Tag Archives: Virginia Campaign

Grant Crosses the James

June 12, 1864 – The Federal Army of the Potomac began moving to cross the James River below Richmond, while General Robert E. Lee struggled to find where the Federals had gone.

Major General George G. Meade’s Federal army had run out of room north of the James to operate against Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and the Confederate capital of Richmond. Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, therefore devised a bold plan to move the 100,000-man force across the 2,000-foot-wide river before Lee discovered the movement; the Federals could then threaten both Richmond and Petersburg to the south.

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

Grant kept a diversionary force in Lee’s front at Cold Harbor while he began shifting the rest of the army to the south, beyond Lee’s right flank. Grant had also launched two other diversions in the form of Major General Philip Sheridan’s raid on Trevilian Station and Major General Benjamin F. Butler’s breakout at Bermuda Hundred. He hoped these diversions would keep Lee unaware that the main maneuver would be crossing the James.

Lee shifted his forces to defend against what he thought would be a renewed attack on Cold Harbor. His lack of manpower compelled him to wait for Grant to make the first move. Lee informed President Jefferson Davis that the Federals were strengthening their entrenchments, which indicated that a part of Grant’s army was pulling back to advance to the James.

Meanwhile, Grant and Meade prepared to somehow make the massive Federal army disappear from Lee’s front. This entailed moving over 100,000 men, 49 artillery batteries, and thousands of supply and ammunition wagons before the Confederates discovered that they were gone. If Lee found out, he could attack the Federals as they crossed the James and destroy them. Grant’s daring gamble began on the night of the 12th:

  • Federal cavalry that had not joined Sheridan’s raid secured a crossing on the Chickahominy River, 15 miles downstream from Cold Harbor.
  • Major General Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps marched to the Chickahominy, crossing the next day and turning west to feign a threat to Richmond.
  • Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s IX Corps followed Warren but then continued south past Warren toward the James.
  • II and VI corps under Major Generals Winfield Scott Hancock and Horatio G. Wright held the trenches before following Burnside southward on two parallel roads.
  • The troops of Major General William F. “Baldy” Smith’s XVIII Corps marched to White House on the Pamunkey River, where they boarded transports bound for Bermuda Hundred on the south bank of the James.

Grant transferred the Federal supply base to City Point, near Bermuda Hundred. Engineers led by Captain George H. Mendell selected an area on the James between Fort Powhatan and Windmill Point, about 10 miles downriver from City Point, to build a pontoon bridge for part of the army to cross.

The Federals moved flawlessly, leaving Lee completely unaware of Grant’s intentions for the first time. Confederate artillerist Robert Stiles wrote:

“When we waked on the morning of the 13th and found no enemy in our front we realized that a new element had entered into this move, the element of uncertainty. Thus far, during the campaign, whenever the enemy was missing, we knew where, that is, in what direction and upon what line, to look for him; he was certainly making for a point between us and Richmond. Not so now–even Marse Robert, who knew everything knowable, did not appear to know what his old enemy proposed to do or where he would be most likely to find him.”

Lee learned that the Federal trenches were empty on the morning of the 13th, after he had sent Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s Second Corps west to the Shenandoah Valley. Furious, Lee responded by shifting Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s Third Corps southward to block what he thought would be a thrust around his right flank toward Richmond. Lee also shifted Lieutenant General Richard H. Anderson’s First Corps southward so the Confederate army covered both White Oak Swamp and Malvern Hill. Lee posted a division at Drewry’s Bluff on the James as well.

Warren’s Federals and the cavalry faced off against Hill and guarded all the Confederate approaches to the rest of the Federal army, which was marching behind Warren to the southeast. The Federals and Confederates skirmished as they built fortifications. Lee reported the action to Richmond that night:

“At daylight this morning it was discovered that the army of General Grant had left our front. Our skirmishers were advanced between one and two miles, but failing to discover the enemy were withdrawn, and the army was moved to conform to the route taken by him. He advanced a body of cavalry and some infantry from Long Bridge to Riddell’s Shop, which were driven back this evening nearly two miles, after some sharp skirmishing.”

