Tag Archives: John Gibbon

The Fall of Petersburg

April 2, 1865 – Federal troops finally broke the Confederate defenses and conquered Petersburg, Virginia, after nine grueling months of siege warfare.

After the Federal victory at Five Forks, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, ordered a general offensive all along the Petersburg line, starting northeast of town at the Appomattox River and stretching south before curving west, ending southwest of Petersburg. From north to southwest, the Federal forces consisted of:

  • Major General John G. Parke’s IX Corps from the Army of the Potomac
  • Major General Horatio G. Wright’s VI Corps from the Army of the Potomac
  • Major General John Gibbon’s XXIV Corps from the Army of the James
  • Major General Andrew A. Humphreys’s II Corps from the Army of the Potomac
  • Major General Philip Sheridan’s independent command, which consisted of Federal cavalry and V Corps from the Army of the Potomac, held the lines to the far west, threatening the South Side Railroad

Grant ordered Parke, Wright, Gibbon, and Humphreys to come out of their siege lines and capture the Confederate works in their front. Many troops were doubtful of success because every previous assault on these works over the past nine months had ended in failure. But the Federals did not know how fragile the Confederate line truly was.

General-in-Chief Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, hurried to prepare a makeshift defense after learning of the rout at Five Forks. From north to southwest:

  • Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s corps held the lines in front of Richmond
  • Major General John B. Gordon’s corps held the line from east to south of Petersburg
  • Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s corps held the line west of Gordon
  • Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s corps held the line southwest of Longstreet
  • Lieutenant General Richard H. Anderson’s corps held the line west of Hill
  • An isolated force under Major Generals George Pickett and Fitzhugh Lee was beyond Anderson’s western flank

At 10 p.m. on the 1st, the Federals opened a massive, 150-gun artillery barrage to weaken the enemy defenses. This continued through the night. Then, at 4:40 a.m., the Federal troops came out of their works and advanced through heavy fog. This was the largest offensive launched since the Federals started laying siege to Petersburg.

The Fall of Petersburg | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

The fog partially concealed them from the thin line of Confederate defenders until they were within striking distance. Longstreet, leaving Lee’s headquarters after a meeting, later wrote that “as far as the eye could cover in the field, a line of skirmishers in quiet marched towards us. It was hardly light enough to distinguish the blue from the gray.”

Parke’s corps broke through the Confederate defenses on the Jerusalem Plank Road. Wright’s corps shattered the garrison at Fort Fisher and then wheeled left to push the Confederates toward Hatcher’s Run. The Federals sustained heavy losses in the initial assaults, but, unlike previous battles, the Confederates quickly gave way. They no longer had the manpower to hold the mighty Federal army off.

When A.P. Hill rode between the lines to rally his men near the Boydton Plank Road, nearby Federals shot him dead. Hill and his corps had been instrumental in protecting Petersburg throughout the campaign. Hill’s orderly escaped and notified Lee, who said, “He is at rest now, and we who are left are the ones to suffer.” Longstreet took temporary command of Hill’s corps.

The Confederates fell back, with parts of their line disintegrating completely in the face of such an overwhelming onslaught. Gibbon’s corps came up on Wright’s left and hit the Confederates in flank, causing mass confusion. Gibbon’s men then turned right, moved up the Boydton Plank Road across Wright’s front, and attacked Fort Gregg. Just 500 Confederates repelled three assaults by two Federal divisions until finally surrendering. This gave Lee enough time to form an interior line that could protect his inevitable retreat.

Lee confided to a subordinate: “This is a sad business, Colonel. It has happened as I told them in Richmond it would happen. The line has been stretched until it is broken.” Humphreys’s corps began pushing the Confederates up the Claiborne Road to Sutherland’s Station on the South Side Railroad. The Confederate line soon crumbled there as well. Lee sent a message to Secretary of War John C. Breckinridge, received at 10:40 a.m.:

“I see no prospect of doing more than holding our position here until night. I am not certain I can do that. If I can I shall withdraw to-night north of the Appomattox, and, if possible, it will be better to withdraw the whole line to-night from James River… Our only chance, then, of concentrating our forces, is to do so near Danville railroad, which I shall endeavor to do at once. I advise that all preparation be made for leaving Richmond to-night. I will advise you later, according to circumstances.”

