≡ Menu

Book Excerpt: The Battle of Petersburg, June 15-18, 1864, Part 1

BattleOfPetersburgJune1864ChickPotomacEditor’s Note: This series of posts offer a look at Sean Chick’s new book The Battle of Petersburg, June 15-18, 1864.  The Battle of Petersburg was part of Grant’s First Offensive against Petersburg. Sean Michael Chick is a 33 year old New Orleans native who has been reading Civil War book since he first saw the film Glory in 1990. He earned a Masters degree in 2007 from Southeastern Louisiana University. His thesis became the basis of The Battle of Petersburg. His tentative future projects include books on Bermuda Hundred, Honey Hill, Tullahoma, and Confederate New Orleans.  In the coming weeks we’ll be offering up several pages of Chapter 3, which focuses on the first day’s fighting on June 15, 1864.    These posts will take readers up to the release of the book in mid-June 2015, 151 years after the events described within.  Also keep an eye out for an exclusive interview with Sean as the last post in the series.  Be sure to check out the bottom of each post to see links for all of the published posts in this series to date.


Chapter Three

Day One: Wednesday, June 15, 1864

BATTLE, n. A method of untying with the teeth of a political knot that would not yield to the tongue.[i] – Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary


On the northern bank of the James River, a great mass of men and horses crossed the now completed pontoon bridge. They were across the James River and as Charles A. Page summed it up “once on the other side, your imagination is as good as mine.”[ii] There was no Manassas or Fredericksburg here, only a clean slate, an area without memories of defeat and bloodshed. Indeed, the only famous landmark was Sherwood Forest, the plantation of John Tyler. Although the tenth President of the United States, he had supported the Confederacy before his death in 1862. Some of the soldiers peeked at his old home and mocked him as a traitor while most ignored the house completely.

There was a prevailing feeling of relief at the unimpeded crossing of the James River which was shown in a thousand small acts of gratitude and merriment. A. M. Judson of the 83rd Pennsylvania likened the army’s arrival at the James to Xenophon and his 10,000 Greeks reaching the Black Sea. Captain Charles Francis Adams Jr. of the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry went into a kind of poetical rapture at the sight of the James musing on history and nature in a manner similar to Herman Melville. Like Judson, he too drew a parallel to Xenophon. As the 7th Rhode Island marched passed a nearby swamp a band played “Ain’t we glad to get out of the wilderness.”[iii] Lieutenant Colonel Rufus Dawes, commander of the 6th Wisconsin and a hero of Gettysburg, wrote to his wife that “it is very refreshing to get to the beautiful slopes of this broad river.”[iv] Such sentiments represented a reborn, if limited, optimism that coursed throughout the army. Indeed, Sylvester B. Partridge was impressed that “the dusty, ragged, sunburnt soldiers were…as full of life and jollity as if out on picnic.” [v] In general, the army had a feeling of elation brought on by moving through unspoiled land around the enemy flank rather than being thrust into earthworks.

While some members of the II Corps swam in the James and waited for their units to form, Private Frank Wilkeson of the 11th New York Artillery took advantage of the lull to find food and water. He was denied a taste of clear spring water set aside for officers but a withered old slave gave him a hoecake. For Captain Augustus C. Brown of the 4th New York Heavy Artillery, the crossing offered a chance for a quick rest and a delightful turkey lunch, the best meal he had in weeks. Theodore Lyman, upon seeing the sailors who came ashore, was unable to understand what made them look odd. Then he realized that they had clean shirts and were surrounded by an army of dust-covered veterans. The Army of the Potomac was still a battered outfit, but the James crossing gave them a brief respite.[vi]

