NP: June 29, 1864 Philadelphia Inquirer: The Disaster at Jerusalem Plank Road, June 22-23, 1864

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in June 1864

IN FRONT OF PETERSBURG.

From General GRANT’s army we have news, through the despatch of the Secretary of War, to half-past three o’clock on Monday [June 27, 1864]. At that time there was no firing at the front except from our guns, which were playing upon the bridge across the Appomattox at Petersburg, a distance of two thousand yards.1

Through other sources we are advised of the particulars of the successful Rebel assault of Wednesday last [June 22, 1864] on two of the divisions of the Second Corps [1/II/AotP and 3/II/AotP]. It seems that General GRANT had determined to extend the left of his line so as to cross the Weldon Railroad, and with a view to the execution of this purpose the Second Corps, under command of Gen. [DAVID B.] BIRNEY, the Sixth [Corps], under General [HORATIO G.] WRIGHT, and the Eighteenth [Corps], under General W[ILLIAM]. F. (“Baldy”) SMITH, were set in motion on the afternoon of the 22nd inst [June 22, 1864]. The Sixth and Second were to move forward towards the railroad, while the Eighteenth, being brought down from Bermuda Hundred, was to fill the gap thus left in the intrenched line.2

Battle Of Jerusalem Plank Road: June 22, 1864

The Battle of Jerusalem Plank Road, June 22, 1864 as sketched by John Willian, Division commander Gershom Mott’s Assistant Inspector General.

But the movement was very soon discovered, and, as it turned out, was unfortunately too well watched by the enemy. Our line was under closer observation by the adverse Generals than by our own commanders. At one stage of the movement, BARLOW’s [1/II/AotP] and GIBBON’s [sic, Mott’s 3/II/AotP] Divisions, which should have been closed up against each other, got separated by a distance great enough to afford the vigilant Rebels in their vicinity a very tempting opportunity, which they very quickly improved. By a rapid march the Rebels interposed a column between these two Divisions, and struck both of them in flank and rear. The blow seems to have been as stunning as it was sudden. Both of our Divisions fell back in confusion, losing heavily in killed, wounded, and prisoners.3

Of the extent of these losses we have conflicting accounts, and strange to say the statements from our own side make our losses in captured heavier than the Rebels claim for themselves. The letters from some of the correspondents of the Northern newspapers estimate our captured men at two thousand. On the other hand, the correspondent of the Richmond Examiner, writing from the field after the captives were brought into the Rebel lines, sets the whole number down at sixteen hundred. This is bad enough, but by no means so great a misfortune as some of our well-meaning but nervously apprehensive citizens feared, and nothing like the calamity which our industrious disseminators of bad news made it out.4

We lost about a brigade of men, and a battery of four guns. The troops were New England veterans, and the battery was [George F.] MCKNIGHT’s [12th New York Battery]. So far as the Rebels may have intended this assault as an offset to HANCOCK’s surprise of [EDWARD “Allegheny”] JOHNSON’s Division at Spottsylvania, it does not come up to the mark. In that affair the spoils gathered in by the Second Corps were four thousand prisoners, eighteen guns, and two generals. In the latter case the Rebels got but sixteen hundred men and four guns. The Second Corps is, therefore, down to date, a long way ahead of the enemy.5

As soon as the break in our line was discovered, reinforcements were brought up from the Fifth and Sixth Corps, the gap was filled, the Rebels expelled, and the expedition to the railroad went forward on the following day, Thursday [June 23, 1864]. They reached the road, tore up several hundred yards of the track, but were so fiercely assaulted by the Rebels that they had to give it up, or risk a general engagement at a distance from their supports, which they were under instructions not to do. The affair occurred at a point about two miles below Petersburg.6

