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Chapter 45:

Both the Army of Northern Virginia and the army under General Meade remained in a state of comparative inaction during the months of January and February, 1864.

On February 26, 1864, while General Lee's headquarters were at Orange Court House, two corps of the army of the enemy left their camp for Madison Court House. The object was, by a formidable feint, to engage the attention of General Lee, and conceal from him their plans for a surprise and, if possible, capture of the city of Richmond. This was to be a concerted movement in which General Butler, in command of the forces on the Peninsula, was to move up and make a demonstration upon Richmond on the east, while Generals Custer and Kilpatrick and Colonel Dahlgren were to attack it and enter on the west and north.

Two days later another army corps left for Madison Court House, and other forces subsequently followed. At the same time General Custer, with two ten-inch Parrott guns and fifteen hundred picked men, marched for Charlottesville by the James City road. His purpose was to destroy the Orange and Alexandria Railroad, running by Charlottesville to Gordonsville, where the junction was made of the railroad running north from Lynchburg, with the Central running to Richmond. The capture of the army stores there, the destruction of the tracks running south, west, and east, and cutting the telegraph, would have severed the communication between Lee's army and Richmond by that route. This movement, with the destruction of railroads by General Kilpatrick, and of the Central Railroad and the James River and Kanawha Canal by Colonel Dahlgren, would have isolated that army from its base of supplies.

Three hours later, on the same day on which General Custer started, [424] General Kilpatrick with five thousand picked cavalry and a light battery of six guns, left Stevensburg, near Culpeper Court House, for the lower fords of the Rapidan. His object was to make a dash upon Richmond for the purposes of releasing the United States prisoners and doing whatever injury might be possible. He moved rapidly, destroying railroads and depots and plundering the country, but found no obstacle except in being closely harassed in his rear by Colonel Bradley T. Johnson with his sixty Marylanders, who, with extraordinary daring, activity, and skill, followed him until he reached the line of the defenses of Richmond. There, while attacked in the rear by Colonel Johnson and his pickets driven in, he was at the same time opposed in front by Colonel W. H. Stevens, who, with a detachment of engineer troops, manned a few sections of light artillery. After an engagement of thirty minutes, Kilpatrick's entire force began to retreat in the direction of the Meadow Bridge on the Central Railroad. At night his campfires were discovered by General Wade Hampton, who dismounted one hundred men to act as infantry, and, supported by the cavalry, opened his two-gun battery upon the enemy at short range. He then attacked the camp of Davies's and of a part of two other brigades. The camp was taken, and the whole force of Kilpatrick fled at a gallop, leaving one hundred and five prisoners and more than one hundred horses.

Colonel Dahlgren started with General Kilpatrick, but at Spotsylvania Court House was dispatched with five hundred men to Fredericks Hall, a depot of the Central Railroad, where some eighty pieces of our reserve artillery had been parked. His orders were to destroy the artillery, the railroads, and telegraph lines. Finding the artillery too well guarded, he proceeded to destroy the line of railroad as far as Hanover Junction. Thence he moved toward the James River and Kanawha Canal, which he reached twenty-two miles west of Richmond. Thence his command moved toward the city, pillaging and destroying dwelling houses, outbuildings, mills, canal boats, grain, and cattle, and cutting one lock on the canal. The first resistance met was by a battalion of General G. W. C. Lee's force, consisting of about two hundred twenty of the armory men under command of their major, Ford. This small body was driven back until it joined a battalion of the Treasury Department clerks who, in the absence of their major, Henly, were led by Captain McIlhenney. The officers and men were all clerks of the Treasury Department, and, like those of other departments and many citizens of Richmond who were either too old or too young to be in the army, were enrolled and organized to defend the capital in the absence of troops. Captain [425] McIlhenney, as soon as he saw the enemy, promptly arranged to attack. This was done with such impetuosity that Dahlgren and his men were routed, leaving some eighteen killed, twenty to thirty wounded, and as many more prisoners. About a hundred horses, with equipments, a number of small arms, and one three-inch Napoleon gun were captured. Our loss was one captain and two lieutenants killed, three lieutenants and seven privates wounded—one of the latter mortally. This feat of the Clerks' Battalion commanded the grateful admiration of the people, and the large concourse that attended the funeral of the fallen expressed the public lamentation.

