MHSM Papers V5: Crossing of the James and First Assault Upon Petersburg, June 12-15,1864 by Frank E. Peabody

   

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in Volume 5

VI

CROSSING OF THE JAMES AND FIRST ASSAULT UPON PETERSBURG, JUNE 12-15,18641

BY

FRANK E. PEABODY, ESQ.

Read before the Society, April 3,1900

CROSSING OF THE JAMES AND FIRST ASSAULT UPON PETERSBURG, JUNE 12-15,1864

After the unsuccessful assaults at Cold Harbor, June 3, 1864, the problem of the next move of the Army of the Potomac was an important one. The Chickahominy and White Oak Swamp protected Lee’s right from any short flanking movement; and the country at his immediate left, intersected by the Totopotomoy and its swampy branches, was almost equally unpromising for any short movement in that direction.

The possible larger movements of the army are well discussed in General Grant’s letter to General Halleck, written from Cold Harbor, June 5. He says:(1)

“A full survey of all the ground satisfies me that it would be impracticable to hold a line northeast of Richmond that would protect the Fredericksburg Railroad to enable us to use that road for supplying the army. To do so would give us a long vulnerable line of road to protect, exhausting much of our strength to guard it, and would leave open to the enemy all of his lines of communication on the south side of the James. My idea has been from the start to beat Lee’s army if possible north of Richmond; then after destroying his lines of communication on the north side of the James River, to transfer the army to the south side and besiege Lee in Richmond, or follow him south if he should retreat. . . .

“I will continue to hold substantially the ground now occupied by the Army of the Potomac, taking advantage of any favorable circumstance that may present itself until the cavalry can be sent west to destroy the Virginia Central Railroad from above Beaver Dam for some twenty-five or thirty

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(1) Grant’s Memoirs, vol. ii, 279.

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miles west. When this is effected I will move the army to the south side of the James River. . . .

“Once on the south side of the James River, I can cut off all sources of supply to the enemy except what is furnished by the canal.”

In a word, investing Richmond on the north side would have exposed Grant’s line of supply without threatening that of Lee; while the other course left Grant’s communications secure from attack, and menaced those of Richmond and the Confederate Army.

To avoid a digression at a more inconvenient point, let me mention here the advance of General Hunter up the Shenandoah Valley, under orders(1) to “get to Charlottesville and Lynchburg” if possible. His army was at Staunton,(2) on the 8th of June, having been joined by the forces under Crook and Averell,(3) and was about 18,000 strong in total. On the 10th of June, he started for Lynchburg (but, unfortunately, not via Charlottesville). To meet this threatening movement against that important source of supplies, Lee sent from his army,(4) first the division of Breckinridge, and, on the 13th, the corps of Early, — a serious detachment from General Lee’s army confronting Grant’s.

General Sheridan(5) was ordered to move on the morning of the 7th of June, with two divisions of the cavalry corps, to Charlottesville and destroy the railroad bridge over the Rivanna near that town; to “thoroughly destroy the railroad from that point to Gordonsville, and from Gordonsville toward Hanover Junction, and to the latter point if practicable ;” on completion of this duty to rejoin the army.

General Sheridan started upon this duty, which proved rather a large contract. He commenced destroying the Virginia Central Railroad, between Louisa Court House and Tre-

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(1) 69 W. R. 183.

(2) Va. Camp. 195.

(3) Pond S. V. 28.

(4) Pond S. V. 35.

(5) 69 W. R. 629.

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vilian Station, but was attacked June 11 by the bulk of Lee’s cavalry under Hampton.

A tactical victory for Sheridan resulted;(1) but with such expenditure of ammunition that he judged it imprudent to continue the destruction of the railroad toward Gordonsville and Charlottesville, which would probably bring on another general engagement and leave him short of ammunition to get home with. After some further destruction of the railroad in the immediate vicinity, he started on his return via Spottsylvania Court House and White House. The expedition, while unsuccessful in destroying the line of railroad, had the important result of enforcing the absence of General Lee’s cavalry during the important movements of which this paper treats.

