Tag Archives: Jefferson Davis

Northern Virginia: Race to the North Anna

May 20, 1864 – Major fighting between the Federal Army of the Potomac and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia stopped as Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant prepared to make another move.

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

Since Grant led the Federal army across the Rapidan River on the 4th, he had lost 36,065 killed, wounded, or missing in the Wilderness and around Spotsylvania Court House. Almost another 20,000 left the army due to illness, desertion, or enlistment expiration. Thus, the 122,000-man army that had begun this campaign was reduced to about 66,000 in less than three weeks.

For the Confederate army, General Robert E. Lee had lost over 20,000 men in the same timeframe from combat and illness. Though this was far less than Grant, Lee could ill afford such losses considering his army only numbered about 65,000 men when the campaign began. He now had closer to 40,000 troops, and even worse, his cavalry commander (Jeb Stuart) was killed, his top corps commander (James Longstreet) was put out of action, and his other two corps commanders (Richard Ewell and A.P. Hill) were gravely ill.

The Confederates had scored tactical victories in every engagement of the campaign thus far, but the Federals had secured the strategic advantage by gradually moving southeast after each contest and getting closer to Richmond. And if this became a war of attrition, the Federals would surely win.

After 12 days of the most intense fighting of the war at Spotsylvania, the 20th was relatively quiet, with the men on both sides remaining behind their fortifications for the most part. Lee reported to Secretary of War James A. Seddon, “The enemy has continued quiet to-day; he is taking ground toward our right and intrenching, but whether for attack or defense is not apparent.”

President Jefferson Davis wrote a long letter to Lee about the action on other fronts. Davis described how P.G.T. Beauregard’s Confederates drove Benjamin F. Butler’s Army of the James away from Richmond and bottled him up at Bermuda Hundred. He also relayed news of John C. Breckinridge’s remarkable Confederate victory at New Market in the Shenandoah Valley. In response to Lee’s request for reinforcements, Davis replied that he could now have most of Breckinridge’s force, as well as 6,000 troops from Beauregard under Major Generals George Pickett and Robert F. Hoke.

Davis shared Beauregard’s idea that Lee “should fall back to the line of the Chickahominy, and that he (Beauregard) should move up with 15,000 men to unite with Breckinridge and fall upon the flank of Grant’s army, which it is presumed will be following yours, and after the success to be obtained there, he (Beauregard) should hasten back, reinforced by you, to attack Butler’s forces, after an absence of three, and not to exceed four, days.”

This was a very daring and (characteristically) elaborate plan by Beauregard. Davis was skeptical, not only because of the risk involved, but because it would involve Lee’s army retreating to the Chickahominy River. Davis wrote, “How far the morale of your army would be affected by a retrograde movement, no one can judge as well as yourself. It would certainly encourage the enemy.” Rather than reject the plan, Davis asked for Lee’s opinion:

“You are better informed than any other can be of the necessities of your position, at least as well informed as any other of the wants and dangers of the country in your rear, including the railroad and other lines of communication, and I cannot do better than to leave your judgment to reach its own conclusions.”

Davis then updated Lee on events in Georgia, including Joseph E. Johnston’s many retreats:

“I cannot judge of the circumstances which caused Genl Johnston to retire from Dalton to Calhoun. He may have been willing to allow the enemy to pass the (Rocky Face) Ridge and may prefer to fight him on the Etowah River. I hope the future will prove the wisdom of his course, and that we shall hereafter reap advantages that will compensate for the present disappointment.”

Meanwhile, Lee knew that Grant would not stay quiet for long. He called on Breckinridge to send every available man to Hanover Junction, an important railroad intersection just south of the North Anna River, which Lee guessed that Grant would target. Sure enough, Grant issued orders for another southeastern movement, around Lee’s right flank toward Hanover Junction.

Some Confederates began expressing frustration with the constant marching and fighting, having never before faced such a relentless enemy commander. One Confederate wrote, “We have met a man, this time, who either does not know when he is whipped, or who cares not if he loses his whole Army.”

Some Federals began expressing frustration as well. While they had initially been emboldened by Grant’s refusal to retreat, they now began noting that after every major confrontation, they were the ones to disengage and move to different ground, despite their superiority in manpower, armament, and supplies.

