Book Excerpt: The Battle of Petersburg, June 15-18, 1864, Part 7

   

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BattleOfPetersburgJune1864ChickPotomacEditor’s Note: This series of posts offer a look at Sean Chick’s new book The Battle of Petersburg, June 15-18, 1864.  The Battle of Petersburg was part of Grant’s First Offensive against Petersburg. Sean Michael Chick is a 33 year old New Orleans native who has been reading Civil War book since he first saw the film Glory in 1990. He earned a Masters degree in 2007 from Southeastern Louisiana University. His thesis became the basis of The Battle of Petersburg. His tentative future projects include books on Bermuda Hundred, Honey Hill, Tullahoma, and Confederate New Orleans.  In the coming weeks we’ll be offering up several pages of Chapter 3, which focuses on the first day’s fighting on June 15, 1864.    These posts will take readers up to the release of the book in mid-June 2015, 151 years after the events described within.  Also keep an eye out for an exclusive interview with Sean as the last post in the series.  Be sure to check out the bottom of each post to see links for all of the published posts in this series to date.

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NORTH OF THE JAMES RIVER

In the morning, A. P. Hill thought Grant was going to advance on his position. To ascertain more, he sent forward Martin Gary’s cavalry brigade and an infantry brigade led by Brigadier General John R. Cooke. Hill placed this ad hoc division under the care of Major General Henry Heth. They encountered McIntosh’s brigade near White Oak Swamp. The terrain. The Union right was held by the 18th Pennsylvania Cavalry, posted in a rough pine brush. On the left the six companies of the 2nd Ohio Cavalry were deployed as skirmishers. The skirmishers came under fire in an open field, but avoided destruction by using their repeaters to pin the Rebels behind their log emplacements. On the right one mounted squadron of the 18th Pennsylvania made a probe while the men got ready for battle. Cooke managed to press back the 18th Pennsylvania. As they withdrew they had to cross a deep stream, with Company L marching single file down a down tree log. They did so under fire, with Lieutenant Samuel McCormick dying in the retreat. After McCormick’s death, his body was brought back by J. Andrew Wilt. While talking with Lieutenant Colonel William P. Brinton, the regiment commander, a man was seen retreating. When asked by Brinton why he was withdrawing he said his carbine did not work. Brinton had him demonstrate his weapon which worked just fine. The man was brought back to the front by Wilt and Charles Streevy, where he was seriously wounded. Wilt did not see the man again until 1889, when he was a high ranking man in the 18th Pennsylvania Regimental Association.

As the 18th Pennsylvania fell back six reserve companies of the 2nd Ohio were brought up but there was much confusion. They also fell back as the woods caught fire in the fighting. Cooke’s attack fizzled out only once he came under artillery fire, which caused the 18th Pennsylvania to cheer and rally. The regiment though was poorly aligned and that night Company M of the 18th Pennsylvania was bushwacked from the rear. McIntosh’s brigade was bloodied and exhausted. However, the Rebels were not always the one’s attacking. At one point the 3rd New Jersey made an attack down the main road. All in all it was among fiercest cavalry scraps of the war, but it was known to the men who fought in it as the Battle of St. Mary’s Church or White Oak Swamp. Both place names were given to larger battles and as such McIntosh’s scrap was forgotten.

Hill was not the only Confederate officer fighting Wilson. Lee’s only available cavalry division was active. It was led by his son, Major General William Henry Fitzhugh Lee, known as W. H. F. Lee. The outfit was scattered. Brigadier General John R. Chambliss’ brigade was at White House Landing waiting to report on Sheridan’s return from Trevilian Station.  W. H. F. Lee only had one brigade and one battery of artillery; the other five were with Hampton and Fitzhugh Lee. The brigade was led by Brigadier General Rufus Barringer, a brave man but also new to brigade command. Gary’s small brigade, nominally attached to Richmond, was nearby but not under W. H. F. Lee’s direct control. Although W. H. F. Lee drove off Chapman’s horsemen near Malvern Hill he then lost contact and his men could not penetrate Wilson’s screen. All told Wilson lost some one-hundred men on June 15 alone, but also captured scores of prisoners who revealed that Robert E. Lee had entrenched at Fort Darling, on the north side of the James River, indicating that Lee did not understand Grant’s intentions.[i] The prisoners taken by the Rebels were far less forthcoming with information. However, A. P. Hill correctly surmised that all he faced was a cavalry screen, but he did not press the issue with Lee. At any-rate, few would have listened. Hill had been a disappointment in corps command and Lee rarely sought his council.