Dahlgren now commenced his retreat. To increase the chances of escape the force was divided, he leading one party in the direction of King and Queen County. The home guard of the country turned out against the raiders, and, being joined by a detachment from the Fortysecond Battalion of Virginia Cavalry and some furloughed cavalrymen of Lee's army, surprised and attacked the retreating column of Dahlgren, killed the leader, and captured nearly one hundred prisoners, with negroes, horses, etc.

On the body of Dahlgren was found an address to his officers and men, another paper giving special orders and instructions, and one giving his itinerary, the whole disclosing the unsoldierly means and purposes of the raid, such as disguising the men in our uniform, carrying supplies of oakum and turpentine to burn Richmond, and, after releasing their prisoners on Belle Isle, to exhort them to destroy the hateful city, while on all was impressed the special injunction that the city must be burned, and ‘Jeff Davis and Cabinet killed.’

The prisoners, having been captured in disguise, were under the usages of war liable to be hanged as spies, but their protestations that their service was not voluntary, and the fact that as enlisted men they were subject to orders and could not be held responsible for the infamous instructions under which they were acting, saved them from the death penalty they had fully incurred. Photographic copies of the papers found on Dahlgren's body were taken and sent to General Lee, with instructions to communicate them to General Meade, commanding the enemy's forces in his front, with an inquiry as to whether such practices were authorized by his government, and also to say that if any question was raised as to the copies, the original paper would be submitted. No such question was then made, and the denial that Dahlgren's conduct had been authorized was accepted.

Many sensational stories, having not even a basis of truth, were put [426] in circulation to exhibit the Confederate authorities as having acted with unwarrantable malignity toward the deceased Colonel Dahlgren. The fact was that his body was sent to Richmond and decently interred in Oakwood Cemetery, where other Federal soldiers were buried. The enormity of his offenses was not forgotten, but resentment against him ended with his life. It was also admitted that, however bad his preceding conduct had been, he met his fate gallantly, charging at the head of his men when he found himself inextricably encompassed by his foe.

Custer and Kilpatrick, who were to cooperate with him in the expedition, especially the first-named, manifested a saving degree of ‘that rascally virtue,’ as Charles Lee of Revolutionary memory called it. After the feeble demonstration upon some parked artillery which has been described, he fancied that he heard the roaring of cars coming with reenforcements, and retreated, burning the bridges behind him—a precaution quite in vain, as there were none there to pursue him.

Kilpatrick, followed as above stated by Colonel Bradley T. Johnson, who hung close upon his rear, finally reached the defenses of Richmond. There, out of respect to the field artillery he encountered, he turned off to cross the Chickahominy, and that night he was routed by the cavalry command of our gallant cavalier General Wade Hampton. Thus ended the combined movement with which Northern papers had regaled their readers by announcing as made ‘with instructions to sack the rebel capital.’

During the first week in May, Major General B. F. Butler landed at Bermuda Hundred with a considerable force, and moved up so as to cut the telegraph line and reach by a raiding party the railroad at Chester, between Richmond and Petersburg. General Ransom, then in command of the defenses at Richmond and those of Drewry's Bluff, with a small force attacked the advance of General Butler, and after a sharp skirmish compelled him to withdraw.

