Tag Archives: Richard H. Anderson

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 Dinwiddie Court House Engagement

March 31, 1865 – Confederates repelled a Federal advance in the southwestern sector of the Petersburg siege lines, but the Federals would not be denied for long.

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

The heavy rains had finally stopped by the morning of the 31st. Confederate infantry and cavalry from the Army of Northern Virginia held Five Forks, a key intersection protecting the South Side Railroad west of Petersburg. General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate army, ordered this force to move south and drive Major General Philip Sheridan’s Federal cavalry corps out of Dinwiddie Court House. This would secure Five Forks and isolate Sheridan from infantry support to the east.

As Lee inspected the lines, he saw a gap between Sheridan and Major General Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps. He therefore ordered Lieutenant General Richard H. Anderson’s Fourth Corps, which by now consisted of just a single division, to attack and turn Warren’s left (west) flank away from Sheridan. In all, about 19,000 Confederates opposed some 50,000 Federals in the southwestern sector of the Petersburg lines.

Warren’s Federals held the Boydton Plank Road. To their right (east) was Major General Andrew A. Humphreys’s II Corps. Warren informed Humphreys:

“I cannot take up any regular line of battle on account of the woods and swamps, but have assembled each division at a point so they can fight in any direction with the line refused… I don’t think your left could be turned, even if I moved away, without you having full information.”

Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, notified Warren, “Owing to the weather, no change will today be made in the present position of the troops. Three days’ rations of subsistence and forage will be brought up and issued to the troops and the artillery, and every one authorized to accompany them.” The Federals were unaware that a Confederate attack was imminent.

Maj Gen Philip Sheridan | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Meanwhile, Sheridan planned an attack of his own, as Brigadier General Thomas C. Devin, known as “Sheridan’s hard hitter,” advanced his division north toward Five Forks. The Federals were unexpectedly met by a Confederate assault from their left, led by Major General George Pickett. Devin’s men gradually fell back across the rain-soaked ground, as Devin notified Sheridan that both his flanks were under threat and Dinwiddie might have to be abandoned.

Sheridan brought up his other two divisions and secured a defense line about a mile north of Dinwiddie. The Confederates charged around dusk, but the Federals held firm as Sheridan instructed all regimental bands to come up to the front and play joyful music as loud as possible to jar enemy morale.

Sheridan then ordered Brigadier General George A. Custer to lead his division in a counterattack, telling Custer, “You understand? I want you to give it to them!” However, this effort came to nothing as the men and horses became tangled in the mud. Both sides fell back out of firing range as the sun set.

Three miles east, Warren ordered his lead division under Major General Romeyn B. Ayres to seize the White Oak Road because this was “essentially necessary to the safety of our position.” The Federals were suddenly met by Anderson’s charging Confederates. Ayres reported: “As the troops arrived within about fifty yards of the White Oak road, the enemy’s lines of battle rose up in the woods and moved forward across the road into the open. I saw at once that they had four or five to my one.”

Ayres tried holding his ground, but some Confederates moved around and attacked his left flank, thus forcing him to fall back into Major General Samuel W. Crawford’s division. Crawford’s men broke as well, and the Federals retreated to a branch of Gravelly Run. Warren ordered them to hold there while he brought up his last division, under Major General Charles Griffin.

Griffin’s men, led by Brigadier General Joshua L. Chamberlain’s brigade, advanced and slowly regained all lost ground. The Federals ultimately seized the White Oak Road, which cut Anderson’s men off from Pickett’s to the west. Also, Warren dispatched a brigade westward to threaten Pickett’s left flank as he confronted Sheridan. Meade reported to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, that Warren had stopped the Confederate advance, and Humphreys was sending a division to Warren’s support. Grant asked:

“If the enemy has been checked in Warren’s front, what is to prevent him from pitching in with his whole corps and attacking before giving him time to entrench or return in good order to his old entrenchments? I do not understand why Warren permitted his corps to be fought in detail. When Ayres was pushed forward he should have sent other troops to their support.”

By nightfall, Pickett had won a tactical victory, but the Confederates had failed to drive Sheridan out of Dinwiddie or prevent the Federal cavalry and infantry from joining forces. Recognizing the danger of his position, Pickett fell back to protect Five Forks. His infantry held the line to the left while Major General Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry held the right. There was still a three-mile gap between this force and Anderson’s to the east.

The Petersburg Front, 29-31 Mar 1865 | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Sheridan planned a frontal assault on Pickett and Fitzhugh Lee the next day. In conjunction, he wanted infantry to march through the gap and come up on Pickett’s left and rear. The nearest infantry was Warren’s V Corps, but Sheridan wanted Major General Horatio G. Wright’s VI Corps, which had served under him in the Shenandoah Valley, to join him. Sheridan wrote Grant on the night of the 31st: “If the ground would permit I could, with the Sixth Corps, turn the enemy’s right, or break through his lines; but I would not like the Fifth Corps to make such an attempt.” Grant later wrote:

“I replied to him that it was impossible to send Wright’s corps because that corps was already in line close up to the enemy, where we should want him to assault when the proper time came, and was besides a long distance from him; but the 2d and 5th corps were on our extreme left and a little to the rear of it in a position to threaten the left flank of the enemy at Five Forks, and that I would send Warren… and put himself in communication with Sheridan as soon as possible, and report to him.”

