Tag Archives: Gouverneur Warren

The Battle of Five Forks

April 1, 1865 – Federals routed an isolated Confederate force southwest of Petersburg. This began the campaign to end the war in Virginia.

Following the engagement north of Dinwiddie Court House on March 31, Major General Philip Sheridan’s Federal cavalry cut the Confederate supply line at Stony Creek. General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, informed Confederate President Jefferson Davis that this–

“–seriously threatens our position and diminishes our ability to maintain our present lines in front of Richmond and Petersburg… I fear he can cut both the South Side and the Danville railroads, being far superior to us in cavalry. This in my opinion obliges us to prepare for the necessity of evacuating our position on James River at once, and also to consider the best means of accomplishing it, and our future course.”

The Confederates had not yet been defeated on any part of the Petersburg siege line, but Lee knew that the superior Federal numbers and armament would soon prove too overwhelming to bear. He therefore started arranging to evacuate to the west. It would require a nearly unprecedented feat of logistics to move some 50,000 men out of a 37-mile long network of trenches while holding the enemy at bay and keeping the escape route unclogged. To ensure that his army remained fed, Lee worked with the Commissary Department to have 350,000 rations shipped from Richmond to Amelia Court House, a stop along the westward retreat.

Meanwhile, on the southwestern-most point of Lee’s line, Major General George Pickett’s isolated Confederate force fell back northward to Five Forks after the Dinwiddie engagement. Five Forks was a key position because it facilitated the flow of supplies from the South Side Railroad to Lee’s army. It would also be Lee’s key escape route when needed. Pickett’s men positioned themselves behind hastily built fortifications and trenches.

Federal Major General Philip Sheridan | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Sheridan sought to destroy Pickett’s force and seize both Five Forks and the South Side Railroad beyond. He later wrote, “I felt certain the enemy would fight at Five Forks–he had to, so, while we were getting up to his intrenchments, I decided on my plan of battle.” Sheridan planned a three-pronged attack designed to isolate Pickett’s force from the rest of the Confederate army and clear a path to the railroad:

  • Major General Wesley Merritt’s two cavalry divisions would launch a diversionary attack on Pickett’s front.
  • Brigadier General Ranald S. Mackenzie’s cavalry division would feign an attack on the Confederates’ far left, exploiting the gap between Pickett and the main Confederate line to the east.
  • Major General Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps would come up to attack Pickett’s left and rear.

On the Confederate side, Pickett and the other ranking Confederate commander, Major General Fitzhugh Lee, inexplicably left their troops for a shad bake, two miles in the rear. This left Brigadier General Rooney Lee in charge of the cavalry and Brigadier General George H. Steuart in charge of the infantry. Neither Rooney nor Steuart knew that their superiors had left, or that they were now the ranking commanders.

Federal cavalry under Merritt and Mackenzie advanced as scheduled, but Warren’s infantry did not. As Sheridan waited impatiently, a courier handed him a dispatch from Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander: “General Grant directs me to say to you, that if in your judgment the Fifth Corps would do better under one of the division commanders, you are authorized to relieve General Warren, and order him to report to General Grant, at headquarters.”

Warren’s 12,000 men finally advanced, but due to a faulty map supplied by Sheridan, the leading two divisions marched past the Confederate left flank instead of directly into it. Warren reported:

“After the forward movement began, a few minutes brought us to the White Oak road, distant about 1,000 yards. There we found the advance of General Mackenzie’s cavalry, which, coming up the White Oak road, had arrived there just before us. This showed us for the first time that we were too far to our right of the enemy’s left flank.”

This caused more delays and isolated Warren’s remaining division in an enemy crossfire. Enraged, Sheridan redirected the leading two divisions and the assault resumed. Noting that Warren was not at the front to handle these matters himself, Sheridan told his chief of staff, “By God, sir, tell General Warren he wasn’t in that fight!” When the officer asked if he could put this message in writing, Sheridan fumed, “Take it down, sir! Tell him by God he was not at the front!”

Sheridan ordered Major General Charles Griffin, Warren’s ranking division commander, to replace Warren. Sheridan later explained that this was “necessary to protect myself in this critical situation, and General Warren having sorely disappointed me, both in the moving of his corps and in its management during the battle, I felt that he was not the man to rely upon under such circumstances, and deeming that it was to the best interest of the service as well as but just to myself, I relieved him, ordering him to report to General Grant.”

Such an order meant professional ruin, so when Warren received it, he rode to Sheridan and asked him to reconsider. Sheridan snapped, “Reconsider, hell! I don’t reconsider any decisions! Obey the order!” This marked the first time that a commander in the Army of the Potomac had ever been relieved of duty for lacking aggression in combat. Grant upheld Sheridan’s decision, later writing:

“He (Warren) was a man of fine intelligence, great earnestness, quick perception, and could make his dispositions as quickly as any officer, under difficulties where he was forced to act. But I had before discovered a defect which was beyond his control, that was very prejudicial to his usefulness in emergencies like the one just before us. He could see every danger at a glance before he had encountered it. He would not only make preparations to meet the danger which might occur, but he would inform his commanding officer what others should do while he was executing his move.”

However, the delays had not been Warren’s fault, and they ultimately did not affect the battle’s outcome. A court of inquiry later cleared Warren’s name, but the court’s findings were not published until after he died.

The Federals made progress all along the line once Griffin took over, but Sheridan would accept nothing but total victory. When an officer proudly announced that his troops had penetrated the enemy rear and captured five guns, Sheridan shouted, “I don’t care a damn for their guns, or you either, sir! What I want is that Southside Railway!”

Ultimately, Griffin’s Federals overwhelmed the enemy left, while dismounted cavalry pushed the enemy right. The Confederates could only offer a token resistance; many fled or were taken prisoner, and they were virtually wiped out by 7 p.m. A northern correspondent reported: “They had no commanders, at least no orders, and looked in vain for some guiding hand. A few more volleys, a new and irresistible charge… and with a sullen and tearful impulse, 5,000 muskets are flung upon the ground.”

When Pickett finally returned from the shad bake, some 5,200 of his men had already been either shot or taken prisoner, roughly half his force. Federals also captured 13 battle flags and six cannon while suffering about 1,000 casualties. Moreover, Mackenzie’s Federal troopers blocked the main line of Confederate retreat, thus ensuring that Pickett would remain isolated from the rest of Lee’s army.

This was the most overwhelming Federal victory of the war. It was also Lee’s first decisive defeat since this campaign began in northern Virginia nearly a year ago. This battle and the fighting at Fort Stedman on March 25 cost Lee nearly a quarter of his whole army.

