Editor’s Note: Dan O’Connell has been producing excellent multi-part posts on some of the lesser known campaigns of the Civil War over at TOCWOC – A Civil War in his Campaign Series. I’ve taken this series on the First Battle of Deep Bottom, and with Dan’s permission, I’ve posted it here in its entirety. Dan’s specialty is engineering operations during the Civil War, and I think you’ll find his writing informative and engaging.
By the third week of June 1864 Union forces were stalemated in front of Petersburg. The promise of an early victory there wasted by the timidity of the commanders and poorly coordinated assaults. Grant, in an effort to disperse the Confederate defenders ordered Butler to seize and hold a bridgehead on the north shore of the James River. Such a move, he believed, would force Lee to extend his line to cover the approaches to Richmond in this quarter.
On June 20th thirty-six pontoon boats were rafted to be towed up the river from City Point. Arriving at 8:20 a.m. Captain Timothy Lubey and Company C of the 15th New York Engineers immediately ran into trouble. As they began to pull the boats ashore to be loaded on to wagons for the overland move they discovered a problem. At the landing Lubey found only eleven regular pontoon wagons, ten others of a different construction and the rest regular army wagons. As “about sixty colored troops” provided the labor to move the boats the engineers fell to work modifying the wagons for their purpose. The work delayed the move and the boats did not arrive at Jones Landing until 8:00 p.m. Waiting for them there was BG Robert Foster’s brigade of X Corps. The boats were downloaded and approximately 1400 infantry ferried one and a half miles to the landing site on the north shore of the river. On landing the Union skirmishers quickly pushed the Confederate pickets back. They established a position on a bluff west of the mouth of Bailey’s Creek (Four Mile Creek). This area, where the creek discharged into the James, was known locally as Deep Bottom. Behind them, Lubey began construction a pontoon bridge at 1:00 a.m. the span was completed at 4:00 a.m.
At the bridgehead the 11th Maine reported that although the area was heavily wooded it was soon laid bare “so vigorously did details from our regiment ply their axes.”As Grant had anticipated the move immediately drew the attention of General Lee. By July 6th Lee was asking Ewell if he could remove the threat. Ewell made no real effort to erase the bridgehead, but established batteries to harass Union river traffic. The fire of these guns was enough to convince Grant to expand the bridgehead to occupy these favorable artillery positions. On July 23rd a second brigade crossed the river and assumed positions on the east side of Bailey’s Creek. The escalating troop totals foretold a coming battle. Indeed both commanders had plans for this area.
With the basic roles of the campaign determined (Grant-offense; Lee-defense) the commanders had to create the means to accomplish their goals. Frustrated by the lack of progress in front of Petersburg, Grant decided to make use of his two brigade bridgehead. He was determined to turn it into a base for a thrust at the enemy communications. In a July 25th message to Meade, Grant explained the concept of this operation.
“I propose to make a demonstration on the north side of the James River, having for its real object the destruction of the railroad on that side.”
The resources Grant intended to use for this mission were not insignificant. Slated for use was Hancock’s II Corps, then sitting in reserve behind the front line, and two divisions of Sheridan’s Cavalry Corps. The primary objective was the Virginia Central Railroad and to ensure the destruction of the bridges over the Chickahominy Grant also promised to attach 200 railroad men from Rufus Ingalls to the expedition.
The cavalry was to punch through the thin line Confederate line surrounding the bridgehead and advance as “rapidly as possible” while Hancock’s men ensured that Sheridan’s troopers were not cut off from the river. Hancock also was to use his discretion if in his judgment it was possible to launch his force or any part of his force at Richmond. In a second July 25th wire to Meade, Grant added another potential advantage to the Union effort. Burnside’s mine was nearly ready to be loaded with explosives and Grant felt “the expedition ordered may cause such a weakening of the enemy at Petersburg as to make an attack there possible.”
Of course before any of these benefits could be felt it was necessary to get the assigned troops into position to execute the plan. Grant wanted this to be done as secretly and rapidly as possible. The proposed movement placed two major water obstacles in their path, the Appomattox and James Rivers. The rapid deployment of such a large force required additional crossings. The Appomattox was bridged in an unopposed effort by Captain Henry Slosson and the 15th New York Engineers at Broadway Landing. Hancock was instructed to use the existing bridge at Point of Rocks and the cavalry was to cross at Broadway Landing. At the James, Lubey would again lead the effort to place another bridge.
