Ulysses S. Grant’s Utter Failure at the Battle of Petersburg: June 15-18, 1864 by Bryce Suderow

   

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Editor’s Note: In his latest essay for The Siege of Petersburg Online, Bryce Suderow aims a critical eye at what Grant really did at the Battle of Petersburg from June 15-18, 1864…and proposes what he COULD HAVE done. This article is copyrighted by Bryce Suderow and may not be reproduced without this written permission.

STUDY OF GRANT’S ATTACK ON PETERSBURG JUNE 15-18, 1864

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by Bryce Suderow

Ulysses S. GrantThe military historians who believe Grant was a “Great Captain” divide the period of June 6-18, 1864 into two separate series of events which they arbitrarily divide by a date, June 15th.  They state that before June 15th Grant’s plans for moving the Army of the Potomac from the Chickahominy to the James and the the XVIII Corps of the Army of the James from Cold Harbor to Bermuda Hundred were brilliant and succeeded marvelously.  They go on to say that the fruits of his genius were lost between June 15-18 by the incompetence of the army and corps commanders of the Army of the Potomac and the Army of the James.

I completely disagree with this entire thesis for two reasons.  First because Grant made serious errors in the June 6-14 period.  Second, it was Grant and not his subordinates who made the errors between June 15th and 18th that led to the Union repulse at Petersburg.

Many of the errors were caused by what is known as Command and Control.  The first and perhaps the worst error Grant made was Butler’s attack on Petersburg on June 9th by Gillmore’s small force from the X Corps and Kautz’s cavalry.    It is true that the force defending the city was small but the works were mighty.  Perhaps the city could not have been captured by anyone given that small force.  Or perhaps the habitually cautious Gillmore was at fault  In any case the city did not fall and the Union attack alerted Beauregard to very real threat against the city.  He prepared for another attack just in case.

According to Porter on June 7th Grant sent him and Comstock to meet with Butler to discuss where Grant could cross the James.  They arrived on the 8th and left on the 10th to look for crossing points.  Thus they  were there during the time that Butler hatched his plan for the attack and launched the attack.  Porter says they dispatched a note to Grant before setting out for their trip along the river.  (Campaigning With Grant, p. 188)

The struggle of Petersburg. The lines of rebel intrenchments carried by our troops. [June 15-17,1864].Presumably they informed Grant of the planned attack.  If Grant was aware of the proposed attack he should have cancelled it.  It was foolish to risk the key to Richmond on a hazardous enterprise;  no force smaller than the Army of th Potomac should have been employed to capture Petersburg.  If Grant was not aware of the proposed attack then he was a very poor Army Group Commander indeed and obviously failed to control Butler, his subordinate.  This was a command and control failure with a vengeance.

Grant also made errors because he did not create a good operations plan for capturing Petersburg and Richmond.  In fact Grant chose the wrong objective.  Bermuda Hundred, not Windmill Point, should have been the place where his army landed.  Reinforced by the Army of the Potomac directly under Grant’s and Meade’s command the Federals could have broken out of Butler’s “bottle” which was held only by Bushrod Johnson’s division.  They could have positioned themselves so that they cut the railroad and turnpike linking Lee to the north outside Richmond and Beauregard to the south at Petersburg.  Then at his leisure while holding the railroad and turnpike Grant could have captured Petersburg while Lee waited impotently to the north for the ax to fall.  Incidentally Beauregard later expressed astonishment that Grant  failed to see this and he estimated that Richmond could only have held out for a very short time afterwards – I think a month or so if Grant had cut the lines.  I should also point out that when I first spoke to Terry Justice about this he told me he had glanced at a map years ago of Petersburg and Richmond and realized that Bermuda Hundred was the key to capturing both.

And you will recall that after Butler did secure the railroad and turnpike on June 16th when Beauregard pulled Johnson out of the Bermuda Hundred lines to save Petersburg, Grant weakened his forces bound for Petersburg by diverting the VI Corps to reinforce Butler to keep the turnpike and railroad cut.  Only belatedly did he see the importance of their possession.  And sending Wright to aid Butler came too late to help Butler and it fatally weakened his attacking force at Petersburg.

Ever heard of the German military concept of “point of main effort”?  Apparently Grant had not for he attempted to make two points of main effort with forces that were too limited in numbers and failed at both points.

Another German concept is the one Clausewitz originated, “friction”, where the simplest task becomes difficult because of faulty staff work, poorly worded orders, hesitant subordinates and so forth.  Apparently Grant never grasped that idea either.