To return to the movements of the main armies: —

On the night of June 5, the Fifth Corps was withdrawn from the lines at Cold Harbor, and took position in reserve at Leary’s, two miles in rear.

On June 8, General Grant directed a line to be marked out and partially fortified, to be held while the army was withdrawing.(2) This was finished on the 11th of June, and extended from Elder Swamp to Allen’s Mill Pond.(3)

On the evening of the 10th of June, General Warren’s Corps was ordered to move next day to Moody’s (about four miles from Bottom Bridge), taking care to avoid the observation of the enemy.(4)

On the 11th the orders were issued for the movement to the James River the night of the 12th; the Eighteenth Corps (W. F. Smith) to make a rapid march to Cole’s Ferry (afterward changed to White House), with infantry alone, leaving wagons and artillery to accompany the balance of the army, and embark for City Point, losing no time for rest.(5)

The Fifth Corps (Warren) to seize Long Bridge and move out on the Long Bridge to its junction with the Quaker Road.(6)

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(1) Sheridan’s Memoirs.

(2) 69 W. R. 695.

(3) Va. Camp. 196.

(4) Va. Camp. 196.

(5) 69 W. R. 745.

(6) Va. Camp. 427.

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The Ninth Corps (Burnside) to cross the Chickahominy at Jones’s Bridge, and take a road passing east of Charles City Court House.

The Second Corps to withdraw to the intrenched line in rear (before mentioned), and with the Sixth Corps to hold it until the Fifth should leave the road free; when the Second Corps was to follow the Fifth, crossing at Long Bridge, and the Sixth to take the same route as the Ninth via Jones’s Bridge.

Wilson’s Cavalry was to precede Warren and move out on the Long Bridge Road, covering the infantry. One brigade of the cavalry, however, was to cover the rear of the army and trains, which latter crossed the Chickahominy lower down than the infantry.

The movement was made as ordered, without serious interruptions, Wilson securing the crossing at Long Bridge at 9 o’clock p. M. June 12, and taking the position which the Fifth Corps was to occupy on the Long Bridge Road ; Warren’s infantry relieving him from this duty on the morning of June 13.(1)

The position occupied by the Fifth Corps, covering and masking the movements of the balance of the army, was happily chosen (I think at the instance of General Humphreys, chief-of-staff, Army of the Potomac). It was well out toward the probable position of the enemy, and yet not so far as to be exposed to attack in its right rear by the road crossing the W7hite Oak Swamp. General Lee, too, would not probably dare to push his infantry past this large force to the south of it, in any attempt to find out what the Army of the Potomac was doing.

The advance of the army, the Second Corps, reached the vicinity of Wilcox’s Landing late in the afternoon of the 13th.(2)

The Sixth Corps camped south of the Chickahominy, and the Ninth on the north side of Jones’s Bridge.

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(1) 69 W. R. 747.

(2) 81 W. R. 3.

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General Humphreys says that these marches proved very long and exhausting.(1)

June 14

The Second Corps was ordered, at 8.30 A. M., to commence crossing the James, using transports which had been ordered to this point from Bermuda Hundred and elsewhere.(2)

Bridge material for a pontoon bridge had been sent from Washington to Fort Monroe at the commencement of the campaign, in anticipation that the army would cross the James ; and at Cold Harbor General Grant had ordered it up to General Butler’s army, so that it was on hand when wanted. The bridge was built under the direction of Major James C. Duane, and at 10.50 P. M. General Benham, commanding engineers, reported it ready.(3) The point selected for the crossing of the James, though the river was here twenty-one hundred feet across, was the best available east of the vicinity of Malvern Hill. The latter would have been exposed to the observation of the enemy, and very likely, also, to interruption by him. The balance of the army continued its march to the James River without interruption by the enemy.