Just as the men of V Corps settled down from the all-day fight, Warren received orders to march them westward all night to link with Sheridan by dawn. This proved extremely difficult, not only because the troops were exhausted, but because they would have to move in darkness across swollen creeks, swamps, and mud. They also had to stop and build a 40-foot bridge to span Gravelly Run. Warren informed Meade of the delay, but this was not forwarded to Sheridan, who wrote Warren at 3 a.m. on the 1st:

“I am holding in front of Dinwiddie Court-House, on the road leading to Five Forks, for three-fourths of a mile, with General Custer’s division… I understand you have a division at J. Boisseau’s; if so, you are in rear of the enemy’s line and almost on his flank. I will hold on here. Possibly they may attack Custer at daylight; if so, have this division attack instantly and in full force.”

Sheridan did not receive any specific details as to where Warren was or when he might arrive. He also knew nothing about the difficulties Warren’s men faced in trying to reach Sheridan’s line. Moreover, Sheridan did not trust Warren, so if there was to be any delay in arriving in time for the next day’s fight, Warren would get the blame.

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References

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. 574; Catton, Bruce, The Army of the Potomac: A Stillness at Appomattox (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1953), p. 346-49; Catton, Bruce. Grant Takes Command (Open Road Media. Kindle Edition, 2015), p. 441-43; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 22419; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 552; 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 17855-95, 18091-101; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 572-73; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 8312-36; Grant, Ulysses S., Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (New York: Da Capo Press, 1982 [original 1885, republication of 1952 edition]), p. 533; Kennedy, Frances H. (ed.), The Civil War Battlefield Guide (Christopher M. Calkins, The Conservation Fund, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1990), p. 273-75; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 658-61; 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; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 487-88; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 219-20, 261-62, 821

Petersburg: Both Sides Prepare to Attack

March 30, 1865 – General Robert E. Lee planned a Confederate assault, while Major General Philip Sheridan pleaded with the Federal high command to launch an attack of his own.

By this time, most of the Federal and Confederate manpower involved in the siege of Petersburg and Richmond was concentrated southwest of Petersburg, on the extreme right flank of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Lee arrived in this sector on the morning of the 30th to inspect positions and confer with his commanders at Sutherland Station.

Lee ordered Major General George Pickett’s Confederate infantry division and Major General Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry to move west, beyond the right flank, and occupy Five Forks. This was a key intersection that Lee needed to hold if he was going to continue receiving supplies from the South Side Railroad. From Five Forks, Pickett and Fitzhugh were to drive Major General Philip Sheridan’s Federal cavalry away from Dinwiddie Court House, five miles south.

To the east, Lieutenant General Richard H. Anderson’s Fourth Corps was posted on the extreme Confederate right. Anderson’s men held the White Oak Road, including Burgess’s Mill, but there was a four-mile gap between these troops and those under Pickett and Fitzhugh. R.E. Lee worked to plug this gap before the Federals could exploit it.

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

Sheridan’s troopers at Dinwiddie were supported by II and V corps from the Army of the Potomac under Major Generals Andrew A. Humphreys and Gouverneur Warren respectively. Warren’s corps was the closest to Sheridan, with Humphreys’s corps farther east. Pickett and Fitzhugh Lee hoped to not only drive Sheridan away from Dinwiddie, but to isolate him from Warren and Humphreys as well.

The pouring rain continued throughout the 30th and slowed movements to a crawl. Sheridan sent one of his divisions under Brigadier General Wesley Merritt to probe the Confederate defenses, and skirmishing ensued until Merritt finally withdrew. Warren’s men also conducted probing actions which delayed Pickett from reaching Five Forks until around 4:30 p.m. The Confederates deployed along the White Oak Road, and Pickett and Fitzhugh agreed to attack in the morning.

Meanwhile, Sheridan planned to advance on Five Forks the next day, despite the continuing rain. He directed Brigadier General George A. Custer’s division to corduroy the roads so the advance could proceed. However, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, finally gave in to pleas from his staff officers to postpone the action until the rain stopped.

Grant notified Sheridan that it was “impossible for us to do much until it dries up a little, or we get roads around our rear repaired.” Therefore, he was to hold his position with a token force and withdraw the rest until the weather improved. Sheridan, believing “that a suspension of operations would be a serious mistake,” rode as fast as he could to Grant’s headquarters on the Vaughan Road near Gravelly Run. Sheridan later recalled that upon his arrival:

“General Grant began talking of our fearful plight, resulting from the rains and mud, and saying that because of this it seemed necessary to suspend operations. I at once begged him not to do so, telling him that my cavalry was already on the move in spite of the difficulties, and that although a suspension of operations would not be fatal, yet it would give rise to the very charge of disaster to which he had referred at City Point, and, moreover, that we would surely be ridiculed, just as General Burnside’s army was after the mud march of 1863.”