For General Lee the goal was simpler. Lee had correctly evaluated the Union actions to be an attempt at “preventing our operations on the river.” Furthermore, the enemy had challenged his left flank and had to be checked. To accomplish this he ordered MG James Kershaw’s Division of I Corps to Chaffin’s Bluff early on July 23rd to supplement BG James Conner’s South Carolina Brigade. His order instructed the troops to “move by a route so as not to be observed by the enemy and as rapidly as possible.” There was no room for “unnecessary delay.”
Kershaw’s men were in position the following day. A report reached Lee describing the Federal activities. It also informed Lee that Kershaw had “disposed of his troops so as to defend” the roads radiating out from the Union bridgehead. Disappointed Lee chastised Kershaw through Ewell with a scathing commentary on his actions.
“My object in sending troops there was to endeavor to dislodge the enemy, drive them across the river and destroy the bridges, and if practicable I wish this done, and have sent a dispatch to General Kershaw to that effect. We cannot afford to sit down in front of the enemy and allow him to entrench himself whenever he pleases, and I wish you to see if you cannot break him up on the north side of the James River.”
Not surprisingly Kershaw responded to the request with a message that acknowledged his intent to attack. At this point both Kershaw and Lee believed that they were to assault two Federal brigades. The enemy was well entrenched and success was not guaranteed. Little did they know that a short distance to the south an entire Union corps and two cavalry divisions were about to enter the battle space.
Bridge at Deep Bottom
Kershaw responding to Lee’s call for aggressive action increased the pressure on the Union bridgehead. As a result the opposing sides conducted a series of back and forth forays for control of the batteries and road network. On the 25th a position gained and held by the 11th Maine was turned over to two regiments of Col. Leonard Currie’s Brigade. The pickets from the 162nd New York were attacked and called for reinforcement. The remainder of the regiment went up to strengthen the line but “fell into an ambuscade” and were driven back into the works surrounding the pontoon bridge. Foster was disgusted with the effort and accused Currie’s men of “shameful conduct.” Foster, at the suggestion of his staff engineer, requested sand bags and pick axes to fortify his line.
The entire compliment of Federal troops was called into the trenches in anticipation of a general attack.
When the expected attack did not materialize the Union forces decided to regain the initiative. On the 26th Colonel Harris M. Plaisted, commanding the 11th Maine, ordered his troops back across the creek supported by the 10th Connecticut. The skirmishers, under LTC Jonathan Hill advanced so “vigorously” under the supporting fire of gunboats and a battery that the Confederate pickets were driven “steadily back. “ The effort had so drained the cartridge boxes of the advancing force that Sergeant-Major Morton was sent to borrow ammunition from the First Maryland Cavalry (Dismounted). As the fighting escalated Hill’s skirmishers were reinforced by Companies A and H. The close proximity of the opposing lines created a dangerous condition. Unfortunately the perilous position led to a sad result. A short round from the gunboat U.S.S. Shokotan exploded amongst the men as they were constructing some hasty rifle pits “throwing its fragments among the men, wounding twelve, all mortally or very seriously.”
At nightfall the forward line of the 11th was relieved by troops from the 10th Connecticut. Chaplain Henry Clay Trumbull recalled:
“…picket posts were for a portion of the way within a few yards of each other, so that even a heavily drawn breath could be heard across the line.”
What was heard were preparations by the Confederates to regain the lost territory. Artillery was moved into the Confederate line, so close to the Union pickets that “a single discharge of grape from the battery could sweep them away like chaff.” Believing that they could not successfully resist the coming attack the troops were recalled to the other side of the creek. Two days of close quarters fighting cost Plaisted 23 casualties. Confederate losses were reported by Plaisted at 108.
July 27th (2400-0800)
While Foster conducted his isolated fight to preserve the bridgehead Hancock began his move. His orders were to cross the Appomattox at dark and proceed to Deep Bottom. After crossing that river he was to travel by side roads “so that the cavalry, which was crossing at Broadway Landing, might have an unobstructed road to Deep Bottom. “ The difficult passage down the unknown road in the dark was eased by General Butler who arranged to have the way lit by small fires placed at convenient intervals.