I find very little to guide me in the detail of the movements of the Confederate Army during these two days just described. As has been previously mentioned, Early’s Corps was detached on the 13th to go against General Hunter, who was then near Lynchburg. The balance of the army left its trenches at Cold Harbor, crossed the Chickahominy, and took up a line extending roughly from the White Oak Swamp to Malvern Hill.

We now see how General Lee was embarrassed by having sent his cavalry after Sheridan, and by the absence of Early’s Corps. He had not mounted force enough left to drive in Wilson and develop the position of the infantry of the Army of the Potomac; nor could he move his infantry forward for this purpose without great risk of bringing on a battle in the

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(1) Va. Camp. 202.

(2) 81 W. R. 24.

(3) 81 W. R. 23.

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open, which he could not at all afford. He completely lost touch of the Union Army, and, so late as 4.30 p. M., June 17, telegraphed General Beauregard : “Have no information of Grant’s crossing James River, but upon your report have ordered troops up to Chaffin’s Bluff.”(1)

Beauregard had had his hands full at Petersburg for nearly three days, and the bulk of Grant’s army was then before him. It should be said, however, that Beauregard had commenced to cry “wolf ” several days too soon — even before the battle of Cold Harbor;(2) so that his really accurate information of Grant’s crossing was disbelieved by Lee, in spite of the fact that it was the best move that Grant could make, and the one that should have been looked for, therefore, as the most probable.

To return to the Union Army and the doings of the 14th June: General Grant took a steamer to Bermuda Hundred, to arrange with General Butler for an attack on Petersburg on the morning of the 15th, by the Eighteenth Corps (General W. F. Smith), which arrived at Bermuda Hundred on transports from White House late in the afternoon. Grant returned to Wilcox’s Landing about 1 o’clock. Later in the day he sent the following letter to General Butler: —

“Near Charles City Court House, June 14,8 p. M.” General B. F. Butler, Com’d’g. etc.

“General Hancock’s Corps, numbering about 28,000 men, will be all over to the south side of the James River at Wind-Mill Point before daylight, and will march in the morning direct for Petersburg, with directions, however, to halt at the point on that road nearest City Point unless he receives further orders. If the force going to Petersburg find reenforcement necessary, by sending back to General Hancock he will push forward. The rations of the Second Corps (Hancock’s) will be sent to-morrow morning. It will be impossible to

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(1) 81 W. R. 665.

(2) 69 W. R. 849.

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supply him from here earlier than that. To have this corps ready for service you will please direct your commissary to send down by boat to Wind-Mill Point to-night 60,000 rations to issue to them. Without this precaution the services of this corps cannot be had for an emergency to-morrow.”

“U. S. Grant, Lieutenant-General.”(1)

It is clear from the above that General Grant looked upon the Second Corps as unavailable until supplied with rations, for which he sent the order just read. He could not, therefore, intend to use it for the attack on Petersburg ordered for an early hour the next morning. I find, however, in the records (which on this day show a good example of the splendid way in which business was handled at the headquarters of the Second Corps) a despatch which reads as follows: —

“HEADQUARTERS SECOND ARMY COUPS, June 14.

“Brigadier-General S. Williams, A. A. G., Army of the

Potomac.

“General, — I have the honor to report that this command has three days’ rations from this morning, and that this corps is not out to-morrow night, as I understood the Major-General commanding to believe this A. M.

“Very respectfully, your most obedient servant,

“Winf’d S. Hancock, “Major-General of Volunteers Commanding.” (2)

But it does not appear that General Grant was advised of this; he undoubtedly was not.

Here we have a conspicuous instance of the evils of the division of the immediate command of the army between General Grant and General Meade.

Grant intended to attack Petersburg the next morning, and having been informed, evidently, that the Second Corps would

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(1) 81 W. R. 36.

(2) 81 W. R. 25.

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be out of rations that night, he felt unable to use it until it had been supplied.

