BERMUDA HUNDRED, JUNE 16-17, 18641
BREVET BRIGADIER-GENERAL FRANCIS A. OSBORN
Read before the Society March 17, 1879
The operations which it is the especial purpose of this paper to record are those at Bermuda Hundred on the 16th and 17th of June, 1864. Before entering on the events of those days it may be well to sketch briefly what took place there from the date of its occupation.
Bermuda Hundred is a narrow neck of land at the confluence of the James and Appomattox rivers, intersected with deep ravines, and capable of being very strongly defended (as was actually done) by a line of intrenchments of about two and a half miles in length. It was occupied as a base from which both Richmond and Petersburg might be threatened, and as a depot of provisions and supplies. It is also stated that it was the intention of the General of the Army, at the time this expedition was planned, to operate with the Army of the Potomac towards its right flank, instead of towards its left as he afterwards did, — to turn Lee’s left, — and to extend to the north bank of the James River above Richmond, the right flank resting on the river and the left on the swamps of the Chickahominy. At the same time the Army of the James, having seized Bermuda Hundred and City Point, should push on and effect a junction on the south bank of the James with the Army of the Potomac, and so cut off the capital city and Lee’s army from the rest of the Confederacy. Whether or not this is a fair presentation of the plans of General Grant I have not been able to ascertain definitely from the documents to which I have had access. But this much at least appears certain, that the Army of the James was to land at Bermuda Hundred, and occupying that place and City Point, was to push as early and as rapidly as possible up the south
bank of the James, and to operate directly against Richmond; and it appears to have been the hope of General Grant that this attack in the rear, while the Army of the Potomac kept Lee fully occupied at a distance, would be attended with signal success, in which case he would so direct operations as to form a junction of the two armies on the James above Richmond. This hope seems to have been a reasonable one, for at the time the army landed there were at Petersburg, and between there and Richmond, but a handful of the enemy, — not more than one or two regiments, — so that the approach to the Confederate capital would have been undisputed, had the advance been made at once. General Butler, however, apparently found himself unable to move before the 12th of May, one week after the disembarkation. In the mean time General Beauregard had been hurrying forward troops from North Carolina, and had collected the force which successfully opposed us, as hereinafter related.
On the 4th of May the Army of the James, consisting of more than 30,000 men, embarked at Gloucester Point, Yorktown, Fort Monroe, Hampton, and Norfolk, and on the morning of the 5th they set sail in a fleet of 150 vessels for their destination.
That afternoon a division was landed at City Point, and took possession without resistance, and in the evening Bermuda Hundred was also occupied. On the 6th the troops advanced about six miles, meeting with no resistance from the enemy, and bivouacked in line of battle, throwing up a line of rifle-pits. On the 7th three brigades from the 10th and three from the 18th Corps moved out to the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad and destroyed a portion of the track and telegraph line near Port Walthall Junction. There was not at this time a large force of the enemy in our front (it consisting only of a portion of Hagood’s South Carolina Brigade), and although on the left of our line there was some
sharp fighting, the right was not engaged at all. On the 9th a demonstration was made in the direction of Petersburg, and an additional portion of the railroad was destroyed. On the 10th the enemy attacked our advance posts on the right. After some hours’ hard fighting the enemy fell back without having accomplished anything. In the mean time the work of fortifying our position was going on actively. As soon as our works were sufficiently strong to render them tenable by a small force, the movement against Richmond commenced. The troops marched early in the morning of the 12th towards the left front, and on the 13th, making a detour to the right, came up in the afternoon in rear of some of the enemy’s works, and after a short but sharp conflict captured them. On the 14th and 15th other works of the enemy were attacked, but without any decisive result.
Early on the morning of the 16th the enemy under command of General Beauregard took advantage of a dense fog and made a furious attack upon the 18th Corps, which occupied the right of the line, driving them back, and threatening the communication with our base. The enemy were evidently present in force, and our army was compelled to fall back. This, however, it did in good order, holding the enemy in check, and carrying off its wounded and many of its dead, and retiring within the lines of fortification.