The fighting on June 15 kept Lee’s thoughts on protecting the capital. He was unwilling to risk the loss of Richmond by moving to Petersburg and leaving Richmond exposed before an aggressive commander like Grant. By the same token, Lee may have feared that Grant wanted to lure him into an ambush, something that Grant had tried after Spotsylvania. Without the bulk of his cavalry or Early’s corps, and with Richmond in danger, Lee became extremely cautious. He wrote that night “Nothing else of importance has occurred to-day.”[ii] Many of his men would agree and they welcomed the respite. They were tired and happy that the weeks of constant contact with Meade and Grant had come to an end. The army was in good spirits but not in good condition. Brigadier General Samuel MacGowan’s South Carolina brigade had lost a mere twenty-five men during the skirmishing after Cold Harbor, but they were exhausted, sickly, and their uniforms were in tatters. The lethargy that effected Grant, Meade, Smith, and Hancock was also preying on the fabled Army of Northern Virginia.

Lee was also possibly wary of moving south to Bermuda Hundred or Petersburg and entering a complicated command situation. Lee out-ranked Beauregard, but Beauregard was in charge of the troops south of the James River and, like most Southern aristocrats, he was prickly over perceived slights to his status. The two were rivals of a sort, although most of the ill feeling came from Beauregard. During the Mexican-American War, Lee was credited for finding the road that permitted Winfield Scott’s victory at Cerro Gordo although it was found by Beauregard. Later in war Beauregard played a key role in planning the capture of Mexico City, Lee remained Scott’s favorite, although the old warrior considered Beauregard to be among the best officers and he accordingly gave him choice assignments before 1861. Beauregard was jealous of Lee, who in turn often sought Beauregard’s services and supported efforts to give him greater responsibilities. In 1863 Lee wanted him to command an ad hoc corps to assist his second invasion of the North. In 1864 Lee wanted Beauregard to serve as his second in command and considered Beauregard his likely successor should the worst befall him. When Davis asked Lee who should command the Army of Tennessee after the defeat at Chattanooga, Lee first suggested Beauregard.

Lee, a master at dealing with Southern aristocrats, had so far merely sent back to Beauregard the forces that Beauregard had loaned him for Cold Harbor. On June 15 Beauregard once again sent Samuel B. Paul to beg for more troops. Lee acquiesced and ordered a brigade of North Carolina troops under Brigadier General Matt Ransom, normally attached to Johnson’s division, to Chaffin’s Bluff on the north-side of the James River. Lee also sent a four battery artillery battalion. It was commanded by Major John Postell Williamson Read, the former chief of police for Savannah and an accomplished gunner. His outfit had been formerly led by Dearing, and was one of the best artillery units in the army. From there, Ransom and Read were ordered south to Petersburg. Lee sent no more. He probably thought these men, combined with Hoke’s division, was enough to hold Petersburg, for his only intelligence was that XVIII Corps might threaten Petersburg. Chambliss’ men had picked up Union prisoners from XVIII Corps. Chambliss reported that Smith was headed for the south side of the James River. In addition, Beauregard could only confirm the existence of the XVIII Corps from prisoners taken in the battle, in particular twenty-two men from the 148th New York.

Beauregard, perhaps frustrated with Lee, was now sending his messages through Bragg, who instead of sending them to Lee, had merely forwarded only those that Beauregard had expressly asked be sent to Lee. Considering his tangled situation, Lee acted prudently on June 15, although he can be faulted for not promptly trying to find Grant. Lee had at least ordered a pontoon bridge to be constructed at Chaffin’s Bluff to facilitate the rapid movement of troops if it was necessary. Yet, without good intelligence, Lee was overly conservative and cautious. His men were on edge. Joseph Benjamin Polley of the 4th Texas, after just receiving a letter from his wife, was ordered to go out on watch. According to Polley picket duty on June 15 was deemed dangerous, probably because a major battle was soon expected. This situation would have played directly into Grant’s hands if the Union command was in top form.

[i]           Page, Letters of a War Correspondent, 122.

[ii]           Richmond Examiner, June 17, 1864.

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