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.
In Bivouac, Thursday Morning, July 28, 1864:
This letter is written from Strawberry Plains, on the north side of the James River, not more than a stone’s throw from the place where the rebels planted a field battery a few days since, and unsuccessfully attempted to interrupt our river communications. I am here with the Second Corps (General Hancock), the greater part of Sheridan’s cavalry, and all of Kautz’s and a mile and a half of the river, at Deep Bottom, just above Four Mile Creek, is the command of Brig. Gen. Foster, which gained its present lodgment some weeks since.
And before I write another word, let me interpolate a caution to your readers, that the present movement is not an expedition to take Richmond, and they must not be disappointed at not hearing within a few days that the rebel capital is in our hands. The sole object of the present operations on the north sides of the James is to get possession of certain important roads and to open the door for the passage of the cavalry, which is endeavoring to force its way through the rebel lines, on a mission that is meant to have an important influence on the campaign, but the precise character of which it would not be wise at present to publish.
At least a month ago the fact was made public that Gen. Butler’s command had secured a foothold on the north bank of the James River, at Deep Bottom where they were strongly entrenched and protected on either flank by the naval gunboats. The occupation even of this narrow strip of ground (our pickets scarcely venturing half a mile from the river bank) has been an irritating “thorn in the flesh” of the enemy, and further advance in this direction has been checked by a force composed of Wilcox’s old division, of Bushrod Johnson’s brigade and Gerry’s brigade of cavalry.
Such was the position of affairs up to Thursday last. There was Gen. Foster’s small command, having only one bridge across the James, and a large force in his front, jealously watching him to prevent his gaining possession of the important Newmarket Road. On Thursday night a second bridge was thrown across the James at Strawberry Plains, a short distance below Foster’s position. This work was handsomely performed by Capt. Ludy of the New York Volunteer Engineers, of Gen. Benham’s command, under the direction of Brig. Gen. Weitzel. On Friday morning we threw over a few regiments of the 19th Corps to hold the head of this second bridge.
These movements seem to have alarmed the enemy, who on Saturday added to their force on that side of the river Kershaw’s command (McLaw’s old division). From Saturday until Tuesday evening there has been constant skirmishing going on between Foster and the rebels for the possession of a little cross road and the Newmarket Road immediately in front of Foster’s position and our troops have gained a little advantage forcing the enemy back an average of 500 yards all along the line.
Gen. Grant, under these circumstances, determined to send Hancock’s corps over, to break through the rebel position and afford egress to the cavalry by the Newmarket Road. The 2nd Corps left its position before Petersburgh – where for two weeks it has been in reserve – on Tuesday afternoon and crossed the Appomattox over the pontoon at Point of Rocks, marched all Tuesday night, and making the passage of the James River before daylight on Wednesday morning. To facilitate the movement of Sheridan’s cavalry from its encampment at Jordan Point where it has been recuperating for a few weeks after its late exhaustive raid, Gen. Benham on Tuesday threw a second pontoon bridge over the Appomattox River three or four miles above City Point. During Tuesday afternoon the roads over which the troops were to march were marked out by Maj. Ludlow and Capt. Shafter of Gen. Butler’s Staff, who established a line of cavalry videttes over the shortest route. At dark these videttes lighted bonfires which served as beacons and prevented confusion and delay in the movement of the column.
At 6 1/2 o’clock yesterday morning the II Corps had all crossed the James and advanced over the level plateau known as Strawberry Plains, half a mile in width to the earthworks of the enemy on the farther side. They were subjected to a sharp fire of both artillery and musketry, but pressing on a double quick, managed to turn the left of the enemy’s position, routing them from their rifle pits, capturing a few prisoners and suffering remarkably little loss themselves – scarcely 75 all told. Such was the haste of the enemy in evacuating, when they found themselves subjected to an enfilading fire on our right that they left four 20-pounder Parrot guns which fell into the hands of Miles’ brigade of Gen. Barlow’s division, and were brought off by Capt. Sleeper’s 10th Mass. Battery. These guns were believed to be the same which were lost by Capt. Ashby of the 18th Corps on the 18th of last May at Drewry’s bluff.
Hancock followed up this advantage briskly and drove the enemy into a second line of works more than a mile beyond the first located in a strong position on a hillside, and upon these at nightfall his lines were gradually advancing. Darkness put an end to the fighting which at no time except during the first brief spat in the morning was anything more than brisk skirmishing and this morning the position of the enemy and ourselves is relatively the same as last night. On neither side seemed there to be any disposition to indulge in picket firing.
While Hancock was conducting his operations, Gen. Foster from his position above also pushed forward his right with the object of reaching Four Mile Creek and thus connecting with the left of the II Corps, but had not succeeded at nightfall. This morning at daybreak the gunboats shelled the woods where the rebels are supposed to be and are still engaged now (7 1/2 o’clock) at that work.
I think reinforcements will be sent Hancock to day. H.J.W.1
- “In Bivouac,” New York Times, July 31, 1864, p. 1 col. 4-5 ↩