The remnants of Pickett’s force, numbering no more than 800 men, retreated to the Appomattox River. The Federals now surrounded Petersburg south of the Appomattox River and moved even closer to the vital South Side Railroad. Lee could now do nothing except retreat before his army was destroyed.

Colonel Horace Porter of Grant’s staff witnessed the battle and rode back to headquarters that night to report the resounding victory. Grant listened to Porter’s account and then disappeared into his tent. He came out a few minutes later and announced, “I have ordered an immediate assault all along the lines.”

Grant informed Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac, that his two corps under Major Generals John G. Parke and Horatio G. Wright were to launch a general assault on the eastern sector of the Petersburg line: “Wright and Parke should be directed to feel for a chance to get through the enemy’s line at once, and if they can get through should push on tonight. All our batteries might be opened at once, without waiting for preparing assaulting columns. Let the corps commanders know the result of the left, and that it is being pushed.”

President Abraham Lincoln, monitoring the action from Grant’s former headquarters at City Point, received a wire from Grant that night hailing Sheridan’s victory: “He has carried everything before him,” including capturing “several batteries” and “several thousand prisoners.” Federals brought Lincoln several trophies from the fight, including captured battle flags. Lincoln held up one of them and said, “Here is something material, something I can see, feel, and understand. This means victory. This is victory.”

Federal artillery opened all along the Petersburg siege line, from the Appomattox River to Hatcher’s Run, at 10 p.m. and continued through the night. This was meant to soften the Confederate defenses for the next morning’s assault. It was the heaviest Federal bombardment of the war, heavier than even the barrage at Gettysburg. A gunner later wrote of the “constant stream of living fire” blazing forth.

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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. 520-21; Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 214; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 566, 574; Catton, Bruce, The Army of the Potomac: A Stillness at Appomattox (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1953), p. 349-61; Catton, Bruce. Grant Takes Command (Open Road Media. Kindle Edition, 2015), p. 443-45; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 22419; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 553; 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 18111-21, 18233-62, 18341-51; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 573-74; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 8336; Hubbell, John T., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 803; Kennedy, Frances H. (ed.), The Civil War Battlefield Guide (Christopher M. Calkins, The Conservation Fund, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1990), p. 275-76; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 82-91; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 102, 203-04; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 661-63; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 803; 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. 845; Rhodes, James Ford, History of the Civil War, 1861-1865 (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1917 [Kindle Edition, Reservoir House, 2016], Loc 5612; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 365-68; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 261-62; Winik, Jay, April 1865: The Month That Saved America (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), p. 73-75, 79-80, 99

The Dinwiddie Court House Engagement

March 31, 1865 – Confederates repelled a Federal advance in the southwestern sector of the Petersburg siege lines, but the Federals would not be denied for long.

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

The heavy rains had finally stopped by the morning of the 31st. Confederate infantry and cavalry from the Army of Northern Virginia held Five Forks, a key intersection protecting the South Side Railroad west of Petersburg. General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate army, ordered this force to move south and drive Major General Philip Sheridan’s Federal cavalry corps out of Dinwiddie Court House. This would secure Five Forks and isolate Sheridan from infantry support to the east.

As Lee inspected the lines, he saw a gap between Sheridan and Major General Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps. He therefore ordered Lieutenant General Richard H. Anderson’s Fourth Corps, which by now consisted of just a single division, to attack and turn Warren’s left (west) flank away from Sheridan. In all, about 19,000 Confederates opposed some 50,000 Federals in the southwestern sector of the Petersburg lines.

Warren’s Federals held the Boydton Plank Road. To their right (east) was Major General Andrew A. Humphreys’s II Corps. Warren informed Humphreys:

“I cannot take up any regular line of battle on account of the woods and swamps, but have assembled each division at a point so they can fight in any direction with the line refused… I don’t think your left could be turned, even if I moved away, without you having full information.”

Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, notified Warren, “Owing to the weather, no change will today be made in the present position of the troops. Three days’ rations of subsistence and forage will be brought up and issued to the troops and the artillery, and every one authorized to accompany them.” The Federals were unaware that a Confederate attack was imminent.

Maj Gen Philip Sheridan | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Meanwhile, Sheridan planned an attack of his own, as Brigadier General Thomas C. Devin, known as “Sheridan’s hard hitter,” advanced his division north toward Five Forks. The Federals were unexpectedly met by a Confederate assault from their left, led by Major General George Pickett. Devin’s men gradually fell back across the rain-soaked ground, as Devin notified Sheridan that both his flanks were under threat and Dinwiddie might have to be abandoned.

Sheridan brought up his other two divisions and secured a defense line about a mile north of Dinwiddie. The Confederates charged around dusk, but the Federals held firm as Sheridan instructed all regimental bands to come up to the front and play joyful music as loud as possible to jar enemy morale.

Sheridan then ordered Brigadier General George A. Custer to lead his division in a counterattack, telling Custer, “You understand? I want you to give it to them!” However, this effort came to nothing as the men and horses became tangled in the mud. Both sides fell back out of firing range as the sun set.

Three miles east, Warren ordered his lead division under Major General Romeyn B. Ayres to seize the White Oak Road because this was “essentially necessary to the safety of our position.” The Federals were suddenly met by Anderson’s charging Confederates. Ayres reported: “As the troops arrived within about fifty yards of the White Oak road, the enemy’s lines of battle rose up in the woods and moved forward across the road into the open. I saw at once that they had four or five to my one.”

Ayres tried holding his ground, but some Confederates moved around and attacked his left flank, thus forcing him to fall back into Major General Samuel W. Crawford’s division. Crawford’s men broke as well, and the Federals retreated to a branch of Gravelly Run. Warren ordered them to hold there while he brought up his last division, under Major General Charles Griffin.

Griffin’s men, led by Brigadier General Joshua L. Chamberlain’s brigade, advanced and slowly regained all lost ground. The Federals ultimately seized the White Oak Road, which cut Anderson’s men off from Pickett’s to the west. Also, Warren dispatched a brigade westward to threaten Pickett’s left flank as he confronted Sheridan. Meade reported to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, that Warren had stopped the Confederate advance, and Humphreys was sending a division to Warren’s support. Grant asked:

“If the enemy has been checked in Warren’s front, what is to prevent him from pitching in with his whole corps and attacking before giving him time to entrench or return in good order to his old entrenchments? I do not understand why Warren permitted his corps to be fought in detail. When Ayres was pushed forward he should have sent other troops to their support.”

By nightfall, Pickett had won a tactical victory, but the Confederates had failed to drive Sheridan out of Dinwiddie or prevent the Federal cavalry and infantry from joining forces. Recognizing the danger of his position, Pickett fell back to protect Five Forks. His infantry held the line to the left while Major General Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry held the right. There was still a three-mile gap between this force and Anderson’s to the east.

