≡ Menu

Book Excerpt: The Battle of Petersburg, June 15-18, 1864, Part 4

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.



As the Union regiments formed up,William Russell of the 26th Virginia observed that “we had such a small force here it made me tremble to see them.”[i] Wise had to cover miles of trenches with about 3,000 men, one-third of these being Dearing’s tired cavalry. He could expect few immediate reinforcements. The rest of Dearing’s brigade, some 800 strong, were on their way. Also, the 59th Virginia was on detached duty and would not arrive until night fall. All told, Wise would have no more than 4,500 men before nightfall. Since the line was a nearly continuous trench, Beauregard believed that it required at least 25,000 men to hold it, far fewer than he could hope to bring forward before June 17. One breach would allow an attacker to flank large chunks of the line, including the batteries which would be exposed from the rear.

Wise could not cover all the ground himself, so he divided his command. Colonel Powhatan R. Page, the gallant and popular commander of the 26th Virginia, would hold the defenses from Batteries 1 to 14. Page’s left was on low ground covered by artillery on the north side of the Appomattox. This line was held by the 46th Virginia. Batteries 5 through 12 were on high ground and covered by the 26th Virginia and 44th Virginia Battalion. On the right was the 34th Virginia. Wise personally commanded the area just south of Battery 14 all the way to Battery 23 with elements of his brigade. He believed that the rough terrain made an attack from here unlikely, so it was his weakest part of the line. Colston and Dearing covered the rest of the line to the south with the 64th Georgia as well as cavalry and most of the militia. The 64th Georgia was a well-regarded unit, even though on June 15 only six companies numbering roughly 400 troops were on hand. Made up of conscripts, teenagers, and veterans recovering from wounds, the unit had fought well at Olustee and was noted for its discipline. The roughly 400 man outfit had found itself near Petersburg, rounding up stragglers and doing picket work at the Howlett Line. The latter job was no easy matter. Private Edmond Jones told his wife, “Our duty is pretty heavy. We have to stand on duty 2 days and nights out of four days and nights. This is not the fighting however all day and then perhaps throwin up breast works all night or lie in the ditches with the Yanks a bangin at us.”[ii]

Units like the 64th Georgia were scarce, for much of Wise’s brigade was relatively  inexperienced. Worst of all, Wise’s men were spread thin; roughly one man for every four yards. Wise’s only advantage was in artillery. As far as field artillery went, part of Lieutenant Colonel E.F. Moseley’s artillery battalion was present, the rest being en route to the battlefield. The other artillery was commanded by Major Francis J. Boggs, a Pennsylvanian and Methodist minister. Boggs had distinguished himself at First Bull Run and had organized the 12th Battalion Virginia Light Artillery. Boggs had two batteries on hand and some spare guns, but not enough men to service the guns. After June 9, some infantry were pressed into artillery service. As XVIII Corps approached Wise ordered even more infantry, including many sick and wounded men to man the numerous guns that were on hand. These included heavy artillery that could not be moved but still offered Wise considerable defensive firepower. All told Wise had a combined total of twenty-five artillery guns on hand, a lopsided ratio when compared to his paucity of infantry.[iii]

The key to Wise’s defense was Batteries 4, 5, 6, and 7, which lay on Jordan’s Hill, forming a salient. Jordan’s Hill offered multiple points from which defenders could either bring fire on enemy attacks or launch a counterattack. This fortified salient gave the Confederate artillery a clear line of sight along any point north, east, or south of the hill. The salient, however, was also a liability because the position was exposed to multiple points of attack. It could only be held if the Confederates had enough troops.

The Rebel artillery on Jordan’s Hill was led by the fiery Captain Nathaniel Sturdivant, a once prominent Richmond lawyer. Although his artillery battery had been kept in the backwater, his men were well-drilled and had high morale. In January 1864 he led his battery and some cavalry on a raid on Smithfield, Virginia, where they captured 110 men and sank the gunboat Smith Briggs. Today he was in top form. His men played hell on the Union troops. Despite fire from Union skirmishers, Sturdivant kept up a steady cannonade. Many of his gunners were Petersburg residents, such as John W. Hare. His prominent family home lay on a hill just southwest of Jordan’s Hill. Desperate for experienced gunners, Sturdivant gave Lieutenant Hoy command of a two-gun battery manned by infantry convalescents from the city hospital. In addition, the position was reinforced by elements of the 26th Virginia and Company A of Major Peter V. Batte’s 44th Virginia Battalion, also known as the Petersburg City Battalion. This five company outfit, mostly made up of young teenagers from the city, was untested in combat. They were mainly used as a police force in Petersburg, which was under near constant martial law throughout 1864.[iv]

Beauregard would not be in command on June 15. He kept his headquarters at Swift Creek, on the north side of the Appomattox River. It kept him in contact with events at Petersburg, but also on the Howlett Line, where he expected an attack at any moment. For Beauregard, this was one of his few mistakes during the battle. Although shifting any troops out of the Howlett Line was risky, Beauregard already knew that Butler was incompetent. As the afternoon wore on he sent the 59th Virginia and one of Johnson’s brigades to Petersburg. For now Beauregard simply hoped that the battle of June 15 would be a repeat of the victory on June 9.

