Editor’s Note: Bryce Suderow covers the little known Battle of Darbytown Road on October 13, 1864 during the Siege of Petersburg, Grant’s Fifth Offensive, bringing that offensive to a close. Bryce was gracious enough to share his research with The Siege of Petersburg Online and has given written permission for this article to appear here.
THE BATTLE OF DARBYTOWN ROAD, OCT. 13, 1864
On October 11, under orders from General Robert E. Lee, Maj. Generals Charles Field and Robert Hoke began building a new intermediate line between the old Richmond exterior defense line and the interior line.1 The purpose of the line was to connect Fort Gilmer to the exterior defense line on Charles City Road. The work proceeded quickly and by the end of the day, the outlines of an earthwork extended from Fort Gilmer and to Darbytown Road. On the morning of October 12, pickets from Gen. August V. Kautz’s cavalry noticed the work and at 9:30 a.m. Kautz reported the fact to Butler who told Grant.2
Later in the morning, Grant ordered Butler to make a reconnaissance to Darbytown Road:
“I think it advisable to send out a strong reconnaissance of infantry and cavalry to drive the enemy from the work they are doing on the Central road. Such a reconnaissance should not go far enough to endanger their being cut off, however. Weitzel should at the same time hold as much force as he can, ready to move to the support of the reconnoitering party if attacked by a superior force.”3
That afternoon, Butler ordered Maj. Gen. Alfred Terry, the X Corps commander, to take two divisions of his corps to drive the enemy away from his new works. He suggested Terry take his 1st and 3rd divisions. Butler informed Terry that Weitzel would support his line if necessary. Butler informed Terry that he would encounter 6,000 Confederates from Hoke’s and Field’s divisions in his front. He also told Terry to inform Kautz that his cavalry division would cooperate with him.4
In making his plans for the movement that afternoon, Terry arranged for Kautz to cover his right, between Darbytown and Charles City Road. He planned to place Ames’ 1st Division south of Darbytown Road and Birney’s 3rd Division north of the road to turn the Confederate left. Since after detaching pickets and leaving three regiments behind, by his estimate Terry’s two divisions numbered only 3100 and 1600 respectively, Terry asked Butler for one of Weitzel’s brigades. Butler refused his request.5
Anticipating that work on the intermediate line by Darbytown Road would provoke a Union attack, Field asked Lt. Gen. Richard H. Anderson, commander of the field troops north of James River, to order Hoke to extend his line to the left so that he could throw a brigade across the road to protect his left. Anderson failed to issue the order, so just after dark on Oct. 12, Field withdrew Col. Winkler’s Texas brigade from his right and placed it on his extreme left north of the road. The brigade worked in the midst of a rain storm until late in the night building a small work with a ditch in front. On the right of the Texas brigade were the infantry brigades of Bratton and DuBose, along with the Hampton Legion and 24th Virginia Cavalry, both under command of Col. Logan.6
The Confederate works were located on a crest near the Cunningham house and consisted of a redoubt situated on Darbytown Road, with another near the Darby House.7
Although Terry was ready to move by 3:25 p.m., the movement was delayed by a flag of truce on the picket line and postponed until the next day.8
Late in the day Butler finally gave Terry specific orders. He was to move near the brick house on Darbytown road and capture the Confederate line. Kautz would move with him, turning the Confederate left. He was to strike the enemy at sunrise.9
Terry issued instructions to his corps as well. Ames’ division would form north of the road and turn the Confederate left. Birney’s division would form south of the road and advance at the same time as Ames. Kautz would cover Ames’ right with one brigade and drive back the enemy between Darbytown and Charles City Road. Another brigade would travel up Charles City Road and try to take the Confederate in reverse at Darbytown Road.10
Terry set out from his intrenchments at 4 a.m. The weaknesses of the plan were not lost on Terry’s men. If Terry was to make an attack, why was he not accompanied by Weitzel’s XVIII Corps? And why had no one reconnoitered the position prior to the attack?