General Meade, however, had been informed that the corps had over two days’ rations; but, not knowing of the intended attack, he kept the corps waiting for the rations that had been ordered from Butler. Somewhere about 7 o’clock next morning (the 15th), General Grant directed him to send the Second Corps forward, without rations, and that he would arrange to supply them from City Point. At 7.30 A. M., Meade formally ordered Hancock to move without them ; but, on the reported arrival of the rations shortly after, he authorized Hancock to use his discretion as to issuing them. At 9 A. M., it being reported to him that rations had not arrived, he renewed the order to move. General Grant’s headquarters were near those of Meade, and there is no record of written communication between them on the subject.

General Humphreys says of this: “Why General Hancock was not ordered to march at daylight on the 15th I have been unable to ascertain. He could have done so as readily as at half-past ten, and it would have brought him up to Smith at midday.”(1) General Humphreys was not at headquarters at the time.(2)

General Grant has been blamed by several writers for not notifying General Meade of the intended attack. It would have been better if he had done so. It is not certain that he did not. The instructions he evidently did give, to move as soon as rations were issued, ought to have proved fully sufficient. It was not to be presumed that at a critical stage of the campaign General Meade would keep the corps waiting unnecessarily.

I must not, however, do General Meade an injustice. While it is true that, in a military sense, he is responsible for a despatch delivered to his adjutant-general at headquarters, in an historical sense it is not right to hold him accountable for

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(1) Va. Camp. 211.

(2) Va. Camp. 212, note 1.

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a despatch unless he had personally seen it. As to whether or not Hancock’s despatch, advising that he had rations, had been shown to him, I am uninformed.

At 10 p. M. June 14, General Birney’s and General Gibbon’s Divisions were across the James River, and General Barlow’s was embarking.(1)

General Meade then wrote the following order: —

“Headquarters Army Of The Potomac,

June 14, 1864, 10 p. M. “Major-General Hancock:

“General Butler has been ordered to send you at Wind-Mill Point 60,000 rations. Soon as these are received and issued you will remove your corps by the most direct route to Petersburg, taking up a position where the City Point Railroad crosses Harrison’s Creek at the cross-roads indicated on the map at this point, and extend your right toward the mouth of Harrison’s Creek where we now have a work. . . . ” George G. Meade, Major-General.”(2)

The Harrison’s Creek of this despatch is a myth. On the maps it was about 3£ miles from Petersburg. I find it frequently mentioned in the despatches of the signal officers in General Butler’s command, during the next day’s operations. The general substance of the above order came undoubtedly from General Grant.

June 15.

General W. F. Smith arrived at Bermuda Hundred late in the afternoon of June 14, and was orally informed that he was to move his troops for an attack on Petersburg at daybreak ; and that he was to have General Kautz’s Cavalry and the colored division under General Hincks, in addition to the divisions under Generals Brooks, Martindale, and Ames, which he had brought from Cold Harbor.(3)

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(1) 81 W. R. 28.

(2) 81 W. R. 29.

(3) Chattanooga to Petersburg, 68

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General Smith says that no preparations bad been made by General Butler, and that it was impossible to get ready to start before daybreak,— which on this, one of the longest days of the year, was about 3 o’clock A. M. General Butler had, however, concentrated General Hincks’s Division on the south side of the Appomattox, at Broadway Landing.(1)

General Butler detached the last division to arrive of Smith’s Corps (General Ames’s) to reenforce his lines at Bermuda Hundred, without notifying General Smith.

General Kautz’s Cavalry numbered about 2500, and General Hincks’s Division numbered 3747.(2)

General Smith states that his total infantry force, including Hincks’s Division (and deducting Ames’s detached) as 10,000, and I think this number about correct. No available returns throw doubt upon the statement.(3)

The Confederate force defending Petersburg was supposed to be small, but was of course unknown to our officers. I have made a careful inquiry as to what it really was, and have been fortunate in finding a return of Beauregard’s whole force, dated June 10, five days before the attack. It is not clear just what troops were at Petersburg, but he had in the First Military District, by this return, under command of General Wise, a force of 3013 effectives.(4) Of this, four regiments and two battalions were south of the Appomattox and at Swift Creek, and one regiment and two battalions were detached guarding the railroad at various points some distance from Petersburg, and were probably all kept at their stations until after June 15. The two regiments which were at Swift Creek were transferred to Petersburg prior to General Smith’s attack.

