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OR XL P1 #18: Report of Major General David B. Birney, commanding Second Army Corps June 22, 1864

Numbers 18. Report of Major General David B. Birney, U. S. Army, commanding Second Army Corps, of operations June 22.1
In front of Petersburg, Va., June 26, 1864.

GENERAL: I have the honor to report that on the 22nd instant I began a movements involving a change in the First and Third Divisions of the corps as then established. Its object was to advance the left and center of the corps to envelop the enemy’s position. It was undertaken in pursuance of instructions from the major-general commanding the Army of the Potomac, and the following orders were given to the officers commanding the divisions concerned to effect this purpose:

June 22, 1864-4.50 a. m.

Brigadier-General BARLOW,

Commanding First Division:

GENERAL: General Wright is about moving forward in the direction of the road on which you moved yesterday. The major-general commanding desires you to conform to his movements advancing your line as General Wright advances his. It is supposed that as you advance the line will be considerably contracted, and the general wishes you to close in to the right from time to time to give General Mott an opportunity to get a part of his command in reserve.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,


Lieutenant-Colonel and Chief of Staff.

June 22, 1864-7.30 a. m.

Brigadier-General BARLOW,

Commanding First Division:

GENERAL: I am instructed by the major-general commanding to refer to you the inclosed note from Major-General Wright, commanding Sixth Corps.

(NOTE. – General Barlow states that the inclosed note was to the effect that General Wright was about to advance, and thought as he did so the line would be shortened and the communication easily made.)

Brigadier-General Mott, commanding Third Division, has been directed to take the position pointed out to him yesterday, and to notify you when he moves. You will also commence closing up to General Mott, and swinging forward your left, notifying General Wright when you do so.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,


Lieutenant-Colonel and Assistant Adjutant-General.


June 22, 1864 – (about 10 a. m.).

[Brigadier-General BARLOW,

Commanding First Division:]

GENERAL: The major-general commanding directs that you move forward your division, commanding with General Mott on your right, swinging forward until your whole line is in close proximity to that of the enemy. You will not be dependent on any movement of the Sixth Corps. Having attained the position above indicated, you will strengthen it by entrenching. If General Wright is not able to connect with you, you will have to look out for your left.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,


Lieutenant-Colonel and Chief of Staff.

(NOTE. – Nos. 1 and 2 not being alike in their tenor, this dispatch was sent as indicating exactly what was desired by General Meade, and he stated the same verbally to General Barlow just before the receipt of this order.)

General Mott advanced to the position assigned him, keeping connection with General Gibbon’s (Second) division, which remained in its entrenchments. General barlow, following the movements of General Mott’s left, threw his whole line forward, effecting nearly a right half wheel through the dense woods in his front and completely severing connection with the Sixth Corps, as his orders required him to do. In order to protect his left, thus exposed, two small brigades were held behind that part of the line, following the movement by the flank. the advance had taken place without opposition in front, and the line of the corps had nearly conformed to the enemy’s position, when a body of their troops, from Hill’s corps (whose number cannot be definitely ascertained, so dense were the woods) advanced upon the left flank of General Barlow and into the interval between his line and the Sixth Corps, which had become so great as to prevent any timely or intelligent co-operation. The advance of the enemy, in whatever force made, was proceeded by a strong skirmish line, which opened a sharp fire on the left and rear of our troops, advancing in line and directly upon the troops moving to the front by the flank. The unexpectedness of the fire and the trying character of the country might have excused a momentary confusion, but the troops on this part of the line seem to have been seized with panic, and to have only attempted to regain the breastworks, in which they rallied enough and showed a disposition to defend them. The breaking of the First Division communicated the panic in a less degree to the Third Division, which fell back rapidly and in some confusion, the enemy still pressing sharply along the advanced line taken by the corps, and striking everything on it by the flank.

There was no proper effort made by the immediate commanders to effect a change of front and meet the fire of the enemy. the impulse seems to have been, both with officers and men, to regain their rifle-pits. As the rapid advance of the enemy reached the right of General Mott and the left of General Gibbon it seems to have been combined with a movement of other troops directly in front, whether preconcerted or excited by it is impossible to say. So far the prisoners taken had been chiefly individuals who preferred to give themselves up rather than run the risk of getting back under who were broken off from their commands in the thick woods and brush. The left of the Second Division consisted of the Second Brigade, Major O’Brien, One hundred and fifty-second New York Volunteers, commanding. This brigade is very small, very deficient in officers, and the conduct of Major O’Brien seems to have been wanting in force and promptness. The brigade met a fire from the front, but was curled up rapidly before the advance of the

enemy, who had now got behind the first line of battle and were rolling it up. The breaking of this brigade let the enemy in on the flank of Captain McKnight’s (Twelfth New York Independent) battery, which was captured without any fault of officers or men. The panic along the line had become such that three or four small regiments (hardly averaging 100 muskets) surrendered in a body when summoned to do so. The next regiment in line was the Twentieth Massachusetts Volunteers, whose commander, Captain H. L. Patten, taking advantage of a slight turn in the breast-works, and making a partial change of front, checked the enemy’s advance and stopped all further retreat and loss. There seems to have been no time during this most unfortunate and disgraceful affair when the same promptness and spirit might not have ended the disasters of the day. Efforts were at once made by the division commanders and myself to restore the line within the breast-works. The enemy attacked smartly on two or three points, but were easily repulsed. At 4 p. m. I reported to the major-general commanding that my lines were re-established and the troops again in condition. My first information of the attack of the enemy was through a staff officer of General Mott reporting that General Barlow’s line had been broken and his own left had been turned. I immediately rode to the line, where I learned that General Gibbon’s battery had been taken. I at once ordered him to retake it, using his division for the purpose. I then proceeded to re-establish General Barlow’s line, and on satisfying myself that this was safe I returned to the right, where I found that a brigade of the Fifth Corps had arrived for support. I again directed General Gibbon to retake the battery using this brigade also for that purpose. His report will show the action taken by him in the matter. During the attempted advance there was no movement, so far as I can ascertain, of the right of the Sixth Corps. The formation was in two lines, each division having a front of two brigades, two being held in reserve. I have already stated the disposition of the reserve brigades of the left (First) division.

There was no reason, either in the force engaged or in the character of the ground-equally unfavorable to them as to us-why the enemy’s attack should not have been promptly repelled. I attribute failure to the extraordinary losses among the commanding, staff, and other officers in this command, to the large proportion of new troops assigned to this corps to replace veterans, to the fact that the Sixth Corps did not advance simultaneously, and that in consequence my line was taken in flank, and at points even in reverse, creating a panic, and completing a withdrawal to my line of that morning, with considerable loss.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,


Major-General, Commanding.

[General S. WILLIAMS, Assistant Adjutant-General.]


  1. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Volume XL, Part 1 (Serial Number 80), pages 325-327
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