That we were compelled to withdraw from before the enemy’s works by their attack, which turned our right and, by threatening our communication, rendered our position untenable, is the opinion which I have always held and which was shared at the time I, think, by most of the army.
But the commander of the Army of the James says: “… a surprise was attempted on the part of the enemy which was partially successful, but which was soon repulsed and our line restored. Our supplies were coming up, and the Army of the James was then in a position at the appointed time to carry out its part of the strategic plan of the campaign; that is to
say, to envelop Richmond on the south from river to river. But the night of the 14th . . . General Sheridan reported . . . that the Army of the Potomac was marching by its left flank, which would thus effect a junction with the Army of the James at City Point.
“The first plan of the campaign being then apparently abandoned, in the absence of further instructions, there remained nothing for the Army of the James but to return to their line of intrenchments, and so strengthen our fortifications as to render the peninsula of Bermuda Hundred a safe depot of supplies and base for the future operations of the conjoined armies of the Potomac and the James.”
I confess that this ingenious explanation of our withdrawal presents a new view of the matter to my mind, and one which my personal observation renders me somewhat slow to accept.
It is true that our army was not routed, that it fell back in good order and deliberately, bearing itself so steadily and presenting so bold a front to the enemy, that they followed at a most respectful distance, and made but little effort to harass our march; but it is also true that the fierce attack on our right, which broke through our lines and captured one brigade (Heckman’s), threatened our communication with our base, and compelled us to fall back, and that, too, without regard to the plans and movements of the Army of the Potomac.
Lieutenant-Colonel Walter Harrison, who was Inspector-General of Pickett’s Division, says:(1) “On May 16 General Beauregard with his comparatively small force attacked Butler on his right and centre, and drove him down towards Bermuda Hundred with heavy loss.” “On the afternoon of the 15th General Whiting [who had been left in Petersburg] received an order from General Beauregard . . . directing him to move at daylight, directly towards Drury’s, and strike Butler on his left, thus cooperating with his own attack. Whiting did cross the Appomattox River at daylight, and moved some
distance on the road towards Drury’s, but for some unaccountable reason fell back upon Petersburg without striking a material blow on Butler’s force. Had he pressed on in conformity with Beauregard’s orders, no doubt the conjoined attack would have resulted in the total destruction or defeat of Butler’s army, and we should have had this ‘Bottle Imp’ of General Grant in a much more serious position than being ‘corked up.'”
The enemy were by no means dilatory in taking advantage of our falling back within our intrenchments, for they promptly followed us down and established their works without serious resistance on our part at about half a mile distance from ours from river to river.
General Grant in his report,(1) after stating that the delay in the movement against Richmond rendered any efficient operations impracticable, refers to the events of the 16th as follows: “He [General Butler] was forced back, or drew back, into his intrenchments between the forks of the James and Appomattox rivers, the enemy intrenching strongly in his front, thus covering his railroads, the city, and all that was valuable to him. His army, therefore, though in a position of great security” (in that phrase there seems to be a gleam of sarcastic humor), “was as completely shut off from further operations directly against Richmond as if it had been in a bottle strongly corked. It required but a comparatively small force of the enemy to hold it there.” And further on: “The army sent to operate against Richmond having hermetically sealed itself up at Bermuda Hundred, the enemy was enabled to use the most, if not all, the reinforcements brought from the South by Beauregard against the Army of the Potomac.”