General Beauregard stated his number at the time at 2200.(5) In 1873, in a letter on the files of this Society, he states it 2200 infantry and artillery.(6)

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(1) 80 W. R. 721.

(2) Ibid. 721, 728.

(3) Chattanooga to Petersburg.

(4) 69 W. R. 890.

(5) 81 W. R. 683.

(6) Ante, p. 119.

***

I think, therefore, that his actual force in and about Petersburg on June 15 was not much over 2200 infantry and artillery ; to which must be added Dearing’s Cavalry Brigade, 1932 strong, two regiments of which were present in the morning, and the other two were brought from the north side of the Appomattox in the afternoon.

North of the Appomattox, Beauregard had in the lines confronting Bermuda Hundred, Johnson’s Division, 5124 strong, and Gracie’s Brigade, 1000 strong. These confronted a much larger force under Butler.

The division of General R. F. Hoke, 6000 or 7000 strong, had been sent by General Lee, under whose command it then was, to the vicinity of Drury’s Bluff, on the afternoon of June 14, “with a view to reenforce General Beauregard in case Petersburg was taken.” It was not placed under Beauregard’s orders at the time. It camped the night of June 14 half a mile from Drury’s Bluff on the river road. There has been a controversy as to what time this division arrived in Petersburg, but the evidence is clear, and the matter should not be one of doubt. Drury’s Bluff is upon the west bank of the James River. General Hoke does not state upon which side of the river he camped the night of June 14 ; but his despatch of 11.30 A. M. June 15, of which I shall have something to say later, indicates that he had not then crossed the James.

On the following day, June 15, at 11.30 A. M., General Hoke sent the following despatch to General Bragg (chief of-staff in Richmond) : —

“I have just received orders to cross the river and report to General Beauregard. My troops are on the march.”(1)

General W. F. Smith, writing in 1893, in “Chattanooga to Petersburg” (page 77), says of the above despatch: —

“This implies that the troops under the orders of the previous day had marched to a point near the Appomattox and had only to cross over to be in Petersburg.”

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(1) 81 W. R. 658.

***

This implication is based necessarily upon the idea that General Beauregard was in Petersburg at the time the despatch was sent, or that General Hoke had reason to believe him there. But this was not the fact. General Beauregard’s headquarters were not ill Petersburg, and had not been there, but were at Swift Creek, three miles north of the Appomattox. If General Hoke were in the position General Smith supposes, he would not have been across any river from Beauregard. General Smith’s construction of the despatch is not permissible in view of the fact of General Beauregard’s position at Swift. Creek.

The position of General Beauregard’s headquarters is proved by his despatches, most of which were signed by him in person on the 14th and 15th of June, and these were all dated at Swift Creek,(1) until 1.45 p. M. June 15,. two hours after the date of General Hoke’s despatch above referred to. Some time between 1.45 P. M. and dark General Beauregard moved his headquarters to Petersburg. His first despatch that day from Petersburg is dated 9.10 p. M., but General Hagood had reported to him there about dark.

I find no report of this part of the campaign by General Hoke. He had four brigades, — Hagood’s, Colquitt’s, Clingman’s, and Martin’s.

General Hagood reported as follows : —

“On the evening of the 15th, about dark, my brigade arrived at Petersburg by the R. & P. R. R., and I was at General Beauregard’s headquarters reporting for orders when a courier announced that the enemy had carried the defences from No. 3 to No. 7, inclusive, and that our troops were retreating. I was ordered to move out immediately upon the City Point Road and take position to cover that approach. . . . Colquitt’s Brigade and the other brigades arriving shortly after, were established in succession upon the line.” (2)

I find no reports by the other brigade commanders, — Col-

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(1) 81 W. R. 652 et seq.