The Petersburg Front, 29-31 Mar 1865 | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Sheridan planned a frontal assault on Pickett and Fitzhugh Lee the next day. In conjunction, he wanted infantry to march through the gap and come up on Pickett’s left and rear. The nearest infantry was Warren’s V Corps, but Sheridan wanted Major General Horatio G. Wright’s VI Corps, which had served under him in the Shenandoah Valley, to join him. Sheridan wrote Grant on the night of the 31st: “If the ground would permit I could, with the Sixth Corps, turn the enemy’s right, or break through his lines; but I would not like the Fifth Corps to make such an attempt.” Grant later wrote:

“I replied to him that it was impossible to send Wright’s corps because that corps was already in line close up to the enemy, where we should want him to assault when the proper time came, and was besides a long distance from him; but the 2d and 5th corps were on our extreme left and a little to the rear of it in a position to threaten the left flank of the enemy at Five Forks, and that I would send Warren… and put himself in communication with Sheridan as soon as possible, and report to him.”

Just as the men of V Corps settled down from the all-day fight, Warren received orders to march them westward all night to link with Sheridan by dawn. This proved extremely difficult, not only because the troops were exhausted, but because they would have to move in darkness across swollen creeks, swamps, and mud. They also had to stop and build a 40-foot bridge to span Gravelly Run. Warren informed Meade of the delay, but this was not forwarded to Sheridan, who wrote Warren at 3 a.m. on the 1st:

“I am holding in front of Dinwiddie Court-House, on the road leading to Five Forks, for three-fourths of a mile, with General Custer’s division… I understand you have a division at J. Boisseau’s; if so, you are in rear of the enemy’s line and almost on his flank. I will hold on here. Possibly they may attack Custer at daylight; if so, have this division attack instantly and in full force.”

Sheridan did not receive any specific details as to where Warren was or when he might arrive. He also knew nothing about the difficulties Warren’s men faced in trying to reach Sheridan’s line. Moreover, Sheridan did not trust Warren, so if there was to be any delay in arriving in time for the next day’s fight, Warren would get the blame.

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 214; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 574; Catton, Bruce, The Army of the Potomac: A Stillness at Appomattox (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1953), p. 346-49; Catton, Bruce. Grant Takes Command (Open Road Media. Kindle Edition, 2015), p. 441-43; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 22419; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 552; 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 17855-95, 18091-101; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 572-73; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 8312-36; Grant, Ulysses S., Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (New York: Da Capo Press, 1982 [original 1885, republication of 1952 edition]), p. 533; Kennedy, Frances H. (ed.), The Civil War Battlefield Guide (Christopher M. Calkins, The Conservation Fund, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1990), p. 273-75; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 658-61; 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. 845; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 487-88; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 219-20, 261-62, 821

Petersburg: Grant Looks to Destroy Lee

March 29, 1865 – Federal troops encircling Richmond and Petersburg embarked on a movement that Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant hoped would destroy the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and end the war.

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

By the 29th, the Federals were poised to make their grand movement to the southwest. Grant, the overall Federal commander, looked to turn the right flank of General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army. In so doing, Grant sought to cut Lee’s last major supply lines and block his escape route to the west.

Federal Major General Philip Sheridan | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Major General Philip Sheridan’s cavalry corps led the Federal movement. The troopers began moving out at 3 a.m. on the 29th, a day marked by torrential rain. Sheridan later wrote:

“Our general direction was westward, over such routes as could be found, provided they did not embarrass the march of the infantry. The roads from the winter’s frosts and rains, were in a frightful state, and when it was sought to avoid a spot which the head of the column had proved almost bottomless, the bogs and quicksands of the adjoining fields demonstrated that to make a (detour) was to go from bad to worse. In the face of these discouragements we floundered on, however, crossing on the way a series of small streams swollen to their banks.”

Sheridan was supported by II and V corps from the Army of the Potomac, led by Major Generals Andrew A. Humphreys and Gouverneur Warren respectively. Men from these two corps moved south and west toward the end of the Confederate siege line, which was defended by the lone division of Lieutenant General Richard H. Anderson’s Fourth Corps. Despite their numerical advantage, the Federals were not overly confident. One private wrote, “Four years of war, while it made the men brave and valorous, had entirely cured them of imagining that each campaign would be the last.”

Meanwhile, Lee received reports that Federals were moving toward Dinwiddie Court House. This was dangerously close to Five Forks, a crucial intersection that Lee needed to hold if he hoped to continue being supplied by the South Side Railroad. Lee responded by transferring all but one brigade of his cavalry to his right flank, led by Major General Fitzhugh Lee. He also transferred Major General George Pickett’s infantry division; Lee chose Pickett’s force because it was scattered, making its movement more difficult for the Federals to discern.

Warren’s leading elements moved up the Quaker Road to its key intersection with the Boydton Plank Road, and they clashed with Anderson’s Confederates near the Lewis Farm. After heavy fighting, the Confederates fell back to a defense line along the White Oak Road. Lee needed this road if he hoped to send troops west to block Sheridan. The Federals seized the Quaker-Boydton Plank intersection, but the Confederate line was not yet broken. Both sides lost about 375 men each.

Back east, Grant and his staff began transferring headquarters from City Point to the Boydton Plank Road. President Abraham Lincoln, still visiting from Washington, would stay behind at City Point. As Grant and his staff boarded the westbound train, Lincoln told them, “Good-by, gentlemen. God bless you all! Remember, your success is my success.” Grant boarded the train and told his staffers, “I think we can send him some good news in a day or two.” Grant’s chief of staff, Major General John Rawlins, urged him to postpone the offensive until the rain stopped, but Grant refused.

Two of Sheridan’s three divisions reached Dinwiddie Court House in the pouring rain around 5 p.m. This was about four miles west of the end of the Confederate line and five miles south of Five Forks. Sheridan’s third division, led by Brigadier General George A. Custer, stayed about seven miles back to protect the rear. The troopers bivouacked without tents despite the rain.

Sheridan’s original orders were to continue pushing northward and seize Five Forks. But that night, he received a message from Grant:

“I now feel like ending the matter if it is possible to do so before going back. I do not want you, therefore, to cut loose and go after the enemy’s roads at present. In the morning push round the enemy if you can and get onto his right rear. The movements of the enemy’s cavalry may, of course, modify your action. We will act altogether as one army here until it is seen what can be done with the enemy.”

Thus, the plan had changed from cutting off Lee’s supplies and path of escape to destroying Lee’s army. Sheridan recalled, “I turned in at a late hour and slept most soundly.”

