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Chapter 13

  • The start for the James
  • -- Grant's Secretiveness -- Stealing a March on the enemy -- the passage of the James -- a brilliant spectacle -- General W. F. Smith's attack on Petersburg -- Donning summer uniform

At dark on the evening of June 12 the famous march --to the James began. General Grant had acted with his usual secrecy in regard to important movements, and had spoken of his detailed plans to only a few officers upon whose reticence he could rely implicitly, and whom he was compelled to take into his secret in order to make the necessary preparations. The orders for the movement were delivered to commanders in the strictest confidence. Smith's corps began its march that night to White House, its destination having been changed from Coles's Landing on the Chickahominy; and on its arrival it embarked for Bermuda Hundred, the position occupied by Butler in the angle between the James River and the Appomattox. A portion of Wilson's division of cavalry which had not accompanied Sheridan pushed forward to Long Bridge on the Chickahominy, fifteen miles below Cold Harbor. All the bridges on that river had been destroyed, and the cavalry had to dismount and wade across the muddy stream under great difficulty; but they soon succeeded in reaching the opposite bank in sufficient numbers to drive [194] [195] away the enemy's cavalry pickets. A pontoon-bridge was then rapidly constructed. Warren had kept close to the cavalry, and on the morning of the 13th his whole corps had crossed the bridge. Hancock's corps followed. Burnside set out on the road to Jones's Bridge, twenty miles below Cold Harbor, and was followed by Wright. Cavalry covered the rear. Warren moved out some distance on the Long Bridge road, so as to watch the routes leading toward Richmond and hold the bridge across the White Oak Swamp. He was to make demonstrations which were intended to deceive Lee and give him the impression that our army was turning his right with the intention of either moving upon Richmond or crossing the James above City Point. How completely successful this movement was in confusing the enemy will be seen later.

General Grant started from his camp near Old Cold Harbor on the night of June 12. Although there was moonlight, the dust rose in such dense clouds that it was difficult to see more than a short distance, and the march was exceedingly tedious and uncomfortable. The artillerymen would at times have to walk ahead of the battery horses, and locate the small bridges along the road by feeling for them.

After the general had got some miles out on the march from Cold Harbor, an officer of rank joined him, and as they rode along began to explain a plan which he had sketched, providing for the construction of another line of intrenchments, some distance in rear of the lines then held by us, to be used in case the army should at any time want to fall back and move toward the James, and should be attacked while withdrawing. The general kept on smoking his cigar, listened to the proposition for a time, and then quietly remarked to the astonished officer: “The army has already pulled out from the [196] enemy's front, and is now on its march to the James.” This is mentioned as an instance of how well his secrets could be kept. He had never been a secretive man until the positions of responsibility in which he was placed compelled him to be chary in giving expression to his opinions and purposes. He then learned the force of the philosopher's maxim that “the unspoken word is a sword in the scabbard, while the spoken word is a sword in the hand of one's enemy.” In the field there were constant visitors to the camp, ready to circulate carelessly any intimations of the commander's movements, at the risk of having such valuable information reach the enemy. Any encouraging expression given to an applicant for favors was apt to be tortured into a promise, and the general naturally became guarded in his intercourse. When questioned beyond the bounds of propriety, his lips closed like a vise, and the obtruding party was left to supply all the subsequent conversation. These circumstances proclaimed him a man who studied to be uncommunicative, and gave him a reputation for reserve which could not fairly be attributed to him. He was called the “American sphinx,” “Ulysses the silent,” and the “Great Unspeakable,” and was popularly supposed to move about with sealed lips. It is true that he had no “small talk” introduced merely for the sake of talking, and many a one will recollect the embarrassment of a first encounter with him resulting from this fact; but while, like Shakespeare's soldier, he never wore his dagger in his mouth, yet in talking to a small circle of friends upon matters to which he had given special consideration, his conversation was so thoughtful, philosophical, and original that he fascinated all who listened to him.

The next morning (June 13) the general made a halt at Long Bridge, where the head of Hancock's corps had arrived, [197] and where he could be near Warren's movement and communicate promptly with him. That evening he reached Wilcox's Landing, and went into camp on the north bank of the James, at the point where the crossing was to take place.

Hancock's corps made a forced march, and reached the river at Wilcox's Landing on the afternoon of June 13. Wright's and Burnside's corps arrived there the next day. Warren's corps withdrew on the night of the 13th from the position to which it had advanced, and reached the James on the afternoon of the 14th. The several corps had moved by forced marches over distances of from twenty-five to fifty-five miles, and the effect of the heat and dust, and the necessity of every man's carrying an ample supply of ammunition and rations, rendered the marches fatiguing in the extreme.