Sheridan insisted that he could destroy Lee’s right flank if he had infantry support. When a staff officer asked Sheridan how he expected to find forage for 13,000 men and horses, Sheridan snapped: “Forage? I’ll get all the forage I want. I’ll haul it out if I have to set every man in the command to corduroying roads, and corduroy every mile of them from the railroad to Dinwiddie. I tell you I’m ready to strike out tomorrow and go to smashing things.” Liking what he heard, Grant wrote out new orders for Sheridan:

“If your situation is such as to justify the belief that you can turn the enemy’s right with the assistance of a corps of infantry entirely detached from the balance of the army, I will so detach the Fifth corps and place the whole under your command for the operation. Let me know, as early in the morning as you can, your judgment in the matter, and I will make the necessary orders. Orders have been given Ord, Wright and Parke to be ready to assault at daylight tomorrow morning. They will not make the assault, however, without further directions… If the assault is not ordered in the morning, then it can be directed at such time as to come in co-operation with you on the left.”

Major General Horatio G. Wright and Major General John G. Parke commanded VI and IX corps respectively. These two corps had been assigned to hold the Petersburg line to the northeast, and both Wright and Parke reported that the Confederate line across from them was so thin that they could easily break through. They were poised to do so as soon as word arrived that Sheridan had succeeded.

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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. 520; Catton, Bruce, The Army of the Potomac: A Stillness at Appomattox (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1953), p. 344-46; Catton, Bruce. Grant Takes Command (Open Road Media. Kindle Edition, 2015), p. 441-42; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 552; 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 18091-101; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 572; Kennedy, Frances H. (ed.), The Civil War Battlefield Guide (Christopher M. Calkins, The Conservation Fund, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1990), p. 273; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 660; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 219-20; Winik, Jay, April 1865: The Month That Saved America (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), p. 78-79

Petersburg: Grant Looks to Destroy Lee

March 29, 1865 – Federal troops encircling Richmond and Petersburg embarked on a movement that Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant hoped would destroy the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and end the war.

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

By the 29th, the Federals were poised to make their grand movement to the southwest. Grant, the overall Federal commander, looked to turn the right flank of General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army. In so doing, Grant sought to cut Lee’s last major supply lines and block his escape route to the west.

Federal Major General Philip Sheridan | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Major General Philip Sheridan’s cavalry corps led the Federal movement. The troopers began moving out at 3 a.m. on the 29th, a day marked by torrential rain. Sheridan later wrote:

“Our general direction was westward, over such routes as could be found, provided they did not embarrass the march of the infantry. The roads from the winter’s frosts and rains, were in a frightful state, and when it was sought to avoid a spot which the head of the column had proved almost bottomless, the bogs and quicksands of the adjoining fields demonstrated that to make a (detour) was to go from bad to worse. In the face of these discouragements we floundered on, however, crossing on the way a series of small streams swollen to their banks.”

Sheridan was supported by II and V corps from the Army of the Potomac, led by Major Generals Andrew A. Humphreys and Gouverneur Warren respectively. Men from these two corps moved south and west toward the end of the Confederate siege line, which was defended by the lone division of Lieutenant General Richard H. Anderson’s Fourth Corps. Despite their numerical advantage, the Federals were not overly confident. One private wrote, “Four years of war, while it made the men brave and valorous, had entirely cured them of imagining that each campaign would be the last.”

Meanwhile, Lee received reports that Federals were moving toward Dinwiddie Court House. This was dangerously close to Five Forks, a crucial intersection that Lee needed to hold if he hoped to continue being supplied by the South Side Railroad. Lee responded by transferring all but one brigade of his cavalry to his right flank, led by Major General Fitzhugh Lee. He also transferred Major General George Pickett’s infantry division; Lee chose Pickett’s force because it was scattered, making its movement more difficult for the Federals to discern.

Warren’s leading elements moved up the Quaker Road to its key intersection with the Boydton Plank Road, and they clashed with Anderson’s Confederates near the Lewis Farm. After heavy fighting, the Confederates fell back to a defense line along the White Oak Road. Lee needed this road if he hoped to send troops west to block Sheridan. The Federals seized the Quaker-Boydton Plank intersection, but the Confederate line was not yet broken. Both sides lost about 375 men each.

Back east, Grant and his staff began transferring headquarters from City Point to the Boydton Plank Road. President Abraham Lincoln, still visiting from Washington, would stay behind at City Point. As Grant and his staff boarded the westbound train, Lincoln told them, “Good-by, gentlemen. God bless you all! Remember, your success is my success.” Grant boarded the train and told his staffers, “I think we can send him some good news in a day or two.” Grant’s chief of staff, Major General John Rawlins, urged him to postpone the offensive until the rain stopped, but Grant refused.

Two of Sheridan’s three divisions reached Dinwiddie Court House in the pouring rain around 5 p.m. This was about four miles west of the end of the Confederate line and five miles south of Five Forks. Sheridan’s third division, led by Brigadier General George A. Custer, stayed about seven miles back to protect the rear. The troopers bivouacked without tents despite the rain.

Sheridan’s original orders were to continue pushing northward and seize Five Forks. But that night, he received a message from Grant:

“I now feel like ending the matter if it is possible to do so before going back. I do not want you, therefore, to cut loose and go after the enemy’s roads at present. In the morning push round the enemy if you can and get onto his right rear. The movements of the enemy’s cavalry may, of course, modify your action. We will act altogether as one army here until it is seen what can be done with the enemy.”

Thus, the plan had changed from cutting off Lee’s supplies and path of escape to destroying Lee’s army. Sheridan recalled, “I turned in at a late hour and slept most soundly.”