At first, everything conformed to Beauregard’s hopes. Rebel artillery batteries opened up a constant fire. Much of it overshot, which allowed Union skirmishers to advance but disrupted Union formations to the rear of the skirmish line. It also added to the sluggishness of the Federal advance as officers and men looked for cover. Major Charles E. Pruyn, commanding the 118th New York, was hit in the chest by a cannonball as his men scrambled for cover. One of Martindale’s forward regiments, the 25th Massachusetts, came under particularly heavy fire. Their commander, Captain Parkhurst, ordered the regiment forward into a cornfield. By a trick in the geography, the Confederate gunners could not get a clear shot at the field. The bluecoats, now suffering under the burning heat of the sun, proceeded to cover themselves with green cornstalks.

To the southeast, at 1:00 p.m. the 5th USCT made a probing attack on Batteries 9 and 10, taking some rifle pits. The pits did not offer enough protection, though, and the 34th Virginia drove the 5th USCT back. The 6th USCT even charged the line, only to be ordered back. The result was they were caught in the open and suffered considerable losses before finding shelter in a forest. Even there the men had to dodge cannonballs for hours. Captain Harvey Covell managed to avoid one such shot only to have another land near him. He froze in terror and saw the shell explode, but miraculously he was unharmed. In another incident, Captain John McMurray and Lieutenant Colonel Clark E. Royce were resting under a tree, and were joined by other officers and soldiers, including a white private. When McMurray saw a cannonball ricocheting down an open field towards him he ducked away, dodging the ball only to see it hit the white private in his side. The man died instantly.

Hinks’ USCT regiments were soon in attack position and expected an assault order. When none came the impatient Hinks ordered his men to lie down. There they waited, pinned for hours by sharpshooters and artillery. The 1st USCT kept some companies in a forward position, but these were still some 500 yards from the Confederate position. Some artillery was brought up to support the 1st USCT, including Battery B of 2nd USCT, led by Captain Francis C. Choate. While Lieutenant Myron Smith of the 1st USCT discussed the situation with Choate, a shell cut a tree in half and nearly crushed both officers. A second shell soon followed and Choate wisely chose to withdraw his battery as the Rebels fired at Hinks’ legions. Myron W. Smith wrote days later that “The enemy had a perfect range, and threw their shell, grape and canister right in our skirmish line and in the ranks. Almost every shot killed or wounded some one, yet there was not the least disposition shown any of the men to get away. Their only anxiety was for an order to charge.”[v] The infantry stood firm under fire, a sight that impressed many. Duncan later recalled that the time spent under constant fire was a more severe test of his inexperienced troops than the attack at Baylor’s Farm. The officers were also mostly in top form. Myron Smith, who had already shown his ability at Wilson’s Wharf when he dodged sniper shots to get a message to a gunboat, was conspicuous in conveying messages to and from Holman. Still, not all of it was valor.  Lieutenant Enoch Jackman of the 6th USCT suffered a minor wound and was brought to the rear. Instead of being in pain, he was apparently happy to avoid the coming battle without suffering a grievous laceration. In contrast, his comrade, Lieutenant Asa Jones, suffered an ankle wound that crippled him for life.[vi]

As the lines formed, Kautz’s men pressed towards Wise’s position along the Baxter Road, roughly three miles south of Jordan’s Hill. The advance was not without incident. The 3rd New York Cavalry was ambushed in a sharp skirmish that delayed Kautz’s advance. Still, Kautz drove on, with the 11th Pennsylvania beating Dearing’s patrols before reaching Wise’s men. Kautz now aligned his men to attack, hoping to repeat his near triumph on June 9. The 4th Wisconsin Artillery placed itself near some woods 200 yards from the lines and opened up a steady fire. Behind the battery was Colonel Simon Hoosick Mix’s brigade on the right, and Colonel Samuel F. Spear’s brigade on the left. They marched through vines and briars, which delayed them, before coming to an open field. Facing them was the 34th Virginia, backed by some 12 artillery pieces posted at Battery 15 and 16.