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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. 519-20; Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 214; Catton, Bruce, The Army of the Potomac: A Stillness at Appomattox (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1953), p. 343-44; Catton, Bruce. Grant Takes Command (Open Road Media. Kindle Edition, 2015), p. 439-41; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 552; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 572; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 8300; Kennedy, Frances H. (ed.), The Civil War Battlefield Guide (Christopher M. Calkins, The Conservation Fund, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1990), p. 273; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 659; 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. 845; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 487-88; Rhodes, James Ford, History of the Civil War, 1861-1865 (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1917 [Kindle Edition, Reservoir House, 2016], Loc 5601; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 219-20; Winik, Jay, April 1865: The Month That Saved America (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), p. 78

The Battle of Hatcher’s Run Ends

February 7, 1865 – The fighting in the southwestern sector of the Petersburg lines ended inconclusively, which by this time meant Federal victory because the dwindling Confederate Army of Northern Virginia could no longer afford to just hold off the enemy.

By the 7th, heavy fighting in the woods around the Boydton Plank Road had driven Federal forces back. Most of the Federals belonged to Major General Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps, with some under Major General Andrew A. Humphreys’s II Corps and Brigadier General David M. Gregg’s cavalry division. The Federals held the road, but they were south of Hatcher’s Run.

Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac, wrote to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander: “The ignorance I am under of the exact moral condition of Warren’s corps, and his losses from stragglers has restrained me from giving him positive orders to attack; but I have directed him to push out strong reconnaissances,” and Warren would decide “whether to attack or not.”

Meade then directed Warren to send one of his divisions out to renew the attack on the Confederates. In bitterly cold, wet weather, the Federals probed but found no substantial opposition. The ensuing skirmish resulted in the wounding of Confederate Brigadier General Moxley Sorrel. The Federals abandoned their vulnerable position on the Boydton Plank Road and moved southwest to occupy the Vaughan Road crossing of Hatcher’s Run.

Fighting involving Warren’s corps | Image Credit: Harper’s Weekly, Vol. IX, No. 426, 25 Feb 1865

Warren reported at 5:30 p.m. that “we have regained most of the ground we held yesterday, and drawn the artillery fire from the enemy’s works, and we can hold the south side of Hatcher’s Run toward Dabney’s Mill so long as may be required.” In this three-day fight, the Federals sustained 1,512 casualties (170 killed, 1,160 wounded, and 182 missing) out of some 35,000 engaged; the Confederates had about 14,000 engaged with casualties unknown.

Like all Federal offensives during the Petersburg campaign thus far, this ended with a Confederate repulse. However, the Federals were now three miles closer to the South Side Railroad, the last railway supplying the Confederates in Petersburg. This meant that the Confederate commander, General Robert E. Lee, now had to defend 37 miles of trench lines with only 46,398 men “present for duty.” And this number included many who were too sick for active service. Lee wrote to Secretary of War John C. Breckinridge on the 8th:

“All the disposable force of the right wing of the army has been operating against the enemy beyond Hatcher’s Run since Sunday. Yesterday, the most inclement day of the winter, they had to be retained in line of battle, having been in the same condition the two previous days and nights. I regret to be obliged to state that under these circumstances, heightened by assaults and fire of the enemy, some of the men had been without meat for three days, and all were suffering from reduced rations and scant clothing, exposed to battle, cold, hail, and sleet.

“I have directed Colonel Cole, chief commissary, who reports that he has not a pound of meat at his disposal, to visit Richmond and see if nothing can be done. If some change is not made and the commissary department reorganized, I apprehend dire results. The physical strength of the men, if their courage survives, must fail under this treatment. Our cavalry has to be dispersed for want of forage… Taking these facts in connection with the paucity of our numbers, you must not be surprised if calamity befalls us.”

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Civil War Trust: Battle of Hatcher’s Run; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 529; 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 16422-42; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 551; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 8098; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 20, 24-31; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 635-36; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 350, 577-79; Wikipedia: Battle of Hatcher’s Run

The Battle of Hatcher’s Run

February 5, 1865 – Fighting erupted over Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant’s effort to extend his Federal siege line around Petersburg, Virginia.

After the Federal Army of the Potomac had seized the Weldon Railroad south of Petersburg last year, Grant believed that the Boydton Plank Road had become the Confederates’ main supply line. The Federals had tried moving beyond the Confederate left flank to seize this road in October but failed. But Grant was wrong: the Confederates had abandoned the road because it became too dangerous to defend. Nevertheless, Grant renewed his plan to retake the road, hoping not only to cut a key enemy supply line but to block the enemy’s westward escape route.

Peace talks were taking place at Hampton Roads, but President Abraham Lincoln told Grant not to let them “cause any change, hindrance or delay, of your military plans or operations.” Grant therefore moved forward with his planned assault. He wrote to Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac on the southwestern sector of the siege line, on the 4th:

“I would like to take advantage of the present good weather to destroy or capture as much as possible of the enemy’s wagon train, which it is understood is being used in connection with the Weldon railroad to partially supply the troops about Petersburg. You may get the cavalry ready to do this as soon as possible. I think the cavalry should start at 3 a.m. either tomorrow or the following day, carrying one and a half days’ forage and three days’ rations with them. They should take no wagons and but few ambulances. Let the Second Corps move at the same time, but independent of the cavalry, as far south as Stony Creek Station, to remain there until the cavalry has done the enemy all the harm it can and returns to that point.”

Brigadier General David M. Gregg’s cavalry division would ride west to the Boydton Plank Road, supported by Major General Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps and two divisions of Major General Andrew A. Humphreys’s II Corps. The infantry would move west along parallel roads, but Meade modified Grant’s plan by placing Warren’s corps to the south instead of Humphreys’s. The expedition would involve 35,000 Federals.

At 3 a.m. on the 5th, Gregg’s cavalry headed out in bitter cold and rain. They rode west to Ream’s Station on the Weldon Railroad, turned south, and then turned west again, sporadically skirmishing with Confederate patrols before arriving at Dinwiddie Court House around noon. Warren’s V Corps crossed Rowanty Creek and stopped on the Vaughan Road to cover Gregg’s right flank. Humphreys’s Federals moved down the Vaughan Road to Hatcher’s Run and covered Warren’s right flank.

Humphreys deployed his troops about 1,000 yards in front of the Confederate defenses. The defenses were manned by Major General Henry Heth’s division and part of Major General John B. Gordon’s Second Corps recently returned from the Shenandoah Valley. The Confederates were caught off guard and offered little resistance at first. The Confederates finally came out of their trenches around 5 p.m. and advanced to drive the Federals off.