Breckinridge forwarded this message to President Jefferson Davis, who was on his way to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church for Sunday services. While in church, Davis received a second note from Lee:

“I think it is absolutely necessary that we should abandon our position tonight. I have given all the necessary orders on the subject to the troops; and the operation; though difficult, I hope will be performed successfully. I have directed General Stevens to send an officer to your Excellency to explain the routes to you by which the troops will be moved to Amelia Court-House, and furnish you with a guide and any assistance that you may require for yourself.”

Around 3 p.m., Brigadier General Nelson Miles’s division of Humphreys’s corps charged Major General Henry Heth’s Confederates defending Sutherland’s Station. The Federals quickly drove the enemy off in disarray, and the vital South Side Railroad was finally cut. By early evening, Gibbon’s corps controlled Fort Gregg, and Wright’s corps had cut the Boydton Plank Road. This virtually assured the fall of both Petersburg and Richmond. A correspondent wrote, “With that Sunday’s sun the hope of the Rebels set, never to rise again.”

Lee issued orders for his army to start its retreat from the makeshift interior line at 8 p.m. The Confederates crossed the Appomattox that night, with artillery ahead of infantry and wagon trains moving on different roads. The men moved toward a rallying point at Amelia Court House, 40 miles southwest. Only Lee’s orderly withdrawal allowed the army to escape destruction and the Confederate government to avoid capture.

Meanwhile, President Abraham Lincoln stayed at Grant’s former headquarters at City Point reading the dispatches from the front. Grant wrote to Lincoln at 2 p.m., “All looks remarkably well.” Two and a half hours later, Grant informed him that Fort Gregg had been taken, and “captures since the army started out will not amount to less than 12,000 men and probably 50 pieces of artillery.” Certain that Petersburg would fall, Grant then invited the president to “come out and pay us a visit” in the city the next day.

At 4:40 p.m., Grant telegraphed Colonel T.S. Bowers at City Point: “We are now up and have a continuous line of troops, and in a few hours will be intrenched from the Appomattox below Petersburg to the river above… I think the President might come out and pay us a visit to-morrow.”

Federals entered Petersburg from the west that night, as Brigadier General Oliver Edwards of VI Corps accepted the city’s formal surrender from the mayor. Lincoln saw some fighting around Petersburg and wired Grant at 8:15 p.m.: “Allow me to tender you, and all with you, the nation’s grateful thanks for the additional and magnificent victory. At your kind suggestion I think I will meet you tomorrow.”

The Federals sustained 3,936 casualties, while the Confederates lost over 5,000, most of whom were taken prisoner. Grant wrote his wife that night:

“I am now writing from far inside of what was the rebel fortifications this morning but what are ours now. They are exceedingly strong and I wonder at the sucsess (sic) of our troops carrying them by storm. But they did it and without any great loss. Altogether this has been one of the greatest victories of the war. Greatest because it is over what the rebels have always regarded as their most invincable (sic) Army and the one used for the defence of their capital. We may have some more hard work but I hope not.”

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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. 523-24; Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 214; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 566, 574; Catton, Bruce, The Army of the Potomac: A Stillness at Appomattox (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1953), p. 362-63; Catton, Bruce. Grant Takes Command (Open Road Media. Kindle Edition, 2015), p. 446-47; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Crocker III, H.W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008), p. 87-91; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 22419-35; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 553; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 18470-80, 18570-80, 18746-66; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 574-75; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 715-16; Grant, Ulysses S., Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (New York: Da Capo Press, 1982 [original 1885, republication of 1952 edition]), p. 538; Kennedy, Frances H. (ed.), The Civil War Battlefield Guide (Christopher M. Calkins, The Conservation Fund, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1990), p. 276; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 91-93; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 138; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 663-64; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 845; Sommers, Richard J., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 169, 175-77, 181; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 365-68; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 236-37, 274, 577-79, 737-38; Winik, Jay, April 1865: The Month That Saved America (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), p. 99-100

Grant’s Spring Offensive Takes Shape

March 6, 1865 – Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, continued preparing to launch the spring offensive, which looked promising considering the growing number of Confederate desertions.

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

The Federal Armies of the Potomac and the James had held General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia under partial siege at Richmond and Petersburg since last summer. Grant hurried to mobilize these armies and destroy Lee before he could escape to the southwest and join forces with General Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederates in North Carolina.