For about a month after this the only operations at Bermuda Hundred consisted of artillery duels and picket fighting. While we were still strengthening our works (on May 20), the enemy made an attack in force upon our pickets,
(1) 95 W. R. 19.
who had protected themselves with rifle-pits. The fighting, which was at times very sharp, lasted all day. General Beauregard was reported to be in command of the enemy, and there were present besides, Generals D. H. Hill, Evans, and Walker. The last two were wounded, and General Walker was captured. On the night of the 23d an impression was received at headquarters that the enemy were evacuating their works, and the officer of the day(1) on the right of the line was ordered to push forward his pickets and feel of them. Finding them in their usual force the pickets fell back to their position, and in about two hours received a return visit from the enemy, who evidently thought that this move of ours was intended as a display of force, to mask perhaps a withdrawal of a part of our troops.
On the 26th 17,000 men were sent to reenforce the Army of the Potomac and were engaged in the battle of Cold Harbor. In the mean time an expedition under General Gilmore was despatched against Petersburg, but it accomplished nothing and seems to have made no serious attempt at anything,
Up to the 16th of June affairs continued in about the same condition. Our troops were closely bottled up and incapable of any effective work, yet they were constantly harassed by turning out at all hours of the day and night, and marching and countermarching to repel apprehended attacks, and being repeatedly under fire and suffering loss in frivolous engagements, which had no reason for being and could produce no result; thus encountering the labors, fatigues, and dangers of the soldier’s life without its great compensation, the sense that all his sacrifices tend to the advancement of a great cause. The Army of the Potomac was as usual doing a great work. We could hear the distant thunder of its guns, and the reports of its achievements and its heavy losses came to us day by day, while the Army of the James lay behind its intrenchments inactive and apparently useless.
(1) The writer.
But at last we had a gleam of hope. Our time for valuable service had apparently come. The cork had in some unexpected manner slipped out and we were free. This was on the morning of June 16, the events of which and the following day this paper was designed to relate. I have found, however, great difficulty in getting the data for a complete and satisfactory narration of these movements. They were but an episode in the great drama which occupied the stage, and although they might have proved of incalculable value, had they met with success, their failure to secure any material benefit reduced them to insignificance, and left them only a passing mention in reports and records. The officers engaged, of many of whom I have sought information, while retaining a vivid remembrance of the general course of events, can give no statistics and but few details. This must serve as my apology for the superficial character of this paper and its lack of precise statements.
It will be recollected that General W. F. Smith was sent with the 18th Corps against Petersburg, that he assaulted and carried the outer lines June 15, and was then joined by General Hancock with the 2d Corps, and later by other troops of the Army of the Potomac. There was at the beginning of this assault only a small force of the enemy in Petersburg, and General Beauregard, who was in command, felt the need of all the reinforcements he could lay his hands upon. General Lee, misled by General Grant’s strategy, was lying at Malvern Hill with Longstreet’s and A. P. Hill’s Corps, and did not take up the march to Petersburg by way of Drury’s Bluff until the 16th. To wait for his arrival might be fatal to Beauregard, so the latter took the bold course of ordering General Bushrod Johnson to evacuate as quietly as possible the lines in front of Bermuda Hundred, leaving only his pickets with a small reserve, and to hasten to Petersburg. He undoubtedly hoped that Lee’s advance would re-occupy the lines before we should discover that they
had been deserted, in which case he would have secured all the benefit of early reinforcement without any offset of injury. It was, however, a great risk to run. Bermuda Hundred formed an admirable base for operations against both Richmond and Petersburg; an army lying there was a perpetual threat to both these cities, while the railroad connecting them, which was of great importance to the enemy, ran across the front of our lines at a distance of less than two miles. The one thing which neutralized all these advantages and secured the enemy against the dangers to which this lodgment of our troops had exposed them was their line of works, which they now abandoned. Had the 10th Corps, which was the only portion of the Army of the James remaining at this point, pushed forward to the railroad and intrenched there, it might perhaps have held its position until two divisions of the 6th Corps, which were sent to its support, could have come up, and thus have so much delayed Lee’s march as to have insured the capture of Petersburg by our troops. But General Beauregard evidently considered his condition sufficiently critical to justify heroic remedies, so he boldly took the chances of the dangers I have pointed out, and removed the troops from the investing line on the night of the 15th. At this time Lieutenant-Colonel Greeley, 10th Conn. Vols., was on picket in command of his regiment, which was posted on the right of our line, its right resting on James River and its left extending across the main road leading to the Richmond and Petersburg Turnpike. Early in the evening he became satisfied that the enemy were making some changes in their line, and after 10 P. M., a good deal of activity became apparent. Movements of troops could be distinctly heard from our advanced picket posts, but it was very difficult to determine whether they were arriving or departing. I quote from Colonel (now General) Greeley’s own account of the events of the night:(1)
(1) In a letter to the writer.