Both sides stood their ground and exchanged fire for about a half-hour, but then the Federal line started wavering. Some men joined to sing “The Battle Cry of Freedom,” which rallied the troops. They formed a new line and withstood three Confederate charges before both sides disengaged for the night.

When Grant received word of this engagement, he saw an opportunity to seize not only the Boydton Plank Road but the vital South Side Railroad beyond. He wrote Meade, “If we can follow the enemy up, although it was not contemplated before, it may lead to getting the South Side road, or a position from which it can be reached.” Meanwhile, Federals from Gregg’s and Warren’s commands reinforced Humphreys during the night, and the Federal line now extended south of Hatcher’s Run.

Confederate Brig Gen John Pegram | Image Credit: civilwardailygazette.com

Warren’s Federals scouted the Confederate positions near Gravelly Run and Dabney’s Mill on the 6th. The Confederates fell back to their main defenses, and Gordon dispatched Brigadier General John Pegram’s division to probe the Dabney’s Mill area, east of the Boydton Plank Road. Federals and Confederates met during their respective probing actions, and a fierce Confederate attack in a small area of about 500 yards drove the Federals back to their main force.

Gordon sent in Brigadier General Clement A. Evans’s division on Pegram’s left. Evans’s Confederates drove the Federals back until two brigades came forward to stabilize the line and push the Confederates back. Major General Joseph Finegan’s Confederate division arrived next and attacked, causing the Federal line to buckle. During this assault, Pegram was killed by a Federal sharpshooter. Pegram had been a promising young officer who was just married last month in Richmond’s society event of the year.

Nevertheless, the Confederate assault began overwhelming the Federals, and many fled the field. Only nightfall and freezing rain prevented a Federal rout. The Confederates halted and took coats from dead soldiers for warmth, and the Federals fell back to the line beside Humphreys’s divisions. The Federals still held the south bank of Hatcher’s Run. Meade reported to Grant:

“Warren’s troops were compelled to retire in considerable confusion. They enemy was, however, checked before reaching the position occupied this morning, Vaughan road was recalled when the others were forced back. The troops are now formed in the lines occupied this morning. The fighting has been determined, principally in dense woods, and the losses considerable, particularly in the column compelled to retire. I am not able at present to give an estimate of them.”

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Civil War Trust: Battle of Hatcher’s Run; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 527-29; 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 16416-33; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 550-51; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 8098; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 27-31; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 634-35; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 483-84; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 350; Wikipedia: Battle of Hatcher’s Run

Battles at Fair Oaks and Hatcher’s Run

October 27, 1864 – Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant’s Federal forces moved to assault both ends of the Confederate siege line stretching from Richmond to Petersburg.

After failing to dislodge the Federals from north of the James River, General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, warned his top officers, “We must drive them back at all costs.” The Federal forces, under Grant’s overall command, continued trying to extend the ends of their line both east of Richmond and southwest of Petersburg. Lee notified Adjutant General Samuel Cooper that if Grant stretched the Confederate defenders any further, “I fear it will be impossible to keep him out of Richmond.”

Panicked Confederate officials hurriedly conscripted all able-bodied men in Richmond and forced them into the fortifications outside the city. Citizens loudly protested this as an act of tyranny, and the press reported that most of the “involuntary soldiers” deserted as soon as they could.

Meanwhile, Lee’s Confederates gave up trying to take back Fort Harrison and built fortifications closer to Richmond that minimized the fort’s usefulness to the Federals. On the 13th, the Federal X Corps under Major General Alfred H. Terry (Major General David B. Birney had relinquished corps command due to illness and died later this month) advanced and discovered these new defenses. Lieutenant General Richard H. Anderson’s Confederates inflicted heavy losses on the Federals north of the Darbytown Road and drove them off.

Both sides settled back into the tedium of the siege outside Richmond and Petersburg. Lieutenant General James Longstreet returned to active duty as Lee’s top corps commander. Longstreet had been severely wounded at the Battle of the Wilderness, which partially paralyzed his right arm and forced him to learn to write with his left hand.

Longstreet resumed command of the First Corps, which had since been commanded by Anderson. These troops defended the siege lines north of the James River. Lee gave Anderson command of a new Fourth Corps, which consisted of two divisions. Its duty was to guard Petersburg against a direct assault should the siege lines be broken.

The siege lines now stretched from north of the James (southeast of Richmond), southward around the east and south of Petersburg, and then curled to the southwest below the city. The Federals had not been able to cut either the Boydton Plank Road or the South Side Railroad, which entered Petersburg from the southwest and west to supply the Confederates.

Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac besieging Petersburg, suggested to Grant that the Confederate right on the Boydton Plank Road was vulnerable to attack. And if the road was captured, the Federals could continue moving and seize the South Side Railroad. Grant approved Meade’s request to attack and developed a plan:

  • II Corps under Major General Winfield Scott Hancock on the Federal left would cross Hatcher’s Run on the Vaughn Road and then move north to seize the Boydton Plank Road.
  • IX Corps under Major General John G. Parke on the Federal right would attack the Confederates defending the road north of Hatcher’s Run.
  • V Corps under Major General Gouverneur Warren and a cavalry division under Brigadier General David M. Gregg would support Parke.

The attack force consisted of 43,000 Federals, while the Confederate defenders numbered no more than 12,000. To gain an even greater advantage, Grant planned to strike the other end of Lee’s defense line at the same time. He directed Major General Benjamin F. Butler to lead elements of X and XVIII corps to the Darbytown Road and Fair Oaks, east of Richmond.

The Federals moved out against Lee’s left (southeast of Richmond) and right (southwest of Petersburg) on the 27th. When news of these movements reached Richmond, Confederate officials put their last reserves on the defense lines. Longstreet’s troops held Lee’s left as Butler’s Federals moved along the Darbytown Road and north toward Fair Oaks.

Confederates under Major Generals Charles W. Field and Robert F. Hoke repelled the Federal attackers and neutralized Fort Harrison in just a few hours. This was the easiest Confederate victory in this sector of the siege line to date. Butler lost 1,103 men, including about 600 taken prisoner, and 11 battle flags. Longstreet lost just 451.

Meanwhile, the Federal force southwest of Petersburg moved out at 7:30 a.m. in heavy rain. Hancock advanced as planned and seized the road near Burgess’ Mill by noon. Per his orders, Hancock waited there until Parke and Warren joined him. But Parke met strong resistance from Major General Cadmus M. Wilcox’s Confederates, and Warren’s men struggled over the rough terrain before being repulsed by Wilcox south of Hatcher’s Run.