Although the army started on the night of the 12th, it was not until the next morning that Lee had any knowledge of the fact, and even then he wholly misunderstood the movement. He telegraphed to Richmond at 10 P. M. on the 13th: “At daybreak this morning it was discovered that the army of General Grant had left our front. Our skirmishers were advanced between one and two miles, but failing to discover the enemy, were withdrawn, and the army was moved to conform to the route taken by him ....” It will be seen from this that Lee was occupied with Warren's advance directly toward Richmond, and made his army conform to this route, while Grant, with the bulk of his forces, was marching in an entirely different direction. On the 14th General Grant took a small steamer and ran up the river to Bermuda Hundred, to have a personal interview with General Butler and arrange plans for his forces to move out at once and make an attack [198] upon Petersburg. Grant knew now that he had stolen a march on Lee, and that Petersburg was almost undefended; and with his usual fondness for taking the offensive, he was anxious to hasten the movement which he had had in contemplation against that place, to be begun before the Army of the Potomac should arrive. His instructions were that as soon as Smith's troops reached their destination they should be reinforced by as many men as could be spared from Butler's troops,--about 6000, and move at once against Petersburg. General Grant returned to Wilcox's Landing at 1 P. M. He had sent a despatch from Bermuda Hundred to Washington, giving briefly the situation of the army and the progress of the movement. That afternoon reports were received showing pretty definitely Lee's present position; for Grant, with the energy and system which he never failed to employ in securing prompt information regarding his opponent's movements, had had Lee's operations closely watched.

The work of laying the great pontoon-bridge across the James began after 4 P. M. on June 14, and was finished by eleven o'clock that night. It was twenty-one hundred feet in length, and required one hundred and one pontoons. The pontoons, which were in the channel of the river, where the water was swift and deep, were attached to vessels that were anchored above and below for this purpose. Admiral Lee's fleet took position in the river, and assisted in covering the passage of the troops. Hancock began to move his corps on ferry-boats on the 14th, and before daylight on the morning of the 15th his entire infantry had been transferred to the south side of the James, with four batteries of artillery. By 6:30 A. M. three ferry-boats had been added to the number in use, which greatly facilitated the passage of his wagons and artillery. Butler [199] had been ordered to send sixty thousand rations to Hancock that morning. Hancock waited for them till eleven o'clock, and then started for Petersburg without them. General Grant now received the following answer to his despatch of the day before to the President: “

I begin to see it. You will succeed. God bless you all.

A. Lincoln.

By midnight of the 16th the army, with all its artillery and trains, had been safely transferred to the south side of the James without a serious accident or the loss of a wagon or an animal, and with no casualties except those which occurred in the minor encounters of Warren's corps and the cavalry with the enemy. This memorable operation, when examined in all its details, will furnish one of the most valuable and instructive studies in logistics.

As the general-in-chief stood upon the bluff on the north bank of the river on the morning of June 15, watching with unusual interest the busy scene spread out before him, it presented a sight which had never been equaled even in his extended experience in all the varied phases of warfare. His cigar had been thrown aside, his hands were clasped behind him, and he seemed lost in the contemplation of the spectacle. The great bridge was the scene of a continuous movement of infantry columns, batteries of artillery, and wagon-trains. The approaches to the river on both banks were covered with masses of troops moving briskly to their positions or waiting patiently their turn to cross. At the two improvised ferries steamboats were gliding back and forth with the regularity of weavers' shuttles. A fleet of transports covered the surface of the water below the bridge, and gunboats floated lazily upon the stream, guarding the river above. Drums were beating the march, bands were playing stirring quicksteps, the [200] distant booming of cannon on Warren's front showed that he and the enemy were still exchanging compliments; and mingled with these sounds were the cheers of the sailors, the shouting of the troops, the rumbling of wheels, and the shrieks of steam-whistles. The bright sun, shining through a clear sky upon the scene, cast its sheen upon the water, was reflected from the burnished gun-barrels and glittering cannon, and brought out with increased brilliancy the gay colors of the waving banners. The calmly flowing river reflected the blue of the heavens, and mirrored on its surface the beauties of nature that bordered it. The rich grain was standing high in the surrounding fields. The harvest was almost ripe, but the harvesters had fled. The arts of civilization had recoiled before the science of destruction; and in looking from the growing crops to the marching columns, the gentle smile of peace contrasted strangely with the savage frown of war. It was a matchless pageant that could not fail to inspire all beholders with the grandeur of achievement and the majesty of military power. The man whose genius had conceived and whose skill had executed this masterly movement stood watching the spectacle in profound silence. Whether his mind was occupied with the contemplation of its magnitude and success, or was busied with maturing plans for the future, no one can tell. After a time he woke from his reverie, mounted his horse, and gave orders to have headquarters ferried across to the south bank of the river. On arriving there, he set out for City Point; but he had ridden only a short distance when a small steamer came along, and as he wished to reach City Point as quickly as possible to direct operations from there, he decided to go aboard the boat. It was hailed, and took him on, with Parker and a couple of other staff-officers. The rest of us [201] went by land, so as to take some instructions to Hancock's corps and to familiarize ourselves with that part of the country.

