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GRANT’S AND MEADE’S LEARNING CURVES1
by Bryce Suderow
Did Meade and Grant learn anything from their first three offensives? To answer that question, first we’ll list the lessons and then we’ll examine Grant’s Fourth Offensive, the Battles of Globe Tavern and Ream’s Station.
On the night of June 12th Grant ordered Smith to leave Cold Harbor and march to the White House on the Pamunkey where he boarded steamers to Bermuda Hundred. On the 14th Grant met with Butler at Bermuda Hundred and asked him to issue orders for Smith to march on Petersburg on the early morning of June 15th. He also ordered Meade to send Hancock and the II Corps to a point half way between Petersburg and City Point. Unfortunately, Grant neglected to tell Hancock or Meade that he intended to capture Petersburg. He also failed to inform Smith that Hancock would assist him.
Smith left Bermuda Hundred at 5 a.m. on the 15th. His army moved forward in three separate columns. Kautz’s cavalry moved along the Jordan’s Point Road, followed by Hincks’ division of black infantry. Kautz’s objective was to threaten the rebel works where they passed near the Norfolk and Petersburg railroad. In the center was the division of Gen. W.T.H. Brooks moving on Kautz’s right near the City Point Railroad. Gen. John Martindale’s division marched on the far right on the Spring Hill Road. Smith commanded between 10,000 and 14,000 soldiers. 2
Petersburg was defended by troops under Gen. Henry Wise, the garrison consisting of his own brigade of infantry, part of Dearing’s cavalry brigade, artillerymen and home guards, a total of 500 cavalrymen and 2,200 infantrymen and artillerymen.
Section 1: THE SIEGE OF PETERSBURG OPENS, June 15-June 24, 1864
Chapter I: The First Offensive: The June 15-18 Petersburg Assaults; Lessons Not Learned
Their finest moment during the assaults occurred on June 15th when Wise’s Brigade with Dearing’s cavalry held the city against the XVIII Corps, part of the X Corps and Kautz’s cavalry division and spent twelve hours advancing on and examining the rebel works. At 7 p.m. he assaulted the works and by the time the fighting cased about 9 p.m. he had captured Redans Five through Ten, a mile and a half of the enemy lines.
It was not until 4 p.m. that Grant informed Smith that Hancock was four miles in his rear. He immediately sent a message to Hancock to come up and assist him. The message reached Hancock at 5:30 just after Hancock received a message from Grant ordering him to hasten forward to support Smith. Hancock immediately informed Smith that he was coming. The head of his corps under Birney arrived at 6:30 p.m. Hancock met with Smith at 9:30 p.m.
Although Smith’s earlier dispatch had asked for Hancock to join him and take position on his left, Smith did not request this at the meeting. Instead Smith asked Hancock to relieve his troops in the captured works. Although Hancock ranked Smith he did not take command and he passively carried out Smith’s request.
If Grant had ordered Hancock to march for Petersburg at dawn he would have reached the city at noon and he and Smith would have captured the city.
On the night of the 15th after he’d lost the center of the Dimmock Line Beauregard considered ordering an assault to regain the line with Hoke’s division but changed his mind when he realized the troops were exhausted by their march to join him. He decided instead to wait for Johnson’s division. 3
Also that night he withdrew Johnson’s division from the Howlett Line on Bermuda Hundred in order to help hold the line at Petersburg, leaving it undefended except for a picket line.
At 12:25 a.m. on June 16th Hancock told John Gibbon and David B. Birney that the Confederate line was to be attacked and taken before daylight. However, Gibbon and Birney did not reconnoiter their fronts for weak spots until 6 a.m., well after dawn. At dawn Barlow ’s division, having lost its way, began straggling in.
Gibbon’s division’s right flank joined the left of the XIII Corps at the Friend House. Birney’s division held he center from the Prince George Court House Road to the area south of Battery 12. In front of Gibbon was Colquitt’s and Martin’s brigades, Hoke’s Division. In front of Birney were Clingman’s and Wise’s brigades, also from Hoke’s division. 4 As Barlow’s men began dribbling onto the battlefield, Barlow observed that Johnson’s division was arriving and forming opposite him on Hoke’s left. Here, he believed was an opportunity to flank the Confederate right. Hancock took no notice of Barlow’s suggestion.
After Gibbon and Birney had examined the rebel line Hancock ordered a reconnaissance in force. Egan’s brigade of Birney’s division captured Battery 12 but failed to break the Confederate line.
At 10 30 Grant left City Point for the front, after notifying Meade to leave his headquarters at the bridge and ride to city Point and take command of the attack on Petersburg. He also urged Meade to hurry forward Warren’s corps so it could anchor the Union left at the Jerusalem Plank Road. Meade reached City Point at 11:30 and only to find Grant gone. Riding forward they met Grant returning from the front lines. He told Meade that if possible he wanted an assault at 6 p.m.
As early as 10 a.m. the first of Burnside’s troops began arriving at Petersburg By 2 p.m. two of his divisions were on line. The third did not arrive till 6 p.m. All three divisions were exhausted.
By 4 p.m. Meade had come up with a plan. Birney would assault the Confederate lines at the Hare Farm. Gibbon’s division would support the attack. Smith’s corps would make a strong demonstration in its front. Barlow would attack the position opposite the Shand and Avery houses.
