Tag Archives: Henry Heth

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 Deep Bottom Engagement

July 26, 1864 – As the Petersburg siege continued, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant directed the Army of the Potomac to launch an ancillary attack on the Confederate defenses southeast of Richmond.

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

Grant, the overall Federal commander, resolved that the Federals needed to “do something in the way of offensive movement” toward Richmond. This would divert Confederate attention and resources from both the siege of Petersburg and the tunneling expedition outside that city, 22 miles south of the Confederate capital.

According to Grant’s plan, Federal cavalry would ride beyond the Confederate lines and wreck track on the Virginia Central Railroad, which linked Richmond to the fertile Shenandoah Valley. Infantry would advance in support of the cavalry to threaten (and possibly capture) Richmond.

Grant directed Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, to send forces north of the James River, “having for its real object the destruction of the railroad on that side.” Grant added, “It is barely possible that by a bold move this expedition may surprise the little garrison of citizen soldiery now in Richmond and get in.” If so, “Concentrate all the force possible at the point in the enemy’s line we expect to penetrate.”

Maj Gen W.S. Hancock | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Meade assigned Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps and two divisions of Major General Philip Sheridan’s Cavalry Corps to the mission. They were to cross the James River at Deep Bottom, 10 miles southeast of Richmond, where troops of Major General Benjamin F. Butler’s Army of the James at Bermuda Hundred had built a pontoon bridge.

Sheridan would ride ahead, threatening Richmond and wrecking the railroad north and west of the city. Hancock would confront the Confederates at Chaffin’s Bluff and prevent enemy forces from opposing Sheridan. The Federals moved out on the night of the 26th. They crossed the James and occupied a bridgehead held by X Corps of the Army of the James.

General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia defending both Richmond and Petersburg, heard rumors of such a drive on Richmond. He believed this would be just a diversion from the main action outside Petersburg, but as a precaution he quietly sent Major General Joseph B. Kershaw’s division north of the James before Grant had even issued his orders.

The Federals began crossing the James at 3 a.m. on the 27th. Advancing toward Chaffin’s Bluff, Hancock met unexpected resistance near where the New Market Road intersected Bailey’s Creek. Nevertheless, the Federals overwhelmed the Confederates and captured four 20-pound Parrott guns.

Hancock took positions east of Bailey’s Creek, between the New Market Road to the southwest and Fussell’s Mill to the northeast. The Federals were suddenly pinned down by Confederate fire from the divisions of Kershaw and Major General Cadmus M. Wilcox. The fighting diminished while Lieutenant Generals Richard H. Anderson and Richard Ewell argued over which of them was the ranking Confederate commander.

Upon reconnoitering the enemy positions west of Bailey’s Creek, Hancock reported, “The works appeared to be filled with men, and a number of pieces of artillery were in position. After a careful examination of the position it was decided that the chances of successful assault were unfavorable, and it was determined to maneuver to the right, with the view of turning the position.”

Sheridan’s troopers moved beyond Hancock’s right and began probing up the Darbytown Road, which ran northwest to Richmond. Brigadier General Alfred T.A. Torbert seized the high ground around Fussell’s Mill, but a Confederate counterattack drove him off.

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

Lee, learning of this activity north of the James, dispatched another infantry division under Major General Henry Heth and a cavalry division under his son, Major General W.H.F. “Rooney” Lee. Reinforcements from the Richmond garrison also hurried to strengthen the defenses in front of Hancock and Sheridan.

Grant arrived at the scene late that afternoon and was surprised to see such strong Confederate resistance. He reinforced Hancock’s infantry with a brigade from XIX Corps and issued orders for the Federals to turn the enemy’s left (north) flank the next day. This would enable Sheridan to ride northwest and raid Richmond.

On the 28th, Sheridan’s Federals moved to assault the Confederate left, but the Confederates preemptively attacked their right with three brigades under Kershaw. The dismounted Federals took refuge just below a ridgeline and repelled a Confederate charge with their repeating carbines. The Federals took 300 prisoners and two battle flags while losing a cannon.