Upon reaching City Point, headquarters were established on a high bluff at the junction of the James and the Appomattox rivers. I have said that the passage of the James had been effected without the loss of an animal. A proper regard for strict veracity requires a modification of the statement. The headquarters mess had procured a Virginia cow, the rich milk of which went far toward compensating for the shortcomings in other supplies. While preparing to ferry across the river, the cow was tied to a tree to prevent her from turning deserter, and in the hurry of embarking was entirely forgotten. The mess felt the loss keenly until another animal was procured. That evening at the dinner-table, when reference was made to the incident, the general said: “Well, it seems that the loss of animals in this movement falls most heavily upon headquarters.”

General William F. Smith had disembarked his troops at Bermuda Hundred during the preceding night (the 14th), had started immediately upon his movement against Petersburg, and had struck the Confederate pickets the next morning, June 15. The enemy was protected by a line of rifle-pits and heavy thickets. After some hard fighting he was driven from his position; our troops then moved forward, and by half-past 1 o'clock arrived at a point from which it was thought that an assault could be made upon the intrenchments. Reconnaissances were made during the afternoon, and finally Smith decided that a direct assault would be too hazardous, and at half-past 7 o'clock threw forward his troops in strong skirmish-lines. After a short struggle the enemy was forced back from his intrenchments [202] in front of our center and left, and Smith's second line then made an attack upon the rest of the works. The Confederates were now driven back at all points, four guns were taken and turned upon the retreating troops, the line of intrenchments was carried, and three hundred prisoners and sixteen pieces of artillery captured. Instead of following up this advantage with his whole force in an attempt to seize the city, Smith made no further advance. Staff-officers from Grant had reached Smith at four o'clock, saying that Hancock was marching toward him. The head of Hancock's troops reached a point a mile in the rear of Hinks's division of Smith's command about half-past 6, and two divisions of Hancock's corps were ordered to push on and cooperate in the pending movement. Night soon after set in, and Smith contented himself with having two divisions of Hancock's corps occupy the works which had been captured. Reinforcements from Lee's army were now arriving in Smith's front. General Grant's belief regarding the inferior force in Petersburg proved to be entirely correct. While the works were well supplied with artillery, about the only available troops to defend them were Wise's brigade of 2500 men, and Deering's cavalry of 2000. Besides this force there was only the local militia, composed of old men and young boys, who had never seen active service.

The general-in-chief had used all the arts of which he was master in preparing and conducting this memorable movement across the James, which was beset at all points by innumerable difficulties. He had thrown nearly 16,000 troops against Petersburg before Lee had sent a single reinforcement there, and had moved them by transports so that they might not arrive exhausted by a long march. With a perfect knowledge of Lee's movements, Grant had brought the advance of his army [203] in front of Petersburg on the 15th, while Lee was still groping about to discover his opponent's movements. In reaching this point, Grant had marched more than twice the distance of Lee's route, and had crossed two rivers, one a most formidable obstacle. In commenting in his “Memoirs” (Vol. II., page 186) on this movement, he says: “I believed then, and still believe, that Petersburg could have been easily captured at that time.”

The weather had become so warm that the general and most of the staff had ordered thin, dark-blue flannel blouses to be sent to them to take the place of the heavy uniform coats which they had been wearing. The summer clothing had arrived, and was now tried on. The general's blouse, like the others, was of plain material, single-breasted, and had four regulation brass buttons in front. It was substantially the coat of a private soldier, with nothing to indicate the rank of an officer except the three gold stars of a lieutenant-general on the shoulder-straps. He wore at this time a turndown white linen collar and a small, black “butterfly” cravat, which was hooked on to his front collar-button. The general, when he put on the blouse, did not take the pains to see whether it fitted him or to notice how it looked, but thought only of the comfort it afforded, and said, “Well, this is a relief,” and then added: “I have never taken as much satisfaction as some people in making frequent changes in my outer clothing. I like to put on a suit of clothes when I get up in the morning, and wear it until I go to bed, unless I have to make a change in my dress to meet company. I have been in the habit of getting one coat at a time, putting it on and wearing it every day as long as it looked respectable, instead of using a best and a second best. I know that is not the right way to manage, but a comfortable coat seems like an old friend, and I don't like [204] to change it.” The general had also received a pair of light, neatly fitting calfskin boots, to which he seemed to take a fancy; thereafter he wore them most of the time in place of his heavy top-boots, putting on the latter only when he rode out in wet weather.

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