confederates held all the approaches to Richmond, but the roads south to Old Cold Harbor and New Cold Harbor were still open. On the morning of the 30th, Lee received word that Grant was planning a move to Old Cold Harbor. Lee said:

“After fortifying this line they will probably make another move by their left flank over toward the Chickahominy. This is just a repetition of their former movements. It can only be arrested by striking at once at that part of their force which has crossed the Totopotomoy.”

Early noted that the Federal left flank, held by Warren’s V Corps, was open for attack, and Lee authorized him to do so. Early moved Major General Robert Rodes’s division around Warren’s left and drove the Federals back, routing the Pennsylvania Reserves. Early waited for Major General Stephen D. Ramseur’s division to come up, giving the Federals time to regroup and prepare.

Anderson did not come up in support as expected, and Ramseur’s men charged a Federal battery on their own. As the Confederates approached, the massed Federals unleashed a terrible fire; a Confederate soldier recalled, “Our line melted away as if by magic, every brigade, staff and field officer was cut down, mostly killed outright in an incredibly short time.”

After three futile charges, the Federals called on the survivors to surrender, which they did. A Confederate officer seethed, “Ramseur was to blame for the whole thing, and ought to have been shot for the part he played in it.” The Confederates sustained 1,593 casualties (263 killed, 961 wounded, and 369 missing or captured), while the Federals lost 731 (679 killed or wounded and 52 captured).

That night, Lee learned that 16,000 Federal troops from Major General Benjamin F. Butler’s Army of the James, led by Major General William F. “Baldy” Smith, were heading north to reinforce Grant. With Smith’s men, Grant could extend his left flank another three miles to the vital crossroads village of Cold Harbor. Lee once again asked Beauregard for reinforcements, but Beauregard replied that the War Department must decide “when and what troops to order from here.” Exasperated, Lee telegraphed Davis directly:

“General Beauregard says the Department must determine what troops to send… The result of this delay will be disaster. Butler’s troops (Smith’s corps) will be with Grant tomorrow. Hoke’s division, at least, should be with me by light tomorrow.”

Davis quickly issued orders through Chief of Staff Braxton Bragg for Beauregard to send Major General Robert F. Hoke’s 7,000 Confederates, “which you reported ready, immediately to this point by railroad… Move with the utmost expedition, but with as much secrecy as possible.”

Also on the 30th, Lee dispatched 2,000 cavalry troopers under Brigadier General Matthew C. Butler to guard the Old Cold Harbor crossroads, near the Gaines’s Mill battlefield of 1862. The Confederates rode out but were met by elements of Sheridan’s horsemen at Old Church. After a brief fight, the Confederates withdrew, giving Sheridan the opportunity to seize the crossroads.

The next day, Lee dispatched a larger cavalry force under Major General Fitzhugh Lee to get to the crossroads before Sheridan. The Confederates did, but Sheridan’s superior numbers eventually drove them off. Sheridan guarded the area in anticipation of “Baldy” Smith’s Federals coming up to form Grant’s new left. But Smith got lost, and Sheridan received word that Hoke’s Confederates were on their way to try taking the crossroads back.

Sheridan wrote to Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac under Grant, “I do not feel able to hold this place. With the heavy odds against me here, I do not think it prudent to hold on.” As Sheridan withdrew, Meade ordered him to “hold on to all he had gained at Cold Harbor at all hazards.” Sheridan’s troopers returned and built fortifications, while Wright’s VI Corps was directed to make a hard night march to reinforce them. Lee ordered Anderson’s corps to join Hoke in taking back the crossroads the next day.

This ended the most terrible month of warfare that ever occurred in Virginia. Grant had waged a relentless war of attrition, losing over 50,000 men while inflicting some 30,000 casualties on Lee. The Federal campaign had been a tactical failure, as Lee had thwarted every one of Grant’s efforts to either destroy the Confederates or capture Richmond. But Grant had succeeded in pushing the front from above the Rapidan to within 10 miles of the capital. June promised to be just as terrible as May.

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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. 484; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20330; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 415-17; 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 5814-34, 5846-75, 5894-914, 6050-60; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 445-47; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7246-58, 7269-93; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 148-52; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 510-12; 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. 733; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 149-50

The Battle of the North Anna: Lee Sets a Trap

May 24, 1864 – General Robert E. Lee positioned his Confederate Army of Northern Virginia to invite a Federal attack and waited for Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant to take the bait.

Lee’s army formed an inverted “V” with its apex pointing north, anchored at Ox Ford on the North Anna River. The left side of the V ran southwest, and the right side ran southeast, guarding the vital railroad intersection at Hanover Junction.