Hoping to force Lee into the open, Grant directed just one corps–Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s–to make the move. If Lee attacked this isolated force, Grant could then hit Lee’s vulnerable left flank at Spotsylvania with his remaining three corps. If Lee did not attack, Grant could still gain an advantage by Hancock reaching the North Anna ahead of the Confederates.

Lee learned of Hancock’s movement at 1 a.m. on the 21st and, unwilling to leave Spotsylvania yet, extended Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s corps to block the Telegraph Road, thinking that Hancock would be using this thoroughfare to push south. Ewell’s Confederates began moving toward the road at 4 a.m. At 9:30, Grant directed another corps–Major General Gouverneur Warren’s–to follow Hancock on a parallel route down the Telegraph Road, unaware that it was blocked.

When Grant learned of Ewell’s presence, he directed Warren to change direction and follow the same route that Hancock took. Hancock’s Federals moved through Guinea Station and reached Bowling Green at dawn. They then continued to Milford Station, where they encountered newly arrived Confederates under Pickett. Hancock, now aware that Lee’s army was being reinforced, halted until he could gauge the enemy’s strength.

With Confederates now at Milford Station, the Telegraph Road, and Spotsylvania, the Federal army was dangerously strung out in enemy territory. Grant therefore ordered his remaining two corps under Major Generals Horatio G. Wright and Ambrose E. Burnside to leave their trenches at Spotsylvania and join the rest of the army. Burnside’s Federals moved out first, heading down the Telegraph Road and then changing direction just as Warren did and moving toward Guinea Station instead. Wright followed Burnside.

Scouts informed Lee that the Federal trenches at Spotsylvania were empty, so Lee directed his remaining corps under Major Generals Richard H. Anderson and Jubal Early to move south to the North Anna River. The Confederates had the advantage of moving along interior roads and thus arrived there before the Federals. Not only did Grant fail to coax Lee into attacking Hancock, but he failed to be the first to reach the North Anna as well.

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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 20305-12, 20404; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 412; 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 5129-39, 5591-601, 5658-78; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 442-43; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7142-53; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 126-30; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 506-07; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 551 | 709

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Spotsylvania: Federals Attack Again

May 18, 1864 – Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant directed his Federals to launch another attack in hopes of turning the flank of General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.

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

Since the horrible battle on the 12th, both armies had shifted positions and skirmished without provoking a major confrontation. Grant, the overall Federal commander, sought to slide Major General George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac to the left, or southeast, to try turning Lee’s right flank.

Major General Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps had begun moving from its spot on the far right of the Federal line to the left, beside Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s IX Corps, on a line running roughly north to south. Major General Horatio G. Wright’s VI Corps had followed Warren and took positions on Warren’s left, securing the high ground on Myers Hill after an all-day skirmish on the 14th.

Both Burnside’s corps and II Corps under Major General Winfield Scott Hancock held their positions in front of what was once the Mule Shoe salient of the Confederate line. Hancock now held the extreme Federal right. Heavy rain fell for several days, suspending any plans Grant had to renew his large-scale attacks.

The Federals had inflicted heavy damage on Lee’s army, but they had not scored any major advantages. The Confederates still held Spotsylvania Court House, including the vital intersection of the Virginia Central and the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac railroads. This enabled supplies to continue reaching the Confederate troops without interruption. Nevertheless, President Jefferson Davis asked Lee to better protect himself from enemy fire because “The country could not bear the loss of you…”

Lee did not immediately react to the new Federal threat to his right. As Wright’s corps got into position on the 14th, Lee left Spotsylvania Court House undefended. But the Federals were too exhausted to capitalize, and Lee finally directed Major General Richard H. Anderson’s First Corps to shift from the Confederate left to the right. Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s Second Corps now faced Hancock, with the men from Major General Jubal Early’s Third Corps and Anderson’s corps facing Burnside, Warren, and Wright.

On the 17th, Grant learned from Confederate prisoners that Lee was shifting men from his left to his right flank to counter the Federal movement. Guessing that this made Lee’s left vulnerable, Grant ordered Wright’s Federals to countermarch from their position on the Federal left to the position they had held four days ago, on the right of Hancock’s troops.

