Editor’s Note: This article was transcribed by Bryce Suderow and is included in a collection of Union and Confederate accounts of the fighting on July 27, 1864 at the First Battle of Deep Bottom. His transcription of this article is published here with his written permission.
Headquarters of Gen. Butler, July 28, 1864: A dispatch transmitted to you this morning gave the manner and the results of the operations of yesterday, but it has occurred to me that there was material for a letter in a personal narrative of the day which should include more details on the events – hence the present writing.All the night before, infantry and cavalry and artillery and wagon trains were marching by these headquarters. The night was very dark and fires had been built along the roads to direct the line of march. The II Corps had been in reserve on Meade’s line and was chosen for the demonstration on the left bank of the James, 15 miles distant. The march must be at night, else the enemy would make a parallel column and defeat the movement. At 4 p.m. the rank and file struck and packed their shelter tents and the different headquarters located in the edge of the woods and beneath sheltering bowers a little reluctantly and disconsolately saw their camp goods (- for camp comfort) stowed in close compass and piled into mule drawn wagons, and these wagons formed into the “headquarters train” which they should see again – doubtful when.
Ordnance brought horses, all groomed and saddled, to the spot and as the soldiers form with slung knapsacks and shouldered arms, headquarters gallops to the head and the order is: “Columns – forward.
The first half of this march to the pontoon near Point of Rocks on the Appomattox. It is two miles over a plain stumpy, brambled and encumbered with fallen timber, and then through pine woods by crooked country roads, which is one long vista, straight and marched by rows of cedars four miles further; and when beyond that, winding to the left, down a steep hill to the bridge and the long column files move over the muffled way, muffled with strewn hay that no sound of the myriad trampling should be borne to the enemy and the long bridge resting literally on the statement “unstable as waster,” is as true as if based on ledges of granite, though it rises and falls with dreamy undulations, like those which fleck with light and shallow prarie wheat fields when summer winds are blowing.
Over the Appomattox and now up a sinuous gorge, the bed of which great labor has made into a road. Emerging from the gorge by the light of a great fire at its head the columns wheel square to the right and then, following a chain of guide fires passes a little in front of my tent and disappears into the deep gloom of the woods that extend nearly to the James River, five miles away. Say that it is midnight and a very dark midnight, just opposite us is one of the fires that blaze the way, affording light, as they pass, on this side of it, to show us a little of the stream at a time – a dozen soldiers moving in rapid order, coming out of the night and going into the night, and others take their places, and disappear like the first, and so continually, except anon it may be a few horsemen at the head of a brigade or regiment, and then we hear a clatter of saber scabbards, or perhaps a battery is going by, and we catch in our eyes a sheen of light glancing from the brightness of the guns, but these only briefly for close after either and all is that flow of armed men, like a river passing, still passing, but never passed. It was still passing two hours later when I crept beneath the mosketo bars, whose folds hang in elegant draper over a bed of two blankets spread upon elastic pine saplings raised a foot from the ground.
The head of the column reached James River at sun rise and began crossing at 7 o’clock, meanwhile Sheridan’s cavalry had been marching all night crossing the Appomattox on the lower pontoon and falling in behind Hancock. In the early morning (yesterday) after breakfasting more rapidly than recommended by “Hall’s Journal of Health,” George brings around my horse and straps a rubber coat to the pommel of the saddle while “Horace” crowds a luncheon of beef sandwiches and jelly, a flask not filled with water, and a dozen cigars into the saddle ponchos, and then a jolly gallop to Jones Neck , the tongue of land from the extremity of which are laid the pontoons over which the troops are still tramping when I arrive. Pressing over the bridge and up the bank, I meet four big black 20-pound Parrots (guns, not birds) though they have a way of talking loudly and well sometimes) which have already been taken by the 183rd Pa., Barlow’s advance. It is a rough ride across a deep furrowed field (I never crossed a Virginia field parallel with its ditches and I think they have a trick of swinging around broadsides, on the approach of a horseman, compelling him to take them traversely. To the point in the skirt of the woods where the guns were taken, Barlow had advanced over this field on the enemy’s flank, turning his works. At the same time, Foster with his brigade of the 10th Corps from his position higher up the river was threatening his front. The pressure was so great and those rebels did not stay to make much of a fight – they gave up the four guns which I saw going to the rear. Each was inscribed, “Before Richmond May 20th 1864” and we recognized them as the guns lost near Fort Darling on that date. Two or three dead men, in Rebel gray, lying in the trench close by indicate the precise place where they were planted. They had been brought out only that morning and had not yet opened their grim mouths.
We have now struck the river road from Malvern Hill to Richmond. A switch of my right heel (I wear spurs) encourages (?) my horse. Does “The Tribune” know what an efficient servant it has in “White Frank” enduring as a lion ambitious as Caesar, tireless and powerful as watch spring muscle can make a horse, endowed with his full share of horse sense, proud of the races he has won, as he has been the pride of two Colonels shot from his back at Gettysburg and Wilderness. There are woods in either side of this road and on its left are the Rebel works relinquished only two hours ago. A mile and we (not you, reader, but Frank and I) emerge on open ground to find we are on the front to see Gen. Hancock sitting in his shirt sleeves close by the picket line, a little way in the field beyond occasionally firing. Gibbon’s division in line of battle following the contour of the woods where we are and on the range of hills across the fields, the position to which the Rebels fell back and where they can be seen as plainly as though only across Broadway. Barlow is pushing through the woods off on the right. With Hancock are Sheridan and staff. Gen. Sheridan physically is the smallest Major General I ever saw, but mentally one of the largest.
I ride with General and staff (I have a friend on that staff) by a wide detour through wood roads that nothing but cavalry could ever have found till we strike the head of the cavalry column, which is to operate miles away on the right and if possible on the enemy’s left flank. Debouching on the New Market road the enemy’s cavalry is seen on the hills beyond, not waiting to ascertain his numbers a regiment is rapidly deployed and scampers over the ravine and up the rising ground. We have dismounted in order to get nearer and see it all within carbine range. Now an actual cavalry charge is not the ideal cavalry charge. The riders do not go all abreast in a serried phalanx. They go in all a scamper according to the speed of their horses, and the daring of their riders – two variable quantities that scatter the cavalrymen like so many stampeded wild horses. But the sight is none the less exciting and some of us do not repress a cheer or two. The enemy, although 300 strong, do not stand, and we have a dozen prisoners.
A dismounted hour or two passes, then Sheridan and staff mount and ride head long back to Hancock, this time by nearer roads, cleared of Rebels by Barlow in the meantime. It is now sunset and judging that there will be little more done to day, I ride back to the river and back to my quarters. Three miles of the way is by a narrow but straight bridle path cut through a dense growth of pines. Frank must have the rein to himself and must pick his way through the stumps and the night. It is thick dark. All alone, seeing nothing but the darkness, meeting nothing but the darkness, a little tired and a good deal hungry, three longer miles were never ridden. Miles away there are guns firing, miles away there are drums beating – these only for companionship, and it is so dark. Another cigar for me, Frank and a cheery word for you, and a supper by and by for us both! And so at last break out of the woods and see the lights of the camp not far away. Frank, with an impatient whinny and a great leap, breaks into a mighty gallop and makes for them straight as an arrow. A few more miles of that and it would be the “Ride to Aix” and “Roland and I” over again, barring any great news.
Excuse me, the mail is just bringing of letters to – C.A.P.1
- “The Operations of Wednesday,” New York Tribune, August 1, 1864, p. 1, col. 2-3 ↩