Tag Archives: Robert E. Lee

The Second Battle of the Weldon Railroad

August 18, 1864 – Fighting broke out southwest of the Petersburg siege lines when Federals tried moving beyond the Confederates’ flank to sever the Weldon Railroad.

Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, knew that General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, had sent part of his force to the Shenandoah Valley. Grant also knew that Lee had reinforced the Confederate defenses in front of Richmond, north of the James River. Based on this, Grant guessed that Lee’s defense line outside Petersburg was weak and vulnerable to attack.

Maj Gen Gouverneur Warren | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Grant dispatched Major General Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps from the Army of the Potomac to cut the Confederates’ Weldon supply line running from Petersburg to Wilmington, and to divert attention from the Federal expedition north of the James. This was the first major Federal attempt since the Battle of the Crater to disrupt the Confederate siege lines at Petersburg.

When President Abraham Lincoln learned of Grant’s plan, he sent him an encouraging message: “I have seen your despatch expressing your unwillingness to break your hold where you are. Neither am I willing. Hold on with a bulldog grip, and chew and choke as much as possible.” Grant laughed upon reading this dispatch and told his staff, “The president has more nerve than any of his advisers.”

Warren’s Federals set out at 4 a.m. on the 18th, marching through rain and mud before arriving at Globe Tavern five hours later. They were about four miles south of Petersburg, and three miles south of the Confederate defenses. A division began wrecking the railroad while Brigadier General Romeyn B. Ayres’s division turned north to face any Confederate attempt to stop the operation. Ayres’s men struggled to maneuver in the dense woods and oppressive heat. Brigadier General Samuel W. Crawford’s division came up to support Ayres’s right.

Operations of Aug 18-19 | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding the Petersburg defenses while Lee was north of the James, called upon Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s Third Corps to confront the Federals. Hill dispatched two brigades under Major General Henry Heth and another brigade under Major General Robert F. Hoke. Fighting began under heavy rain.

The Confederates initially drove Ayres and Crawford back toward Globe Tavern, but the Federals were reinforced by Brigadier General Lysander Cutler’s division on Ayres’s left. They regrouped and advanced, and by nightfall they regained their original positions. Warren notified Crawford, “You have done very well indeed in getting forward through that difficult country. Make yourself as strong as you can and hold on. I will try and re-enforce you…”

Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, dispatched reinforcements from IX and II corps and ordered Warren to hold the railroad “at all hazards.” The Federals lost 836 men (544 killed or wounded, and 292 missing) in the action on the 18th.

Gen P.G.T. Beauregard | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

The Confederates were reinforced by Major General Rooney Lee’s cavalry division and Major General William Mahone’s infantry division. Beauregard wrote Lee at 8 a.m. on the 19th, “I will endeavor to-day to dislodge him with four brigades of our infantry and the division of cavalry you have promised. Result would be more certain with a stronger force of infantry.”

Skirmishing took place throughout the 19th as the heavy rain continued. Mahone’s Confederates approached Crawford’s division on the Federal right, concealed by the woods, and launched a fierce attack at 4:15 p.m. The Federals wavered to the point that two brigades nearly surrendered, and Crawford was almost captured trying to rally his men. Meanwhile, Heth attacked the Federal center and left, but Ayres’s men repelled him.

The arrival of Federal reinforcements enabled Warren to stabilize his position in vicious hand-to-hand combat. He lost another 2,900 men (382 killed or wounded and 2,518 missing or captured), but he ordered an “advance at daylight in every direction.”

The Confederates pulled back for the night, and Warren fell back a mile down the Weldon line. The Federals maintained control of the railroad; now only two other lines could feed Richmond and Petersburg: the South Side and the Richmond & Danville railroads.

Beauregard wrote on the 20th, “General Hill reports enemy still occupying part of railroad where he is fortifying. Am endeavoring to make necessary arrangements to dislodge him to-day, if practicable… Every available man who can be spared from (the Petersburg) trenches has been withdrawn. Shall try attack in the morning with all the force I can spare.”

Warren, who initially planned to advance, now reconsidered after seeing the carnage from the previous day’s fight. He wrote Meade, “I do not think with our present force we can hold a line across where I established the picket-line yesterday.” Skirmishing erupted throughout the 20th, as the Federals continued wrecking the railroad while pulling out of the underbrush and forming a new line two miles to the rear that connected to the Jerusalem Plank Road.