Despite the Federal success, Lee’s swift decision to bolster the Confederate defenses prevented Sheridan from moving toward Richmond or the Virginia Central Railroad as planned. Hancock positioned his forces so they could withdraw back across the James, and the Federals began returning to the Petersburg line that night.

The Federals sustained 334 casualties in this operation. Grant reported to Washington, “We have failed in what I had hoped to accomplish.” Even so, Grant had drawn several Confederate units north of the James, leaving only 18,000 men to defend Petersburg. Grant concluded, “I am yet in hopes of turning this diversion to account.” Federal hopes now shifted to the tunneling expedition.

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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 22209; Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 70; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 439-41; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 474-76; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7809; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 546-48; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 204

The Battle of the Wilderness: Day One

May 5, 1864 – General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia caught the Federal Army of the Potomac in the forbidding Wilderness, and a chaotic battle opened the spring campaign.

Major General George G. Meade’s Federal army, under Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant’s overall command, had begun moving around Lee’s right the previous day before stopping in the Wilderness, an uninhabitable forest of undergrowth, brush, vines, trees, and ravines. The Federals resumed their march at 5 a.m., as Grant was anxious to get out of the Wilderness and into open ground, where he could use his superior numbers and artillery to attack the Confederates.

Meanwhile, Lee’s Confederates moved to trap the Federals in the Wilderness. The Federal cavalry did not warn of Lee’s approach mainly because Meade had dispatched most of the troopers eastward to confront Major General Jeb Stuart’s Confederate horsemen operating in the Fredericksburg area. The rest of the Federal troopers were not adequately deployed because Grant did not expect Lee to rush forward and meet him. By early on the 5th, Lee’s three corps were on the move:

  • Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s Second Corps moved northeast along the Orange Turnpike
  • Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s Third Corps moved along the parallel Orange Plank Road, farther south
  • Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s First Corps, stationed back at Gordonsville, was to join Ewell and Hill via the Brock Road

As Major General Gouverneur Warren’s Federal V Corps moved southeast, one of his divisions on the Orange Turnpike was suddenly stopped by Ewell’s Confederates to the west. Warren reported this to headquarters, unaware that Ewell’s entire corps was approaching. Grant instructed Meade, “If any opportunity presents itself of pitching into a part of Lee’s Army do so without giving time for disposition.” At 7:30 a.m., Meade ordered Warren to attack, and the first major battle of the year between these armies began.

The Federals advanced slowly, as men got lost in the thick brush, officers could not convey orders, signalmen could not convey signs, and gun smoke obscured vision. By 9 a.m., Ewell had deployed his entire corps on either side of the Orange Turnpike, and Warren directed his remaining three divisions to come up and reinforce the one facing the Confederates.

Major General John Sedgwick’s VI Corps moved to come up on Warren’s right (north). Meade informed Grant, “Warren is making his dispositions to attack, and Sedgwick to support him.” Grant approved and called for Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s IX Corps, held back in reserve, to cross the Rapidan River and join the action.

Fighting in the Wilderness | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Warren’s Federals nearly broke Ewell’s line, but as Ewell’s men fell back behind breastworks, they began overlapping Warren’s right flank. Warren asked Meade for permission to suspend the attack until Sedgwick could come up. Meade consented, thus giving Ewell time to bring up reinforcements. When Sedgwick still had not arrived by 1 p.m., Meade ordered Warren to resume the assault without him.

The Federals advanced, but as Warren feared, they quickly wavered under enfilade fire from the right. Some units made progress against the Confederate line, while others were repulsed. The famous Federal Iron Brigade, now filled with raw recruits after losing most of its veterans at Gettysburg, broke and ran for the first time.

The fighting turned chaotic as the dense brush of the Wilderness disoriented the combatants. Many soldiers were killed by friendly fire. Gaps in the lines went unexploited because the enemy could not see them. Officers tried using compasses to determine which direction they were facing. Sparks from the guns caused brush fires, and men too wounded to move were burned to death.