Arriving at the James, Hancock met with Sheridan and Foster. During the meeting Hancock briefed what he understood of his role in the operation. He was to take positions near Chaffin’s Bluff and prevent the Confederates from crossing troops to the north side of the river. This clearly was at odds with Grant’s commander’s intent to draw the Confederates in that direction to weaken the force in front of Burnside. Hancock went on to state that all other moves on his part were dependent on Sheridan’s actions. Again this seemed in contrast to Grant’s concept that had Hancock holding open the way by engaging the enemy west of Sheridan’s axis of advance.
These apparent misconceptions about his role in the operation were compounded after Hancock was briefed on the conditions across the river by Foster. After hearing what Foster had to say Hancock believed he was facing seven brigades (roughly 6000 men).1 Based on this information Hancock made a startling announcement, instead of crossing at the upper bridge as planned he would move his corps to the lower bridge. It was an odd choice for two reasons. First he based his decision on Foster’s report alone that the enemy he was intended to drive away (or at least occupy) “held, apparently in considerable force a strong position near the upper bridge.” He did not report conducting a reconnaissance. Second using the lower bridge not only took him away from his target but placed a significant natural obstacle (Bailey’s Creek) squarely in his path. More surprisingly Meade readily assented to the change in plans in a 2:15 a.m. message stating only:
“You may use the lower bridge for the object selected.”
Hancock wasted no time acting on this approval. At 3:00 a.m. he issued the following order;
“We will use the lower bridge for the infantry; let division commanders be ready at daylight. I shall develop the enemy’s position by General Barlow and, if necessary General Mott2, seizing, if possible, the position in front and holding the crossing over Four Mile Run. We will then see if we can break through while the cavalry is passing us…”
The march to the lower bridge consumed the remainder of the night. It was not until 7:25 a.m. that Hancock could report his last brigade was crossing the bridge. Hancock, who announced that he did not use the upper crossing partly because it would cause the operation to “lose the character of surprise” had given the Confederates extra time to fortify their defense at the creek.
July 27 (0800-2400)
Once across the river Hancock assembled his forces behind “a belt of timber “in Strawberry Plains. At dawn First and Third Divisions threw out skirmishers across the Malvern Hill road. On the right MG Greshom Mott deployed the 99th and 110th Pennsylvania with the 40th New York extending the line as flankers on the right. The line advanced to “feel the woods in the front.” The enemy was quickly found and the Pennsylvania regiments became “hotly engaged”. The 73rd New York was hustled to their assistance while the remainder of the brigade took a position at a “large house on the right”. Mott’s Third Brigade was brought up to fill the resulting gap between them and the First Division troops. The additional strength forced the Confederates back with “heavy skirmishing” until they reached the Long Bridge Road where they came under a “sharp artillery fire.”
On the left Miles’ (filling in for the departed Barlow) First Division sent out a skirmish line of three regiments; 28th Massachusetts, 26th Michigan, and 183rd Pennsylvania. The line advanced at 6:00 a.m. “without indication of the enemy “until it neared the Long Bridge Road. There they came under fire from a “force partially entrenched in the road”. The enemy battery consisted of four 20-pound Parrotts. Col. James Lynch maneuvered his line of skirmishers using terrain to mask his movements and by “a vigorous push” gained a position on the flank of the battery. At the right hand end of the line the 28th Massachusetts executed a left half wheel that allowed them to throw “an enfilading fire into the battery.” The surprised Confederate gunners fled leaving their pieces, complete with caissons, to be captured. Francis Walker chronicled the capture in his history of the Second Corps this way:
“Never, I think did men of the Second Corps so greatly enjoy riding Confederate cannon into camp. Ten-pound Parrotts our fellows knew; knew them subjectively and knew them objectively; knew them by shelling and new them by being shelled; but twenty-pound Parrotts seemed altogether a different thing, and as the great engines were one after another hauled out of the works and brought down the road on the run, they were greeted with loud cheers…”
This promising start was followed by a pursuit. Gibbon’s Second Division was thrown forward and began pushing the retreating Confederates down the Long Bridge Road toward Bailey’s Creek. Another battery was driven off and by the afternoon Hancock’s Corps found themselves on the east bank of the creek. It was now that they realized the folly of placing this obstacle in their path. Gazing across the stream they found a position “of great natural strength” the passage of the creek alone by a line of battle was declared impossible. On the far side of the creek the situation was even more severe. Approximately a half mile of open ground fronted the Confederate line that bristled with cannon and muskets. Hancock decided “after careful examination of the position” that a direct assault would be too costly and declined to attempt it.
