Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared at TOCWOC – A Civil War Blog on July 1, 2006. It made sense to repost it here at Beyond the Crater as one example of the type of research I plan to do on the Petersburg Campaign.
After posting a short blog entry commemorating the anniversary of the Battles for Jerusalem Plank Road on June 21, I was astonished to find that there has never even been so much as a magazine article focusing on the fighting on June 22, 1864 between Mahone’s Confederate Division and the Union II Corps, led that day by David Birney due to a flare up of Winfield Scott Hancock’s Gettysburg wound. With that in mind, I’ve decided to study the battle via a portion of the 1867 Michler Map of the Petersburg area (click HERE for a large 7MB, detailed version of the Jerusalem Plank Road battlefield), the reports of participants in the Official Records, and through regimental histories of the units involved. From time to time, I’ll be presenting excerpts gleaned from the ORs and regimentals and discussing what these excerpts tell us about the battle. If anyone is able to help answer some of my questions, I’d appreciate it, though I realize that hardly anyone has ever asked these questions before. I’ll lead off this series with a look at possible locations of the Federal and Confederate lines at the time when Mahone’s attack began. I want to stress that I am in no way certain that the lines as I’ve marked them are correct, but instead are my best guess based on maps and other sources currently available.
I’ll lead off with an email I sent out a few days ago to various Civil War message boards:
After consulting various possible sources over the past few days, I’ve come to the conclusion that the fight between Mahone’s Division and the II Corps on June 22, 1864 during the Petersburg Campaign may be the least studied and least understood engagement between the ANV and the AotP during the entire war. See http://www.cr.nps.gov/hps/abpp/battles/va065.htm for a brief description of this action. I own the Atlas to Accompany the ORs and there is not a single map depicting the positions of Mahone or the II Corps on June 22. The U.S. Army Military History Institute’s Bibliography of the Petersburg Campaign doesn’t show even a single magazine or journal article on the fight. I do have Ed Bearss’ unpublished manuscript covering the fighting on June 21-24, 1864, but without a map it’s very tough to envision exactly what was going on. I plan to go through the reports of the various officers involved in the fighting that day which appear in the ORs (in fact, I’ve done some of this already), and I hope to do some blog entries covering the battle to try to better understand what went on. Before I do this, I need to figure out exactly where the units of each side were posted at the beginning of Mahone’s attack in as much detail as possible, preferably down to the regimental level in as many cases as I can determine beyond reasonable doubt.
My question to the group is: does anyone know where exactly (or even vaguely) where Mahone’s Division’s lines and where the Union II Corps lines were at any time on June 22, 1864?
I’ve included some links of various quality below to a portion of the 1867 Michler map of Petersburg that covers the area where the fight took place.
Full Map (LARGE 7 MB DOWNLOAD!!!):
Width of 1024 pixels (2.4 MB, tougher to see details):
Width of 800 pixels (1.5 MB, pretty tough to see details):
Mahone attacked the II Corps divisions of Barlow and Mott somewhere west of the Jerusalem Plank Road (the black and white dotted line near the eastern edge of the map) and either west or southwest of the later site of Fort Davis, located on the map on the Plank Road. I just don’t know exactly where. It’s possible that the later Union main lines (marked in blue) or skirmish lines (the little ‘u’ or ‘v’ shaped marks out in front) also mark the position of the II Corps lines on June 22, but I haven’t been able to confirm or deny that yet. I plan to consult the regimentals I own of the II Corps units that took part (not many, around 5 books going on memory) to see if I can find references to woods, houses, fields, etc. to better pin this down. If anyone knows for sure where the lines were, please enlighten me!
I’ve never engaged in research of this type to this extent before, and when I have delved into it I’ve always had maps in published books to fall back on. Needless to say, there aren’t any books in this case!
After receiving some well meaning but generally vague replies, I’ve come to the conclusion that there simply isn’t much published information available and really hardly any students of this battle. Several clues led me to attempt to piece together where the Federal line stood at the moment of Mahone’s attack. The first clue came from a map in David F. Cross’ book A Melancholy Affair at the Weldon Railroad: The Vermont Brigade, June 23, 1864. The book depicts the fighting on June 23, 1864 along the VI Corps front, a day after the devastating flank attack of Mahone, but Cross includes a map (shown below) of Federal and Confederate positions on the evening of June 21 (and by extension the morning of June 22, if I’m reading the reports correctly). This map showing the II Corps position matches up quite well with the Michler map’s depiction of the permanent Federal fortifications running in a bow shape southwest of Fort Davis and then curving back around to the southeast. I believe these were the positions occupied by the II Corps on the morning of June 22, before they started to advance to the north and lost their connection with the right flank of VI Corps.
A Portion of the Michler Map of Petersburg from the Library of Congress
A Portion of the Map on Page 7 of A Melancholy Affair by David F. Cross
Where then were the final positions of these forces when Mahone launched his attack? This is where the historical record becomes exceedingly murky. The only map that I know of which even attempts to depict this line is a troop movement map created by renowned Civil War historian Ed Bearss in the early 1960’s. I have never seen this map, and I’m trying to get a copy from Petersburg National Battlefield, but I’m not sure if that’s going to happen any time soon or even ever until I can make it to Petersburg in person. Even if I do manage to obtain a copy, one person familiar with the campaign has mentioned that the maps by Bearss are more than likely inaccurate in some ways. By the end of this article I hope to propose where I think this line was, with my reasoning documented throughout. You will want to refer to the Michler map links above and some other map links which I will disclose shortly that include some markings of my own making.
