Tag Archives: Richard Ewell

The Nation Reacts to Lincoln’s Death

April 15, 1865 – Northerners mourned the loss of Abraham Lincoln while rumors quickly spread that the assassination attempts had been plotted by a desperate Confederate government.

Almost immediately after John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln and Lewis Paine stabbed William H. Seward, Washington officials accused high-ranking Confederates of orchestrating the attacks. As such, northern sentiment quickly turned from sorrow to rage against the South. Francis Lieber, the political scientist who had developed the codes of ethics that Federal armies were supposed to follow, wrote a frantic letter to Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck:

“My God! That even this should befall us! It is Slavery, Slavery! Can I do anything? Dispose, my friend, wholly of me, if there be aught I can help to do. The draft ought to go on again, or volunteers be called, to sweep, literally to sweep the South. No coquetting! Drive the fiends from our soil and let Grant be a stern uncompromising man of the sword, and the sword alone, until the masses in the States rise against their own fiends, and hang them or drive them out, and until the masses offer themselves, re-revolutionized, back to the Union, freed from slavery and assassins and secret society… The murder of poor, good Lincoln is no isolated fact. It is all, all one fiendish barbarism.”

Prominent northerners quickly joined Lieber in calling for Federal forces to destroy the South once and for all. In Boston, Reverend W.S. Studley called for hanging Confederates in his Sunday service, adding, “In dealing with traitors, Andrew Johnson’s little finger will be thicker than Abraham Lincoln’s loins. If the old president chastised them with whips, the new president will chastise them with scorpions.”

U.S. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton | Image Credit: Flickr.com

Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton halted southbound passenger trains from Washington, prohibited boats from crossing the Potomac to Virginia, posted guards outside the homes of cabinet members, mobilized the fire brigade, and closed Ford’s Theatre. He also issued a declaration alleging that Jefferson Davis and other high-ranking Confederate officials had sanctioned Lincoln’s assassination.

Stanton authorized Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant to use “adequate force and vigilance” against “the large number of Rebel officers and privates, prisoners of war, and Rebel refugees and deserters that are among us.” Stanton added, “I feel it my duty to ask you to consider yourself specially charged with all matters pertaining to the security and defense of this national capital.”

Grant ordered Major General E.O.C. Ord, commanding Federal occupation forces in Richmond, to arrest Mayor Joseph Mayo and high-ranking Confederate John A. Campbell, who had worked with Lincoln to help bring Virginia back into the Union. Ord balked at the order, writing, “The two citizens I have seen. They are old, nearly helpless, and I think incapable of harm.”

Ord stated that Campbell and Robert Hunter, another Confederate working with Federal authorities, had recently asked him “to send them to Washington to see the President. Would they have done so, if guilty?” Grant answered: “On reflection I will withdraw my dispatch of this date directing the arrest of Campbell, Mayo and others so far as it may be regarded as an order, and leave it in the light of a suggestion, to be executed only so far as you may judge the good of the service demands.”

Lieutenant General Richard Ewell, a corps commander in the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and now a prisoner of war at Fort Warren, Massachusetts, spoke for most clear-minded southerners in a letter to Grant:

“You will appreciate, I am sure, the sentiment which prompts me to drop you these lines. Of all the misfortunes which could befall the Southern people, or any Southern man, by far the greatest, in my judgment, would be the prevalence of the idea that they could entertain any other than feelings of unqualified abhorrence and indignation for the assassination of the President of the United States and the attempt to assassinate the Secretary of State. No language can adequately express the shock produced upon myself, in common with all the other general officers confined here with me, by the occurrence of this appalling crime, and by the seeming tendency in the public mind to connect the South and Southern men with it. Need we say that we are not assassins, nor the allies of assassins, be they from the North or from the South, and that coming as we do from most of the states of the South we would be ashamed of our own people were we not assured that they will reprobate this crime.”

Meanwhile, Lincoln was mourned throughout the North. Church bells tolled, and ministers compared the late president to Jesus Christ in their Easter sermons. Even Lincoln’s political opponents acknowledged that his death was a national tragedy. As the nation grieved, officials prepared an elaborate funeral to bid a final farewell to Abraham Lincoln.

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References

Catton, Bruce. Grant Takes Command (Open Road Media. Kindle Edition, 2015), p. 475, 478; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 559; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 677-78; 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), Q265

The Appomattox Campaign

April 7, 1865 – After suffering his worst defeat, Confederate General-in-Chief Robert E. Lee embarked on the final campaign of his military career.

The Confederates who survived yesterday’s Sayler’s Creek rout continued their agonizing march west to collect the rations waiting for them at Farmville. Many starving men had been living on dried corn intended for the horses. They crossed the Appomattox River and burned the bridges behind them, but Federals from II Corps seized a bridge downriver before it could be destroyed. This enabled the Federals to cross and continue their close pursuit.