However, Lee was still unaware of Grant’s main movement toward the James. The next morning, Lee was about to order Hill to attack when he learned that the Federals were gone once more. Lee’s army was too small to launch a full-scale assault on the Federals, and Lee’s cavalry was too weak to conduct a reconnaissance in force. It was not until late morning that Lee realized what Grant may be attempting, and he notified President Davis at 12:10 p.m.:

“… I think the enemy must be preparing to move south of James River. Our scouts and pickets yesterday stated that Genl Grant’s whole army was in motion for the fords of the Chickahominy from Long Bridge down… It may be Genl Grant’s intention to place the army within the fortifications around Harrison’s landing, which I believe still stand, and where by the aid of his gunboats, he could offer a strong defense. I do not think it would be advantageous to attack him in that position…”

Three hours later, Lee reported, “Genl Grant has moved his army to the James River in the vicinity of Westover. A portion of it I am told moved to Wilcox’s Landing, a short distance below… I apprehend that he may be sending troops up the James River with the view of getting possession of Petersburg before we can reinforce it. We ought therefore to be extremely watchful and guarded…”

Meanwhile, Grant reported to Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck at 1 p.m. on the 14th:

“Our forces will commence crossing the James today. The enemy shows no signs yet of having brought troops to the south side of Richmond. I will have Petersburg secured, if possible, before they get there in much force. Our movement from Cold Harbor to the James River has been made with great celerity and so far without loss or accident.”

The men of Hancock’s corps were ferried across the James all day, and engineers completed the pontoon bridge around midnight. Spanning 2,200 feet, this was the longest and most flexible bridge ever built in the war. It involved linking 101 pontoon boats and anchoring them against the strong current over a river that was nearly 100 feet deep in the center. This remarkable project involved 450 engineers working from both banks, and it took just seven hours to complete.

Burnside’s corps crossed during the night, and the rest of the army crossed using either the bridge or ferryboats the next day. The 60,000 men using the bridge had orders to keep the waves calm by not marching in step. The cavalry, the 35-mile wagon train, and about 3,500 heads of cattle also crossed on the bridge. Lincoln responded to Grant’s message: “Have just read your dispatch of 1 p.m. yesterday. I begin to see it. You will succeed. God bless you all. A. Lincoln.”

Beauregard’s Confederates observed “Baldy” Smith’s Federals heading up the James toward Bermuda Hundred. Beauregard sent a frantic message to Lee stating that if he did not send reinforcements to Petersburg immediately, only God Almighty could save the city. Lee said, “I hope God Almighty will.”

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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. 493-96; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20349, 20357-66, 22151; Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 34, 36-38; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 422-23, 425-26; 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 6660-80, 8192-202, 8923-53; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 454-55; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7472-506; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 169; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 71-72; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 519-23; 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. 739; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 304-05; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 394, 551, 557-79

Grant Devises a Bold New Strategy

June 6, 1864 – Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant proposed moving the massive Federal Army of the Potomac across the James River, and a Federal opportunity to capture Petersburg was squandered.

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

After the Federal defeat at Cold Harbor, the marching and fighting that had taken place for nearly 30 straight days briefly stopped. The Federals had sustained over 50,000 casualties in the past month, and criticism of Grant’s strategy was getting louder within the army. However, President Abraham Lincoln remained supportive, telling a group of New Yorkers on the day after the Cold Harbor repulse, “My previous high estimate of Gen. Grant has been maintained and heightened by what has occurred in the remarkable campaign he is now conducting…”

The Federals were now closer to Richmond than they had been since June 1862. They had also inflicted losses on General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia that could not be replaced. But they had not destroyed Lee’s army, and they had not captured Richmond. And they had run out of room to maneuver north of the James River. Previous Federal commanders had fallen back to regroup and come up with a new strategy, but Grant would not. He wrote to Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck on the 5th:

“A full survey of all the ground satisfies me that it would be impracticable to hold a line north-east of Richmond that would protect the Fredericksburg Railroad to enable us to use that road for supplying the army… My idea from the start has been to beat Lee’s army if possible north of Richmond; then after destroying his lines of communication on the north side of the James River to transfer the army to the south side and besiege Lee in Richmond, or follow him south if he should retreat.

“I now find, after over 30 days of trial, that the enemy deems it of the first importance to run no risks with the armies they now have. They act purely on the defensive, behind breastworks, or feebly on the offensive immediately in front of them, and where in case of repulse they can instantly retire behind them. Without a greater sacrifice of human life than I am willing to make all cannot be accomplished that I had designed outside of the city. I have therefore resolved upon the following plan.

“I will continue to hold substantially to the ground now occupied by the Army of the Potomac, taking advantage of any favorable circumstance that may present itself until the cavalry can be sent west to destroy the Virginia Central Railroad from about Beaver Dam for some 25 or 30 miles west. When this is effected I will move the army to the south side of James River, either by crossing the Chickahominy and marching near to City Point, or by going to the mouth of the Chickahominy on north side and crossing there. To provide for this last and most possible contingency, several ferry-boats of the largest class ought to be immediately provided…

“The feeling of the two armies now seems to be that the rebels can protect themselves only by strong intrenchments, whilst our army is not only confident of protecting itself without intrenchments, but that it can beat and drive the enemy wherever and whenever he can be found without this protection.”