Smith’s corps kept Hagood’s brigade engaged during the main attack. Ramsey’s brigade of Gibbon’s division formed in two lines on the Prince George Road, facing the Hare Farm. Despite heavy fire some of them reached the edge of the woods by the farm, some even as close as forty yards from the Confederate position.
On their left Tanntant’s Brigade and Mott’s brigade of Birney’s division formed with their rights on the Prince George Road and then charged forward. The brunt of the attack fell on Clingman’s brigade. The federals entrenched close to his line.
On Barlow’s right, Nelson A. Miles’ brigade got as far as some Confederate rifle pits and fortifications. In the center McDougall’s brigade On Barlow’s right Beaver’s brigade made it to some protective ravines in front of Johnson’s Tennessee brigade where they were safe from Confederate fire. The 44th Tennessee came out of their lines and forced 500 men of the 7th New York Heavy Artillery to surrender. Griffin’s Brigade of IX Corps attacked and captured some rifle pits. The rest of the corps was too tired to participate.
The 6 o’clock attack netted Batteries 3, 13 and 14, but the Confederate line was not broken. With fewer than 14,000 men Beauregard had held his ground against 50,000 Federals. 5
On the night of the 16th Beauregard launched several vigorous attacks to retake lost batteries and to drive the Federals back. Although these attacks failed, they prevented the Federals from launching their own attacks and kept the Federals (already exhausted from the long marches to Petersburg) from getting much needed sleep. 6
Meade believed one more attack would break Beauregard’s line and ordered Burnside to select the spot. He chose the Shand house where ravines led right up to the Confederate position, which was defended by Johnson’s Tennessee Brigade. To make the attack he selected Simon Griffin’s and Curtin’s brigades from Robert Potter’s division. They were in position by 1 a.m.
The federals charged forward at 3 a.m. just as dawn was breaking, striking a gap a quarter of a mile wide between Wise’ s rise and Johnson’s left. In one of the most remarkable successes of the war Potter drove back Fulton’s Tennesseans and seized a mile of front and would probably have captured Petersburg if Ledlie’s Division had supported him as ordered and if Barlow had attacked on his flank. Beauregard threw Elliott’s brigade forward and they dug in a new line a few hundred yards west of the breach and thus contained Potter’s attack.
At dawn Warren’s V Corps began arriving and by mid-morning the corps was in place on Burnside’s left, giving Meade a total of twelve divisions to assault the city. Unfortunately, although Grant did not directly command troops on June 17th he interfered with Meade enough on at least two occasions to help him lose the battle. A t Butler’s request Grant withdrew Kautz’s cavalry from its task of guarding the Union left against a flank attack and sent it to Bermuda Hundred to help man the entrenchments. He replaced it with Warren’s V Corps and thus an entire corps was tied down the entire day doing nothing. Also on the 17th Grant landed most of Wright’s VI Corps on Bermuda Hundred where it did nothing but sit around for two days. If the V and VI Corps had been used at Petersburg on the 17th Meade might have taken Petersburg.
Burnside scheduled another attack for 2 p.m., this time with Willcox’s Division. The objective was again the ravines by the Shand house. Willcox selected for the attack the brigades of Gen. John Hartranft and Col. Benjamin Christ. Hartranft’s brigade led the attack, supported by Christ and with Miles’ Brigade II Corps advancing on Hartranft’s right. Because Warren was tied down there was no support for the IX Corps’ left and Hartranft’s left was pummeled so hard that on the verge of taking the rebel lines, the line turned to the right, charging across the Confederate front in a perpendicular direction and thus presenting its left flank to the fire of that main line. Soon the line broke and the Federals fled to the rear. Upon seeing the disintegration of Hartranft’s line, Christ veered to the left in his attack, but was pinned down. Ledlie’s Division following Willcox, clawed its way through the Confederate slashing and occupied Batteries 15 and 16 but went no further. Miles’ attack also failed.
Burnside decided to commit his last division, Ledlie’s In the front line were the brigades of Cols. Jacob P. Gould and Joseph H. Barnes. Lt. Col. Benjamin B. Barney’s Brigade formed a second line. Ledlie launched the attack at 6 p.m. and broke through Johnson’s division and routed the 23rd South Carolina. Its retreat forced back the 46th Virginia infantry which was south of the 23rd. North of the 23rd South Carolina the 51st North Carolina of Clingman’s Brigade fell back as well. In support of Ledlie one of Wilcox’s brigades came to Ledlie’s support and captured ground from the 35th North Carolina of Ransom’s brigade. And to the north Barlow’s division attacked to widen the breach. It looked at though the Confederate line would crumble.
Then the tide turned. Colquitt’s brigade stood firm and repulsed Barlow. Despite the retirement of the 51st North Carolina Clingman’s Brigade held when the 8th North Carolina turned their line at right angles and fired into the Ledlie’s Federals. Then Beauregard directed a series of counter-attacks: The 35th North Carolina, the 22nd South Carolina and the 51st North Carolina hurled themselves at Ledlie’s men and hand-to-hand combat ensued. Beauregard administered the coup de grace by directing Gracie’s newly arrived Alabama Brigade to charge Ledlie. After Ransom joined in the attack, the Federals withdrew from the captured works, leaving behind many prisoners. Overall Ledlie lost one-third of his strength in the assault. 7
On the night of the 17th Meade issued an order for a 4 a.m. attack by the II, V and IX Corps.