Actions of May 17-18 | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Ewell’s Confederates held strong defensive positions, covered by artillery. And they would not be surprised like they had been on the 12th. The men under Wright and Hancock advanced slowly on the morning of the 18th, seizing the “Bloody Angle” of what had been the Mule Shoe salient. Around 8 a.m., Ewell ordered his 29 guns to open fire, and after sustaining about 2,000 casualties in two hours, the Federals fell back. A Federal officer recalled:

“Moments seemed like hours. Then the cheering ceased and dark masses of our men were seen through the openings in the uprising smoke returning as they went but with awfully suggestive gaps in their ranks. The assault had failed. Soon the smoke cleared away and disclosed the ground for long distances thickly strewn with our dead and dying men. It was an awfully grand spectacle, one often repeated around that ground which has been justly styled ‘Bloody Spotsylvania.’”

Colonel Theodore Lyman of Meade’s staff noticed a pattern emerging in this campaign:

“It is a rule that, when the Rebels halt, the first day gives them a good riflepit; the second, a regular infantry parapet with artillery in position; and the third a parapet with an abattis in front and entrenched batteries behind. Sometimes they put this three days’ work into the first 24 hours.”

Lee informed Secretary of War James A. Seddon, “The enemy opened his batteries at sunrise on a portion of Ewell’s line, attempted an assault, but failed. He was easily repulsed.” Meade wrote his wife after the engagement, “We found the enemy so strongly entrenched that even Grant thought it useless to knock our heads against a brick wall. We shall now try to maneuver again so as to draw the enemy out of his stronghold.” Lee reported the situation to Davis:

“(Grant’s) position is strongly entrenched, and we cannot attack it with any prospect of success without great loss of men which I wish to avoid if possible. The enemy’s artillery is superior in weight of metal and range to our own, and my object has been to engage him when in motion and under circumstances that will not cause us to suffer from this disadvantage. I think by this means he has suffered considerably in the several past combats, and that his progress has thus far been arrested. I shall continue to strike him wherever opportunity presents itself, but nothing at present indicates any purpose on his part to advance. Neither the strength of our army nor the condition of our animals will admit of any extensive movement with a view to drawing the enemy from his position. I think he is now waiting for reenforcements… The importance of this campaign to the administration of Mr. Lincoln and to General Grant leaves no doubt that every effort and every sacrifice will be made to secure its success.”

Later, Lee repeated his request for Davis to send him the troops currently guarding Richmond, adding, “The question is whether we shall fight the battle here or around Richmond. If the troops are obliged to be retained at Richmond I may be forced back.”

After this sharp Federal defeat, Grant returned to headquarters, where he received more bad news: the armies of Major Generals Franz Sigel and Benjamin F. Butler had also been defeated. Grant tried remaining optimistic, but he conceded:

“I thought the other day that they must feel pretty blue in Richmond over the reports of our victories; but as they are in direct telegraphic communication with the points at which the fighting took place, they were no doubt at the same time aware of our defeats, of which we have not learned till to-day; so probably they did not feel as badly as we imagined.”

Early on the 19th, Lee directed Ewell to conduct a reconnaissance in force to determine the location of the Federal right flank. Ewell dispatched two divisions that came up against Wright’s corps around the Harris farm, and vicious fighting ensued. Lee recalled the Confederates before they were caught in a full-scale battle while isolated from the rest of the army, but they did not disengage until 9 p.m., and many were captured after getting lost in the dark. The Confederates lost 900 killed, wounded, or missing.

This ended active operations around Spotsylvania Court House. Two weeks of constant marching and fighting, combined with enlistment expirations, had cut the Army of the Potomac nearly in half since the campaign began. Lee, having lost nearly 18,000 men in that same span, now had just about 40,000 troops left. He had also lost top lieutenants James Longstreet, Jeb Stuart, and A.P. Hill. Lee soon learned that Grant was maneuvering around his right flank once more, prompting him to shift his Confederates south toward the North Anna River.

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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. 478; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 460; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 407, 409-10; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 440-41; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7094, 7118-29; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 124-25, 130; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 238; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 501-02, 504-05; 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. 732; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 709

The James River: Drewry’s Bluff

May 15, 1864 – Opposing armies assembled at Drewry’s Bluff, about five miles from Richmond on the James River, and both commanders planned to attack.

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

Major General Benjamin F. Butler, commanding the Federal Army of the James, had landed at Bermuda Hundred, 15 miles southeast of Richmond and seven miles northeast of Petersburg. He opted not to attack either city, but instead to destroy the Richmond & Petersburg Railroad connecting them. There were only 2,000 Confederates initially on hand to oppose the Federals, but Butler’s hesitant advance gave reinforcements time to arrive.