Grant also planned to launch offensives in other theaters of operations to prevent Lee from being reinforced. In North Carolina, separate Federal armies were joining forces to keep Johnston away from Virginia. Major General E.R.S. Canby and Brigadier General James H. Wilson were moving into Alabama to seize the important factory town of Selma and the port city of Mobile. And Major General George Stoneman was leading a cavalry force into eastern Tennessee.

Grant also needed help from the navy to protect his supply base at City Point, on the James River. Grant sent a message to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles on the 4th: “The James River is very high, and will continue so as long as the weather of the past week lasts. It would be well to have at once all the ironclads that is intended should come here.”

Welles quickly responded by directing Captain Oliver S. Glisson at Hampton Roads to bring ironclads up from Wilmington. Glisson responded early on the 5th: “Your telegram was received at 15 minutes after midnight; blowing a gale of wind at the time, U.S.S. Aries sailed at daylight this morning. The monitors are expected every moment from Cape Fear, and I shall send them up the river immediately.” Rear Admiral John A.B. Dahlgren, commanding the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, was notified to send two ironclads from his command north to City Point as well.

Another part of Grant’s preparation was to bring Major General Philip Sheridan’s Army of the Shenandoah, fresh off their resounding victory at Waynesboro, back to the Federal armies outside Richmond and Petersburg. With the Shenandoah Valley now firmly in Federal hands, Sheridan marched unopposed and arrived at Charlottesville on the 3rd.

Grant had urged Sheridan to destroy the Virginia Central Railroad, which was one of Lee’s main supply lines. The Federals spent two days finally getting this done before heading south toward the James River. Sheridan planned to wreck the James River Canal and then move east to join the spring offensive.

Sheridan’s Federals moved through Goochland Court House, Beaver Dam Station, and Hanover Court House on their way back east. Sheridan reached White House, on the Pamunkey River, on the 19th. Grant arranged for him to pick up fresh horses and supplies, and he wrote to Sheridan that once his force was ready, “Start for this place as soon as you conveniently can.”

Grant explained that he planned to move on Lee’s southwestern flank with 50,000 troops, and Sheridan’s men were needed to destroy the South Side and Danville railroads. Once that was done, Sheridan was to “then either return to this army or go on to Sherman (in North Carolina), as you may deem most practicable.” Whichever option Sheridan chose, “I care but little about, the principal thing being the destruction of the only two roads left to the enemy at Richmond.”

The next day, Grant sent Sheridan a more urgent message:

“I do not wish to hurry you. There is now such a possibility, if not probability, of Lee and Johnston attempting to unite that I feel extremely desirous not only of cutting the lines of communication between them, but of having a large and properly commanded cavalry force ready to act with in case such an attempt is made… I think that by Saturday next you had better start, even if you have to stop here to finish shoeing up.”

Grant also reported on the progress of the other offensives starting this month:

“Stoneman started yesterday from Knoxville with a cavalry force of probably 5,000 men to penetrate southwest Virginia as far toward Lynchburg as possible.… Wilson started at the same time from Eastport toward Selma with a splendidly equipped cavalry force of 12,000 men. Canby is in motion, and I have reason to believe that Sherman and Schofield have formed a junction at Goldsboro.”

Sheridan later wrote:

“The hardships of this march far exceeded those of any previous campaigns by the cavalry. Almost incessant rains had drenched us for sixteen days and nights, and the swollen streams and well nigh bottomless roads east of Staunton presented grave difficulties on every hand, but surmounting them all, we destroyed the enemy’s means of subsistence, in quantities beyond computation, and permanently crippled the Virginia Central railroad, as well as the James River canal, and as each day brought us nearer the Army of the Potomac, all were filled with the comforting reflection that our work in the Shenandoah Valley had been thoroughly done, and every one was buoyed up by the cheering thought that we should soon take part in the final struggle of the war.”

Meanwhile, to further hamper the Confederate war effort, the Federal high command encouraged enemy desertions by offering to pay deserters for bringing their rifles into Federal lines. Grant had asked Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton for permission to enact this program, and Stanton replied, “There is no objection to your paying rebel deserters for their arms, horses, or anything they bring in, a full and fair price. That kind of trade will not injure the service.”

Major General E.O.C. Ord, commanding the Army of the James around Bermuda Hundred, wrote how his troops promoted the program: “On the Bermuda front the order promising pay for arms and horses has been circulated with kites, bows and arrows, and newspapers.” One of Ord’s corps commanders, Major General John Gibbon, asked Ord to “send me more of General Grant’s orders and a man who understands your mode of fixing them to a kite.”

