THE MOVEMENT AGAINST PETERSBURG JUNE, 18641
MAJOR-GENERAL WILLIAM F. SMITH
Read before the Society, December 12,1887
THE MOVEMENT AGAINST PETERSBURG
Gentlemen of the Military Historical Society of Massachusetts, — In March, 1887, I received a copy of a paper written for your Society by Colonel Livermore, entitled, “The Failure to take Petersburg, June 15, 1864.”
The criticism was based upon the authority of a report by Lieutenant-General Grant, dated July 22, 1865; and, assuming General Grant to be correct in his statements, no fault can be found with the paper, which is written in the style of a judge who unwillingly charges a jury against the person at the bar. Colonel Livermore gives as a reason for attaching implicit faith to the indictment by General Grant, that “I had never made public answer.” The censure of the Lieutenant-General is severe and contains several counts, some of the important ones, however, being swept away by Colonel Livermore himself after an examination into the facts.
Papers have been in my possession since a short time after the publication of the report of General Grant from which to make answer.
You, gentlemen, will quite well understand that for some years after the war any effort to change public opinion with reference to the correctness of any statement made by General Grant would have been utterly futile. After years had passed, such a story made public would have been like a “twice-told tale in the dull ear of a drowsy man.” I have, therefore, never made a public answer, preferring to leave my papers for others to deal with before the history of the war should be written by some one who is able, just, and
conscientious. On reading the paper of Colouel Livermore, however, I determined to prepare a paper to be filed in your archives. Upon expressing a desire to this effect to Mr. Ropes, I was invited to read the paper before you.
I shall first present to you the official statement of General Grant having reference to this subject, and shall then, I hope, show in what points the Lieutenant-General was incorrect, and, in doing that, shall give you a connected story of the whole operations, from sunset of the 14th to midnight of the 15th of June, and then my public answer will have been made.
General Grant says : “My 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. General Smith got off as directed, and confronted the enemy’s pickets near Petersburg before daylight next morning, but, for some reason I have never been able satisfactorily to understand, did not get ready to assault his 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 seven P. M. Between the lines 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 future operations. General Hancock with two divisions of the 2d Corps reached General Smith just after dark, and offered the services 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.”
I hope to show, in opposition to the foregoing statement:
That I received no orders to march at once that night.
That owing to a delay of at least three hours on the part of the cavalry, the march did not begin until two hours after daylight.
That therefore I did not confront the enemy’s pickets near Petersburg before daylight, but that I did confront them just after the march began, and near our own lines, and found them in front of me until the works at Petersburg were reached at noon.
That I lost no time after arriving at the fortifications, before making the assault.
That my entire command, except the cavalry, which had retired without orders and without giving me notice, participated in the movement.
That I did not capture the works on the Appomattox River.
That I had the best of evidence, by the time I had ceased fighting, that the enemy had been reenforeed by more than one brigade.
That I neither saw nor heard of General Hancock just after dark, but that I first saw him after half past-nine.
That General Hancock made no offer to waive rank, nor did he offer me the two divisions of his corps.
With this long preface I will begin the story of the capture of certain earthworks near Petersburg, Va., on the 15th of June, 1864.
On the morning of the 12th of June, 1864, I was within my lines at Cold Harbor, Va. During the day I received an order to march with the 18th Corps to White House, there to embark to join the Army of the James at Bermuda Hundred, commanded by General Butler. No intimation was given to me that on arriving at Bermuda Hundred I was to enter at once upon a most important work, — the assault of the forti-
fied lines at Petersburg. Had I been relieved from my lines at noon of the 12th, or even later, I could have left White House by daylight of the 13th, and have been at City Point sufficiently early on the 14th to have assaulted Petersburg that day, especially if the troops which were afterwards assigned to me had been placed in position at or near Spring Hill. As it was, I was obliged to act as rear guard to the Army of the Potomac during the night of the 12th, and my march was much impeded by the troops(1) and wagons of the 2d, 6th, and 9th Corps, and when I, in the leading steamer of my command, passed the crossing place of the Army of the Potomac on the James, the 2d Corps was already partly across, so that I had in reality gained but little upon the troops that made the flank march.
On receiving my verbal orders from General Butler at about sunset, no plan was formulated for me to follow, and I at once set about the study of the maps and giving the orders for the movement, so that the various commands should not impede each other, and should be properly concentrated at the point I had selected. The information given to me by General Butler was that the works protecting Petersburg were not at all formidable, and that General Kautz a few days before had ridden over them with his cavalry, an assertion endorsed by General Kautz himself in a personal interview. Upon the strength of this statement, General Kautz was ordered by me to take the advance and go to the same place and repeat the operation, by which time I would be in position to take advantage of his success, with the infantry of the command.
In addition to the above information, General Butler stated that there was no force of any consequence at Petersburg.
In my report, dated August 9, 1864, I stated as follows:
“By sunset of the 14th I had reported in person to General
(1) General Walker, in his History of the 2d Corps, is entirely mistaken in stating that the right of way was given to me over everything in the march from Cold Harbor to White House. See Appendix.
Butler and received orders to move at daylight on Petersburg. The cavalry of the Department under Brigadier-General Kautz was assigned to my command, as well as the division of colored troops under Brigadier-General Hincks. General Kautz was ordered by me to commence crossing the river at one o’clock A. M., followed by such of the troops of the divisions of Generals Martindale and Brooks as had arrived. General Kautz was to proceed with as little delay as possible to threaten the line of fortifications near the Norfolk & Petersburg Railroad and at the same time protect the left flank of the infantry. General Hincks with his division was ordered to move from Spring Hill in rear of General Kautz, taking up a position across the Jordan’s Point Road as near as possible to the enemy’s works. General Brooks was ordered to follow General Hincks and form line of battle on his right, while General Martindale was directed to proceed on the river road to a point near the City Point Railroad and await orders. The transports were arriving all night, and, with the exception of the commands of Generals Hincks and Kautz, it was impossible for any general to tell what troops he had or would have with him. From the information gained at headquarters, from the general commanding, and from refugees, I was led to believe that we should encounter no line of works till we reached the main line near Jordan’s Hill, — that there was but a small force opposed to us, — and that my right flank on the Appomattox would entirely command the position of the enemy there. General Kautz was unavoidably delayed in his march, which prevented the movement from Spring Hill until some time after daylight. The cavalry advance struck the enemy’s pickets within a mile and continued skirmishing until they came upon a rifle-pit, near the railroad, lined with infantry and armed with a light battery. On receiving the report of this from General Kautz, he wag ordered to withdraw and move into his position by the left, while General Hincks was ordered to deploy his command and assault the works. This was gallantly done by his troops
and a piece of artillery captured by them. This unexpected affair delayed us till about nine o’clock, and produced a further delay by General Hincks being out of his assigned position, and, as it was important on account of his knowledge of the country, he was ordered to move by the flank to his place, while General Brooks deployed his line and moved forward along the City Point Railroad and wagon-road. A march of a mile and a half brought us within range of the guns in the defences of Petersburg. The skirmishers were halted in the edge of the woods nearest to the works, and I began to reconnoitre the position and to get the troops formed for assault. General Martindale had come up and in his front was a low valley perfectly swept by the enemy’s fire of artillery, and cut up by deep ditches and ravines, while a strong line of works, open in the rear and connected by heavily profiled rifle-pits, were occupied by the enemy. General Brooks’s command was at the salient of the line, which consisted of a strongly profiled work heavily flanked on our left by redoubts and riflepits en echelon, — their flanking works also fronting the line of General Hincks. Wherever I went on the line, I found a heavy cross-fire of artillery, from the enemy, opened. The few artillery positions I could find I tried to get our guns to open from, but they were always driven in by the superior fire of artillery behind earthworks. The reconnoissances were necessarily slow, and, while anxious to lose no time, I was yet determined to take no step in the dark to get my command badly repulsed before such works and in wide, open fields. Very little infantry could be seen, but that was not positive proof that it was not there, and it was not probable that the number of guns at work against us would be there without strong support. Heavy firing was going on clear to our left where Kautz was, and it was evident he was unable to force his way into the city. About five o’clock P. M., after a reconnoissance on General Martindale’s front, I came to the conclusion that nowhere on my line could I hope to get a column of
assault over the wide, open space between me and the enemy, subjected to the heavy fire of artillery which would be brought to bear on it, and that I would try a heavy line of skirmishers with my artillery massed upon the salient near General Brooks’s centre. In obedience to this plan, orders were sent to the division commanders on the right and left to conform to the movements of the centre division, the skirmish line was doubled, and the lines of battle held in readiness to move forward when the skirmishers had reached the works. Upon ordering up the artillery it was found that the Chief of Artillery had, upon his own responsibility, taken everything to the rear and unhitched the horses to water them, and this detained the movement for an hour. About seven o’clock the order was given to the skirmishers to advance, and Captain Follett opened all the batteries upon the bastioned salient, which made no responses. The long and heavy line of skirmishers advanced gallantly under a sharp infantry fire and carried the works (the salient), taking between two hundred and three hundred prisoners, and four pieces of artillery, double-shotted with canister, which had been kept waiting for our columns of assault. These pieces were quickly turned by our men on the retreating foe.
