XII the siege of Petersburg.
June, 1864-march, 1865.
I. The change of base.
The determination of General Grant
to transfer the army, by a flank march, to the south side of the James River
, involved considerations of a wholly different order from those concerned in the repeated turning movements which he had made to dislodge Lee
from the intrenched positions held by him. These were simply manoeuvres of grand tactics, delicate indeed in their nature, but they did not carry the army away from its line of operations, nor from the defensive line as regards Washington
, which it all the time covered.
The resolution to cross the James
necessitated the total abandonment of that system of action which aimed, while operating against the enemy offensively, to directly defend the national capital.
Now, although in the defence of places, it is frequently more efficacious to assume a line of operation that seems to abandon the point to be guarded and deliver it up to the enemy, than to place one's self directly in front of it, it must be borne in mind that General Grant
was acting under an Administration that was not only incapable of appreciating such considerations, which indeed belong to the higher part of war, but an Administration that was, from political motives, strongly opposed to a removal of the army from the
overland line of advance against Richmond
Moreover, the operation was in itself one of great delicacy, a change of base being pronounced by the foremost master of war ‘the ablest manoeuvre taught by military art.’1
manifested as much moral firmness in adopting a line of action which, adverse though it was to the wishes of his Government, he felt to be prescribed by the highest military considerations, as he showed ability in executing this difficult operation.
The measure itself was not only entirely conformable to the true principles of war, but its execution reflects high credit on the commander, and merits the closest study.
Immediately after the battle of Cold Harbor
, the Ninth Corps, then holding the extreme right of the line, had been withdrawn from its position and posted between the Fifth Corps, which then became the right of the line, and the Eighteenth.
On the 6th, the Fifth Corps was retired and massed in rear of the centre.
The Ninth Corps then became again the right of the line.
On the 7th, the Second Corps, then forming the left of the line, being stretched to the Chickahominy
, the Fifth was transferred to that flank to extend it as far as Dispatch Station on the York River Railroad.
At this date, two divisions of cavalry under Sheridan
were sent to destroy more effectually the Central Railroad.
By the gradual refusal of the right flank and development of the left, the army was placed within an easy march of the lower crossings of the Chickahominy
—Warren's corps being but ten miles from Long Bridge
On the night of the 12th of June the movement to the James
, preceded by Wilson
's cavalry division, took the lead, seized the crossing of the Chickahominy
at Long Bridge
, and made dispositions to mask the movement of the army.
's corps then followed the Fifth, and marched to Wilcox's Landing on the left bank of the James
The corps of Wright
, by an exterior route, crossed at
Jones' Bridge and marched to Charles City
, on the James
's command marched to White House
, where it took transports and returned to Bermuda Hundred
The trains made the passage of the Chickahominy
by a bridge at Coles' Ferry.
The march of fifty-five miles across the Peninsula
was made in two days, and with perfect success.
It was covered from the enemy's observation by a skilful feint made by Warren
, who threatened direct advance on Richmond
by the route of White Oak Swamp
After crossing the Chicka, hominy at Long Bridge
's division forward on the New Market
road, while Wilson
's cavalry division, taking the advance, drove the enemy's mounted force across White Oak Swamp
lay in this vicinity during the day, covering all the routes by which the enemy might come down from Richmond
to observe or disturb the movement; and under cover of his array, the whole army marched towards the James
, of course, discovered the withdrawal on the morning of the 13th.
He, however, made no attempt to follow up, but retired towards Richmond
During the afternoon, a body of infantry came down the New Market
road; but finding Warren
's force in line of battle, it made no attack, contenting itself with intrenching in plain sight.
It is probable that this menace by Warren
as to Grant
's actual purpose, and caused him to anticipate a direct advance on Richmond
by the river routes.
But, meantime, the army had reached the James
below Harrison's Landing
, and was prepared to pass to the south side.
Here a considerable delay was caused by the non-arrival of the ponton-bridges;2
but means of transport being at hand, Hancock
's corps was ferried
across at Wilcox's Landing, and landed on the south bank at Windmill Point
During the night of the 14th, the ponton-bridge was laid across the James
at Douthard's, a short distance below Hancock
's point of passage.3
By noon of the 16th the whole army was on the south side of the James
While the Army of the Potomac was thus making the overland march across the Peninsula
, General Smith
's command had returned to Bermuda Hundred
, whence it proceeded upon an operation that had an important bearing on the campaign.
Upon debarking at Bermuda Hundred
during the night of the 14th, Smith
's column was by General Butler
put in motion to seize Petersburg
, an abortive attempt to capture which had been made a few days before by a part of his force.4
The possession of this place as a point d'appui
for the ulterior operations of the Army of the Potomac was of prime importance.
Being joined by the cavalry division of Kautz
and the division of colored troops under Hinks
's force, during the night of the 14th, passed to the south side of the Appomattox
on a ponton-bridge, and pushed forward, on the morning of the 15th, towards Petersburg
, distant seven miles. The advance was made in three columns-Kautz, with the cavalry,
to threaten the line of fortifications near the Norfolk and Petersburg Railroad, and at the same time protect the left flank of the infantry; Hinks
' division, in rear of Kautz
, tc take position across the Jordan's Point
road, as near as possible to the enemy's works; Brooks
' division to follow Hinks
, and take position on his right; Martindale
's division, on the extreme right, to proceed, by the river-road, and strike the City Point Railroad.5
After an advance of two miles, the cavalry struck a line of rifle-trenches, near the City Point Railroad, defended by infantry and armed with a light battery.
Upon this, Kautz
was withdrawn to the left, and the colored division thrown forward to carry the line—a duty that was executed in a spirited manner, and one gun captured.
This unexpected affair delayed the column until about nine A. M. No further obstacle was encountered, and after a march of a couple of miles, the force brought up in front of the fortifications enveloping Petersburg
from the south.
It was noon before all the troops could be brought up.6
On reconnoitring the position, it was found to be defended
by a strong line of redans, and connected, though incompletely, by very formidable rifle-pits; while the approach was over a broad low valley perfectly swept by the artillery of the works, and cut up by ditches and ravines.
In the centre the line formed a salient, covered by a powerful profiled work, heavily flanked by earthworks and rifle-trenches en échelon
had been informed that the fortifications were such that ‘cavalry could ride over them’—a representation that did not turn out to be justified by experience; for Kautz
, who, with his mounted division, essayed to work his way round on the left, found himself completely estopped by a heavy fire, and in front the approaches were discovered to be so covered by the play of artillery from the works, that from every point on which Smith
attempted to place batteries to silence the enemy's fire the guns were speedily driven off.7
It could not be detected that any heavy force of infantry was manning the fortification; but it was not judged probable that so considerable an artillery force would be there without support.
After surveying the ground and making his dispositions, which consumed all the afternoon, General Smith
, thinking that the assault of the works by a column would, from the fire of the enemy's guns, cost too great a sacrifice, determined to try a heavy line of skirmishers.
Accordingly, towards seven P. M.,8
a cloud of tirailleurs was advanced from the divisions