Disengaging from the Confederate army and moving 100,000 men across the wide James River was a major gamble because the Confederates could attack and destroy the Federal army as it crossed. Also, Grant could expect no more reinforcements to replace his losses, as Halleck notified him on the 6th, “I inclose a list of troops forwarded from this department to the Army of the Potomac since the campaign opened–48,265 men. I shall send you a few regiments more, when all resources will be exhausted till another draft is made.”

Grant therefore planned three diversions from the main crossing:

  • Major General Philip Sheridan would lead two cavalry divisions to raid the Virginia Central Railroad in the Confederate rear.
  • Major General Benjamin F. Butler’s Federal Army of the James would try breaking out of Bermuda Hundred below the James.
  • A portion of the Army of the Potomac would feign another attack on Cold Harbor.

Moving south of the James River would cut Lee’s supply line coming into Richmond from the south. It would also threaten the vital railroad town of Petersburg. If the Federals captured Petersburg, Richmond would most likely follow. As Lee said, “We must destroy this army of Grant’s before he gets to the James River. If he gets there, it will become a siege, and then it will be a mere question of time.”

General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding the Confederates bottling up Butler’s Federals at Bermuda Hundred, warned the Confederate high command that Grant may next target Petersburg. President Jefferson Davis discounted this in a message to Lee: “Our scouts give no information as to the arrival of troops from below, and if none have come I cannot believe the attack to be of much force.” Lee acknowledged that Grant might consider such a move, but he did not believe Grant could pull it off without detection.

Meanwhile, Butler prepared his part of Grant’s diversion. Butler’s original plan called for Federal cavalry under Brigadier General August V. Kautz to break through Beauregard’s line and raid Petersburg. But Major General Quincy A. Gillmore, commanding X Corps, insisted that since he was the senior officer, he should lead his infantry in the attack, with Kautz’s cavalry in support. Butler agreed.

The Federal infantry crossed the Appomattox River at 3:40 a.m. on the 9th, which was more than three hours behind schedule. The cavalry remained several more hours behind. Brigadier General Henry A. Wise defended Petersburg with just 1,000 Confederates, most of whom were either convalescents or prisoners freed from the local jail. Although the Federals outnumbered them four-to-one, Gillmore ordered frequent halts in the advance that gave the Confederates time to organize as strong a defense as possible.

As Gillmore stopped to consolidate his troops, Kautz’s troopers rode to within 150 yards of Petersburg. Wise shifted his defenders to hold off Kautz, leaving a path into the city wide open for the Federal infantry. But by the time Gillmore realized this, Beauregard was sending reinforcements from Bermuda Hundred to close the gaps. The Confederates easily repelled the half-hearted Federal attack in what became known as the “Battle of the Patients and the Penitents.”

Butler, who had constantly feuded with Gillmore, relieved him of command and ordered him arrested for disobedience and incompetence. Gillmore demanded a military tribunal to clear his name, but before it could be convened, Grant canceled Butler’s charges and reassigned Gillmore to another department.

Beauregard notified Richmond, “This movement must be a reconnaissance connected with Grant’s future operations. Without the troops sent to General Lee I will have to elect between abandoning lines on Bermuda Neck and those of Petersburg. Please give me the views of the Government on the subject.” Lee, still thinking that Grant’s main effort would be against Richmond, believed the attack on Petersburg was just a feint.

Davis asked Lee if he could spare any men to send to Petersburg, but Lee could not. Lee wrote, “The pause in the operations of Gen. Grant induces me to believe that he is awaiting the effect of movements in some other quarter.” But what Lee thought was a “pause” was really Grant creating diversions while preparing for his main movement across the James River.

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References

Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 492; Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 175; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 19-20, 27, 33-54; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 421-22; 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 6212-22, 6232-42, 6301-21, 6340-60, 6426-65; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 450; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7460; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 514-15, 518; Sommers, Richard J., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 177

The Cold Harbor Aftermath

June 4, 1864 – The Federal Army of the Potomac and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia glowered at each other after the Battle of Cold Harbor, while the Federal dead festered and the wounded languished on the battlefield.

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

After the horrific Federal repulse, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, refused to request a truce to collect his dead and wounded. General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate army, refused to send a messenger suggesting a truce because all the dead and wounded were Federals and therefore Grant’s responsibility. Finally, Grant wrote Lee two days after the battle:

“It is reported to me that there are wounded men, probably of both armies, now lying exposed and suffering between the lines. I would propose that hereafter when no battle is raging either party be authorized to send to any point between the pickets or skirmish lines, unarmed men bearing litters to pick up their dead or wounded without being fired upon by the other party… any other method equally fair to both parties you may propose for meeting the end desired will be accepted by me.”