Grant wrote to Stanton on the 19th, “Will you please direct the Ordnance Department to send money here at once to pay for arms brought in by deserters. A great many are coming in now, bringing their arms with them.” Three days later, Chief Ordnance Officer F.H. Parker issued a directive: “It is arranged that you are to pay for arms brought in by deserters. They will be forwarded with their arms or with receipts from the provost-marshal here. Pay them at the rate of $8 per arm…”

Desertions in the Army of Northern Virginia totaled 2,934 between February 15 and March 18, or nearly 10 percent of Lee’s whole army. Some deserted for the money, but most left to ease the suffering of loved ones at home. Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, wrote to Grant, “Twenty-two deserters yesterday; twenty are reported this morning. The whole Confederate army appear to have had two days’ cooked rations and told to be on the alert; I think due more to an expected attack from us than any projected movement on their part.”

Meanwhile, Grant continued planning his offensive, which would start as soon as the Virginia roads were dried enough for his men, horses, and guns.

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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. 517; Catton, Bruce. Grant Takes Command (Open Road Media. Kindle Edition, 2015), p. 427, 429; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 542, 546-48; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 17835-65; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 561, 563-67; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 8134; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 646-47, 654-55

The Second Battle of Ream’s Station

August 25, 1864 – Confederates scored a decisive victory that decimated the Federal II Corps, but it did little to affect the Federal siege of Petersburg.

After the Battle of Globe Tavern, Federal forces extended their siege line to the south of Petersburg, Virginia. Troops of V Corps and other elements of the Army of the Potomac under Major General Gouverneur Warren held the Weldon Railroad, which connected Petersburg to the North Carolina coast. The Federals destroyed track on the Weldon so it could no longer be used to supply the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia in Petersburg.

Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, looked to make the Federal hold on the railroad permanent. He wrote Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac, “If we can retain hold of the railroad it will be a great advantage.”

To do this, Grant looked to seize Ream’s Station, which was five miles south of Warren’s Federals at Globe Tavern and seven miles south of Petersburg. Grant selected Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps for this mission. The men of II Corps had just finished their grueling operation at Deep Bottom Run, north of the James River.

Hancock’s force consisted of two infantry divisions under Major General John Gibbon and Brigadier General Nelson A. Miles, as well as Brigadier General David M. Gregg’s cavalry division. The troops arrived at Ream’s on the 23rd, exhausted from constant marching and fighting. They occupied the fortifications that had been built during the Wilson-Kautz raid in June, and Gregg’s cavalry guarded the infantrymen as they began wrecking the track.

Major General Wade Hampton’s Confederate horsemen clashed with Gregg’s troopers, indicating to Hampton that the Federals were at Ream’s. He quickly passed this news to General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate army. This would not disrupt Lee’s supply line because he had already arranged to move supplies by wagon train from Stony Creek, farther south on the Weldon Railroad, to Petersburg via the Boydton Plank Road. But the Federal presence at Ream’s threatened Dinwiddie Court House, a possible point of retreat for Lee if he had to abandon Petersburg. Lee therefore resolved to drive the Federals off.

Meanwhile, the Federals continued destroying the railroad between Globe Tavern and Ream’s, and by the end of the 24th, Hancock reported that “the road is destroyed for about three miles and a half beyond Reams’.” That night, Hancock received word that Confederates were approaching from the northwest, “probably destined to operate against General Warren or yourself–most probably against your operations. The commanding general cautions you to look out for them.”

The approaching Confederates consisted of about 8,000 men under Lieutenant General A.P. Hill. As they advanced, Hampton’s cavalry forced Gregg’s Federals back. This prompted Hancock to suspend railroad operations and deploy his two infantry divisions to meet the threat. The Federals formed a U-shaped line, with Miles’s division on the right facing west and north, and Gibbon’s on the left facing west and south. Hancock reported to Meade:

“The enemy have been feeling all around me and are now cheering in my front, advancing and driving my skirmishers. I think they will next move across the road between Warren and myself as they press my lines. Two prisoners taken at different times say that all of Hampton’s cavalry and a part of Hill’s corps, or all of it, are in my front…”

The Confederate infantry crossed Rowanty Creek and moved along the road running northeast to Hancock’s positions. The initial Confederate attack came from Major General Cadmus M. Wilcox’s division against Miles’s troops around 2 p.m., but the Federals held their positions. Similar Confederate assaults along the line were also repulsed. Hancock reported:

“There is no great necessity of my remaining here, but it is more important that I should join Warren; but I do not think, closely engaged as I am at present, I can withdraw safely at this time. I think it will be well to withdraw tonight, if I am not forced to do so before.”

