Tag Archives: Horatio G. Wright

The Washington Raid Ends

July 13, 1864 – Following his unsuccessful attempt to capture Fort Stevens, Lieutenant General Jubal Early led his Confederate Army of the Valley away from the outskirts of Washington and back into Maryland.

Confederate Gen. Jubal Early | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

The Confederates fell back northward, moving through Rockville and then turning west toward Poolesville and the Potomac River beyond. They reached the Potomac almost exactly 30 days after being detached from the Army of Northern Virginia.

Early’s forces completed their river crossing on the 14th and gathered at Leesburg, Virginia. They had a long supply train filled with captured goods from Maryland, along with about 1,000 prisoners, horses, cattle, and $220,000 taken from Hagerstown and Frederick as reparations for Federal destruction in the Shenandoah Valley.

Early’s raid had been a success in that it caused great panic in Washington, and it diverted Federal attention and resources from other theaters. It also boosted Confederate morale and temporarily brightened the dimming hope that European powers might recognize Confederate independence. But it had not caused the Army of the Potomac to weaken itself enough for General Robert E. Lee’s army to break out of Petersburg.

At the capital, President Abraham Lincoln expressed frustration that Early’s army had been allowed to escape back to Virginia. None of the six nearby generals took the lead in pursuing the Confederates until Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, assigned Major General Horatio G. Wright to lead the operation.

Wright’s force consisted of his own VI Corps, elements of XIX Corps, and several units that had been assigned to defend Washington. The pursuit began a full day after Early withdrew, with the Federals not arriving at Poolesville until the 15th. Confederate cavalry guarded the river fords to delay a Federal crossing.

By that time, Major General David Hunter’s Army of West Virginia had finally arrived at Harpers Ferry, burning and plundering homes on their march through their army’s namesake. Hunter received orders to join forces with Wright to pursue and destroy Early, with Wright in overall command. When Hunter protested that he outranked Wright, Grant placed Hunter’s army under command of Brigadier General George Crook while Hunter handled the army’s administrative duties from department headquarters.

Wright hoped to trap Early’s Confederates between his force and Crook’s, but he had trouble communicating with Crook due to Confederates cutting telegraph wires in the area. Crook’s 7,000 Federals crossed the Potomac near Harpers Ferry on the 15th and advanced to Hillsboro.

Early began moving his 12,000 Confederates out of Leesburg the next morning, heading west toward Snickers Gap in the Blue Ridge on his way back to the Shenandoah Valley. Wright’s 17,000 Federals took the entire day to cross the Potomac. During this time, a Federal cavalry detachment set out to locate the Confederates and clashed with troops guarding their wagon train around Purcellville.

When Crook learned of this engagement, he ordered Brigadier General Alfred N.A. Duffie’s cavalry to seize the wagon train. Duffie dispatched a brigade under Colonel William B. Tibbits, which spotted the Confederates about a mile north of Heaton’s Crossroads. Tibbits positioned his troopers and guns on a ridge and opened fire around 2 p.m.

The Confederate guards immediately abandoned the wagon train. The Federal assault became confused as some troopers stopped to seize the wagons and others confronted the Confederates. Major General John C. Breckinridge organized an infantry force to stop the Federal advance, while cavalry rode around to the enemy’s rear. Tibbits and a fraction of his brigade escaped capture and returned to Hillsboro. They seized or burned 80 wagons, but they had to leave the rest and all their cannon behind.

Had the Federals attacked with a larger force, they could have stopped or even destroyed Early’s army. Crook advanced to Purcellville that night, with Duffie’s cavalry skirmishing briefly with Confederate troopers at Woodgrove. By this time, the Confederates were moving through the Blue Ridge.

Wright and Crook joined forces as they pushed west toward Snickers Gap on the 17th. The Confederate rear guard prevented Federal cavalry heading the advance from crossing the Shenandoah River. Wright received word that the Confederates were merely skirmishers and Early’s main army was farther west. This was incorrect, as Early’s main army was guarding the river crossings.

Wright assigned Colonel Joseph Thoburn to lead three brigades around the Confederate left (northern) flank and seize Castleman’s Ferry. As the Federals moved on the 18th, Thoburn learned that the Confederates were massed on the riverbank. Both sides added reinforcements, with the Confederates holding a ridge near the Cool Spring plantation. Thoburn led his Federals across the Shenandoah River and lined them up behind stone walls.

The Federals repelled three assaults before night fell, and Thoburn ordered a withdrawal back across the river. The Federals sustained 422 casualties, while the Confederates lost roughly the same number. Early retained control of the river, as Wright and Crook continued debating how best to pursue his army.