As the Confederates stopped at Farmville to cook their rations, Lee learned that the Federals had gotten across the Appomattox. He would have to order another forced march to get away, this time to Appomattox Court House, 38 miles west. The exhausted troops were quickly put in motion once again; many had not even had time to eat when the ration train steamed off to safety. Brigadier General E. Porter Alexander, the Confederate artillery chief, later wrote:

“It was very plain that the prospect of being surrendered had suddenly become a topic of general conversation. Indeed, no man who looked at our situation on a map, or who understood the geography of the country, could fail to see that General Grant now had us completely in a trap… We were now in a sort of jug shaped peninsula between the James River and the Appomattox, and there was but one outlet, the neck of the jug at Appomattox Court House, and to that Grant had the shortest road!”

Federals from II Corps and Major General Philip Sheridan’s cavalry clashed with a Confederate holding force at Cumberland Church on the afternoon of the 7th. The Confederates repelled two charges, capturing Brigadier General John Irvin Gregg and mortally wounding Brigadier General Thomas A. Smyth in the process. Smyth would become the last general to die in the war. Darkness ended the fighting, and the Confederates soon began another grueling night march.

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

That night, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, rode into Farmville with Sheridan. Grant rode ahead of his baggage and had no clothes other than the mud-stained uniform he was wearing. Sheridan had written that Lee might surrender if pressed, and Grant forwarded this message to President Abraham Lincoln, who was still monitoring developments from the Federal supply base at City Point. Lincoln replied, “Gen. Sheridan says ‘If the thing is pressed I think that Lee will surrender.’ Let the thing be pressed.”

Sheridan reported that his cavalry was riding hard for Appomattox Court House, where the Federals learned that supplies were being sent for Lee’s army. Sheridan also reported that Lieutenant General Richard Ewell, the Confederate corps commander who had been captured at Sayler’s Creek, had told his captors, “Our cause is lost. Lee should surrender before more lives are wasted.” Grant said, “I have a mind to summon Lee to surrender.” Grant went into the town hotel serving as his headquarters and wrote a letter to be sent to Lee under a flag of truce:

“The result of the last week must convince you of the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the Army of Northern Virginia in this struggle. I feel that it is so, and regard it as my duty to shift from myself the responsibility of any further effusion of blood, by asking of you the surrender of that portion of the Confederate States army known as the Army of Northern Virginia.”

Meanwhile, Lee’s troops continued heading west. Many dropped out due to hunger, sleep deprivation, or sheer hopelessness. Major General Henry Wise, the former Virginia governor, bluntly told Lee:

“This army is hopelessly whipped, and is fast becoming demoralized. These men have already endured more than I believed flesh and blood could stand, and I say to you, sir, emphatically, that to prolong the struggle is murder, and the blood of every man who is killed from this time forth is on your head, General Lee.”

Lee asked, “What would the country think of me, if I did what you suggest?” Wise snapped, “Country be damned! There is no country. There has been no country, General, for a year or more. You are the country to these men… You know the game is desperate beyond redemption, and that, if you so announce, no man, or government, or people, will gainsay your decision.”

A courier delivered Grant’s message to Lee around 10 p.m. Lee read the message and then handed it to Lieutenant General James Longstreet, his most trusted corps commander. Longstreet read it and said, “Not yet.” Lee responded to Grant:

“GENERAL:–I have recd your note of this date. Though not entertaining the opinion you express of the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the Army of N. Va. I reciprocate your desire to avoid useless effusion of blood, & therefore before considering your proposition, ask the terms you will offer on condition of its surrender.”

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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. 538; Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 215-17; Catton, Bruce, The Army of the Potomac: A Stillness at Appomattox (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1953), p. 372-73; Catton, Bruce. Grant Takes Command (Open Road Media. Kindle Edition, 2015), p. 455-56; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 22688; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 555-56; 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 18973-83, 19355-65, 19531-41; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 580; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 8653-65; Grant, Ulysses S., Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (New York: Da Capo Press, 1982 [original 1885, republication of 1952 edition]), p. 550-51; Kennedy, Frances H. (ed.), The Civil War Battlefield Guide (Christopher M. Calkins, The Conservation Fund, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1990), p. 281; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 119-55; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 668-69; 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. 847; 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), Q265

The Battle of Sayler’s Creek

April 6, 1865 – General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia sustained its worst defeat of the war while trying to elude Federal pursuers west of Richmond.