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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. 519-20; Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 214; Catton, Bruce, The Army of the Potomac: A Stillness at Appomattox (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1953), p. 343-44; Catton, Bruce. Grant Takes Command (Open Road Media. Kindle Edition, 2015), p. 439-41; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 552; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 572; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 8300; Kennedy, Frances H. (ed.), The Civil War Battlefield Guide (Christopher M. Calkins, The Conservation Fund, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1990), p. 273; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 659; 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; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 487-88; Rhodes, James Ford, History of the Civil War, 1861-1865 (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1917 [Kindle Edition, Reservoir House, 2016], Loc 5601; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 219-20; Winik, Jay, April 1865: The Month That Saved America (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), p. 78

Battles at Fair Oaks and Hatcher’s Run

October 27, 1864 – Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant’s Federal forces moved to assault both ends of the Confederate siege line stretching from Richmond to Petersburg.

After failing to dislodge the Federals from north of the James River, General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, warned his top officers, “We must drive them back at all costs.” The Federal forces, under Grant’s overall command, continued trying to extend the ends of their line both east of Richmond and southwest of Petersburg. Lee notified Adjutant General Samuel Cooper that if Grant stretched the Confederate defenders any further, “I fear it will be impossible to keep him out of Richmond.”

Panicked Confederate officials hurriedly conscripted all able-bodied men in Richmond and forced them into the fortifications outside the city. Citizens loudly protested this as an act of tyranny, and the press reported that most of the “involuntary soldiers” deserted as soon as they could.

Meanwhile, Lee’s Confederates gave up trying to take back Fort Harrison and built fortifications closer to Richmond that minimized the fort’s usefulness to the Federals. On the 13th, the Federal X Corps under Major General Alfred H. Terry (Major General David B. Birney had relinquished corps command due to illness and died later this month) advanced and discovered these new defenses. Lieutenant General Richard H. Anderson’s Confederates inflicted heavy losses on the Federals north of the Darbytown Road and drove them off.

Both sides settled back into the tedium of the siege outside Richmond and Petersburg. Lieutenant General James Longstreet returned to active duty as Lee’s top corps commander. Longstreet had been severely wounded at the Battle of the Wilderness, which partially paralyzed his right arm and forced him to learn to write with his left hand.

Longstreet resumed command of the First Corps, which had since been commanded by Anderson. These troops defended the siege lines north of the James River. Lee gave Anderson command of a new Fourth Corps, which consisted of two divisions. Its duty was to guard Petersburg against a direct assault should the siege lines be broken.

The siege lines now stretched from north of the James (southeast of Richmond), southward around the east and south of Petersburg, and then curled to the southwest below the city. The Federals had not been able to cut either the Boydton Plank Road or the South Side Railroad, which entered Petersburg from the southwest and west to supply the Confederates.

Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac besieging Petersburg, suggested to Grant that the Confederate right on the Boydton Plank Road was vulnerable to attack. And if the road was captured, the Federals could continue moving and seize the South Side Railroad. Grant approved Meade’s request to attack and developed a plan:

  • II Corps under Major General Winfield Scott Hancock on the Federal left would cross Hatcher’s Run on the Vaughn Road and then move north to seize the Boydton Plank Road.
  • IX Corps under Major General John G. Parke on the Federal right would attack the Confederates defending the road north of Hatcher’s Run.
  • V Corps under Major General Gouverneur Warren and a cavalry division under Brigadier General David M. Gregg would support Parke.

The attack force consisted of 43,000 Federals, while the Confederate defenders numbered no more than 12,000. To gain an even greater advantage, Grant planned to strike the other end of Lee’s defense line at the same time. He directed Major General Benjamin F. Butler to lead elements of X and XVIII corps to the Darbytown Road and Fair Oaks, east of Richmond.

The Federals moved out against Lee’s left (southeast of Richmond) and right (southwest of Petersburg) on the 27th. When news of these movements reached Richmond, Confederate officials put their last reserves on the defense lines. Longstreet’s troops held Lee’s left as Butler’s Federals moved along the Darbytown Road and north toward Fair Oaks.

Confederates under Major Generals Charles W. Field and Robert F. Hoke repelled the Federal attackers and neutralized Fort Harrison in just a few hours. This was the easiest Confederate victory in this sector of the siege line to date. Butler lost 1,103 men, including about 600 taken prisoner, and 11 battle flags. Longstreet lost just 451.

Meanwhile, the Federal force southwest of Petersburg moved out at 7:30 a.m. in heavy rain. Hancock advanced as planned and seized the road near Burgess’ Mill by noon. Per his orders, Hancock waited there until Parke and Warren joined him. But Parke met strong resistance from Major General Cadmus M. Wilcox’s Confederates, and Warren’s men struggled over the rough terrain before being repulsed by Wilcox south of Hatcher’s Run.

Federals attack works at Hatcher’s Run | Image Credit: Harper’s Weekly, Vol. VIII, No. 412 (19 Nov 1864)

The failure of Parke and Warren to achieve a breakthrough left Hancock isolated. Lieutenant General A.P. Hill directed a counterattack led by Major General Henry Heth’s infantry and Major General Wade Hampton’s cavalry. They came upon Hancock’s flank, which Warren had not come up to protect. Hancock managed to fend off the assaults, and Meade let him decide to either fall back or hold firm until Warren and Parke reinforced him. Having no faith in either Warren or Parke, Hancock withdrew that night, relinquishing the road.