[Note. — This description of the engagement refers more particularly to the assault on the Salient by Brooks, which was considered by me the most important, and to which the other divisions were ordered to conform their movement.]
” In the mean time the lines of battle were moved forward to occupy the works. General Brooks’s command was formed to resist an attack, should one be made upon us, while General Martindale on the right and General Hincks on the left were following up our advantage. Four redoubts on our left which commanded our position were carried successively and gallantly by the negroes — the last coming into our possession about nine o’clock P. M. We had thus broken through the strong line of rebel works, but heavy darkness was upon us
and I had heard some hours before that Lee’s army was rapidly crossing at Drury’s Bluff, and I deemed it wiser to hold what we had than, by attempting to reach the bridges, to lose what we had gained and have the troops meet with a disaster. I knew also that some portion of the Army of the Potomac was coming to aid us, and therefore the troops were placed so as to occupy the commanding positions and wait for daylight. The 2d Corps began to come in after midnight and relieved my extended lines, and our gallant men rested after a toilsome day.”
Here is the official story, told early in August, while everything was fresh in my mind, and with the subordinate reports and my Adjutant-General and aides to assist me in making a correct statement. No tittle of evidence has ever been adduced to show the report to be incorrect in any way, and it is hardly to be supposed that a deliberate mis-statement in any one of the important particulars noted by the Lieutenant-General would have been passed over without official action, because it would stand in the light of capital military crime.
My report states that the order I received was to move at daylight, — a different order entirely from that given by General Grant for the move.
That I gave the order for the cavalry to commence crossing the Appomattox at one o’clock A. M. of the 15th, and to proceed with as little delay as possible to threaten the line of fortifications near the Norfolk and Petersburg Railroad. The two white divisions were to cross the river after the cavalry, which would have brought them at Spring Hill ready to take up the march at daylight, daylight coming at about 3.30. I say also that General Kautz was unavoidably delayed, and the movement upon Spring Hill did not take place until some time after daylight. General Hincks says that his command was at Spring Hill, and that it was about five o’clock when the cavalry arrived at his position, and that in twenty minutes after that, it had passed, and he then began his advance. Here
there is the evidence of my own report and the statement of General Hincks to show that the march was not begun as early as stated by General Grant, nor as early by two hours as had been intended by my orders, and that I did not confront the enemy’s picket near Petersburg before daylight.
Now as to the time when I did confront the enemy’s pickets, and did come within range of the guns of the fortifications, I will give first what General Kautz says on the subject in a report(1) made, not to me but to General Butler.
“We came upon the enemy’s pickets on reaching the City Point Railroad, we drove them in, capturing one line of obstructions, an abatis across the road at the sawmill. A second line, consisting of a long rifle-pit manned with three pieces of artillery and an infantry support, commanded the road which debouched from a dense wood.” At this point Kautz was ordered to pass to the left and make way for the infantry. On this new route he says: “Here we carried another line of obstructions made by the cavalry pickets in the woods, when the enemy fled, leaving the body of a lieutenant in the road. A battalion of rebel cavalry fled towards Petersburg upon our approach, and we passed on across the Prince George Road to the Norfolk Road without difficulty. Here we drove in the pickets to the main intrenchments which we came in sight of about twelve o’clock M.” This report shows that from about a mile beyond Spring Hill he was most of the time in contact with the enemy until he reached the main line about noon.
General Hincks, a brave and excellent soldier, who had well earned his promotion to the command of a division, responded at once to the order to assault the rifle-pits at the sawmill after the cavalry had withdrawn from his front. He says this line was carried at eight o’clock. In my report I say it delayed us until about nine o’clock, and that a further delay arose from the fight having thrown him out of place, to which he moved by the left flank. General Hincks further says he was devel-
(1) 80 W. R. 728.
oped in his place about twelve M., after again encountering and driving the enemy’s pickets before coming in sight of the main works. Finding that the enemy had sufficient troops to send outside of his works to defend a causeway nearly two miles to the front, I at once ordered Brooks to make the rest of his march in line of battle. General W. T. H. Brooks was a soldier distinguished in the Mexican War and in the Civil War, and well known throughout the regular army for his coolness and intelligence on the field of battle. He says that, after his command left the point at which Hincks had his fight, he threw out a strong line of skirmishers to connect with Martindale on his right, and that they were in constant conflict with the enemy until the latter were driven out of a heavy wood into their rifle-pits under the cover of the main works of the line. General Brooks does not state the hour of arrival. General Martindale, whose reputation is well known, was assigned to the occupation of a range of hills running perpendicular to the Appomattox, and separated by a broad valley from a parallel range occupied by the enemy, and said by General Butler to be commanded by the range occupied by Martindale. In a letter to me, dated December 11, 1865, General Martindale says:(1) “I arrived at Walthall’s Hill and connected with Brooks at about twelve M.”
Here are three out of the four division commanders agreeing in naming twelve M. as the hour of arriving in front of the works at Petersburg, in opposition to General Grant, who says I confronted the enemy’s pickets near Petersburg before daylight, and that he could not understand why I did not get ready to assault the main lines until near sundown.
Of the artillery fire developed by the enemy along our whole line as we came near the fortifications, my report states that “wherever I went on the line I found a heavy cross-fire of artillery from the enemy. The few artillery positions I could find I tried to get our guns to open from, but they were always
(1) For Martindale’s report, see 107 W. R. 1256.
driven in by the superior fire of artillery behind earthworks.” General Kautz reports that with him, “the ground in front was comparatively level and afforded little or no cover from the enemy’s artillery, to approach the works. The enemy opened with artillery from five redoubts as soon as we appeared in view, and subsequently two more redoubts were developed on our extreme right.”