President Jefferson Davis expressed concern about the Federal presence on the railroad. Beauregard wrote that night, “Expect to attack early in the morning. No available force shall be left behind.” He hoped to follow up his success on the 19th with a complete victory, but the only force he could muster was Hill’s two divisions and a few more brigades under Heth and Mahone.

The Confederates launched an intense artillery barrage before renewing their assaults at 9 a.m. With ranks three-deep, Mahone struck the Federal left while Heth hit the center, but they could not dislodge the entrenched Federals from the railroad. Hill finally called off the attack, and the Confederates returned to their original siege lines, thus acknowledging they had permanently lost the Weldon Railroad as a supply line.

The Federals did not pursue, which frustrated Grant: “It seems to me that when the enemy comes out of his works and attacks and is repulsed he ought to be followed vigorously to the last minute with every man. Holding the line is of no importance whilst troops are operating in front of it.” In the four-day engagement, the Federals sustained 4,455 total casualties (198 killed, 1,105 wounded, and 3,152 missing) out of about 20,000 effectives, while the Confederates lost some 1,600 from about 14,000.

Without the railroad, the Confederates had to get supplies from Wilmington by unloading them from the railroad at Stony Creek and taking them by wagon train up the Boydton Plank Road running northeast into Petersburg. Even so, a Confederate staff officer optimistically noted, “Whilst we are inconvenienced, no material harm is done us.” After receiving reports of the fight at Globe Tavern, Grant quickly ordered Federal infantry and cavalry to strike the important Confederate supply line at Reams’s Station between Globe Tavern and Stony Creek.

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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. 99-104; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 448-49; 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 11445-68; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 487-88; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7881-94; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 556-59; 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. 577-79, 812-13

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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 Battle of Deep Bottom Run

August 14, 1864 – Federal forces moved north of the James River to attack the supposedly weakened Confederate defenses outside Richmond.

Federal siege operations resumed after the Battle of the Crater. Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, wanted to court-martial Major General Ambrose E. Burnside for his role in the Crater fiasco. But Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, instead placed Burnside on “extended leave,” never to return to active duty. Major General John G. Parke took over Burnside’s IX Corps.

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

Meanwhile, Grant continued the slow extension of his siege line southwest of Petersburg while avoiding any direct confrontations. President Jefferson Davis told General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia under siege, “It is thought idle to attack your entrenchments but feasible to starve you out.”

Major General Benjamin F. Butler, commanding the Federal Army of the James pinned down at Bermuda Hundred, devised a plan to break his men out by building a canal across Dutch Gap, a 174-yard-wide neck of land in a bend in the James River. This would allow ships to bypass five miles of Confederate batteries and water impediments at Trent’s Reach and Drewry’s Bluff, thereby giving the Federals a clear shot at Richmond.

Federal troops, including many black soldiers, began digging under enemy artillery and sniper fire. Grant had little faith that the canal would work, but he let Butler go on with it because he was a troublesome political general, and this would keep him busy. The brutal project lasted until the end of the year, and the canal was not officially completed until the war ended. After the war, the Dutch Gap Canal became a useful shipping channel on the James.

As Butler’s men worked, Grant received word that Lee had weakened his army by sending reinforcements to Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s army in the Shenandoah Valley. Grant was told “that it was understood that three divisions of infantry went to Early in the first part of the week. Great secrecy was observed in the movement, and the troops were taken through the city mostly in the night.”

Learning that the troops were from Lieutenant General Richard H. Anderson’s corps stationed north of the James, Grant reported, “The enemy has sent north two if not three divisions of infantry, twenty-three pieces of artillery, and one division of cavalry.” Believing that Lee had sent Anderson’s entire corps, Grant estimated that no more than 8,500 Confederates remained in front of Richmond. But Lee had really sent just one infantry and one cavalry division, leaving the Richmond defenses more heavily guarded than Grant anticipated.

Grant assigned three units to confront the Confederates north of the James:

  • Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps from the Army of the Potomac
  • Major General James B. Birney’s X Corps from the Army of the James
  • Brigadier General David M. Gregg’s cavalry division

Their target was Deep Bottom Run, 10 miles southeast of Richmond. Birney and Gregg crossed the James at Bermuda Hundred on the night of the 13th. Hancock’s men were loaded on transports to trick the Confederates into thinking they were going to Washington. They would then be brought back to reinforce Birney and Gregg. Grant explained to Meade:

“If the enemy are reduced as much in numbers as we have reason to believe they are, Hancock’s movements tomorrow may lead to almost the entire abandonment of Petersburg. Have this watched as closely as you can, and if you find this view realized, take such advantage of it as you deem best.”