Gen. Kautz has written, “The hopelessness of the movement was apparent to all as we felt that the enemy’s line must be held by a force equal if not superior in numbers to our own, and that we could do nothing more than make a demonstration in support of some other movement at another point.” Kautz says it was the “feeling on the part of nearly every officer and soldier in the command that we were simply marching out to lose several hundred men and be repulsed.”11
The 1st and 3rd divisions marched 1 1/2 to two miles on the road from Cox’s house to Johnson’s field, while the artillery and cavalry took the road from Four Mile Church to Darbytown Road. It halted at the fork of the Mill and Darbytown roads.12 Here Terry placed Brig. Gen. William Birney’s 3rd Division south of Darbytown Road and Adelbert Ames’ 1st Division to the north.13
Although the attack was scheduled for dawn, Kautz didn’t arrive on time, so the two infantry divisions remained in position until 6:35 a.m. Of course by now the element of surprise was lost.
Upon reaching Darbytown Road, General Birney formed a line south of Darbytown Road, Col. Ulysses Doubleday’s 2nd Brigade on his left and Col. Alvin C. Vorhis’ 1st Brigade on his right. Vorhis placed his two regiments, the 7th and 9th USCT in line of battle. In Doubleday’s line of battle, the 29th Connecticut held the left and the 45th USCT the right and its flank rested on the road. Doubleday’s 8th USCT was deployed as skirmishers for the division.
Birney’s division then entered a dense piece of woods and soon the 8th USCT drove Confederate skirmishers from a rail fence and two lines of rifle pits and into their line of works 100 yards from the edge of the woods. In examining the Confederates lines, Doubleday spotted a battery sited behind a house in his front and located two battle flags in front. Birney ordered a reconnaissance on his left and Maj. Bates of the 45th USCT and Lt. Marshall of Doubleday’s staff scouted the Union left, looking for an opening. They found the Confederate works extended at least half a mile beyond the left.14
Ames’ 1st Division formed line of battle, with Hawley’s 2nd Brigade on the left, their left resting on Darbytown Road. Col. Harris M. Plaisted’s brigade formed the center and Col. Pond’s 1st brigade on Ames’ right.
In Hawley’s line of battle, the first line consisted of the 6th Connecticut on the right and the 16th New York on the left. The 3rd New Hampshire and 7th New Hampshire were held in reserve on the right and left. Hawley put the 7th Connecticut on the skirmish line.15
The 1100 men of Hawley’s brigade moved forward slowly over the field in front and over its earthworks into a “thick and troublesome young wood.”16 Upon nearing Pleasants’ plantation about 500 yards into the brush, Hawley encountered Confederate pickets and drove them in.17 At about 8 a.m. the brigade encountered a sharp fire from an unseen enemy in the wood. Ordered by Ames to find out what was in front, Hawley ordered Capt. S.S. Atwell to advance his 7th Connecticut. The regiment advanced, but could see little because of ten foot high undergrowth and had to fall back when Plaisted’s troops on the right fired into its rear. Capt. Thompson climbed a tree and discovered a slashing from 100 to 200 yards wide in front of a strong breastwork well lined with the enemy and at least two cannon.18
On Hawley’s right, Col. Harris M. Plaisted formed his 3rd Brigade, the 24th Massachusetts and 11th Maine in line and four companies of the 10th Connecticut on the skirmish line. The remainder of the 10th Connecticut remained in reserve. After advancing across an open field at Gerhardt’s house, Plaisted entered a thick growth of scrub oaks. Several hundred yards into the brush, he encountered and drove back Confederate pickets in a line of detached rifle pits. In front of his left and center, Plaisted could see the Confederate line strongly manned with a border of slashing — “It was altogether an ugly looking chance for a charge.” In this position, Plaisted was vulnerable to fire from three sides including case shot and rifle fire.19
On Plaisted’s right, Col. Francis B. Pond placed his 1st brigade – 882 muskets – in battle line. The 67th Ohio and 85th Pennsylvania formed the battle line and the 62nd Ohio and two companies of the 39th Illinois formed the skirmish line. The remainder of the 39th Illinois was placed in reserve. Pond moved forward, crossed the Confederate works by the Jordan House and advanced 700 yards.20
Once the Federals were in position, Ames’ line extended from Darbytown Road to the north half a mile. He learned from his brigade commanders that the Confederate works in his front were protected by slashing 100-200 yards in width and by rifle pits and a battery. William Birney reported a strong work on Darbytown Road with artillery. Kautz was moving forward on Ames’ right with Col. Robert M. West’s brigade and Col. Samuel Spear’s brigade was advancing on Charles City Road.
