THE FAILURE TO TAKE PETERSBURG JUNE 15, 18641
COLONEL THOMAS L. LIVERMORE
Read before the Society, November 11,1878
THE FAILURE TO TAKE PETERSBURG
JUNE 15, 1864
To understand fully the origin and object of General Grant’s movement across the James, it is necessary to review the events which led up to it.
The Lieutenant-General in his report says that in the campaign from the Rapidan to Cold Harbor he held the Army of Northern Virginia as his “objective point,” and in his movements against it relied on “an ever-shifting base.”(1)
In choosing to base his strategy on these premises he burst the trammels which had hitherto bound the Army of the Potomac to one or the other base of supplies, and dispelled the illusion that the road to Richmond was the only one which could lead to conquest.
Although it is true that General Grant’s movements from the Rapidan to Cold Harbor constantly menaced Richmond, yet this was but the means to the end. His constant effort was to overcome Lee’s army.
Crossing the Rapidan, he marched with great boldness and speed to pass the enemy’s right flank, and had succeeded in passing it with more than half his force when General Lee, with consummate skill, retrieved the day by a fierce attack on the rear of his column, which brought him to the halt, and forced upon him the great battle of the Wilderness.
Three times General Grant again tried to pass the right flank of the enemy, each time to find them in his path. Foiled in his strategy he wrested parts of their lines from them by tremendous assaults, but for each foot of ground that he took
(1) 67 W. R. 15.
they resolutely fortified a new one, and at last he found himself at Cold Harbor, close in front of Richmond, still faced by the enemy, and prevented by the James from continuing his flank movements toward Richmond.
He had taught the Army of the Potomac that all roads to the enemy were open. He had shown that no miscarriage, no repulse, no loss necessitated the traditional retreat to the Capital, or behind this river or to that base. He had left the road to the north open to his daring adversaries, and had placed himself on the south side of Richmond, and yet had given them work so serious that they had not even contemplated the repetition of their annual incursion across the Potomac. But from the first to the last he had found himself opposed by a watchful, patient, enduring, and brave army of veterans, led by the foremost commander of the Confederacy, to encounter whom without disaster was honorable to any general.
History does not afford another campaign equal — in the forces opposed, the continuity of fighting, the magnitude of losses, and the invincible spirit of both armies — to that between the Rapidan and the James in May and June, 1864.
It is said of General Grant that he believed that there always came a moment of exhaustion in the conflict, when to that army which could rouse itself to one last attack victory was the reward. It may be that he believed that that time had arrived in his campaign when he ordered the assault at Cold Harbor. He saw the retreat of his army to its works, leaving ten thousand of its number upon the ground. Then the hitherto relentless commander of the armies of the United States — contemplating the noble conduct of his army in the preceding thirty days of incessant fighting and manoeuvring, in seven great battles and numerous smaller engagements; and its loss of sixty thousand men;(1) and the no less admirable conduct of the enemy — was so wrought upon that he for-
(1) See note post, p. 45
sook his attempt to destroy Lee’s army north of Richmond, because, as he said, it could not be accomplished “without a greater sacrifice of life” than he was “willing to make.” A tribute most honorable to both armies, not only in what it affirms, but also in what it implies.
It was then, he says in his report,(1) that he determined “to move the army to the south side of the James River by the enemy’s right flank,” where he felt he “could cut off all his sources of supply except by the canal.” This is the key of the whole campaign which followed. It is useless and needless for the admirers of General Grant to say that his movement across the James was a continuation of the Wilderness Campaign,(2) for in fact, when he began the movement, he abandoned the attempt to reach Richmond or to draw out the enemy by menacing Richmond, and he abandoned his direct attack upon Lee’s army. His new campaign was against its line of supplies, with, of course, the ultimate object of destroying or capturing that army in its attempt to reach that line. It is enough of a tribute to General Grant to say that the result of the Wilderness Campaign was that he was able to move upon Petersburg. And while there is no reason to doubt his assertion that at this time he reverted to the intention, imparted to the commanders of the Armies of the Potomac and James before he started on the Wilderness Campaign, “to put both their armies south of the James River in case of failure to destroy Lee without it,”(3) this very assertion in effect characterized the campaign south of the James as a last resort.
It is important, in considering the subject of this paper, to understand clearly that in this new campaign General Grant
(1) 67 W. R. 22.
(2) This sentence must be interpreted by what follows it . In a broad sense the campaign for the destruction of Lee’s army continued in the new phase which is called the “new campaign.”
(3) 67 W. R. 17.
abandoned the direct attack on Lee’s army and the attempt to reach or menace Richmond. For it will be seen as we proceed that the justification which General Smith and his friends have for his conduct in front of Petersburg, viewed in some lights, seems to be founded upon the supposition that General Grant’s object in crossing the James was to avail himself of a new road to Richmond, or to attack Lee’s army in a new field. And the assertion of some of the admirers of General McClellan that in this new movement General Grant abandoned his own, to adopt McClellan’s, plan of campaign, if interpreted to mean that Grant sought a new approach to Richmond or to Lee’s army, tends to support this same defence of General Smith. If it is intended to assert that McClellan ever had the purpose of crossing the James to attack the line of communication of the enemy, the assertion seems unwarranted by the facts which are in print.
To recall the situation both in 1862 and 1864 it will be well to examine the map. Two railroad towns near the southern border of Virginia — Weldon in the east, and Danville in the west — were the gates of the Confederacy, through which Richmond and its armies were supplied and recruited, and through which lay the only feasible lines of retreat for those armies. The Weldon Railroad, entering Petersburg only nine miles from the James, was within easy reach of the Union Army which should cross the James. The Southside Railroad, running from Petersburg westwardly, was also within reach of an army on the right bank of the James. Forty miles west of Petersburg the Southside met the Danville Railroad coming from Richmond. That this latter railroad alone would have sufficed the Confederate Army around Richmond seems to have been the opinion of General Grant, when, in his instructions to General Butler, of April 2, 1864,(1) he pointed out the importance of the latter’s occupying Petersburg, but still contemplated operating against Richmond with
(1) 67 W. R. 17, 15; 60 W. R. 790, 904.
the Army of the Potomac if Petersburg should be captured. Burkesville Junction, however, was within twenty-four hours’ forced march of Petersburg, and if a Union Army equal to coping with the Confederate Army around Richmond in the field had seized Petersburg in 1862 or 1864, and had marched thence on Burkesville Junction, the latter army, to preserve its line to Danville, would have been forced to leave Richmond and meet its foe in the open field, and beat it unless it changed bases with the Union Army by taking Washington or Baltimore. For the only line of communication left would have been that on the north, to Lynchburg, which would have been insufficient, as was shown in April, 1865, when it became necessary for Lee to leave Richmond, although that line was still open.
Turning now to General McClellan, we find that in his letter to the Secretary of War, of February 3, 1862, quoted in his report of August 4,1863,(1) he stated that the second base of operations from Washington open to him was that of the lower Chesapeake Bay, that on this base the point of landing promising the most brilliant result was Urbanna on the lower Rappahannock, three marches from Richmond, a rapid movement from which landing would probably result in the capture of Richmond; and he added : ” Should we fail in that, we could, with the cooperation of the navy, cross the James and throw ourselves in rear of Richmond, thus forcing the enemy to come out and attack us, for his position would be untenable, with us on the southern bank of the river.” ” Should circumstances render it not advisable to land at Urbanna, we can use Mobjack Bay ; or, the worst coming to the worst, we can take Fort Monroe as a base, and operate with complete security, although with less celerity and brilliancy of results, up the Peninsula.”
The President’s War Order, No 3, of March 8, 1862,(2) substantially left the selection of the new line to General Mc-
(2) Ibid. 50.