Colonel Theodore Lyman, staff officer to Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, delivered the message between the lines under a flag of truce. Lee, knowing there were no wounded Confederates in the field, replied at 11 p.m.:

“I fear that such an arrangement will lead to misunderstanding and difficulty. I propose therefore, instead, that when either party desires to remove their dead or wounded a flag of truce be sent, as is customary. It will always afford me pleasure to comply with such a request as far as circumstances will permit.”

The next day, Grant responded to Lee’s requirement of a truce flag to collect the survivors: “Your communication of yesterday is received. I will send immediately, as you propose, to collect the dead and wounded between the lines of the two armies, and will also instruct that you be allowed to do the same.” Grant proposed dispatching the burial details between 12 and 3 p.m.

However, Grant was proposing sending burial details under white flags while hostilities continued. This was not in accordance with military protocol in which all hostilities must be suspended while the details were in the field. Therefore, Lee responded that night expressing “regret to find that I did not make myself understood in my communication.” He stated that he would only consent to Federal burial parties if they were requested “by a flag of truce in the usual way.”

Grant finally wrote: “The knowledge that wounded men are now suffering from want of attention compels me to ask a suspension of hostilities for sufficient time to collect them in; say two hours.” Lee formally consented late that evening, and the gathering of dead and wounded finally began on the 7th, four days after the battle. By that time, only two survivors remained. The rest had either crawled back to their lines or died of wounds, thirst, or exposure. A member of the burial detail recalled:

“Four days of sun and rain, with the severe heat of summer, had passed over our slain, and the air was laden with insufferable putrescence. We breathed it in every breath, tasted it in the food we ate and water we drank. What seemed intolerable to us, was doubly so to the enemy, from their nearness to the dead, and from the fact that the prevailing winds, wafting over the field, carried the fumes directly to them. The granting of the truce was a necessity rather than a virtue.”

Another soldier recalled:

“Trenches were quickly dug, and into their depths the decomposed and unrecognizable bodies of men, who a short time before had been so full of life and daring, were hurriedly lowered–the brief time allotted for the humane purpose not permitting ceremony of any nature. It was nauseating to those who handled the disfigured corpses, while those to whom the duty of removing the wounded had been delegated performed their task with tender hands and bleeding hearts. In many instances maggots swarmed upon the wounds of those who had been maimed, presenting a revolting sight–one that no man, made however callous-hearted by war, would ever again wish to look upon.”

After burying the dead, Grant concluded his correspondence with Lee: “Regretting that all my efforts for alleviating the sufferings of wounded men left upon the battlefield have been rendered nugatory, I remain, &c., U.S. Grant, Lieutenant General.” A Federal officer explained Grant’s reluctance to collect the casualties:

“An impression prevails in the popular mind, and with some reason perhaps, that a commander who sends a flag of truce asking permission to bury his dead and bring in his wounded has lost the field of battle. Hence the resistance on our part to ask a flag of truce.”

Criticism of Grant intensified in the North and among his troops. Many noted that Lee had tactically won every engagement of the past month and inflicted a horrifying number of Federal casualties. Losing five men to Lee’s one, some began calling Grant “The Butcher.”

However, Grant’s supporters argued that the Federals were now closer to Richmond than they had been since 1862. They also noted that while Lee held Grant off for now, Lee had lost some 30,000 men of his own, and unlike Grant, he could not replace his losses. This forced Lee to stay on the defensive, while Grant retained the initiative.

Maj Gen G.G. Meade | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Meanwhile, Meade endured criticism of his own. In one instance that particularly enraged him, a correspondent for the Philadelphia Inquirer named Edward Crapsey had written an article applauding Grant for saving the army from an error that Meade had supposedly committed during the second day of the Battle of the Wilderness. Meade ordered Crapsey expelled from the army, asserting that he had merely reported “talk of the camp.”

The Federal provost marshal seized Crapsey and placed a sign on him reading “LIBELER OF THE PRESS.” As army bands played the “Rogue’s March,” Crapsey was placed backwards on a mule and paraded through the camps and out of the army. Under Meade’s order:

“The commanding general trusts that this example will deter others from committing like offenses, and he takes this occasion to notify the representatives of the public press that… he will not hesitate to punish with the utmost rigor all (such) instances.”

Fellow reporters opposed Crapsey’s expulsion by agreeing to omit Meade’s name from all future articles except when reporting Federal setbacks. They would also commend Grant for all future successes, essentially referring to Meade’s Army of the Potomac as Grant’s army.

