B&L: Butler’s Attack on Drewry’s Bluff by W. M. Farrar Smith

   

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in Bermuda Hundred Campaign

BUTLER’S ATTACK ON DREWRY’S BLUFF. 1
BY W. M. FARRAR SMITH, BREVET MAJOR-GENERAL, U. S. A.

A FIFTEEN INCH GUN.

ON the 31st of March, 1864, General Grant left Washington on a steamer to go and make the acquaintance of General B. F. Butler, then in command at Fort Monroe, and to determine for himself by personal observation if General Butler should be left in command of the force that was to operate from the Yorktown Peninsula in connection with the contemplated overland movement against Richmond. General Grant arrived at Fort Monroe on the morning of April 1st, went at once with General Butler to Norfolk, and satisfied himself during the day that it was proper to leave the command of the department in the hands of General Butler . Just as General Grant was about to leave Fort Monroe to return to Washington, about sunset of the evening of the 1st of April, a violent gale sprang up and detained his vessel at the wharf during that night and the next day. On the morning of the 2d General Grant went ashore, and General Butler then developed his idea of a campaign by making a landing in the ” bottle” formed at Bermuda Hundred by the James and Appomattox rivers, and by operating from that position on the enemy in rear of Richmond.(1) The plan was at once adopted. General Grant returned to Washington, leaving a letter of instructions dated Fort Monroe, April 2d, in which he said :

” When you are notified to move, take City Point with as much force as possible. Fortify, or rather intrench, at once and concentrate all your troops for the field there as rapidly as you can.
From City Point directions cannot be given at this time for your further movements. The fact that has been already stated-that is, that Richmond is to be your objective point, and that there is to be cooperation between your force and the Army of the Potomac – must be your guide. This indicates the necessity of your holding close to the south bank of the James River as you advance. Then should the enemy be forced into his intrenchments in Richmond the Army of the Potomac would follow, and by means of transports the two armies would become a unit.”

Had the order directing that City Point should be taken “with as much force as possible” been construed to mean the whole force under General Butler,

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(1) On April 1st Butler disclosed to me his plan of landing at Bermuda Hundred. Having only reported to him two or three hours before, I did not like to say anything against the movement, or about my opinion that the first move should be for Petersburg. On April 2d, when General Grant came ashore, Butler got out his maps and sent for me. Not liking to oppose the campaign in Butler’s presence, I did not go, but thought Gr ant would have some talk with me about it. He did not, but sat down and wrote Butler’s instructions which , Butler understood as indorsing his plan entirely, and so I thought and still think from the text of them. After that of course I said nothing. After the movement, and our first move on Petersburg from Bermuda Hundred, Gillmore and I united in a letter to General Butler, telling him that Petersburg must be taken from the other side, and that he ought to bridge the Appomattox at the Point of Rocks so that we could cross there and get at Petersburg from the east. Butler declined, and said he was not going to build a bridge for West Point men to retreat over. After that we offered no advice.– W. F. S.

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the campaign would have been entirely changed f or the better, and any movement toward Richmond must have been by way of Petersburg, which was a vital strategic point, while the sequel will show that the position at Bermuda Hundred, though excellent for defensive purposes, was not properly situated for offensive action.

Butler moved on the 5th of May in accordance with his own plan, with the Tenth and Eighteenth corps and the cavalry of the department, numbering in all about forty thousand men, landed at Bermuda Hundred, leaving a small force at City Point, and marched to the neck of land between the James and the Appomattox rivers. General Butler in his plan of campaign was tempted by the short line between the rivers, and taking into account only the ease with which this line could be defended, forgot certain elements of great importance in an offensive campaign.

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MAJOR-GENERAL JOHN A. DIX. FROM A PHOTOGRAPH.

General Dix took command at Fort Monroe on June 2, 1862, and was relieved by General John G. foster, July 18, 1863, and sent to succeed General Wool at New York City, where the draft riots had been in progress.  General Foster was relieved at Fort Monroe by General Butler, November 11, 1863.