The XVIII Corps and the newly arrived division of Martindale, VI Corps, were to remain ready to support eht other corps or launch their own attacks if an opportunity presented itself.
During the night Bearegard’s soldiers fell back to a new and pre-determined line located 500-800 yards in rear of the previous one. The line began on the Appomattox River 200 yards west of the Hare house and ran south to the Petersburg and City Point Railroad. After crossing the railroad it followed a ditch running behind the New Market Race Course. Johnson Hagood’s Brigade defended this part of the line. From the race course the center of the line ran south along the west side of Hare Hill and across Poor Creek to a point southwest of the Hare house. Gen. Alfred Colquitt’s Ga. Brigade defended this part of the line. After crossing Poor Creek the line traversed the Norfolk and Petersburg railroad and followed a high ridge toward the Rives Farm. This part of the line was defended by the brigades of Gen. Martin and Clingman.
The line continued south, crossing the Baxter Road at nearly right angles until it joined the Dimrock Line at Battery 25 on the Rives Farm just east of the Jerusalem Plank road and continued west along the Dimrock Line. This sector of the line was thinly manned by the depleted rank of Johnson ’s Division and Wise’s Brigade. The extreme Confederate right was defended by Dearing’s cavalry brigade. In many places the trenches did not exist and had to be thrown up by the weary troops.
At 5:55 a.m., having discovered the rebels had fallen back , Meade ordered his corps commanders to push ahead while marinating communication with neighboring corps.
This was easier said than done. The II Corps quickly located the Confederate line west of Hare house. By mid-morning Martindale’s division of the XVIII corps and Neill’s of the VI had crossed Harrison’s Creek and in front of the new Confederate lines. However, the V and IX Corps had to travel over a mile, climbing through ravines choked with undergrowth and timber.
Around half past 7 a.m. Meade, aware that Lee had not arrived and that only a single line of Confederates who had not yet fortified their positions, if they could engage the rebels quickly they could whip them. He told them how important it was to press their advantage before Lee came up.
The IX Corps pushed across open farmland west of the Shand and Avery houses. A strip of woods masked the Confederate line from them. . The soldiers had to clear the woods of Johnson’s confederates who defended the woods tenaciously. The men found themselves on a broad ridge which ran south from the Hare house. This was the Taylor farm, whose field of oats sloped gently down to the Petersburg and Norfolk railroad cut. Beyond the tracks ran Poor creek followed by several hundred yards of open and uphill ground leading the Confederate line on Cemetery Ridge 800 yards distant. The railroad cut was defended by the Confederates who had fallen back from the woods.
Warren’s corps had an even rougher time since it had further to travel and more ravines and woods to traverse.
Around 11:30 Meade scheduled an attack for noon. Martindale’s and Gibbon’s divisions were slated for the effort by the II and XVIII Corps. At noon they attacked the fortifications held by Hagood’s Brigade. Gibbon was pinned down in front of the main Confederate line. Martindale could come close because of heavy fire.
For the IX Corps attack Willcox’s division was selected. It charged into through Taylor’s oat field and into the railroad cut, driving out the Confederate defenders. On the IX Corps left, two divisions of the V Corps charged to the front and left of the Taylor house under heavy fire and also helped take the railroad cut.
To press home the attack the men of the V and IX Corps had to climb up the west side of the railroad’s earthen walls that were ten to twenty feet in height. Union soldiers hacked steps in the bank and emerged into a field where they were subjected to a withering fire from the Poor Creek ravine. The men mistakenly thought the cut was safe but then the rebel trenches poured an enfilade fire into the cut that turned it into a slaughter pen.
At 1:55 Birney informed Meade that Gibbon’s assault had failed because it was not pressed forward with sufficient vigor. Meade told him to attack again. At 12:35 Potter told Meade he was receiving a heavy fire from the rebels opposite the II Corps. At 2 p.m. Warren told Meade that the V Corps could not advance because the IX Corps had not moved forward and covered its flank.
At 2:25 Meade lost his famous temper. He told his corps commanders to attack in strong force. He went on to say that it was useless for him to appoint an hour for coordination. He begged them assault at once in strong columns.
Crawford’s division held Warren’s right, connecting with the IX Corps near the Taylor house. They charged across open ground, down a slope into the railroad cut and up the other side towards a ridge a ridge. At the top of the ridge they were stopped by Confederate fire. On Crawford’s left Chamberlain’s Brigade of Griffin’s division followed the same route but went further – beyond the ridge and into the ravine of Poor’s Creek. Seitzer’s Brigade got out of the ravine and was stopped twenty yards from the rebel breastworks.
Cutler’s Division, on Griffin’s left, formed behind a rise half a mile from the Confederate lines. It charged across a field and was hit by heavy fire and then descended into Poor Creek’s ravine where many men stayed. Others climbed out and arrived within 75 yards of the rebel line before they were repulsed.
Against orders Warren’s leftmost division under Ayres remained largely inactive on the left in front of the Rives Farm.