The Federals landed at Deep Bottom at 9 a.m. on the 14th. Birney’s corps was to demonstrate against the Confederate right (south) flank, while Hancock tried turning the enemy left. Gregg’s cavalry would be to Hancock’s right, ready to ride into Richmond if an opening appeared.

The Federals advanced slowly in the summer heat, giving the Confederates time to bring up more men and guns to the earthworks. The attackers approached the Confederate defenses around midday and immediately realized they were stronger than expected. The Federals were forced to fall back.

Although the Federals north of the James were unsuccessful, Lee had done exactly what Grant wanted him to do–pull troops from south of the James to reinforce the northern sector. Grant therefore directed Major General Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps to try extending the Federal line to Globe Tavern, south and west of the weakened Petersburg defenses. North of the James, Hancock ordered Birney to link with his left. Many of Birney’s men fell out of line during the exhausting night march.

On the 15th, Hancock’s Federals struggled through the Tidewater woods, and Birney’s men took until 6 p.m. to adjust to the rough terrain, making it too late to attack that day. The next morning, the Federals attacked and pushed their way to within seven miles of Richmond. Birney’s troops penetrated the Confederate line at Fussell’s Mill, but neither Birney nor Hancock realized the line was broken due to the heavy foliage. Confederates under Major General Charles W. Field soon surged forward to plug the gap and hold the Federals off.

Both sides observed a ceasefire to collect their dead and wounded on the 17th, during which time Confederate gunboats on the James River prevented the Federals from renewing their assaults. The Confederates counterattacked Hancock’s lines on the 18th but were repelled. The opposing forces spent the next two days entrenching and skirmishing. Grant withdrew the Federals from above the James on the 20th, ending the fighting at Deep Bottom Run.

The Federals sustained 2,901 casualties, while the Confederates lost about 1,000. Grant did not achieve the breakthrough he hoped, but he prevented Lee from sending any more reinforcements to the Shenandoah Valley. Hancock’s corps was worn out, and he reported that his men did not conduct themselves well in this operation. The troops would be shifted southwest to join in the second of Grant’s two-pronged assault, involving Warren’s Federals below Petersburg.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 95, 98-99, 104, 112; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 447-48; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 11279-89, 11434-55, 11500-10; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 485-87; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7869, 7881, 7918; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 554-56; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 617-18; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 231-32; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 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

The New Army of the Shenandoah

August 1, 1864 – Major General Philip Sheridan was assigned to command the new Army of the Shenandoah. Sheridan’s objective was to protect Washington while clearing the Confederates out of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley once and for all.

By this time, President Abraham Lincoln and Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant were under mounting criticism for sustaining such horrific casualties while Confederates under Lieutenant General Jubal Early continued roaming throughout the Shenandoah Valley and even threatening Washington. As Grant later wrote:

“It seemed to be the policy of General (Henry W.) Halleck and Secretary (of War Edwin M.) Stanton to keep any force sent there, in pursuit of the invading army, moving right and left so as to keep between the enemy and our capital; and, generally speaking, they pursued this policy until all knowledge of the whereabouts of the enemy was lost. They were left, therefore, free to supply themselves with horses, beef cattle, and such provisions as they could carry away from Western Maryland and Pennsylvania. I determined to put a stop to this.”

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

Major General David Hunter commanded the Federal Army of West Virginia, but he had not been effective in stopping Early. In June, Grant had suggested putting Sheridan in charge of such an operation, but Stanton rejected it on account of Sheridan’s young age. But now, after meeting with Lincoln at Fort Monroe, Grant insisted that Sheridan be given the job. He notified Halleck on the 1st:

“I am sending General Sheridan for temporary duty whilst the enemy is being expelled from the border. Unless General Hunter is in the field in person, I want Sheridan put in command of all the troops in the field, with instructions to put himself south of the enemy and follow him to the death. Wherever the enemy goes, let our troops go also.”

Grant also recommended that the four departments surrounding Washington and the Valley be merged into one central command, with Sheridan commanding in the field and Hunter handling the administrative duties. The new 37,000-man army would consist of Hunter’s Army of West Virginia, three divisions of VI Corps (from the Army of the Potomac), two divisions of XIX Corps (from the Army of the Gulf), two divisions from Sheridan’s Cavalry Corps within the Army of the Potomac, and 12 artillery batteries.

Grant sent Sheridan to take command without waiting for approval from Washington. Meanwhile, Hunter’s Federals remained camped on the Monocacy River in Maryland, unable to chase down Early’s Confederates. Hunter reported on the 1st, “It appears impossible for the officers of the Sixth and Nineteenth Corps to keep their men up. So many are suffering from sunstroke, and all from the intense heat and constant marching, that I fear, unless they have some rest, they will be rendered very inefficient for any service.”