Grant himself arrived and gazed upon the great horde under his command.  Gone was the cigar his men always saw. He even had his hands clasped behind him, like Napoleon reviewing his men. The sounds of men, animals, steamboats, martial music, and distant cannon fire from the west filled the air and turned it into a kind of military symphony. After the war, a veteran from the 7th Rhode Island recalled that “passing over, the glare of campfires, the tolling of steamers’ bells, the shrieks of their whistles and the grim dusky warships fully outlined in the moonlight alike contributed to the impressive weirdness of the scene.”[vii] In later years, Horace Porter described the crossing as “a matchless pageant that could not fail to inspire all beholders with the grandeur of achievement and the majesty of military power.”[viii]

From Lincoln, Grant received that morning a simple message: “I begin to see it. You will succeed. God bless you all.”[ix] However, the martial synchronicity at the James River hid a much more odious chaos lingering just below the surface. Grant failed to inform Meade and Hancock that Petersburg was the true objective of the operation. Some of this was due to secrecy. Grant did not want his plans being leaked to the newspapers and the enemy, but he had also gone too far in keeping his top commanders in the dark. Rather than explain his intentions in any detail, Grant left to board a steamer and moved to City Point. He set up his headquarters and, to Partridge’s chagrin, took over the wonderful grounds that Hinks and Partridge had previously enjoyed. Those grounds belonged to Richard Eppes. In 1862 his plantation at City Point was overrun, and most of slaves, including fifty-year-old Madison Ruffin, his most trusted house servant, had gone with the Union army. Many, such as Richard Slaughter, would join the Union army, with Slaughter enlisting in the 19th USCT. Eppes himself was now in Petersburg, working as a doctor in the military hospitals. The grounds of Eppes’ grand plantation was converted into Grant’s headquarters. The property sat on a high bluff, which promised a good breeze and an excellent view of the James and Appomattox Rivers. The area though was not complete secured. Rebel partisans and cavalry roamed the area and according to Comstock Charles Dana and Lieutenant Colonel Orville E. Babcock, Grant’s aide-de-camp, were nearly captured on June 15.

Since June 14, the artists working for Frank Lelise’s Illustrated Newspaper and Harper’s Weekly had been looking over the James River crossing, making sketches to send back to the newspapers. Among those present was Edwin Forbes, William Waud, and Edward F. Mullen. On June 15 Forbes and Mullen left Wilcox’s Landing, leaving that picturesque scene of organization for the excitement and disorganization of William F. Smith’s Appomattox River crossing. His troops had been scattered between the port of Bermuda Hundred and Point of Rocks to the south. Night marches were made in order to concentrate the troops at Point of Rocks, which tired out the men. Disorganization reigned. The 23rd Massachusetts found itself in the company of two different brigades before it finally was sent to its parent brigade. By 3:00 a.m., Hinks’ division was across the Appomattox River ready to march on Petersburg and carry out a dawn attack. His unit was entirely composed of eager black soldiers and their white officers. Hinks, though, had to wait for August Kautz’s cavalry, which did not arrive until 5:00 a.m. In the meantime, Hinks’ men advanced only slowly south. Smith’s planned dawn attack would not occur.

Although late, the advance got off well at first and by all accounts XVIII Corps was in high spirits after leaving Cold Harbor. Smith made a broad march to the southwest down towards Petersburg, which lay some seven and half miles from the crossing at Point of Rocks. On the right, marching along the River Road, was Brigadier General John H. Martindale’s division. The center consisted of Brigadier General W. T. H. Brooks’ division. Brooks was followed by Brigadier General Adelbert Ames’ two brigades, led by Colonels Louis Bell and N. Martin Curtis coming up the rear. Ames had to leave Colonel William B. Barton’s brigade back at Bermuda Hundred. The left flank, coming up City Point Road was held by Edward Hinks’ division and the cavalry.