At 4 p.m Col. Henry Madill’s brigade of Gibbon’s division and Col. Daniel Chaplin’s brigade of Mott’s division attacked Gracie’s and Clingman’s fronts. They were repulsed with minimal confederate casualties.
At 5:30 p.m. Willcox’ entire division and Curtin’ Brigade of Potter’s Division charged out of the railroad cut, into Poor Creek and got within 125 yards of the Confederate line before they were stopped. The Federals entrenched on the spot.
June 18, 1864 was the fourth and final day of the Union assaults on Petersburg. On that day Meade made his last attempt to seize Petersburg. When Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s IX Corps advanced on the Union left that morning it discovered that the Confederates had abandoned their entrenchments along the Dimmock Line north of Battery 17 all the way up to the area of Batteries 27, 28, and 29.
After a long halt they resumed their advance, crossing the level ground where the Taylor Plantation was located. Here they ran into a stiff fire of musketry and artillery from Beauregard’s second defense line, ground held by Bushrod Rust Johnson’s division. Burnside’s boys pressed forward across the level ground, descended into the valley of Taylor Creek, and crossed the Norfolk and Petersburg railroad. The railroad was not operable but the right of way was there and the cut was filled with ties and scattered rails. Johnson’s graycoats stopped the Federals when they reached the top of the slope leading up out of Taylor Creek.
The Confederate soldiers opposite Meade’s army – Beauregard’s two divisions under Bushrod Johnson and Robert Hoke all of whom had learned how to practice his aggressive style of warfare in the May fighting at Bermuda Hundred – had proven to be hard fighters, tenacious on the defense and aggressive on the offense.
On June 15th he left Meade at the James to play the role of traffic cop in directing his army across the James. The actual assault that day was directed by Grant’s friend, William F. (Baldy) Smith. When Smith failed, Grant summoned Meade to City Point and gave him command. However, this didn’t occur until 10:30 a.m. of June 16 th.
On the morning of the 16th Hancock was placed in charge of the troops in front of Petersburg. He conducted several attacks, one of which under Gen. Egan captured Battery 16.
Meade was unfamiliar with the ground so he sent two engineers to determine the weak points in the Confederate line. Unfortunately Gen. John G. Bernard and Lt. Col. Cyrus B. Comstock of Grant’s staff failed to determine the strength or composition. Nevertheless they confidently told Meade an assault would succeed if launched by a large enough force. launched an assault by the II Corps at 6 p.m. supported by two brigades of the XVIII Corps on the right and two brigades of the IX Corps on the left. Battery 4 on the right was captured and Batteries 13 and 14 on the left as well. But the Confederate lines were too strong. Burnside’s newly arrived IX Corps was too weary too attack.
During the day of the 17th Beauregard repeatedly attacked II Corps near the Hare House, thus keeping that Corps from assisting Burnside’s dawn and 2 p.m. attacks further south. 8
To the north of the slope was a ravine that approached to within about 500 feet of the Confederate position that became known a month and a half later as “Elliott’s Salient.” The ravine was “in defilade” which meant Union soldiers could stand up there and not be subject to small arms fire.
Now, having reached that high ground, the Union forces ground to a halt. They had lost during the previous four days over 10,000 men, and had not captured Petersburg. Their losses over the previous forty days had been excessive. Since crossing the Rapidan the Army of the Potomac had lost over 65,000 men. One half of the people who crossed the Rapidan with Grant and Meade on May 4th were dead, wounded or missing. The army was fought out. Lee was winning the war of attrition. Grant had been stopped.
When Lee arrived Beauregard urged him to commit every soldier of both armies and attack grant’s left. Morale was high, said Beauregard, and the Confederates could force his army against the junction of the Appomattox and James Rivers. This would decide the fate of the war in a single blow. Lee believed the Federals were too numero9us and their position too well defended. 9
For perceptive Union generals there were lessons to be learned about the quality of their opponents from the four bloody days of the Petersburg Assaults. The Confederate soldiers opposite Meade’s army – Beauregard’s two divisions under Bushrod Johnson and Robert Hoke all of whom had learned how to practice his aggressive style of warfare in the May fighting at Bermuda Hundred – had proven to be hard fighters, tenacious on the defense and aggressive on the offense. Their finest moment during the assaults occurred on June 15th when Wise’s Brigade with Dearing’s cavalry held the city against the XVIII Corps, part of the X Corps and Kautz’s cavalry division..
Superb Confederate leadership complemented the able and sometimes heroic resistance of rebel troops. Beauregard fought his finest battle at Petersburg. 10
The Confederate commander Beauregard had demonstrated yet again that he was one of he most capable generals in the Civil War. He had assessed enemy intentions and had reacted by making the right decisions with lightning speed. On June 15th he withdrew Johnson’s division from the Howlett Line on Bermuda Hundred in order to help hold the line at Petersburg, leaving it undefended except for a picket line.
On the night of the 15th after he’d lost the center of the Dimmock Line Beauregard considered ordering an assault to regain the line with Hoke’s division but changed his mind when he realized the troops were exhausted by their march to join him. He decided instead to wait for Johnson’s division. 11
His withdrawal from the Harrison’s Creek entrenchments to a new line in the early hours of June 18th threw the Federal probes into the vacuum into such confusion that when they attacked, the assaults were uncoordinated. On June 18th. Johnson had held his ground against piecemeal attacks by the V and IX Corps and Hoke’s division had repulsed attacks by the II Corps, XVIII Corps and VI Corps with ease.