Instead he embarked on a reconnaissance to determine to the limits of the Confederate works. The 26th Michigan was detached from 1st Brigade, 1st Division to explore north along the edge of the stream to find the limits of the enemy position. They moved in the direction of the Charles City Road occasionally skirmishing with Confederate pickets but were unable to locate any weakness in the Confederate works that would offer the chance of success. The day’s activities cost the regiment five casualties (2 killed, 3 wounded). By nightfall Second Corps troops were fortifying their position along the road. The 28th Massachusetts reported that by 7 p.m. they had returned to the works captured in the morning “felling trees and building earth-works.”Sheridan’s cavalry was up and formed at the extreme right of the Federal line.
The afternoon also saw a visit by General Grant. The commander was unable to locate Hancock but left a 3:30 p.m. message regarding his observations of the situation.
“I do not see that much is likely to be done (about crossing the creek). If, however , you can push past the enemy’s flank and double him back on Chaffin’s Bluff , so as to let the cavalry out to perform their part of the expedition , do so.”
In response Hancock exaggerated his efforts at reconnaissance claiming that two full divisions were “feeling for the enemy’s left.” Other than that Hancock informed Grant that anything not done before nightfall could not be accomplished because his troops were too tired. The arrival of BG Henry Birge’s brigade of XIX Corps as reinforcement and the administrative movement of some regiments to new brigades concluded the day’s activities.
On the morning of the 28th the situation remained unchanged. The Federal line extended along the Long Bridge Road with Hancock’s II Corps on the left and Sheridan’s cavalry on the right. The troopers had experienced only a short little skirmish with the 10th and 50th Georgia the previous day and were itching to move on. Grant had just the plan in mind to satisfy that desire. He ordered an attempt to sweep around the Confederate left. While Torbert’s division remained to secure the left, BG David Gregg’s 2nd Division would circle around the enemy left on a little used country road. On the other side of the line the Confederates, encouraged by Hancock’s hesitancy and the arrival of reinforcements planned an attack of their own on the Union right. Kershaw gathered four brigades and struck out through the trees in search of the Union line. The opposing moves sent the two attacking forces directly at each other. The resulting meeting engagement pitted Sheridan’s cavalry against four brigades of Confederate infantry.
In the lead, riders from the 10th New York Cavalry and 6th Ohio Cavalry made initial contact with the Confederate skirmishers and were thrown back in surprise. They were reinforced by dismounted members of the 1st Pennsylvania and 1st New Jersey. What started out as enemy skirmishers quickly turned into a battle line of four infantry brigades. The troopers fell back leaving a battery of artillery without support. The guns kept up the fire until the last moment before limbering the pieces. They had waited too long and “the wheel-horses of one gun were shot.” The gun was abandoned to be captured by the advancing Confederate line.
The rapid retreat of the 2nd Division caught the troopers of the 1st Division, who had not expected an active part in the operation, somewhat unprepared. The 6th New York Cavalry recorded:
“The men of the Sixth had not saddled their horses, some were giving them their accustomed morning’s grooming, others were taking them to water at a small stream nearby, some were cooking their morning’s rations , while others were lying in the long grass with their thoughts turned homeward; it was an ideal picture, but a storm was at hand.”
Although “Stand to Horse” was sounded the troopers were completely unprepared to fight mounted. The lack of preparation rapidly became an advantage. A stand by Merritt’s Regulars briefly stalled the advance and gained time for the others to quickly organize for a fight on foot. The terrain favored such a fight and allowed the troopers to take advantage of the fire superiority of their carbines. When the Confederate line came within “a few rods from us” they were met with a blizzard of fire. The Confederate line wavered and then broke. The infantry fled back “making cover of a piece of woods.” Across the line the Union troopers advanced on foot with the 9th New York gaining a flanking position. Realizing the danger of their situation the Confederates again attempted a retreat across an open field. Their ranks “were terribly thinned” by the rapid volleys. The survivors fell in behind a Virginia rail fence and opened on the advancing Federals. The blue line stalled momentarily but as the Confederate fire slackened the order “Forward” was issued down the line. The renewed surge was more than the Confederates could bear. The position at the fence collapsed and those that still could disappeared into the forest. Left behind were nearly 200 prisoners, many of whom had simply fallen to the ground to avoid the hail of gunfire coming from the Union line. Satisfied with their victory over the vaunted enemy infantry the troopers did not pursue. The last combat of the Deep Bottom expedition was over.
