B&L: Operations South of the James River: I. First Attempts to Capture Petersburg by August V. Kautz

   

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UNION BATTERY NEAR DUNN’S HOUSE PETERSBURG. FROM A WAR-TIME PHOTOGRAPH

OPERATIONS SOUTH OF THE JAMES RIVER.1

I. FIRST ATTEMPTS TO CAPTURE PETERSBURG.

BY AUGUST V. KAUTZ, BREVET MAJOR-GENERAL, U. S. A.

The Cavalry Division of the Army of the James was organized in the last days of April, 1864. Through the personal application of Lieutenant-General Grant I was selected and promoted to be Brigadier-General of Volunteers to organize and command it. I found the troops of which it was to be made up encamped in rear of Portsmouth, Va., picketing the line of the Blackwater River, on the 20th of April.(1) As first organized it was arranged as follows : First Brigade, 3d New York, and 1st District of Columbia Cavalry, Colonel S. H. Mix commanding. Second Brigade, 11th and 5th Pennsylvania Cavalry, Colonel S. P. Spear commanding. A section of 3-inch rifles of the 4th Wisconsin Battery was temporarily assigned. The division numbered less than 2800 men, all told.

When I reported to General Butler he informed me what he expected the division to do after it should be organized. Its task was to cut the Weldon Railroad, and this was to be done by crossing the Blackwater at Franklin, and proceeding direct to Hicksford and destroying the large bridge across the Meherrin River at that point; the object being to delay reenforcements from the south while the Army of the James was making a lodgment at Bermuda Hundred and City Point. While organizing the division I studied up the situation, and at the end of a week I reported to General Butler that I

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(1)Previous operations in south-eastern Virginia have been referred to by General Longstreet in Vol. III., p. 244, and in the foot-note, p. 265. General John J. Peck, whoso division of the Fourth Army Corps (Keyes’s) remained on the Peninsula when the Army of the Potomac was withdrawn (see p. 438, Vol. II.), and who took command at Suffolk soon after, gives the following account of events on the Nansemond and the Blackwater, between September, 1862, and May, 1863 [see map, p. 494]:

” On the 22d September, 18(52, I was ordered to Suffolk, with about 9000 men, to repel the advance of Generals Pettigrew and French from the Blackwater with 15,000(5000] men. . . . Situated at the head of the Nansemond River, with the railway to Petersburg and Weldon, Suffolk is the key to all the approaches to the mouth of the James River on the north of the Dismal Swamp. Regarding the James as second only in importance to the Mississippi for the Confederates, … I prepared a system, and on the 25th commenced Fort Dix. . . . My labors alarmed the authorities at Richmond, who believed I was preparing a base for a grand movement upon the rebel capital, and the whole of the Blackwater was fortified, as well as Cypress Swamp and Birchen and Chipoak rivers. This line rests upon the James, near Fort Powhatan. About the 20th of February Lieuteuant-General Longstreet was detached from Lee’s army, and placed in command of the Department of Virginia (and North Carolina], with headquarters at Petersburg; of his corps 15,000 [12,000] were on the Blackwater, and 15,000 [12,000] between Petersburg and the river, near the railway. This distribution enabled him to concentrate in twenty-four hours within a few miles of Suffolk. . . . Early in April deserters reported troops moving to the Blackwater; that many bridges were being constructed ; and that a pontoon-train had arrived from Petersburg.”

On the 17th of April, 1863, Longstreet wrote to the Secretary of War regarding his operations on the Blackwater as follows:

“I am very well convinced that we could reduce it [Suffolk] in two or three days, but doubt if we can afford to expend the powder and ball. To take it by assault would cost us three thousand men. . . The principal object of the expedition was to draw out supplies for our army. I shall confine myself to this unless I find a fair opportunity for something more.”

On the 30th of April Longstreet was ordered to rejoin Lee with his command, and on the 4th of May he withdrew his whole force across the Blackwater. There is no report by General Longstreet on file. General John A. Dix, commanding the Department of Virginia, which, included General Peck’s command, reported to General Halleck on the 23d of May :

” On April 11th the enemy suddenly advanced with a large force commanded by Lieutenant-General Longstreet, which had been quietly assembled on the Blackwater, intending to take Suffolk by assault; but finding the place well prepared for defense, after repeated unsuccessful attempts on our lines, in all of which he was signally repulsed, he sat down before it and commenced an investment according to the most unproved principles of military science.”