On the night of the 5th, Lee’s forces began moving west out of Amelia Court House in heavy rain. The army had dwindled to about 25,000 hungry, exhausted, and desperate men. The troops headed toward Farmville, where Confederate Commissary General I.M. St. John arranged to have 80,000 rations waiting for them via the South Side Railroad. From there, Lee hoped to continue west to Lynchburg and then turn south to join forces with General Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederates in North Carolina.

The Confederates were under pursuit by some 80,000 Federals, led by Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant. Major General Philip Sheridan’s cavalry corps was in the lead, followed by three corps from Major General George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac, and a corps of Major General E.O.C. Ord’s Army of the James. The Federals were highly motivated by the prospect of destroying Lee’s army and ending the war.

The Federals were mostly south and east of Lee’s Confederates. Early on the 6th, Grant discovered that Lee was moving west, around the Federal left flank. He therefore directed Sheridan’s cavalry to ride northwest and block the Confederate advance while Federal infantry closed in from behind. Meade had planned to advance on Amelia Court House, but when he learned that Lee was no longer there, he wheeled left and joined Sheridan in the pursuit.

The opposing forces moved along parallel roads, with the Confederates on the northern route and slightly ahead. Along the way, Federal troops came across abandoned guns, broken down wagons, starving animals, and Confederate stragglers ready to surrender.

On the morning of the 6th, elements of Sheridan’s cavalry rode into a gap that had formed between the Confederate corps of Lieutenant Generals James Longstreet and Richard H. Anderson. Longstreet was unaware that Anderson had been stopped and thus continued west to Rice’s Station. Lieutenant General Richard Ewell, moving behind Anderson, sent his wagon train north with Major General John B. Gordon’s Confederates to prevent its capture.

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

Ewell positioned his corps on a ridge facing northeast, overlooking the Hillsman farm and Little Sayler’s (or Sailor’s) Creek. Gordon was to his left (north), and Anderson was to his right rear (south). Major General Horatio G. Wright’s Federal VI Corps formed on the opposing ridge and gunners opened fire around 5 p.m. The infantry advanced soon after.

The Confederates waited for the Federals to cross the swollen creek and then unleashed a deadly volley. Ewell ordered a charge, but it was repulsed with heavy loss. The Federals countercharged, and the men engaged in vicious hand-to-hand combat. According to one of Ewell’s officers, “the battle degenerated into a butchery and confused melee of brutal personal conflicts. I saw numbers of men kill each other with bayonets and the butts of muskets, and even bite each other’s throats and ears and noses, rolling on the ground like wild beasts.”

The Federals ultimately overwhelmed Ewell’s undersized command and forced Ewell to surrender; he lost 3,400 of his 3,600 men. Both his division commanders, Major Generals Joseph B. Kershaw and George Washington Custis Lee (oldest son of Robert E. Lee) also surrendered.

Ewell later reported:

“As shells and even bullets were crossing each other from front and rear over my troops, my right was completely enveloped. I surrendered myself and staff to a cavalry officer who came in by the same road General Anderson had gone out on.”

Ewell, the commander who had helped “Stonewall” Jackson mystify Federals in the Shenandoah Valley and who had lost a leg at Second Bull Run, was shipped to the Federal prison at Fort Warren in Boston Harbor.

The naval forces that had been formed into an infantry unit after abandoning Richmond were among the last to surrender. Federal Colonel J. Warren Keifer rode ahead to accept their surrender before they had actually done so, and some Confederates trained their guns on him. But their commander, John R. Tucker, stopped them from killing the colonel. Tucker surrendered his sword to Keifer, who returned it to Tucker after the war.

To Ewell’s right rear, three Federal cavalry divisions attacked and overwhelmed Anderson’s men at a crossroads near the Harper and Marshall farms. The Confederates broke and fled into the woods; those who did not escape were taken prisoner. Anderson lost 2,600 men but managed to escape.

To Ewell’s left, Gordon fended off Major General Andrew A. Humphreys’s II Corps while fleeing west. However, the Confederates were forced to make a stand on the high ground at the Lockett farm when their vital wagon train got stalled in mud. Humphreys’s 16,500 Federals gradually pushed Gordon’s 7,000 men back until they had to use the wagons for protection.

When the Federals began swinging around the Confederate left flank, Gordon ordered a retreat. Some 2,000 Confederates were captured, along with over 200 wagons that they could ill afford to lose. Confederate survivors straggled west toward Longstreet’s waiting forces at Rice’s Station.

General Lee watched the action with Major General William Mahone’s division (under Longstreet). As the Confederates fled, Lee cried, “My God! Has the army been dissolved?” Mahone replied, “No General, here are troops ready to do their duty.” Lee said, “Yes, there are still some true men left. Will you please keep those people back?” Mahone’s men helped cover the retreat across the Appomattox River.