Sedgwick’s Federals arrived on Warren’s right around 3 p.m. and attacked Ewell north of the turnpike in an effort to turn Ewell’s left. The Confederates repulsed the effort, and fighting surged back and forth for about an hour before both sides disengaged to build defenses.

On Warren’s left, the Confederates repelled several attacks and captured a section of a Federal artillery battery. However, the Confederates were soon pinned down by fire from Federal reinforcements, and by nightfall, the fighting in this sector of the field ended in stalemate.

To the south, Federals spotted A.P. Hill’s Confederates advancing up the Orange Plank Road. Lee directed Hill to seize the intersection of the Orange Plank and Brock roads, since Longstreet was expected to come up via the Brock. Meade also needed the crossroads to continue his southward advance out of the Wilderness, and so he detached Brigadier General George W. Getty’s division from Sedgwick’s corps to hold it.

Maj Gen W.S. Hancock | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Intense fighting took place at close quarters in dense brush, with the smoke causing mass confusion and disorientation. The Federals finally repelled the initial attack and forced the Confederates back west. Meade ordered Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps, in the Federal vanguard marching out of the Wilderness, to come back north and reinforce Getty. Hancock’s troops began arriving around 4 p.m.

The Federals attacked, but Confederates from Major General Henry Heth’s division soon pinned them down. Hancock told a courier, “Report to General Meade that it is very hard to bring up troops in this wood, and that only part of my Corps is up, but I will do as well as I can.” Hancock then sent another division forward, nearly breaking the Confederate line until it was reinforced by Hill’s reserve division under Major General Cadmus Wilcox.

The brutal fighting ended at nightfall with the Federals controlling the Brock Road. Lee sent orders to Longstreet to come up using the Orange Plank Road instead. Longstreet later wrote, “The change of direction of our march was not reassuring.” Elsewhere, opposing cavalry forces under Federal Brigadier General James H. Wilson and Confederate Brigadier General Thomas L. Rosser also fought to a stalemate on the southern end of the field.

President Abraham Lincoln received no news about the battle because Grant had barred the reporters from using the military telegraph. A witness at the War Department saw Lincoln “waiting for despatches, and, no doubt, sickening with anxiety.”

Grant recognized that Lee’s right had been weakened and issued orders that night to concentrate on destroying Hill’s corps the next day. Warren and Sedgwick were to continue their assaults on Ewell to prevent him from aiding Hill, and Burnside’s IX Corps would come up between the Orange Turnpike and the Orange Plank Road to attack Hill’s flank and rear. After Hill was destroyed, the Federals would then turn to destroy Ewell.

Lee retired to his headquarters at the Widow Tapp farm, about a mile to the rear of his army and just four miles south of Grant’s headquarters. It became immediately apparent to Lee that Grant, unlike his predecessors, would not commit his forces piecemeal. From this point on, the Confederates would face the full power of the Army of the Potomac.

Nevertheless, Ewell had held firm, and Hill, despite having just 15,000 men and being scattered like “a worm fence, at every angle,” also held with Longstreet coming up to reinforce him. Lee permitted Hill’s men to rest, expecting Longstreet to come up next morning on Hill’s right (south). Hill would then close with Ewell to form a more compact line. Lee reported to Secretary of War James A. Seddon at 11 p.m.:

“The enemy crossed the Rapidan yesterday at Ely’s and Germanna Fords. Two Corps of this army moved to oppose him–Ewell’s, by the old turnpike, and Hill’s by the plank road. They arrived this morning in close proximity to the enemy’s line of march. A strong attack was made upon Ewell, who repulsed it, capturing many prisoners and four pieces of artillery. The enemy subsequently concentrated upon General Hill, who, with Heth’s and Wilcox’s divisions, successfully resisted repeated and desperate assaults… By the blessing of God we maintained our position against every effort until night, when the contest closed. We have to mourn the loss of many brave officers and men.”

Both Grant and Lee ordered hostilities to resume early next morning.