The Federals sustained 1,758 casualties (166 killed, 1,028 wounded and 564 missing). The Confederates lost about 1,000 men, a much greater proportion of those engaged (8 percent versus the Federals’ 4 percent). Confederate losses included two of Hampton’s sons, Lieutenants Wade (wounded) and Preston (killed).

On the morning of the 28th, the Confederates discovered that Hancock was gone and took back the Boydton Plank Road. This ended combat operations on the Richmond-Petersburg lines for the year. The works now stretched nearly 35 miles, with both sides spending the fall and winter patrolling, picketing, sharpshooting, and continually strengthening defenses.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 22242; Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 154-57; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 475-76, 479; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 13231-41, 12023-43; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 509-10, 514-15; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7975-88, 8000-12; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 584, 589-90; Sommers, Richard J., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 169, 179-80, 393; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 95-96, 204-05

The Battle of 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 Shenandoah Valley: Sheridan Plans an Offensive

September 16, 1864 – Major General Philip Sheridan unveiled a plan to drive Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s Confederates out of the Shenandoah Valley once and for all.

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

As September began, Sheridan’s Federal Army of the Shenandoah began coming out of its defenses and moving down the Valley Turnpike toward Winchester. Early’s Army of the Valley blocked Sheridan at Bunker Hill, north of Winchester. The Confederates were reinforced by elements of Lieutenant General Richard H. Anderson’s corps from General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

Both sides maneuvered and skirmished, with Early’s main force setting up at Stephenson’s Depot and Sheridan’s moving east of Winchester, between Berryville and Clifton. No major confrontation seemed imminent, so Anderson’s Confederates began heading east toward Snicker’s Gap; from there they were to move through the Blue Ridge and return to Lee’s army at Petersburg.

Anderson’s lead division under Major General Joseph B. Kershaw advanced toward Berryville, unaware that Sheridan had stationed Brigadier General George Crook’s VIII Corps there. The two forces collided near sunset on the 3rd. The Federals fell back but then regrouped and counterattacked. Kershaw disengaged for the night, and Early came up with three reinforcing divisions the next day. But as Early wrote after the war:

“I at first thought that I had reached his (Sheridan’s) right flank, and was about making arrangements to attack it, when casting my eye to my left, I discovered, as far as the eye could reach with the aid of field glasses, a line extending toward Summit Point. The position the enemy occupied was a strong one, and he was busily engaged fortifying it, having already made considerable progress. It was not until I had this view that I realized the size of the enemy’s force, and as I discovered that his line was too long for me to get around his flank, and the position was too strong to attack in front, I returned and informed General Anderson of the condition of things.”

The Confederates fell back west toward Winchester and took positions on high ground east of the Valley Turnpike. The Federal army doubled the size of Early’s, but Sheridan did not pursue the Confederates. This was mainly because Sheridan had to detach units to guard his supply lines, prevent raids into Maryland or Pennsylvania, and protect both the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal. Also, with the presidential election coming in two months, Sheridan did not want to risk jeopardizing Abraham Lincoln’s reelection with a defeat.

The two armies probed each other’s defenses for the next two weeks, looking for exploitable weaknesses but finding none. Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, encouraged Sheridan on the 9th:

“I would not have you make an attack with the advantage against you, but would prefer just the course you seem to be pursuing–that is, pressing closely upon the enemy, and when he moves, follow him up, being ready at all time to pounce upon him if he detaches any considerable force.”

This strategy would prevent Early’s Confederates from reinforcing Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. But it would also allow Early to control the Valley, where his men could ensure the continued transfer of the rich harvests to Lee’s besieged forces at Petersburg.

Another three days of sparring prompted President Lincoln to write Grant: “Sheridan and Early are facing each other at a deadlock. Could we not pick up a regiment here and there, to the number of say 10,000 men, and quietly but suddenly concentrate them at Sheridan’s camp and enable him to make a strike? This is but a suggestion.” Grant replied that he intended “to see Sheridan and arrange what was necessary to enable him to start Early out of the Valley. It seems to me it can successfully be done.”

Meanwhile, Early held strong positions along Opequon Creek, and after delays, Anderson’s Confederates began leaving the Valley on the 14th to rejoin Lee, who desperately needed them on the Petersburg siege lines. That same day, Grant left Petersburg to confer with Sheridan at Charles Town.

Rumors quickly spread among Sheridan’s army that Anderson was leaving, but Sheridan informed Grant, “I have nothing new to report for yesterday or today. There is as yet no indication of Early’s detaching.” Sheridan asked his cavalry commanders to determine whether Early’s army had been weakened by Anderson’s departure. When they were slow in gathering information, Sheridan enlisted troops to serve as scouts and asked Crook if he knew of any civilians at Winchester who would be willing to provide intelligence.

Crook recommended Rebecca Wright, a Quaker teacher and known Unionist. Sheridan wrote her a letter of introduction, which was smuggled to her by a black messenger who wrapped it in tinfoil and carried it under his tongue. Wright read the message and answered: Anderson’s men and three batteries had returned to Petersburg, and Early’s reduced army was scattered around Winchester and highly vulnerable to attack.

This meant that Sheridan’s chance of defeat was greatly reduced. And news of William T. Sherman’s capture of Atlanta meant that even if Sheridan was defeated, Lincoln’s reelection bid was already gaining momentum. Sheridan therefore resolved to take the offensive, but to increase his chance of success even further, he would wait until Anderson’s Confederates were far enough away so they could not hurry back to help Early.