The Confederates lost about 8,000 men, mostly captured, including six generals. This was roughly one-third of the remaining Army of Northern Virginia, and it was the largest number of Americans ever taken prisoner in battle up to that time (it was later surpassed by Bataan, 77 years later). This was Lee’s worst defeat of the war, and Confederates would remember it as “Black Thursday.”

But even though Lee had less than 20,000 men left in his army, the Federals had failed to block his escape path to the west. Lee therefore continued on toward Farmville as planned, now moving only with those who had either escaped from or avoided the Sayler’s Creek rout. After dark, the Confederates crossed the Appomattox and burned the bridges behind them.

Meanwhile, Sheridan reported to Grant:

“I attacked them with two divisions of the Sixth Army Corps and routed them handsomely, making a connection with the cavalry. I am still pressing on with both cavalry and infantry. Up to the present time we have captured Generals Ewell, Kershaw, Barton, Corse, DeBose and Custis Lee, several thousand prisoners, 14 pieces of artillery with caissons and a large number of wagons. If the thing is pressed I think Lee will surrender.”

This message enraged Meade because it made no mention of VI Corps’ contribution to the victory. He fumed, “Oh, so General Wright wasn’t there?” Nevertheless, the Federal high command was now confident that Lee’s army was finally on the verge of collapse.

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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. 531-32; Catton, Bruce, The Army of the Potomac: A Stillness at Appomattox (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1953), p. 369-71; Catton, Bruce. Grant Takes Command (Open Road Media. Kindle Edition, 2015), p. 452-54; 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 22688; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 555; Floyd, Dale E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 248-49; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 18963-83, 19305-15, 19335-45; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 579-80; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 8642; Kennedy, Frances H. (ed.), The Civil War Battlefield Guide (Christopher M. Calkins, The Conservation Fund, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1990), p. 278-81; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 114-15, 120-28; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 223-24; Ward, Burns, Burns, The Civil War, p. 376-77; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 667-68; 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. 847; Robertson, James I., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 659-60; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 376-77

The Fall of Richmond

April 2, 1865 – As Federal forces entered Petersburg, the fall of the Confederate capital was imminent.

Richmond’s elite gathered for Communion Sunday services at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. Among them was President Jefferson Davis, seated in pew 63. The rector, Dr. Charles Minnigerode, delivered his invocation, and then the sexton delivered a telegram to the president. As Davis opened the envelope and read, witnesses noted “a sort of gray pallor creep over his face.”

Confederate President Jefferson Davis | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Davis quietly left with a few advisors, telling nobody about the situation so as to prevent a panic. But as more messengers came and went, word quickly spread that the capital would soon fall. At the nearby Second Presbyterian Church, Reverend Moses Hoge received the news during his sermon and announced to his congregation:

“Brethren, trying times are before us… but remember that God is with us in the storm as well as in the calm. We may never meet again. Go quietly to our homes, and whatever may be in store for us, let us not forget that we are Christian men and women, and may the protection of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost be with you all.”

Government clerks soon began stacking documents in the streets and burning them. That night, Davis assembled his cabinet, informed them that Richmond was lost, and made arrangements to abandon the city. Each cabinet member was to bring his department’s archives to the Richmond & Danville Railroad depot, where a special train would relocate the government to Danville, southwest of Richmond. Davis was determined to keep the government functioning no matter what.

Richmond’s imminent fall was announced to the public in late afternoon. Many were shocked by the news because the Richmond press had been discouraged from reporting Federal success, and therefore they did not know the city was in such danger. Residents wept as they either hurried to leave or resolved to stay and leave their fate to the Yankees.

Pandemonium reigned as every road and railroad station was quickly jammed with humanity. Government officials scrambled to get family members aboard packet boats on the James River Canal before fleeing to safety. At the rail depot, the boxcars attached to the special government train were hastily labeled “War Department,” “Quarter-Masters Department,” etc. The Treasury car contained all the gold and silver from its vaults and local banks, totaling some $528,000. These assets were guarded by 60 midshipmen from the Patrick Henry, the Confederacy’s naval academy training vessel.

The special train was ready to leave at 8 p.m. Davis collected effects from the Executive Mansion and organized what was left so the Federals would not think he rushed out too hastily. Davis also sent an armchair to Mrs. Robert E. Lee in hopes of easing her arthritis; she was too infirmed to leave Richmond. Davis then wrote to her husband, who was busy evacuating Petersburg: “To move to night will involve the loss of many valuables, both for the want of time to pack and of transportation. Arrangements are progressing, and unless you otherwise advise the start will be made.”