Meade told Hancock that he would send him reinforcements and added, “I hope you will be able to give the enemy a good thrashing.” When Meade received word that Hancock had stopped the Confederate advance, he authorized him to “withdraw tonight if you deem it best for the security of your command.”

“Frank Leslie’s – 2nd Reams Station” by Frank Leslie (publisher) – From Frank Leslie’s Scenes and Portraits of the Civil War. From a digital scan available at available at the Internet Archive. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons

However, a Confederate artillery barrage around 5 p.m. preceded a massive attack, which threatened Gibbon’s left. The Federals stood their ground until two regiments in Gibbon’s center suddenly fled in panic. The Confederates, surprised by the ease at which they broke the enemy line, exploited the gap while another force attacked the Federal left.

Hancock desperately tried reforming his fleeing men, shouting, “We can beat them yet. Don’t leave me, for God’s sake!” The Federals fell back nonetheless, with many of Gibbon’s green New Yorkers surrendering. One of Miles’s reserve brigades sent in to close the gap in the center “could neither be made to go forward nor fire.” Two Federal divisions were sent to reinforce Hancock, but he withdrew in disgust that night to the Jerusalem Plank Road.

Of the 2,750 Federal casualties, over 2,000 surrendered. The Federals also lost nine cannon, 12 battle flags, and over 3,000 small arms. This fight shattered the famed II Corps, as Hancock’s chief of staff, Colonel Charles H. Morgan, later said, “The agony of that day never died from that proud soldier (Hancock), who, for the first time, saw his lines broken and his guns taken.” Gibbon explained that his men fled because they had lost nine brigade and 40 regimental commanders in four months, but Hancock would have none of it. Gibbon, the former commander of the feared Iron Brigade, ultimately resigned.

In contrast, the Confederates lost just 720 men. This second engagement at Ream’s Station ended in Confederate victory just like the first, but it did little to stop the gradual westward extension of the Federal siege lines around Petersburg. Hill’s Confederates returned to the Petersburg trenches, and Warren’s Federals continued destroying the Weldon Railroad.

Military success was beginning to prove more costly than it was worth for Lee. On the 29th, he reported to President Jefferson Davis that the Confederate army had sustained some sort of combat loss in 100 consecutive days. Lee also informed Secretary of War James A. Seddon, “Without some increase of strength, I cannot see how we can escape the natural military consequences of the enemy’s numerical superiority.”

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 22242; Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 104-10; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 449-50; 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 11458-68; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 489-90; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7905, 7918, 7941; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 214; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 560; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 617-18

 

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 the North Anna: Lee Sets a Trap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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References

Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 483; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20312-21; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 412-13; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 443-44; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7210, 7222; Grant, Ulysses S., Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1982 [original 1885, republication of 1952 edition]), p. 432; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 135-37; Jensen, Les D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 535; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 507-09; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 428

The Battle of Gettysburg: Day Two

July 2, 1863 – The Federal and Confederate armies gathered south of Gettysburg, where General Robert E. Lee launched ferocious attacks on both Federal flanks.

The Confederates had won the previous day’s fight, having pushed the Federals southeast through Gettysburg. But the Federals were now firmly entrenched on high ground anchored by Culp’s and Cemetery hills. Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, arrived on Cemetery Hill just after midnight, where he set up headquarters in the house of the graveyard’s caretaker.

Major General Oliver O. Howard, commanding XI Corps, spoke for most of his fellow corps commanders when he told Meade, “I am confident we can hold this position.” Meade replied, “I am glad to hear you say so, gentlemen. I have already ordered the other corps to concentrate here–and it is too late to change.”

By morning, Meade had adeptly employed his engineering skills by positioning his forces on a strong defensive line. It started at Culp’s Hill on the right (northeast) flank and curled around Cemetery Hill to the west before turning south down Cemetery Ridge. The line ended with the left (south) flank anchored at the base of two hills called the Round Tops.