These two decisions required great courage. Beauregard was well aware that he was faced with a hostile Davis administration. Davis, Bragg and Seddon would scrutinize his every action hoping to publicly humiliate him at the least and even relieve him of his command if they could.
And nearly every time the Federals broke his lines he instantly counter-attacked often with greatly inferior numbers and drove them back. This wore down the Federals and Finally, instead of fighting a purely defensive battle he constantly attacked the attacking Federals revealing yet again that he was even more aggressive than Robert E. Lee. Both Johnson and Hoke had proven themselves capable division commanders.
Despite the best efforts of troops from the Army of the Potomac and the Army of the James Beauregard’s men between June 15th and 18th repulsed the Union attacks losing 4,000 out of 15,000 men and inflicting a loss of 10,586 on the Federals who numbered 63,000. 12
John Horn states that Beauregard’s defense “ranks among the great defenses of the war.” 13
The Union generalship had often been lackluster. Grant never took direct command of any action at Petersburg.
Although Grant did not directly command troops he interfered with Meade enough on at least two occasions to help him lose the battle. On the 17th at Butler’s request grant withdrew Kautz’s cavalry from its task of guarding the Union left and sent it to Bermuda Hundred to help man the entrenchments. He replaced it with Warren’s V Corps and thus an entire corps was tied down the entire day doing nothing. Also on the 17th he landed most of Wright’s VI Corps on Bermuda Hundred where it did nothing but sit around for two days. If the V and VI Corps had been used at Petersburg on the 17th Meade might have taken Petersburg.
Another problem caused by Grant was the fact that the Union corps were committed before they were all crossed the James. Thus on the 15th only the XVIII Corps was engaged; on the 16th mostly the II Corps; on the 17th the IX Corps. It was only on the 18th that all three corps attacked but by then Lee’s army had arrived.
The army corps arrived one day apart. Grant and Meade feared Lee would arrive any moment so rather than wait for the army to come up they threw each corp in as soon as it arrived.
The V and IX Corps had attacked across the same ground on June 17th and 18th. Now the position was much stronger with more trenches, forts and cannon. In addition Union morale had declined since those assaults.
During the night of June 17/18 Beauregard withdrew his forces to a line closer to Petersburg. When the sun rose Hoke’s Division’s line stretched from the Appomattox River on the left to the Baxter Road on the right. Johnson’s Division continued the line from the road to Battery 25 at the Rives House. Dearing’s cavalry patrolled the area up to the Jerusalem Plank Road.
The next day, June 18th, Kershaw’s division arrived at that place early in the morning. Field’s division followed and arrived at mid-day. . . Soon after its arrival at Petersburg Kershaw’s division relieved Johnson’s on the line between the Baxter Road and Rives’ house. Field’s division took position on Kershaw’s right. Mahone’s division of Hill’s III Corps occupied the entrenchments at the Wilcox farm at 2 a.m. on the 19th and Wilcox’s Division arrived shortly afterward and formed on Mahone’s right with its own right resting on the Weldon Railroad. 14. (Hill’s other division under Heth was in reserve on the Bermuda Hundred behind the line held by Pickett’s division.)
At the close of the fighting on the evening of June 18th Grant’s forces were arrayed with the XVIII and II Corps opposite Hoke and the IX and V Corps in front of Johnson. On the 19th Meade began sorting out the troops. His goal was to hold the lines with the V, VI, IX corps and place the II Corps in reserve. Maj. Gen. Geo. G. Meade to Lt. Gen. Grant 9 a.m. June 20, 1864 15
On the night of the 19th two divisions of the VI Corps left Bermuda Hundred and relieved the XVIII Corps which returned to Bermuda Hundred. They took position on the right of the Union lines. After dark on the 20th the VI Corps extended its left and relieved one division of the II Corps. The rest of the corps was relieved that same night when the IX Corps extended its line to the right to the Prince George Court House Road at the Hare House. The corps spent the night in reserve behind the IX Corps. 8:45 a.m. June 20, 1864 Maj. Gen. A.A. Humphreys to Maj. Gen. Birney 16. Itinerary of Maj. Mitchell for June 20, 1864 17.
Section II: The Second Offensive: Grant Thrusts Towards the Weldon and Southside Railroads: Lessons not Learned
On June 20th Meade traveled to City Point and discussed forthcoming operations with Grant. There is no record of their conversation, but they must have talked about Grant’s plan to extend the Union line to the upper Appomattox west of Petersburg, thus blocking the Weldon and the Danville Railroads with fortified infantry – and launching Wilson’s cavalry division to raid the Weldon and Danville railroads as soon as possible. Meade may also have stated verbally something he’d already put in writing – his preference for sending Sheridan back down the Virginia Central Railroad, with Wilson as reinforcements, to finish off the railroad and assist Hunter – who had last been heard of near Lynchburg – in joining the Army of the Potomac.