When Lee received this message, he tore it up and snapped, “I am sure I gave him sufficient notice!” He then calmly replied: “Your telegram received. I think it will be necessary to move tonight. I shall camp the troops here north of the Appomattox. The enemy is so strong that they will cross above us & close us in between the James & Appomattox Rivers, if we remain.”

Davis rode through the panicked crowds to get to the depot (his wife and children had already left town in late March). By 11 p.m., Davis and most other top officials had boarded the train. Only Lee’s orderly retreat from Petersburg enabled the train to escape before the Federals arrived. The trip to Danville took 20 hours despite being just 140 miles away.

The Richmond fires | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Back in Richmond, the chaos continued. Inmates walked out of the abandoned state prison, and the inevitable looting and pillaging began. The Local Defense Board fell apart as marauders plundered shops, stores, and homes. Richmond officials issued orders to destroy all whiskey to prevent a drunken riot, but the people gathered all the liquor they could find and even scooped it up after it was dumped in the streets. A resident wrote that this was “the saddest of many of the sad sights of the war–a city undergoing pillage at the hands of its own mob, while the standards of an empire were being taken from its capitol.” Another wrote that on this night, “the devil was loosed.”

Navy Secretary Stephen R. Mallory directed Rear Admiral Raphael Semmes to destroy the Patrick Henry and all other vessels on the James River before they fell into Federal hands. The exploding ships shattered windows in Richmond. Semmes later wrote, “The spectacle was grand beyond description.” All remaining sailors were formed into an infantry brigade and sent with the rest of the Confederate troops out of town.

On land, Lieutenant General Richard Ewell ordered the destruction of all military equipment and supplies that could not be evacuated. During the night, Confederates burned warehouses, and the fires quickly spread out of control. They burned most tobacco barns, flour mills, and public buildings, as well as the Richmond Examiner and Inquirer. The troops evacuated on the Mayo Bridge out of Richmond, and then destroyed that as well.

The fires destroyed much of the main part of Richmond, with the massive inferno engulfing homes, hotels, factories, and warehouses. Around 2 a.m., the fires reached the national arsenal holding gunpowder and nearly a million artillery shells. This set off massive explosions that rocked the city for hours. Streets quickly filled with “those silent awful fires,” and resident Mary Fontaine wrote, “All like myself were watching them, paralyzed and breathless.”

By dawn on the 3rd, the city that had defiantly served as the Confederate capital for nearly four years lay in ruins.

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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. 525; Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 219-21; 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 18539-59, 18578-637; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 574-76; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 715-17; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 91-101; 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. 845-46; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 490-92; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 368-69; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 630-32; Winik, Jay, April 1865: The Month That Saved America (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), p. 102-05, 108, 110

The Battle of Chaffin’s Bluff

September 28, 1864 – Major General Benjamin F. Butler, commanding the Federal Army of the James, planned to send 20,000 men north to seize Confederate Forts Harrison and Gilmer, which made up a vital part of the Chaffin’s Bluff defenses southeast of the Confederate capital at Richmond, Virginia.

After Federal forces captured the Weldon Railroad south of Petersburg in August, both sides returned to their siege lines and regrouped for much of September. Most of the action in Virginia this month occurred in the Shenandoah Valley, with Major General Philip Sheridan’s Federals scoring major victories over the Confederate Army of the Valley under Lieutenant General Jubal Early.

President Abraham Lincoln worried that General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia at Petersburg, would reinforce Early in the Valley. Lincoln wrote Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, “I hope it will lay no constraint on you, nor do harm anyway, for me to say I am a little afraid lest Lee sends re-enforcements to Early, and thus enables him to turn upon Sheridan.”

Grant replied, “I am taking steps to prevent Lee sending re-enforcements to Early by attacking him here.” This attack would consist of a two-pronged assault on Lee’s Confederates defending Richmond (i.e., their left flank) and those defending the South Side Railroad southwest of Petersburg (i.e., their right flank). Grant hoped to stretch the Confederate siege lines to their breaking point, thus leaving either Richmond, Petersburg, or both open to Federal capture.

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

Preparations for the attack on Richmond involved reuniting Butler’s army, which consisted of two infantry corps (X under Major General James B. Birney and XVIII under Major General E.O.C. Ord), and Brigadier General August V. Kautz’s cavalry. According to Butler’s plan:

  • Ord’s 8,000 troops would cross the James on a pontoon bridge and attack Forts Harrison and Gilmer at Richmond’s southern defenses near Chaffin’s Farm.
  • Birney’s 10,000 troops and Kautz’s horsemen would cross on Ord’s right, 18 miles downstream, and attack the Confederates’ easternmost defenses at New Market Heights.