(2) 80 W. R. 801.

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quitt, Clingman, and Martin; but General Beauregard issued an order at 10.20 in the evening of the 15th as follows: —

“Clingman’s Brigade will take a railroad train at Port Walthall Junction as soon as practicable, to follow Martin’s Brigade.”(1)

Captain Charles Elliott, A. A. G. Martin’s Brigade, wrote recently: —

“My brigade took the shortest cut, through fields and dusty roads, and reaching the Appomattox, crossed the bridge after midnight and moved out on the City Point Road.” (2)

From the above it is apparent that General Hagood’s Brigade arrived in Petersburg, the 15th of June, about dark, by railroad, and was followed by Colquitt’s; and that Martin’s and Clingman’s Brigades were at 10.20 p. M. in the vicinity of Port Walthall Junction, six miles north of Petersburg.

It is clear that General Hoke’s Division had not arrived at Petersburg at 6 or 7 o’clock, when General Smith’s assault was made, but it was not Beauregard’s fault that it was not there. He had issued the orders that would have brought it there if it had been under his command; but General Lee had not put it under Beauregard’s command in time.

To return to the movements of June 15, General Kautz’s Cavalry got off from Broadway Landing before 5 A. M., followed by Hincks’s Division (colored).(3)

At Baylor’s farm the cavalry met the Confederates — two regiments of Dealing’s Cavalry and Graham’s Battery — in a strong position, and was unable to dislodge them.(4)

In place of the cavalry, the infantry of General Hincks’s Division was then put in, and the position carried by assault about 8 A. M. About 9 o’clock the whole command moved forward toward Petersburg, General Brooks’s Division in line of battle, and General Hincks’s by the flank on the Jordan Point Road on Brooks’s left, Martindale on Brooks’s right.(5)

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(1) 81 W. R. 657.

(2) So. Hist. Soc. Vol, xxiii, p. 195.

(3) 80 W. R. 720.

(4) So. Hist . Soc. vol. xxv, p. 13.

(5) Chattanooga to Petersburg, p. 73.

***

By noon the whole force arrived before the main intrenchments surrounding Petersburg.

Colonel T. L. Livermore, who was present and accompanied General Smith in his reconnoissance of the works, says: (1)

“The two latter [Brooks and Hincks] opposed the eastern front from Battery 5 to Battery 10; and it was against this front that active operations were directed. These works presented a very formidable aspect to the troops. They were situated on commanding crests, and the forest was felled in their front so as to expose advancing lines to their fire for half a mile or more. Numerous pieces of artillery swept the field of fire rapidly and with precision, and a strong line of skirmishers in secure rifle-pits kept up a spirited and effective fusillade.” It was 2 p. M. when the crest was gained and the right brigade of Hincks connected with General Brooks’s left.(2)

It was clear that there was plenty of artillery in the works, and the works themselves were very formidable ; but were they manned with infantry ? There was nothing to show whether there was any reserve back of this artillery and skirmish fire or not. (General Smith, however, wrote in his despatch to General Hancock, about 5 o’clock that afternoon: “I do not suppose at present there is much infantry over there.”)(3)

Would it be better to assault immediately, running the chances of the works being properly manned with infantry,— in which case a repulse would be certain, with loss, — or to make a thorough preparation, running the risk that in the mean time reinforcements might arrive and make the task impossible, or else, as actually happened, to make a successful assault too late in the day to reap the fruits of success?

The line of fortifications meant little to the campaign, one way or another. They were not the true objective. The control of the south side of the Appomattox at Petersburg, or west of it, meant a great deal, — probably the evacuation of

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(1) Ante, p. 52.

(2) 107 W. R. 267.

(3) 81 W. R. 59.

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Richmond, with the terrible loss of prestige and credit to the Confederates, and to Lee’s army, that would have followed inevitably. The Army of the Potomac, too, would have become much more formidable by a taste of such a real success in the campaign.