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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. 420-21; 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 6212-42, 6261-321, 6340-60; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7414; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 154-69; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 516-17; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 122-23; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 294-95; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q264

The Battle of Cold Harbor

June 3, 1864 – The Federal Army of the Potomac suffered one of its most horrifying defeats at a crossroads just nine miles northeast of Richmond.

Army dispositions on June 3 | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Before dawn, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander of Major General George G. Meade’s army, concentrated three Federal corps on a north-south line in front of New Cold Harbor:

  • Major General William F. “Baldy” Smith’s XVIII Corps from the Army of the James held the right (north)
  • Major General Horatio G. Wright’s VI Corps held the center
  • Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps held the left (south)
  • Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s IX Corps held the extreme Federal right a few miles north at Bethesda Church
  • Major General Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps was on Burnside’s left, moving south to link with Smith’s right

General Robert E. Lee had hurriedly assembled the bulk of his Confederate Army of Northern Virginia behind virtually impregnable defenses in front (east) of New Cold Harbor:

  • Lieutenant General Richard H. Anderson’s First Corps held the left (north), which included Major General Robert F. Hoke’s recently transferred Confederates
  • Major General John C. Breckinridge’s Confederates from the Shenandoah Valley held the center
  • Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s Third Corps held the right (south)
  • Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s Second Corps opposed Burnside’s Federals to the north

A correspondent described the Confederate defenses as “intricate, zig-zagged lines within lines, lines protecting flanks of lines, lines built to enfilade opposing lines… works within works and works without works.” Grant ordered the Federals to reconnoiter the enemy lines before the attack, but this was not done thoroughly enough to identify such strong defenses.

Federal bugles sounded at 4:30 a.m., and the assault began when about 60,000 men advanced in double-lines to break the Confederate line and open the road to Richmond. However, the Confederates held some of the strongest defensive works of the war, with their artillery poised to enfilade attackers. As the Federals marched to within 50 yards over open ground, they became easy targets. The Confederates opened a murderous volley that could be heard from Richmond.

On the Federal left, a division of II Corps managed to capture an advanced position, but the Confederates quickly drove them off in savage hand-to-hand fighting. In the center, Wright’s men were immediately pinned down by the overwhelming enemy fire. On the Federal right, Smith’s Federals emerged from a ravine and were quickly cut down by the waiting Confederates.

A Federal officer recalled, “The men bent down as they pushed forward, as if trying, as they were, to breast a tempest, and the files of men went down like rows of blocks or bricks pushed over by striking against one another.” A Federal soldier wrote, “We felt it was murder, not war, or at best a very serious mistake had been made.” The fight in the Cold Harbor sector of the line was over within 30 minutes.

Farther north, Warren stopped his movement to Smith’s right, thus allowing Confederate artillerists to turn all their guns on Smith’s men. Burnside’s Federals advanced and drove the enemy skirmishers off, but Burnside thought he had penetrated the first Confederate defense line and ordered a halt to regroup. He planned to renew the assault that afternoon.

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

The Federals all along the line were stopped by 7 a.m. Grant ordered a renewal wherever the enemy seemed most vulnerable, and Meade ordered the three corps on the left to attack again. Both Hancock and Smith resisted, with Smith calling a renewal a “wanton waste of life.” Wright’s men remained pinned down in the center. Grant finally agreed, writing Meade at 12:30 p.m., “The opinion of the corps commanders not being sanguine of success in case an assault is ordered, you may direct a suspension of further advance for the present.”

This was the most lopsided Federal defeat since the ill-fated assault on Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg. The Federals sustained 7,000 casualties, while the Confederates lost less than 1,500. Lee telegraphed Richmond, “So far every attack has been repulsed.” President Jefferson Davis and other officials rode out from the capital to the battlefield.

Postmaster General John Reagan asked Lee, “General, if the enemy breaks your line, what reserve have you?” Lee responded:

“Not a regiment, and that has been my condition ever since the fighting commenced on the Rappahannock. If I shorten my lines to provide a reserve, he will turn me; if I weaken my lines to provide a reserve, he will break them.”

After Davis returned from the battlefield, he received a dispatch that Lee sent to Secretary of War James A. Seddon: “Our loss today has been small, and our success, under the blessing of God, all that we could expect.” While Cold Harbor was a resounding Confederate victory, continuous fighting over the past month had depleted the Army of Northern Virginia, and Richmond remained in grave danger.

That night, Meade wrote his wife, “I think Grant has had his eyes opened, and is willing to admit now that Virginia and Lee’s army is not Tennessee and (Braxton) Bragg’s army.” Grant told his staff, “I regret this assault more than any one I ever ordered.” He later wrote in his Memoirs:

“I have always regretted that the last assault at Cold Harbor was ever made. I might say the same thing of the assault of the 22d of May, 1863, at Vicksburg. At Cold Harbor no advantage whatever was gained to compensate for the heavy loss we sustained. Indeed, the advantages other than those of relative losses, were on the Confederate side.”