Federals attack works at Hatcher’s Run | Image Credit: Harper’s Weekly, Vol. VIII, No. 412 (19 Nov 1864)

The failure of Parke and Warren to achieve a breakthrough left Hancock isolated. Lieutenant General A.P. Hill directed a counterattack led by Major General Henry Heth’s infantry and Major General Wade Hampton’s cavalry. They came upon Hancock’s flank, which Warren had not come up to protect. Hancock managed to fend off the assaults, and Meade let him decide to either fall back or hold firm until Warren and Parke reinforced him. Having no faith in either Warren or Parke, Hancock withdrew that night, relinquishing the road.

The Federals sustained 1,758 casualties (166 killed, 1,028 wounded and 564 missing). The Confederates lost about 1,000 men, a much greater proportion of those engaged (8 percent versus the Federals’ 4 percent). Confederate losses included two of Hampton’s sons, Lieutenants Wade (wounded) and Preston (killed).

On the morning of the 28th, the Confederates discovered that Hancock was gone and took back the Boydton Plank Road. This ended combat operations on the Richmond-Petersburg lines for the year. The works now stretched nearly 35 miles, with both sides spending the fall and winter patrolling, picketing, sharpshooting, and continually strengthening defenses.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 22242; Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 154-57; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 475-76, 479; 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 13231-41, 12023-43; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 509-10, 514-15; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7975-88, 8000-12; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 584, 589-90; Sommers, Richard J., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 169, 179-80, 393; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 95-96, 204-05

The Battle of Peebles’s Farm: Day Two

October 1, 1864 – Elements of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia prepared to renew their attack on Federals pushing to seize the final supply lines southwest of Petersburg, Virginia.

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

Federals from Major General George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac entrenched themselves at Peebles’ Farm. They consisted of V and IX corps under Major Generals Gouverneur Warren and John G. Parke, along with cavalry under Brigadier General David M. Gregg. The Federals had tried seizing the Boydton Plank Road and the South Side Railroad on September 30, but Confederates from General Robert E. Lee’s army had pushed them back.

The Confederates consisted of two divisions from Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s corps, led by Major Generals Henry Heth and Cadmus M. Wilcox, along with Major General Wade Hampton’s cavalry division. After driving the Federals back, they planned to renew the offensive on the 1st. Wilcox would attack IX Corps on the Federal left to the west, but the main Confederate attack would come from Heth against V Corps on the seemingly weak Federal right to the east.

Fighting opened with a Confederate artillery barrage designed to weaken the Federal lines. Heth’s troops drove off the Federal pickets but were sharply repelled by the Federals on the main line. Wilcox’s men captured several Federal skirmishers but did not go any further toward attacking IX Corps. Hampton tried getting into the Federal rear with his cavalry, but Federal troopers drove the Confederates off near the Vaughn Road.

Meade ordered Warren and Parke not to take the offensive until Brigadier General Gershom Mott’s division from II Corps arrived to reinforce them. Mott’s men were being transferred by a new railroad built exclusively to serve the Federals at Petersburg from their main supply base at City Point. But the trains were delayed, and the troops did not arrive until that night. Meade explained the delay to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, adding, “Generals Parke and Warren are ordered to attack early tomorrow morning,” and would “endeavor to effect a lodgment on the Boydton plank road.”

Parke reported to Meade on the morning of the 2nd, “Mott is now moving to take position on my left. As soon as he is in position I will advance the whole line.” The Federal V and IX corps, now augmented by Mott’s division, advanced west toward the Confederates guarding the Boydton Plank Road. The Federals easily pushed back pickets and skirmishers, but they stopped when they saw that the main defenses were stronger than expected.

Meade wrote Grant, “Without your orders, I shall not attack their intrenchments, but on being satisfied they are not outside of them I will take up the best position I can, connecting with the Weldon railroad and extending as far to the left as practicable, having in view the protection of my left flank, and then intrench.”

Grant approved, but later he warned Meade that he might have to abandon this extension of the siege line “whenever the forces holding it are necessary to defend any other part of the line.” After holding a council of war on Peebles’s farm, Meade wrote Grant:

“We now hold securely to the Pegram house, with our left refused and the cavalry to the rear on the Vaughn and Duncan Roads. The left is a little over a mile from the Boydton plank road, and believed to be not over two miles from the South Side Railroad. Generals Parke and Warren are busily occupied intrenching in his position, and rendering it such that should the enemy turn the left they will have an available force to meet the movement.”

The fighting on and near Peebles’s Farm resulted in about 2,950 Federal casualties and 1,239 Confederate. This ended Grant’s fifth offensive against Petersburg, and it proved just as fruitless as the first four. The Confederates retained their hold on both the Boydton Plank Road and the South Side Railroad, which they used to feed and supply themselves. However, the Federals did extend their siege line farther south and west of Petersburg, which forced the Confederates to stretch their opposing line even thinner in defense. And the manpower on that line was rapidly shrinking due to casualties, illnesses, and desertions.

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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. 466-67; 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 11766-76; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 504; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 578; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 567-68; PetersburgSiege.org

The Battle of Peebles’s Farm

September 30, 1864 – While Federal forces attacked the Confederate siege lines north of the James River, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant directed the Army of the Potomac to attack the Confederate line southwest of Petersburg.

As Major General Benjamin F. Butler prepared his assault outside Richmond, Grant, the overall Federal commander, informed Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac at Petersburg, that “a movement will take place intended to surprise and capture the works of the enemy north of the James River between Malvern Hill and Richmond.”

Grant envisioned a two-pronged assault that would extend the lines of General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia until they broke. In conjunction with Butler’s move to the north, Grant instructed Meade, “As a co-operative movement with this you will please have the Army of the Potomac under arms at 4 a.m. on the 29th ready to move in any direction.”

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

Grant wanted Meade’s Federals to continue pushing southwest of Petersburg and seize the South Side Railroad, Lee’s last supply line via rail. Grant instructed Meade, “I will leave the details to you, stating merely that I want every effort used to convince the enemy that the South Side road and Petersburg are the objects of our efforts.”

The day after Butler’s Federals seized Fort Harrison and New Market Heights north of the James, Grant ordered Meade to attack Lee’s southernmost lines below Petersburg: “You may move out now and see if an advantage can be gained. It seems to me the enemy must be weak enough at one or the other place to let us in.”

Meade dispatched 16,000 Federals from V and IX corps under Major Generals Gouverneur Warren and John G. Parke for the assault. Brigadier General David M. Gregg’s Federal cavalry would guard the Federals’ left (south) flank. The Federals moved west in two columns toward the Confederate defenses along the Boydton Plank Road, which Lee was using in place of the Weldon Railroad (lost to the Federals in August) as a supply line.