It must be borne in mind that here was the place at which I had been led to expect that Kautz would ride over the works, turning the enemy’s right flank.
General Hincks says: “By your direction the movement of my troops into position to assault was immediately commenced and was accomplished about noon. These movements were directed over ground completely commanded by the enemy’s artillery, which was most excellently served from his batteries since known as 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10, and were necessarily made with much caution and great difficulty…. I then attempted to bring a portion of our guns to bear upon the enemy’s position, but after repeated efforts found it to be impracticable on account of the precision with which his sweeping fire was directed upon every portion of the crest.”
This order from me to Hincks to make ready an assault, as shown by the time, was given upon the information I had received from General Butler and General Kautz, and before I had seen the works myself. General Brooks says: “An effort was made to get some artillery in position, but there was no place that the enemy did not completely command. One section was placed in position, but was ineffectual.” The lines of General Martindale were out of harmful range of the artillery in his front, yet in visiting him in the afternoon I was followed by artillery fire nearly to his lines. Martindale says that “about three o’clock a fire was opened on him from the west bank of the Appomattox, enfilading and taking his right brigade in reverse.” This he finally subdued by a battery on Walthall’s Hill. Thus on my whole extended front of
nearly three miles a formidable fire of artillery was developed, and the skirmishers of the enemy were as firm on their ground as though they were well supported by infantry behind them. The ordinary estimate of infantry to artillery would have given a force of nearly 20,000 men opposed to me, for I captured fifteen pieces of artillery and it was presumable that many pieces escaped capture, certainly all in front of Kautz and Martindale. Taking the guns and three miles nearly of skirmishers, I could hardly rate the force opposed to me at less than 3000. Now, so far as I can estimate my force, I had less than 10,000, leaving out the command of Kautz, which might as well have been left with General Butler, although it served to keep some artillery and infantry from troubling Hincks. I reached the Army of the Potomac on the first of June with barely 16,000 men. I lost in killed and wounded, between the 1st and 12th of June, nearly 4000, in sick and straggling perhaps 1000 more, leaving my original command about 11,000 strong. The strongest division, that under Ames, did not reach me at all on the 15th, thus leaving me, at the outside, about 6000 men of the 18th Corps. To this force must be added the colored division of General Hincks, numbering as he says 3745 all told, but all utterly untried in battle, giving a total of less than 10,000 infantry and artillery. Taking therefore any estimate founded on any military rules of which I am cognizant, I had not the superiority to lead me to anything approaching rashness in presence of such works and such an artillery fire.
[Note. — I believe the best authorities give one man behind earthworks as the equal of three outside.]
I came to the front in view of the works about twelve M., with the leading troops of General Brooks’s command. In place of a weak line of works, I found them very strong. In place of a small force, I judged, from the number of guns and the pertinacity of the skirmishers in holding on outside, that the works must be at least tolerably well manned. The artillery
fire on the extreme left where Kautz was told me that he had not been able to repeat his feat of riding over the lines. The hills occupied by Martindale were too far off to be said, with our calibres, to command the works in his front running to the Appomattox. They were also lower than the others. Thus all the information given to me the night before was erroneous, and I was obliged to discard it utterly, and get by a reconnoissance correct information for myself. I had asked, the night before, for an engineer officer, but was refused. Under these circumstances, I was obliged to do the work myself which might have been much more quickly done by an engineer officer rather than by myself, who was frequently interrupted by the necessity of attending to my proper duties. Under the circumstances a reconnoissance, to be of any value, must be thorough. The connection between Brooks and Hincks was not effected until nearly three o’clock, and no movement would have been justifiable, with the indications in front, until that was made. Now I am very confident in the assertion that any man standing at twelve M. on that day before those works, who would at once have ordered an assault, belongs at one extreme or the other of the long scale of human intellect. I am just as positive now as I was then, that, if I had made an assault in the ordinary way, the chances were greatly in favor of my columns of assault being cut to pieces and demoralized by artillery fire which I could not have answered in an effective way. I had finished the reconnoissance in front of Brooks and Hincks shortly after three o’clock, or not long after Brooks and Hincks had effected their junction. I had very nearly arranged in my own mind the plan of attack and had, as General Hincks says, informed him of it and given him his instructions. I then had to go to Martindale. He was too far removed to participate in the assault, but, if he could cross the valley, he would keep the enemy from reenforcing the salient where Brooks was to assault, and, in case of success, would be nearer to Petersburg and in better position for an immedi-
ate advance than the troops participating in the assault. Martindale says I was with him about four o’clock which should have taken me back to the front of Brooks a little before five o’clock. The orders were then given to Brooks to form his lines under cover of the woods and strengthen his line of skirmishers. After the ineffectual efforts to find positions for the artillery with Brooks, it had been withdrawn to the rear under cover. But now that the salient was to be assaulted, it was necessary for all the guns to be massed to open fire on that point to keep down the fire of the guns in front while the infantry was exposed in the open ground. It could not be brought on until every other preparation was completed, for, exposed in the open field, it could not last long against such a fire as could be brought to bear on it. It was quite a different thing from the cannonade which preceded the assault at Gettysburg, as this at Petersburg was to operate at any expense to itself against the nearest guns which swept the ground in our front. I should judge it might have taken half an hour to make the dispositions for the infantry, and then the artillery was sent for. As I say in my report, which is corroborated by General Brooks, the Chief of Artillery had, without consultation and upon his own responsibility, unhitched the horses and sent them to the rear for water. General Brooks says: “The order for the advance was given, which was to be as much as possible under cover of the fire of our own artillery, but at this moment an unlooked-for delay was caused by the discovery that Captain Follett, commanding the artillery, had sent the artillery horses to water. This delay was an hour. The attack was therefore made at the very earliest practicable moment.” I deemed it impossible to dispense with the artillery, and there was nothing to do but wait. It must have been near seven o’clock when the order was finally given to advance, and it took but very few minutes to carry the salient and the works directly in front of Hincks. Martindale did not get across the valley until after dark, and
there met with obstacles which prevented him from following up the advantage, capturing the works in his front, and opening a road to Petersburg behind the hills which were in the front of Hincks after the capture of the works. General Martindule says: “When at length the advance was made, we went forward about a mile to the road running northerly from Friend’s house. … It was dark enough to make an advance over the creek impracticable on the east side of the City Point highway owing to a ditch which I found, subsequently, was as much as eight feet deep. The men could not have crawled across it. Had a further advance been attempted, we should have moved immediately on to that ditch behind which the rebels had a parapet.”
General Butler writes(1) to Hancock at seven o’clock, urging him up and saying that “Smith has carried the first line of works,” — which proves that the movement must have been made somewhat before seven. General Grant says that I assaulted with only a part of my command. I have always understood that expression as a criticism upon my plan of making the assault with the line of skirmishers, for in no other sense is the statement borne out by the facts, as the right and left divisions were ordered to move forward when the centre division under Brooks moved, and the order was promptly obeyed. In General Grant’s Memoirs, he changes his expression and says: “General Smith assaulted with the colored troops and with success.” This discards reference to the peculiar plan of making the attack, and the evidence given shows the statement utterly inconsistent with the facts, as Brooks’s command captured the salient. As a criticism upon the plan I adopted, I do not think it of great value, because that plan succeeded perfectly, and I do not think the old methods would have been successful. Had this plan come to me on my first hasty inspection of the line of works, and had I then satisfied myself that the probabilities were that there
(1) See 81 W. R. 59. — Ed.
was not a strong infantry force there, I could probably have been at the bridges by six o’clock P. M.; but it must be borne in mind that I was looking for a practicable place to assault in the old way, taking into account the cross-fire of the batteries. The plan adopted was evolved only after a long and laborious reconnoissance, and as the difficulties of finding a place to assault in the usual way were developed. It was to me a novelty in the art of war; educated soldiers who are not geniuses treat novelties with wariness, and therefore it took time to get hold of the plan and to determine to adopt it.