But Grant was not discouraged. He wrote his wife Julia, “This is likely to prove a very tedious job I have on hand, but I feel very confident of ultimate success.” Meade also wrote his wife, “Be not over-elated by reported successes, nor over-depressed by exaggerated rumors of failures. Up to this time our success has consisted only in compelling the enemy to draw in towards Richmond; our failure has been that we have not been able to overcome, destroy or bag his army.”

Since arriving at Cold Harbor on the 1st, the Army of the Potomac lost about 12,000 men. Since opening the spring offensive last month, Federal losses exceeded 50,000 killed, wounded, or missing. Charles Francis Adams, Jr. declared that the Federal army “has literally marched in blood and agony from the Rapidan to the James.”

Soldiers and civilians in the North began openly questioning Grant’s leadership, with some even denouncing him as a “butcher.” Indeed, scores of wounded Federals lay helpless between the lines because Grant refused to ask Lee for a flag of truce to collect them. But Grant would soon develop a new strategy that even Lee did not anticipate.

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 170-71; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Crocker III, H.W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008), p. 84-87; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 419; 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 6132-52, 6171-91, 6202-12; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 449; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7401; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 154-69; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 71-72; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 514-15; 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. 734-36; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 294-95; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 149-50, 551

Armies Converge on Cold Harbor

June 2, 1864 – The Federal Army of the Potomac missed opportunities to penetrate the defenses of General Robert E. Lee’s Army of the Northern Virginia, but Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant ordered one more assault to take place.

Maj Gen G.G. Meade | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

As June began, Grant, the overall Federal commander, continued his relentless effort to move Major General George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac past Lee’s left flank. The armies faced each other along a seven-mile front that began at Atlee’s Station and Totopotomoy Creek to the north and ended at Old Cold Harbor and the Chickahominy River to the south.

Elements of both armies had fought for the desolate crossroads at Old Cold Harbor, about 15 miles northeast of Richmond, on May 31, with Major General Philip Sheridan’s Federal cavalry gaining control. Lee directed Lieutenant General Richard H. Anderson’s First Corps, supported by Major General Robert F. Hoke’s division, to dislodge the Federal troopers.

Sheridan maintained his tentative hold on the crossroads while waiting for infantry support from Major General William F. “Baldy” Smith’s XVIII Corps (recently transferred from the Army of the James) and Major General Horatio G. Wright’s VI Corps. But Smith got lost on his way to Cold Harbor, and Wright’s men conducted a 15-mile forced march through the night of the 31st and had not yet arrived by morning.

Due to miscommunication, Anderson deployed his troops piecemeal while Hoke’s men dug trenches. The Federals held off the weak Confederate attack with their Spencer repeating rifles, mortally wounding Colonel Lawrence Keitt, a prominent South Carolina politician. Anderson directed another assault, but this was repulsed as well.

Wright’s Federals began arriving around 9 a.m. and replacing the cavalrymen on the line. Although Grant wanted Wright to attack immediately, his men were exhausted and Wright did not know the enemy strength in his front, so he opted to wait until Smith arrived. Wright did not know that Smith was lost and would not get there for several hours.

When Smith’s troops finally arrived, they took positions to VI Corps’ right. As they prepared to attack, Meade worried that they did not have enough men. He therefore contacted Major General Gouverneur Warren, commanding V Corps, “Generals Wright and Smith will attack this evening. It is very desirable you should join this attack, unless in your judgment it is impracticable.”

Warren dispatched a division under Brigadier General Henry H. Lockwood at 6 p.m. The Federals launched their attack, originally scheduled for that morning, at 6:30 p.m. The Confederates held firm south of the Mechanicsville Road, which connected Old and New Cold Harbor. North of the road, the Federals were met by murderous fire. Connecticut Lieutenant Theodore Vaill described it as:

“A sheet of flame, sudden as lightning, red as blood, and so near that it seemed to singe the men’s faces, burst along the rebel breastworks; and the ground and trees close behind our line were ploughed and riddled with a thousand balls that just missed the heads of the men.”

The Federals fell back. To their right, other Federal forces discovered a gap in the Confederate line and pushed through. But they soon found themselves in a ravine, surrounded on three sides. They fought their way out and fell back after taking hundreds of prisoners.