Clellan, but a council of war, called by General McClellan, March 13, 1862, consisting of himself and his four corps commanders (according to a memorandum quoted in his report), were of the opinion that the operations should be undertaken “from Old Point Comfort, between the York and James Rivers.”(1)
General Sumner, in his testimony before the Committee on the Conduct of the War, February 18, 1863, stated that he understood that this council, of which he was a member, voted to land at Urbanna, and that otherwise he would not have assented to it.(2) General McDowell, in his testimony before the same committee, stated that “The modification of going by way of the York and James Rivers was made at Fairfax Court House as the safer, surer way, and was the opinion of the four corps commanders and of General McClellan, General McClellan saying to them that he now proposed to abandon the plan of the Lower Rappahannock for that of the route up the peninsula; ” — and that this modification was suggested by General McClellan.(3) General McClellan, in his report, says that the vote of the council was assented to by himself, and was immediately communicated to the War Department and that on the same day he received a reply in which the Secretary of War, saying that the President made no objection, directed him among other things to choose “a new base at Fortress Monroe, or anywhere between here” (Washington) “and there, or, at all events move at once in pursuit of the enemy by some route.”(4)
General McClellan, in opening that part of his report entitled “Second Period,” adverts to the resolution of this council of war, states that it was regarded by all as necessary that the four corps and ten thousand men from Fort Monroe should be employed, that the cooperation of the navy was desired in the projected attack upon the batteries at York-
(1) 5 W. R. 5.
(2) C. W. 1st Series, part 1, p. 360
(3) Ibid. 270.
(4) 5 W. R. 56.
town and Gloucester, as well as in controlling the York and James Rivers, and that “with these expectations, and for reasons stated elsewhere in this report,” his “original plan of moving by Urbanna and West Point was abandoned, and the line with Fort Monroe as a base adopted.”(1) All the reasons stated in his report, which a careful search can discover, are those stated above, and we are left in the dark as to what influenced General McClellan to forsake this original plan. It is certain, however, that he did forsake it voluntarily. We may well doubt whether the movement proposed in this plan would have been impelled by General McClellan with the celerity necessary to have enabled him to capture Richmond in three marches, or to cross the James and compel the enemy to attack him in the rear of Richmond; but with either of the generals in command, who would have been bold enough to begin such a movement in earnest, the chances of success would have been great.
It can hardly be said, then, that General Grant borrowed a plan which General McClellan wished to execute, but was prevented by the Government from undertaking, in March, 1862. It is vain to search McClellan’s report for evidence that from the time he determined to land at Fort Monroe to the time he retreated from his lines in front of Richmond he harbored even the wish to cross the James.
The article, entitled the “Campaign of the Army of the Potomac, March-July, 1862,”(2) attributed in Mr. Hurlburt’s translation(3) to the Prince de Joinville, in excusing McClellan’s determination to retreat to the James from Fair Oaks, says: “This would be a retreat but for a few miles only, and, if we were but moderately reenforced, with the support of the navy we could reassume the offensive, either against
(1) 12 W. R. 5.
(2) Revue des Deux Mondes, October 15, 1862.
(3) The Army of the Potomac, its Organization, its Commander and its Campaign. N. Y., Anson D. F. Randolph, 683 Broadway. 1862.
Richmond itself on the right bank of the river, or against Petersburg on the left; the fall of that place involving the fall of Richmond. McClellan chose the latter course(1) “[to retreat to the James]. ” As we have said, he had long considered it as one of the necessities of his position, and had even taken some steps in regard to it, the wisdom of which was about to be signally vindicated ; but there was a vast difference between making this retreat at one’s own time and by a free, spontaneous movement, and making it hastily under the threatening pressure of two hostile armies.”
Turning back, we find it stated of McClellan that after the battle of Fair Oaks, “A plan had been thought of by him: it was to transport the whole army seventeen miles from its position at that time, to abandon the line of communication on the York River, and to seek with the assistance of the navy a new base on the James River,”(2) and to fight a great battle on the bank of the river, but that this plan was ” renounced, or at least adjourned.” There is no purpose of crossing the river suggested in this. So that, unless better evidence than this can be found for the assertion, we must believe that the writer, in his statement that McClellan had long considered a movement to the James to enable him to attack Petersburg (if that is what is meant in the passage above quoted), was led to attribute to him the desire to do something that he did not, by the same friendship for his hero which led him to attribute the failure to advance against Richmond to the alleged tardiness and want of discipline of the army, rather than to the infirm purpose of its commander: — a sentiment, which even after the lapse of sixteen years seems totally untrue to most of the survivors of that army.
McClellan himself said in his report: “In anticipation of a speedy advance on Richmond, to provide for the contingency of our communications with the depot at the White House being severed by the enemy, and at the same time to
(1) The Army of the Potomac, etc., 87
(2) Ibid. 84
be prepared for a change of the base of our operations to James River if circumstances should render it advisable,” he had sent supplies up the James:(1) — but made no mention of a wish to cross the James.
At Harrison’s Landing McClellan repeatedly called for reinforcements to enable him to attack Richmond again, — but said nothing of crossing the James, until he suggested it to General Halleck July 25. The latter stated in his memorandum to the Secretary of War, July 27, 1862,(2) that, having told McClellan that the object of his visit was to ascertain his views and wishes in regard to future operations, the latter said: “That he proposed to cross the James at that point, attack Petersburg, and cut off the enemy’s communication by that route south, making no further demonstration for the present against Richmond ;” and Halleck added: “I stated to him very frankly my views in regard to the danger and impracticability of the plan; to most of which he finally agreed.” General McClellan makes no mention of this interview in his report. The enemy shelled his shipping and encampment August 1, from Coggin’s Point on the right bank of the James, and he says in his report that, to prevent another demonstration of this kind, and to secure a debouche on the south of the James to enable him to move on the communications of Richmond in that direction, he occupied Coggin’s Point.(3) In his despatch of August 3, to General Halleck, he mentioned this occupation, and said: “We have now a safe debouche on the south bank, and are secure against midnight cannonading. A few thousand more men would place us in condition at least to annoy and disconcert the enemy very much.”
In his despatch of August 4,(4) in which he strove to persuade General Halleck against the withdrawal of the army to Acquia Creek, and suggested possible movements against the enemy,
(1) 12 W. R. 52.
(2) C. W. 1st Series, part 1, p. 454. 14 W. R. 337.
(3) 12 W. R. 76.
(4) C. W. 1st Series, part 1, p. 81.
he did not suggest striking the enemy’s communications across the James.
In his testimony before the Committee on the Conduct of the War(1) he said: “I thought the James River the true line of operations, and that the proper policy to be pursued was to reenforce the Army of the Potomac and continue the movement on Richmond in that direction ; ” — and made no mention of proposing any other plan.
From all this evidence the conclusion results that, while General McClellan saw the vulnerable point, he never seriously proposed himself to assail it.
In fact, there was but one time after Fair Oaks when the movement across the James could have resulted in anything but disaster. At any other time it would have left the Confederate Army free to march to the North, the resolution to do which it evinced later, in 1862 and in 1863, under far less favorable circumstances. If McClellan had turned the rumor, which once during the Seven Days ran like good tidings along the lines, that he was about to change his base to attack the enemy’s right flank, into a verity, and had availed himself of the valor of his splendid army elated with victory to march across the James from Malvern Hill — when the exhausted Confederate Army was so demoralized by its great defeat on that field, and so weakened by losses and fatigue that it did not come within sight of Harrison’s Landing, only eight miles away, until two days after the battle, he might indeed have struck its communications across the James with fatal effect. But to take that resolution at that time would have required genius and courage such as animated Washington on the night before Princeton. The commander who could stride the James did not reach its banks in 1862.
