NP: June 14, 1964 Petersburg Progress-Index: Siege Centennial, Part 8: Bridging The James River

   

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Bridging The James River

(This is the eighth in a series of articles taking cognizance of the fact that the present time is the centennial of the 1864-65 campaign for Petersburg. On this day General U. S. Grant, in order to approach Petersburg, was building the longest known pontoon bridge which military history had ever known.)

Most of the day, a hundred years ago today [June 14, 1864], General U. S. Grant was occupied with building a bridge which would put his army on the road to Petersburg. His crossing of the James River is regarded as one of his major achievements.

His spring [1864] campaign in Virginia had brought disappointment in that he had neither taken the Confederate capital nor destroyed Lee’s army. His losses from all causes had been about equal to the size of the entire Confederate force opposing him. After the great blood-letting at Cold Harbor, Grant decided to move south of the James River. It was a plan which McClellan had urged in 1862, but only McClellan’s admirers chose to remember that. Grant had the benefit of support from the Lincoln government which McClellan had never enjoyed, and certainly he evinced a greater determination to act. Whereas all his predecessors had withdrawn under such circumstances as faced him in Virginia, Grant kept moving ever to the left. Some of his subordinates found the course unimaginative and monotonous, but ultimately it would lead to victory.

In addition to his numerical and material superiority, the wooded nature of the country was favorable to Grant’s undertaking. Granted all the advantages, his execution of it is rated as masterful. There is an old and copious debate as to whether, for once, Grant “gave the slip to” Lee. Lee’s own dispatches show clearly that he recognized the possibility of the crossing, as did less important persons and private correspondence of the time.

Lee was handicapped by the size of the troops at his disposal and more especially by the fact his cavalry was defending the Virginia Central Railroad against expected raids by [AotP Cavalry Corps commander Philip H.] Sheridan. Thus he was deprived of his “eyes” at the time when he needed them most. He may have had an inadequate appreciation of the possibility which he had recognized, as critics are more likely to say now, but he was not hoodwinked, as older accounts sometimes concluded. He could not shift forces from Richmond lightly because defense of the capital was fixed Confederate policy.

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On June 14 [1864] Grant conferred with Butler at Bermuda Hundred and gave orders for the following day’s attack on Petersburg. The XVIII Corps was to lead. Since it was under the direction of Butler rather than directly under Grant, that was to create further difficulty for the Confederates in appraising what was taking place. The possibility that the attack on Petersburg was a feint, while a more purposeful effort was being made in another direction, was one which could not be ignored.

Grant made history in getting a large body of troops across a wide stream.  He had a problem of his own in that pontoons for the bridge were late in arriving, but that did not deter him from constructing the longest continuous pontoon bridge which had ever been laid. The span from Wilcox Landing to Windmill Point, 2,100 feet long, was completed in eight hours. Except for the XVIII Corps and a corps which was ferried across in advance, his whole army crossed by the bridge. The bridge proved very steady, and over it, as [Union V Corps Artillery commander Charles] Wainwright wrote, passed a train of wagons and artillery 35 miles long, more than half the infantry of the army, 3,500 beef cattle, and 4,000 cavalry—all of it in 48 hours.

If the same skill and concentration had been invested in plans for the attack on Petersburg, there should have been no siege of Petersburg. Union attention seems to have been so occupied with the mass exodus and with building the bridge that scant thought was given to what would come afterward. In an extraordinary breakdown of staff work, [George G.] Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac, and [Winfield Scott] Hancock, a corps commander [Second Corps, Army of the Potomac], were never told that Petersburg was to be attacked on the 15th [of June 1864].

One of Meade’s biographers claims that, although other factors were present, the chief reason for the failure to take Petersburg was that attention was concentrated on the June 14-15 river crossing “while the bastioned city lay only dimly beyond.”1

Article Image

19640614PetersburgProgressIndexP4C1to2PetersburgNo08

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The Petersburg Progress-Index Siege of Petersburg Centennial Series, 1964-65:

Source:

  1. “Bridging The James River.” Petersburg Progress-Index.  June 14, 1964, p. 4, col. 1-2

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