At 10:30 a.m. Terry told Butler what he had found and stated:
“As at present advised, I think we cannot pierce their works except by massing on some point and attacking in column. I hesitate to do this without further instructions from you after our conversation of last night. Please direct me in regard to it.”21
While Terry was conducting his reconnaissance, General Lee arrived and learned from Field that the Federals were about to flank him. Lee directed him to strengthen his left. Field immediately sent Anderson’s, Perry’s and DuBose’s brigades to the north side of the road. Upon arriving, the men immediately began intrenching the position. Upon the arrival of Bratton’s brigade south of Darbytown Road, Col. Logan left the position with the Hampton Legion and the 24th Virginia Cavalry for Charles City Road. Hoke’s division thinned out its line to fill the trenches vacated by Field’s brigades.22
At noon Butler referred the matter to Grant, asking, “Shall I order an attack on the works?”23 At 12:10 Butler told Terry to stay put: “Dispatch received; contents referred to General Grant. Will send orders.”24
Shortly afterwards Grant replied to Butler and stated what should have been clear all along:
“I would not attack the enemy in his intrenchments. The reconnaissance now serves to locate them for any future operation. To attack now we would lose more than the enemy and only gain ground which we are not prepared to hold, nor are we prepared to follow up any advantage we might gain.”25
At 1:30 Butler sent Terry a note informing him of Grant’s decision: “I would not attack the enemy in their intrenchments. Having carefully reconnoitered the enemy, found their position, and looked out all the roads, retire at leisure.”26
It was too late. Kautz reported to Terry that there was an opening in his front where there appeared to be no slashing. He notified Terry that the Confederates was still intrenching there. Terry ordered Ames to extend his right toward Charles City Road and to try to break through.27
Shortly before 2 p.m. Ames ordered Col. Francis Pond to attack with his 1st brigade. Ames reinforced Pond with 70 of the 10th Connecticut under Maj. Henry Camp and the 3rd New Hampshire, which Ames told Pond to keep in reserve.
The point of attack was about half a mile south of Charles City Road. Here the Confederate line was bent back so that attacking troops would present their left flank to the fire of the Confederates.28 Ames was probably the only officer who thought an assault might work. Lt. Col. Homer A. Plimpton of the 39th Illinois Infantry later wrote in his diary:
“The circumstances surrounding us at this time were discouraging indeed. We were compelled to charge their works at a point where they had a heavy flank fire upon us, and through thick underbrush and small timber, and then over heavy slashing where their artillery could rake us. The men all knew before going in the difficulties ahead; all of the officers of the brigade were opposed to the charge, and reported so to the General commanding the corps; but it made no difference. Charge we must, and charge we did, and Death reaped a rich harvest as the result.”29
Pond formed the 10th Connecticut, part of the 62nd Ohio, 39th Illinois and 67th Ohio in double columns at half distance and sent them forward. The position in front was held by Perry’s Alabama Brigade.
Pond’s columns advanced about 300 yards into the brush and when the Federals reached the point where the bushes had been cut down, the Alabamians opened fire. Pond’s men were caught in a cross-fire. Some of the men penetrated the abatis and died on the Confederate breastwork. Brave Major Camp of the 10th Connecticut was shot by W.A. McClendon of Co. G, 15th Alabama. Pond lost 228 of his 550 officers and men.30
During this time, Gen. Gary and the 7th S.C. Cavalry kept Spear’s brigade at bay on Charles City Road. Having been relived by Bratton’s South Carolina brigade, Col. Logan joined Gary with the 24th Virginia Cavalry and the Hampton Legion. The brigade then attacked Spear who fell back.31
After the assault failed, Terry ordered his two divisions to move their wounded to the rear and to be prepared to get ready to retreat.32 At 3 p.m. Terry informed Butler that Ames’ attack had failed and that he would now return to his camp.33 At 3:30 Ames ordered his commanders to fall back into the open field, leaving their skirmishers behind, and form line of battle.34 The Confederates in front of Ames advanced, but Terry’s artillery, located at the outer line of intrenchments, drove them back with a heavy fire. After retreating, Ames’ division rested at the Johnson House for half an hour. The troops then marched back to their entrenchments, arriving at 6 p.m.35
Terry lost 36 killed, 358 wounded, 43 missing, a total of 437. Field lost 50 casualties.36
In criticizing the Union plans and performance, it is difficult to know where to begin since both were so lackluster.