Halleck informed Grant, “If Sheridan is placed in general command, I presume Hunter will again ask to be relieved. Whatever you decide upon I shall endeavor to have done.” Halleck wrote again at 2:30 p.m. on the 3rd:

“Sheridan had just arrived. He agrees with me about his command, and prefers the cavalry alone to that and the Sixth Corps… He thinks that for operations in the open country of Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Northern Virginia cavalry is much better than infantry, and that cavalry arm can be much more effective there than about Richmond or south. He, therefore, suggests that another cavalry division be sent here, so that he can press the enemy clear down to the James River.”

Grant replied, “Make such disposition of Sheridan as you think best.” Lincoln wrote Grant that same day:

“I have seen your despatch in which you say ‘I want Sheridan put in command of all the troops in the field, with instructions to put himself South of the enemy, and follow him to the death. Wherever the enemy goes, let our troops go also.’ This, I think, is exactly right, as to how our forces should move. But please look over the despatches you may have received from here, even since you made that order, and discover, if you can, that there is any idea in the head of any one here, of ‘putting our army South of the enemy’ or of following him to the death in any direction. I repeat to you it will neither be done nor attempted unless you watch it every day, and hour, and force it.”

Grant responded on the 4th, “I will start in two hours for Washington & will spend a day with the Army under Genl Hunter.” Confederate General Robert E. Lee was informed of the new Federal army being formed and notified President Jefferson Davis:

“I fear that this force is intended to operate against General Early, and when added to that already opposed to him, may be more than he can manage. Their object may be to drive him out of the Valley and complete the devastation they commenced when they were ejected from it.”

Lee and Davis agreed that they must reinforce Early’s Confederates to protect the Shenandoah Valley harvests and the Virginia Central Railroad needed to sustain the Army of Northern Virginia under siege at Petersburg.

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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; Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 95; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 442-43; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 11066; 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 11299-30, 11341-92; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 479; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 646; Lewis, Thomas A., The Shenandoah in Flames: The Valley Campaign of 1864 (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 91-93, 100-01; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 545-46, 548-51, 553; 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. 757; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 315

The Battle of the Crater

July 30, 1864 – An ill-fated plan to detonate gunpowder under the Confederate trenches at Petersburg, Virginia, resulted in a disastrous Federal defeat.

As Federals and Confederates faced each other from opposing fortifications east of Petersburg, the 48th Pennsylvania of Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s IX Corps had tunneled beneath the Confederate line in hopes of planting gunpowder and blasting a hole in the enemy works. After creating a gap, Federal forces would rush through, capture Petersburg, and then move north to Richmond.

The 511-foot tunnel ended beneath Elliott’s Salient. It included an incline for drainage and shafts for ventilation. Two shafts at the tunnel’s end each contained 4,000 pounds of gunpowder, and they were linked to a single fuse that ran back to the Federal lines. The explosives were set to detonate at 3:30 a.m. on the 30th.

The Confederates believed that the Federals were tunneling under them but could not find where. General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, decided that a Federal raid toward Richmond was just a diversion for an attack on the Petersburg lines, and alerted the troops at 2 a.m. on the 30th to be ready.

When the fuse did not ignite as planned, two volunteers from the 48th entered the mine and discovered it had burned out. They re-lit the fuse, and the tremendous blast occurred at 4:45. A Confederate later wrote, “A fort and several hundred yards of earth work with men and cannon was literally hurled a hundred feet in the air… (it was) probably the most terrific explosion ever known in this country.” Major General Bushrod R. Johnson, commanding Confederates in this sector, recalled:

“The astonishing effect of the explosion, bursting like a volcano at the feet of the men, and the upheaving of an immense column of more than 100,000 cubic feet of earth to fall around in heavy masses, wounding, crushing, or burying everything within its reach, prevented our men from moving promptly to the mouth of the crater and occupying that part of the trench cavalier which was not destroyed, and over which the debris was scattered.”

The blast instantly killed hundreds of Confederates, including nearly 300 from the 19th and 22nd South Carolina. The debris buried a regiment and an artillery battery, effectively putting an entire brigade out of action. When the dust settled, a crater had formed that was about 170 feet long, 70 feet wide, and 30 feet deep. A gap was opened all the way to Petersburg.