Confederate General Jeb Stuart | Image Credit: Flickr.com

Around 1 a.m., Major General Jeb Stuart, commanding the Confederate cavalry, put his troopers in motion to join the main army at Gettysburg. It had been one week since Stuart set off on his fateful ride around the Federal army that deprived Lee of vital intelligence. The men and horses were exhausted, having conducted five night marches during the raid.

Stuart and his cavalry finally arrived that afternoon, too late to provide any useful information to Lee regarding the Federal army. Lee greeted his tardy cavalry chief, “Well, General Stuart, you are here at last.” Stuart proudly presented Lee with the captured Federal wagon train, but Lee called it an “impediment to me now.” He ordered Stuart to block Meade’s possible line of retreat to the east.

Lee’s army concentrated around Seminary Ridge, about a mile and a half west of the Federals. The Confederates held exterior lines that stretched north through Gettysburg and then southeast to oppose the Federals on Culp’s and Cemetery hills south of town. Lee had been victorious the previous day, but he had not won a complete victory. He hoped to do so on this day.

Approximate army positions on the 2nd day | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Lieutenant General James Longstreet, commanding the Confederate First Corps, inspected the enemy positions that morning. He again urged Lee to move around the Federal left, get between Meade and Washington, and take up strong positions to repel a Federal attack in a manner like the Confederate victory at Fredericksburg last December. Lee refused, insisting, “The enemy is there, and I am going to attack him there.” Longstreet replied, “If he is there, it will be because he is anxious that we should attack him; a good reason, in my judgment, for not doing so.”

Lee would not relent. He directed two of Longstreet’s divisions under Major Generals John Bell Hood and Lafayette McLaws, as well as Major General Richard Anderson’s fresh division from Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s Third Corps, to assault the enemy left. Meanwhile, Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s Second Corps would resume attacking the enemy right at Culp’s and Cemetery hills.

Longstreet’s men did not start arriving until late morning, and Longstreet spent most of the day getting them into attack positions. The Confederates opened an artillery barrage at 4 p.m. to precede their infantry assault. Hood and McLaws did not get into position until after 4.

Maj Gen Daniel Sickles | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Major General Daniel Sickles’s III Corps held the Federal left on Cemetery Ridge. Sickles believed his position was weak and so he, contrary to Meade’s orders, moved his men a mile forward to slightly higher ground along the Emmitsburg road. The Federals occupied Sherfy’s Peach Orchard, the Wheat Field, and a mass of boulders at the foot of a hill called Devil’s Den. This created a vulnerable salient in the Federal line. When Hood’s Confederates advanced, they immediately exploited the error.

Hood swept around Sickles’s left, knocking the Federals out of Devil’s Den and past Plum Run, which separated Devil’s Den from the Round Tops. Hood’s scouts reported that Big Round Top was unoccupied, and Little Round Top had just signalmen on its peak. Hood directed his Confederates to sidle around Sickles and focus on taking Little Round Top.

Longstreet was informed of the lack of Federal troops on the Round Tops and was urged to go to Lee and again argue his point for moving around Meade’s left. But Lee had already rejected that twice, insisting that Longstreet attack the Federals in his front. Longstreet would not risk a third rejection.

When Meade learned of Sickles’s unauthorized advance, he furiously demanded that Sickles return to his original position. But the Confederate attack began before Sickles could move. He asked Meade if he should still try pulling back, but Meade replied, “I wish to God you could, but the enemy won’t let you.”

Meade quickly ordered V Corps, his former command now led by Major General George Sykes, to reinforce Sickles. Meade also directed his chief engineer, Brigadier General Gouverneur Warren, to reconnoiter the Round Tops. Warren scaled Little Round Top, a rocky, wooded eminence rising 650 feet. He saw Confederates massing below and quickly realized they could place artillery on this hill and enfilade the Federal army all the way north to Cemetery Hill.

Warren hurriedly called on the nearest Federal units to come and defend Little Round Top. These consisted of a brigade led by Colonel Strong Vincent, the 140th New York, and an artillery battery from V Corps. They arrived and took up positions just minutes before the Confederates rushed up the hill.

The Federals held desperately against repeated enemy charges, as Brigadier General Stephen H. Weed’s brigade came up to reinforce Vincent’s right. Weed directed the placement of heavy guns that tore holes into the oncoming Confederates until he was killed in action; Vincent was also killed.

Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain’s 20th Maine, holding the very end of the Federal line, launched a desperate bayonet charge after running out of ammunition, which shocked Brigadier General Evander M. Law’s Confederates and sent them running. Chamberlain, a college professor before the war, was later awarded the Medal of Honor for this action.

The Confederates then shifted their focus to the north, intending to execute Lee’s plan to launch assaults en echelon. McLaws’s division attacked Sickles’s exposed salient around 5:30 p.m. Fighting surged back and forth as the Wheat Field changed hands six times before the Confederates finally made a breakthrough. However, the Federals held the enemy off with artillery until Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps came up to stabilize the left-center of the Federal line.

McLaws deployed Brigadier General William Barksdale’s brigade around 6:30 p.m., which swept through the Peach Orchard and captured a Federal battery. However, Barksdale fell mortally wounded, and a Federal counterattack virtually destroyed his brigade. The Confederates next tried breaking the Federal center to no avail. The 1st Minnesota under Colonel William Colvill was nearly annihilated in a futile counterattack.

During all this brutal fighting, Sickles was wounded in the leg and carried from the field. He inexplicably blamed Meade for the heavy losses his corps sustained, despite having advanced on his own initiative into the face of massed Confederates.

By day’s end, the Confederates had seized the Peach Orchard, Devil’s Den, and the base of the Round Tops. But Federal reinforcements prevented them from penetrating any further. The Federals still commanded the high ground, and their line remained unbroken. Warren received high praise for recognizing the threat to Little Round Top and rushing to stop it.

Casualties were extreme for the second straight day, with each side losing another 9,000. Barksdale was killed, Major General William D. Pender of Hill’s corps was mortally wounded, and Hood was seriously wounded. Over 500 Confederates lay dead in the Wheat Field alone. Sickles lost his leg, and the 1st Minnesota lost 215 of its 262 men, or a horrifying 82 percent. As President Abraham Lincoln anxiously awaited news of the battle in the War Department’s telegraph office, Meade wired around 8 p.m.:

“The enemy attacked me about 4 p.m. this day, and, after one of the severest contests of the war, was repulsed at all points. I shall remain in my present position tomorrow, but am not prepared to say, until better advised of the condition of the army, whether my operations will be of an offensive or defensive character.”

Just after Meade relayed the message, Ewell finally launched his attack on the Federal right at Culp’s and Cemetery hills. The Confederates had bombarded the positions since 6 p.m.; the Federal defenses had been weakened by both the artillery barrage and by pulling troops away to reinforce the Federal left.

Major General Jubal Early’s Confederates briefly seized Cemetery Hill, breaking XI Corps once more, before Federal reinforcements drove them back. Confederate Major General Robert Rodes’s failure to reconnoiter deprived Early of the support needed to hold onto his gains.

The Federals held firm on Culp’s Hill against Major General Edward “Allegheny” Johnson’s division; the hill was initially defended by just one brigade under Brigadier General George S. Greene. A division of XII Corps led by Brigadier General Thomas H. Ruger eventually came up to bolster Culp’s.

That night, Meade held a council of war with at least 12 of his top commanders in his small farmhouse headquarters on the Taneytown road. Meade sought advice on whether he should stay put as he told Washington or withdraw after sustaining Ewell’s attack. The officers resolved to stay put but maintain a defensive posture.

As the meeting ended, Meade told Major General John Gibbon, commanding a division in II Corps, “If Lee attacks to-morrow, it will be in your front.” When Gibbon asked why, Meade said, “Because he has made attacks on both our flanks and failed, and if he concludes to try it again, it will be on our center.”

The Confederates once again could not penetrate the Federal defenses. Longstreet was later accused of moving too slowly, and Lee was criticized for not properly coordinating the attacks. Lee resolved to launch one more attack the next day. As Meade predicted, he would target the Federal center in one last effort to destroy “those people.”

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 129-33; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 336-37; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Clark, Champ, Gettysburg: The Confederate High Tide (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 67, 70-71, 73, 78, 108, 119; Crocker III, H.W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008), p. 69-75; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 19001; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 299; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 460, 523-24; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 320-21; Hoffsommer, Robert D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 640; Hubbell, John T., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 688, 803; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 118-23, 166-67; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 375-76; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 646-47; McMurry, Richard M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 470; 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. 655-60; Smith, Dean E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 498; Sommers, Richard J., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 172-73, 177-78; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 196, 216, 306, 308-09, 441-42, 565, 739, 786, 811, 818