“After listening and watching for some time in breathless silence, I determined to ascertain, if possible, what disposition the enemy was making of his troops. For this purpose I selected a brave and trusty companion and with him crept upon our hands and knees to the very lines of the enemy’s videttes; from this advanced point we could almost hear the Rebel videttes breathe, and could hear active movements of artillery and infantry, but still it was difficult to determine whether these movements were reinforcements or not. The movement extended along the entire front at this time, now about 2 o’clock A. M., June 16. I then changed my position, taking up one nearer the road, and from this point became satisfied the enemy were removing some of their artillery, and by placing the ear close to the ground discovered that some portion of the enemy’s forces in our front were being withdrawn. But just at this juncture we distinctly heard troops move from the rear to the front; this proved to be but a ruse on the part of the enemy, for very soon thereafter these same troops were withdrawn, and their places were not again filled.
“It then occurred to me that the enemy were withdrawing some considerable portion of their forces in our front to reinforce the Petersburg lines. General Grant was then executing his wonderful flank movement from in front of Richmond to Petersburg. I then made a brief report to General A. H. Terry, giving it as my opinion that the troops in our immediate front were being withdrawn in considerable numbers. I then ordered all the reserves up to the picket line to meet any emergency that might arise. The hour was now about 3 o’clock A. M., and the first indication of daybreak began to make its appearance. I then made a personal reconnoissance with a few scouts, and soon became satisfied that a large portion of the enemy’s forces had been withdrawn. I then determined to push forward with what available forces I had in hand, and capture the enemy’s pickets, if possible, and the
enemy’s lines, if practicable. I communicated this fact to General Terry and immediately proposed to advance all along the line. Passing down the line I quietly gave directions to each commanding officer to push forward at a signal which would be given, and, unless a large force was found in our front, to capture the enemy’s pickets and picket line, and, if a second signal should be given, to push rapidly on and take possession of the main line. The signal was given, the advance made, and so rapidly and quietly that we captured the enemy’s videttes and many of his pickets without firing a single shot. I then gave the signal to advance on the main line, and here we met resistance to a considerable extent along the front, but a gallant charge of our men set the enemy to flight, and we were in possession of the enemy’s main line of works extending from the James to the Appomattox river. We took a large number of prisoners, among them several officers.”
When General Terry received the information above recited from Colonel Greeley, he at once got his whole force under arms and moved them out to the enemy’s works, and took possession of them. A portion of the men were set to work “turning round” the intrenchments, and adapting the parapet for defence from our side. This seemed to promise that we should in any event continue to occupy this advanced line. To have done so would have been a great gain, for, while it would have required but few additional troops for its occupation and defence, a large increase of the forces of the enemy would have been needed, owing to the conformation of the peninsula and its rapid expansion in width as it receded from the confluence of the rivers, if they had attempted to repeat the operation of bottling us. While the fatigue parties were thus engaged in preparing the earthworks for our own occupancy, the main body of the troops was thrown forward to cover the turnpike, and a detachment under command of General J. W. Turner was pushed out to the Richmond and
Petersburg Railroad, where they amused themselves during most of the day, without resistance from the enemy, with tearing up the railroad, cutting down telegraph poles, and such other mischief as they could lay their hands to. This was on the left of our line, or the southern part, the flank the most distant from Lee’s army which was now hurrying down from Richmond to the aid of Beauregard. The skirmishers of the right of our line exchanged some scattering shots with the enemy all day, but had no indications of being confronted with any considerable force until about 6 P. M. As already stated, Lee left Malvern Hill on the morning of the 16th, and marched by the way of Drury’s Bluff to the aid of Petersburg. His direct line of march lay by the turnpike which our skirmishers now covered. Had earthworks been thrown up by our troops at favorable points commanding this road, they would have caused Lee’s army considerable delay, either from the necessity of forcing them, or of making a long detour to avoid them, — a delay which would have been of inestimable value to our troops attacking Petersburg, and which would undoubtedly have enabled them to capture that city. But so far as known, nothing of the kind was done, and no serious attempt was made to hold the turnpike.