As Sheridan plotted his moves, Grant arrived in Charles Town and met with him at the Rutherford House. Grant had a specific plan in mind for Sheridan to drive Early out of the Valley and destroy Lee’s supply line. Worried that administration officials might reject this plan, Grant had bypassed Washington and traveled straight to Sheridan’s headquarters.

But before Grant could share his plan, Sheridan revealed one of his own. Most of his Federals would seize the Valley Turnpike at Newtown, below Winchester, while his cavalry would confront the small Confederate force in Winchester. The Federals would cut off Early’s supply lines and escape route, forcing him to fight on ground of Sheridan’s choosing.

According to Sheridan, Grant “neither discussed nor disclosed his plans, my knowledge of the situation striking him as being so much more accurate than his own.” Instead, Grant simply told Sheridan, “Go in.”

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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. 452-54, 458-60; 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 11585-616; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 492-95, 497; Lewis, Thomas A., The Shenandoah in Flames: The Valley Campaign of 1864 (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 108-09; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 564-65, 569-70; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 776; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 677-79

The Shenandoah Valley: Sheridan Falls Back

August 16, 1864 – Elements of Major General Philip Sheridan’s Federal Army of the Shenandoah scored an impressive victory, but Sheridan came under heavy criticism for withdrawing nonetheless.

Federal Major General Philip Sheridan | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Sheridan decided to fall back toward Winchester upon learning that a Confederate force under Lieutenant General Richard H. Anderson had arrived at Front Royal to reinforce Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s Army of the Valley. Sheridan dispatched cavalry under Brigadier General Wesley Merritt to hold Anderson’s men at bay while the rest of the Federal army retreated.

Confederates led by Brigadier General William C. Wickham drove the Federal pickets back before coming upon one of Merritt’s dismounted brigades under Brigadier General Thomas C. Devin at Cedarville. A saber duel ensued until the Confederates fell back across the Shenandoah River.

Meanwhile, Brigadier General William T. Wofford’s Confederate brigade on Guard Hill was assaulted by Federal horsemen led by Brigadier General George A. Custer. The Federals used their Spencer repeating rifles to drive the Confederates off in retreat. Merritt reported:

“The enemy advanced boldly, wading the river, and were allowed to approach within short carbine range, when a murderous volley was poured into their solid ranks, while the whole command charged. The enemy were thrown into the wildest confusion.”

This decisive Federal victory resulted in the capture of two battle flags and hundreds of prisoners. It also revealed that Confederates were at Front Royal in force, thus validating Sheridan’s decision to withdraw. Merritt’s Federals served as the rear guard and fell back with the main army. Northerners starving for a decisive victory heaped enormous criticism upon Sheridan for withdrawing.

As Sheridan fell back, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, reiterated his orders to destroy anything in his path that might be useful to the Confederates. Grant also instructed Sheridan to arrest citizens of Loudoun County known to support Colonel John S. Mosby’s Confederate partisans. Sheridan issued orders to his cavalry:

“In compliance with instructions of the lieutenant-general commanding, you will make the necessary arrangements and give the necessary orders for the destruction of the wheat and hay south of a line from Millwood to Winchester and Petticoat Gap. You will seize all mules, horses, and cattle that may be useful to our army. Loyal citizens can bring in their claims against the Government for this necessary destruction. No houses will be burned, and officers in charge of this delicate, but necessary, duty must inform the people that the object is to make this Valley untenable for the raiding parties of the rebel army.”

The Confederates under Early and Anderson joined forces to pursue the Federals, with skirmishing around Winchester, Opequon Creek, and Berryville. Anderson clashed inconclusively with Federal cavalry at Summit Point on the 21st. Early tried moving into the Federal rear, resulting in heavy skirmishing. Sheridan later wrote, “A sharp and obstinate skirmish with a heavy picket-line of the Sixth Corps grew out of this manoeuvre, and resulted very much in our favor, but the quick withdrawal of the Confederates left no opportunity for a general engagement.”

Sheridan then notified Washington on the 22nd, “My position at best being a very bad one, and, as there is much depending on this army, I fell back and took a new position in front of Halltown, without loss or opposition.” The two forces fought at Smithfield Crossing over a four-day period from the 25th to the 29th, as Sheridan fell back to Halltown under the protection of Federal guns at Harpers Ferry and Maryland Heights.

The Federals formed a strong defensive line that Sheridan hoped Early would attack. An observer for Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton reported, “The line runs along a commanding ridge which overlooks a broad valley beyond, and is a position of great natural strength. The intervals to the left and right, connecting the rivers, say a mile each, are not so strong, but the enemy could hardly succeed in a flank movement.”

The Confederates initially pushed back VI Corps in heavy fighting, but the Federal line was quickly restored and Early found no weaknesses in the Federal position. Although Early could not break the Federal line, the Federals had once again left the Valley.

Believing Sheridan to be just as timid as his predecessors, Early decided to cross the Potomac River once more. He left a small force in the Federals’ front and moved another into Maryland at Williamsport. General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia at Petersburg, noted Early’s success in pushing Sheridan back, but added, “It will have little or no effect upon Grant’s operations, or prevent re-enforcements being sent to him.”