There is much that might be said in favor of taking what risks there were in an immediate assault; but General Smith thought it necessary to make careful reconnoissance and preparation, and did so. It was probably the true course, if we look at the case as regarding General Smith’s troops alone. But looking at it from the point of view of gain and risk of the whole army, the Union Army as a whole could much better afford the possible loss of perhaps a thousand killed and wounded, in an unsuccessful assault upon the works, than it could to risk the chance of the capture of the town becoming an impossibility by reinforcements to the Confederates. And this actually came very near happening; for General Beauregard, on the evening of the 14th, had sent General Hoke orders to move his division to Petersburg, leaving one brigade at Port Walthall Junction. The remaining three brigades might easily have reached Petersburg during the afternoon of the 15th, having about eighteen miles to march; but, as I have previously said, General Hoke was under Lee’s command and not Beauregard’s, and did not obey the order.

General Smith finished his examination of the enemy’s position about 4 o’clock,(1) and decided to take advantage of a ravine which he had discovered in front of Batteries 6 and 7, to place skirmishers near the enemy’s works, in order to keep down the artillery fire.(2)

A little later — about 4.30 p. M. —General Smith received advice from General Grant that Hancock’s Corps was on the road, and to send word to Hancock if he required it.(3) General Smith then wrote to Hancock, suggesting that he make .in assault, “after dark, in the vicinity of the Norfolk &

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(1) Ante, p. 55.

(2) Chattanooga to Petersburg.

(3) 81 W. R. 73.

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Petersburg R. R.,” adding: “But to-night is the last night, as General Lee is reported crossing at Chaffin’s Bluff.”(1)

By 5 o’clock General Smith was prepared to make the assault; but the artillery horses of General Brooks’s Division had been taken to the rear for water, and there was a delay for them. About 7 o’clock, everything being ready, an extra heavy skirmish line moved forward and promptly carried the works in General Brooks’s and part of General Hincks’s front, with a capture of about two hundred prisoners.(2) The line of battle followed and entered the works, all of which were, I think, entirely open to the rear. General Martindale’s men were stopped by a deep ditch which proved impassable.

General Kautz’s Cavalry approached the enemy’s works on the left of the infantry, near the Norfolk & Petersburg R. R., but accomplished nothing of moment; but about 5.30 o’clock in the afternoon, hearing no sound of an attack by General Smith, and getting no news from him, he withdrew his troops.(3) His only service was to oblige the enemy to man the works in front of him, thus thinning their already thin line in front of General Smith’s infantry. General Kautz’s troops undoubtedly “contained” a considerable portion of Beauregard’s force successfully; but General Kautz should certainly have continued his threatening demonstrations until General Smith’s assault was made, or until all possibility of an assault had passed for the day.

General Hincks’s troops pushing their successes to the left, about 9 o’clock in the evening captured Battery 10 ; and Battery 11 was immediately abandoned by the enemy.(4)

The 60,000 rations ordered by General Grant on the evening of the 14th to Wind-Mill Point for the Second Corps did not arrive, and several despatches passed next morning between General Hancock and General Meade on the subject.

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(1) 80 W. R. 59.

(2) Chattanooga to Petersburg, 82.

(3) 80 W. R. 728.

(4) 80 W. R. 725; 107 W. R. 264, 267, 268.

***

At 7.30 A. M . General Meade sent a despatch saying: —

“You will not wait for the rations, but move immediately to the position assigned you last evening.”(1)

Then concluding: —

“Your despatch received (reporting arrival of the rations). It is important you should move. Exercise your judgment as to which will be best, to issue rations now, or send them as directed in the foregoing.”

At 9 o’clock A. M., finding the rations had not arrived, General Hancock ordered the corps to move; but the boat carrying Colonel Morgan, who bore the order, grounded in crossing the James, and the duplicate by signal failed in transmission.

As has been previously said, the corps had two days’ rations already in hand, and General Meade had been advised of it.