General McClellan desired to pursue the line of the James to get the aid of the navy, and to secure his line of supplies. General Grant not only ignored the fancied necessity of keep-
(1) C. W. 1st Series, part 1, p. 437
ing open a line of communication north of the James, but also looked upon that river, not as a necessary line or as a barrier against the foe, but as an obstacle. He marched to it to cross it, not to hug it.
In May, 1864, the two armies again faced each other south of Richmond, and General Grant with the loss of sixty thousand men(1) — no greater than the number which McClellan lost up to July 2, 1862,(2)—had inflicted such blows on the enemy that he did not fear that they would try to cross the Potomac, and then, the pickets of his wary foe being in actual contact with his own, he took the resolve to cross the James and begin a new campaign. The movement to the south of the James had been with McClellan the speculation of a military dilettante; — with Grant it became strategy.
General Grant in his report,(3) after giving his reasons for not prolonging the campaign north of the James, says: “I therefore determined to continue to hold substantially the ground we then occupied, taking advantage of any favorable circumstances that might present themselves, until the cavalry could be sent to Charlottesville and Gordonsville to effectually break up the railroad connection between Richmond and the Shenandoah Valley and Lynchburg; and, when the cavalry got well off, to move the army to the south side of the James River by the enemy’s right flank, where I felt I could cut off all his sources of supply except by the canal.” Then, stating that on June 7 the cavalry got off, and that on June 10 Gilmore, sent up by Butler against Petersburg to capture it, returned without attempting an assault, he says: “Attaching great importance to the possession of Petersburg, I sent back to Bermuda Hundred and City Point General
(1) Swinton’s Campaigns of A. of P., p. 491.
(2) C. W., 1st Series, part 1, pp. 343–345. On the authority of later publications Grant’s loss was corrected to 64,426, including the loss from sickness, and McClellan’s to 43,000 or more, in the writer’s subsequent paper, 4 M. H. M.. 449-450.
(3) 95 W. R. 21.
Smith’s command by water, via the White House, to reach there in advance of the Army of the Potomac. This was for the express purpose of securing Petersburg before the enemy, becoming aware of our intention, could reenforce the place. The movement from Cold Harbor commenced after dark on the evening of the 12th ; one division of cavalry, under General Wilson, and the 5th Corps crossed the Chickahominy at Long Bridge, and moved out to White Oak Swamp to cover the crossings of the other corps. The advance corps reached James River at Wilcox’s Landing and Charles City Court House on the night of the 13th.”
“The 2d Corps commenced crossing the James River on the morning of the 14th by ferry-boats at Wilcox’s Landing. The laying of the pontoon bridge was completed about midnight of the 14th, and the crossing of the remainder of the army was rapidly pushed forward by both bridge and ferry. After the crossing had commenced I proceeded by a steamer to Bermuda Hundred to give the necessary orders for the immediate capture of Petersburg. The instructions to General Butler were verbal, and were for him to send General Smith immediately that night, with all the troops he could give him without sacrificing the position he then held. I told him that I should return at once to the Army of the Potomac, hasten its crossing, and throw it forward to Petersburg by divisions as rapidly as it could be done; that we could reenforce our armies more rapidly there than the enemy could bring troops against us. General Smith got off as directed, and confronted the enemy’s pickets near Petersburg before daylight next morning.”(1)
It is not within the scope of this article to comment at length upon the character of this great flank movement, which placed the army on the south bank of the James, but it is just to say that it was one of the boldest and most brilliant of modern wars. Two divisions voyaged a hundred and fifty
(1) 95 W. R. 21.
miles by water from White House to Bermuda Hundred, the remainder of the army crossed a broad navigable river within twenty miles of the enemy, the two columns arrived at the point of crossing at the same time, and the advance reached the enemy’s pickets without experiencing even a hostile demonstration by the enemy; and not only was the movement so orderly, silent, and well covered that the enemy did not attack, but the strategy also was so complete that from the 13th, when it began, until the 17th General Lee did not venture to quit his intrenchments at Cold Harbor.
But says General Grant:(1) General Smith “for some reason that I have never been able satisfactorily to understand, did not get ready to assault his [the enemy’s] main lines until near sundown. Then with a part of his command only he made the assault, and carried the lines northeast of Petersburg from the Appomattox River for a distance of over two and a half miles, capturing fifteen pieces of artillery and three hundred prisoners. This was about 7 P. M. Between the line thus captured and Petersburg there were no other works, and there was no evidence that the enemy had reenforced Petersburg with a single brigade from any source. The night was clear — the moon shining brightly — and favorable to further operations. General Hancock, with two divisions of the 2d Corps, reached General Smith just after dark, and offered the service of these troops as he [Smith] might wish, waiving rank to the named commander, who, he naturally supposed, knew best the position of affairs and what to do with the troops. But, instead of taking these troops and pushing at once into Petersburg, he requested General Hancock to relieve a part of his line in the captured works, which was done before midnight.”
To this, General Smith has never made public answer. It is understood that he made a report of his operations which is on file in the War Department,(2) and that it is from this re-
(1) 95 W. R. 23.
(2) See 80 W. R. 705, published in 1892.
port that Swinton derives the excuse that he makes for General Smith. This excuse will be adverted to further on, and will, it is thought, be found to rest upon a misconception of General Grant’s object in placing his army south of the James; but whether this report will justify this view, and whether it will show that General Smith received from General Butler the spirit of General Grant’s verbal instructions, we cannot now ascertain.
The grave censure implied in the passage above quoted from the Lieutenant-General’s report, written after he had conquered his opponent and when he could afford to be generous towards General Smith, and when sufficient time had elapsed for resentment to cool, standing unanswered is prima facie a critical judgment of the highest authority, and to differ from it without new facts would be presumptuous in any one less than a professional military critic; but it would likewise be presumptuous to volunteer concurrence in this judgment pronounced upon so skilful and gallant a commander as General Smith, unless upon facts which were not apparent to him when he decided upon the course which he took. When failure has ensued, it is easy to retrace a campaign in the study, upon maps, to cause pins to stand for resolutions that ought to have been taken, and to shed the blood of faithful and brave soldiers with the point of the pen; but, without the power to place one’s self in the face of physical obstacles, or to impress the imagination with the awful responsibility of life and death which weighs upon the commander on the field of battle, it may be possible for the critic to test the general as a military machine, but it is not possible for him to say what the man could have done.
Under the circumstances detailed by General Grant it is natural to inquire at once whether the failure of General Smith was not due to lack of spirit and boldness, but when we regard him as the impetuous general, who at Yorktown, in 1862, could not be restrained by his corps commander from
passing the Warwick and taking the enemy’s works(1) and so demonstrating under the eyes of General McClellan that their works could be taken by assault, and who again planned, and commanded, in the novel and successful movement for the seizure of Brown’s Ferry for the relief of Chattanooga, October 27, 1863,(2) we cannot readily accept this as the explanation of his failure, and indeed what General Smith did at Petersburg evinced not only spirit and boldness, but also genius.