Warren’s men led the advance before halting along the Squirrel Level Road and deploying for battle. The Federals then attacked and drove the Confederates back from Poplar Springs Church. Warren’s division under Brigadier General Charles Griffin captured the important Fort Archer on Peebles’s Farm.

Federals attacking a fort | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

The Confederates regrouped on a line closer to the Boydton Plank Road. Warren informed Meade at 2:20 p.m., “I will push up as fast as I can get my troops in order toward Petersburg on the Squirrel Level road.” However, Warren would not advance until Parke’s corps came up on his left and the Federals secured a connection to Globe Tavern.

During that time, Confederates from Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s corps under Major Generals Henry Heth and Cadmus M. Wilcox arrived and counterattacked. Warren’s Federals were knocked back into Parke’s, and the Confederates pushed them for over a mile until they entrenched at Peebles’s Farm. The Federals held firm until the Confederates disengaged for the night. Meade reported to Grant:

“About 4 p.m. General Parke was advancing to the Boydton plank road when he was vigorously attacked by the enemy, said by prisoners to have been two divisions of Hill’s corps. The fighting for some time till after dark was very severe, and after the Ninth Corps rallied and Griffin attacked it is believed the enemy suffered heavily.”

Grant told Meade that he “need not advance tomorrow unless in your judgment an advantage can be gained, but hold on to what you have, and be ready to advance. We must be greatly superior to the enemy in numbers on one flank or the other, and by working around at each end, we will find where the enemy’s weak point is.”

The fighting north of the James, along with this fighting on the 30th southwest of Petersburg, stretched Lee’s army to the limit and forced a desperate shift of troops from one threatened front to the other. Lee informed Secretary of War James A. Seddon that while Grant extended his lines and increased his numbers, the Army of Northern Virginia could “only meet his corps, increased by recent recruits, with a division, reduced by long and arduous service.”

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 150, 155; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 464-65; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 502-03; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 576-77; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 567-68; http://www.petersburgsiege.org/peebles.htm

The Second Battle of the Weldon Railroad

August 18, 1864 – Fighting broke out southwest of the Petersburg siege lines when Federals tried moving beyond the Confederates’ flank to sever the Weldon Railroad.

Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, knew that General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, had sent part of his force to the Shenandoah Valley. Grant also knew that Lee had reinforced the Confederate defenses in front of Richmond, north of the James River. Based on this, Grant guessed that Lee’s defense line outside Petersburg was weak and vulnerable to attack.

Maj Gen Gouverneur Warren | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Grant dispatched Major General Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps from the Army of the Potomac to cut the Confederates’ Weldon supply line running from Petersburg to Wilmington, and to divert attention from the Federal expedition north of the James. This was the first major Federal attempt since the Battle of the Crater to disrupt the Confederate siege lines at Petersburg.

When President Abraham Lincoln learned of Grant’s plan, he sent him an encouraging message: “I have seen your despatch expressing your unwillingness to break your hold where you are. Neither am I willing. Hold on with a bulldog grip, and chew and choke as much as possible.” Grant laughed upon reading this dispatch and told his staff, “The president has more nerve than any of his advisers.”

Warren’s Federals set out at 4 a.m. on the 18th, marching through rain and mud before arriving at Globe Tavern five hours later. They were about four miles south of Petersburg, and three miles south of the Confederate defenses. A division began wrecking the railroad while Brigadier General Romeyn B. Ayres’s division turned north to face any Confederate attempt to stop the operation. Ayres’s men struggled to maneuver in the dense woods and oppressive heat. Brigadier General Samuel W. Crawford’s division came up to support Ayres’s right.

Operations of Aug 18-19 | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding the Petersburg defenses while Lee was north of the James, called upon Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s Third Corps to confront the Federals. Hill dispatched two brigades under Major General Henry Heth and another brigade under Major General Robert F. Hoke. Fighting began under heavy rain.

The Confederates initially drove Ayres and Crawford back toward Globe Tavern, but the Federals were reinforced by Brigadier General Lysander Cutler’s division on Ayres’s left. They regrouped and advanced, and by nightfall they regained their original positions. Warren notified Crawford, “You have done very well indeed in getting forward through that difficult country. Make yourself as strong as you can and hold on. I will try and re-enforce you…”

Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, dispatched reinforcements from IX and II corps and ordered Warren to hold the railroad “at all hazards.” The Federals lost 836 men (544 killed or wounded, and 292 missing) in the action on the 18th.

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

The Confederates were reinforced by Major General Rooney Lee’s cavalry division and Major General William Mahone’s infantry division. Beauregard wrote Lee at 8 a.m. on the 19th, “I will endeavor to-day to dislodge him with four brigades of our infantry and the division of cavalry you have promised. Result would be more certain with a stronger force of infantry.”

Skirmishing took place throughout the 19th as the heavy rain continued. Mahone’s Confederates approached Crawford’s division on the Federal right, concealed by the woods, and launched a fierce attack at 4:15 p.m. The Federals wavered to the point that two brigades nearly surrendered, and Crawford was almost captured trying to rally his men. Meanwhile, Heth attacked the Federal center and left, but Ayres’s men repelled him.

The arrival of Federal reinforcements enabled Warren to stabilize his position in vicious hand-to-hand combat. He lost another 2,900 men (382 killed or wounded and 2,518 missing or captured), but he ordered an “advance at daylight in every direction.”

The Confederates pulled back for the night, and Warren fell back a mile down the Weldon line. The Federals maintained control of the railroad; now only two other lines could feed Richmond and Petersburg: the South Side and the Richmond & Danville railroads.

Beauregard wrote on the 20th, “General Hill reports enemy still occupying part of railroad where he is fortifying. Am endeavoring to make necessary arrangements to dislodge him to-day, if practicable… Every available man who can be spared from (the Petersburg) trenches has been withdrawn. Shall try attack in the morning with all the force I can spare.”

Warren, who initially planned to advance, now reconsidered after seeing the carnage from the previous day’s fight. He wrote Meade, “I do not think with our present force we can hold a line across where I established the picket-line yesterday.” Skirmishing erupted throughout the 20th, as the Federals continued wrecking the railroad while pulling out of the underbrush and forming a new line two miles to the rear that connected to the Jerusalem Plank Road.

President Jefferson Davis expressed concern about the Federal presence on the railroad. Beauregard wrote that night, “Expect to attack early in the morning. No available force shall be left behind.” He hoped to follow up his success on the 19th with a complete victory, but the only force he could muster was Hill’s two divisions and a few more brigades under Heth and Mahone.