Grant’s failure to appreciate the role that friction plays in war seems odd, especially since the very victory that won him top command of the Union forces was a model of friction.  I refer to Lookout-Mountain/Missionary Ridge.  Grant ordered Sherman to make the decisive attack on Missionary Ridge, but the point he chose to attack was the wrong one and he didn’t give Sherman enough time to reach his objective- poor intelligence gathering so Sherman attacked late and in the wrong place.  Grant ordered Thomas to make a demonstration to cause the rebels to weaken their forces in front of Sherman.  The demonstration turned into an attack that neither Thomas nor Grant ordered.  The attack would have failed except for the faulty placement of some Confederate troops.  Grant’s luck saved him but the battle had not gone the way Grant planned it.

Grant failed to gather adequate information about the strength of the Confederates at Petersburg after the June 9th attack – poor intelligence at work again.  He should have assumed that Beauregard would strengthen the garrison after the failed attack on June 9th – but he did not allow for this change.  Thus he repeated Butler’s mistake of June 9th – he trusted too small a force to make the attack.

Let’s imagine there’s a bookmaker, the kind of man who lays odds on sports events.  But this time he’s laying odds on whether Grant can succeed in capturing Petersburg.

Optimum Scenario

1.  Through uncharacteristic foresight Grant collects enough transports to move the II Corps to Bermuda Hundred on June 13th and the other corps on the 14th.

2.  Meade commands the movement.of the troops.  On June 14th at the head of 100,000 troops he attacks Bushrod Johnson’s lines, held by 5000 troops.

Odds 10-1 in favor of Grant

Second-Best Scenario

1.  Grant does not allow Butler to attack Petersburg on June 9th

2.  Through uncharacteristic foresight Grant collected enough pontoons and transports to move the II Corps to Windmill point on June 13th and the other corps on the 14th.

3.  Meade commands the movement of troops and attacks Petersburg on June 14th with 100,000 troops.  It is defended by 2000 militia and 2000 cavalry.

Odds:  5-1in Grant’s favor

Third Scenario

1. Butler attacks Petersburg on June 9th.  Beauregard strengthens the garrison.

2.  Through uncharacteristic foresight Grant collects enough pontoons and transports to move the II Corps to Windmill point on June 13th and the other corps on the 14th.

3.  Also through uncharacteristic foresight Grant assumes Beauregard has strengthened Petersburg so he commits the entire Army of the Potomac.  Meade commands the movement of troops and attacks Petersburg on June 14th with 100,000 troops.  It is defended by Wise’s 2000 regulars, 2000 militia and 2000 cavalry.

Odds:  3-1 in Grant’s favor

Fourth Scenario

1. Butler attacks Petersburg on June 9th.  Beauregard strengthens the garrison.

2. Although the II Corps reached the James on the 13th and the rest of the corps arrived the next day, the pontoons arrive late and there aren’t enough transports.

3.  However through uncharacteristic foresight Grant assumes Beauregard has strengthened Petersburg so he commits the entire Army of the Potomac.  Meade commands the movement of troops and attacks Petersburg on June 14th with 100,000 troops.  It is defended by Wise’s 2000 regulars, 2000 militia and 2000 cavalry.

Odds 2-1 in Grant’s favor

Fifth Scenario

1. Butler attacks Petersburg on June 9th.  Beauregard strengthens the garrison.

2. Although the II Corps reached the James on the 13th and the rest of the corps arrived the next day, the pontoons arrive late and there aren’t enough transports.

3.  On May 12th Grant sends the XVIII Corps to Cole’s Landing on the Chickahominy River instead of White House on the Pamunkey.  Rawlins orders Smith to take his time loading the boats so that brigades and divisions are kept together.  The troops land without difficulty in evening of the 13th, a day early.  This gives them time to sort themselves out and rest.  Kautz and his cavalry are also ready.

Grant sends Hancock forward promptly on the morning of the 15th with orders to join Baldy Smith at Petersburg and participate in the attack.

Odds:  1-1 even odds

Sixth Scenario (What really happened)

1. Butler attacks Petersburg on June 9th.  Beauregard strengthens the garrison.

2. Although the II Corps reached the James on the 13th and the rest of the corps arrived the next day, the pontoons arrive late and there aren’t enough transports.

3.  On May 12th Grant sends the XVIII Corps to White House on the Pamunkey.  Rawlins orders Smith to load the boats as fast as possible without regard to organization thus mixing up brigades and divisions are kept together.  The troops land at night in evening of the 14th.  It takes all night to sort the troops out.  They are exhausted.  Kautz and his cavalry are not ready.

Grant tells Butler to send Hancock rations while the corps waits – without sending a staff officer to insure the rations arrive.  He issues Hancock a faulty map and tells him to halt at a creek that isn’t there – and wait for further orders.

Odds:  2-1 against Grant

  1. Article copyright 2012 by Bryce Suderow. Used with permission by the author. No reproduction of this article is permissible without the express written consent of the author.

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