It will be the aim of this article to relate the movements of General Smith’s command upon the day in question, the incidents which seem significant, and the personal conduct of General Smith; and, although unable to refer to the report made by that officer, the writer, besides availing himself of personal recollections on the subject, has been so fortunate as to have placed at his disposal the reports of the division and brigade commanders, and some of the staff, of the 3d Division, which led the column to Petersburg, and to have an account in the Report of the Adjutant General of New Hampshire of the part taken by several regiments of Brooks’s Division which participated in, and one of which brilliantly led that division in, the final assault. General Smith crossed the Appomattox before daylight, with two divisions of infantry under Generals Brooks and Martindale, and a cavalry force of several regiments under General Kautz, and, with this force and a division of two brigades of colored troops under General Hincks from City Point, began his march by the City Point Road on Petersburg, eight miles away, at five o’clock on the morning of June 15, with the cavalry in the advance. Within an hour the cavalry encountered the enemy who opened upon them while passing through a wood about five miles from Petersburg. The fire of both musketry and artillery was so serious that the cavalry countermarched and moved away to the left, leaving the road clear for the infantry
(1) C. W. 1st Series, part 3, p. 599
(2) 54 W. R. 40.
to move by it against the enemy, whereupon General Smith ordered General Hincks, who led the infantry column with his division, to move directly and at once through the wood and attack the enemy. Whether this order was founded upon a knowledge of the force of the enemy and of the strength of their position, derived from the reconnoissance of the cavalry, or upon the conjecture that the force was only an advanced guard thrown out to delay the column, we are not informed; but, in taking the resolution to advance as directly and rapidly as possible against this force, General Smith evinced the determination to reach the enemy’s main works at Petersburg as soon as possible, and, although this resolution to attack here as he did involved the loss of several hundred men which might have been avoided by a reconnoissance and a flank attack which would thereby have been made possible and which the enemy could not have withstood for a moment, yet it saved time, which was then of more importance than the sacrifice of men. General Hincks, on receipt of the order, immediately formed each of his two brigades in line of battle, one following the other, and advanced into the wood above spoken of, and came at once under the sharp fire of a battery beyond the wood and out of sight, which by raking the highway and the woods upon each side of it, inflicted constant loss upon the lines of battle moving along the road and sweeping the woods widely on each side of it. But although the woods were difficult to penetrate, and the ground was swampy, these colored troops, then for the first time encountering an enemy in the field, advanced steadily for about half a mile, first against the fire of the artillery, and then against both artillery and musketry, and, although two regiments were thrown into confusion, the leading brigade, emerging from the wood and discovering the enemy intrenched upon a crest about four hundred yards from the wood, charged with great spirit, and caused them to retreat so hastily as to leave one piece of artillery in the works.(1)
(1) 80 W. R. 721.
It is said by Captain McCabe in his address(1) delivered before the Virginia Division of the Army of Northern Virginia, November 1, 1876, that the intrenched force consisted of Graham’s Light Battery and a force of dismounted cavalry under Brigadier General Dearing, and concerning the engagement he says:
“This position, resolutely held for two hours, was finally carried by the infantry, yet Dearing, retiring slowly with unabashed front, hotly disputing every foot of the advance, so delayed the hostile columns that it was eleven o’clock A. M., before they came upon the heavy line of intrenchments covering the eastern approaches of the town.” This is a correct statement as to time, but has an oratorical coloring which might mislead the student searching for exact information. The head of Kautz’s cavalry column came in front of the work held by this force at about six o’clock A. M., but, without making an attack in line of battle, withdrew to make way for the infantry, as before stated. There was some delay in forming the infantry in line, and the sharp fire of artillery which raked through the wood during the advance caused the lines to move slowly and with some difficulty, yet they never stopped, and the enemy fled precipitately when the leading brigade emerged from the wood. The work was carried by eight o’clock A. M. An hour was then consumed(2) before the march was taken up in re-forming the column, placing the reserve brigade in front, and in the inevitable delays consequent upon the loss of a tenth of the force.
The column of General Hincks then crossed to the Jordan Point Road and advanced fully a mile before encountering the enemy again, which it did at the crossing of Baylor’s Creek. The force here consisted merely of skirmishers, who were quickly driven under cover of the guns of the main works in front of Petersburg. Hincks’s skirmishers held a line from the junction of the Jordan Point and Suffolk Stage Roads to
(1) So. Hist. Soc., vol. ii, p. 267
(2) 80 W. R. 721.
Peeble’s house northward, within range of the guns of the main works, at 11 A. M.(1)
Brooks’s Division pursued the City Point Road and, according to the report of General Burnham commanding the leading brigade, his skirmishers encountered the enemy’s directly in front of the main works at 10 A. M.(2)
So that, although full credit is to be given to General Dearing’s force for holding their position for two hours and inflicting a loss of three or four hundred men on their adversaries, yet that it retired slowly, or, by hotly disputing every foot of the advance, delayed the column until 11 o’clock, cannot be conceded.
It is not to be disputed that General Smith had, up to his arrival in front of the enemy’s main works, acted with great promptness and spirit. He had marched five or six miles, fought a considerable engagement, and driven in the enemy’s skirmishers so far as fully to develop their main line.
This line of earthworks ran from the Appomattox River over low ground a little south of east to the City Point Railroad, and then, turning sharply, mounted the high ground and ran south along a series of crests for about a mile and a half from Battery no. 5 to Battery no. 12, and then was drawn back so as to surround the city and meet the Appomattox again south of the city.
General Smith’s three divisions arrived in front of these works and covered the River, Jordan Point, and City Point, Roads, and were drawn up in line of battle, with Martindale in the low ground on the right, Brooks in the centre, and Hincks on the left. The two latter opposed the eastern front from Battery 5 to Battery 10, and it was against this front that active operations were directed. These works presented a very formidable aspect to the troops. They were situated on commanding crests, and the forest was felled in their front
(1) 80 W. R. 721, 722; 107 W. R. 264.
(2) Rep. of Adj. Gen. of N. H. 1866, vol. ii, p. 793
so as to expose advancing lines to their fire for half a mile or more. Numerous pieces of artillery swept the field of fire rapidly and with precision, and a strong line of skirmishers in secure rifle-pits, well advanced in front of the works, kept up a spirited and effective fusillade. These circumstances necessarily resulted in the deploying of divisions under cover of the forest at such a distance from the works that difficulty was encountered in making connections, as the lines converged from a very extended arc; and to reconnoitre with effect, and to place batteries where they could aid the assaulting parties, required that the lines should be advanced to exposed eminences and that these positions should be held, all under a sharp fire, which was a work of difficulty and delay.
General Smith reconnoitred personally on the skirmish line under the fire of the enemy’s marksmen, and at about noon directed that Hincks’s skirmishers should keep down the enemy’s gunners, if possible, and that the field batteries should be pushed well in front to open on the enemy’s works.(1) In considering the question of delay, it will hardly be disputed that this was in the line of judicious preparation for the assault.
Directions were given to carry out these orders, and the result is well stated in the report of Colonel Duncan,(2) commanding one of Hincks’s brigades.
He says that a regiment of his, deployed as skirmishers, came up in front of Batteries 9 and 10, and that it was hoped that their fire would seriously annoy or silence the guns in these batteries, but that the distance of 600 yards was too great, and the skirmish line could not in daylight advance farther, and he then proceeds as follows : “Meanwhile an attempt was made to open an artillery fire upon these redoubts from an open field to right and rear of this regiment. Both Captain Choate’s and Captain Angel’s Batteries were brought up, but every part of the field was so thoroughly
(1) 80 W. R. 722.
(2) 107 W. R. 265.
commanded by a direct, an oblique, and an enfilading fire from the enemy’s guns that prudence dictated the withdrawal of the batteries.”
He then goes on to say that at 1 P. M. the regiment deployed as skirmishers was withdrawn, except two companies; and that “A double line of battle was then formed” of his brigade. “The lines, when formed, were advanced 500 yards to the crest in Jordan’s Field which had been partially occupied by the skirmishers of the 1st Regiment. This was a work of great difficulty owing to the triple fire of the enemy which had previously prevented the planting of our batteries, and which was now directed with increased rapidity and with great accuracy upon all our movements.”