These commanders offered Smith a mixed bag. Kautz had an uneven reputation. Hinks was unpopular with many due to his Radical Republican ideals. Ames was young, aggressive, fearless, but at times a bit unhinged. He graduated from West Point in 1861 and owed his promotion to his bravery and friendship with Meade. His small division was well served by both of his brigade commanders. Bell was young and aggressive, and although he had no West Point training, he was a natural at discipline and organization. Curtis was the tallest man in the division, measuring six feet and seven inches. His family worried that he was an easy target but Curtis ignored their concerns and was utterly fearless in battle. Brooks and Martindale were West Point trained professionals, but both were suffering from poor health. Brooks had fought at numerous battles and, while commanding the famed Vermont Brigade, suffered a grave wound at Savage’s Station that had made him less active in the field. Martindale was another case altogether. He had only served briefly in the antebellum army, leaving to become one of the nation’s most successful lawyers. He seems to have had a penchant for helping those in need; he famously and successfully litigated on behalf of the Seneca tribe before the United States Supreme Court. As a battlefield commander he was unspectacular. At Gaines Mill his position was overrun. Posted to Washington D.C. since November 1862, he owed his current division command to Butler’s friendship.

Smith himself was a mixed bag. He was known throughout the army as “Baldy” to distinguish him from the eleven other generals with his last name. Regardless of his hair follicle count, he was among the most eccentric and intelligent commanders of the war. Smith ran a relaxed headquarters, serving champagne and fine food. Yet, as popular as he was with his subordinates, Smith was hypercritical of his superiors. In 1863, he was shelved because of his personal attacks on Burnside. His good services to Grant during the Chattanooga campaign brought him back into the spotlight, and he was rumored to be Meade’s replacement before the Wilderness. Instead, Grant gave him the relatively inexperienced XVIII Corps and placed him under Butler as he drove toward Richmond. Grant’s choice was a mistake. Smith despised the incompetent Butler and blamed him for the failure to seize Richmond. Discord increased when Smith, who had fought gallantly at Cold Harbor and had seen the stupidity of the attack firsthand, blamed Meade for that fiasco. He was also ill on June 15, which did not help his irascible disposition. So it was that a sickly, pessimistic, and ill-tempered man found himself leading some 14,000 troops in support of two commanders he despised. He was also starting to question Grant’s generalship and methods, although Meade and Butler were still his preferred targets. Butler for his part had thoroughly supported Smith in his drive on Petersburg by augmenting his force with the divisions led by Kautz and Hinks. Both men and the regiments they led had some knowledge of the area and Smith relied upon Kautz in making his plans before the march on Petersburg began.[x]

[i]           Bierce, 15.

[ii]           Charles A. Page, Letters of a War Correspondent (Boston:  L. C. Page, 1899), 119.

[iii]                     William P. Hopkins, The Seventh Rhode Island Volunteers in the Civil War 1862-1865 (Providence: Snow & Farnham, 1903), 90.

[iv]          Rufus R. Dawes, Service with the Sixth Wisconsin Volunteers (Marietta: E. R. Alderman & Sons, 1890), 290.

[v]           Sylvester B. Partridge, “With the Signal Corps.” In Papers Read Before the Commandery of the  State of Maine, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States Vol. VOL. IV (Portland, ME: Lefavor-Tower,1915), 88.

[vi]          Augustus C. Brown, The Diary of a Line Officer: Company H Fourth New York Heavy Artillery (New York: n.p., 1906), 71-73; David H. King. A. Judson Gibbs, and Jay H. Northup, History of the Ninety-Third Regiment, New York Volunteer Infantry, 1861-1865 (Milwaukee: Swain & Tate, 1895), 103; Lyman, 163; Frank Wilkeson, Recollections of a Private Soldier in the Army of the Potomac (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1887), 153-56.

[vii]         Hopkins, 190.

[viii]         Porter, 200.

[ix]          Butler, Private and Official Correspondence of Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, Vol. IV, 373.

[x]           Butler, Private and Official Correspondence of Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, Vol. IV, 363-65; Catton,  A Stillness at Appomattox, 182-184; Rhea, Cold Harbor, 109; Noah Trudeau, The Last Citadel (Boston: Little, Brown, 1991), 32.


Posts in this Series:

{ 0 comments… add one }

Leave a Reply