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The James River will never again present such a scene as that of the 5th of May, 1864. An army of forty thousand men was afloat on its waters, convoyed by various vessels of the navy, then under command of Admiral Lee. It was a motley array of vessels. Coasters and river steamers, ferry-boats and tugs, screw and side-wheel steamers, sloops, schooners, barges, and canal-boats raced or crawled up the stream toward the designated landing. General Butler, to make his own command a perfect unit, had improvised for his own purposes a volunteer navy under the command of General C. K. Graham, an ex-navy officer, who, scorning the slow and steady progress of the admiral’s squadron, took the lead, followed by the fastest transports in what seemed to be some grand national pageant. Fortunately no torpedoes or masked batteries checked General Butler’s commodore, and by sunset a brigade had been landed at Bermuda Hundred above the mouth of the Appomattox River, and by 9 o’clock of the morning of the 6th

of May the Tenth and Eighteenth corps were in position on the line from Walthall’s Landing on the Appomattox across to the James, and the work of intrenching called for by General Grant’s letter of April 2d was begun, but not in the specified place. The line taken up was about three and a half miles in length. Richmond was on the right and Petersburg on the left. The distance between the two cities was by the turnpike about twenty-one miles.

From the center of the lines to the turnpike was about two miles, and from there to Petersburg about seven miles, with two unfordable streams, Swift Creek and the Appomattox, intervening. Richmond, the objective of the army, was covered by the works at Drewry’s Bluff, a little over four miles from our lines, and by the James River.  Practically, the position taken up was between two fortresses with wet ditches. In this campaign, whichever way the Army of the James moved, it was weakened by two paralyzed forces, one holding the line of intrenchments, and one necessarily posted to cover the rear from the works in that direction. The colored troops, Hinks’s division of infantry, nominally attached to the Eighteenth Corps, and some cavalry were left at City Point-for what purpose, unless to keep the letter of the order of April 2d, it is hard to understand. In the movements of the campaign they might as well have been back in Fort Monroe. Though they were wanting in drill, discipline, and actual service in the field, they had many excellent officers and a division commander who united to great bravery much experience and the ability to take advantage of it.

On the 9th of May the two corps were ordered out in the direction of Petersburg. The enemy were easily driven back to Swift Creek, a distance of four and a half miles, and the railroad and turnpike bridges were reached. The stream was very narrow and with steep banks, and no crossing was possible except by a bridge. Both bridges were guarded by artillery and infantry.  The railroad bridge, being only covered with ” ties,” was impassable in the face of opposition, even by infantry. After several hours spent in ineffectual efforts to find a crossing place which offered a fair prospect of forcing a passage, General Gillmore, commanding the Tenth Corps, and myself met for consultation, and united in a letter advising General Butler that if Petersburg was to be taken, the proper way was to throw a bridge across the Appomattox behind our lines and, crossing there, to assault the works at Petersburg f rom the east. General Butler’s written answer disapproved of the suggestion ; his spoken criticism was of such a character as to check voluntary advice during the remainder of the campaign. [See p. 206.] The army remained that night in its position on Swift Creek.  On the 10th rumors were current of a large force coming from Richmond, and under General Butler’s orders the troops fell back to the shelter of the intrenchments.

On the night of the 11th of May instructions were received from General Butler for a movement at daybreak of the 12th in the direction of Richmond. The two white divisions of the Eighteenth Corps, with the exception of the force necessary to leave in the lines, reenforced by a division of the Tenth Corps, were to move out on the turnpike. General Gillmore, with the remainder of his command, was to hold the road from Petersburg. As soon

as the Eighteenth Corps had passed Chester Station on the railroad, General Kautz was to move with his cavalry on the Danville road, destroying as much as possible of it. The colored division under General Hinks was to move up from City Point to Point of Rocks on the right bank of the Appomattox. The movement began shortly after daylight on the 12th , and General Weitzel in the advance on the turnpike began skirmishing shortly after leaving our lines, and steadily advanced until Red House or Red Water Creek was reached, when two pieces of artillery opened fire on him. These were driven away, and the creek was crossed and the line formed beyond it. Finding that the whole front of General Weitzel was covered by the enemy’ s skirmishers his command was thrown to the right of the turnpike and six regiments of the reserve division were deployed on the left. This line was pressed forward, but the advance was slow, for on the left were a dense thicket and marshy ground extending from Red House in the direction of Proctor’s Creek. As the entire line did not outflank the enemy’s skirmishers there (but late in the day) General Gillmore with three brigades came up and took position on the left and the troops bivouacked in the rain. During the night another brigade was thrown to the left in order to give General Gillmore sufficient force to make a flank movement around the head of Proctor’s Creek.

BREVET MAJOR-GENERAL JOSEPH R. HAWLEY.

FROM A PHOTOGRAPH.