After being repulsed by a much smaller force at Swift Creek, Butler ordered yet another withdrawal back to his entrenchments across the peninsula neck at Bermuda Hundred. As the Federals fell back, General P.G.T. Beauregard arrived from Weldon, North Carolina, to take personal command of Confederate forces. Beauregard replaced his second-in-command, Major General George Pickett, who was on the verge of collapse from the stress of the Federal threat.

Five Confederate brigades under Major General Robert F. Hoke soon arrived, along with a brigade from the Charleston defenses. This gave Beauregard about 20,000 troops, still less than Butler’s 33,000-man army. However, Butler had done little to capitalize on his numerical advantage since landing on the 5th, having merely skirmished at Port Walthall and Swift Creek, and torn up some railroad track and telegraph lines.

When Butler finally set his sights on Richmond, Beauregard anticipated it and strengthened Confederate defenses at Drewry’s Bluff and Fort Darling, which guarded the approach to the capital on the south bank of the James River. Beauregard dispatched seven brigades under Hoke in hopes of luring Butler out into an open battle.

Butler moved out of his defenses once more on the 12th, a week after landing. This time the force numbered about 16,000 Federals. They marched west and then turned north at the railroad. The next day, they pushed Hoke’s Confederates from the outer works at Drewry’s Bluff back into the main defense line. However, Butler ordered his men to stop and dig trenches. Not only was the Federals’ advance delayed, but they could expect no support from Federal warships on the James because the water was too shallow.

Sensing Butler’s incompetence, Beauregard prepared to counterattack. He devised a characteristically grandiose strategy that called for:

  • General Robert E. Lee pulling back toward Richmond and transferring 10,000 men from the Army of Northern Virginia to reinforce Beauregard
  • Beauregard using the reinforcements to destroy Butler
  • Beauregard moving north to join forces with Lee in destroying the Army of the Potomac

President Jefferson Davis visited Beauregard at Drewry’s Bluff on the 14th and explained that Lee had no reinforcements to spare. Moreover, Davis did not want Lee to fall back any closer to Richmond, and Beauregard did not need any more men to destroy the Federals under Butler’s timid leadership. Instead, Davis issued orders transferring all available troops from South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida to reinforce the Confederates at Drewry’s Bluff.

Beauregard organized his 10 brigades into three divisions under Major Generals Robert F. Hoke and Robert Ransom, Jr., and Brigadier General Alexander Colquitt. Leaving just a small force to guard Petersburg, Beauregard planned to attack Butler’s right on the 18th and push him back to Bermuda Hundred. When his superiors urged him to attack sooner, Beauregard moved the assault up two days.

By the 14th, Butler had assembled his army in front of Drewry’s Bluff, with Major General William F. “Baldy” Smith’s XVIII Corps on the right and Major General Quincy A. Gillmore’s X Corps on the left. To prevent a preemptive Confederate attack, the Federals strung telegraph wire between tree stumps to impede an enemy advance. This was the first use of wire entanglements in Virginia (it had been done at Knoxville last year).

Butler planned to attack the next day, but “Baldy” Smith warned him against it, so he postponed the attack and strengthened his defenses. This gave Beauregard ample time to prepare for his own attack.

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References

Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 403, 406; 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 5387-97, 5455-503; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 434, 437-39; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 499-502; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 536-37; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 723; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 57-58, 227-28, 739

The Death of Jeb Stuart

May 12, 1864 – The “Cavalier of Dixie” succumbed to a wound suffered at the Battle of Yellow Tavern, and another legendary Confederate general was gone.

Confederate General Jeb Stuart | Image Credit: Flickr.com

Major General Jeb Stuart, cavalry commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, had led a portion of his force in fighting a delaying action against Major General Philip Sheridan’s Federal troops just six miles from Richmond. Stuart was shot during the fight, and he was subsequently taken on an agonizing six-hour ambulance ride to the capital.

Along the way, Stuart said, “I don’t know how this will turn out; but if it is God’s will that I shall die, I am ready.” The ambulance stopped at the home of his sister-in-law on Grace Street at 11 p.m. Four of Richmond’s top physicians tended to him, but there was little they could do. The bullet had severed his intestines, and he was slowly dying most likely from internal bleeding and peritonitis.

Messages were sent to Stuart’s wife Flora and their children, who were staying at Beaver Dam Station. However, Federals had cut the telegraph lines out of Richmond, so the message did not arrive until noon on the 12th. Flora and the children boarded a train for Richmond, but Federals had wrecked the tracks. Wounded Confederate cavalry officers gave them their ambulance wagon to finish their journey.