“It was two o’clock P. M. when the crest was gained, and the right of the brigade connected with General Brooks’s left.”
Colonel Holman, commanding the other brigade of Hincks’s Division, also states in his report(1) that, after he reached the high ground desired for the batteries, “The enemy opened, and kept up, a destructive fire from his artillery and sharpshooters upon my skirmish line, which could not be returned with much effect, as he was well protected by his intrenchments.”
These facts, stated by reliable officers, will hardly admit of unfavorable criticism upon General Smith for his delay until two o’clock, when the connection was made between Brooks and Hincks,(2) for until then the line of battle was incomplete; and it certainly is true that persistent and courageous effort had not been wanting.
Moreover, the reconnoitring of two or three miles of works under a rapid fire, from various points separated by forest, hill, and ravine, and the selection of practicable approaches to works pronounced by General Smith on that evening to be stronger than Missionary Ridge,(3) and by General Grant to be
(1) 107 W. R. 263.
(2) 80 W. R. 722.
(3) Post, p. 68
the strongest encountered from the Rapidan down, and to which skirmishers could not approach within six hundred yards, might well consume three hours; and that General Smith performed this duty in person and with great activity and exposure of his person numerous witnesses can testify.(1)
But the strength of the works, it would seem, ought not to have surprised him and delayed the assault after he had reconnoitred. It is said in excuse of him by Swinton, that he had been informed that the works around Petersburg were such that “cavalry could ride over them.” It is probable that General Butler so informed him, for he had asserted a day or two before to an aide of General Hincks,(2) who had seen them, that he could jump his horse over them anywhere. But General Smith had no reason to suppose that Butler had seen them, and he had with him General Hincks, who had confronted them on Gilmore’s expedition on the 10th of June, and could have told, and probably did tell, him of their strength, and General Smith must have foreseen that his only hope lay in assaulting these works when they were insufficiently manned.
The very object of the movement across the James was to effect a surprise, and from the moment that General Smith confronted the works celerity above all things was necessary.
But, although his lines had been formed at 2 P. M., he did not determine to assault until 4 P. M., and for this delay of two hours we are utterly at a loss to account, except upon the theory that General Smith did not understand that a surprise was expected by General Grant, or that he distrusted the accomplishment of it, or that, as will be suggested further along, he totally misconceived the object of the movement, and did not realize the importance of seizing the railroads.
General Smith was engaged in personally reconnoitring the enemy’s works until about four o’clock P. M., at which time,
(1) Among them the writer.
(2) The writer.
while still anxiously riding along in front of his lines and viewing the enemy’s, he sent word(1) to General Hincks that he was convinced that there was but little infantry in the works, and that, as artillery could not tear up a line of skirmishers as it could a line of battle, he could take the place with a skirmish line if he could at all, and that General Hincks should at once form a very heavy skirmish line, which should go into the works, followed by the line of battle if successful, — the assault to be made when orders were received, or when General Brooks’s line moved forward.
But, as will appear further on, orders were not issued to General Brooks’s line to make the assault until an hour or two later, and in the mean time General Smith had discovered, or at least resolved to take advantage of, a weak spot in the enemy’s works, in front of General Brooks.
The country in front of the works was seamed with deep ravines, and although it was difficult to pass over the intervening crests which were cleared of timber, yet some of these ravines ran close under the works and offered a vantage-ground to a line bold enough to reach them. It is said that General Beauregard entertained the opinion that the line of works was faultily situated, and especially vulnerable in the quarter of Batteries 5, 6, and 7.(2) General Smith detected the weakness of this part of the line. General Brooks, the commander of his first division, Burnham’s Brigade of which confronted these batteries, says in his report: “It was determined by General Smith to throw forward this line of skirmishers (Burnham’s) if possible to the ravine just in front of the enemy’s line, from which position it was supposed they might keep down the artillery fire while the main column would cross the opening in our front.”(3)
(1) By the writer.
(2) McCabe’s Address. 2 So. Hist. Soc. 267. Letter of Gen. Beauregard to Gen. Wilcox, M. H. S. M. Unpub. Rep., p. 4, post, p. 119.
(3) Rep. of Adj.-Gen. of N. H. 1866, vol. ii, p. 795
The resolutions taken by General Smith, as evinced by these orders, were admirable, and, if they had been promptly acted upon and had resulted in the success which followed their execution at a later hour, it seems entirely probable that Petersburg would have fallen. But more delay ensued.
General Hincks says in his report that no material change was effected in the disposition of his troops after two o’clock until preparations were made for the final charge, which took place after 7 P. M.(1)
Colonel Duncan says that, gaining the crest before mentioned : “Here we lay five hours suffering much from the well-directed fire of the enemy which he never remitted.“(2)
General Burnham says that, after engaging the enemy’s skirmishers in the open ground in the morning, “desultory skirmishing was kept up throughout the day, the enemy at times shelling us severely from Batteries nos. 5, 6, and 7.” “At about 5.30 P. M. I received orders to assault the enemy’s fortifications in front of the division with my skirmishers, and at once made all the necessary dispositions for the attack,” and that he waited until after seven for the arrival and placing of the artillery.(3)
General Brooks said that he assaulted as soon as the artillery got into position.(4)
The “repeated assaults ” after eleven o’clock, spoken of in McCabe’s address,(5) were the movements for position before adverted to, which were mistaken for assaults.
We are again led to inquire why General Smith delayed from four to seven o’clock, after he had made up his mind to assault and how to assault. We are not informed who was responsible for the delay in bringing the artillery to the aid of Brooks, but must assume that the responsibility for this
(1) 80 W. R. 722.
(2) 107 W. R. 267.
(3) Report of Adjutant-General of N. H. 1866, vol. ii, p. 794
(4) Ibid. 795.
(5) 2 So. Hist. Soc. 267.
belongs upon General Smith. Indeed it has not been urged as an excuse for his delay.
It is possible that the cautious frame of mind which seems to have possessed General Smith from two o’clock forward was unduly increased by an incident which occurred at about four o’clock. Just as General Smith had announced to an aide of General Hincks(1) the message already related, an officer of General Grant’s staff rode up on the City Point Road and informed General Smith that the 2d Corps was coming towards him on the Windmill Point Road. Soon after this a messenger from General Smith carried to General Hincks a despatch addressed to the commander of the Second Corps, with word that he should send it to General Hancock, which he did. This despatch, carried with all speed,(2) reached General Hancock seven miles in the rear in the middle of his column. The latter says in his report: “At 5.30 P. M., as the column neared Old Court House, Birney being about one mile distant, a despatch from General Grant addressed to General Gibbon, or any Division Commander of the 2d Corps, reached me.(3) This despatch directed all haste to be made in getting up to the assistance of General Smith, who it stated had attacked Petersburg and carried the outer works in front of that city. A few moments later a note from General Smith was delivered to me by one of his staff, which informed me that he (General Smith) was authorized by Lieutenant-General Grant to call upon me for assistance, and requesting me to come up as rapidly as possible.” The outer works referred to were those at Baylor’s Farm which were taken in the morning, and the despatch from General Smith was that which was sent through General Hincks.
The fear arises that Smith delayed his assault for the arrival of the 2d Corps.
Although the head of the 2d Corps arrived within support-
(1) The writer.
(2) By the writer. See 81 W. R. 59.
(3) 81 W. R. 63.
ing distance just before the assault was made, it is probable that the assault was ordered before Smith was aware of its arrival, and we are driven to believe that, after waiting so long, the nearness of night made longer delay more hazardous than the assault in his estimation.