Burnside’s plan called for Brigadier General James Ledlie’s division to lead the assault into the crater, supported by the divisions of Brigadier Generals Orlando Willcox and Robert Potter. Brigadier General Edward Ferrero’s division of U.S. Colored Troops would follow the white divisions.

Ledlie’s men hesitated before advancing, as if shocked by the damage the explosion had caused. When they advanced, they marched straight into the crater instead of to either side, and the troops of Willcox and Potter followed them. Soon, thousands of Federals were in the crater with no way of scaling the steep slope to get back out. The Confederate survivors quickly regrouped, lined the crater’s rim, and fired down into the Federals below.

The Battle of the Crater, Sketched by Alfred Waud | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Around 9 a.m., Burnside ordered Ferrero’s black soldiers forward, but they soon became trapped with all the other Federals. The Confederates were enraged at the sight of uniformed black men and killed several, even after they surrendered. The Federals lacked leadership because Ledlie and Ferrero “passed a bottle of rum back and forth” in a bombproof during the battle.

Meanwhile, Major General William Mahone’s Confederates counterattacked against Federals west of the crater and drove them back, reestablishing the Confederate line and ending any chance for a Federal drive on Petersburg. Mahone’s artillerists then began pouring fire into the crater, turning it into a “cauldron of hell.” After three charges, the Federals were all either killed, wounded, captured, or driven back to their lines.

Meade ordered Burnside to withdraw his troops at 9:30, but Burnside did not forward the order to the front until after noon. By that time, the Confederates had reformed their lines and swept any surviving Federals away with a bayonet charge. Lee reported at 3:25 p.m.: “We have retaken the salient and driven the enemy back to his lines with loss… Every man in it has today made himself a hero.”

The Federals sustained 3,798 casualties (504 killed, 1,881 wounded, 1,413 missing or captured), while the Confederates lost 1,491 (361 killed, 727 wounded, 403 missing or captured). Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Weld of the 56th Massachusetts, hiding in a bombproof, recounted a harrowing tale about how the Confederates handled black prisoners:

“Pretty soon the rebels yelled, ‘Come out of there, you Yanks.’ I walked out, and the negro who had gone in there with me, and Captain Fay came out also. The negro was touching my side. The rebels were about eight feet from me. They yelled out, ‘Shoot the nigger, but don’t kill the white man’; and the negro was promptly shot down by my side… I got over the embankment all right, and was walking to the rear, when I saw a negro soldier ahead of me. Three rebels rushed up to him in succession and shot him through the body. He dropped dead finally at the third shot. It was altogether the most miserable and meanest experience I ever had in my life.”

Colonel William Pegram, commanding a Confederate artillery battalion, wrote his sister after the battle:

“I think over 200 negroes got into our lines, by surrendering and running in, along with the whites, while the fighting was going on. I don’t believe that much over half of these ever reached the rear. You could see them lying dead all along the route to the rear. There were hardly less than 600 dead–400 of whom were negroes. As soon as we got upon them, they threw down their arms in surrender, but were not allowed to do so. Every bomb proof I saw, had one or two dead negroes in it, who had skulked out the fight and been found and killed by our men. This was perfectly right, as a matter of policy… It seems cruel to murder them in cold blood, but I think the men who did it had very good cause for doing so. I have always said that I wished the enemy would bring some negroes against this army. I am convinced, since Saturday’s fight, that it has a splendid effect on our men.”

Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, wired Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck, “It was the saddest affair I have witnessed in the war. Such opportunity for carrying fortifications I have never seen and do not expect again to have.” Grant later called this battle “a stupendous failure… and all due to inefficiency on the part of the corps commander and the incompetency of the division commander who was sent to lead the assault.”

This disaster at the crater marked a new level of Federal incompetence. A court of inquiry later reported that “the first and great cause of the disaster was the employment of white instead of black troops to make the charge.” Ledlie was censured and later resigned from the army. Ferrero was also censured but later somehow promoted to major general. Burnside was relieved as commander of IX Corps for not providing an escape route.

The Federals lost a total of 6,367 men in July with no ground gained. The Confederates lost around 3,000. These losses, along with the crater fiasco and the recent Confederate invasion of Maryland and Pennsylvania, demoralized the northern war effort and lessened President Abraham Lincoln’s chances for victory in the upcoming election.

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 175; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 472; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 22233; Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 67-68, 72-73, 75-89; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 441; 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 11144-225, 11268-78, 11289-99; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 478; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7857-69; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 645-46; Linedecker, Clifford L (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 76; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 547-49; 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. 759-60; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 256; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 190, 428, 577-79

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