The chief engagements during the siege were an attack, April 14th, by the Confederate land batteries on the gunboats in the Nansemond, and the capture, April 19th, of Battery Huger, at the mouth of the West Branch, by a combined force from the Union army and navy, under General George W. Getty and Lieutenant R.H. Lamson, commanding the flotilla in the upper Nansemond. The force under General Longstreet at the time of the closest investment numbered 20,000. March 31st, General Peck had 15,000, and April 30th nearly 25,000.— Editors.

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did not consider the task laid out a feasible one with the means at my command.  The reasons I advanced were considered good, and the duty then assigned to us was to destroy the bridges across Stony Creek and the Nottoway River, which I thought we could do by rapid marching, and by heading the Blackwater.

The command moved on the 5th of May, and one the afternoon of the 7th reached Stony Creek Station and captured the guard, of about fifty men

MAJOR-GENERAL M. C. BUTLER, C. 8. A.
FROM A PHOTOGRAPH.

of the Holcombe Legion, under Major M. G. Zeigler, and the same evening destroyed the bridge, station, water-tank, railroad buildings and cars, and a large amount of railroad material, as well as a good portion of the track. On the 8th the bridge across the Nottoway was burned, and also Jarrett’s Station and water-tank, and the track was torn up between Jarrett’s and the bridge. The bridge was fortified and had a strong guard, under Colonel W. B. Tabb of the 59th Virginia, which might have prevented us from burning the bridge. The division reached City Point on the 10th, with about 130 prisoners, having seriously impeded the movement of the Confederate reinforcements moving north under General Beauregard.

On the 11th the division crossed to Bermuda Hundred, and on the 12th moved out under cover of the advance of the Army of the James on Drewry’s Bluff, and the same night reached Coalfield and destroyed the station and railroad property and tore up the track, thus cutting the Danville road ten miles from Richmond. On the 12th we moved to Powhatan Station, and burnt it and a train loaded with bacon and forage. Mattoax bridge, across the Appomattox, we found fortified and too strongly guarded to justify an attempt to capture it, and the march was continued to Chula Station. During the night of the 13th we destroyed it and tore up a portion of the track. On the 14th we crossed over to the Petersburg and Lynchburg Railroad, and destroyed the stations of Wilson’s, Blacks and Whites, and Wellville, and tore up more or less of the track. On the 15th and l6th we marched upon Hicksford and threatened that point, but found it too strongly fortified and guarded; but the concentration at that point enabled us to pass without molestation at Jarrett’s, where we found a new water-tank, replacing the one destroyed a week before, and which, in turn, we destroyed. The division reached City Point again on the 17th, with about fifty prisoners, all very much worn and fatigued. We had marched from forty to fifty miles daily for about two weeks, and heavy rains during the last week had greatly embarrassed the command. The loss of the division during this time was, as officially reported, 14 killed, 60 wounded, and 27missing. The moral effect on the enemy of having all the railroads from the south into Richmond interrupted at one time, was, perhaps, the principal justification for the extraordinary exertion and expense incurred.

On the night of the 8th of June, General Butler having perfected a plan for the capture of Petersburg, the cavalry moved in conjunction with a brigade of white troops under Colonel J. R. Hawley and a part of Hinks’s colored division ; the whole commanded by General Gillmore. [See p. 148.] The infantry was expected to threaten Petersburg from the City Point road, while the cavalry made a detour to the Jerusalem plank-road, where the enemy’s line was believed to be weak. It was agreed that if the cavalry carried this line, General Gillmore was to assault the line in his front. The distance the cavalry had to march took up more time than was anticipated, and the line was not carried until just before noon of the 9th, and General Gillmore, having exhausted his patience, was far on his way back to City Point at that time.(1) The line, where the Jerusalem road entered it, was held by about two hundred Second Class militia, and was easily carried, and had the infantry been at hand to support the cavalry Petersburg could have been taken and held at this time. The Cavalry Division, however, had only about thirteen hundred serviceable men on this occasion, and could not hold the advantage gained without sufficient infantry support. The advance penetrated to the water-works, where it was confronted by a battery in position, and the rear of the cavalry was threatened by the enemy holding the line on the City Point front, and was therefore compelled to retire with the captured prisoners, and returned to Bermuda Hundred, where we arrived after dark. Shortly after this affair General Gillmore was relieved from the command of the Tenth Corps.