I think the extracts given show conclusively that my whole force, always excepting Kautz, who had left his position without orders, and without notice to me, was employed in making the advance, and that General Grant was incorrect in his statement with reference to it.
I do not attach any importance to the statement of General Grant that the moon was shining brightly and the night was favorable for future operations. I have no recollection of moonlight that aided us in our work, and I have quoted General Martindale as saying: “It was dark enough to make an advance over the creek,” in his front, “impracticable.”
General Grant states that “there was no evidence that the enemy had reenforced Petersburg with a single brigade from any source.” Now at seven o’clock Butler writes(1) to Hancock: “I fear reinforcements from Richmond at about this time, as they have had the day in which to do it and are beginning to pass them over, one train having already gone by.” Butler, from what he sees, asks Hancock to send three divisions to my assistance. At 8.30 P. M. General Butler sends again to General Hancock, saying,(2) “General Smith has carried the outer line of works and the only defensive line of Petersburg. They are crowding troops from Richmond. General Grant supposes you will move at once and aid General Smith.” The signal station which overlooked the whole country kept me
(1) 81 W. R. 59.
(2) Ibid. 60.
informed of what was going on in front. I have a diary in the handwriting of my Assistant Adjutant-General, who is now dead, in which he says: “June 15, 7 P. M. News of reinforcements to enemy.” At 9.30 P. M., I acknowledged the receipt of a despatch from General Butler in which he says, “They [the enemy] have not got 10,000 men down yet. Push on to the Appomattox.” As I went to the front shortly after the fighting ceased, for the purpose of getting an idea of the country ahead of us, and before I had determined not to advance further, this despatch must have reached me while there.
The letters and despatches from which I have copied, being from my commanding officers, furnished the best possible evidence to me that Petersburg had been reenforced, and to an extent which warranted me in supposing that at 9.30 the enemy was as strong as, if not stronger than, my own command, and therefore the Lieutenant-General was incorrect in his assertion. The road to Petersburg in front of Hincks led immediately into a defile between two high wooded hills, making a strong defensive position in the daytime and one almost impregnable at night, even if held by a comparatively small force. That this line was occupied I will show by an extract from an unsolicited letter received from Colonel Noyes, late Colonel 38th Regiment U. S. Colored Troops: “I wish to say that on the eve of that day, after the fighting had ceased, — while passing in front of our line, — I was unable to discover the enemy’s lines with accuracy, although but a short distance from them, and was saved from passing into their line, by a sudden volley of musketry induced probably by our near approach.”
The statement of the Lieutenant-General with reference to the arrival of General Hancock on the field, is next in order. I first saw General Hancock after my return from Hincks’s front, which must have been after 9.30 P. M. General Hancock does not give the hour, but says:(1) “I rode forward to the
(1) 80 W. R. 305.
field, where I met General Smith, who described to me as well as he could in the dusk of the evening the positions of the enemy’s lines he had carried.” As the fighting was over, this meeting must have been after my return from the front, or after 9.30 P. M., and not, as General Grant says, just after dark. General Grant further says General Hancock offered the services of his two divisions as I might wish, waiving rank, etc. The waiving of rank by a soldier would be at once a confession of inferiority, but would in no wise lessen the responsibility of the ranking officer. With such a soldier as was Hancock, the statement becomes simply absurd. On seeing the report of the Lieutenant-General in print, I at once wrote to General Hancock to ask if he knew upon what authority General Grant made such a statement. He replied by sending me a certified copy of his report, saying that was all he had ever said on the subject. Hancock says,(1) “I now informed him that two divisions of my troops were close at hand and ready for any movement which, in his judgment and knowledge of the field, should be made.” That is to say, that on coming upon the field of battle, he asked his junior officer what was the condition of affairs, stating that he had two divisions near at hand with which to do anything I might advise. After I had fully reported to my superior officer the situation, had he thought differently from myself about the strength of the reinforcements or the danger and uncertainty of a night attack, it was perfectly competent for him to order me forward or to take the advance himself with his two divisions. This was perfectly proper for a soldier to say without in any degree derogating from his rank. Had I said the two divisions should at once take up the march for Petersburg, can any one presume that Hancock would have remained behind his troops and let any person other than himself command them in a fight? I had, while at the front, made up my mind that my force could not succeed in reaching Petersburg
(1) 80 W. R. 305.
that night, and therefore I could not advise Hancock to take his divisions and follow up the success, though it was entirely within my province to give that advice had I believed in it. This interview with Hancock was the first intimation I had had that his troops were in my vicinity, although General Hincks says he saw Birney about eight o’clock, and urged him to go in on our left. This deals with the last of the statements of General Grant with reference to this affair. At twelve o’clock that night I sent this despatch(1) to General Butler: “It is impossible for me to go further to-night, but, unless I misapprehend the topography, I hold the key to Petersburg. General Hancock not yet up. General Ames not here. General Brooks has three batteries, General Martindale one, and General Hincks ten light guns.” The remark about Hancock, of course, referred to his troops that were then relieving Hincks’s lines, but of which I had no information.
At the risk of wearying you, I will give extracts from two letters written by me to General J. H. Wilson, with whom I was on most intimate and confidential terms. The first letter was dated on the 18th of June, three days after the fight, and the second, undated, was written two or three days later. After giving a description of the march to Petersburg, I say: “Weitzel (Butler) had refused me an engineer and so I had to make a reconnoissance of my entire front, sometimes on my knees and sometimes lower down.” I then gave the results of my examination and the plan adopted, and said: “Finally I gave the order to move; and the best of it is that the rebel Chief of Artillery said, ‘This is a d—d pretty business, captured by a picket line, and here my guns are double-shotted waiting for your line of battle.’ I have no idea I ever should have got a line of battle up under the fire they would have brought…. If my artillery officer had been hung the day before, and this man had given me an
(1) 81 W. R. 83.
engineer officer, I should have had the bridges before dark.” General Butler, who was less reticent in expressing his military opinions than an educated soldier would have been, had stated that I lost eight hours in the attack on Petersburg. In my second letter to General Wilson, referring to this remark, I said, ” While he was safely looking on out of cannon range, I, so sick that I could barely ride my horse, was dragging myself around on the picket line exposed in every possible way, that, when I did strike the blow, I might make no failure and murder no men.”