The Confederates launched an intense artillery barrage before renewing their assaults at 9 a.m. With ranks three-deep, Mahone struck the Federal left while Heth hit the center, but they could not dislodge the entrenched Federals from the railroad. Hill finally called off the attack, and the Confederates returned to their original siege lines, thus acknowledging they had permanently lost the Weldon Railroad as a supply line.

The Federals did not pursue, which frustrated Grant: “It seems to me that when the enemy comes out of his works and attacks and is repulsed he ought to be followed vigorously to the last minute with every man. Holding the line is of no importance whilst troops are operating in front of it.” In the four-day engagement, the Federals sustained 4,455 total casualties (198 killed, 1,105 wounded, and 3,152 missing) out of about 20,000 effectives, while the Confederates lost some 1,600 from about 14,000.

Without the railroad, the Confederates had to get supplies from Wilmington by unloading them from the railroad at Stony Creek and taking them by wagon train up the Boydton Plank Road running northeast into Petersburg. Even so, a Confederate staff officer optimistically noted, “Whilst we are inconvenienced, no material harm is done us.” After receiving reports of the fight at Globe Tavern, Grant quickly ordered Federal infantry and cavalry to strike the important Confederate supply line at Reams’s Station between Globe Tavern and Stony Creek.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 22242; Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 99-104; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 448-49; 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 11445-68; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 487-88; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7881-94; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 556-59; 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. 776; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 577-79, 812-13

The Battle of Deep Bottom Run

August 14, 1864 – Federal forces moved north of the James River to attack the supposedly weakened Confederate defenses outside Richmond.

Federal siege operations resumed after the Battle of the Crater. Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, wanted to court-martial Major General Ambrose E. Burnside for his role in the Crater fiasco. But Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, instead placed Burnside on “extended leave,” never to return to active duty. Major General John G. Parke took over Burnside’s IX Corps.

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

Meanwhile, Grant continued the slow extension of his siege line southwest of Petersburg while avoiding any direct confrontations. President Jefferson Davis told General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia under siege, “It is thought idle to attack your entrenchments but feasible to starve you out.”

Major General Benjamin F. Butler, commanding the Federal Army of the James pinned down at Bermuda Hundred, devised a plan to break his men out by building a canal across Dutch Gap, a 174-yard-wide neck of land in a bend in the James River. This would allow ships to bypass five miles of Confederate batteries and water impediments at Trent’s Reach and Drewry’s Bluff, thereby giving the Federals a clear shot at Richmond.

Federal troops, including many black soldiers, began digging under enemy artillery and sniper fire. Grant had little faith that the canal would work, but he let Butler go on with it because he was a troublesome political general, and this would keep him busy. The brutal project lasted until the end of the year, and the canal was not officially completed until the war ended. After the war, the Dutch Gap Canal became a useful shipping channel on the James.

As Butler’s men worked, Grant received word that Lee had weakened his army by sending reinforcements to Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s army in the Shenandoah Valley. Grant was told “that it was understood that three divisions of infantry went to Early in the first part of the week. Great secrecy was observed in the movement, and the troops were taken through the city mostly in the night.”

Learning that the troops were from Lieutenant General Richard H. Anderson’s corps stationed north of the James, Grant reported, “The enemy has sent north two if not three divisions of infantry, twenty-three pieces of artillery, and one division of cavalry.” Believing that Lee had sent Anderson’s entire corps, Grant estimated that no more than 8,500 Confederates remained in front of Richmond. But Lee had really sent just one infantry and one cavalry division, leaving the Richmond defenses more heavily guarded than Grant anticipated.

Grant assigned three units to confront the Confederates north of the James:

  • Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps from the Army of the Potomac
  • Major General James B. Birney’s X Corps from the Army of the James
  • Brigadier General David M. Gregg’s cavalry division

Their target was Deep Bottom Run, 10 miles southeast of Richmond. Birney and Gregg crossed the James at Bermuda Hundred on the night of the 13th. Hancock’s men were loaded on transports to trick the Confederates into thinking they were going to Washington. They would then be brought back to reinforce Birney and Gregg. Grant explained to Meade:

“If the enemy are reduced as much in numbers as we have reason to believe they are, Hancock’s movements tomorrow may lead to almost the entire abandonment of Petersburg. Have this watched as closely as you can, and if you find this view realized, take such advantage of it as you deem best.”

The Federals landed at Deep Bottom at 9 a.m. on the 14th. Birney’s corps was to demonstrate against the Confederate right (south) flank, while Hancock tried turning the enemy left. Gregg’s cavalry would be to Hancock’s right, ready to ride into Richmond if an opening appeared.

The Federals advanced slowly in the summer heat, giving the Confederates time to bring up more men and guns to the earthworks. The attackers approached the Confederate defenses around midday and immediately realized they were stronger than expected. The Federals were forced to fall back.

Although the Federals north of the James were unsuccessful, Lee had done exactly what Grant wanted him to do–pull troops from south of the James to reinforce the northern sector. Grant therefore directed Major General Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps to try extending the Federal line to Globe Tavern, south and west of the weakened Petersburg defenses. North of the James, Hancock ordered Birney to link with his left. Many of Birney’s men fell out of line during the exhausting night march.

On the 15th, Hancock’s Federals struggled through the Tidewater woods, and Birney’s men took until 6 p.m. to adjust to the rough terrain, making it too late to attack that day. The next morning, the Federals attacked and pushed their way to within seven miles of Richmond. Birney’s troops penetrated the Confederate line at Fussell’s Mill, but neither Birney nor Hancock realized the line was broken due to the heavy foliage. Confederates under Major General Charles W. Field soon surged forward to plug the gap and hold the Federals off.

Both sides observed a ceasefire to collect their dead and wounded on the 17th, during which time Confederate gunboats on the James River prevented the Federals from renewing their assaults. The Confederates counterattacked Hancock’s lines on the 18th but were repelled. The opposing forces spent the next two days entrenching and skirmishing. Grant withdrew the Federals from above the James on the 20th, ending the fighting at Deep Bottom Run.

The Federals sustained 2,901 casualties, while the Confederates lost about 1,000. Grant did not achieve the breakthrough he hoped, but he prevented Lee from sending any more reinforcements to the Shenandoah Valley. Hancock’s corps was worn out, and he reported that his men did not conduct themselves well in this operation. The troops would be shifted southwest to join in the second of Grant’s two-pronged assault, involving Warren’s Federals below Petersburg.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 95, 98-99, 104, 112; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 447-48; 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 11279-89, 11434-55, 11500-10; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 485-87; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7869, 7881, 7918; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 554-56; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 617-18; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 231-32; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 812-13