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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. 449, 452; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 443-44, 446; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 400; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 10637; 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 3514-24; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 428; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 61-69; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 268-70; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 492-93; 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. 724; Mullins, Michael A., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 825-27; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 288-90; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 551

The Battle of Gettysburg: Day One

July 1, 1863 – Advance elements of the Federal and Confederate armies clashed in southern Pennsylvania, beginning what would grow into the most terrible battle in American history.

By this time, part of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia had gathered north of Gettysburg, while Federal cavalry from the Army of the Potomac had arrived south of the town. Lieutenant General A.P. Hill, commanding the Confederate Third Corps, directed one of his division commanders, Major General Henry Heth, “to ascertain what force was at Gettysburg, and, if he found infantry opposed to him, to report the fact immediately, without forcing an engagement.”

Brigadier General James J. Pettigrew, one of Heth’s brigade commanders, had reported seeing enemy cavalry outside the town the previous day, but both Heth and Hill believed that Federal infantry was still far behind. Part of Heth’s division moved out to reconnoiter at 5 a.m., with no cavalry or pickets leading the way.

Brig Gen John Buford | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Brigadier General John Buford’s two brigades of 3,000 Federal horsemen had arrived the day before and were conducting a reconnaissance of their own. Buford was convinced that the Confederate army would converge on this strategically important town. He intended to hold the vital roads northwest of Gettysburg until the closest Federal infantry under Major General John F. Reynolds (commanding operations for I, III, and XI corps) could come up in support.

Buford’s pickets sighted the Confederates approaching on the Chambersburg Pike about four miles west of Gettysburg and opened fire. Heth’s men fanned out in line of battle and advanced, and skirmishing began around 8 a.m. Buford ordered his troopers to dismount and engage the oncoming enemy with their rapid-fire Spencer breech-loading carbines.

The Confederates pushed the Federals back to Herr Ridge, and then back again into the low ground in front of McPherson’s Ridge. Buford watched the action from atop a Lutheran seminary, where he could see both the fight to the west and the expected approach of more Confederates from the north. As his men continued withdrawing, Buford directed them to make a stand on McPherson’s Ridge.

The Federal troopers held off an enemy three times their size for two hours. This proved that cavalry could indeed stand up to infantry if tested. Commanders on both sides sent messages summoning reinforcements. General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate army, had issued orders not to provoke a general engagement, but that was exactly what had begun.

Reynolds arrived ahead of his men around 10 a.m., where Buford told him, “The devil’s to pay!” When Reynolds asked if he could hold until the infantry arrived, Buford said, “I reckon I can.” Reynolds then sent a message to Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Federal army and still in Maryland, that the troops would make a stand to keep the Confederates out of Gettysburg, or at least keep them off the high ground south of town.

Elements of I Corps arrived first, with Reynolds sending them northwest through Gettysburg. They began relieving Buford’s defenders on McPherson’s Ridge around 10:30 a.m. Hill countered by sending Major General William D. Pender’s division to join Heth in the Confederate attack. Neither side had wanted to fight here, but the clash soon developed into a major battle nonetheless.

Reynolds began deploying men into McPherson’s Woods as the Confederates advanced to within 60 paces. He shouted, “Forward! For God’s sake, and drive those fellows out of the woods!” A sharpshooter’s bullet struck him in the back of the head, killing him instantly. Reynolds had been one of the army’s most beloved and respected commanders. He was temporarily replaced by Major General Abner Doubleday.

As the vicious fighting continued, Major General Oliver O. Howard’s “Dutch” (i.e., predominantly German-speaking) XI Corps arrived around 12 p.m. Howard, noting the importance of the high ground south of town as he passed, left a division there and then moved north through Gettysburg to take positions on Doubleday’s right. Two Confederate divisions from Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s Second Corps, led by Major Generals Jubal Early and Robert Rodes, soon approached from the north to oppose Howard.

Approximate army positions on July 1 | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

About 24,000 Confederates now faced some 19,000 Federals along a disjointed three-mile-line north and west of Gettysburg. Lee arrived, still without Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s First Corps and angry that Hill and Ewell had brought on such a large fight against orders. Nevertheless, he ordered them to attack in full force. At 3 p.m., the strongest assault of the day began when Early and Rodes attacked XI Corps from the north, while Pender and Heth attacked I Corps from the west.