That morning, Stuart dictated his will to Major Henry McClellan, his adjutant. Stuart noted the sound of artillery, and McClellan assured him that it was Major General Fitzhugh Lee chasing the Federals east, away from Richmond. Stuart said, “God grant that they may be successful, but I must be prepared for another world.”

President Jefferson Davis visited Stuart and asked his condition. Stuart replied, “Easy, but willing to die, if God and my country think I have fulfilled my destiny and done my duty.” When a doctor told him that he would probably die before nightfall, Stuart said, “I am resigned if it be God’s will, but I would like to see my wife… But God’s will be done.”

Around 7 p.m., a clergyman led everyone in the house in prayer. Stuart then asked him to lead a singing of “Rock of Ages,” his favorite hymn. Stuart tried singing along but could not. He said, “I am going fast now. I am resigned; God’s will be done.” James Ewell Brown Stuart, the “Cavalier of Dixie,” died at 7:38 p.m., at age 31. Flora and the children finally arrived at the Grace Street house at 11:30 that night.

Back at Spotsylvania, General Robert E. Lee received word of Stuart’s wounding and paid him his highest compliment: “He never brought me a false piece of information.” Composing himself, Lee announced to his officers, “Gentlemen, we have very bad news. General Stuart has been mortally wounded.” As Lee returned to his tent around midnight, he received word that Stuart had died. Lee quietly remarked, “I can scarcely think of him without weeping.”

Funeral services were held on the 13th at St. James Church in Richmond. Stuart’s wife Flora and their children attended, along with Davis, Chief of Staff Braxton Bragg, and several other high-ranking Confederates. Many others, including those still pursuing Sheridan and those at Spotsylvania, could not be there. Lee could not spare any men for a funeral escort as Stuart’s body was brought to Hollywood Cemetery and buried. News of his death shocked and deeply sorrowed the South.

Meanwhile, Sheridan’s raid continued. His Federals rode east, where they damaged the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad and temporarily cut communications between Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and the capital. Sheridan planned to ride southeast and join Major General Benjamin F. Butler’s Federal Army of the James at Bermuda Hundred, south of the James River.

On the 14th, the Federal troopers entered Butler’s lines at Haxall’s Landing, bringing 400 freed Federal prisoners and 300 Confederate prisoners. They suffered 625 casualties on the raid, and while they did not attack Richmond as hoped, they damaged Beaver Dam and Ashland. And most importantly, Sheridan showed that he could match Stuart’s legendary cavalry. Sheridan reported that Stuart’s death at Yellow Tavern “inflicted a blow from which entire recovery was impossible.”

Sheridan’s men rested and refit their horses for the next three days before heading back north to rejoin the Army of the Potomac. They returned on the 24th, 15 days after their expedition began. The raid proved successful, as the Federals wrecked telegraphic communications and 10 miles of railroad track on three different lines while freeing imprisoned comrades and capturing vast amounts of supplies.

More importantly, this demonstrated the growing skill of the Federal cavalry. Perhaps most importantly, it permanently deprived the Confederacy of Stuart, whose leadership could not be replaced.

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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. 475; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20102; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 406, 408, 410, 412; 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 4932-73; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 437; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7070-82; http://www.historynet.com/battle-of-yellow-tavern.htm; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 123-24; Kallmann, John D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 679-80, 727-28; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 499-502, 504; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 680, 846-47

Spotsylvania: Attacking the Mule Shoe

May 10, 1864 – The Federal Army of the Potomac launched an all-out assault on Confederates defending Spotsylvania Court House, with particular emphasis on a salient in the defense line. More horrific casualties resulted.

The constant marching and fighting between Major General George G. Meade’s Federal army (under Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant’s overall command) and General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia entered its fifth day. Both armies temporarily halted the general fighting to build lines of defense.

By the morning of the 9th, the Confederates had built strong defenses just north of Spotsylvania Court House, blocking the Federals from any further southward advance. The line ran from the Po River on the left (west), across Laurel Hill and the Brock Road in the center, and then southward to the court house. A salient in the northeastern sector of the line jutted outward and resembled what became known as the “Mule Shoe.”