First, as usual Grant was in such a hurry to mount the attack that he had not bothered to determine how complete the Confederate earthworks were or how many Confederates held it. Butler had some idea of the Confederate numbers, but knew nothing of the earthwork’s strength.
Second, Grant was not clear in his own mind whether he was ordering a reconnaissance or making an attack. If he was making an attack, why not employ the entire Army of the James? Terry’s force was adequate for a reconnaissance but Terry did not have enough men follow up a breakthrough or to hold the ground that it seized.
Clearly, Butler wasn’t sure whether he was making a reconnaissance or attack, either. According to Butler, the two divisions he recommended for the expedition numbered 7,458 officers and men, not many more than he supposed the Confederates had.37 Why then, since he knew Terry would encounter such a large number of Confederates, didn’t Butler give Terry more men?
Third, once Butler refused to give him more men for his mission, why did not Terry protest? How could his two divisions attack two Confederate divisions in their works and drive them off?
So much for the planning. The tactics were equally weak. Although he had two infantry divisions and a cavalry division, Terry failed to concentrate his troops for an assault on one spot. Instead, he spread his force out over a wide front and attacked with a single brigade which lacked a reserve to exploit a breakthrough.
Hancock had employed these ruinous tactics during the Riddell’s Shop and Fussell’s Mill Campaigns. Grant and Butler later replicated them again on October 27 at Burgess Mill and Second Fair Oaks. Indeed, these sorts of tactics were becoming standard procedure in the Armies of the Potomac and James.
It is difficult to disagree with Kautz’s conclusion that from its inception, everyone, from Butler down to the lowliest private, knew that the expedition would accomplish nothing except sacrifice several hundred men. Yet they all carried out Grant’s half-baked scheme as though it was brilliant strategy.
- For the date Field began building the works, see entry of October 11, 1864 in Thomas L. McCarty Diary, Eugene C. Barker History Center, University of Texas at Austin. ↩
- Kautz’s report of Butler is enclosed with Butler’s telegram to Grant, Oct. 12, 1864 in OR Vol. 42, Pt. 3, p. 182. ↩
- See Grant to Butler, Oct. 12, 1864 in OR Vol. 42, Pt. 3, p. 1683. ↩
- Butler to Terry, 12:30 p.m., Oct. 12, 1864 in OR Vol. 42, Pt. 3, p. 186. ↩
- See Terry to Butler, 2:30 p.m., Oct. 12, 1864 in OR Vol. 42, Pt. 3, p. 187 and Butler to Terry, 3:10 p.m., Oct. 12, 1864 in OR Vol. 42, Pt. 3, pp. 187-188. ↩
- For Field’s decision to move the Texas Brigade, see Charles H. Field, “Campaign of 1864 and 1865,” in Southern Historical Society Papers, 1886, p. 558. For building the earthwork, see entry of October 12, 1864 in Thomas L. McCarty Diary. For the ditch, see Oct. 12, 1864 entry in Edward R. Crockett Diary, Eugene C. Barker Texas History Center, U of Tx. at Austin. For Logan’s position, see letter dated Oct. 16, 1864 from “Our Army Correspondent” in Columbia Daily South Carolinian, Oct. 23, 1864. For the position of Bratton and DuBose, see Letter from “S” dated Nov, 12, 1864 in Daily Richmond Enquirer, Nov. 22, 1864, p. 1 col. 2-5. ↩
- For a description of the works, see Terry’s report in OR Vol. 42, Pt. 1, p. 681. ↩
- See Butler to Terry, 5:15 p.m, Oct. 12, 1864 in OR Vol. 42, Pt. 3, p. 189. ↩
- See Butler to Terry, Oct. 12, 1864 in OR Vol. 42, Pt. 3, pp. 189-190. ↩
- See Orders, X Corps, October 12, 1864 in OR Vol. 42, Pt. 3, p. 190. ↩
- See “Brigadier General August V. Kautz, U.S. Volunteers 1864 & 1865” p. 93. ↩