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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 20429; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 436-37; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 11055; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 9611-42, 11331-41; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 469-71; Lewis, Thomas A., The Shenandoah in Flames: The Valley Campaign of 1864 (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 88-89; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 538-40; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 279, 415-16

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The Washington Raid: Confederates Seize Hagerstown

July 6, 1864 – Confederates from Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s Army of the Valley captured Hagerstown, Maryland, as Federals scrambled to stop their drive on Washington.

Confederate Gen. Jubal Early | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

By this time, Early’s force had marched north “down” Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley and crossed the Potomac River into Maryland. Early planned to threaten Washington in hopes that Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant would divert Federal forces from laying siege to Petersburg, south of Richmond.

The Confederates received fresh supplies, including new shoes, from Richmond and resumed their eastward advance through Maryland on the 6th. A cavalry brigade under Brigadier General John McCausland entered Hagerstown and demanded $20,000 from the residents as reparations for Federal destruction in the Shenandoah Valley. Residents quickly paid the ransom. The main Confederate force advanced through the South Mountain gaps.

Meanwhile, Grant realized that Early’s Confederates were no longer in front of Petersburg as he began receiving panicked messages of a Confederate force approaching Washington. Confident that such a force could not seriously threaten the capital, Grant reluctantly detached Brigadier General James B. Ricketts’s division from VI Corps and some dismounted cavalry to bolster defenses there.

Major General Franz Sigel, commanding the Federal garrison at Harpers Ferry, informed Washington, “My troops are preparing for action.” However, Sigel still expected the Confederates to attack him and did not know that Early had bypassed him and gone into Maryland. Sigel would not leave Harpers Ferry undefended to pursue the Confederates.

This left Major General Lew Wallace, commanding the Federal Middle Department, to defend Baltimore and Washington from Early’s army. Wallace hastily gathered 2,300 troops, mostly raw recruits and militia, and moved them west from Baltimore to Monocacy Junction, just southeast of Frederick. This position enabled Wallace to defend the roads leading to both Baltimore and Washington.

On the 7th, Wallace’s force was augmented by 230 troopers of the 8th Illinois cavalry and a six-gun battery. Until Ricketts’s division could arrive, these were all the troops that Wallace could muster. The Federal troopers, led by Lieutenant Colonel David R. Clendenin, rode west and located Early’s force, which was heading for the Catoctin Pass.

The Federals brought up two guns and, according to Clendenin, proceeded “to shell the enemy skirmish line with effect.” However, the main Confederate force eventually came up, and Clendenin reported, “After five hours’ skirmishing, the enemy being heavily re-enforced and flanking me, I was compelled to fall back on Frederick.”

Clendenin’s force joined with another Federal force outside Frederick. He wrote, “Placing the guns rapidly in position, I cleared the road of cavalry and opened on the head of the approaching column, which fell back and deployed on our left bringing up artillery, which was posted south of the Hagerstown pike in a commanding position.” More Federal reinforcements arrived, which repelled a Confederate attack and pushed the enemy back to the Catoctin Pass.

By this time, panic was spreading through Washington. Wallace’s force was too small to hold off Early, Sigel could not be counted upon to help, and Major General David Hunter’s Federal army, which was supposed to have kept Early in the Valley, was way off in West Virginia. A Federal division was on its way, but it would not be enough. Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck wired Grant:

“Until more forces arrive we have nothing to meet that number in the field, and the militia is not reliable even to hold the fortifications of Washington and Baltimore. It is the impression that one-third of Lee’s entire force is with Early and (John C.) Breckinridge, and that (Robert) Ransom has some 3,000 or 4,000 cavalry. If you propose to cut off this raid and not merely to secure our depots, we must have more forces here. Indeed, if the enemy’s strength is as great as represented, it is doubtful if the militia can hold all of our defenses. I do not think we can expect much from Hunter. He is too far off and moves too slowly. I think, therefore, that very considerable re-enforcements should be sent directly to this place.”

The next day, Grant sent the rest of VI Corps under Major General Horatio G. Wright to Maryland. He also sent XIX Corps, which had just arrived at Fort Monroe after returning from the Red River campaign. Grant then wrote Halleck, “If the President thinks it advisable that I should go to Washington in person, I can start in an hour after receiving notice, leaving everything here on the defensive.”

In Maryland, Ricketts’s division arrived at Monocacy Junction via railroad to reinforce Wallace, who pulled all the Federals out of Frederick. Wallace now had nearly 6,000 troops on the Monocacy River to face Early’s 10,000 approaching Confederates.

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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 20411-20; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 433-34; 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 9345-55, 9356-72, 9393-434; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 465-66; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7787; Lewis, Thomas A., The Shenandoah in Flames: The Valley Campaign of 1864 (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 69-73; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 534-35; 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. 756-57; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 233-34, 504

The Battle of the Weldon Railroad

June 23, 1864 – Fighting broke out clashed as the Federals sought to extend their left flank and cut the railroad south of Petersburg, Virginia.