These were the strongest fieldworks of the war up to this time, featuring two lines of trenches, breastworks, abatis, artillery, and traverses. Major General Jubal Early’s (formerly A.P. Hill’s) Third Corps held the left, Major General Richard H. Anderson’s (formerly James Longstreet’s) First Corps held the center, and Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s Second Corps held the right. Lee reported to President Jefferson Davis at 3 a.m.:

“We have succeeded so far in keeping on the front flank of that army, and impeding its progress, without a general engagement, which I will not bring on unless a favorable opportunity offers, or as a last resort. Every attack made upon us has been repelled and considerable damage done to the enemy. With the blessing of God, I trust we shall be able to prevent General Grant from reaching Richmond.”

Davis responded, “Your dispatches have cheered us in the anxiety of a critical position… I will volunteer to say that I am very glad at what has happened; but there is a great deal still to be done.”

The Federals’ line consisted of Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps on the right (west), Major General Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps in the center, and Major General John Sedgwick’s VI Corps on the left (east). Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s IX Corps was on its way from Aldrich, northeast of the Federal line. The Federal army numbered about 100,000 men, while Lee had approximately 60,000.

As the men of VI Corps dug rifle pits, random fire from Confederate sharpshooters scattered them. Standing nearby, Sedgwick exclaimed, “What! What! Men dodging this way for single bullets! What will you do when they open fire along the whole line? I am ashamed of you. They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.” More fire erupted, and this time Sedgwick fell dead with a bullet through his face.

News of the beloved commander’s death shocked and demoralized the army. Sedgwick’s surgeon George Stevens wrote, “Never had such a gloom rested upon the whole army on account of the death of one man as came over it when the heaving tidings passed along the lines that General Sedgwick was killed.” Grant equated Sedgwick’s loss with that of a whole division. Sedgwick’s body was placed upon a funeral bier of evergreen boughs, and command of VI Corps passed to Brigadier General Horatio G. Wright.

When Hancock reported that Early’s Confederates were pulling back, Grant saw an opportunity to attack Lee’s left. Hancock’s Federals advanced but had to cross the Po River twice. By the time they reached their attack point, Brigadier General William Mahone’s division stood in their way behind strong defenses. Hancock opted to wait until next morning to attack, and the narrow opportunity that Grant had seen was lost.

By the morning of the 10th, Lee had shifted Major General Henry Heth’s division to join Mahone in opposing Hancock. This led Grant to believe that Lee had weakened his line on the center and right. Abandoning his plan to attack the Confederate left, Grant directed Hancock to leave a division to oppose the Confederates in that sector and move his remaining force alongside Warren for a coordinated attack on Laurel Hill at 5 p.m.

That morning, Grant telegraphed Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck at Washington, “Enemy hold our front in very strong force and evince strong determination to interpose between us and Richmond to the last. I shall take no backward step…”

As Hancock shifted, Heth’s Confederates attacked his lone division, pushing the Federals north of the Po River before disengaging. Meanwhile, Warren asked Meade to consent to an immediate attack without waiting for Hancock or the 5 p.m. scheduled time; Warren wanted to prove his aggressiveness after Meade accused him of losing his nerve two days ago. Meade consented.

Warren’s Federals advanced through unforgiving forest and brush before meeting fire from Anderson’s Confederates. Warren was forced to order a withdrawal, and Meade rescheduled the Warren-Hancock attack for 6 p.m.

During this time, Colonel Emory Upton of VI Corps received permission to lead 12 regiments (about 5,000 men) in attacking the left side of the “Mule Shoe” salient. Upton had developed a theory that entrenched defenders could be defeated by tightly compacted attackers. His plan was to charge the Confederate works with bayonets, and once they were taken, Federal reinforcements would pour in and spread along the line. He was to be supported by a division in his rear, and Burnside’s IX Corps attacking the Confederate right.

The Federals charged across 200 yards of open field and penetrated the line just as Upton expected. He later wrote, “Like a resistless wave, the column poured over the works, putting hors de combat those who resisted, and sending to the rear those who surrendered.”

But the supporting division was driven off by Confederate artillery, leaving Upton’s men isolated in the enemy trenches. Lee personally shifted troops from his right to counterattack; when the men shouted for him to return to safety, Lee said he would only if they drove the Federals out. The Confederates did, closing the gap and securing the line once more.