The assault was made, as planned by General Smith, with a heavy skirmish line, at a little after seven o’clock.(1)
Burnham’s skirmishers moved forward with great spirit, plunged into a ravine forty feet below the parapet of Battery no. 5, scaled the works under a heavy fire of artillery and musketry, gained the rear of the enemy’s line, and entering the redoubt, routed or captured the garrison, and seized and turned upon the enemy five cannon.(2) General Hincks, warned by a message from General Smith that Brooks was in motion, ordered the advance. His skirmish line, strengthened much beyond tactical numbers, rushed forward as the movement on their right was seen to begin, and under a heavy fire carried Battery 7 with loud cheers. Their supports followed quickly and, all re-forming in Battery 7, they thence assailed Battery 8, a strong work, well posted on a considerable elevation behind a difficult ravine. This battery was turned and carried in the face of strong resistance, and with considerable loss.(3)
General Smith in person had sent a regiment of Hincks’s forward against Battery 8, and, finding it already captured, this regiment passed through the ravine in front of it and made at Battery 9, a work 500 yards distant which commanded the redoubts already taken. At the same time two companies of another regiment of Hincks’s, struggling through the fallen timber and brush which covered the ground, received the fire of Battery 9 within fifty yards, and entered it from the front, the garrison retreating hastily to Battery 10 as the two assail-
(1) 80 W. R. 705, 722
(2) Report of Adjutant-General of New Hampshire, 1866, vol. ii, p. 794
(3) 80 W. R. 725; 107 W. R. 264, 267, 268.
ing parties entered. The regiment last named promptly turned Battery 10, and charged and drove out the occupants, and at the same time Battery 11 was abandoned. Six cannon were taken in the batteries thus captured.(1) While these spirited encounters were taking place, General Smith in person(2) ordered an assault upon Batteries 9, 10 and 11 by Hincks’s reserve of two regiments. These regiments, one following the other in line of battle with skirmishers out, advanced upon the works 600 yards distant over ground much obstructed by slashing, and, darkness having fallen, their only guide was the flash of the enemy’s guns, whose fire, however, was much diverted by the parties storming in flank. The works were carried by the flanking parties as above related, as the reserve line approached them, and the field was won. It was now nine o’clock.
Concerning this brilliant feat of arms General Hincks, in a letter to General Smith dated January 1, 1866, said that in his judgment “an assault made in any other mode would have resulted in disaster, as no column or line of battle which General Smith could have arrayed could have marched over the long and difficult approaches under the direct and enfilading fire of the enemy, and that, as it was, notwithstanding we had been manoeuvring for several hours in front of two miles of the enemy’s line, he was completely surprised by the dash of the skirmish line, which he could not break up with artillery, and which had possession of the guns almost as soon as he could see our supporting lines, which were in the works before the skirmishers could be dislodged.” And this friendly critic added that he thought the enemy’s position “could have been assaulted at an earlier hour of the day, but not with any probability of success.”
But this was written, we must suppose, without the light which Confederate authorities have thrown upon the disparity of numbers of the opposing forces, for, upon the failure of
(1) 80 W. R. 725; 107 W. R. 264, 267, 268.
(2) 107 W. R. 268.
Gilmore four days before to assault these same works, General Hincks offered General Butler to give him Petersburg or his commission, if intrusted with the same force, which was less than Smith’s on June 15.
Full credit ought to be given to General Smith for first using on an extended scale the tactics which the Germans have adopted, of assaulting with heavy lines of skirmishers in lieu of lines of battle; and his delay enabled him to charge in the Russian fashion of later days, at nightfall, so as to avoid long-range missiles; yet his own judgment that he could take the works with a skirmish line, uttered at four o’clock, convicts him of wasting three precious hours at least. He waited for reinforcements, perhaps, — but needlessly, as it now seems.
Captain McCabe, in his address above referred to,(1) says that the works were held on the 15th by 2200 men(2) under General Wise, and that General Smith had above 20,000. It seems from General Beauregard’s letter to General Wilcox of June 9, 1874,(3) that the former number included only the infantry and artillery, and that Dearing’s half brigade of cavalry, five hundred strong, and perhaps the remainder of it,(4) is to be added to make the total. The estimate of General Smith’s force, adopted by McCabe from General Beauregard’s report, is much too large. We have not the returns at hand to make an exact statement from, but General Butler stated in his address before the Army of the James, Oct. 2, 1874,
(1) 2 So. Hist. Soc. 267.
(2) Captain McCabe writes that it consisted of “about 75 local militia, Wise’s Brigade, two skeleton regiments of N. C. Cavalry, 2 Virginia Light Batteries, 1 N. C. Light Battery, 1 Alabama Light Battery and 2 small companies of ‘Home Guards.’ ” M. H. S. M. Unpub. Reports, p. 38.
(3) Post, p. 119
(4) See 81 W. R. 675. Wise’s Brigade reckoned at one third of Johnson’s Division numbered 1650 and Dearing’s Brigade of Cavalry numbered 1911 present for duty June 10. 69 W. R. 891–893. Beauregard’s despatch of 9-11 p. m. 81 W. R. 656,677, seems to show that Hoke’s Division did not arrive before the works were taken.
that the force sent against Petersburg was 10,000 men. General Hincks states in his report that his morning report showed 3747 men.(1) His division occupied fully one third of the line. The cavalry of Kautz was not present on the field of battle after an early hour in the morning. It therefore seems highly probable that General Smith did not have with him over 10,000 men.(2)
These odds would seem amply sufficient to have enabled General Smith to break through the extended line of the enemy.
And here it becomes important to consider whether blame is to be attached to General Grant for not pushing the 2d Corps to Petersburg early in the day, for the report of General Hancock fixes it as a fact that not only might his corps have reached the field early in the day, but also that no intimation was given to him that he would be needed, until he received the despatches above adverted to, on the road, late in the afternoon. Turning now again to General Grant’s report, we find in passages already quoted the avowal that it was his purpose to send General Smith’s command to Petersburg “To reach there in advance of the Army of the Potomac,” and there is no suggestion that he intended to rely on any part of the Army of the Potomac in the assault, and his statement to General Butler, in directing him to send Smith against Petersburg with all the troops he could give him, that” we could reenforce our armies more rapidly there than the enemy could bring troops against us,” points rather to expectation of the capture of the place by Smith alone than to any intention of aiding him in the assault with the Army of the Potomac.
All this and the manner of despatching Smith by water point to an intended surprise of the place, and indeed, up to
(1) 80 W. R. 721.
(2) June 16 he estimated his force at about 8000 men (81 W. R. 113) without Kautz’s Cavalry (about 2500, 80 W. R. 729), and losses of a thousand to sixteen hundred, 80 W. R. 237.
the time when the 2d Corps had reached the south bank of the James, General Grant could not have felt certain that his wary antagonist at Cold Harbor would permit the crossing to take place without an attack. The attack by the Prussians at Colombey upon that part of the French Army which was attempting to cross from the east to the west bank of the Moselle to concentrate at Metz, August 14, 1870, and which delayed the march of the French until it was possible to surround them in that place, is a modern example of strategy which Lee might have adopted on the 14th of June, 1864, — strategy which the impetuous valor of his veterans might have rewarded with great results. But, as will be shown further on, the silent and skilful movements of General Grant were unperceived by General Lee, or else they utterly deceived him. The surprise that resulted was complete. How well the secret of the movements was kept is strikingly shown by the fact that General Hancock in the vanguard certainly, and General Meade probably,(1) did not know what was to take place, and the fact that the Lieutenant-General went to Bermuda Hundred to order personally the despatch of General Smith to Petersburg leads us to believe that even the latter was ignorant of the purpose of his voyage up to that time. Secrecy must be pledged to surprise. Every hint of it renders it less certain. In April, 1863, General Hooker placed the houses of half a county under guard, and concealed his intention of crossing the Rappahannock from his corps commanders and personal staff until the heads of his columns reached the fords. If the 2d Corps had marched through the hostile region of Prince George Court House on the 14th, spies would have carried the news to General Lee before daylight of the 15th, and so have alarmed him when the movements on the Appomattox failed to do so.
