CROSSING OF THE JAMES AND ADVANCE ON PETERSBURG, JUNE 13-16, 18641
COLONEL THEODORE LYMAN
Vol. A. D. C. To Major-General George G. Meade, Commanding Army Of The Potomac
Read before the Society, March 11, 1878
CROSSING OF THE JAMES AND ADVANCE ON PETERSBURG, JUNE 13-16, 1864
On the 13th of June, 1864, at 3.30 P. M., General Meade arrived at Clarke’s house, near the James River, in advance of his troops, and sent Major Duane and myself to examine the crossing, and choose a position to cover the right. We struck the river at Wilcox’s Wharf, and found there a signal officer who was trying to attract the attention of Fort Powhatan opposite, and to open communication with two steamers that lay under its guns. The army was moving down from Long’s and Jones’s bridges, on the Chickahominy; and the 2d Corps, having the advance, arrived that evening. Gibbon’s people camped just back of our headquarters, which were near the house of John Tyler, once President. We had green peas and fresh milk at our supper — a circumstance forever memorable! The 6th and 9th Corps lay at Jones’s Bridge on the Chickahominy, and the 5th, with Wilson’s Cavalry, on the Long’s Bridge Road. The bulk of Lee’s army was intrenching on Malvern Hill. On the 14th two steamers began to ferry Birney’s Division from Wilcox’s Wharf; and the engineers bent all their energy to laying the great pontoon bridge somewhat further down, at Windmill Point, where is a pinch in the stream. It was a remarkable feat. A road had to be made down the steep bluff and along the swampy margin, where it was necessary to cut down huge cypresses. The bridge itself, 2000 feet long, with a maximum depth of water 85 feet, consisted of 92 boats, braced by three anchored schooners. It was laid in 10 hours, and was completed at midnight. General Weitzel, who began the task, waived his rank and reported to Major
Duane. After a time arrived General Benham, who did not waive his rank, and took command. Fortunately he got there too late seriously to impede the work. In the afternoon a part of the 18th Corps, with other troops of the Army of the James, passed up the river, under command of General “Baldy” Smith, to City Point. General Hancock, whose headquarters were near ours, issued orders for the rest of the corps to cross next day, and the whole to advance on Petersburg via Prince George Court House. During the day the 6th Corps had moved to a point between Charles City Court House and the river, while the 5th and 9th lay near the Court House itself.
June 15, at 10 A. M., General Meade rode past the headquarters of the 5th Corps to Douthart’s house, near Windmill Point, and inspected the new bridge, across which the artillery and train of the 2d Corps were passing in a steady stream. Near by lay the iron-clad Atlanta and other vessels, under Admiral Lee, to protect the crossing. As we ate dinner, at 6.30 p. M., came Colonel Babcock with news that “Baldy” Smith had advanced from City Point before daylight; had struck the enemy at 5 A. M. about three miles out, in a wood near the crossing of the City Point Railroad with the main road, and was driving them, having taken two or three guns. Immediately General Meade ordered the train to halt for the passage of the 9th Corps, which was to advance at once on Petersburg, and take position on the left of the 2d. He issued the following order of march for the next day: At 4 A. M. the four divisions of the 5th Corps to be ferried from Wilcox’s Wharf and from another wharf near the bridge, and all to march on Petersburg and form on the left of the 9th. The main train to pass the bridge, followed by Wilson’s Cavalry. The 6th Corps to hold an intrenched position till all were across and then to cross under cover of the gunboats; after which, the bridge to be taken up and carried to City Point.
June 16, at 10.30 A. M., General Meade, satisfied that the movements were proceeding as directed, boarded a steamer
with his chief-of-staff, General Humphreys, and taking Captain Sanders and myself as aides, went to City Point, an hour’s distance. There he got a guide, and rode towards the front, whither General Grant had gone. We presently met him returning with his staff. “Well,” he called out, “Smith has taken a line of works stronger than anything we have seen this campaign. If it is a possible thing, I want an assault made at 6 o’clock this evening.” We then kept on till we crossed the rail and came on Burnside’s column moving up. It was pitiable to see the men, — without water, broken by a severe march, scorched by a tropical sun, and covered with a suffocating dust. No rain had fallen for thirteen days; nor was there that summer a shower for forty-seven days, from June 2 to July 19. During this period the dust, fine as flour, got fetlock deep, and the passage of a wagon was enough to raise a dense white cloud high in the air. The compensating good was that all surface water was evaporated, and the troops escaped malaria in an extraordinary degree. Near the railroad we passed a wood where the negro troops had had a sharp fight and driven the enemy handsomely, in which affair Colonel Russell, commanding the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry, was wounded. A little beyond, in the open, was a short breastwork behind which three field-pieces had been taken. Beyond the next turn of the road, and near Bailey’s house, was General Burnside, with whom General Meade conferred a few moments and then rode on to General Hancock, whom we found under a clump of tall hard pines just where the main road opens into the field-of-fire, about nine hundred yards wide, which the enemy had cut in front of the lines thrown up for the defence of Petersburg. The portion opposite us, captured by Smith the day before, with a dozen or more guns, consisted of a series of redans of good profile connected by a heavy infantry parapet. From a swell of land near by I got my first view of the spires of Petersburg, which I was destined to stare at for nearly ten months yet! It was plain that the
enemy had been reinforced and presented a firm front; for I found in the hospital near the Bailey house thirty or forty wounded men, sent in from the skirmish line of Birney’s Division. At 3.45 P. M. General Meade was still in earnest consultation with General Hancock and other officers about the assault ordered for that evening, while Generals Humphreys and Barlow had ridden out to reconnoitre, and, as neither would suggest the propriety of stopping, they kept on still close to the enemy’s skirmishers, among whom they occasioned a brisk musketry practice.
Meantime the plan of assault was arranged. The troops of the Army of the James, on the extreme right, were to make a strong demonstration, while the divisions of Birney and Barlow, with part of Gibbon’s, were to attack west of the captured works, and in the direction of the City Point Road. From the other side, the movement of Lee to defend the town had been confirmed during the day by several reports, which represented his army crossing in all haste at Drury’s Bluff, and pushing for the Appomattox Bridge.
At 6 P. M., our batteries opened heavily, chiefly from the captured works ; and General Meade rode with his staff into the open ground to await the event. The cannonade was very grand, and, as the sun declined, the air, full of dust and powder smoke, gave a copper hue to the scene that was most striking. The figures of the artillerymen sponging out and ramming down, and of the officers standing between the pieces, forcibly recalled those stiff, mezzo-tint engravings of Napoleon’s battles that once were favorite ornaments of parlors. From our right, and from Birney’s Division beyond the thick pine woods, broke out sharp and continuous musketry, as the infantry advanced against the breastworks. Birney carried their first line, and Barlow secured an advanced position, but nowhere was their main line broken ; and, when night fell, the 2d Corps rested on its arms, with a loss of 2500 men.
At dark General Meade sent me with a despatch to General Grant at City Point. I found him just going to bed, and he sat on the edge of a little camp-cot in his shirt and drawers, as I made my report. Then he smiled, like one who had done a clever thing, and said: ” I think it is pretty well to get across a great river, and come up here, and attack Lee in his rear before he is ready for us! ”
I got back to headquarters at one in the morning, passing the 5th Corps which was on the march from the James River.
ABBREVIATIONS USED IN REFERENCES IN VOLUME 5 OF THE PAPERS OF THE MILITARY HISTORICAL SOCIETY OF MASSACHUSETTS
- Papers of the Military Historical Society of Massachusetts, Volume 5, pages 25-31 ↩