The Michler map essentially shows the Union and Confederate fortifications as they stood at the close of the Siege of Petersburg. In some cases, these lines of fortifications can be useful because they mark previously temporary lines that became permanent over the course of the siege. I’ve already mentioned the line running southwest from Ft. Davis as one of these two paragraphs above. I believe that the permanent Federal line out in front of and parallel to the Ft. Davis line is very close to the Federal positions on the afternoon of June 22. I believe this to be the case because the Federals were only temporarily driven from this line on the afternoon of June 22, and several reports mention these men going back out the next day and reestablishing this line. The map below shows the Michler map zoomed in even more, and I have marked the ravine that Mahone used to gain the flank of the Union II corps unnoticed, the Johnson House where Mahone started his attack, the open field part of his line crossed to attack the left flank units of the II Corps in front, my idea of approximately where the Union line was at the time, and the location of the Jerusalem Plank Road. Based on the reports of Union regimental commanders, the report of II Corps chief David Birney, and based on the Michler map, this line makes the most sense given the known facts. There are still issues which remain, however. Reports state that the rightmost division (that of John Gibbon) acted as a pivot, barely if at all moving throughout the day. I do know that the right flank of Gibbon’s line rested on the Jerusalem Plank Road and joined the left flank of the V Corps, which had extended south to keep in contact with Birney’s men. However, I do not know exactly where Gibbon’s right intersected the Plank Road. It might have been at the future location of Ft. Davis marked on the Michler map, it might have been further north at the future site of Ft. Sedgwick (north of Ft. Davis just off the Michler Map), or possibly it was somewhere in between. There are also reports of Gibbon’s Division aligning itself parallel to the Plank Road (i.e. in a north-south direction, and there are numerous instances of breastworks along the road as well. However, the finished fortifications on the Michler map do not really show anything of the sort.
After having completed the parts of the blog entry you see above, Jim Epperson’s account of the battle threw another monkey wrench in the proceedings. Here’s an excerpt from Jim’s article talking about the II Corps on June 21, the day before the fight in question. I think you’ll see some differences from the interpretation above.
With only a small cavalry force for reconnaissance in this area, the II Corps commander moved cautiously. After moving to the left until he struck the Jerusalem Plank Road, Birney marched south along the road until he came to the Williams farm, where the road to Globe Tavern on the Weldon Railroad branched off to the west. He massed two of his divisions (under Gibbon and Mott) in some open fields near the Williams farmhouse, and sent Barlow’s First Division along the road to Globe Tavern, with the cavalry as a screen, the idea being to develop Confederate strength in this area before deploying II Corps into line. Barlow advanced forward against skirmishers from Barringer’s North Carolina cavalry brigade (supported, towards the end of the day, by elements of Cadmus Wilcox’s division), but was unable to reach the Weldon Railroad without breaking his connection with the rest of II Corps. (It appears that Barlow thought that Gibbon would be moving out on his right, when in fact Gibbon was back at the Williams farm, just west of the Jerusalem Plank Road.) Despite the fact that Barlow had gotten to within a couple of miles of the Weldon Railroad, Birney recalled him and put the entire corps into line. Gibbon was on the right, connected to Warren, then Mott, then Barlow near the Williams house. Apparently the Federal line ran generally north-south, more or less parallel to but slightly in advance of the Jerusalem Plank Road. Barlow’s furthest advance had been reached at about 1:00 p.m., and the entire corps was in line and entrenched soon after dark. Scouts had detected a Confederate column moving across the II Corps front (this was probably Cadmus Wilcox’s division moving out to contest Barlow’s advance), making Birney cautious about further advances until VI Corps arrived.
There are several things in Jim’s paragraph above that make me question where exactly the line was on the evening of June 21 and the early morning of June 22. First, the Williams House was pretty far south of where David Cross has the II Corps line on the evening of June 21. Also, if you take a look at Cross’ map above you’ll see that he has the II Corps line running in a bow shape that was more northeast-southwest and later northwest-southeast rather than the north-south line paralleing the Jerusalem Plank Road that Epperson describes. Maybe I’m reading Jim too literally here, as the line David Cross depicts is for the most part “more or less parallel to” the Jerusalem Plank Road. In any case, I’m finding it much harder to pin down the exact location of this line than I would have thought.
I hope to delve into all of this in further detail in future blog entries. As I go over the existing regimental histories and the reports in the Official Records in more detail, perhaps some clues will present themselves and allow me to get a better grasp of the situation. In addition, I hope to take the list of units in the II Corps and Mahone’s Division and identify their exact positions in the line. This is something that I fully expect may take quite a long time to finish to any degree of accuracy given the sources available, and it may never be completed without access to manuscript collections or a personal visit to Petersburg. In short, I find this battle fascinating, and I may attempt to create either a web page or a magazine article dedicated to the fight. That’s a long way off for now, but I hope to share my findings with you as I go. Nothing is set in stone, and I’m liable to change my mind at any time, hopefully with the help of other interested parties. I’ve contacted the experts at Petersburg National Battlefield, so I hope that maybe they can shed some light on the subject by email.