As Mix advanced his men were fired at from the flank. Kautz paused, placing his men in limbo. The Macon Georgia Artillery’s fire was inaccurate but constant, pinning Kautz’s men but doing no great harm. By 5:30 p.m., Kautz’s skirmishers were out of bullets and he decided to fall back, convinced he faced a strong defensive line. Considering the hours of fighting, losses were light. Only forty-three men were casualties, although among them was Mix. He had served with the 3rd New York Cavalry since its inception. While under cannon fire Mix was struck in the head and breast by shell fragments just before Kautz ordered a retreat. Mix’s men tried to rescue him, but he told them to save themselves. It was in keeping with his personality. Mix was a gallant officer who liked to make brave and dramatic gestures. He apparently told his men he prayed to die while leading the 3rd New York in a glorious charge. The attack of June 15 was more bungling than glorious, but Mix got his the second half of his wish. Without medical care he perished on the field.

Kautz’s attack had failed and cost him one of his most experienced officers. Strangely, Kautz failed to inform Smith of these events and a golden opportunity to press into Petersburg had been bungled, for if Kautz had tried the Juersalem Plank Road he may have had more sucess. At anyrate, Kautz seemed to think his mission was merely to distract the Confederates, and undoubtedly memories of the bungled fighting on June 9 were fresh in his mind. Chance are he once again felt abandoned by a timid infantry commander.[vii]

To the north of Kautz’s division, sharpshooters traded bullets and artillery roared as each side awaited Smith’s main assault. Confederate cannon fire was accurate enough to convince Smith that he faced a determined foe and that before he attacked he ought to scout the ground. Butler had not provided Smith with either engineers or scouts, and along with Kautz he asserted that the Dimmock Line was an unimpressive position. It is possible that after June 9 Wise and Beaurgard had ordered much needed repairs to the line. Regardless, due to these oversights by Butler, the now wary Smith felt forced to undertake a personal reconnaissance. This was made difficult because Smith was still recovering from the dysentery that he had contracted at Cold Harbor. His headquarters at Cold Harbor was sometimes under artillery fire, which rattled his nerves. Furthermore, his constitution had been weakened in his youth when he contracted malaria in Florida. Despite this chronic ailment, compounded by the and his heat-induced headaches, he pressed on. He moved about on foot as he scouted the Dimmock Line, which consumed even more daylight.

Smith found the defenses were impressive, and his engineer’s mind immediately assessed them as the best fortifications he had ever seen. Yet Smith paused for other reasons besides the impressive works before him. An oppressive heat that had draped itself over the developing battlefield was wearing on Smith and his men, while the accuracy of Confederate fire undoubtedly exacerbated Smith’s excessive caution. One ball nearly hit Smith as he met with Hinks and Holman. Perhaps the greatest demon to plague Smith’s mind came from a Union signal officer named Captain Norton, posted at Point Lookout Signal Station with Butler, who reported reinforcements entering Petersburg. This made sense to Smith, who had heard rail cars entering Petersburg all day. In addition, he had only roughly 10,000 infantry at his immediate disposal, with over one-third of these being black troops who had earlier suffered heavy losses in the confused fight at Baylor’s Farm. He knew Hancock and his vaunted II Corps was on the way and perhaps hoped that Hancock would arrive to support him at any moment. Smith would follow his orders, if practicable, but he would make sure not to repeat the mistake of Baylor’s Farm, where he had ordered an assault without hesitation.[viii]

After two hours on his feet, spent roughly from 1:00 to 3:00 p.m., Smith discerned that the works were lightly held and he decided to strike all along the line. Rather than trust a staff officer to talk with his commanders, he spent another two hours personally visiting Brooks and Martindale, explaining his attack plan. Smith decided that artillery would take a great toll on any traditional attack formation, so rather than moving in tightly massed lines, the first line would advance in a loose formation, a pace apart from each other. The second line would be arrayed for a heavy assault. In addition, he found a ravine on the south side of Jordan’s Hill, between Battery 6 and 7. It offered an attacking force some cover and it was here that Smith hoped to crack the Dimmock Line. Brooks, who had the most important role in the assault, assigned the job of taking Jordan’s Hill to the 92nd New York, 8th Connecticut, and 13th New Hampshire. Captain Charles M. Coit of the 8th Connecticut found that two of his companies, armed with the vaunted Sharps rifles, had exhausted their ammunition. Their place was taken by two companies of the 118th New York. Following the skirmish line was Bell’s brigade, formed in a massed battle line. All told, Smith had ten brigades of infantry ready to confront one Confederate brigade. In the lines the men were hot, tired, and becoming weary from being under fire. Lieutenant Colonel William Kreutzer of the 98th New York wrote that before the attack his was visited by the elderly Brigadier General Gilman Marston. The brigade had taken heavy losses at Cold Harbor, so Marston, a lawyer noted for his rare modesty, spent his time assuring the men that the Rebels were out-numbered and victory was certain.[ix]