Early on the morning of the 13th a brigade of GeneraL Brooks’s division pushed forward and seized a hill beyond Cattle Run, overlooking the enemy’s position on the left bank of Proctor’s Creek. This cleared the country and allowed our line to press Forward and re-form beyond Proctor’s Creek at the Halfway House. In front was a line of woods. Pushing the line forward, the skirmishers found themselves on the outer edge of the woods in front of the heavy works at Drewry’s Bluff. Strong profiles, with an outside ditch extending for over a mile, were in sight. Numerous embrasures were filled with Artillery, and the ground had been cleared for a space of from 300 to 700 yards, which was entirely swept by the artillery in the works. A close reconnaissance by myself led me to report to General Butler that if the line were held in force by the enemy, it could not be carried by assault; that my troops were formed for an attack, and that I awaited orders to that effect.

Shortly after this news was received that General Gillmore had turned the enemy’s outer works and held their extreme right. I was ordered to remain in my position. At daylight on the 14th skirmishers were ordered forward, and

those of General Turner on my left soon occupied the enemy’s works in their front. The right of General Brooks and all of the front of General Weitzel’s command could make no impression upon the enemy’s skirmishers. General Brooks’s left occupied a portion of the line of works which Turner’s command had entered. General Weitzel’s advance through the woods had discovered a bastion salient on an eminence completely commanding Weitzel’s position.

The works on the enemy’s left fell back to the James River and Drewry’s Bluff, and on the right extended on the north-west beyond any point we could see. The prong or arm of the work which General Gillmore had turned, and which Turner and Brooks had entered, was like the spoke of a wheel, and started from the bastion salient before mentioned. A heavy fire of artillery was opened on Weitzel’s lines from this salient, which he soon after checked by sharp-shooters. The day was spent in reconnaissances, and an assault ordered by General Butler was abandoned for the want of disposable troops to form a column.

On the morning of the 15th my position gave cause for anxiety. On my right, extending to the river and up to Drewry’s Bluff, was an open, undulating country more than a mile in width, and offering every facility for the movement of a heavy column on our right and rear. This was covered by 150 mounted men of the colo ed cavalry. My troops were all in one thin line without reserves. I succeeded in getting two additional regiments to cover a road on my right and rear.
During the afternoon of the 15th I went with Generals Weitzel and Heckman to a farm-house about one hundred yards to the right and front of Heckman’s command, forming Weitzel’s right. This house [Willis’s ?] was situated on a knoll opposite the flank of the bastion before mentioned, and commanded a good view of the country between us and the James River . This f arm-house I ordered to be heavily occupied by the reserves of the pickets. On reporting my weak and exposed condition to General Butler, I was informed that three regiments were at the Half-way House which could be used as a reserve.

During the day I had instructed Generals Brooks and Weitzel to gather telegraph wire from the turnpike road and stretch it among the stumps in their front.(1) I left the farm-house after midnight, and returned to my headquarters a short time before daylight. All was quiet at that time and the moon was shining bright. Shortly after, I was aroused by a heavy musketry and artillery fire on my right. [See p. 201.] On going out I found a fog so dense that a horseman was not visible fifteen yards away. I established my headquarters on the turnpike as the only place where I could be found in the fog, communicatedrooks and Weitzel, sent a request to General Butler to order Gillmore e to make an attack in his front and ordered two of the , reserve regiments at the Half-way House to march to the assistance of my right. I also sent orders for the artillery on the front to be withdrawn, as

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(1)In 1883 General Butler claimed the credit for the use of the wire, and intimated that in Heck- man’s case his order with reference to it was not carried out. The fact is, there was not wire enough to go around. Brooks and one brigade of Weitzel were so near the enemy that I was fearful they might be run over. Heckman was not in such danger of a sudden rush, and so the wire was used in the direct front in contact with the enemy.-W. F. S.

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the fog was so dense that it was of no use and was in danger of capture.

