previous next

Chapter 53: battle of Drury's Bluff, May 16, 1864.

Grant's plan of campaign was, if he should be unable to defeat Lee, or fail to take Richmond, to cross the James River below Richmond, and possess himself of Petersburg, cut off the supplies from the Confederate Capital, and, reinforced by Butler with 30,000 men, attack it from the south.

Butler was ordered to concentrate his troops at City Point. From this base he was to destroy the railroad leading to Richmond. On May 7th he telegraphed he had “destroyed many miles of railroad, and got a position which, with proper supplies, we can hold against Lee's whole army.”

On May 10th General Butler was badly beaten at Walthall Junction, and returned to his intrenched lines at Bermuda Hundreds.

The Confederate troops which had been ordered from Charleston under Beauregard, on May 14th reached the intrenched lines in the vicinity of Drury's Bluff. Butler moved forward again to confront them.

General Robert Ransom said, in a monograph [509] upon this battle:

Beauregard, with headquarters at Charleston, had been urged to send up troops from his department, but none had arrived. Butler had moved up so as to cut the telegraph on the turnpike, and reach by a raiding party the railroad at Chester, during the first week in May. I was near Drury's Bluff with a battery of light guns and Barton's and Gracie's brigades, and our company of irregular cavalry. The President came to my camp, and finding out the state of affairs, asked if anything could be done to retard Butler's movements, stating that as Beauregard would not send troops, he had been peremptorily ordered to bring them, and that some were on the way. Knowing that audacity was my best arm, the next morning, with perfect leisure and with a front sufficient to cover an army of 50,000 men, I pushed upon Butler's advance, had a sharp skirmish, and came near capturing a brigade and battery, and Butler withdrew. Some of Beauregard's troops drove him from the railroad and turnpike, at Port Walthall. Upon Beauregard's arrival at Petersburg he was given command as far north as to include Drury's Bluff. While lying near Drury's Bluff on the night of May gth, about ten o'clock, I got a despatch informing me of the fall of J. E. B. Stuart, mortally wounded, at Yellow Tavern, and that [510] Sheridan was expected to assault the outer works north of Richmond, at dawn the next day. Immediately my two movable brigades, Gracie's and Fry's, and a light battery were hastened to and through Richmond, and I arrived with them at the fortifications on Mechanicsville turnpike just in time, the morning of May 10th, to see a battery of artillery there, unsupported by anything, repulse the advance of Sheridan. During the night the clerks and citizens, under General Custis Lee, had spread a thin line along part of the fortifications toward the west, near the Brook and Meadow Bridge roads. Hunton's brigade was at Chafin's Bluff, it being impracticable to withdraw it from that position. As the day advanced Gracie's brigade was thrown in front of the works and pressed forward to feel Sheridan, but it was soon evident that we could make no real impression on him, and I regarded it as almost madness with two small brigades to engage in an open country five times my strength, thereby leaving Richmond entirely unprotected, except by the clerks and citizens. Sheridan withdrew, Gracie's and Fry's brigades returned to near Drury's Bluff.

During the week most all of Beauregard's troops had come up. In obedience to a despatch from him, at about 2 or 2.30 P. M., I met Beauregard at Major Drury's residence, about [511] a mile from the Bluff. He was surrounded by a large staff, and clerks were busy. He accosted me with much gravity, almost solemnity, intimated to those present to withdraw, we were alone, with perhaps the exception of two or three persons. I remarked that I had got his despatch and had come as quickly as possible. He asked me if the President had told me what I was wanted for, and to my replying no, Beauregard said, in about these words: “ The President has ordered me to give Butler battle at once. It is against my judgment, and I have protested against it, but to no avail. You make the fight to-morrow, and you are to command the left wing. Among other reasons given for not fighting was that I am without officers to command, and particularly those who know this country. The President said you could be spared temporarily, and as you know the region, I have given you the moving part of the army, and you will take the initiative.” By this time the room was again filled with officers and couriers, and a copy of the order of battle was handed me. After reading it and finding that Ransom's brigade formed part of the reserve, I asked that it might be given to me in exchange for any I had had assigned to me, stating that “ I had organized and commanded it for more than a year, and that I knew it [512] and it knew me.” General Beauregard declined to make the change, saying, “It is the strongest brigade in my army, and I must hold it in case of disaster.”