Based on Early’s estimate that Sheridan’s army numbered about 30,000 men, Lee wrote that “if Sheridan’s force is as large as you suppose, I do not know that you could operate to advantage north of the Potomac.” Lee also stated that he was “in great need of his troops, and if they can be spared from the Valley, or cannot operate to advantage there,” he would take back Anderson’s force. Early therefore abandoned plans to reenter Maryland and instead fell back to Bunker Hill.

Meanwhile, Grant estimated that he had inflicted 10,000 casualties on Lee’s army over the past two weeks and informed Sheridan, “I now think it likely that all troops will be ordered back from the valley except what they believe to be the minimum number to detain you. My reason for supposing this is based upon the fact that yielding up the Weldon road seems to be a blow to the enemy he cannot stand.”

Sheridan interpreted Early’s withdrawal as a validation of Grant’s message, and he told one of his commanders, “The indications are that they will fall back perhaps out of the Valley… their projected campaign is a failure.” Merritt’s cavalry pursued the Confederates on the 28th, pushing them back to Smithville before Major General Fitzhugh Lee’s forces held them off. Skirmishing continued as Sheridan began realizing that Early had no intentions of leaving the Valley.

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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. 447-51; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 486-91; Lewis, Thomas A., The Shenandoah in Flames: The Valley Campaign of 1864 (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 104-08; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 558-59, 561; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 293, 677-79

The Moorefield Engagement

August 7, 1864 – Federal cavalry attacked a Confederate detachment that had just finished raiding through Maryland and Pennsylvania.

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

As August began, elements of Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s Confederate Army of the Valley continued operating north of the Potomac River. These included cavalrymen under Brigadier Generals John McCausland and Bradley T. Johnson. They had burned Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, in late July, and now they rode for Cumberland in western Maryland to wreck track on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.

The Confederates exchanged cannon fire with a small Federal force under Brigadier General Benjamin F. Kelley before disengaging and riding southeast to Old Town on the Potomac. The next day, they captured a Federal detachment contesting their crossing and moved on to Springfield, West Virginia. Meanwhile, Federal Brigadier General William W. Averell received orders to move “by the most expeditious route” to destroy the Confederate force.

McCausland and Johnson intended to destroy part of the B&O at New Creek, but Kelley deployed Federal troops there and forced the Confederates to withdraw southward. The troopers stopped near Moorefield, south of Romney, where they rested and fed their mounts. McCausland did not know that Averell was pursuing him. Averell’s cavalry reached Springfield on the night of the 5th.

Brig Gen W.W. Averell | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

The next day, Averell rode on to Romney. Troops in his vanguard captured a Confederate messenger bearing a dispatch stating that McCausland’s command was near Moorefield. Averell directed his men to mobilize at 1 a.m. so they could attack the Confederates by daybreak. Averell was outnumbered nearly two-to-one, but he relied on the element of surprise to offset this disadvantage.

After capturing the Confederate pickets, Averell’s lead brigade under Major Thomas Gibson rode through Johnson’s camp and scattered his panicked troopers. The Confederates fled across the river as Averell’s second brigade under Colonel William H. Powell slammed into McCausland’s men. These Confederates were routed as well, and Averell scored a spectacular victory.

Averell reported capturing three battle flags, four cannon, 420 men, and 400 horses while losing just 41 troopers (nine killed and 32 wounded). The Federals also recovered a large amount of loot taken from Chambersburg and other towns in Pennsylvania and Maryland.

This defeat deepened the rift between McCausland and Johnson that had been growing since McCausland threatened to burn several Maryland towns (as a Marylander, Johnson took offense). McCausland later reported, “The affair at Moorefield was caused by the surprise of Johnson’s brigade.” Johnson accused McCausland of not being on the scene when the fight began. Early recalled that this battle had “a very damaging effect upon my cavalry for the rest of the campaign.”

On the same day that the Confederates were decimated at Moorefield, Major General Philip Sheridan took command of the new Federal Army of the Shenandoah at Halltown, Virginia. Sheridan organized and consolidated his new force to “make the first move for the possession of the Shenandoah Valley” and destroy Early’s Army of the Valley. According to Sheridan:

“I desired that Early might remain at some point well to the north till I was fully prepared to throw my army on his right and rear and force a battle, and hence I abstained from disturbing him by premature activity, for I thought that if I could beat him at Winchester, or north of it, there would be far greater chances of weighty results. I therefore determined to bring my troops, if it were at all possible to do so, into such a position near that town as to oblige Early to fight.”

Early fell back from Martinsburg to Bunker Hill, where he planned to move north into Maryland and Pennsylvania once more. However, he received word that Sheridan’s forces were approaching on his right (east) flank and would soon threaten his rear. Early therefore ordered a withdrawal to Winchester, where he could guard all approaches on Opequon Creek with the formidable Fisher’s Hill behind him.

Skirmishing occurred along Cedar Creek as Early pulled back to Fisher’s Hill, south of Strasburg, on the 11th. Early reported to General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia at Petersburg, that “the enemy was advancing in much heavier force than I had yet encountered.” Lee responded by sending infantry and cavalry under Lieutenant General Richard H. Anderson from Culpeper to reinforce Early.