It is perhaps not out of place to say here that I was suffering so severely from the effects of bad water, and malaria brought from Cold Harbor, that the reconnoissance I made was carried on very slowly, and in that way I undoubtedly did lose valuable time, but there was no one to whom I could confide that work. The point as to why I did not advance on Petersburg after 9.30 P. M., I have only partially answered by stating the evidence I had of reinforcements received by the enemy. The question of my not advising Hancock to go forward with his two divisions, is of the same character. To comprehend fully all the reasons operating upon me at that time, I must give what I understand to be well-defined principles in the art of war. A military command is a unit only as long as the intelligence which directs it has perfect control of it and can move it according to the exigencies of the situation, and it becomes disorganized exactly in the proportion in which this control is lost. If this be true, the attack at night of a particular point where the ground and obstacles to be overcome are well known, where all details can be arranged with great precision, and where the point of attack is short and can be directed by a single individual, is not against this principle and has been frequently practised in war. Jomini treats of this question, which is familiar to every graduate of West Point. For a large body of men to march in line of battle at night and maintain an effective organization is im-
possible. As for the general in command, he simply steps down from his position and commands what is in his immediate front, leaving all other operations entirely to chance. He can neither estimate the force against him nor the obstacles to be overcome. He is powerless to repair disaster, of which he cannot know the details, and equally unable to take intelligent advantage of success. His command is without a head and is no longer a unit guided by one mind. The qualities of skill, intelligence, and efficiency in the general commanding, are all thrown away, and in a night attack, such as is referred to, all generals stand upon an equal footing. Any operation which produces such results must be against the principles of the art of war. In the autumn of 1861, I was ordered to make a night reconnoissance. My men were not veterans, it is true, but they were not entirely raw. The moon was shining brightly. I had taken every precaution which suggested itself, but my men began to fire into each other before I was within three miles of the enemy. At Williamsburg, May, 1862, at sunset, I was ordered to form my division for an assault on Fort Magruder. The lines were formed under the orders of the general commanding, in most approved manner, and he ordered the advance by a tap of the drum. Just before the drum sounded the Prince de Joinville came to me and said, “General, this is murder.” I replied that I thought as he did but could say nothing, and begged him to ride back to General McClellan’s headquarters and tell him no duty was more pressing than to come to the front and assume command. The march of the division was from an open field through a narrow wood and again into open fields in front of the fort. In getting through the woods the wings lost their direction and were marching towards each other, and would have been in collision in less than five minutes, had I not happened to be in front and halted the command. Hancock and Brooks commanded these wings. I rectified the lines and threw out pickets for the night, simply reporting what I had done. At
Wauhatchie, in Lookout Valley, in October, 1860, Hooker was attacked on a bright moonlight night by a superior force, and, although he was entirely surprised, he repulsed the attack through the confusion that occurred in the enemy’s ranks by reason of difficulties in manoeuvring at night. Hooker himself said that a stampede of mules, which was taken by the enemy for a charge of cavalry, had a great bearing upon his success. Between the Rapidan and Cold Harbor two movements which had been ordered by General Grant were suspended by the corps commanders who were making them, because darkness came upon them in proximity to the enemy. They would have been unfitted for their positions, had they done otherwise.
On the 25th of November, 1863, the fighting on Missionary Ridge ended as the darkness fell. The moon was nearly at the full. Of this, General Grant says in his Memoirs, vol. ii, p. 82, “The enemy confronting Sherman, now seeing everything to their left giving way, fled also. Sherman, however, was not aware of the extent of our success until after nightfall, when he received orders to pursue at daylight in the morning.” In addition to Sherman’s force, Baird’s Division was on Missionary Ridge when the battle ceased at dark, and Grant was in the immediate vicinity, yet Baird received no orders to follow the fleeing enemy. At Petersburg the enemy was reported as advancing and not retreating.
The last evidence I shall give on this subject is from General Grant himself. General Brooks, in a letter from which I have already quoted, says: “In a conversation with the Lieutenant-General, when he was visiting the lines within a day or two after the attack, the amount of this statement was made to him, and he expressed himself as fully appreciating the difficulties, and especially the delay caused by the absence of the artillery horses. But he seemed to derive consolation from the idea that no doubt the enemy had many such unexpected unavoidable mishaps.”
To me in person, the first time I saw him after the affair, he expressed himself as satisfied that everything had been done which it was possible to do.
My service under General Butler was intolerable, the jealousies and dissensions in the Army of the Potomac were unpleasant to me, and I wrote to General Grant asking him to send me to some other field of duty, where I could be out of the discord, and be of service to the country. Had I failed him in his hour of need, had I broken up a magnificent plan of his, and by wanting some quality which a corps commander should possess, is it not most probable that he would have acceded to my request and put some man in whom he had confidence, in my place? In place of doing that, he was loath to have me leave, even for a few days, to repair my health, and wrote to General Halleck a letter, dated July 1, sixteen days after the affair at Petersburg, during which he had ample time to inform himself with certainty as to my conduct on that day.
The following extract I take from an official copy in my possession: —
“I have feared that it might become necessary to separate him [General Butler] from General Smith. The latter is really one of the most efficient officers in service, readiest in expedients, and most skilful in the management of troops in action. I would dislike removing him from his present command unless it was to increase it, but, as I say, I may have to do it if Butler remains. … I would feel strengthened with Smith, Franklin, or J. J. Reynolds commanding the right wing of the army.”(1)
In that letter is there any evidence that General Grant did not look upon the operations of June 15 as successful to the last possible point under all the circustamnces ? The result of that letter was the following order: —
(1) See 81 W. R. 559. — Ed.
General Orders, No. 225.
Adjutant General’s Office.
July 7th, 1864.
1. The troops of the Department of North Carolina and Virginia serving with the Army of the Potomac in the field under Major-General Smith, will constitute the 18th Army Corps, and Major-General William F. Smith is assigned to the command of the corps. Major-General B. F. Butler will command the remainder of the troops in the department, having his headquarters at Fort Monroe.(1)
Had General Grant at that time, twenty-two days after the capture of the works at Petersburg, thought I was derelict in any way on that day, would he have been likely to have allowed that order to be published and thus answer my request to be relieved by putting me in command of the right wing of the army?
I will make one more quotation, and that from a letter from General J. H. Wilson to me dated August 4, 1864, merely calling attention to the fact that the relations between General Wilson and both Generals Grant and Rawlins were of the most intimate character. General Wilson says: “The day you left (July 19) I had quite a long and confidential conversation with the General, during which I referred to your case, expressing my surprise and regret at the order(2) which had been issued, to which he replied: ‘No man in the army, not General Smith himself, regrets this matter more than I do, for no man appreciates the General’s great abilities better than I do or is more anxious to use them in this war.'” This interview was thirty-four days after the affair at Petersburg, and, certainly, if General Grant had at that time any criticism to make about Petersburg, he would have made
(1) 82 W. R. 59.
(2) This was the order of July 19 relieving me from command and ordering me to New York. (82 W. R. 334, 577.)
it and would have qualified his praise. General Wilson goes on to say: “I have talked with officers of every grade and have heard nothing but regret expressed that you should have been taken away, though nobody knows the cause. Your character, reputation, and good name are in no way affected, but are as fair as ever. . . . We must have a new deal soon, or the ‘patriots’ will swamp even General Grant. Buonaparte himself could not carry such a load of inefficients as he has been saddled with.”
General Grant has appeared as a witness twice in this case. The first time when the facts were all before him, the events but a few days off, and when, if he had any feeling of disappointment at the failure of his great plan, it must have been in its keenest stage. His second testimony is given a year later, — after the war, — and when he stood the most conspicuous figure in the world. Under such circumstances he perhaps could well have afforded, had there been occasion, to be lenient. Between these two occasions a most serious breach had occurred in the relations between him and myself. This breach was of such a character that writing on his death-bed he introduced my name irrelevantly to contradict himself and historical facts. The last statement with reference to Petersburg abounds in assertions proven by disinterested witnesses to be incorrect. Under these circumstances, have I not the right to expect that intelligent men who examine this question should reject the last and hold to the first evidence given?