Burnside, unaware he faced just a single division, stopped and dug trenches after coming under fire (Grant later blamed himself for not knowing Burnside’s situation and ordering him to advance). Upton lost a quarter of his men, but he took about 1,000 prisoners. Grant promoted him to brigadier general and remarked, “A brigade today–we’ll try a corps tomorrow.”

Lee reported that night, “Thanks to a merciful Providence, our casualties have been small.” President Davis had been anxiously awaiting news from both this front and the one to the south, where Major General Benjamin F. Butler’s Federal Army of the James was threatening both the capital and Petersburg. Major General Philip Sheridan’s Federal Cavalry Corps had also been detached to threaten Richmond. Davis pledged to try sending reinforcements to Lee, but “we have been sorely pressed by enemy on south side. Are now threatened by the cavalry…”

Combat was suspended the next day due to rain. As Lee and his subordinates assessed their situation, Lee took exception to an aide accusing Grant of butchery: “I think General Grant has managed his affairs remarkably well up to the present time.” Receiving intelligence that Federal wagons were moving to the rear, Lee guessed that Grant was pulling back toward Fredericksburg. As such, he pulled 22 guns out of the “Mule Shoe” salient, unaware that this was the exact point that Grant planned to attack the next day.

Lee then issued orders: “I wish you to have everything in readiness to pull out at a moment’s notice… We must attack those people if they retreat.” When A.P. Hill suggested staying put and letting the Federals continue their futile attacks on the Confederate defenses, Lee replied, “The army cannot stand a siege, we must end this business on the battlefield, not in a fortified place.”

On the morning of the 11th, Grant had breakfast with his political benefactor, Congressman Elihu Washburne of Illinois. Before returning to Washington, Washburne told Grant that President Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton “would be deeply gratified if I could carry a message from you giving what encouragement you can as to the situation.” Grant wrote:

“We have now ended our sixth day of very hard fighting. The result up to this time is much in our favor. But our losses have been heavy, as well as those of the enemy. We have lost to this time 11 general officers, killed, wounded, and missing, and probably 20,000 men. I think the loss of the enemy must be greater, we having taken over 4,000 prisoners in battle, while he has taken but few, except stragglers. I am satisfied the enemy are very shaky, and are only kept up to the mark by the greatest exertions on the part of their officers and by keeping them intrenched in every position they take. I am now sending back to Belle Plain all my wagons for a fresh supply of provisions and ammunition, and propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer.”

This message caused a sensation both in Washington and across the North. When Lincoln read it, he told his secretary John Hay, “It is the dogged pertinacity of Grant that wins.”

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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. 466-69; Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 168-70; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 455; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 403-05; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 10658; 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 4167-87, 4450-81; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 432, 434, 436; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 9104; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 88-89, 92-93; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 238; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 496-99; 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. 728-29; Simon, John Y., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 665; Sommers, Richard J., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 175-76; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 290-91; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 516-17, 551, 709

Joe Davis Dies

April 30, 1864 – President Jefferson Davis’s five-year-old son Joseph fell off the second-floor rear balcony of the Confederate Executive Mansion.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

First Lady Varina Davis briefly left both Joe and seven-year-old Jeff alone to bring lunch to her husband in his office. Carpenters had left a plank against the balcony railing before breaking for lunch; Joe climbed it and fell into the brick courtyard 30 feet below. A house slave rushed into Davis’s office shouting that Joe had fallen. Davis raced to the scene and found his son unconscious, having suffered a fractured skull and two broken legs. He died minutes later.

Both parents were hysterical with grief. Varina screamed for hours, and Davis could not concentrate on dispatches from Robert E. Lee; he said, “I must have this day with my little son.” He spent most of the day and night pacing in the bedroom across from Joe’s saying, “Not mine, O Lord, but thine.” Thus, both Presidents Lincoln and Davis lost young sons during the war.

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References

Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 398; 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 2953-83; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 426; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 617-18; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 45; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 490; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q264

Confederates Prepare in Northern Virginia

April 5, 1864 – General Robert E. Lee issued orders preparing his Confederate Army of Northern Virginia to meet the Federal army as soon as it crossed the Rapidan River to attack.

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

Lee’s forces had been camped near Orange Court House on the south side of the Rapidan since late last year. This month, they began preparing for active operations against the new Federal general-in-chief, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant. Lee was also watching a Federal buildup in Maryland under Major General Ambrose E. Burnside. Confederate scouts confirmed that the Federals were closing their sutler shops and sending their wives to the rear, which indicated that mobilization was imminent. Lee informed President Jefferson Davis:

“The movements and reports of the enemy may be intended to mislead us, and should therefore be carefully observed. But all the information that reaches me goes to strengthen the belief that Genl Grant is preparing to move against Richmond.”