The order did not reach some of the guns most exposed until it was too late , as the bearer of the message was killed. It must be understood that the guns had to be removed by hand, as they were too close to the enemy to keep horses in the vicinity. The two reserve regiments, the 112th New York and the 9th Maine, arrived on the right in time to check a force of the enemy that was moving on our rear. While this was going on the enemy made furious assaults on the brigades of Wistar and Burnham in my front. It was impossible to get any information from personal observation ; fortunately the dense fog also hindered any intelligent movement of the enemy. (General Weitzel soon reported to me a movement of the enemy still farther on his right, and as such a movement directly threatened our communications, my artillery,-which had been withdrawn and which was without supports,- my ammunition train, and our lines at Bermuda Hundred, which had been left but feebly defended, I immediately ordered a retirement of the whole line, sending word to the right division of the Tenth Corps to conform to the movement in order to keep up the connection between the two corps. While this movement was going on [about 9 A. M.] the fog lifted and enabled me to watch out for my right; and having rallied those troops of Heckman’s brigade that had not been captured, I ordered an advance which, however, by some mistake in the information he received, was not begun by General Weitzel. At this time I learned that the connection with the Tenth Corps had been broken, and then gave up the idea of an advance to recover my lines.

MAJOR-GENERAL GODFREY WEITZEL.

FROM A PHOTOGRAPH.

I then moved my entire line to the right to cover the turnpike and country road parallel to it, and again advanced for the purpose of recovering some of my wounded. The advance was maintained until a line of battle was met in the woods and the enemy was develop

In obedience to the orders of General Butler, I then began to retire across Proctor’s Creek to return to the intrenchments. The Tenth Corps, which had not been ordered to make a diversion in the early morning, was at that time across the turnpike in r ear of Proctor’s Creek to cover the crossing of the Eighteenth Corps. Without further molestation, both corps reentered the historic bottle, which was at once carefully corked by a Confederate earth-work.

Of the details of the fight sustained by the Eighteenth Corps on the 16th a few may be given. Brooks and Weitzel report that not a man was driven

from their lines in front ; that the enemy in falling over the telegraph wire were slaughtered like partridges. General Weitzel says, May 22d, 1864: ” The four regiments of Heckman’s brigade were crushed by the attack, but there was no surprise on account of the fog, as the whole line was in line of battle and prepared for the shock, having several times received warning from the farm-house. The other seven regiments of my line did not move until, after they had twice repulsed the enemy with terrible slaughter,-he being piled in heaps over the telegraph wire,- they were ordered to fall back.” In his report of May 29th General Weitzel adds : ” Have just received full files of Richmond papers from 16th to 28th. The force that attacked my division was six brigades of infantry, one unattached regiment of infantry, and three batteries of artillery, all under Major-General Ransom. His entire loss was near three thousand by official lists. They have about five hundred of my own men prisoners. General Heckman, who was captured in the fight, sends word that Gillmore could easily have gone in. They speak of the wire as a devilish contrivance which none but a Yankee could devise.” Ransom’s division was demoralized by their repulse. Butler, on May 27th, 1864, says : “The number of Beauregard’s wounded is 3040, which is considerably more than ours.  We lost about 4500 in the two corps, of whom 1478 were missing.” The Eighteenth Corps at Drewry’s Bluff was composed of three and a half brigades stretched out in one thin line, with a mile of unguarded open country on its right. Against this force Beauregard brought seven brigades. It is the old story of masses thrown against a weak point. It is true that on this occasion the logical result did not follow, but the movement was skillfully planned, was as well carried out as circumstances would allow, and was a partial success. Beauregard’s original plan contemplated the aid of a division from Petersburg. What changes that might have made in the result had it come on the field opportunely it is not pleasant to contemplate.

Had the instructions of April 2d of General Grant been strictly carried out, and had Petersburg been promptly attacked on the 6th of May, it would doubtless have fallen, and the Southern lines of communication would have been at the mercy of General Butler. He could then have waited patiently to be attacked, and the plum he so longed for might have dropped into his mouth. At any rate Lee could not have remained north of Richmond.

Between a good plan of campaign and a faulty one, in this case, was only the width of a river, and the taking of the wrong bank of the Appomattox for a line of operations brought the campaign to a most lame and impotent conclusion in twelve days, including the day of leaving Fort Monroe.

On the 13th of May General Sheridan with his cavalry corps arrived at the James River opposite Bermuda Hundred. On the 14th he came to my headquarters and went with me to visit my lines. I pointed out to him my exposed right flank, and gave him a history of the campaign made by the Army of the James to that date, expressed my anxiety as to the future, and requested him on his return to the headquarters of General Grant to say to him for me that, in my opinion, the interests of the country would be best forwarded by withdrawing General Butler’s army within its strong lines- leaving with him sufficient force to defend himself, and sending the remainder of the command to reenforce the Army of the Potomac.

Source:

  1. Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume 4, pages 206-212

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