Hunton’s Brigade, of Pickett’s Division, Longstreet’s Corps, which corps was at that time under command of General R. H. Anderson, led the advance of the enemy, and first encountered our skirmishers on the pike. This brigade at once deployed, and was speedily reenforced by the rest of the division. Colonel Harrison, before cited, gives the following account of this affair:(1) “Hunton’s Brigade was hurried up, and, soon followed by the other brigades, succeeded in driving the enemy back toward Bermuda Hundred. They made some endeavor to hold the line recently given up by Beauregard, but Pickett’s men were not to be ‘stopped.’ It seems that General Lee had not intended this attack to be carried to
such an extent, but was very well satisfied with the result.” He then quotes a note of General Lee to General Anderson, from which I make this extract: “We tried very hard to stop Pickett’s men from capturing the breastworks of the enemy, but couldn’t do it.” This is evidently a bit of blarney from the commanding general, who wanted to say a pleasant thing about Pickett’s Division, and so put it in that shape. It is also the basis of Harrison’s statement that Lee had not intended the attack to be carried to this extent, a statement which I believe to be entirely erroneous. As we have seen, it was of immense importance to him to hold our forces in check and protect the communications between their own two principal cities, and also secure those cities from the dangers which our occupation of Bermuda Hundred threatened. We have also seen that their line, of which we had just taken possession, was in the most favorable position for such a purpose, and that a new line would compel the employment of a much larger force to accomplish the same result. For these reasons I cannot but believe that General Lee fully meant to re-occupy the old lines, and, so meaning, was guided only by common prudence in attempting to carry them by assault before we should have time to strengthen them and make their capture impossible. I heartily disclaim any intention of depreciating Pickett’s Division, whose valor and dash we have tested on many a hard-fought field, and who have won a name high enough to need no undue praise, but in seeking to record calmly the facts as they occurred I feel bound to say that, so far as I know, there was no very severe engagement at the breastworks we temporarily occupied. The enemy deployed his forces in our front, only harassed by our skirmishers, and having made his dispositions advanced on the works, driving our skirmishers before him. It was fully expected in our line that we should hold these works, which we had put in a reasonable condition of defence by persistent shovelling all day, but before we were engaged orders
were received from headquarters to retire. Our troops then marched steadily to the rear in line of battle and perfect order, losing only a few men on the- way. On reaching the line of rifle-pits formerly occupied by our advance pickets we were halted and ordered to strengthen this line and hold it with our main guard. This was at about 7 o’clock P. M. At dusk the enemy assaulted the line to which we had just retired, apparently expecting, from the facility with which they had recovered their own line, to have but little difficulty in driving us back into our main works. The conditions of the two cases, however, were very different. In the former the commander had for some reason seen fit to withdraw the troops, who consequently retired under orders. In the second our troops occupied a line which they were expected to hold and which, though much weaker than the enemy’s line they had left, they defended with such vigor as effectually to stop the men whom General Lee professed himself unable to hold in. The assault, though fierce, was not of long duration. The enemy soon recognized the difficulties of the task they had set themselves, and fell back to their own line to repose and refresh themselves for the renewal of the attack on the following day. Thus ended without substantial result the effort which our forces made to take advantage of the opening for action which fortune had offered them. The enemy had suffered the loss of about a mile and a half of railroad track and telegraph line, which were speedily repaired, and they had lost some men ; but the serious damage which extended delay would have inflicted upon their cause they had escaped. Under cover of Pickett’s Division, the main column had steadily pursued its march, and reached Petersburg only a little later than if we had remained tranquilly within our own lines, and in ample season to join in its defence and insure its safety.