Butler received intelligence (which proved correct) that the Confederate garrisons were lightly defended. Activity swirled around Butler’s headquarters the night before the attacks, as the commanders studied 16 pages of orders for this operation. A New York Times correspondent wrote, “Portents of a coming something were unmistakable. In all my experience, I never knew a plan to be kept so profoundly secret.”

Lee, whose army was spread dangerously thin already, began shifting troops from the Petersburg sector under Lieutenant General Richard H. Anderson to reinforce Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s Confederate defenders outside Richmond. However, Butler’s secrecy ensured that the Confederates did not know where (or even if) an attack would take place.

On the night of the 28th, Ord’s Federals crossed the James at Aiken’s Landing and headed up the Varina Road, while Birney’s men crossed at Deep Bottom. Birney had orders to turn the enemy right at New Market Heights; this would push the Confederates away from Forts Harrison and Gilmer so Ord could capture them. Just 2,000 unsuspecting Confederates held New Market Heights against Birney’s entire corps.

Map of fighting at New Market Heights | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Birney’s Federals advanced through the thick fog on the morning of the 29th. Brigadier General Charles J. Paine’s division led the assault, with a brigade of black troops in the frontline. The blacks charged unsupported, and many were either taken prisoner or killed after they surrendered. Birney regrouped and sent Paine’s troops forward again, this time supported by Brigadier General Alfred H. Terry’s division on their right. However, the Federals were stopped again by ferocious enemy fire.

As the Confederate fire slackened, the Federals launched a third charge that finally overran the works. But they soon learned that the Confederates had withdrawn because of the results of the fighting at Forts Harrison and Gilmer, not because of their charges. Paine’s division sustained 800 casualties, most of whom were black troops.

In Ord’s sector, the Federals had to charge over 1,400 yards of open ground, a desperate effort even with the benefit of fog. The Confederates were initially surprised by the enemy’s approach, but they quickly regrouped and poured heavy fire into the attackers. They killed hundreds of Federals in the first attack wave, including the wave commander, Brigadier General Hiram Burnham.

Federal charge on Fort Harrison | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

The subsequent attack waves were disorganized, but their sheer numbers overwhelmed the Confederates, and the Federals seized Fort Harrison by 7:30 a.m. The Federals then turned south to attack Fort Gilmer, the key to the Chaffin’s Farm defense line. The Confederate defenders at Gilmer had heard the firing at Harrison and were ready. They held firm with support from Confederate gunboats on the James, wounding Ord in the process. He was temporarily replaced as corps commander by Brigadier General Charles A. Heckman, with Major General Godfrey Weitzel replacing Heckman the next day.

Meanwhile, Kautz’s cavalry advanced down the Darbytown Road, but Confederate artillery drove them back. As the day ended, the Federals held Fort Harrison and New Market Heights, but the Confederates retained Fort Gilmer as they fell back to stronger, more compact defenses.

Ewell notified Lee that Fort Harrison had fallen. Fearing that this would open the road to Richmond, Lee hurried reinforcements to that sector and asked General Braxton Bragg, advisor to President Jefferson Davis, to call out all Richmond militia. Lee considered launching a night attack to retake Harrison but opted to wait until the next day. He reported that night, “The enemy still hold Battery Harrison on the exterior line. Our loss is very small.”

Both sides disengaged for the night, with the Confederates forming a new defense perimeter and the Federals fortifying against an expected attempt to retake Harrison the next day. Lee sent eight infantry brigades numbering 10,000 men north of the James for the impending assault.

On the 30th, the entrenched Federals easily repelled four desperate Confederate charges. Lee personally directed three of the assaults, fearful that losing Harrison might collapse his left flank. Brigadier General George J. Stannard led the strong Federal defense before being severely wounded in the final attack. Meanwhile, Federals made another effort to capture Fort Gilmer. Four companies of the 7th U.S. Colored Troops lost about half their men as they reached the fort’s ramparts, but the Confederates ultimately drove them off.

The Confederates who could not reclaim Harrison fell back to works between the fort and Richmond, beyond Federal gun range near Chaffin’s Bluff. This eventually became an even stronger line than the original one. Lee reported the loss of Harrison to the Confederate War Department that evening, as well as the loss of about 2,000 men in the two-day contest.

The Federals sustained 3,327 casualties (383 killed, 2,299 wounded, and 645 missing) out of about 20,000 engaged. Black troops comprised 1,773 of the total casualties, and of the 16 Congressional Medals of Honor earned by black soldiers in the war, 14 were awarded for this battle alone.