The longest story must have an end, and the papers, which I have kept in my possession for twenty years with an undying faith that some one in the years to come would search out and make known the truth, have now been placed before you. I have tried to show that not a minute of time was lost by me from early morning to 9.30 P. M. ; that I did not wait a minute for aid from any quarter; and that my determination not to advance, or to advise Hancock to advance, after 9.30 P. M., was not founded upon moral timidity, but upon the
evidence of my commanding officer and a reliance upon the principles of the Art of War.
Some of my critics have stated that the failure to take Petersburg on the 15th of June prolonged the war for ten months. Petersburg was not essential to us at that time, — Lee’s lines of communication with his base were, and those lines after the 15th of June were to our left and rear. Had I taken the town at six o’clock, I might have destroyed the bridges, but I could not have held myself upon the right bank, which was dominated by the hills across the river. This would have given six hours to have made the reconnoissance, the assault, and a march of two miles through a city defended by the enemy. To make my position secure, I should have had time to cross the river and intrench myself; which was impossible to do in one day, moving from Spring Hill with the obstacles I had in my way. I think I am quite within bounds in saying that any such criticism must have been made without due deliberation. And now all that I can say on the capture of earthworks at Petersburg on the 15th of June, 1864, has been said.
Of the failure to capture Petersburg after the 15th of June, the coming military historian will have much to say. On the 16th day of June, 1864, Lee’s army stood with its back to an unfordable stream, insufficiently bridged, always a critical military position in case of disaster, while his line of communications with his base was to his right and front. In front of him was a largely superior force holding the keypoint of the entire locality. The military problem was very easy of solution. For nine months Lee maintained himself there. If I do not mistake, the future historian will make that by far the most brilliant thing in Lee’s military career. I know no parallel case in war where all ordinary conditions of situation were reversed. There were assaults enough during those months to keep many recruiting officers, and the draft wheel, employed.
APPENDIX TO PAPER ON PETERSBURG JUNE 15, 1864, READ BEFORE THE MILITARY HISTORICAL SOCIETY OF MASSACHUSETTS, AND FILED AMONG ITS ARCHIVES
In the paper to which reference is made above, I asserted that my command acted as the rear guard of the Army of the Potomac on the march from Cold Harbor on the night of the 12th of June, 1864. I was not aware at the time the paper was read that a question had ever been raised on that point, but I find that General Humphreys and some lesser lights, particularly General Walker in his history of the 2d Corps, have stated that the 18th Corps had had given to it on that march the right of way over everything from Cold Harbor. Those statements are in direct contradiction of that made by me. An error seemingly of little importance in military history sometimes leads to serious mistakes in the inferences and deductions made from it, as in this case, and I propose to correct the initial error. To have given the right of way over everything from Cold Harbor would have indicated to me that it was for some important reason, and should have taxed my energies to make the march with all possible speed.
General Humphreys, in his story of the Virginia campaigns of 1864 and 1865, page 200, says : “Smith was to move with the 18th Corps to White House, having the right of way over everything, embark with his command, and proceed with all possible despatch to Bermuda Hundred and report to General Butler. His artillery and trains were to join the main trains of the army at Tunstall’s Station.” The evidence of this is doubtless the order for the movement of the 11th and 12th of June, given by Humphreys in Appendix H, page 426. That order designates the roads to be taken by the various corps, and as all the corps had different roads assigned to them for the night of the 12th, the 18th Corps might be said, like the 3d and 6th Corps, to have had the right of way given to it.
Its route and that of the 9th crossed at Tunstall’s Station and the order referred to gave the 18th the precedence at that point. That one clause in the order is all that indicates anything like a right of way given to the 18th Corps. As the routes of the two corps crossed at that point, it was necessary in reference to the logistics that the order of march should specify what should be done there. Not a line or word in the order indicates any wish or necessity for more speed than was required by the other corps in the march, or extra zeal in the embarkation or the passage from White House; nor, until after my paper was read, did I ever imagine that an assertion had been made of any such expectation.
I am certain that General Humphreys had no intention of doing injustice, and that he, thoroughly understanding the purpose of the order, which was his own, assumed that it covered all necessary instructions, and was carried out as issued, and was therefore a history of the march of that night.
It so happened that the 18th Corps was much nearer to Tunstall’s Station than the 9th Corps was by the route laid down for it, and supposing the two corps to have started at the same time, and that was contemplated by the order, the 18th Corps would have arrived at Tunstall’s Station before the 9th, and by military custom would have been entitled to precedence failing any special order.
The order for this movement required the 2d and 6th Corps to move to the intrenched lines proposed for them, at right angles to their lines in front of the enemy, as soon after dark as possible on the evening of the 12th, and to move from those intrenched lines as soon as the roads designated for them were cleared by the 5th Corps. The 5th Corps was ordered to move to Moody’s on the 11th of June and at dark of the 12th it was to move from Moody’s to Long Bridge on the Chickahominy. Moody’s was across the Richmond and York River Railroad about midway between Despatch and Tunstall’s stations.
It was six and one half miles from Cold Harbor and six miles from the left of the intrenched line to be taken up by the 2d and 6th Corps after they had withdrawn from the front of the enemy. The 5th Corps, beginning its march at dark six miles away from the left of the 2d Corps, would then have been out of the way by the time the 2d and 6th Corps had reached the intrenched line, and under the order they should have started on their march at once. Now had they kept the roads assigned to them, the road for the 18th Corps would necessarily have been free, its march unimpeded, and a rear guard only necessary for its own protection.
The lines of the 18th Corps were nearer to the enemy than those of any other corps at Cold Harbor, the operation of withdrawing was a more delicate one, and therefore took longer time.
At this late day I must depend principally on unofficial papers to show that my road was now clear no matter what the order of march was, and that I had good reason and still have, to suppose that I was the rear corps between Cold Harbor and Tunstall’s Station. Colonel Guy V. Henry, of the 40th Regt. Mass. Vols., and now of the 9th U. S. Cavalry, commanded a brigade and was corps officer of the day on the 12th of June, and was directed to command the rear guard, being an officer of skill, coolness, and intelligence. Explicit instructions were given to him which did not assume that any line was to be occupied by the 2d and 6th Corps while the withdrawal was being effected.
In my report I only say of this part of the movement that “I withdrew shortly after dark with the exception of a strong picket left under command of Colonel Guy V. Henry, 40th Mass. Vols., and at daylight had arrived with the bulk of my command at White House. The embarkation immediately began, but we were much delayed by the want of transportation. During the day Colonel Henry came up with his command, having successfully carried out his orders and brought
his men off with little molestation from the enemy. I respectfully commend him to the notice of the Government.” The recommendation of Colonel Henry to the notice of the Government shows that I thought his operations covered more than the usual responsibility and were conducted with more than usual skill.
In a letter from Colonel Henry dated December 26, 1887, he says: “I was detailed as corps officer of the day the afternoon of the night the army left Cold Harbor, and my orders were to hold the lines or delay the enemy, if they advanced, as long as possible, and at daybreak to move to the rear . . . and it was only late when we started for the rear.”