In terms of reaching smart decisions the meeting was a flop. None of the Grant’s plans seem to have been thought through. For no good reason Grant rejected Meade’s plan of re-dispatching Sheridan. If carried through the plan at the very least might have made it clear to Grant that Hunter was retreating through the mountains of West Virginia and that Early was in the Valley with the entire Confederate II corps. If this had happened there might have been no raid on Washington and no tying down three Union infantry corps in the Valley for six months. And with some luck Sheridan’s second try might have resulted in cutting the supply line to Lee’s granary in the Shenandoah Valley.
Grant decided to send Wilson off on his raid and also to extend the Union infantry line across the same railroads Wilson was supposed to cut. One wonders what Grant hoped to accomplish by cutting the railroad twice, once with infantry and again with cavalry.
Also the notion of sending one tired, under strength division to raid the railroad was to risk annihilating that division. Two Confederate cavalry divisions had inflicted severe losses on Sheridan and chased him all the way to White House. They could easily cross the Appomattox and James Rivers and join a third Confederate cavalry division to set upon Wilson.
During their meeting Grant decided to send the II Corps westward towards the Weldon Railroad the next day, on the 21s. Meade persuaded him to add the VI Corps to the mission, but those would not be ready till the 22nd. Grant refused to postpone the offensive. This was a less than bright idea since it warned Lee that the Federals were heading for the railroads and gave him an entire day to react. Grant was fighting like a second rate pug who telegraphs to his opponent that he is about to deliver a punch.
To free Wright up for the thrust westward, the poor XVIII Corps had to re-cross the Appomattox River early on the morning of the 21st and occupy its old position but this time on a longer front, from the river to This left only the X Corps holding the Union line at Bermuda Hundred.
This shifting of troops back and forth shows clearly that this offensive was not well planned, indeed good planning was impossible because Grant did not know what he was going to do from one day to the next.
Thanks to Col. Sharpe Meade was well apprised of the Confederates who had arrived from Lee’s Army. On June 20th one Confederate prisoner from Wofford’s Brigade reported to Sharpe that two divisions of I corps arrived on the 18th and were followed by two more from the III Corps. He also revealed that Ewell’s II Corps had left Lee’s army at Cold Harbor en route to the Valley and Lynchburg. It had not been heard of since. Col. George H. Sharpe to Gen. Humphreys June 20,186418.
On June 21st Hancock’s staff captured five prisoners from Sanders’ Alabama Brigade of Mahone’s Division. When Sharpe interviewed them they confirmed much of what the prisoner had told him the day before. Two of Hill’s divisions were present, plus Field’s division of the I Corps. They could not account for the whereabouts of McLaws’ division, but knew that Pickett’s division was on Bermuda Hundred. They confirmed that Ewell’s corps had left the army at Cold harbor and had not been seen since. They told Sharpe they thought it had gone to western Virginia.. Col. George H. Sharpe to General Humphreys June 21, 186419.
At 7:15 a.m. on the 21st per Grant’s instructions Meade launched the Second Offensive against Petersburg by ordering Birney to take position on Warren’s left and to push up close to the enemy’s lines and to take the Weldon Railroad. Meade informed Birney that Wright would join him that night and form on his left.
Employing Benjamin Crowinshield’s force of cavalry and his own infantry, Barlow took the lead, followed by Mott and then by Gibbon. The Corps struck the Jerusalem plank road near the Williams’ house, then took position on the left of the Fifth corps, about two miles from the Weldon railroad. General Birney’ s headquarters was established just in front of Jones’ house, near the Jerusalem plank road.
Leaving Mott and Gibbon behind just west of the road, Barlow pushed to within two and a half miles of the railroad where he encountered Baker’s North Carolina Cavalry. Although his brigade had no infantry support Barringer determined to make a dismounted fight in the woods east of the Weldon Railroad. He put McGregor’s four pieces on a hill screened from the enemy’s sight. He dismounted the First, Second and Third Cavalry and formed two heavy skirmish lines, concealed in the woods with instructions for the first line to hold its fire till the Federals were less than one hundred yards away and then after a single volley to retire to the second (also concealed) line, where the real fight would be made. The cannon were scheduled to open when the Federals approached the second line.
The first line delivered its volley and ran for the second line. Barlow’s infantry mistook the flight of the first line as a rout of the entire Confederate force. They poured into the woods by the hundreds. Suddenly McGregor’s guns opened and the Federals faltered and then fell back. Allying they rushed forward again, when all at once the dismounted cavalry fired into them at short range. After several volleys they broke and fled.
At 2:10 p.m. Barlow reported his situation to Birney: “It is for you to decide whether it is safe for us to advance so as to separate this division farther from the rest of the corps. We cannot both advance and keep up connection with the rest of the corps.”. Birney ordered him back. Brig. Gen. Francis C. Barlow to Maj. Gen. Birney 2:10 p.m. June 21, 186420
While Barlow skirmished near the railroad Gibbon’s division formed on the left of Warren who had extended his left to the Jerusalem Plank Road. Mott took position on Gibbon’s left.. The Union line formed a curved line that ran from northeast to southwest.
Meanwhile at 2 p.m. Maj. Gen. Cadmus Wilcox learned the enemy were advancing towards the Weldon Railroad and were not far from it, A.P. Hill ordered the division to check the enemy. Upon arriving at the railroad Wilcox deployed two brigades for action. When Barlow fell back, Wilcox followed him within a few hundred yards of the Jerusalem Plank Road when darkness ended the activities of both sides. The division returned to its position in the Petersburg lines.