Conclusion and Assessment
The Union bridgehead was removed during the overnight of July 28-29. Grant , searching for some justification for the miserable performance, noted that they had drawn five Confederate divisions north of the river. It made no difference as the mine explosion led to nothing but a bloody fiasco. The promise of operations north of the James was not fulfilled in this operation but the idea was not abandoned. The Union forces would make another foray across the river in August.
Most that have looked at this minor campaign have cast a disdainful eye on Hancock’s effort here. My reading on the operations here expand that criticism to nearly all the commanders involved. Only Colonel Foster seems to have turned in a credible performance. He was tasked to gain and maintain a bridgehead and he did so. The other commanders did not live up to that standard. A review:
Hancock: The criticism of Hancock is well deserved. The Hancock that led II Corps across the James was not “Superb”, in fact he would have a hard time qualifying for “Mediocre” here. His decision to shift away from the original plan so early without so much as a reconnaissance started a chain of events that left him incapable of accomplishing his primary mission. By moving away from the upper bridge he allowed a vastly inferior force extra time to increase their defensive posture. Putting the water obstacle and distance between himself and the enemy he allowed them to choose their ground with time to more fully develop the position.
Sheridan: The cavalry commander ceded all authority to Hancock and displayed none of the aggressiveness that marked his other campaigns. When Hancock needed prodding to push him ahead Sheridan offered no such reinforcement. Sheridan did not write a report on the operations at Deep Bottom and mentioned it in his memoirs only to deflect all responsibility to Hancock for the conduct of the campaign.
Kershaw: The Confederate commander got off to a bad start. He assumed the defensive instead of the desired offensive operations thereby passing on the opportunity of striking the Union bridgehead at its weakest. Was he assumed the offensive he was never quite able to eliminate the bridgehead as desired by Lee. He was soundly beaten back in the meeting engagement with the Union cavalry although he gained a measure of redemption when the sloppy fight with the Union troopers dissuaded them from following up their success.
The real value of this campaign is to highlight the value of force multipliers. At critical moments in the operations both sides used these to achieve critical results. The Confederates, with the time allotted them by Hancock’s move away, used terrain and defensive works that allowed a handful of undermanned brigades to stop a much more powerful force. The Union cavalry was able to use their rapid fire weapons to create a volume of fire that allowed them to defeat a foe foe that had traditionally scoffed at them. The concept of force multipliers is still a major factor in American military planning.
- Official Records of the War of the Rebellion Volume XL
- Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies Volume 10
- History of the 100th Regiment of New York State Volunteer by George Stowits
- The 24th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteers 1861-1866 by Alfred Roe
- Diary of Battles, Marches, and Incidents of the 7th South Carolina Regiment
- War memories of an Army Chaplain by Henry Clay Trumbull
- History of the Second Army Corps in the Army of the Potomac by Francis A. Walker
- The story of one regiment: the Eleventh Maine Infantry Volunteers
- Committee Official Virginia Civil War Battlefield Guide by John Salmon
- The Boy General: The Life and Careers of Francis Channing Barlow by Richard Welch
- History of the 1st New Jersey Cavalry by Henry Pyne
- A History of the First Regiment of Massachusetts Cavalry Volunteers by Benjamin Crowinshield
- Personal Reminiscences of Service in the Cavalry of the Army of the Potomac by Hampton Thomas
- History of a Cavalry Company by William Hyndman
- History of the Seventh Regiment of Cavalry New York State Volunteers by Noble Preston
- Reminiscences of the 6th New York Cavalry by Alonzo Foster
- History of the Ninth Regiment New York Volunteer Cavalry by Newel Cheney
- History of the Seventeenth Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteer Cavalry by Regimental Committee
- Personal Memoirs by Philip Sheridan