Howard’s XI Corps fell back through town in confusion, just as they had when the Confederate Second Corps (then led by “Stonewall” Jackson) surprised them at Chancellorsville two months ago. They fled to the high ground southeast of town, consisting of Culp’s and Cemetery hills. Culp’s Hill anchored the northeastern end of the Federal line, which was the extreme Federal right. Major General Winfield Scott Hancock, commanding the Federal II Corps, recognized this position’s strength and sent a division to hold it. Howard’s fleeing men stopped when they were reinforced by Hancock’s troops on the hills.

The XI Corps retreat crumbled Doubleday’s right flank, so he too fell back, first to Seminary Ridge and then through Gettysburg to join his comrades on Cemetery Hill. The Federals also occupied the formidable Cemetery Ridge, an elevation a mile and a half east of the parallel Seminary Ridge. Buford’s cavalry and I Corps had fought stubbornly and held the Confederates off long enough for reinforcements to arrive.

Lee rode onto Seminary Ridge and saw the Federals falling back onto the heights to the east. He immediately directed Hill to seize that important position, but Hill argued that his losses were too high and his men too exhausted to take it. Lee then dispatched Major Walter Taylor to instruct Ewell that it “was only necessary to press those people in order to secure possession of the heights,” and Ewell’s men should seize them “if practicable.”

Confederate Lt Gen Richard Ewell | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Ewell, having been accustomed to rigid orders when serving under “Stonewall” Jackson, was confused by these vague instructions and ultimately decided not to launch a final assault before nightfall. Had his men taken those heights, they might have routed the exhausted and demoralized Federals instead of giving them time to regroup and strengthen their defenses.

During this time, Longstreet arrived ahead of his men and urged Lee to move around the Federal left, seize the high ground between the Federals and Washington, and defend against an attack. However, Lee still had received no intelligence from his cavalry commander, Major General Jeb Stuart, therefore he could not be sure that the Federals had not reinforced that area. Lee said, “No, the enemy is there, and I am going to attack him there.” Both Ewell and Stuart failed Lee on this day.

Fighting died down after nightfall, as three more Federal corps began arriving and reinforcing the high ground southeast of Gettysburg. The battle had been horrible, as I Corps alone sustained 10,000 casualties. The famed Iron Brigade was virtually destroyed, losing 1,212 of its 1,883 men. The 24th Michigan, part of the Iron Brigade, lost 316 of its 496 officers and men, including seven color bearers. The 2nd Wisconsin suffered a casualty rate of 77 percent; the 19th Indiana suffered 72 percent.

Meade began arranging to execute his original plan of falling back to Pipe Creek, occupying the high ground there, and awaiting a Confederate attack. However, Hancock assured him that the high ground outside Gettysburg was where he should make his stand. The line featured convex interior lines, enabling Meade to shift reinforcements to the most threatened points quickly.

In contrast, Lee’s lines were concave, making an attack more difficult. Lee ordered his army to concentrate southwest of Gettysburg that night, where he hoped to complete his victory by taking Culp’s and Cemetery hills the next day.

During this time, Stuart’s Confederate cavalry rode to Carlisle, where they shelled the town and burned the army barracks after the Federal garrison refused to surrender. They then rode to Dover, where one of the eight messengers that Lee had dispatched finally caught up to Stuart and informed him of the engagement at Gettysburg. Stuart was ordered to rejoin Lee’s army as soon as possible.

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 129-33; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 295; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Clark, Champ, Gettysburg: The Confederate High Tide (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 62-63, 65-67, 73; Crocker III, H.W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008), p. 69-75; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 19009-17; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 298; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 319; Kallmann, John D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 727-28; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 118-123, 166-67; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 374-75; McMurry, Richard M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 385; 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. 653-55; Sommers, Richard J., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 172, 177-78; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 196, 305-06, 308-09, 625-26