After falling back Barlow took up a position on Mott’s left and under his orders Crowinshield’s cavalry picketed his left flank. Barlow’s withdraw was followed up by an attack by Wilcox’s skirmishers up the road near the Williams House which drove in Crowinshield’s cavalry…
The XVIII Corps relieved Wright after dark and the VI Corps set out to take position on the left flank of II Corps. Humphreys ordered Wright to press up against the Confederate lines but not to assault. The Chief of Staff notified him that the reason for the transfer of the two corps to the left and the extension of the lines was to occupy both Weldon and Lynchburg Railroads. Maj. Gen. A.A. Humphreys to Maj. Gen. Wright Sent 8:45 p.m. June 21, 186421.
This repulse at the hands of cavalry was a first for the II Corps. It boded ill for the future performance of the corps and, indeed, the whole Army of the Potomac.
Grant did not expect much. He hoped Warren would reach the railroad and tear up a few miles of track. Also there was a chance that a threat to Petersburg might force Lee to recall part of Early’s forces in the Shenandoah and allow Sheridan to defeat Early. Meade, however, ordered Warren to try to turn Lee’s right flank.
Meade’s orders were for Warren to advance up the railroad towards Petersburg tearing up track. The area consisted of farms nestled in small clearings surrounded by dense forests, terrain similar to the battlefield of June 22nd where the II Corps had come to grief.
Warren’s V Corps set out at 5 a.m. on August 18th and his advance division under Griffin reached the railroad at Globe Tavern about 9 a.m. and part of his force began tearing up track. Ayres division arrived at 10 a.m. After Crawford’s division reached the field, Warren then attempted to carry out Meade’s order to turn the rebel left. With Crawford on the left east of the railroad on a two brigade front, Hayes’ brigade on the right and the Maryland Brigade on the left, and Ayres on the right on the east side, Warren’s battle line began advancing up the railroad at 11 a.m, pushing rebel cavalry skirmishers back towards Petersburg. Soon the Federals entered a belt of woods 500 yards deep. Soon a gap opened between the two divisions. A gap also opened between Crawford’s two brigades. By 2 p.m. the two divisions had nearly reached the northern edge of the woods.
Because Lee was absent north of the James Beauregard commanded the Petersburg front. Grant’s thrust north of the James had fooled Lee into stripping the Petersburg front of troops, so that Beauregard had only the three divisions of Hoke, Johnson and Heth. Nonetheless he sent Heth with two brigades to attack the Union forces Heth placed Davis’ brigade west of the railroad opposite Crawford and Walker’s brigade on the east side in front of Ayres. He struck the Federals at 2 p.m.
West of the railroad Davis’ brigade penetrated the gap between Hayes’s right and Ayres left and also penetrated the gap between it and the Maryland brigade and turned its left. Hayes’ brigade fled. Next Davis’ men attacked the left flank of the Maryland brigade, while another portion attacked his right. The Maryland brigade collapsed and fled.
East of the railroad Walker’s brigade turned the left flank of Ayres’ left flank brigade, which broke and fled. However, Warren sent reinforcements to the front and also stationed six batteries in the clearing near Globe tavern. The additional troops and the cannon stopped any further advance by Heth’ s two brigades.
Heth lost 300 casualties. The Federal loss for the day came to 900 men, including 150 prisoners. The collapse of three Union brigades augured poorly for continued operations in the woods so close to Petersburg.
Belatedly Meade sent orders to reinforce Warren and at 3:30 a.m. on August 19th Willcox’ s division of the IX Corps set out for Globe Tavern and White’s division marched at 3 p.m after it was relieved by Mott’s division which had arrived from north of the James after an all night march. At 7:30 a.m. Willcox reached Globe Tavern and took position 500 yards in rear of Crawford.
To prevent another attack on his flanks Warren placed Bragg’s brigade on the right of Crawford and ordered him to connect with the IX Corps picket line. He relieved Griffin’s brigade with Crawford’s brigade and put it in reserve. Thus both front line divisions had a division behind each of them.
In the new line Ayres, straddling the railroad, held the left and Crawford the right.
Three brigades of Mahone’s division began arriving at Petersburg at 4 a.m. from north of the James . Their arrival persuaded Beauregard to attack the Federals with five brigades instead of two this day. A.P. Hill formed a plan suggested by Mahone. Heth would attack from the north down the railroad again against Ayres. Mahone would attack Crawford’s rear from the east. He dispatched Mahone with his former Weisiger’s brigade and two of Hoke’s brigades under Clingman and Colquitt. Using the same ravine he’d descended on June 22nd Mahone deployed in rear of Crawford’s division and attacked
Weisiger attacked Bragg’s rear while Clingman struck the rear of Hartshorne’s brigade f Crawford’s division and Colquitt struck the brigades of Lyles and Hayes. The Federal regiments collapsed and Colquitt and Clingman captured hundreds of prisoners. Four Union brigades practically ceased to exist.
Warren was equal to the emergency. He sent Willcox’s division to counterattack and at that opportune moment White’s division finally arrived and also attacked. After a savage see-saw fight Mahone withdrew his three brigades and his prisoners. In the meantime, Heth’s two brigades failed to make any impression on Ayres’s division. Warren then advanced his troops and re-occupied his former position.