While the Confederates were now behind stronger defenses, Lee had no more men to reinforce either the troops stretching southwest of Petersburg or the Confederates in the Shenandoah Valley. Only a lack of effective Federal coordination prevented a major breakthrough that could have opened a path to Richmond.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 138-48, 150, 155; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 464-65; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Kindle Locations 11745-76; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 502-03; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7941-52, 7964; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 192; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 575-77; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 123-24; Sommers, Richard J., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 177, 179-80, 393

The Deep Bottom Engagement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 22209; Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 70; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 439-41; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 474-76; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7809; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 546-48; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 204

Grant and Lee Shift Toward Cold Harbor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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References

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

The Battle of 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 the North Anna

May 23, 1864 – General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia attacked a force from the Federal Army of the Potomac as it crossed the North Anna River.

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

On the morning of the 23rd, Lee reunited his army when Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s corps arrived. Lee arranged the forces to defend both Richmond and the vital railroad intersection at Hanover Junction:

  • Hill’s corps held the army’s left flank, extending northwest
  • Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s corps held the right flank, extending east
  • Major General Richard H. Anderson’s corps held the center, which curled along the North Anna
  • Confederates from both Ewell’s and Anderson’s corps guarded Hanover Junction
  • Confederates under Major Generals John C. Breckinridge and George Pickett were in reserve

Meanwhile, the Federal army began gathering near Mount Carmel Church, about a mile north of the North Anna on the Telegraph Road. Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, issued orders:

  • Major General Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps would move west and cross the North Anna at Jericho Mills
  • Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps would move south down the Telegraph Road and cross the North Anna using the Chesterfield Bridge
  • Major General Horatio G. Wright’s VI Corps would follow Warren
  • Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s IX Corps would follow Hancock

Lee did not expect a confrontation; he guessed that any activity in his front would be just a diversion for another effort by Grant to move southeast around the Confederate right flank. He wrote his wife that Grant had “become tired of forcing his passage through us.” As such, only a small Confederate force guarded Chesterfield Bridge, and all other crossings on the line were undefended. Moreover, Lee was suffering from exhaustion and acute diarrhea, making him unable to ride his horse. This gave Grant a great opportunity to smash through Lee’s army if he brought his full force to bear.

The Confederates rested during the day, but due to dwindling supplies, the men received just a pint of cornmeal and a quarter-pound of bacon. They were unaware that the Federals were approaching. On the Confederate left, Warren’s men finally found the undefended Jericho Mills after getting lost in the woods, and the three divisions were across the North Anna by around 4:30 p.m.

Based on the ease in which he crossed, Warren reported to headquarters, “I do not believe the enemy intends holding the North Anna.” Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac under Grant, ordered Warren to establish a beachhead on the southern bank and build defenses. Learning that the Confederates were guarding the Virginia Central Railroad ahead, Warren deployed his men in line of battle and advanced.

Lee received word that Federals had crossed on his left flank, but he still believed that this was either just a scouting expedition or a ruse. He directed A.P. Hill to dispatch just one division, under Major General Cadmus M. Wilcox, with artillery support to meet the threat. The Confederates were outnumbered five-to-two (i.e., 15,000 to 6,000).

Wilcox’s Confederates attacked the surprised Federals around 6 p.m. and nearly broke their line. However, the Federals regrouped, and their artillery atop a bluff overlooking the North Anna held the Confederates at bay. Warren’s overwhelming forces began flanking Wilcox, who ordered a withdrawal when no reinforcements were forthcoming.

Warren sustained 377 casualties while Wilcox lost 730. Warren’s men built defenses on their beachhead at Jericho Mills. Lee admonished Hill for failing to bring up the rest of his corps to support Wilcox: “General Hill, why did you let those people cross here? Why didn’t you throw your whole force on them and drive them back as (‘Stonewall’) Jackson would have done?”

To the southeast, Hancock’s corps approached Chesterfield Bridge. Hancock dispatched a probing force, and then reported upon their return, “No crossing of the river can be forced here at present, as all accounts agree that the enemy are in force, and there is a creek between us and the river, with obstacles.” Hancock deployed his artillery, and a two-hour cannon duel ensued. Lee was nearly killed by a cannonball that lodged in the door of the house where he was observing the action.

When the duel ended, Hancock ordered an attack. Quickly overwhelmed, the Confederates fled across the bridge to the south bank. Grant later wrote, “The bridge was carried quickly, the enemy retreating over it so hastily that many were shoved into the river, and some of them were drowned.” Federal sharpshooters prevented the Confederates from burning the bridge after crossing, and Confederate artillery fire prevented Hancock’s men from crossing the bridge. The Federals dug entrenchments on the northern bank instead.

That night, Wright’s VI Corps arrived on the opposite bank in support of Warren. Burnside’s IX Corps came up on Wright’s left near Ox Ford, and Hancock remained entrenched in front of Chesterfield Bridge to Burnside’s left.