As the Federal Armies of the Potomac and the James settled in to besiege Petersburg, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, called for infantry and cavalry detachments to attack two railroads supplying the Confederate troops defending the city:

  • The Weldon Railroad, which ran south to Weldon, North Carolina, and then to one of the Confederacy’s few remaining seaports, Wilmington, North Carolina;
  • The South Side Railroad, which ran west to Lynchburg in the Shenandoah Valley.

At this time, the Federal siege line stretched from northeast of Petersburg to the Jerusalem Plank Road, southeast of town. Grant assigned two cavalry divisions under Brigadier Generals James H. Wilson and August V. Kautz to ride beyond the Jerusalem Plank Road and raid both the Weldon to the west and the South Side farther northwest.

Grant also ordered a large Federal infantry force to extend the left flank beyond the Jerusalem Plank Road and support the cavalry attack on the Weldon. Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac, selected II and VI corps under Major Generals David B. Birney and Horatio G. Wright for this assignment. President Abraham Lincoln, who had come from Washington to meet with Grant, visited with some troops of VI Corps as they prepared.

Troops from Major General Benjamin F. Butler’s Army of the James on the Bermuda Hundred peninsula northeast of Petersburg would be brought down via water to replace Birney and Wright on the siege line. The plan called for II and VI corps to cross the Jerusalem Plank Road and turn northwest toward the Weldon Railroad, while the cavalry troopers attacked the railroad farther south. The Federals moved out on the 21st.

Lt Gen A.P. Hill | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Confederate scouts quickly reported that the Federals were trying to extend their lines toward the Weldon. General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia defending Petersburg, directed cavalry under Major General W.H.F. “Rooney” Lee to confront the Federal horsemen and Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s Third Corps to confront the infantry.

By noon on the 22nd, Federal cavalry had cut the Weldon Railroad at Reams’s Station, about seven miles south of Petersburg. However, the difficult terrain had slowed the infantry’s advance, and the two corps then became separated in the swamps and thickets south of Petersburg.

Hill deployed Major General Cadmus M. Wilcox’s division to keep VI Corps occupied on the right (south) while the divisions under Major Generals William Mahone and Bushrod R. Johnson attacked II Corps on the left. The Confederates furiously assaulted the exposed left flank and rear of II Corps. Brigadier General Francis C. Barlow’s Federal division quickly collapsed, and Brigadier General John Gibbon’s division fled for safety. A soldier wrote, “The attack was to the Union troops more than a surprise. It was an astonishment.”

Action of 22 June | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

The Confederates pushed the Federals back to the Jerusalem Plank Road, where they stabilized their lines as darkness ended the fighting. The next day, Meade ordered Wright to advance, but when Wright’s advance line suffered heavy losses, he refused to move the rest of his corps. At 7:35 p.m., Meade notified Wright, “Your delay has been fatal.”

The Confederates suffered 572 casualties in this battle, while the humiliated Federals lost 2,962, including some 1,700 captured. The Weldon Railroad remained firmly in Confederate hands. However, the Federals did wreck some of the track, and their left was slightly extended across the Jerusalem Plank Road. Grant would make many more attempts to extend his left in the coming months.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 22175; Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 53-63; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 429; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011-01-26), Loc 9231-94; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 459-60; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7763; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 526-28; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 577-79, 812-13

The Battle of Cold Harbor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 170-71; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Crocker III, H.W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008), p. 84-87; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 419; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 6132-52, 6171-91, 6202-12; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 449; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7401; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 154-69; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 71-72; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 514-15; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 734-36; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 294-95; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 149-50, 551

Armies Converge on Cold Harbor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 170-71; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 462; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 417-18; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 6093-103; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 447-48; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7320-31, 7343-55, 7367-78; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 71-72; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 512-14; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 733-34; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 294-95; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 149-50

Grant and Lee Shift Toward Cold Harbor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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References

Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 484; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20330; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 415-17; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 5814-34, 5846-75, 5894-914, 6050-60; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 445-47; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7246-58, 7269-93; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 148-52; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 510-12; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 733; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 149-50

The Battle of Haw’s Shop

May 26, 1864 – Cavalry from the Federal Army of the Potomac and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia clashed as Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant once again looked to turn General Robert E. Lee’s right flank.

By this time, the Federal and Confederate armies were deadlocked on the North Anna River, with neither force able to break the other’s defenses. Grant, the overall Federal commander, had responded to two prior stalemates by moving southeast, around the Confederate right, to get closer to Richmond. But this time he considered something different.

At a council of war on the night of the 25th, Major General George G. Meade, the Federal army commander, argued for another movement around Lee’s right. Grant, however, called for a movement around Lee’s left. This would cut the Confederate army off from being supplied by the Shenandoah Valley, and it could also confuse Lee in such a way that he might put his army in a vulnerable position.