The Federals lost 3,000 men, 2700 of them prisoners. The Confederates lost 600 men.
On August 20th although Meade was still prompting him to attack, Warren left the woods and withdrew to a ridge near Globe Tavern. He fortified the position and placed Here he could repulse an attack from any position. Unaware that Warren had moved and misled by his scouts Mahone attacked. Secure within strong earthworks the battered V Corps inflicted 1300 casualties on the rebels while losing 500.
For the entire battle of Globe Tavern the Confederates lost 2300 men and the Federals 4300 including 3000 prisoners of war.
John Horn has astutely pinpointed the cause of the Federal losses: Ordered to hold the railroad, to connect with the IX Corps and press up against the enemy lines, Warren was forced to occupy a stationary position in the woods which invited an attack on either gaps in his line, his flanks or his rear.
On the night of the 20th Hancock left Deep Bottom with his remaining two divisions and after marching all night reached his camp at the Deserted House at daybreak. Before they could cook a hot meal they were ordered to support Warren. They arrived at 3 p.m. in terrible conditions, hundred having fallen out on the march because of exhaustion. At noon on the 22nd Meade sent Miles’ 1st Division to tear up the railroad. By 6 p.m. he had wrecked the railroad as far south to within one and a half miles of Ream’s Station. Because a cavalry clash on August 23rd convinced Meade that the Confederates were present in strength so he sent John Gibbon’s second division to Ream’s Station and ordered Hancock to take command of the force at the station.
On August 25th A.P. Hill attacked Hancock’s entrenched force at Ream’s Station. The Union fortifications ran south and then curved until they were running toward the northeast. The 1st Division held the part of the line running south and Gibbon’s Division held the part running northeast.
Willie Pegram’s 17 guns sent shells into the Union line for half an hour and sharpshooters felled many men as well, all of this greatly demoralizing the numerous raw recruits in the ranks. Then the rebels moved forward, directing their attack on the line held by the 1st Division. On the Confederate left Lane’s and Cooke’s North Carolina Brigades attacked the Consolidated and 4th brigades of the 1st Division, but were repulsed. In the center McRae’s North Carolina Brigade had better luck and climbed over the earthworks in front of the left wing of the Consolidated Brigade, which was composed of new recruits. Many broke and fled to the rear and their demoralization infected Rugg’s Brigade of Gibbon’s Division, many of whom also fled. On the Confederate right McGowan’s brigade broke through the front held by the huge 4th New York Heavy Artillery and captured most of the regiment. The Confederate then struck Gibbon’s men who had been facing away from the attack and routed most of them. This success was greatly aided by the fact that the Union artillery had run out of ammunition and could not fire upon them.
The success of McRae encouraged Cooke and Lane to attack again. This time Lane’s Brigade broke through between the Nelson Miles’ 1st Brigade and the Consolidated Brigade.
Both Gibbon and Miles counter-attacked and retook some of the breastworks but the Confederate threw their second line of three brigades into the battle and drove them away.
At a cost of a mere 720 men the Confederates routed and drove the proud II Corps from fortifications, capturing 9 pieces of artillery, 12 colors, and over 2000 prisoners. The federals also lost 600 killed or wounded.
- Article copyright 2011 by Bryce Suderow. Used with permission by the author. No reproduction of this article is permissible without the express written consent of the author. ↩
- The Petersburg Campaign: Wasted Valor June 15-18, 1864 by Thomas Howe pp. 19 & 22. ↩
- The Petersburg Campaign: Wasted Valor June 15-18, 1864 by Thomas Howe p. 38 ↩
- The Petersburg Campaign: Wasted Valor June 15-18, 1864 by Thomas Howe p. 43 ↩
- The Petersburg Campaign: Wasted Valor June 15-18, 1864 by Thomas Howe p. 57 ↩
- The Petersburg Campaign: Wasted Valor June 15-18, 1864 by Thomas Howe pp. 58-59 ↩
- The Petersburg Campaign: Wasted Valor June 15-18, 1864 by Thomas Howe pp. 94-99 ↩
- The Petersburg Campaign: Wasted Valor June 15-18, 1864 by Thomas Howe p. 101 ↩
- The Petersburg Campaign: Wasted Valor June 15-18, 1864 by Thomas Howe p. 117 ↩
- The Petersburg Campaign: Wasted Valor June 15-18, 1864 by Thomas Howe p. 138 ↩
- The Petersburg Campaign: Wasted Valor June 15-18, 1864 by Thomas Howe p. 38 ↩
- The Petersburg Campaign: Wasted Valor June 15-18, 1864 by Thomas Howe Footnotes 1 and 5 on p. 175 ↩
- The Petersburg Campaign: June 1864-April 1865 by John Horn p. 73 ↩
- Cadmus Wilcox autobiography p. 89 ↩
- OR Vol. 40, Part 2 p. 231 ↩
- OR Vol. 40, Pt. 2, p. 238 ↩
- OR Vol. 40, Pt. 1 p. 318 ↩
- OR Vol. 40, Pt. 2, p. 235 ↩
- OR Vol. 40, Pt. 2 p. 271 ↩
- OR Vol. 40, Pt. 2, p. ↩
- OR Vol. 40, Pt. 2, p. 282 ↩
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