Smith’s plan was first-rate, and all was ready except for the Union guns which could not open up until after 6:00 p.m. Earlier attempts to place artillery had failed due to accurate fire from the Dimmock Line. In response, Captain Frederick M. Follett, Smith’s acting artillery chief, had the horses sent to the rear for watering without consulting Smith. He might have attacked anyway, but Smith was convinced that Lee was on the way. After all, Grant had yet to steal a march on Marse Robert. Time was of the essence but Smith paused to wait for his guns. In the meantime, Martindale’s division found itself too far forward and too exposed to cannon fire from across the river. At around 4:30 p.m. part of the 148th New York was forced to surrender to the 26th Virginia when the regiment fell back. In addition some heavy skirmishing wore out part of Martindale’s division while a large ditch also blocked Martindale’s path of attack, which threw off the battle alignment when the cannons finally opened. If the Dimmock Line was to be carried, it would most likely be through the valor and skill of the other two divisions.

Smith and the XVIII Corps did have some good luck in their favor. By 4:00 p.m. Smith knew that II Corps was on its way, meaning he would not have to attack and hold Petersburg on his own, which he had expected since June 14. Also, both Colston and Boggs expected an attack further south at the Rives House along the Jerusalem Plank Road. In essence, the Confederates were expecting a repeat of the June 9 engagement. Most likely Kautz’s attack on the Baxter Road and Smith’s delay in attacking Jordan’s Hill only reinforced this belief, although as the day wore on Wise began to shift more men north towards Jordan’s Hill. When the USCT made their probe on Battery 9, the lines were readjusted and Confederate attention was once again on Jordan’s Hill. The 46th Virginia was shifted over to Battery 8, which was one of the strongest points on the line. Wise and Colston sent Lieutenant Colonel William Hood’s Virginia Battalion, a militia unit made up of local factory workers, to reinforce the 26th and 46th Virginia. They were only called out in extreme circumstances and the unit was probably the most green in Wise’s garrison. Hood himself had been captured on June 9, leaving command to Major Thomas Bond. This reshuffling of men meant the forces from Battery 1 to 9 were jumbled, with companies from different regiments intermingled, adding to the confusion. Thus the area Smith intended to strike was thinly held by no more than 1,200 disorganized men. As Smith’s men formed to attack Lieutenant Hoy left Jordan’s Hill to return to his outfit. Before going he asked Boggs to reinforce Sturdivant. As Boggs told Hoy he could not send more men, the sound of fire from Jordan’s Hill intensified. The main attack was about to begin.[x]

[i]           Howe, The Petersburg Campaign, 31.

[ii] “The Letters of Edmond Hardy Jones, Private, 64th Georgia,” accessed July 15, 2013, http://battleofolustee.org/letters/ejones.htm

[iii]          Peabody, Frank E. “Some Observations Concerning the Opposing Forces at Petersburg on June 15, 1864” Papers of the Military Historical Society of Massachusetts: Petersburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg (Boston: Military Historical Society of Massachusetts, 1906)148-156; Henry A. Wise, “The Career of Wise’s Brigade.” In Southern Historical Society Papers Vol. XXV (Richmond: Southern Historical Society, 1897), 13.

[iv]          Pierre Beauregard, Battles and Leaders, Vol. IV (New York: Thomas Yoseloff, 1956), 540; Leverette N. Case, “Personal Recollections of the Siege of Petersburg by a Confederate Officer,” in War Papers Red Before the State of Michigan Commandery of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, Vol. II, (Detroit: James H. Stone & Company, 1898), 156-57.

[v]           J. F. Stearns, Memorial of Adjt. M. W. Smith (s.n., 1864), 43.

[vi]          Coffin, Four Years of Fighting, 358; John L. Cunnigham, Three Years with the Adirondack Regiment: 118th New York Volunteers Infantry (Norwood, MA: The Plimpton Press, 1920), 132; Denny, 344-45; William Eliot Furness, “The Negro as Soldier.” In Military Essays and Recollections Before the Illinois Commandery of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States Vol. II (Chicago: A. C. McClurg and Company, 1894), 481.

[vii]         Howe, The Petersburg Campaign, 27-28.

[viii]         Livermore, Days and Events, 359, 362; William Farrar Smith, From Chattanooga to Petersburg Under Generals Grant and Butler: A Contribution to the History of the War and a Personal Vindication (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1893), 24, 66, 79, 94-96.

[ix]          Livermore, Days and Events, 359.

[x]           Case, 154-157; Denny, 346; Mowris, 115.


Posts in this Series:

{ 0 comments… add one }

Leave a Reply