At 10.30 the corps started on its march. Petersburg was 16 or 17 miles distant.(2)

At about 5.30 p. M., when he was about four miles from the position of General Smith’s troops, General Hancock received the despatch from General Smith already referred to, and also one from General Grant directing him to make all haste to get forward to the support of General Smith.

About 6.30 P. M., the head of General Birney’s Division arrived at the Bryant house, about a mile in rear of General Hincks’s troops.

About the same hour, Colonel Morgan, Inspector General, Second Corps, reported the position of the corps to General Smith, and asked him where the troops ought to go. General Smith said, “On my left,” and referred him to General Hincks for information as to where the left flank was. A staff officer of General Birney’s was soon met by Morgan, and was sent with Captain Wilson of the corps staff to conduct the column to such point as General Hincks might advise.(3)

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(1) Va. Camp. 205.

(2) Walker, 2d Corps, 526.

(3) Walker, 2d Corps, 530.

***

General Hancock left instructions for Birney and Gibbon to move forward as soon as they could ascertain where they were needed, and rode to find General Smith. He found him after 9 o’clock, and informed him that two of his divisions were close at hand, ready for any movements which in his judgment should-be made. General Smith requested him to relieve the colored division in the intrenchments by ordering his own troops to fill their places.(1)

This was done by 11 o’clock, and by that time General Hancock says it was too late and too dark for an immediate advance. This closed the day’s work.

General Humphreys says: —

“It is probable that an immediate advance of the whole of Smith’s force when the salient (Battery 5) was carried, or at 9 o’clock when it would have been supported by two divisions of the Second Corps, would have resulted in the capture of Petersburg.” (2)

In a letter written in 1878, General Hincks said: —

“I have now no doubt that, with a prompt movement and the cooperation of Birney, we could easily have entered Petersburg at any time before 12 o’clock on the night of the 15th of June. But could we have gained the works north of the town, on the left bank of the Appomattox ? Without possession of these works, could we have resisted the advance of Lee’s army or held the town ? These I think are fairly debatable questions.” (3)

I think it must be admitted, however, that successful assaults after dark, by troops that have marched or fought all day, are very rare, and that the truer comment is that the assault should have been made much earlier in the day, so that there should be enough daylight left to complete the work.

***

(1) Va. Camp. 212; and Chattanooga to Petersburg, 109; and 80 W. R. 305.

(2) Va. Camp. 210.

(3) Letter Feb. 21, 1878, Unpub. Rep. M. H. S. M.

***

A coup de main necessarily requires that much risk should be run to avoid losing time, and this move on Petersburg was of that character.

The works assaulted were only four miles from Broadway Landing (whence the start was made in the morning), in a bee-line, probably something over five miles by the roads followed.

General Smith well said, “To-night is the last night.” Beauregard had on the afternoon of the 15th of June, all told, about 4200 men, infantry, artillery, and cavalry, to de-fend a line considerably over two miles long; but by midnight he had also Hoke’s Division of 6000 to 7000, and by 9 or 10 o’clock in the morning, June 16, Johnson’s Division, 5124, which he withdrew from the Bermuda Hundred lines, abandoning them altogether to meet the greater need ; thus raising his force on June 16 to 15,000 or 16,000 effectives, and the Federal attacks of the next days were not extended to cover a much wider front than that which the Confederates had to occupy against General Smith.

The story of the assault of the following days has been well told by Mr. Ropes in a paper read before this Society.(1)

The attempt to capture Petersburg by a coup de main had failed; but the Army of the Potomac had established itself firmly upon the south side of the James River, with its base of supplies at City Point, and General Lee could never hope to dislodge it from this position so long as the war should last, and it would continually threaten his own position. The final result of the campaign was now as much a certainty as any unfinished thing in war can be.

***

(1) Post, p. 157. — Ed.

***

ABBREVIATIONS USED IN REFERENCES IN VOLUME 5 OF THE PAPERS OF THE MILITARY HISTORICAL SOCIETY OF MASSACHUSETTS

Source:

  1. Papers of the Military Historical Society of Massachusetts, Volume 5, pages 125-145

***


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