Anderson’s Confederates arrived at Front Royal, at the north end of the Luray Valley, on the 14th. If they moved toward Winchester, they could threaten Sheridan’s left, rear, and supply lines. Also, having detached elements of his army to guard various posts, Sheridan feared that he could now be outnumbered. And Confederate raiders under Colonel John S. Mosby had destroyed a large Federal wagon train near Berryville.

As Brigadier General Wesley Merritt’s Federal cavalry reconnoitered Anderson’s forces and guarded the army’s rear, Sheridan ordered his men to retreat. Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, had advised Sheridan to proceed with caution and avoid a defeat that might hurt President Abraham Lincoln’s chances for reelection in the fall.

The Federals fell back to Halltown, 45 miles northeast. Sheridan later wrote, “Subsequent experience convinced me that there was no other really defensive line in the Shenandoah Valley, for at almost any other point the open country and its peculiar topography invites rather than forbids flanking operations.” Early saw Sheridan’s withdrawal as a sign of timidity and set out to pursue him.

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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. 442-44, 446-47; 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 11424-34; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 479-80, 482-86; Lewis, Thomas A., The Shenandoah in Flames: The Valley Campaign of 1864 (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 91, 101, 104; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 549-50, 555-56; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 293, 508-09, 677-79, 812-13

The Army of the Shenandoah: Sheridan Takes Command

August 6, 1864 – Major General Philip Sheridan received command of a new Federal military department designed to drive the Confederates out of the Shenandoah Valley for good.

Maj Gen David Hunter | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

After putting Sheridan in this new command, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, went to notify Major General David Hunter, commanding the Department of West Virginia, of the change. Sheridan’s new Army of the Shenandoah was to absorb Hunter’s department. Arriving at Hunter’s headquarters on the Monocacy River in Maryland, Grant recalled:

“I found General Hunter’s army… scattered over the fields along the banks of the Monocacy, with many hundreds of cars and locomotives, belonging to the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, which he had taken the precaution to bring back and collect at that point. I asked the general where the enemy was. He replied that he did not know. He said the fact was, that he was so embarrassed with orders from Washington moving him first to the right and then to the left that he had lost all trace of the enemy.”

Under Grant’s plan, Sheridan was to command the Federals in the field while Hunter took over administrative duties within the new military department. In the meantime, Hunter was to lead his troops to Harpers Ferry, where they would confront Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s Confederate Army of the Valley wherever they found it.

Grant said it was “desirable that nothing should be left to invite the enemy to return” to Maryland or Pennsylvania. “Take all provisions, forage, and stock wanted for the use of your command; such as cannot be consumed, destroy.” He urged Hunter not to destroy public buildings; “they should rather be protected.”

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

Hunter began moving his Federals out, arriving at Halltown, Virginia, on the 5th. But being dissatisfied with his new role in the department, Hunter “expressed a willingness to be relieved from command.” Grant accepted. Sheridan arrived on the scene on the 6th and received orders from Grant that were almost identical to Hunter’s:

“In pushing up the Shenandoah Valley, as it is expected you will have to do first or last, it is desirable that nothing should be left to invite the enemy to return. Take all provisions, forage, and stock wanted for the use of your command. Such as cannot be consumed, destroy… Bear in mind, the object is to drive the enemy south, and to do this you want to keep him always in sight. Be guided in your course by the course he takes.”

Sheridan’s command would include the Departments of Washington, West Virginia, the Susquehanna, and the Middle. His army would consist of:

  • Hunter’s Army of West Virginia, now under Brigadier General George Crook
  • Major General Horatio G. Wright’s VI Corps from the Army of the Potomac
  • Two divisions of Brigadier General William Emory’s XIX Corps from the Army of the Gulf
  • Two divisions of Sheridan’s old Cavalry Corps from the Army of the Potomac, now under Brigadier General Alfred T.A. Torbert
  • A cavalry division under Brigadier General William W. Averell

By the night of the 6th, Sheridan wrote Grant, “I find affairs somewhat confused, but will soon straighten them out.” Grant notified him the next day:

“The Departments of Washington, the Middle, the Susquehanna, and of Western Virginia, have been formed into a military division called the Middle Division, and you have been assigned to the temporary command. You can assume command without any further authority.”

President Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton expressed reservations about giving Sheridan such a large responsibility, but Grant insisted that he trusted Sheridan for the job.

Sheridan received word that Early’s Confederates were around Winchester, and thus directed his new army to go there. But most of Early’s forces were actually in Maryland, harvesting wheat at Sharpsburg and Hagerstown. Early fell back southward across the Potomac River to Bunker Hill on the 7th, but he would soon receive reinforcements.

General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia at Petersburg, went to Richmond to discuss strategy with Lieutenant General Richard H. Anderson and President Jefferson Davis. It was agreed to send Major General Joseph B. Kershaw’s division of Anderson’s corps to Culpeper, along with a cavalry division under Major General Fitzhugh Lee, with Anderson in overall command. From there, Anderson could return to Petersburg in case of emergency or threaten Sheridan’s flank if he moved any deeper into the Shenandoah.

The struggle between Sheridan and Early over control of the Shenandoah had begun.

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References

Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 537; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 445; 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 11361-92, 11320-30; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 482; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7869; Keefer, Kimberly A., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 376; Lewis, Thomas A., The Shenandoah in Flames: The Valley Campaign of 1864 (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 91, 100-01, 104; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 553; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 491; Pritchard, Russ A., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 675-76; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 293, 491-92, 677-79, 817