Farther north on the Old Church Road, Lieutenant General Jubal Early sent his Confederates forward in a probing action against the lines held by IX and V corps. The Federals repelled these attacks around 7 p.m. Later that night, Warren learned that Lockwood’s division had gotten lost on its way to Cold Harbor. Warren reported to Meade:

“In some unaccountable way, (Lockwood) took his whole division, without my knowing it, away from the left of the line of battle, and turned up in the dark 2 miles in my rear, and I have not yet got him back. All this time the firing should have guided him at least. He is too incompetent, and too high rank leaves us no subordinate place for him. I earnestly beg that he may at once be relieved of duty with this army.”

Meade agreed and replaced Lockwood as division commander with Brigadier General Samuel W. Crawford.

Fighting ended at nightfall, with the Federals sustaining about 2,650 casualties and the Confederates losing about 1,800. The Federals had pinned the Confederates into defensive works in front of New Cold Harbor, closer to Richmond than Old Cold Harbor. While the Federals were within striking distance, Meade was enraged that Grant had ordered an assault without first conducting reconnaissance. Meade also worried that the army was being spread too thin.

Grant was frustrated by the missed opportunities to break the enemy line. Convinced that an early morning attack would break through, he ordered Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps to make a night march and join the action at the crossroads the next day. Lee hurried the bulk of his army to the Cold Harbor sector of the line, where the Confederates quickly built strong fortifications that included breastworks, abatis, and entrenchments.

Lee also informed General P.G.T. Beauregard, whose Confederates held Major General Benjamin F. Butler’s Federals at Bermuda Hundred to the south, that Grant’s forces had shifted closer to the James River and requested reinforcements. Beauregard replied that he could send none without risking cutting communication between Richmond and Petersburg.

Lee countered by stating that, “as two-thirds of Butler’s force has joined Grant, can you not leave sufficient guard to move with the balance of your command to north side of James River and take command of the right wing of the army?” President Jefferson Davis directed Major General Robert Ransom, Jr., commanding Confederates at Richmond, to mobilize local forces to establish defenses at the Chickahominy River.

By morning, Lee had shifted the forces of Lieutenant General A.P. Hill and Major General John C. Breckinridge south to join Anderson and Hoke in front of New Cold Harbor. Early’s corps remained in the northern sector to face Warren’s V Corps and IX Corps under Major General Ambrose E. Burnside.

Warren received orders to shift to his left (south) to link with Smith’s corps, while Burnside was to fall back in reserve by Bethesda Church. Skirmishing occurred when Early’s men conducted a reconnaissance in force to determine where Burnside’s troops were going. However, Lee remained mainly focused on his right (south), around Cold Harbor.

Hancock’s advance elements did not begin arriving at the crossroads until around 6:30 a.m., and by this time most men on both sides were spent. They had been continuously marching and fighting for almost a month, inflicting a combined 70,000 casualties on each other. Captain Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., later wrote, “Many a man has gone crazy since this campaign began from the terrible pressure on mind & body.”

The oppressive heat added to the fatigue until a heavy afternoon rain cooled temperatures somewhat. Grant ordered the assault to begin at 5 p.m., but the rain and continued delays compelled him to reschedule for the next morning. During this time, the Confederates in front of New Cold Harbor were building the strongest defensive works of the war. Some makeshift forts had walls five feet high, and artillery covered every approach.

Lieutenant Colonel Horace Porter of Grant’s staff later wrote that he walked through the camps on the rainy night of the 2nd, and, “I noticed that many of the soldiers had taken off their coats and seemed to be engaged in sewing up rents in them.” But Porter soon “found that the men were calmly writing their names and home addresses on slips of paper and pinning them on their backs of their coats, so that their bodies might be recognized and their fate made known to their families at home.”

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 170-71; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 462; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 417-18; 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 6093-103; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 447-48; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7320-31, 7343-55, 7367-78; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 71-72; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 512-14; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 733-34; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 294-95; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 149-50

Grant and Lee Shift Toward Cold Harbor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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References

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

The Battle of Haw’s Shop

May 26, 1864 – Cavalry from the Federal Army of the Potomac and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia clashed as Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant once again looked to turn General Robert E. Lee’s right flank.

By this time, the Federal and Confederate armies were deadlocked on the North Anna River, with neither force able to break the other’s defenses. Grant, the overall Federal commander, had responded to two prior stalemates by moving southeast, around the Confederate right, to get closer to Richmond. But this time he considered something different.

At a council of war on the night of the 25th, Major General George G. Meade, the Federal army commander, argued for another movement around Lee’s right. Grant, however, called for a movement around Lee’s left. This would cut the Confederate army off from being supplied by the Shenandoah Valley, and it could also confuse Lee in such a way that he might put his army in a vulnerable position.