(1) In view of the statements of Generals Grant and Meade published since this paper was written, the writer would not now venture an opinion as to General Meade. See Grant’s Memoirs, vol. ii, p. 294. 80 W. R. 315.
The critic cannot blame General Grant for thus placing Smith’s force under the enemy’s guns without the knowledge of the rest of the armies, if his force was great enough to do the work. Upon the question whether this force was sufficient hangs the meed of praise or the merit of blame. The bare statement of numbers seems enough to award him the praise. Further on, a discussion of the plight of the Confederates within the works, will, we think, strengthen this view. Relying on General Smith alone to capture the place, it was certainly wise in General Grant to give him no hope of help early in the day. The fear arises that it was unwise even late in the day to tell him that Hancock was on the way.
The conduct of General Smith on this eventful day divides itself into four periods. We have viewed it in three of them. In the first, he had got off, met the enemy, and taken the outer works with the utmost promptness and spirit; in the second, he had reached the field of fire of the second line of works, had deployed in front of them, had carefully and intrepidly reconnoitred the works, and formed his plan of attack with great sagacity, and had then unwarrantably delayed the attack for several hours; in the third, he had carried the works by a rapid series of assaults, in which the courage and spirit of his troops were matched by his own gallant conduct in personally directing successive attacks.
At nine o’clock in the evening General Smith entered upon the fourth period, master of the whole eastern front of the formidable works which had covered Petersburg, when the enemy had vanished in the darkness towards Petersburg and not even a shot from a rear guard hinted at a stand.
We have not the means of learning how far or in what panic the Confederate troops fled. General Beauregard, in his letter above cited,(1) says that Hoke’s Division had been sent by him to General Lee before the battle of Cold Harbor and had not yet been returned, notwithstanding his “repeated calls
(1) Post, p. 119
for it in consequence of the movements of the Federals which indicated an early attack on Petersburg,”that on the afternoon of the 15th he sent Wise the remainder of his troops from the north side of the Appomattox, giving him in all about 2200 men,(1) and the remainder of Dearing’s Cavalry Brigade from the Bermuda Hundred lines; this probably placed under Wise at least 3200 men.(2) He adds that meanwhile he “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” him “at once,” informing them of what he calls his “helpless condition;” that “at 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 lines on his left,” and that “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.”
In justice to General Smith and his troops it should be particularly marked that, not only did Dearing’s half brigade arrive in the afternoon, but that Hagood’s Brigade arrived at about sundown, which was an hour or more before the last of the works was taken; so that General Grant was mistaken in supposing that no reinforcements arrived. He was mistaken also in saying that the works next to the Appomattox were taken. In fact, several batteries, nos. 1 to 4, which constituted the north front of the defences, were not taken, and it seems that it was these batteries that Hagood’s Brigade was put into, and there is no evidence before us that this brigade abandoned them. There is another circumstance which may indicate that General Smith had other reinforcements before him. Colonel Duncan, commanding that one of Hincks’s brigades which took Battery 10, said in his
(1) Post, p. 119
(2) Commands numbering June 10, 3560, besides some militia, 81 W. R. 675; 69 W. R. 891–893.
report, written June 25, 1864, that, Battery 10 being taken, “the enemy immediately abandoned Battery no. 11, although from the statements of prisoners it appears that the 42d North Carolina Regiment was close at hand to reenforce the work.”(1) This regiment belonged to Martin’s Brigade of Hoke’s Division. General Beauregard, in the passage above quoted, says that the rest of Hoke’s Division arrived during the night; and, unless this regiment was detached from Martin’s Brigade,(2) the whole of Hoke’s Division was present before the assault terminated. General Beauregard says that the division was placed on the right of Hagood’s Brigade.(3) This of course means in a new line, for otherwise it would have been in the works which were captured. If we assume that Hagood’s Brigade retained possession of Battery 3 or 4, and that the rest of Hoke’s Division, on arrival and before the assault was ended or immediately after, was placed in a new line drawn directly south from either of these batteries, we shall find this new line where it was found on the morning of the 16th. If this was the state of facts, General Smith would have encountered a new line of battle between the works he had taken and Petersburg, if he had advanced that night.
But whether this new line was occupied by reinforcements before daylight of the 16th, or whether the troops flying before Smith’s onset were stopped at this line or were rallied in the streets of Petersburg, we are not informed.
General Hancock says in his report: “At 6.30 P. M., the head of Birney’s Division had arrived at the Bryant House on Bayley’s Creek, about one mile in the rear of the position of Hincks’s Division of the 18th Corps. Leaving Birney and Gibbon instructions to move forward as soon as they could ascertain at what point their assistance was required, I rode forward to the field, where I met General Smith who described to me the operations of the day, and pointed out as well as he could in the dusk of the evening the position of the enemy’s
(1) 107 W. R. 268.
(2) 69 W. R. 842.
(3) Post, p. 120.
line he had carried. I now informed him that two divisions of my troops were close at hand and ready for any further movements which in his judgment and knowledge of the field should be made. General Smith requested me to relieve his troops in the front line of works he had carried, so that the enemy should encounter fresh troops should they attempt their recapture. He was then of the opinion that the enemy had been reenforced during the evening.” The meeting of Generals Hancock and Smith was probably near nine o’clock, as the assault had but just ended at that hour.
General Smith could have advanced with at least fifteen thousand men. It is not probable that the enemy could have withstood them, if indeed they were even in the plight to try it. The two divisions of the 2d Corps were weary, but they were reliable veterans, and, although General Smith had lost perhaps a tenth of his force, and a third of what remained were negro troops who had seen their first battle that day, yet all had behaved with great courage and steadiness, and much could have been trusted to troops who had proved themselves by lying five hours under a fierce fire and then carrying with such dash the strong works whose many guns had flashed in their sight and hurled their shells among them all day, — troops, too, hot with triumph and aligned among their trophies, the cannon they had taken.
Swinton says that General Smith feared to risk what he had won by a night attack.(1)
General Hincks in a recent letter, in reply to inquiries put to aid the preparation of this paper, has written what is believed to be the best excuse for General Smith which a pen, impelled by friendship and directed by an intimate knowledge of the events, can inscribe, and as such it is quoted here. He says: “General Smith appeared on our line [i. e. inside the works] between nine and ten o’clock in the evening, — it may have been as early as nine, — and his first greeting was,
(1) See 80 W. R. 705.