Meantime, because of the warning which Stuart had sent, General Ransom was summoned to Richmond to resist an impending assault by General Sheridan on the outer works north of the city. Taking the two disposable brigades of Gracie and Fry and a light battery, he hastened forward, arriving at the fortifications on the Mechanicsville Turnpike just in time to see a battery of artillery, then entirely unsupported, repulse the advance of Sheridan. During the night the clerks and citizens, under General G. W. Custis Lee, had formed a thin line along part of the fortifications on the west side of the city. As the day advanced Grace's brigade was thrown in front of the works and pressed forward [427] to feel Sheridan; it was regarded as worse than useless, however, to engage with two small brigades in an open country many times their number of well-appointed cavalry. Sheridan showed no purpose to attack, but withdrew from before our defenses, and the two brigades returned to the vicinity of Drewry's Bluff—the approach on the south side of James River, by forces under General Butler, being then considered the most imminent danger to Richmond.

After the battle of the Wilderness on May 4th and 5th, as hereafter narrated, General Grant moved his army toward Spotsylvania Court House, and General Lee made a corresponding movement. At this time Sheridan, with a large force of United States cavalry, passed around and to the rear of our army, so as to place himself on the road to Richmond, which, in the absence of a garrison to defend it, he may have not unreasonably thought might be surprised and captured.

Stuart, our most distinguished cavalry commander—fearless, faithful Stuart—soon knew of Sheridan's movement, perceived its purpose, and, with his usual devotion to his country's welfare, hastily collected such of his troops as were near, and pursued Sheridan. He fell upon Sheridan's rear and flank at Beaverdam station, where a pause had been made to destroy the railroad, some cars, and commissary's stores, and drove it before him. The route of the enemy being unmistakably toward Richmond, Stuart, to protect the capital, or at least to delay attack so as to give time to make preparation for defense, made a detour around Sheridan, and by a forced march got in front of him, taking position at a place called Yellow Tavern, about seven or eight miles from Richmond. Here, with the daring and singleness of purpose which characterized his whole career, he decided, notwithstanding the great inequality between his force and that of his foe, to make a stand, and offer persistent resistance to his advance. The respective strength of the two commands, as given by Colonel Heros von Borke, chief of General Stuart's staff, was, Stuart, eleven hundred; Sheridan, eight thousand. While engaged in this desperate service, General Stuart sent couriers to Richmond to give notice of the approach of the enemy, so that the defenses might be manned.

Notwithstanding the great disparity of force, the contest was obstinate and protracted, and fickle fortune cheered our men with several brilliant successes. Stuart, who in many traits resembled the renowned Murat, like him was always a leader when his cavalry charged. On this occasion he is represented when he was wounded to have been quite in advance, to have fired the last load in his pistol, and to have been shot by a fugitive whom he found cowering under a fence, and ordered to surrender. The [428] ‘heavy battalions’ at last prevailed, our line was broken, and our chieftain, though mortally wounded, still kept in his saddle, invoking his men to continue the fight.1 Our gallant chieftain was brought wounded into Richmond, a noble sacrifice on the altar of duty.

Long accustomed to connect him only with daring exploits and brilliant successes, there was much surprise and deeper sorrow when the news spread through the city. Admired as a soldier, loved as a man, honored as a Christian patriot to whom duty to his God and his country was a supreme law, the intense anxiety for his safety made us all shrink from realizing his imminent danger. When I saw him in his very last hours, he was so calm, and physically so strong, that I could not believe that he was dying until the surgeon, after I had left his bedside, told me he was bleeding inwardly, and that the end was near.

Grant's plan of campaign, as now revealed to us, was to continue his movement against Lee's army, and if, as experience had taught him, he should be unable to defeat it and move directly to his objective point, Richmond, he was to continue his efforts so as to reach the James River below Richmond, and thus to connect with the army under General Butler, moving up on the south side of the James. The topography of the country favored that design. The streams in the country in which he was operating all trended toward the southeast, and his change of position was frequently made under cover of them. Butler in the meantime was ordered with the force of his department, about twenty thousand, reenforced by Gilmer's division of ten thousand, to move up to City Point, there entrench, and concentrate all his troops as rapidly as possible. From this base he was expected to operate so to as destroy the railroad connections between Richmond and the South. On May 7th he telegraphed that he had ‘destroyed many miles of railroad, and got a position which, with proper supplies, we can hold out against the whole of Lee's army.’