Lee finally realized that a major engagement was developing, and he would not give up Hanover Junction without a fight. He worked with his engineers through the night to establish an inverted V-shaped line. The apex was at Ox Ford, with the left extending southwest and the right extending southeast to Hanover Junction.

As the Confederates formed this new line, it appeared to the Federals as if they were retreating and leaving just a token force at Ox Ford. But if Grant tried attacking that point, the two sides of the inverted V could split his army. A.P. Hill’s corps would hold Warren and Wright at Jericho Mills, while Anderson and Ewell faced Burnside and Hancock at Ox Ford and Chesterfield Bridge. Breckinridge and Pickett remained in reserve. Lee said of Grant, “If I can get one more pull at him, I will defeat him.”

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Crocker III, H.W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008), p. 84-87; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20312; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 412; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 443; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 132-34; 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; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 551

Northern Virginia: Showdown at the North Anna

May 22, 1864 – General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia arrived at the North Anna River ahead of the Federal Army of the Potomac, once again blocking Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant’s southeastern movement toward Richmond.

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

Lee had anticipated that Grant would move southeast again and shifted his forces to protect Hanover Junction, where the Virginia Central and the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac railroads intersected two miles south of the North Anna. From this point, Lee could defend Richmond, secure his right flank, and protect the railroads. But he would be just 23 miles from the Confederate capital.

Grant had hoped to either coax Lee into a battle on open ground or reach the North Anna first, but he did neither. When he realized that Lee’s Confederates were already on the North Anna, he halted the brief Federal pursuit down the Telegraph Road. The remaining Confederates moved south down this road and joined the main army:

  • Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s corps guarded the railroad intersection at Hanover Junction
  • Major General Richard H. Anderson’s corps lined up on Ewell’s left around 12 p.m.
  • Major General John C. Breckinridge’s two brigades from the Shenandoah Valley and Major General George Pickett’s five brigades from Richmond were held in reserve behind Ewell
  • Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s corps was still heading south to join the main army

Lee informed President Jefferson Davis that Grant may stay on the other side of the Mattapony (now Mattaponi) River from the Confederates so he could relink with Major General Philip Sheridan’s cavalry, which had joined the Army of the James after their raid and fight at Yellow Tavern. Lee reported:

“It appeared… that he (Grant) was endeavoring to place the Matapony river between him and our army, which secured his flank, and by rapid movements to join his cavalry under Sheridan to attack Richmond–I therefore thought it safest to move to the Annas to intercept his march, and to be within easy reach of Richmond.”

Grant transferred the Federal supply base from the depots at Belle Plain, Aquia Landing, and Fredericksburg to Port Royal, farther down the Rappahannock River. Through the day, Grant and Major General George G. Meade positioned their Federals:

  • Major General Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps moved west of Milford Station, north of Hanover Junction
  • Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps moved between Milford Station and Hanover Junction
  • Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s IX Corps moved between Warren and Hancock
  • Major General Horatio G. Wright’s VI Corps held Guinea Station in the rear

Meade wrote his wife:

“We expected to have another battle, but the enemy refuses to fight unless attacked in strong entrenchments; hence, when we moved on his flank, instead of coming out of his works and attacking us, he has fallen back from Spottsylvania Court House, and taken up a new position behind the North Anna River; in other words, performed the same operation which I did last fall, when I fell back from Culpeper, and for which I was ridiculed; that is to say, refusing to fight on my adversary’s terms. I suppose now we will have to repeat this turning operation, and continue to do so, till Lee gets into Richmond.”

Lee wrote Davis the next morning, assessing the situation and opining that the Federal army, “as far as I am able to judge, has been very much shaken.” Lee also responded to a proposal in which his army would fall back and join forces with the Confederates under P.G.T. Beauregard bottling up Benjamin F. Butler’s Army of the James at Bermuda Hundred; the combined force would move north to defeat Grant and then move south to defeat Butler.

Lee stated that if Beauregard did not plan to attack Butler, “no more troops are necessary there than to retain the enemy in his entrenchments.” Meanwhile, “General Grant’s army will be in the field, strengthened by all available troops from the north, and it seems to me our best policy to unite upon it and endeavor to crush it. I should be very glad to have the aide of General Beauregard in such a blow, and if it is possible to combine, I think it will succeed.”

In response to Davis’s fear that a retreat by Lee’s army might damage troop morale, Lee wrote, “The courage of this army was never better, and I fear no injury to it from any retrograde movement that may be dictated by sound military policy.”

Lee did not expect Grant to attack at Hanover Junction; he guessed that Grant would try flanking him to the southeast again. However, the Federals began deploying for battle on the night of the 22nd, determined to cross the North Anna. The relentless marching and fighting that had not stopped since May 5 would continue.

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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. 412; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 443; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 132; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 507