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NP: May 15, 1964 Petersburg Progress-Index: Siege Centennial, Part 3: Clearing the Road to Richmond

Clearing the Road to Richmond

The highway between Petersburg and Richmond and indeed the eastern portion of Chesterfield County were scenes of great activity a hundred years ago tomorrow [May 16, 1864]. This was the engagement known as the Battle of Drewry’s Bluff which, preceding Grant’s campaign against Petersburg, had large consequences for Petersburg and Richmond.

General [P. G. T.] Beauregard and assorted Confederate forces had arrived in Petersburg not quite a week earlier to deal with General [Benjamin F.] Butler and his Army of the James, based at Bermuda Hundred and threatening lower Virginia while Grant and Lee were battling in the northern part of the state.

It was not Beauregard’s nature to be content to resist and defeat Butler’s forces in a variety of small engagements. Wedded as he was to the idea of grand strategy, he developed a plan for coordinating and employing several of the units in his command in such a way that Butler would be “environed by three walls of fire.” Beauregard’s command had been extended beyond the Department of North Carolina and Southern Virginia to include Drewry’s Bluff. He proposed to separate Butler from his base and to destroy the Union Army of the James as an effective force.

To that end, the Confederate divisions under Ransom, Hoke, and Colquitt, were to execute certain evolutions far too complex to be sketched in a brief account. Butler was to be attacked below Drewry’s Bluff, on his front and flanks by these forces. At the sound of battle, troops under General W. H. C. Whiting, who had relieved ailing Pickett in command of the force in Petersburg, was to move out along the turnpike leading to Richmond and attack Butler from the rear.

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On June [sic, May] 16, 1864, nothing worked out quite as planned. A heavy morning fog of the kind with which travelers between Petersburg and Richmond are well acquainted interfered with the schedule. The resistance of the Army of the James proved much stiffer than the Confederate plan envisioned. Whiting’s movement from Petersburg became more necessary than ever to make a success of the undertaking on the basis of the original plan, and at one point firing from the south made Beauregard confident that Whiting was in action. Beauregard sent his subordinate a series of messages. But Whiting started, stopped, and refused to go on. He appeared to be paralyzed against action.

At the end of the day Beauregard realized that his grand plan had failed. He made plans to drive Butler back on the following day, but Butler denied him the opportunity by returning voluntarily to the safety of his Bermuda Hundred fortress.

Beauregard was convinced that he could and should have captured Butler’s army. In popular reaction Whiting became the scapegoat for the failure. Rumors were rife in Petersburg to the effect that he had been drunk or under the influence of narcotics. His own explanation—not an excuse, he said—was that he was sick and exhausted in mind and body from his recent labors. Although nobody at the time was disposed to consider such an explanation, it has come to be accepted as plausible. When General Whiting complained of the bitter criticism of his behavior which was published in The Daily Register of Petersburg, Beauregard told him that it represented the opinion of his brother officers. Whiting, who had an admirable record, asked to be relieved of duty; later he would atone for his failure by enlisting and being mortally wounded in defense of Fort Fisher on the [North] Carolina coast.

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One of the features of the battle which because of its modernity has interested history is that Union General William F. Smith made successful use of wire entanglements.

The consensus is that Beauregard was trying to do too much, and in too exacting a manner, with his rather fragmentary army. Disappointing as the outcome was to him, the Battle of Drewry’s Bluff put an end to the sallies by Butler from his Bermuda Hundred base. Although those engagements fill no large pages in history, a Union soldier wrote that they involved some of the hardest fighting of his experience and that wounds could be as excruciatingly painful, and death as final, in such encounters as in great pitched battles.

The gain was considerable from the Confederate point of view. The way between Petersburg and Richmond was cleared, and it would remain so.  With a brief interruption in mid-June—so hastily remedied that it moved Lee to one of his rare moments of public mirth—the trains would continue to run, although usually at night and often under fire—between Petersburg and Richmond until their evacuation. Confederate troops would continue to march the chewed-up turnpike between the two cities.

Relieved of the role of an aggressor, Butler was free to prosecute his quarrels and his intrigues and to build the trestle-work towers in which he delighted. Not entirely by design, General U. S. Grant was on his way to the same scene. However, Grant’s efforts would be made directly against Petersburg and Richmond. The Chesterfield area would become relatively inactive, manned by forces which could be shifted to the north or the south as need arose.1

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The Petersburg Progress-Index Siege of Petersburg Centennial Series, 1964-65:


  1. “Clearing the Road to Richmond.” Petersburg Progress-Index.  May 15, 1964, p. 4, col. 1-2
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