At this time Major General Robert Ransom, as before mentioned, was in command at Richmond, including Drewry's Bluff. His force consisted, for the defense of both places, of the men serving the stationary or heavy artillery, and three brigades of infantry—Hunton's at Chapin's Bluff, and Barton's and Gracie's for field service. To these, in cases of emergency, the clerks and artisans in the departments and manufactories were organized, to be called out as an auxiliary force when needed for the defense of the capital. It was with this field force that Ransom, as has been related, moved upon Butler and drove him [429] from the railroad, the destruction of which he had so vauntingly announced.

A few days thereafter he again emerged from his cover, but this time changed his objective point and, diverging from the south bank of the James River, moved toward Petersburg and reached the railroad at Port Walthal Junction, where he encountered some of General Beauregard's command which had been ordered from Charleston, and was driven from the railroad and turnpike. The troops ordered from Charleston with General Beauregard had, by May 14th, reached the vicinity of Drewry's Bluff. In connection with the works and rifle pits on the bluff, which were to command the river and prevent the ascent of gunboats, an entrenched line had been constructed on a ridge about a mile south of the bluff, running across the road from Richmond to Petersburg. This ridge was higher than the ground on which the fort was built, and was designed to check an approach of the enemy from the south, as well as to cover the rear of the fort. In the afternoon of the 14th I rode down to visit General Beauregard at his headquarters in the field. Supposing his troops to be on the line of entrenchment, I passed Major Drewry's house to go thither, when someone by the roadside called to me and told me that the troops were not on the line of entrenchment, and that General Beauregard was at the house behind me.

My first question on meeting him was to learn why the entrenchments were abandond. He answered that he thought it better to concentrate his troops. Upon my stating to him that there was nothing then to prevent Butler from turning his position, he said he would desire nothing more, as he would then fall upon him, cut him off from his base, etc.

According to my uniform practice never to do more than to make a suggestion to a general commanding in the field, the subject was pressed no further. We then passed to the consideration of the operations to be undertaken against Butler, who had already advanced from his base at Bermuda Hundred. I offered, for the purpose of attacking Butler, to send Major General Ransom with the field force he had for the protection of Richmond. In addition to his high military capacity, his minute knowledge of the country in which they were to operate made him specially valuable. He reported to General Beauregard at noon on the 15th, received his orders for the battle which was to occur the next day, and about 10 P. M. was, with a division of four brigades and a battery of light artillery, in position in front of the breastworks. Colonel Dunovant, with a regiment of cavalry not under Ransom's [430] orders, was to guard the space between his left and the river, so as to give him information of any movement in that quarter. General Whiting, with some force, was holding a defensive position at Petersburg. General Beauregard proposed that the main part of it should advance and unite with him in an attack upon Butler wherever he should be found between Drewry's and Petersburg. To this I offered distinct objection, because of the hazard during a battle of attempting to make a junction of troops moving from opposite sides of the enemy; and proposed that Whiting's command should move at night by the Chesterfield road, where they would probably not be observed by Butler's advance. This march I supposed they could make so as to arrive at Drewry's by or soon after daylight. The next day being Sunday, they could rest, and, all the troops being assigned to their positions, could move to make a concerted attack at daylight on Monday. He spoke of some difficulty in getting a courier who knew the route and could certainly deliver the order to General Whiting. Opportunely, a courier arrived from General Whiting, who had come up the Chesterfield road. He then said the order would have to be drawn with a great deal of care, and that he would prepare it as soon as he could. I arose to take leave, and he courteously walked down the stairs with me, remarking as we went that he was embarrassed for the want of a good cavalry commander. I saw in the yard Colonel Chilton, assistant adjutant and inspector general, and said, ‘There is an old cavalry officer who was trained in my old regiment, the First Dragoons, and who I think will answer your requirements.’ Upon his expressing the pleasure it would give him to have Colonel Chilton, I told him of General Beauregard's want, and asked him if the service would be agreeable to him. He readily accepted it, and I left, supposing all the preliminaries settled. In the next forenoon Colonel Samuel Melton, of the adjutant and inspector general's department, called at my residence and delivered a message from General Beauregard to the effect that he had decided to order Whiting to move by the direct road from Petersburg, instead of by the Chesterfield route, and when I replied that I had stated my objections to General Beauregard to a movement which gave the enemy the advantage of being between our forces, he said General Beauregard had directed to explain to me that upon a further examination he found his force sufficient; that his operations, therefore, did not depend upon making a junction with Whiting.

