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Review In Brief: Back Door to Richmond: The Bermuda Hundred Campaign, April-June 1864

Books on the Bermuda Hundred Campaign

Back Door to Richmond: The Bermuda Hundred Campaign, April-June 1864
by William Glenn Robertson
284 pp., 15 maps

The 1864 Bermuda Hundred Campaign, while fascinating, has been largely ignored in favor of the Grant-Lee match up occurring simultaneously to the north. Benjamin Butler was given the XVIII Corps, located around Fort Monroe under the command of William F. “Baldy” Smith; and the X Corps, the former soldiers of the Department of the South which had spent the better part of the previous year trying to figure out how to get into Charleston, South Carolina and under Quincy Gillmore. He formed his Army of the James from these two Corps and prepared to move forward to Bermuda Hundred (basically a peninsula) and City Point to secure a supply base for Grant when he arrived on the scene. Over the next few weeks, Butler did succeed in creating a base at Bermuda Hundred, but he was very tentative in moving either southwest (towards Petersburg) or northwest (towards Drewry’s Bluff and Richmond). In the end and after several smaller fights, Butler moved on Drewry’s Bluff, had his right partially driven in by forces under Pierre Beauregard, and was forced to retreat to Bermuda Hundred and his fortifications. Grant then sent for Smith and the XVIII Corps to fight at Cold Harbor, leaving one division each from the X and XVIII Corps to hold the Bermuda Hundred line. An attack on Petersburg was led by Quincy Gillmore on June 9 failed miserably, and soon the Petersburg Campaign began.

The commonly held perception is that “Beast” Butler had been corked in a bottle on Bermuda Hundred. It has also been commonly assumed that Butler’s goal was to take Richmond (or Petersburg) outright before Grant ever arrived on the scene. Robertson argues that Butler was operating under the assumption that Grant would be near Richmond within ten days, as Grant had told him. Therefore, when the ten days had passed and Grant was still well to the north, Butler grew worried that some part of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia might help Beauregard crush and destroy Butler’s men. Robertson says Butler was operating under the assumption that his main goal was to get a supply base ready, and the successful capture of Richmond was a bit of an afterthought. Another common problem people have with Butler is that he failed to take Petersburg. Robertson replies that Grant never emphasized the importance of Petersburg, and Grant later admitted this himself. The last problem Robertson says Butler had to deal with were his two main subordinates, Baldy Smith and Quincy Gillmore. Smith was well-known as a cantankerous sort who tended to disagree with his immediate superiors more often than not. Gillmore apparently was a General who “had the slows”, failing to act rapidly on more than one occasion during the campaign. The author believes that has Hincks led the attack on Petersburg on June 9 instead of Gillmore, it most likely would have fallen. With all of that said, Robertson does not exclude Butler from blame either. He says Butler should have never left the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad after he cut it early in the campaign. The Confederates wisely used the time Butler sat in his trenches to repair the railroad and send enough men north to Drewry’s Bluff to successfully combat Butler’s advance. Robertson believes that Butler could have defeated the Confederates in detail had he kept a choke hold on the railroad. Lastly, I do not want to leave out the limitations P.G.T. Beauregard dealt with in defending Petersburg and Richmond. First, his direct superiors Braxton Bragg and Jefferson Davis held a strong personal animosity towards Beauregard. This made it difficult for Beauregard to make the decisions he felt necessary to properly combat Butler’s advance without always worrying about interference from above. Second, he got weaker and weaker as troops from his Department of North Carolina and Southern Virginia kept getting shuttled northward to Lee. And lastly, Beauregard was working with a cobbled-together force whose commanders were sometimes unknown to him personally. Through all of this and with some luck and the help of the Union command problems at the top, Beauregard managed to stave off disaster. He faced an even larger challenge on June 15, 1864.

Robertson’s study is loaded with excellent maps, and it is apparent that the author took nothing for granted in studying this misunderstood campaign. The author presents an interesting campaign study that includes backgrounds on the leaders, adds in personal vignettes from time to time, and includes detailed tactical studies of the individual battles. Robertson relies mainly on primary sources, including material from many manuscript collections, unit histories, etc. Like any good historian, he throws out hindsight and asks the question, “what did they know and when did they know it?” This leads to some conclusions which differ greatly from the “Battles & Leaders” version of Bermuda Hundred. I had never read a study of this campaign before now, and I feel like I have a stronger grasp of what occurred during this time frame. Morningside Bookshop has also published a book on the campaign by Herbert Schiller, but the hardback copy I desire has been difficult to find at a reasonable price. I hope to eventually own a copy of that book so that I can compare and contrast the conclusions drawn by the two authors.

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