Grant issued orders the next day, but before the army even began mobilizing, he received word that Lee was strengthening his left flank in anticipation of just such a move. Lee wrote of Grant, “From present indication, he seems to contemplate a movement on our left flank.” Grant quickly changed the plan, as he reported to Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck:

“To make a direct attack from either wing would cause a slaughter of our men that even success would not justify. To turn the enemy by his right, between the two Annas (North and South Anna rivers) is impossible on account of the swamp upon which his right rests. To turn him by the left leaves Little River, New Found River and South Anna River, all of them streams presenting considerable obstacles to the movement of our army, to be crossed. I have determined therefore to turn the enemy’s right by crossing at or near Hanover Town. This crosses all three streams at once, and leaves us still where we can draw supplies.”

Federal cavalry demonstrated on the Confederate left to mask the movement to the right. Lee, still bedridden from acute diarrhea, tried discerning whether the activity on his left indicated a general advance or a feint. Conflicting reports came to headquarters stating that Grant intended to attack both. The Confederates were not aware that Grant intended to move east of the Pamunkey River to Hanovertown. Reaching this abandoned port would place the Federals just 15 miles northeast of Richmond.

The Federals began pulling out of their entrenchments that night, ending the stalemate on the North Anna. Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps and Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s IX Corps stayed in place while Major General Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps and Major General Horatio G. Wright’s VI Corps swung around them. Major General Philip Sheridan’s cavalry troopers, back from their raid earlier in the month, led the way to Hanovertown, about 34 miles southeast.

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

Sheridan reached the town on the 27th, with the infantry on its way. A Federal cavalry brigade of Michiganders under Brigadier General George A. Custer secured a crossing on the Pamunkey just north of Hanovertown after a sharp skirmish with Major General Fitzhugh Lee’s Confederate horsemen.

When Lee learned that the Federals had left their defenses on the North Anna, he directed the Confederates to fall back to Atlee’s Station, just nine miles north of Richmond on the Virginia Central Railroad. Lee reached his objective before Grant reached his, having to cover just 18 miles. The Confederates quickly sealed all approaches to Richmond on the railroad from the Pamunkey.

Lee sought to secure the high ground on the south bank of the Totopotomoy Creek, which ran west into the Pamunkey just south of Hanovertown. Lee dispatched cavalry forces under Major General Wade Hampton to conduct a reconnaissance in force to determine whether the Federals intended to stop at Hanovertown or continue south around Lee’s right flank.

General Wade Hampton | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Hampton’s Confederates moved out from Atlee’s Station on the 28th, probing eastward while one of Sheridan’s brigades under Brigadier General David M. Gregg probed westward from Hanovertown. Gregg met Hampton about three miles west of Hanovertown and a mile west of a blacksmith shop called Haw’s Shop. Hampton’s dismounted troopers awaited Gregg behind breastworks, supported by artillery.

A vicious fight ensued that grew into the largest cavalry battle since Brandy Station last June. Both sides tried flanking the other, with Brigadier General Alfred T.A. Torbert’s Federal division arriving to extend Gregg’s right and repelling a Confederate flanking maneuver. Finally, Custer’s Michiganders arrived on the scene, and their repeating Spencer carbines turned the tide for the Federals, and Hampton’s troopers withdrew.

The fight at Haw’s Shop lasted about seven hours, and although it was a battle between cavalries, the men fought dismounted behind defenses like infantry. Sheridan claimed victory because Hampton withdrew, but Sheridan committed only one of his two divisions to the fight. He might have destroyed Hampton had he deployed more men.

Hampton claimed victory because he learned during the fight that the Federals had crossed the Pamunkey in force, and he prevented Sheridan from learning where Lee’s army was. Hampton had also delayed the Federal advance for seven hours before finally pulling back.

Lee set up headquarters in the Clarke house, where the owner allowed him to conduct all his business indoors due to his continuing illness. Grant transferred the Federal supply base from Port Royal on the Rappahannock to White House on the Pamunkey. Confident that he was wearing the Confederates down, Grant wrote to Halleck:

“Lee’s army is really whipped. The prisoners we now take show it, and the actions of his army show it unmistakably. A battle with them outside of intrenchments cannot be had. Our men feel that they have gained the morale over the enemy, and attack him with confidence. I may be mistaken but I feel that our success over Lee’s army is already assured. The promptness and rapidity with which you have forwarded reinforcements has contributed largely to the feeling of confidence inspired in our men, and to break down that of the enemy.”

But the Army of Northern Virginia still had some fight left.

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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 20321; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 414-15; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 5814-34; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 445-46; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7235-58; Grant, Ulysses S., Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1982 [original 1885, republication of 1952 edition]), p. 434; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 137, 148-49; Jensen, Les D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 535; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 71-72; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 509-10; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 149-50, 551