On Monday morning I rode down to Drewry's, where I found that the enemy had seized our line of entrenchments, it being unoccupied, [431] and that a severe action had occurred, with serious loss to us before he could be dislodged. He had crossed the main road to the west, entering a dense wood, and our troops on the right had moved out and were closely engaged with him. We drove him back, frustrating the attempt to turn the extreme right of our line. The day was wearing away, a part of the force had been withdrawn to the entrenchment, and there was no sign of purpose to make any immediate movement. General Beauregard said he was waiting to hear Whiting's guns, and had been expecting him for some time to approach on the Petersburg road. Soon after this the foe, in a straggling, disorganized manner, commenced crossing the road, moving to the east, which indicated a retreat, or perhaps a purpose to turn our left and attack Fort Drewry in rear. He placed a battery in the main road and threw some shells at our entrenchment, probably to cover his retiring troops. General Ransom, in an unpublished report, says that, at the time he received the order of battle, General Beauregard told him, ‘As you know the region, I have given you the moving part of the army, and you will take the initiative.’ He further states that at dawn of day he moved to the south of Kingsland Creek, formed two lines with a short interval, and at once advanced to the attack. A dense fog suddenly enveloped him, so as to obscure all distant objects. Moving forward, the skirmishers were quickly engaged, and the fighting was pressed so vigorously that by sunrise he had captured a brigade of infantry, a battery of artillery, and occupied about three-quarters of a mile of the enemy's temporary breastworks, which were strengthened by wire interwoven among the trees in their front; this was not effected, however, without considerable loss in killed and wounded, and much confusion, owing to the denseness of the fog. General Ransom's report continues:

Having no ammunition-wagons and requiring replenishment of infantry cartridges, and knowing that delay would mar the effect of the success gained I sent instantly to Beauregard, reporting what had happened, and asked that Ransom's brigade might come to me at once, so that I might continue the pressure and make good the advantage already gained.

He then describes the further delay in getting ammunition, and his renewal of the request for Ransom's brigade, which he had organized and formerly commanded, but instead of which, two small regiments were sent to him, the timely arrival of which, it is to be gratefully remembered, enabled him to repulse an advance of the enemy. It would be neither pleasant nor profitable to dwell on the lost opportunity for a complete victory, or to recount the possible consequences which might have flowed from it. On the next morning, our troops moved down the [432] river road as far as Howlett's, about three or four miles, but saw no enemy. The ‘back door’ of Richmond was closed, and Butler ‘bottled up.’

Soon after the affair at Drewry's Bluff, General Beauregard addressed to me a communication, proposing that he should be heavily reenforced from General Lee's army, so as to enable him to crush Butler in his entrenchments, and then, with the main body of his own force, together with a detachment from General Lee's army, that he should join General Lee, overwhelm Grant, and march to Washington. I knew that General Lee was then confronting an army vastly superior to his in numbers, fully equipped, with inexhaustible supplies and a persistence in attacking of which, sufficient evidence had been given. I could not therefore expect that General Lee would consent to the proposition of General Beauregard; as a matter of courteous consideration, however, his letter was forwarded with the usual formal endorsement. General Lee's opinion on the case was shown by the instructions he gave directing General Beauregard to straighten his line so as to reduce the requisite number of men to hold it, and send the balance to join the army north of the James.

1 Address of Major H. B. McClellan before Army of Northern Virginia Association.

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