Grant issued orders the next day, but before the army even began mobilizing, he received word that Lee was strengthening his left flank in anticipation of just such a move. Lee wrote of Grant, “From present indication, he seems to contemplate a movement on our left flank.” Grant quickly changed the plan, as he reported to Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck:

“To make a direct attack from either wing would cause a slaughter of our men that even success would not justify. To turn the enemy by his right, between the two Annas (North and South Anna rivers) is impossible on account of the swamp upon which his right rests. To turn him by the left leaves Little River, New Found River and South Anna River, all of them streams presenting considerable obstacles to the movement of our army, to be crossed. I have determined therefore to turn the enemy’s right by crossing at or near Hanover Town. This crosses all three streams at once, and leaves us still where we can draw supplies.”

Federal cavalry demonstrated on the Confederate left to mask the movement to the right. Lee, still bedridden from acute diarrhea, tried discerning whether the activity on his left indicated a general advance or a feint. Conflicting reports came to headquarters stating that Grant intended to attack both. The Confederates were not aware that Grant intended to move east of the Pamunkey River to Hanovertown. Reaching this abandoned port would place the Federals just 15 miles northeast of Richmond.

The Federals began pulling out of their entrenchments that night, ending the stalemate on the North Anna. Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps and Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s IX Corps stayed in place while Major General Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps and Major General Horatio G. Wright’s VI Corps swung around them. Major General Philip Sheridan’s cavalry troopers, back from their raid earlier in the month, led the way to Hanovertown, about 34 miles southeast.

Maj. Gen. P.H. Sheridan | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Sheridan reached the town on the 27th, with the infantry on its way. A Federal cavalry brigade of Michiganders under Brigadier General George A. Custer secured a crossing on the Pamunkey just north of Hanovertown after a sharp skirmish with Major General Fitzhugh Lee’s Confederate horsemen.

When Lee learned that the Federals had left their defenses on the North Anna, he directed the Confederates to fall back to Atlee’s Station, just nine miles north of Richmond on the Virginia Central Railroad. Lee reached his objective before Grant reached his, having to cover just 18 miles. The Confederates quickly sealed all approaches to Richmond on the railroad from the Pamunkey.

Lee sought to secure the high ground on the south bank of the Totopotomoy Creek, which ran west into the Pamunkey just south of Hanovertown. Lee dispatched cavalry forces under Major General Wade Hampton to conduct a reconnaissance in force to determine whether the Federals intended to stop at Hanovertown or continue south around Lee’s right flank.

General Wade Hampton | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Hampton’s Confederates moved out from Atlee’s Station on the 28th, probing eastward while one of Sheridan’s brigades under Brigadier General David M. Gregg probed westward from Hanovertown. Gregg met Hampton about three miles west of Hanovertown and a mile west of a blacksmith shop called Haw’s Shop. Hampton’s dismounted troopers awaited Gregg behind breastworks, supported by artillery.

A vicious fight ensued that grew into the largest cavalry battle since Brandy Station last June. Both sides tried flanking the other, with Brigadier General Alfred T.A. Torbert’s Federal division arriving to extend Gregg’s right and repelling a Confederate flanking maneuver. Finally, Custer’s Michiganders arrived on the scene, and their repeating Spencer carbines turned the tide for the Federals, and Hampton’s troopers withdrew.

The fight at Haw’s Shop lasted about seven hours, and although it was a battle between cavalries, the men fought dismounted behind defenses like infantry. Sheridan claimed victory because Hampton withdrew, but Sheridan committed only one of his two divisions to the fight. He might have destroyed Hampton had he deployed more men.

Hampton claimed victory because he learned during the fight that the Federals had crossed the Pamunkey in force, and he prevented Sheridan from learning where Lee’s army was. Hampton had also delayed the Federal advance for seven hours before finally pulling back.

Lee set up headquarters in the Clarke house, where the owner allowed him to conduct all his business indoors due to his continuing illness. Grant transferred the Federal supply base from Port Royal on the Rappahannock to White House on the Pamunkey. Confident that he was wearing the Confederates down, Grant wrote to Halleck:

“Lee’s army is really whipped. The prisoners we now take show it, and the actions of his army show it unmistakably. A battle with them outside of intrenchments cannot be had. Our men feel that they have gained the morale over the enemy, and attack him with confidence. I may be mistaken but I feel that our success over Lee’s army is already assured. The promptness and rapidity with which you have forwarded reinforcements has contributed largely to the feeling of confidence inspired in our men, and to break down that of the enemy.”

But the Army of Northern Virginia still had some fight left.

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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 20321; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 414-15; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 5814-34; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 445-46; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7235-58; Grant, Ulysses S., Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1982 [original 1885, republication of 1952 edition]), p. 434; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 137, 148-49; Jensen, Les D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 535; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 71-72; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 509-10; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 149-50, 551