Captain W. S. Hubbell was the Adjutant General of the brigade commanded by Colonel Henry. He is now the Rev. W. S. Hubbell, D.D., in charge of the North Presbyterian Church in Buffalo, N. Y. Since the war he has had two churches in the vicinity of Boston. Captain Hubbell was in the habit of writing daily to his parents, and has furnished me with copies of letters written in June, 1864, together with his recollections of the campaign. In his letter of the 12th of June, 1864, he says: “We are on the skirmish line again and lying comfortably under the shelter of a little crest of hill; which is a good protection from the missiles of the enemy. This is our last day in this spot, now grown so familiar, for we are to move after dusk this evening, and are to be the rear guard — a mean place enough. I see that the newspapers with their usual injustice have nothing to say about the 18th Corps, although it is in advance of any other corps in Grant’s army. Still, we don’t mind.”
Although irrelevant to the subject, I must introduce a little picture of himself given in this letter. “Hills has just come up to get my blankets and all baggage that I wish to have transported in the wagons. All that I have here, however, goes on the back of my horse, viz: a blanket rolled and strapped on behind, an overcoat rolled and strapped on in
front; a curry-comb and brush, with shoe-brush and blacking in one saddle-bag, and rations wrapped in oilskin in the other, complete my outfit. A bag of oats is sometimes added in fear that we may get separated from our wagons. I stuff my haversack with extras and strap it on the overcoat before me, sling over my shoulder-strap, and buckling my belt around me with sabre and pistol, start on. All night we shall probably march and find the Rebs upon us in the morning. . . . We have plenty of fighting yet before us and shall lose 100,000 more men before the war is over.”
From the steamer Massachusetts, on the James River, Captain Hubbell writes, June 14, 1864: “Again en route for Bermuda Hundred — wrote you on the 12th that we were to change our base. Our corps (a portion of that) is the only one that came to the White House, and took transports. We had a very ticklish time withdrawing from our position within so few rods of the Rebel lines, but succeeded in getting away unperceived. Colonel Henry had charge of the rear of our corps, and kept me with him. All of our brigade, except 250 men of the 21st Conn, and 55th Penn., were sent away on the evening of the 12th.(1) Those remaining were spread out so as to cover the ground as before. . . . The Johnnies . . . had just put a mortar battery in position in front of us, and as soon as it was dark they commenced shelling us. The sight was beautiful — the damage slight. At 2 A. M. our pickets and skirmishers were quietly withdrawn and hastened back to the rear, when Colonel Henry’s aides at once formed them into line, and by 3 o’clock (?) we were on the march for the White House. We moved at a very rapid rate, so as to get a good start of the Rebs in case of pursuit. . . . On reaching the White House we sent away those of our rear guard who did not belong to our brigade and then put our own five regiments on transports as rapidly as possible.”
(1) This has reference only to the strength of the detail from that one brigade. All the brigades of the corps were represented in the rear guard. — W. F. S.
In his recollections of the march, Captain Hubbell says: “As the night wore on and the troops began to move, the delays seemed interminable. It must have been nearly 3 or 4 A. M. when all was clear and the delicate task of calling in the men from the skirmish-pits began. Each picket was notified in a whisper, and so withdrawn. One after another was thus visited, and as quietly as possible drawn in. Very many of the posts I visited myself, crawling out on the ground. . . . The light of dawn was beginning to show in the east as we swept up the few stragglers lurking about the reserve riflepits, and Colonel Henry and myself rode around among the men endeavoring to give them a good scare about the consequences of Andersonville if there was any straggling on our march.”
In a letter to me Dr. Hubbell says: “I can only add that I do not remember seeing any troops besides our command on the march to the White House. I am positive that we were rear guard.” And again: “The gallant and chivalrous General Charles Devens had charge of the brigade between the command of Dalton and Henry. I always felt it to be a great privilege to serve under such superiors.”
I also was in the habit of writing daily letters home, and from one written on the 13th of June, 1864, I make an extract as follows: “On board steamer Metamora, York River, June 13. … I am once more away from the Army of the Potomac, and Meade is, I suppose, as glad as I am. I once more go to Butler under the old system, and that is very unpleasant, but there is always an air of brains about Butler. . . . Such nights I marched all night, and found that with all its renown the Army of the Potomac is a straggling, disorderly set, compared to the 18th Corps, to which I never yet have had time to do justice in the matter of discipline. The trains and the men of the 2d, 9th, and 6th Corps were all over my road and in my way, … I am trying to make up to-day, by sleeping, for a terrible night of headache and unrest.” This extract
will show, at least, that my road was not clear, and that I had reason to suppose that I was the rear guard of the army.
One more letter I insert, from Captain P. C. F. West, who held with me most confidential relations as a staff officer, and whose great ability and energy always caused his detail for any work which required both qualities. His memory I have never yet found at fault and to his statements I therefore, always give the utmost credit.
Captain West says: “On the night of the 12th of June I carried an order from you placing the command of Colonel Guy Henry in some earthworks back of the 6th Corps position,(1) there to remain and act as rear guard after the rest of the 18th Corps was withdrawn from the immediate front of the enemy; it thus became the rear guard of the army at Cold Harbor. I remained with it till the time of its final withdrawal, and then forged ahead and joined you near Tunstall’s Station. Before I reached you I found troops and trains mixed and cris-crossed, and the condition of things was such that you ordered me to find General Grant or General Meade and inform them of this condition ; while seeking a remount, you countermanded the order, much to my relief. After we had embarked on transports, had you had any idea that you were expected to capture Petersburg, you and your staff would have occupied the time in studying the approaches to that place, from the maps ; no one at headquarters entertained any such idea.”
It is better in writing history and memoirs that mistakes without foundation should not creep in.
General Grant says, vol. 2, page 288, Personal Memoirs: “On the 12th Smith was ordered to move at night to White House, not to stop until he reached there, and to take boats at once for City Point.” The first part of the extract is not borne out by a word or line in the order of June 11, 1864, and the
(1) There was a square redoubt behind the position of the 6th Corps at Cold Harbor, and into this I ordered some men to cover the Brat movement from my line and the withdrawal of the pickets. — W. F. S.
order itself required me to proceed, not to City Point, but to Bermuda Hundred. Landing at City Point would have given a basis for the theory that the capture of Petersburg by the 18th Corps was a part of the original plan embraced by the flank movement from Cold Harbor. Bermuda Hundred was more distant from Petersburg than City Point, and the order to proceed there was evidently in accordance with the idea on page 280, vol. 2, Personal Memoirs, which is, that “Lee, if he did not choose to follow me, might, with his shorter distances to travel and his bridges over the Chickahominy and the James, move rapidly on Butler and crush him before the army with me could come to his relief.”
In his letter to General Butler dated June 11, General Grant says, in speaking of strengthening Butler to resist Lee, “I am not advised of the number that may have gone” (to Butler), “but suppose you have received from six to ten thousand. General Smith will also reach you as soon as the enemy could, going by the way of Richmond.”
Grant’s order to Meade speaks of sending the 18th Corps to City Point, and says: “They should be directed to load up transports, and start them as fast as loaded without waiting for the whole corps, or even whole divisions, to go together.” This might naturally have been the form of an order sending troops to reenforce an army in danger. It was not likely to be thus worded when a corps was to undertake an enterprise such as the attack on a fortified place. An idea of sending troops to prevent Butler from being crushed by Lee before the Army of the Potomac could get to aid him would hardly have existed in the same mind at the same time with an idea of taking all these reinforcements and some six thousand others from the lines to make an attack on a place from six to eight miles away from the defensive lines, and not in the direction from which Lee would come.
The order of June 11, directing the abandonment of the lines at Cold Harbor, states that “At Tunstall’s Station the
corps of General Smith has precedence ;” that refers only to the march of the 9th Corps.
