≡ Menu

MHSM Papers V5: Letter of General Beauregard to General C. M. Wilcox




New Orleans, June 9, 1874.

Dear General, — On my return a few days since from Galveston, I found your letter of the 14th ultimo. I give you with pleasure my recollections of the defence of Petersburg, Virginia, from the 15th to the 18th of June, 1864.

General Wise was then in command at Petersburg with about 2200 men, artillery and infantry, some militia included. General Bushrod Johnson’s Division of about 4500 men was guarding the Bermuda Hundred lines from Howlett’s on the James, to the Appomattox, a distance of over three and a half miles, with General Butler’s forces in his front. Hoke’s Division had been sent by me to General Lee before the battle of Cold Harbor, and had not yet been returned notwithstanding my repeated calls for it in consequence of the movements of the Federals which indicated an early attack on Petersburg. This information I had communicated to the War Department and to General Lee.

The Petersburg lines were about seven and a half miles long on the south side of the Appomattox, requiring at least 25,000 men to hold them. On the 15th of June, General Wise had still a part of his forces on the north side of the Appomattox, the remainder being in the lines facing the approaches from City Point. My headquarters were at Dunlop’s house on Swift Creek, about halfway between Howlett’s and Petersburg.

The enemy found, as General Baldy Smith says, but little resistance to his attack on the afternoon of the 15th, for General Wise could have had only about 1200 men of all arms on that part of the lines, a portion of which I had condemned several weeks before (as I passed through Petersburg on my way to

fight the battle of Drury’s Bluff), and that was the point attacked by General Baldy Smith, who would certainly have taken Petersburg if he had not “feared to run any risk,” and “preferred to sleep on his arms that night.”

During the afternoon of the 15th, Wise’s troops, still on the north side of the Appomattox, were returned to Petersburg, and I sent him what forces I could spare from the Bermuda Hundred lines (the remainder of Dearing’s half brigade of cavalry), while awaiting the development of the enemy’s intentions. Meanwhile I telegraphed to the War Department and to General Lee the movements of the enemy, and called on them again for such reinforcements as could be sent me at once, informing them of my helpless condition.

About sundown Hagood’s Brigade of Hoke’s Division (the latter having about 4000 men in all) arrived by rail from Lee’s army, and was placed by General Wise in the line on his left. During the night the rest of that division arrived, and was put on the right of Hagood’s Brigade, whose left extended to the Appomattox.

On the 16th, informed that the lines were being again heavily attacked, I transferred my headquarters to Petersburg, ordering General Johnson with three of his brigades to the Petersburg lines, placing them (with the valuable assistance of General Wise, who knew well the locality), on the right of Hoke’s Division, only one brigade (Gracie’s of Alabama) being left temporarily in charge of the Bermuda lines. I had then in and around Petersburg all my available troops, which amounted to less than 11,000 men of all arms, including General Dearing’s Cavalry, less than 1000 strong, who were principally occupied outside of the lines on the left of the enemy’s flank, watching closely his movements to give me timely notice of his approach, which would have endangered my command and compelled me to abandon Petersburg with but little resistance. About four and a half miles of the fortified lines (extending from half a mile east of the Jerusalem Plank Road westwardly to the Appo-

mattox), were entirely unprotected, except by a few pickets of cavalry stationed there to give me timely notice of any danger threatening in that direction.

It is evident that if the enemy had left one corps in my front and attacked with another corps by the Jerusalem Plank Road or westwardly of it, I would have been compelled to evacuate Petersburg without much resistance. But they persisted in attacking on my front where I was strongest (excepting the gap from battery five to nine, which had been lost the evening before) and the result was that they were repulsed during the day with great loss, although their attacks were made with two gallant corps, numbering about 20,000 men each.

On the 17th the Federals having brought forward a third corps attacked us again with great fury, and gained some advantage in front of Johnson’s position, where we had no fortified lines, as already stated. Fearing that our small and nearly exhausted forces might be overpowered before I could receive the reinforcements I was so much in need of, I determined to abandon entirely the Bermuda lines, and make a desperate struggle for Petersburg, which I considered, then, was the citadel of the Confederacy. I issued orders accordingly to General Gracie, informing the War Department and General Lee of my determination, telling the latter that I relied on him for retaking the Bermuda lines as he came to my assistance, and hoped that he might capture whatever forces General Butler might throw into them.