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(1) General A. A. Humphreys, in “The Virginia Campaign of ’64 and ’65,” page 197, says that General Kautz attacked the intrenchments at half-past eleven, and that at half-past one General Gillmore, “receiving no communication from General Kautz during the day,” withdrew from the front of the intrenchments and began his return march to City Point at 3 o’clock.—Editors.

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On the 15th of June, the Eighteenth Corps under General W. F. Smith having rejoined Butler, after its detachment to Cold Harbor, another effort was made to take Petersburg, with this difference in the plan, that while the cavalry should distract the enemy as much as possible in the direction of the Jerusalem plank-road, the Eighteenth Corps was to carry the line on the City Point side. The cavalry, having driven in the enemy’s pickets on the City Point road, moved to the left and was engaged the entire day exposed mainly to artillery fire, without, any apparent action on the part of the Eighteenth Corps. We believed ourselves again deserted, and at seven in the evening the cavalry was withdrawn, and the column was just fairly on the return when the noise of the assault so long expected broke upon us about four miles to our right. It was all over in a few moments, and, as we subsequently learned, General Smith had carried the entire line in his front. The Army of the Potomac began to arrive on the night of the 15th, and was on hand to support the Eighteenth Corps in the position it had captured.

On the 20th I received orders to report to General James H. Wilson for the purpose of cooperating in his raid against the Danville Railroad. At 2 o’clock on the morning of the 22d the Cavalry Division of the Army of the James took the advance, with orders to proceed, via Reams’s Station on the Weldon Railroad, to Sutherland’s Station on the South-side Railroad. Reams’s Station was captured at 7 in the morning, but General W. H. F. Lee with the Confederate cavalry was found to be encamped on our route to Sutherland’s, and that route involved a battle that might have been fatal to the object of the expedition even if Lee had been beaten. The head of the column was therefore directed south, as if the Weldon road were the object of the expedition. We marched eight miles south, and then turned west to Dinwiddie Court House, and then north through Five Forks, and evening found us on the South-side road between Sutherland’s and Ford’s stations with the enemy’s cavalry in front. This was the initial success of the raid, for it enabled us to get inside of the enemy’s line and to accomplish the object of the expedition. A battle might, and probably would, have caused our immediate return. The Cavalry Division of the Army of the James remained on the advance, down the Richmond and Danville Railroad, which was destroyed for a distance of thirty miles. When the command started on the return, the division brought up the rear until the advance was confronted by the enemy’s forces at Stony Creek, when it took the advance to Reams’s Station, where, also, it was confronted by the enemy on the morning of the 29th. By noon it was becoming evident that we were being surrounded, and General Wilson decided to retreat the way we came, and I was directed by him to bring up the rear with my division. Before my command could get on the road Wilson’s lines were broken by two brigades of Hampton’s cavalry under General M. C. Butler, and I decided to retreat on a different line with my command. Keeping in the timbered region to the south-east, we were soon out of the enemy’s range, and then changed direction to the north-east, and by 9 P. M. went into camp within the lines of the Army of the Potomac. General Wilson retreated by Jarrett’s Station and came in at Cabin Point on the James, several days after. The successful destruction of the Danville road was quite equaled by our retreat after being almost completely surrounded. The loss of the division in this remarkable raid was about five hundred in killed, wounded, and missing, quite one-fourth of the command. The official table prepared in the War Department shows the loss of the division from June 15th to 30th, inclusive, to have been 48 killed, 153 wounded, and 429 captured or missing = 630.(1)

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(1) In his official report of the operations of June 28th and 29th General Wade Hampton says:

“The pursuit of the enemy, which ended near Peters’s bridge, closed the active operations which began on June 8th, when the movement against Sheridan [see p. 233] commenced. During that time, a period of twenty-two days, the command had no rest, was badly supplied with rations and forage, marched upward of four hundred miles, fought the greater portion of six days and one entire night, captured upward of 2000 prisoners, many guns, small-arms, wagons, horses, and other materials of war, and was completely successful in defeating two of the most formidable and well-organized expeditions of the enemy. This was accomplished at a cost in my division of 719 killed, wounded, and missing. . . .”  Editors.

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Source:

  1. Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume 4, pages 533-535

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