In the Virginia Campaign of 1864 and 1865, that latter sentence in the order has grown to be as follows: “Smith has to move with the 18th Corps to White House, having the right of way over everything, embark his command and proceed with all possible despatch to Bermuda Hundred, and report to General Butler.”
In the History of the 2d Corps, it has increased to the following extent: “Smith, however, with the 18th Corps was to march to White House, having the right of way over everything, infantry, artillery, or cavalry, trains, hospitals, or supplies.”
An order couched in the latter terms would have shown some important work to be undertaken. In that case it would have been eminently proper to have informed the corps commander of the object of the march.(1) This was done, according to General Humphreys, in the same movement with reference to General Warren, who “was advised confidentially of the part his corps was to take in the march to the James.”
Whatever Grant’s order to Meade may have been, the historian, in taking account of the march from Cold Harbor, must be guided by the order from General Meade to his corps commanders. Discrepancies must be considered only as relative to General Grant and General Meade.
It seems quite out of relation to the value of the question to write so long a paper on what did not and could not have affected the ultimate result in any way. The statements of the right of way of the 18th Corps on the march of the night of June 12, 1864, has, however, been twice brought into history without the slightest relevancy to the context. The ulterior purpose may have been to leave an inference that my march was not made in accordance with the intentions of my superiors, or it may have been brought in to show that with
(1) See Jomini’s discussion of that subject.
the inception of the idea of the flank march the attack on Petersburg was intended immediately upon the arrival of the 18th Corps.
I have recorded here what General Grant says in his Memoirs and in his letter to Butler of June 11, both strong against the supposition, and the postscript of General Grant’s letter to General Meade is so worded as to be cumulative evidence of his anxiety lest Butler should be overwhelmed before the Army of the Potomac could reach him. It is true that in General Grant’s letter to Butler of the 11th of June, he says: “If you deem it practicable from the force you have to seize and hold Petersburg, you may prepare to start on the arrival of troops to hold your present lines.” If that means anything, it means that, expecting the 18th Corps by Monday night, Butler might, if he chose, be all ready and move to attack Petersburg as soon as the 18th Corps arrived to relieve his troops. Butler did not lead his troops. He preferred another course.(1) General Grant also says, “I do not want Petersburg visited, however, unless it is held, nor an attempt to take it unless you feel a reasonable degree of confidence of success.”
It so happened that on the 9th or 10th of June, Butler had made a demonstration on Petersburg with a force under General Gilmore. This may have kept Butler from making any dispositions for an attack under the instructions of June 11. The whole tenor of the correspondence and orders with reference to this subject is against General Grant’s entertaining an idea of using the 18th Corps in an assault on Petersburg before the night of the 14th, when he visited General Butler’s headquarters before the arrival of the 18th Corps at Bermuda Hundred. General Grant’s statement, page 293, vol. 2, Personal Memoirs, that he “had sent General W. F. Smith back from Cold Harbor by the way of White House . . . for the purpose of giving General Butler more troops with which to accomplish” the capture of Petersburg, is not
(1) See General Grant’s remarks on the first attempt on Fort Fisher.
borne out, and it is in contradiction of his statement on page 280, same volume, of his letter to Butler, and of the spirit of his postscript in the letter to General Meade, June 11.
After finding that his army had been undisturbed in its flank march, that its van was crossing the James, and that there was no sign of an attack upon Butler, it would naturally have occurred to a meaner intellect than that of Grant that Petersburg was a strategic point of great importance, and that an attempt should be made at once to capture it. It might also have occurred to the same intellect that Petersburg had the same value when the instructions of April 2 were written to Butler, and that a positive order should have been given in those instructions to make that the objective point of the campaign rather than Richmond.(1)
In the Memoirs, Grant states, “I then on the 14th took a steamer and ran up to Bermuda Hundred to see General Butler for the purpose of directing a movement against Petersburg while our troops of the Army of the Potomac were crossing.”
He had then had no well-defined project for an attack on Petersburg when he planned the flank march, nor did he think he had given any definite orders for such a movement, although he says in continuation, “I had sent General W. F. Smith back from Cold Harbor . . . for the purpose of giving General Butler more troops with which to accomplish the result. . . . Smith was to move under cover of night up close to the enemy’s works and assault as soon as he could after daylight.” Even then the destination of the 18th Corps was not changed from Bermuda Hundred, where it was ordered to aid Butler in case of an attack by Lee’s army, to City Point, which was the nearer and proper landing for an attack on Petersburg. Besides, General Grant seems to have expected that a corps which at that time was afloat on the James in steamers of all degrees of speed, the advance of which landed at Bermuda
(1) See letter of instructions dated Fort Monroe, April 2,1864. [67 W. R. 16.]
Hundred only about dark, should have landed, organized, taken in its reinforcements, and marched six miles before daylight. How much simplified the operation would have been if from the unwearied troops of Butler’s command an assaulting force had been organized to have moved from his lines and formed, as fast as they were relieved by the arriving troops of the 18th Corps. Not an order had been given when I landed, no effort even at putting the cavalry brigade, which it must have been known would be in the advance, across the Appomattox that night; on the contrary, that brigade delayed the movement in crossing the Appomattox for two hours, did nothing during the day, and retired from the front without orders and even without notice to me, although the brigade commander was sent to the place when he had reported that within less than a week before he had ridden over the lines with his cavalry.
General Grant’s flank movement was fraught with peril. A Napoleon would have divined that the retirement from Cold Harbor and the appearance of the 5th Corps near White Oak Swamp did not mean the driving of Lee’s army into the intrenchments about Richmond with an indefinite siege there, and for such an intellect there would have been various courses to pursue. He could have attacked the army in the rear—he could have attacked and crushed the 5th Corps — have left that corps occupied and pushed on down to the James to have struck the moving army in its flank, in which movement Lee had the short lines. He could have done what Grant made preparations for and seemed most to fear — make a forced march to reach Butler and crush him before he could get help; and until Lee gave some sign of what his counter-movements were to be, it would seem impossible for Grant to make arrangements to succor Butler and at the same time and with the same force to plan an attack upon Petersburg, which would take, according to Grant’s own showing, some 6,000 men from the then strength of Butler.
There are certain things which, to use a slang term, will not wash, and one of those things is the idea that the plan for the “flank march ” covered the assault on the works covering Petersburg.
A brilliant and distinguished graduate of West Point, from Virginia, in a discussion with General McClellan on military movements, put his finger on the map, at Petersburg, and said, “There is Richmond,” unconsciously imitating Napoleon’s celebrated remark at Toulon. The more the map of Virginia and the campaigns in Virginia are studied, the brighter will the truth of that remark shine out. Had the author of that remark been high in military councils, the strategic importance of Petersburg would have been seen in the beginning of the Campaign of 1864, and the town would have fallen on the 6th of May of that year. The failure to begin with its capture paralyzed the forces under Butler at Bermuda Hundred.
The year of 1864 was the first year of the war in which the proper military principle was adopted of having all the forces of the United States move at the will of one man. Any plan of campaign would naturally require an exhausting study of the geography of the various theatres of the war. The movement of the forces under Butler was close to the boundary line between the true art of war and the game of bumblepuppy, and such a movement would seem to have required more than a two hours’ study. It is difficult to see how the proper study, before deciding on such a move, could have failed to discover the strategic importance of Petersburg.
- Papers of the Military Historical Society of Massachusetts, Volume 5, pages 75-115 ↩