And yet, excellent as seems to have been the opportunity which offered itself to the Army of the James, there is some-
thing to be said in excuse of its failure to accomplish any result of value. Its numbers were reduced more than one half by the expedition which was at that time operating against Petersburg, so that the troops which manned our line of defence were rather thinly scattered. The enemy’s line which we occupied was considerably longer, making its defence so much the weaker. It was known that Lee’s whole army was on the march and would soon cross our front, and could oppose an overwhelming force to our feeble attack. The time was very short for throwing up any works at the turnpike that would be of any service against such preponderance of numbers, and there was grave danger that, if an attempt was made to make a stand at that point where there were no natural obstacles to protect our flanks, our comparatively small force would be surrounded and captured. This in itself would have been a grave calamity and was a serious risk to run, but it would have involved even worse evils than the loss of men and arms. It would have put the peninsula of Bermuda Hundred completely in the control of the enemy, and would have thrown into their hands large quantities of artillery, provisions, and supplies of every kind, both there and at City Point.
At daybreak on the 17th the enemy renewed their attack. In the mean time our new line had been strengthened, so that it was in a good condition for defence, and we held it with ease, repulsing the assailants with considerable loss.
In the course of the forenoon two divisions of the 6th Corps under command of General Wright arrived at Bermuda Hundred. These troops were embarking at Wilcox’s Landing, on the James River, on the 16th, under orders for City Point. General Grant, hearing of the advantage which we had gained by the occupation of the evacuated works, and desirous of retaining it, immediately ordered General Wright to Bermuda Hundred to report to General Butler. He at the same time notified the latter of this action, and urged upon him
the importance of holding a position in advance of his original line. When General Wright arrived, however, he was not sent to the front, but was halted some distance in rear of our main line of fortifications, and allowed to remain there inactive. For this course General Grant blames by implication General Butler, saying that the latter was still holding with a strong picket line the enemy’s works. It is undoubtedly very presumptuous and perhaps very absurd to differ with so high an authority, but I am compelled to say that so far as my information goes, and from my own observation of the right of the line, I feel convinced that at the time referred to the enemy had already substantially recovered their own position, and consequently the 6th Corps could not have been put into their works to hold them for us; and further that our troops maintained ever after the position which they occupied on the arrival of the 6th Corps, so that the lack of their assistance did not do any harm. Had they reached the scene of action on the 16th, their cooperation would have been of great value; but this was simply impossible. They were hurried forward as speedily as possible, but the distance they had to traverse made their arrival too late to be of any service.
At 4 P. M. on the 17th the enemy made another fierce and determined attack, and for a time gained some little advantage, breaking into our line and driving back a part of it. The regiment on the extreme right,(1) however, held its ground and formed a pivot on which the line was finally swung forward to its former position. The enemy seemed at last to have satisfied themselves that we were able and determined to maintain our new picket line, and gave up the contest.
This practically ended their efforts to force us back. They attacked our pickets again in the afternoon of the 18th, but not with much energy. It seemed to be a feeler rather than
(1) 24th Massachusetts.
a serious attempt to capture our works. Thenceforward they contented themselves with holding their own lines, satisfied that they were strong enough to keep us in check and neutralize all our efforts for mischief.
- Papers of the Military Historical Society of Massachusetts, Volume 5, pages 187-204 ↩