Army positions as of 24 May | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Major General George G. Meade’s Federal Army of the Potomac, with Grant in overall command, held a line running from northwest to southeast of Ox Ford. Major General Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps was on the southern bank of the river at Jericho Mills to the northwest. Major General Horatio G. Wright’s VI Corps crossed behind Warren on the morning of the 24th, and both corps marched to the Virginia Central Railroad around 11 a.m.

To the southeast, Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s IX Corps faced Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s Confederates guarding Ox Ford. To Burnside’s left, Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps threatened the river crossings at Chesterfield Bridge and the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad bridge farther downstream.

The bulk of Hancock’s corps pushed its way across the Chesterfield Bridge at 8 a.m. Major General John Gibbon’s division under Hancock approached the railroad bridge but discovered that Confederates had destroyed it. The Federals improvised by felling a tree and using it to span the river.

Grant saw that the Federals were crossing with ease, unaware that this was part of Lee’s trap. He telegraphed Washington, “The enemy have fallen back from North Anna. We are in pursuit.” Assuming that Lee would retreat to at least the South Anna River, six miles farther south, Grant wrote, “I will probably know to-day if the enemy intends standing behind South Anna.”

The Confederates opposed the Federal crossing at Ox Ford, and as Lee hoped, the Federals believed this was just a rear guard action. Burnside directed one of his divisions to move upriver and cross at Quarles Mill. Once across, they were to march back downriver to Ox Ford and attack the Confederate line from the northwest.

The Federals crossed as ordered, with Brigadier General James Ledlie’s brigade in the lead. Ledlie ordered an attack, despite signs of strong Confederate opposition ahead. Confederate infantry and artillery easily repelled the assault, during which Ledlie was drunk. A storm broke as the Federals fell back to Quarles Mill, where Ledlie actually received praise (and later a promotion) for his brigade’s gallantry under fire, despite his noticeable drunkenness.

Meanwhile, Hancock’s corps moved south from the Chesterfield and railroad bridges. The Federals were stopped by the Confederate defenders under Major General Richard H. Anderson and Lieutenant General Richard Ewell. The fighting was suspended due to the thunderstorm, but when the rain slackened, the Federals still could not penetrate the strong enemy lines.

Lee now had the Federals right where he wanted them. They were divided into three segments (Warren/Wright, Burnside, and Hancock) with each one vulnerable to an overwhelming attack. But Lee could not coordinate such an assault due to exhaustion and debilitating diarrhea. Bedridden, Lee said, “We must strike them a blow–we must never let them pass again–we must strike them a blow.”

But Lee had no subordinate on which he could depend to lead the way. James Longstreet was gone with a serious wound, Jeb Stuart was dead, Richard Ewell was suffering from exhaustion, A.P. Hill was battling illness, and Richard H. Anderson was unproven as a corps commander. The Confederates stayed on the defensive.

Hancock informed Meade at 6:30 p.m. that the Confederates were dug in too strongly to be dislodged. Grant ordered a halt to all advances. He directed Burnside to use two of his divisions to connect with Hancock while keeping one at Ox Ford and one at Quarles Mill. Grant and Lee now held lines similar to each other’s, both of which were virtually impregnable. As Grant later wrote:

“Lee now had his entire army south of the North Anna. Our lines covered his front, with the six miles separating the two wings guarded by but a single division. To get from one wing to the other the river would have to be crossed twice. Lee could reinforce any part of his line from all points of it in a very short march; or could concentrate the whole of it wherever he might choose to assault. We were, for the time, practically two armies besieging.”

The next morning, Warren probed Hill’s defenses and reported they were too strong to attack. Wright tried moving around Hill’s left flank but found that it was protected by Major General Wade Hampton’s cavalry. Burnside and Hancock held their lines but did not try advancing any further. Skirmishing broke out at various points as Federal troops wrecked about five miles of the Virginia Central Railroad, which the Confederates relied upon for supplies from the Shenandoah Valley.

The armies remained stationary on the 26th, ending major operations on the North Anna River. In the four days of fighting from the 23rd through the 26th, the Federals sustained 2,623 casualties, while the Confederates lost between 1,500 and 2,000. Lee did not consider this a Confederate success because he could not draw Grant into an open battle, but his army remained between the Federals and Richmond, and Lee retained his supply line.

Grant’s forward progress had been stopped a third time by Lee, and while Grant had skirted around Lee’s right the first two times, he was now deep in enemy territory and running out of ground to continue that maneuver.

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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. 483; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20312-21; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 412-13; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 443-44; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7210, 7222; Grant, Ulysses S., Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1982 [original 1885, republication of 1952 edition]), p. 432; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 135-37; 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. 507-09; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 428

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

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