Lieutenant General James Longstreet, commanding the First Corps in Lee’s army, had been detached since last September and was currently operating around Bristol in eastern Tennessee. Longstreet received orders on the 7th to move his Confederates to Charlottesville, Virginia, where he could reinforce Lee if needed.

The next day, Lee informed Davis that two reliable sources stated “the general impression was that the great battle would take place on the Rapidan, and that the Federal army would advance as soon as the weather is settled.” As the Confederates prepared to take the Federals on, Lee continued his struggle to get them much-needed supplies. He wrote Davis:

“There is nothing to be had in this section for man or animals. My anxiety on the subject of provisions for the army is so great that I cannot refrain from expressing it to Your Excellency. I cannot see how we can operate with our present supplies. Any derangement in their arrival or disaster to the railroad would render it impossible for me to keep the army together, and might force a retreat into North Carolina.”

Lee wrote Davis again on the 15th:

“If Richmond could be held secure against the attack from the east, I would propose that I draw Longstreet to me and move right against the enemy on the Rappahannock. Should God give us a crowning victory there, all their plans would be dissipated, and their troops now collecting on the waters of the Chesapeake would be recalled to the defense of Washington. But to make this move I must have provisions and forage. I am not yet able to call to me the cavalry or artillery. If I am obliged to retire from this line, either by a flank movement of the enemy or the want of supplies, great injury will befall us.”

The lack of adequate supplies compelled Lee to adopt a defensive posture. He now could only hope to hold the Federals in check long enough for the northern public to grow tired of the war and replace Abraham Lincoln in the upcoming presidential election with a candidate who would negotiate a peace.

By mid-April, Lee had determined that three Federal forces would be moving toward Richmond:

  • Major General Franz Sigel’s army from the Shenandoah Valley
  • The Army of the Potomac from north of the Rapidan
  • Major General Benjamin F. Butler’s army from the Virginia Peninsula between the York and James rivers

The Confederates began mobilizing on the 18th and sending excess baggage to the rear. However, the Federal activity seemed to slow down. After a week of observation, Lee wrote Davis, “The advance of the Army of the Potomac seems to be delayed for some reason. It appears to be prepared for movement, but is probably waiting for its cooperative columns.” Lee invited Davis to review the army, “if the enemy remains quiet and the weather favorable.” Davis declined, citing too much work to do.

Despite the supply shortages, Lee as always began exploring ways to seize the initiative. His force was just half the size of Grant’s, but it equaled the number Lee had at Chancellorsville last year. Lee discussed his options with Longstreet, who later wrote, “I took the earliest opportunity to suggest that the preliminaries of the campaign should be carefully confined to strategic maneuver until we could show better generalship.” This would compel the Federals to “lose confidence in the superiority of their leader’s skill and prowess.”

Longstreet reasoned that if Lee attacked first, such “immediate aggression from us against his greater numbers must make our labors heavy and more or less doubtful.” To Longstreet, the “power of battle is in generalship more than in the number of soldiers, which, properly illustrated, would make the weaker numbers of the contention the stronger force.” Thus, Lee would remain on the defensive, waiting for Grant to make the first move.

On the last day of April, Lee forwarded intelligence to Davis: “I send you the Philadelphia Inquirer of the 26th, from which you will learn that all Burnside’s available forces are being advanced to the front.” A spy named Thomas Conrad confirmed Lee’s suspicion that Burnside would be moving up from Centreville to reinforce the Army of the Potomac. Lee wrote:

“Our scouts report that the engineer troops, pontoon trains, and all the cavalry of Meade’s army have been advanced south of the Rappahannock… Everything indicates a concentrated attack on this front, which renders me the more anxious to get back the troops belonging to this army, & causes me to suggest if possible, that others be moved from points at the south, where they can be spared, to Richmond.”

But the Confederate high command had few troops to spare. Lee’s army could expect no help as it was about to face the 122,000-man Army of the Potomac.

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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. 390; 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 2512-22, 2551-620; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 415; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 6720, 6731-43; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 43-45; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 481-82, 484-85; Time-Life Editors, Spies, Scouts and Raiders: Irregular Operations (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 52-53, 58