This is the whole length and breadth of a matter that has been greatly magnified and very industriously used to damage our cause at home by those interested in such work, and in “[boiling?]” the gold market. It is merely a failure for the present of a side movement, and will have no more influence on the great campaign than if it had never occurred at all.7 All those who have been indulging in gloomy forebodings on this account should bear in mind that General GRANT in his Mississippi, Tennessee, Georgia and Virginia campaigns, survived, overcame and was successful in spite of scores of checks of far greater magnitude than this. And they should remember, too, that both the President and Assistant Secretary of War DANA, who have but lately returned from Petersburg, report General GRANT’s army in splendid condition, and ample force for the work before it; and that its able, persistent and resolute commander expresses his perfect and unabated confidence in his ability to take the Rebel Capital.8

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Article Image

Image of a June 29, 1864 Philadelphia Inquirer article discussing the Battle of Jerusalem Plank Road.

Source/Notes:

  1. SOPO Editor’s Note: This news would appear to have been taken almost verbatim from General Grant’s note to General Halleck in Washington, which was then used in Secretary of War Stanton’s daily dispatch to newspapers.  It appears in the Official Records, Volume XL, Pt. 2, pp. 461462. If you have other information on this skirmish such as which batteries were involved or first person accounts on either side, please CONTACT US.
  2. SOPO Editor’s Note: This fighting and the accompanying movements of corps mentioned here were part of the larger Battle of Jerusalem Plank Road, June 21-24, 1864.
  3. SOPO Editor’s Note: This whole paragraph appears a little off.  If you take a look at this close up map of the fighting at a brigade level, you can see that Gibbon’s Division was the closest to the Jerusalem Plank Road. It wasn’t that the Second Corps divisions got separated.  IT was that the leftmost Second Corps division, Barlow’s, was not connected on its left with the Sixth Corps division next in line.  That gap is where Mahone’s Confederates smashed into the Second Corps flank and rolled them up all the way to the Jerusalem Plank Road, resulting in many captured and an ignominious defeat for the Second Corps.  They lost cannon captured for the first time in their existence.
  4. SOPO Editor’s Note: A. Wilson Greene puts the Union captured number at 1,650 on page 245 of A Campaign of Giants: The Battle for Petersburg, Volume 1. It would appear the Confederates had it pretty close to correct. Make no mistake.  This was an utter disaster for Second Corps, and it wouldn’t be the last in the Petersburg Campaign.
  5. SOPO Editor’s Note: The article is attempting to compare this fight with the May 12, 1864 attack on the Mule Shoe Salient at Spotsylvania.  I would tend to agree that the disaster for the Confederates at the Mule Shoe was significantly worse than this little affair.  That said, when your attempt at an analogy lands on the worst disaster the Confederates had suffered in the entire 1864 fighting in Virginia, it means the analogous fight was itself pretty bad!
  6. SOPO Editor’s Note: Once the Union lines stabilized along the Jerusalem Plank Road, Mahone had to fall back.  He was heavily outnumbered.  Only three brigades were in the initial attack and only four were on the field of battle. As for the June 23, 1864 fighting on the Sixth Corps front, the paper fails to mention the disaster which befell the Vermont Brigade skirmish line.  They were swallowed up whole, yet another sacrifice to Andersonville.  For a GREAT look at the June 23 fighting and the horrific results for the men captured, see A Melancholy Affair at the Weldon Railroad, by David F. Cross. This book is currently scarce and going for ridiculous amounts on Amazon.  In the absence of ready availability of the book, you might consider visiting Cross’ now defunct web site through the magic of Internet Archives’ “Wayback Machine”: https://web.archive.org/web/20120314004341/http://www.weldonrailroad.com/. Alternatively, check out my review of the book.
  7. SOPO Editor’s Note: I would argue that the writer is too quick to dismiss the Second Offensive, in spite of the twin disasters of June 22-23, 1864.  The offensive, like every one of Grant’s Offensives against Petersburg save the Seventh, extended the Union lines further around Petersburg, forcing the Confederates to cover ever more ground.  The ground gained here served as a springboard for General warren’s successful movement to the Weldon Railroad in Grant’s Fourth Offensive two months later.
  8. “In Front of Petersburg.” The Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA). June 29, 1864, p. 4 col. 1

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