My staff, couriers, and horses were in Richmond, and were sent for ; there was not a wagon to my division. Everything that I could do was done to be ready. By sundown staff and horses had arrived, and by 10 P. M., or a little later, I was in position in front of the breastworks on Drury's plantation. An independent regiment of cavalry was to move between me and the river, for information. At the first glimpse of daylight I moved to the south of Kingsland Creek, and at once pushed upon the enemy. A dense fog had suddenly enveloped everything. The skirmishers were quickly engaged, and immediately a general infantry fire. The fighting was pressed to conclusion, and by sunrise I had captured a brigade of infantry and a battery of artillery, and swept 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; not however without considerable loss and much confusion, owing to the denseness of the fog. Requiring infantry cartridges, and knowing that delay would mar the success gained, I sent instantly [513] to Beauregard reporting what had happened, and asked that Ransom's brigade might come to me at once to continue the pressure and make good the advantage already gained. Beauregard refused. The ammunition being still delayed, I again begged that Ransom's brigade be sent me, but instead of that there came two small regiments from Georgia. Just as they reported to me the fog lifted, the enemy made a dash on Hoke's left and broke Hagood's brigade; but I threw these two Georgia regiments upon the advancing enemy, checked and repulsed him. After this I saw no more of the Georgia regiments, hearing however that by Beauregard's orders they had gone elsewhere. At this junction, and having been supplied ammunition, and while clearing away some trees that had luckily been felled by the enemy across the road, I got an order from Beauregard to advance by “brigades in echelon, left in front.” This movement was begun, Gracie's brigade leading and I with it. After advancing some distance I heard firing to right and rear, and galloping in that direction to ascertain its cause, failed to find my two rearmost brigades where they ought to have been. The firing had ceased, and to my anxiety I found that a wide interval between my two left brigades and the other troops existed. Hastening [514] on, I discovered my troops upon the line of our breastworks. Sending word to halt the forward brigades, and ordering the others to their positions, I galloped to Beauregard, then in sight and only two or three hundred yards off, I reported what had happened, and asked that nothing similar be permitted. He said, “It is as well, I am hard pressed on the right, and we may have to withdraw to the breastworks, and most of our force come to the right; I fear my flank may be turned,” or words to that effect.

I remained with Beauregard at his request for perhaps an hour. The firing did not indicate hard fighting on the right. There was no firing on my front. I heard, while with Beauregard, that the enemy was moving over the turnpike. This was reported to Beauregard direct. After being with Beauregard, I suppose an hour, I left for my command, awaiting his directions, as he had ordered me to remain stationary till he gave different instructions. Beauregard more than once, while I remained with him, remarked upon not hearing anything of Whiting, and seemed nervous about him. The day wore away, and I, becoming more than impatient, about 3 P. M., as I recall the time, went to seek Beauregard. I found him with many other gentlemen, the President, and Secretary Reagan, among [515] others, in the turnpike just north of where the fortifications cross it. I heard no firing of any sort except an occasional shot from a field battery of the enemy, its shells were thrown directly up the turnpike. While we all stood in this locality a slight shower of rain fell, not enough to wet anyone in even thin clothing. A little before five o'clock, I think, Beauregard seemed to have determined upon some aggressive movement. I was directed to have my troops ready to move at an instant's notice, and to await orders. I galloped to my division and waited with impatience and disgust till after sundown, when the order came, “ Bivouac for the night.” About an hour or so after sunrise the next day, the 17th, we were ordered to move down the river road. Proceeding to some distance below the Howlett place, at about 4 P. M., not having come upon the enemy, I was relieved from command by a commendatory order. ... Immediately I returned to my duties north of the James.

Beauregard reluctantly came to the theatre of active war. He made verbal and written protests against giving battle to Butler. He courted defeat by expecting it. He showed repeatedly that he did not think victory possible. He refused me Ransom's brigade, anticipating “ disaster.” He held me [516] by his side for an hour and delayed or stopped the movement of my division after 10 or I A. M. He looked for the turning of his flank, and was preparing for retreat to within intrenchments while the enemy was escaping, and not until Butler was safe at Bermuda Hundreds did Beauregard realize that victory complete and crushing ought, and could easily have been inflicted upon Butler. This, like other of his battles, was to be fought over on paper to establish Beauregard's record.

The sequel to the battle of Drury's Bluff was in keeping with Beauregard's efforts to father upon the true and gallant Ewell, Beauregard's shortcomings at First Manassas, when, utterly failing, they were laid upon an unknown and nameless courier; it is but another exemplification of that prolific incapacity which turned the rich fruit of the splendid genius of Sidney Johnston at Shiloh into bitter ashes.

Our troops were then withdrawn to an inner and shorter line, closer to the works at Drury's.

“On the afternoon of the 14th,” wrote Mr. Davis,

I rode down to visit General Beauregard.1 [517]

My first question on meeting him was to learn why the intrenchments were abandoned. 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 better, as he would then fall upon him, cut off his base, etc.

According to my uniform practice never to do more than 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 Hundreds. I offered, for the purpose of attacking Butler, to send General Ransom with the field force he had for the protection of Richmond. He [518] reported to General Beauregard on the 15th, received his orders for the battle, which was to occur the next day, and about 10 P. M. was in position in front of the breastworks. A regiment of cavalry, not under Ransom's orders, was to guard the space between his left and the river, 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 Drury'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 not probably be observed by Butler's advance. This march I supposed they could make so as to arrive at Drury's soon after daylight. The next day being Sunday, they could rest, and all the troops being assigned to their positions, they could move to make a concerted attack at daylight on Monday.

