William G. Robertson. The Petersburg Campaign: The Battle of Old Men and Young Boys June 9, 1864. Lynchburg, VA: H. E. Howard, Inc. 1st Edition (Out of Print) (December 1989). 143 pp., 3 maps. $16.95 (Hardcover).
The first serious Federal attempt to take Petersburg from the east took place on June 9, 1864. It was called “the battle of old men and young boys” by the residents of Petersburg, who had sent their last remaining male citizens to the trenches to repel the Yankee invaders. This is as much a story of a community banding together in a time of crisis as it is a traditional battle narrative. In The Petersburg Campaign: The Battle of Old Men and Young Boys June 9, 1864, author and historian William G. Robertson takes a detailed look into the failed Yankee thrust at the Cockade City, the ensuing skirmishes, and the resulting consequences of what became a prelude to a much larger campaign.
By early June 1864, Benjamin Butler and his Union Army of the James had faced quite a bit of adversity in their Bermuda Hundred Campaign. Butler had managed to secure a nice base along the James River at Bermuda Hundred, and especially at City Point, for future operations against Richmond and Petersburg. However, he had not taken Richmond or Petersburg, though many argue that Petersburg was never specifically Butler’s objective anyway. Knowing that Grant was at Cold Harbor and fast approaching, Butler was determined to do something to win himself a few accolades. His idea was to strip the Bermuda Hundred defenses as thin as he dared and send this force, along with Kautz’ Cavalry Division and Hincks’ troops guarding City Point, in a move on the thinly defended city of Petersburg. If Butler could simply take control of Petersburg for even a day, he could do major damage to the Confederate cause. Petersburg was the point at which multiple railroads came together before moving north to Richmond along a single line. Butler’s forces were ordered to burn the bridges across the Appomattox River, thus cutting Richmond off from the majority of her supplies, and virtually guaranteeing the fall of the Confederacy’s capital. The plan was a sound one and Petersburg was lightly defended, but Quincy Gillmore, commander of the X Corps, demanded to lead the expedition. Butler, despite his misgivings, had no choice but to acquiesce. Gillmore was to demonstrate and attack the eastern front of the Petersburg entrenchments on two roads with the infantry while Kautz’ troopers slipped into Petersburg from the south. As it happened, Gillmore did nothing, leaving the scene before Kautz ever even approached the Cockade City. Kautz, meanwhile, faced a ragtag force of Petersburg civilians, who were able to delay the Federal cavalrymen long enough for General Beauregard to rush several badly needed regiments to the rescue literally on the outskirts of town. This victory over the Federals on June 9, 1864 was celebrated by Petersburg on the anniversary of the battle for years. In fact, many have concluded that this June 9 celebration was the main precursor to modern Memorial Day. Butler and Gillmore had failed, leaving the Army of the Potomac and Army of the James to conduct a lengthy and bloody siege for the next ten months.
William G. Robertson has several books to his credit, including a volume focusing on the Bermuda Hundred Campaign. This book is part of the H. E. Howard series, a highly uneven collection with its ups and downs. I thought this particular volume was a solid entry in the set. Robertson’s main focus is on the Petersburg civilians who came together on a late spring day to save their city, which they did successfully at a cost of many citizens killed, wounded, or captured. Robertson also highlights Butler’s plan of action and finds Quincy Gillmore the main culprit in its failure. Gillmore, in addition to failing to even attempt an attack, did not stay long enough to be able to provide support for Kautz by at least feinting an attack on the eastern defenses. Gillmore ignored Butler’s very accurate intelligence work showing the Federals greatly outnumbered the Confederates, choosing instead to be persuaded by the formidable looking entrenchments in front of Hawley’s X Corps brigade. The main consequences of the action were seen only a week later, when the combined forces of the Army of the James and the Army of the Potomac began what would be a ten month long siege of the city. Robertson points out that Butler’s bungled attack only served to alert the Confederates to the vulnerability of this highly important cog in their supply line. However, this may have been canceled out partially by Beauregard’s constant calls for more men. Lee and Richmond were slow to react on June 15, and this may have been due to a belief that Beauregard was “crying wolf” as he had during the June 9 attack. Though there are only three maps, the detail involved is enough to keep the reader informed of the situation, especially the large fold out map depicting Kautz’ attack against the Petersburg civilians. The “Battle of Old Men and Young Boys” was no more than a skirmish, but it was a skirmish with large consequences.
I enjoyed the book, especially given the rare situation of a green civilian battalion standing long enough against trained soldiers to make a difference in battle. Robertson provides a solid look at a small battle with large consequences within the framework of the Virginia Battles & Leaders series. Students of the Petersburg burg Campaign in particular will want to have this book. It sets up the situation Grant found himself in after stealing a march on Lee, crossing the James River on a massive pontoon bridge, and maneuvering elements of two armies to the eastern doorstep of this city. Fans of Civil War historiography may also want to give this one a look given that modern Memorial Day originated from this small fight. Anyone interested in tactical histories of lesser battles will also find the book intriguing. This is a solid entry in the H. E. Howard series and one of the better books in that series to focus on the Petersburg Campaign.
143 pp., 3 maps
Publisher: H. E. Howard, Inc. 1st Edition
Release Date: December 1989
Pages: 143 Pages