‘Hincks, this is a stronger position than Missionary Ridge.’ I well remember his enthusiastic greeting. I then suggested to him that we could easily move forward and capture the town. He replied that Beauregard was marching upon Petersburg with a larger force than he had at his command, and would probably enter the town before we could possibly reach it, and that the risk of losing all we had gained was too great to warrant any farther movement that night, and that we should do well if we succeeded in holding all we had gained. I have no doubt that with prompt movement and the cooperation of Birney we could easily have entered Petersburg at any time before twelve o’clock on the night of the fifteenth of June. But could we have gained the works north of the town on the left bank of the Appomattox? Without possession of these works could we have resisted the advance of Lee’s army or held the town? Would the mere occupation of the town for a few hours, and the possible destruction of a mile or two of railroad track, have been of any permanent advantage to the Union armies commensurate with the risk and loss? These I think are fairly debatable questions. Had it been possible to have gained possession of the ground between Petersburg and Swift Creek, it had been well to have ‘risked all for all,’ for Lee would have been forced from his communication and compelled to give battle in open field where every advantage would have been on our side. But the mere occupation of Petersburg would have brought on a conflict on the morning of the sixteenth, which would have resulted in our being forced from the town, or in a prolonged and gigantic struggle which would have terminated only when one army had been vanquished or both exhausted. Was the condition of the Army of the Potomac on the morning of June sixteenth such as to render a general engagement desirable to the Union cause? If it was, then it could have been commenced, when nearly all its corps were in position, with at least as much of advantage to our side as would have existed, had it been
waged in the valley of the Appomattox, where the enemy would have been nearer to his communications and more concentrated, while we should have been more remote from ours and more attenuated. I believe that nothing was lost by Smith’s caution. A brilliant dash would have won eclat for him and his officers, but would probably have resulted in no permanent benefit to the cause of the Republic.”
Considering now the defence which General Smith made for himself on the field, as related in this letter, we shall find ourselves beset by the fear that he did not realize the motive of the campaign. If it had been General Grant’s purpose to carry his army to the south bank of the James in order to press to Richmond along that river, using it to bring up his supplies, — the desire of McClellan in 1862, — then General Smith might have taken to himself the credit of having gained something worth saving, although it must be owned that the position he had taken was worth but little except as a point of departure. But the object of the movement was to seize the railroads which led into Petersburg—to grasp the arteries of the Confederacy at the throat — and so to change the campaign into a defensive one, or a pursuit of Lee’s army in retreat towards the interior. The works carried by General Smith were worth nothing to General Grant. They were only a barrier to be forced in reaching the railroads. The value of the victory was measured by the cannon and prisoners taken, unless it threw open the gates of the city where the railroads met — the city which General Beauregard says in the letter above referred to he then regarded as “the citadel of the Confederacy.” To halt on the heights was to forfeit the chance of fighting on the defensive the next day. To fight on the defensive was to have great odds between the two armies about to meet on the Appomattox — Americans, careless of the fierce aspect or formidable array of their foes, strangers to panic, and accustomed to wage battle across a single breastwork if need be. General Smith must have felt that the night
would place between the crest on which he halted and Petersburg a new line of battle intrenched enough to cause the conflict to assume the character of those north of the James. At such a time it is hard to believe that General Smith would not have risked the throw, if he had realized to the full the object of the campaign. A line of earthworks across the railroads, the destruction of the bridges across the Appomatox, a vigorous defence of the town by fifteen thousand men against the whole army of Northern Virginia, would have insured the arrival of ample reinforcements. It would have been worth the capital of the Confederacy.
Whether General Smith knew the importance of action or not, he was under orders to take Petersburg. He had the right to suppose that General Grant would force his whole army to his aid in Petersburg. It would be hard to find an excuse for inaction in the fact that a larger force than his own was on its way to Petersburg. But, as has been said early in this discussion, no one at the desk can understand the weighty influences which on the field sway the general responsible for the lives of thousands, and, until we know just what information General Smith acted on, we cannot say that he gave it undue, or too little, weight.
But, although disobedience of orders may lie within the discretion of the commander on the field when a state of facts unforeseen by his superiors renders obedience useless or so perilous as to invite destruction, yet the case perhaps has never occurred, and would be hard to suppose, where the commander would be justified, if it came to light that he was deceived and so lost his opportunity. This we are constrained to believe is General Smith’s plight.
His halt was based on his belief that a greater force than his own would assail him on the next morning. If his belief was wrong, his discretion was wrongly used. In fact, no Confederate force equal to trying to force the passage of the Appomattox in the face of the 2d and 18th Corps had come,
or was to come before the rest of the Army of the Potomac reached the field.
As we have seen, Beauregard had only about 7200 men in Petersburg by daylight of the 16th. He says that he ordered General Johnson from the Bermuda Hundred front on the 16th, thus bringing his force up to 11,000 men in Petersburg. If we allow one, or even two, thousand men for possible error in numbers, still Beauregard’s force did not equal the force with Smith on the night of the 15th, and the 1st Division of the 2d Corps arrived that night.
That Petersburg could have been taken that night General Beauregard says is certain, and this was asserted by Captain McCabe in his address before the Army of Northern Virginia, above cited.
We have seen that General Hincks, whose leaning is towards General Smith, avows the opinion that the city could have been taken at any time before midnight. To his doubts as to the benefit of that it may be answered with confidence that, with the bridges of the Appomattox in our hands or destroyed, the 2d and 18th Corps could have held the town. No better proof of this could be had than the fact that for ten months our troops held a line in the valley of the Appomattox close to the town under the daily fire of the enemy’s batteries on the heights on the opposite side of the river. A general engagement, which should be fought to the death if necessary, was desirable for the 16th, if we could fight on the defensive, and the Army of the Potomac was in condition to fight it, and was hurrying forward for that very purpose. When it got there, the fight was on the offensive, and yet that army prolonged it for three days. The same effort upon the defensive would have been very likely to destroy the Army of Northern Virginia.
When the despatch from General Smith reached General Hancock seven miles in the rear, the latter, suffering from his wound received at Gettysburg, was traveling in an ambulance,
and, although he at once sent orders to General Birney in the advance to aid General Smith, yet General Hancock himself did not reach the field in person with the head of his column. Had the fortune of war so been that the impetuous commander of the 2d Corps had reached the scene of action at the head of his column — as was his wont — while there was yet daylight, it might have happened that the reenforcement of one man would have carried our lines into Petersburg.
It is not believed that these friendly apologies for General Smith would have been made, if it had been known to their author, as it is now known to us, that the force under General Beauregard on the 16th was so much inferior in numbers to that which General Grant had concentrated in front of the city.
It is said in defence of General Smith that a night attack over strange ground is exceedingly perilous, and that the commander who makes it trusts almost everything to chance. And it is true that the attack might have been full of perils, and that General Smith would have had to trust much to the mere impetus of his lines, undirected by anything except the shadowy outlines of the city and its suburbs, or the flash of the enemy’s guns if they had been encountered, and that a slight disorder in his ranks might in the darkness have easily grown into a rout. But the attack was possible, and the prize was worth risking the very integrity of the army corps. High authority has been quoted above on the feasibility of a night attack. Instances of it occurred more than once in the late war, and it is difficult to excuse General Smith for not making it because of its danger.
Since we cannot attribute General Smith’s failure to lack of courage, zeal, or patriotism, if we cannot find the cause in his failure to grasp the plan of the Lieutenant-General, we can only say that it was the fortune of war whose strange chances may cloud the perceptions and dethrone the will, as well as dispossess the soul of courage.
When General Smith went into bivouac on the night of June 15, a great piece of strategy was thwarted at the very moment when success had been earned and the prize was within the grasp of a hand which refused to take it. But errors quite as grave and as incomprehensible as that of General Smith are said to have been committed by the commanders on both sides during the next three days, when, if we are to credit the accounts, General Lee failed to see the need of reenforcing Petersburg, and the commanders of the Union armies failed to see that the door was open to enter into Petersburg; and, were it within the scope of this article, General Smith’s conduct might be weighed against that of the other commanders not entirely to his disadvantage. But the end of the subject taken for this paper is reached with the end of the first of those four days of battle in which the iron-hearted leader of the Union armies was to be put to the test — bravely borne — of seeing his boldest movement end in disappointment, appalling bloodshed, and exhaustion, when the fortune of war with grim irony was to reward the brave defenders of Petersburg with the fruitless holding of their city for ten weary months more as the prize of victory.
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 33-73 ↩