Just as Gracie’s Brigade was forming, about sundown, in a little ravine in rear of Johnson’s lines, the enemy broke through the latter’s right centre like an avalanche, carrying everything before them. I then thought the last hour of the Confederacy had arrived; but at that moment the gallant Gracie, having completed his formation, gave the opportune order to “forward” and then “charge.” Never was an order obeyed with more alacrity, and by a braver set of men. In an instant they had routed everything in their front, and closed the gap, cap-

turing a large number of prisoners (about 2300), nearly twice their own number! Confidence was once more restored, and the battle raged furiously until past 11 o’clock at night. I thought it would never end.

During the day I had concluded to abandon the rest of my defensive lines, and to shorten my line of battle by withdrawing my forces across a ravine about 500 yards in my rear. With that object in view, I had instructed my gallant and intelligent chief-engineer, Colonel D. B. Harris of Virginia, to mark out with white stakes all the prominent points of our new lines; and I ordered Major-Generals Hoke and Johnson to send their staff officers to locate the positions of their respective brigades, so as to avoid any confusion in a night retrograde movement. Hence my anxiety to have the battle cease in the evening. About 11 o’clock at night a captured despatch of General Burnside to General Meade having been sent me, I ascertained that his corps in front of General Johnson was hors de combat. A short while before General Baldy Smith, in front of Hoke, had been placed in a like condition, and Hancock, I believe, had fared no better; so I concluded that faute de combattans2 the battle would soon end. About 12 o’clock my hopes were realized. The firing gradually ceased along our line. I ordered the camp-fires lighted up brightly, and, leaving a strong picket-line to cover the movement, we retired silently and successfully to our new lines, which were held until the end of the war.

By daylight on the 18th we were in position, partially covered and awaiting the attack of the Federals; but fortunately they had been so roughly handled, losing more men (10,650 killed and wounded, and about 2500 missing) than I had, militia included, that they were not prepared to renew the attack until about midday, when a fourth corps (Warren’s, I think) had arrived. But General Lee, yielding to my urgent entreaties by telegraph and by messengers, had started to join me with all his forces; and Kershaw’s Division having

arrived at about 7 or 8 o’clock A. M., I placed it in position on the extreme right of my exhausted troops, a cheval on the Jerusalem Plank Road3. When the Federals renewed their last attack at about noon, they met with so warm a reception that they ceased further offensive operations, and commenced the “siege,” so-called, of Petersburg.

As soon as General Lee had arrived at Petersburg, on the morning of the 18th of June, I proposed to him to take the offensive by turning Grant’s left and throwing him into the fork of the James and Appomattox Rivers. I thought that our troops, flushed with success, would be irresistible in their onslaught. He felt inclined at first to adopt the suggestion, but concluded that we would be surer of success if the enemy would only continue their fatal system of attack, which would eventually destroy them. I regretted General Lee’s decision, for General Grant, profiting by his experience, changed his modus operandi by assuming a defensive attitude, constructing works and erecting batteries in front of our own to wear us out by a system of attrition which lasted about one year ; whereas he could have attained final success in less than one month by continuing his rotary movement around Richmond as a centre and destroying the Weldon and Danville Railroads, by which alone we received our supplies from South Carolina and Georgia. At that time we never had on hand more than a few days’ provisions, and the destruction of those two roads would have compelled us to abandon Richmond and cut our way through Grant’s army, to reestablish our lines of communication with our true base of supplies.

I remain yours most sincerely,
(Signed) G. T. Beauregard.

General C. M. Wilcox,
Baltimore, Md.

I hereby certify that the above is a true copy of the letter of General G. T. Beauregard.
(Signed) J. Wm. Jones, Sec. So. Hist. Soc.


  1. Papers of the Military Historical Society of Massachusetts, Volume 5, pages 117-123
  2. In English, “for lack of combatants”.
  3. i.e. astraddle the Jerusalem Plank Road
{ 1 comment… add one }
  • John Horn July 16, 2016, 11:37 pm

    A critical letter for two reasons. First, General Beauregard observes that the Federals ought to have flanked him out of Petersburg instead of butting their heads against his narrow front. Second, the counterattack he proposed to General Lee on June 18 was also favored, at least in theory, by E. P. Alexander.

Leave a Reply