- For the time the march began, see report of Brig. Gen. Joseph R. Hawley in OR Vol. 42, Pt. 1, p. 706. ↩
- For the route of march, see Terry’s report in OR Vol. 42, Pt. 1, p. 681. ↩
- See report of Col. Ulysses Doubleday in OR Vol. 42, Pt. 1, pp. 776-777. ↩
- See report of Brig. Gen. Joseph R. Hawley in OR Vol. 42, Pt. 1, p. 706. ↩
- See Hawley’s report in OR Vol. 42, Pt. 1, p. 706. ↩
- For the distance advanced when the pickets were encountered, see report of Capt. S.S. Atwell in OR Vol. 42, Pt. 1, p. 714. ↩
- See Hawley’s report in OR Vol. 42, Pt. 1, p. 706. ↩
- See report of Col. Harris M. Plaisted in OR Vol. 42, pt. 1, p. 733. ↩
- See report of Col. Francis B. Pond in OR Vol. 42, Pt. 1, p. 630. ↩
- See Terry to Butler, 10:30 a.m., Oct. 13, 1864 in OR Vol. 42, pt. 3, p. 219. ↩
- For Lee’s arrival and his orders to Field, see Charles H. Field, “Campaign of 1864 and 1865,” p. 558. For the position of Bratton’s brigade, see entry of Oct. 13, 1864 in Itinerary of I Corps in OR Vol. 42, Pt, 1, p. 876. ↩
- Butler to Grant, 12 m., Oct. 13, 1864 in OR Vol. 42, Pt. 3, p. 213. ↩
- See Butler to Terry, Oct. 13, 1864 in OR Vol. 42, Pt. 3, p. 219. ↩
- Grant to Butler, Oct. 13, 1864 in OR Vol. 42, Pt. 3, p. 213. ↩
- Butler to Terry, 1:30 p.m., Oct. 13, 1864 in OR Vol. 42, Pt. 3, p. 219. ↩
- See Terry to Butler 2 p.m., Oct. 13, 1864 in OR Vol. 42, Pt. 3, p. 219. For Terry’s report of what Kautz told him, see Terry’s report in OR Vol. 42, Pt. 1, p. 682. ↩
- For the probable location of the attack, Terry’s report in OR Vol. 42, Pt. 1, p. 682. ↩
- Letter from Lt. Col. Homer A. Plimpton, quoted in Charles M. Clark, The History of the Thirty-Ninth Regiment Illinois Volunteer Veteran Infantry, p. 226. ↩
- See report of Francis A. Pond in OR Vol. 42, Pt. 1, p. 690. For Camp’s death, see W.A. McClendon, Recollections of War Times, p. 222. ↩
- See letter of Oct. 16, 1864 from “Our Army Correspondence.” ↩
- See report of Joseph R. Hawley in OR Vol. 42, Pt. 1, p. 707. ↩
- See Terry to Butler, 3 p.m., Oct. 13, 1864 in OR Vol. 42, Pt. 3, p. 220. ↩
- See report of Joseph R. Hawley in OR Vol. 42, Pt. 1, p. 707. ↩
- For the time the troops reached camp, see report of Capt. S.S. Atwell in OR Vol. 42, Pt. 1, p. 714. For the role of the Union artillery, see Terry’s report in OR Vol. 42, Pt. 1, p. 681. ↩
- For Terry’s loss see tabular statement for Oct. 13, 1864 in OR Vol. 42, Pt. 1, p. 148. For the Confederate casualties, see Letter of Nov. 12, 1864 from “S.” ↩
- See Butler to Terry, 3:10 p.m., Oct. 12, 1864 in OR Vol. 42, Pt. 3, pp. 187-188. ↩
Thank you for this great piece. I’ve never seen this battle discussed and analyzed in such detail. The obscure inscription “Darbytown Road” adorns my hometown’s Civil War monument alongside more familiar names like Antietam and Gettysburg: http://greenwichstreets.com/memorial-day-in-greenwich-our-civil-war-memor
I think I’ve posted about this elsewhere, but I highly recommend a volume of letters by a teenage private in the 10th Connecticut, Silas Edward Mead. There are transcriptions available at the Greenwich, CT Library but I hope one day they’ll make it more widely available. Mead talks quite a bit about Darbytown Road, and more is included (via his family’s oral tradition) in the book’s extensive footnotes. His good friend, Sgt. Caleb Holmes, was killed leading the 9 remaining men of Greenwich’s Company I in the assault. Mead was devastated, and outraged at Terry for ordering an attack that his officers and men knew would be suicidal. In his grief and anger he wrote, “Some men must die for others to get glory.”
It amazes me how many times officers and enlisted men fought bravely in obedience of orders they knew to be inevitably futile. There were countless “Pickett’s Charges” made by both sides in the Petersburg campaign alone.