On Monday morning, I rode down to Drury's, where I found that the enemy had seized our line of intrenchments, it being unoccupied, [519] and that a severe action had occurred, with a 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 intrenchments, 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, perhaps a purpose to turn our left and attack Fort Drury in rear. He placed a battery in the main road and threw some shells at our intrenchments, probably to cover his retiring troops. 2

One of the enemy's solid shot struck at the very feet of President Davis as he stood at the edge of the turnpike in conversation with General Beauregard. They, without apparently noticing the “close call,” stepped slowly and deliberately out of range. [520]

The enemy's guns soon limbered up and moved off, and Butler was in full retreat to Bermuda Hundreds.

On the next morning our troops moved down the river road as far as Howlett's, but saw no enemy.

General Beauregard, President Davis, and his aide, Colonel William Preston Johnston, were standing on the earthworks listening intently. Presently a single gun was heard in the distance. “Ah” said Mr. Davis, “at last!” and a smile of satisfaction stole over his face.

But that solitary gun was all, and Butler retreated unmolested to his lines at Bermuda Hundreds.

“Soon after the affair at Drury's Bluff, General Beauregard addressed to me a communication, proposing that he should be heavily reinforced from General Lee's army, so as to enable him to crush Butler in his intrenchments, and then, with the main body of his own force, together with the detachment from General Lee's army, that he should join General Lee, crush Grant, and march to Washington.” 3

The following is the communication alluded to above. [521]

Confederate States, Headquarters Department North and South Carolina and Virginia, Hancock House, May 18, 1864, 9.30 P. M.


The crisis demands prompt and decisive action. For this, the two armies are now too far apart, unless we consent to give up Petersburg, and place the capital in jeopardy. If General Lee will fall back behind the Chickahominy, engaging the enemy so as to draw him on, General Beauregard can bring up fifteen thousand men to unite with Breckenridge and fall upon the enemy's flank with over twenty thousand effectives-thus rendering Grant's defeat certain and decisive; and in time to enable General Beauregard to return, with a reinforcement from General Lee, to drive Butler from before Petersburg, and from his present position. For three days, perhaps four, Petersburg and Richmond can be held by the forces left behind; not longer.

Without such concentration nothing decisive can be effected, and the picture presented is one of starvation. Without it General Lee must eventually fall back before Grant's heavy reinforcements, and the view presented merely anticipates this movement for offensive purposes. Meantime it is impossible to effectually protect our lines of [522] communication with North Carolina; and impossible to hold our present line in front of Butler with a much reduced force. At present three thousand men can be spared with safety. Day after to-morrow two thousand more, perhaps, as our lines will probably be stronger, if, as we expect, the forward line can be occupied to-day.

(Signed) P. T. Beauregard, General Commanding.

Endorsement on the above:

General Bragg, Commanding, etc., etc.
This memorandum was handed to me this day by Colonel Melton, A. & I. General's Department, and is referred to you for attention. General Lee is best informed of his situation, and his ability is too well established to incline me to adopt the opinion of anyone at a distance as to the movements which his army should make, either for its preservation or the protection of its communications.

If fifteen thousand men can be spared for the flank movement proposed, certainly ten thousand may be sent to reinforce General Lee. If that be done immediately, General Lee's correspondence warrants the belief that he will defeat the enemy in Northern Virginia, [523]

The advantage of that result of our success against a besieging army around Richmond is obvious.

(Signed) Jefferson Davis. May 19, 1864.

Military courtesy required that the memoranda should be sent to General Lee, who, as soon as its purport was communicated to him, ordered General Beauregard to straighten his line, so as to reduce the number of men required to hold it, and send the remainder to him.

1 A letter from General Beauregard to General Bragg, dated Weldon, April 29th, gave the names of the Federal generals commanding forces on the Southern coast. The arrival, he said, of any of these officers in Virginia would indicate the transfer of their troops thither, and concluded by saying that if it were desired he should operate on the north side of James River, maps ought to be prepared for him, and timbers, etc., for bridges; and that he would serve with pleasure under the immediate command of General Lee, “aiding him to crush our enemies, and to achieve the independence of our country.”

To-day the President sent it back endorsed as follows:

Maps of the country, with such additions as may from time to time be made, should be kept on hand in the Engineer Bureau, and furnished to officers in the field. Preparations of material for bridges, etc., will continue to be made as heretofore, and with such additional effort as circumstances require.

I did not doubt the readiness of General Beauregard to serve under any general who ranks him. The right of General Lee to command would be derived from his superior rank.

Jefferson Davis.

2 Colonel W. Miller Owen: In Camp and Battle.

3 Mr. Davis, in Rise and Fall.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide People (automatically extracted)
hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
May 10th (2)
May (2)
May 19th, 1864 AD (1)
May 18th, 1864 AD (1)
May 16th, 1864 AD (1)
May 14th (1)
May 7th (1)
April 29th (1)
17th (1)
15th (1)
14th (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: