The defense of Drewry's bluff.1
On the 23d of April, 1864, at Weldon, N. C.
, I assumed command of the Department of North Carolina and Southern Virginia
It included “Virginia
, south of the James
, and all that portion of North Carolina
east of the mountains.”
The War Department was closely engaged at that time with certain operations against Plymouth
and New Berne, from which great results were expected at Richmond
, but about which the enemy was not much concerned, as the main object of his campaign could in no wise be affected or seriously disturbed by such a diversion.
I did not consider this move judicious on the part of the Government
, because, irrespective of other considerations, it occasioned an untimely division of some of the most available troops in my new command, rendering their immediate concentration at any threatened point very difficult, if not impossible.
The destination of General Burnside
's corps was not, as yet, well defined.
The opinion was entertained by many that it would march upon Richmond
Others thought its aim was Weldon
On either hypothesis we should have been prepared to meet the assault in time, and, clearly, we were not.
As a matter of fact, when the Ninth Corps, under General Burnside
, came from east Tennessee
, it simply went to increase the strength of the Army of the Potomac.
But the forces under General Butler
, with the addition of the corps commanded by General Gillmore
and by General Smith
, amounted to about thirty thousand men,3
and were evidently being prepared for a determined advance upon Petersburg
Thus was the projected cooperation of Meade
's and Butler
's armies to be inaugurated.
This gave the clew of the situation to the immediate advisers of President Davis
They realized, at last, the uselessness of the Plymouth
and New Berne expedition; and orders came, one hurriedly following the other, instructing me to withdraw General Hoke
and his forces from the outworks of New Berne, which they had already taken, and to rush them on to protect Richmond
“There is not an hour to lose,” said Mr. Davis
in one of his telegrams to me [May 4th]. “Had the expedition not started, I would say it should not go.”
Other troops were also being ordered from other directions, and notably from South Carolina
, to assist in the defense of the Confederate
capital: first, Hagood
's brigade; next, Wise
's; and soon afterward, Colquitt
's. So great was the anxiety of the Administration at this juncture that Hagood
's brigade, which General Pickett
, then in command of Petersburg
, desired to halt on its passage through that city, was ordered to be pushed on to Richmond
without an instant's delay.5
I succeeded, however, in having that order rescinded, and General Hagood
was thus enabled to baffle General Butler
's forces, May 6th and 7th, in their assault upon the Richmond railroad above Petersburg
General Bushrod Johnson
, who had hurried from Drewry's Bluff
to take part in this action, was of material assistance, although, from the position he occupied with his troops, his services were less conspicuous.
would inevitably have fallen into the hands of the enemy had not General Hagood
been halted there at that most opportune hour.
The Federal loss was computed at about one thousand men. Ours was quite insignificant.
and his command became the heroes of the day, and were justly looked upon as the saviors of Petersburg
on that occasion.
The enemy, after this repulse, appeared to have relinquished all idea of striking another immediate blow at Petersburg
, and seemed now to be aiming more directly at Richmond
I was pressingly urged to leave Weldon
and repair to Petersburg
, where all my available forces were being concentrated, with a view to cooperate with General Ransom
for the defense of the capital.
But, rapid as were the movements of our troops, withdrawn from North Carolina
and other points, their celerity failed to satisfy or reassure the War Department, whose trepidation grew hourly more intense, and whose orders, telegrams, and suggestions became as harassing as they were numerous.
The incursion of the enemy's cavalry at Jarratt
's, and the burning of Stony
Creek bridge, prevented me from reaching Petersburg
before the 10th of May.
also arrived on that day, and was placed by me at the head of our advancing column, consisting of six brigades of infantry and eight batteries of artillery, and began an immediate march toward Drewry's Bluff
, with orders to form there, or thereabout, as early a junction as practicable with Ransom
As other troops were still coming in from Weldon
and elsewhere, whose organization and assignment to duty I thought best to supervise personally, I concluded not to follow on with the forces under Hoke
, but to await the arrival of Whiting
, then on his way from Wilmington
He had been ordered to Petersburg
to take charge of the troops in that city and its vicinity, and to relieve Pickett
, who had reported himself ill, and was unable, for the time being, to perform any duty in the field.
was in imminent peril; so were the avenues leading from it to Richmond
on the 13th.
After explaining to him what my intentions were, and what I expected him to do, should I assume command at Drewry's Bluff
, and give the enemy battle there, I left for the front, taking with me some twelve hundred men of Colquitt
's brigade and Baker
's regiment of cavalry.
The road was beset with difficulties; and it was by mere chance that I succeeded in passing safely between the enemy's extreme left and the river.
Our exterior lines had already been attacked and partially carried by some of Butler
It was 3 o'clock in the morning when I arrived at Drewry's Bluff
Without a moment's delay, I held a consultation with Colonel D. B. Harris
and Colonel W. H. Stevens
The former was my chief engineer, a tried and most efficient officer, who served on my staff from the first Manassas
up to the time of his death, which took place on the 10th of October, 1864; the latter was also an able engineer on duty in and around Richmond
They acquainted me with the exact state of affairs in our immediate front, and described the encounter of the previous evening between part of Butler
's forces and ours.
The outlook was not encouraging, although the damage incurred might have been more serious, and even General Butler
, I thought, could have done better under the circumstances.
had also given me, that morning, a succinct account of the last engagements between General Lee
and General Grant
, up to the 12th, and of the relative position of their two armies.
Nor, in enumerating the strength then available for the protection of Richmond
, had he omitted to mention a reserve force of some five thousand men stationed in and near the capital, and acting, at that time, as a separate command.
I was thus made conversant with many a fact which greatly assisted me in forming a more correct opinion of the situation before us. Colonel Stevens
had likewise furnished me with a topographical map of that portion of Virginia
covered by the Confederate forces.
Upon carefully examining it I saw that, as General Lee
's army and my forces were on nearly a right line passing through Richmond
, with General Grant
's army on the left, and Butler
's on the right, we still held the interior lines; and that it was possible, by prompt and decisive action, and a combined movement on our part, first, to attack and defeat Butler
, and next, to turn our entire forces against Grant
I hurriedly formed a plan to that effect, and sent Colonel
for the purpose of submitting it to Mr. Davis
, and of asking his consent to carry it out. Mr. Davis
could not be seen; but Colonel Stevens
saw General Bragg
, C. S. A.], who thought the plan a good one, and came at once to Drewry's Bluff
to confer with me.
I proposed that General Lee
, who was said to be, at that time, near Guiney's Station, should at once move back to the defensive lines of the Chickahominy
, or even to the intermediate lines of Richmond
; that a force of 10,000 men be detached from his army and sent to me without the loss of an hour, if possible; that the 5000 men kept near Richmond
, under Major-General Ransom
, be also ordered to report promptly to me. I stated that these forces, added to mine, would give me an effective of some 25,0006
men, with whom, on the very next day, or as soon thereafter as practicable, I would attack Butler
's right flank, with almost the certainty of separating him from his base at
, and thus obtaining an easy victory over him. I proposed also, as an essential feature to the entire success of my plan, that, while this movement should be in progress, General Whiting
, with all his available forces at Petersburg
, amounting to about four thousand men, should march from Port Walthall Junction and fall upon Butler
's right rear, forcing him to the very banks of James River
, somewhat abreast of Drewry's Bluff
, and by this manoeuvre insure his unconditional surrender.
And I proposed, furthermore, that with my own forces, added to those temporarily taken from the Army of Northern Virginia and the environs of Richmond
, I should cross the James
after disposing of Butler
, and by a concerted movement strike General Grant
on his left flank, while General Lee
should attack him in front.
, who certainly knew where and at what distance from Drewry's Bluff General Lee
's army was at that moment, gave his unreserved approval to the plan thus submitted to him. He never said, nor did he intimate in any way, that the reenforcements I desired from the Army of Northern Virginia would not be able to reach Drewry's Bluff
He simply stated that, while concurring with me as to the feasibility of the movement, he could not command its execution without first consulting the President
, and he hurried back to Richmond
for the purpose of seeing him and of urging a favorable decision of the measure.
arrived in person between 8 and 9 o'clock that morning.
He listened to me with grave attention, and I did all in my power to convince him, not only of the advisability of my plan, but of its absolute necessity at that juncture.
The substance of his reply was, that he could not be reconciled to the idea of ordering the Army of Virginia to fall back before the Army of the Potomac; that such a manoeuvre would destroy the prestige of those heroic troops and create a feeling of distrust among the people which no after-event could mitigate or redeem.
I remarked to him that, however painful the fact might be, it was evident the Army of Virginia, though still a barrier to the Army of the Potomac, and resolutely facing it wherever it moved, was none the less forcibly losing ground before it, and that the latter was gradually and surely approaching its objective point — Richmond
That in my opinion it would be better for General Lee
to take a voluntary step rearward through motives of strategy, and with a view to foil the designs of his adversary, as I proposed he should do, than to maintain the passive defensive, and merely to follow the movements of the enemy, without making any possible headway against him. I added that the confidence of the people, far from being impaired by the carrying out of such a plan, would, on the contrary, be enhanced by it, as its plain result would be concentration, not retreat; and that concentration was, for us at this crisis, the surest — if not the only — assurance of victory.
But I argued in vain.
adhered to his former determination, and would only agree to send me the five thousand men under Ransom
They joined my forces on the evening of the 15th.
In the meantime my command had been extended (May 14th) so as to include Drewry's Bluff
and its defenses.
I was also expected to protect Richmond
, and to meet any sudden move against the city on the north side.
But Mr. Davis
had also objected to the cooperation of General Whiting
, which formed a salient feature of my plan, because, as alleged in his book, “of the hazard during a battle of attempting to make a junction of troops moving from opposite sides of the enemy.”
I reluctantly yielded to the “distinct objection
” of the President
of our armies, and, at his request, changed General Whiting
's order of march from Petersburg
But, when realizing that Ransom
's forces would only join me on the evening of the 15th, and that the enemy was already erecting batteries and rifle-pits about Drewry's Bluff
, I saw how important it was to attack Butler
the very next morning; and, in pursuance of my original plan, after informing the President
of the fact, on the 15th, at 10:45 A. M., I sent a telegram to General Whiting
directing him. to march to Port Walthall and join in the attack.8
To avoid all possible misconstruction of the real import of the telegram, I intrusted it to General (then Colonel
) T. M. Logan
, of the “Hampton Legion,” temporarily on duty with me as one of my staff.
I also gave him, for General Whiting
, a rough copy of my order of battle for the next day.9
My object was to separate Butler
from his base and capture his whole army, if possible.
The active cooperation of Whiting
was, I thought, indispensable to attain such an end.
I organized my forces into three divisions, under Hoke
, and Colquitt
, and called these officers to my headquarters to explain to them the part I expected each and all to play in the impending attack.
was ordered to attack the Federal
right flank at daybreak, to drive back the skirmishers in his front, and, following almost simultaneously with his entire
force, to pivot at the proper time, and strike the enemy's flank and rear.
His formation was to be in two distinct lines, supported by artillery and by Colonel Dunovant
's regiment of cavalry.
, who occupied the trenches on the right of Ransom
, was also to engage the enemy, at daybreak with a strong line of skirmishers, and, upon causing him to fall back or waver, was to push on the whole of his command and clear his entire front with rapidity and vigor.
His orders were, likewise, to form in two lines, at an interval of four hundred yards, and abreast of the trenches, but in such a way as not to impede any of his after-movements.
The use to be made of the artillery attached to his division and of Boykin
's regiment of cavalry was left to his own judgment.
's command constituted the reserve.
It was composed of the only troops which I personally knew, and which had already served under me. They were ordered to form rearward of General Hoke
's forces, with the center of each brigade resting on the turnpike.
Their first line was to be some five hundred yards distant from Hoke
's second line.
The artillery attached to that division was to follow along the turnpike about three hundred yards in rear of the last brigade.
, with Wise
's, and Dearing
's commands, with two regiments of Colquitt
's brigade and twenty pieces of artillery under Colonel H. P. Jones
, was to move from Petersburg
, along the Petersburg and Richmond turnpike
, and to strike the enemy's flank and rear.
The substance of the above, thus orally given to the three division commanders then with me at Drewry's Bluff
, was also contained in a written circular delivered to each of them,--as it had been previously outlined to General Whiting
,--so that none could be taken by surprise, no matter what movements might be executed the next day on the different parts of the field.
began his advance at a quarter to 5 o'clock A. M. [of the 16th of May], but was much retarded by a dense fog of several hours' duration.
He had with him Gracie
's brigade, Kemper
's under Colonel Terry
's under Colonel Fry
, and Hoke
's old brigade commanded by Colonel Lewis
At 6 o'clock A. M. he had carried the enemy's breastworks in his front, taking, it was claimed,--but this was afterward seriously contested,--several stand of colors and some five hundred prisoners. His troops had behaved with acknowledged gallantry, Gracie
's and Kemper
's commands having been mostly engaged, and the former having turned the enemy's right flank.
But, for the purpose, it is alleged, of reestablishing his line and procuring a fresh supply of ammunition, Ransom
now came to a halt, and, reporting “his loss heavy and his troops scattered by the fog,” called for immediate assistance.
At 6:30 Colquitt
's brigade, except the two regiments with Whiting
, went to reinforce Ransom
, with orders to resume its former position as soon as its services should no longer be needed.
Just at that time General Ransom
, upon being informed, as he alleged, that the enemy was driving Hoke
's left, sent forward the right regiment of Lewis
's brigade, which effectually checked the Federal
advance until the reserve brigade came up and drove it back from our left center to the turnpike, over and beyond our works.
was wrong in believing Hoke
's left in danger.
His error lay in the fact that one of Hagood
's advanced regiments, having unexpectedly come across the enemy, had been ordered back so as to give Ransom
time to bring around his own left, in conformity with the order of battle already explained.
The relative confusion and lull which followed these ill-timed evolutions necessitated a slight change in the original movement, in order, as stated in my report, “to relieve Hoke
, on whose front the enemy had been allowed to mass his forces by the inaction of the left.”
was ordered to change the front of his right brigade and support it by another, en échelon;
then to push forward a third brigade toward Proctor's Creek
and to keep a fourth one in reserve.
This was to be temporary only, and the plan, as originally adopted, was to be executed as soon as we had taken possession of the river and of Proctor's Creek crossing.
But the reserve brigade was already engaged with the enemy, and Ransom
's own forces were advanced toward the firing of the center.
He could not, therefore, carry out the order given to him, and he sent back Barton
's instead of Colquitt
's brigade; reporting, meanwhile, the necessity of straightening the lines he had stormed, and expressing the belief that the safety of his command would be compromised by a farther advance.
Here ended the services of General Ransom
and of his infantry on that day; for upon receiving the disappointing and unexpected report of the alleged situation in his front, I had ordered him to halt where he then was until further arrangements should be made to relieve him. His cavalry, however, and his artillery also, continued to do their full share of the work before them.
The cavalry, under Dunovant
, being dismounted, was deployed as skirmishers against a force occupying the ridge of Gregory
's woods, the only hostile force — as afterward ascertained — which threatened the left of our line at that time.
The right was seriously engaged; and there, early in the morning, Hoke
had pushed on his skirmishers and freely used his artillery.
The fog was an impediment for him, as it had been for Ransom
, but he had none the less handled his command with that resolution and judgment for which he was conspicuous.
I now quote from my official report of the battle:
Hagood and [Bushrod] Johnson were thrown forward with a section of Eshleman's Washington Artillery, and found a heavy force of the enemy, with six or eight pieces of artillery, occupying the salient of the outer line of works on the turnpike and his own defensive lines.
Our artillery engaged at very short range, disabling some of the enemy's guns and blowing up two limbers.
Another section of the same command opened from the right of the turnpike.
They both held their positions, though with heavy loss, until their ammunition was spent, when they were relieved by an equal number of pieces from the reserve artillery, under Major Owen.
Hagood, with great vigor and dash, drove the enemy from the outer lines in his front, capturing a number of prisoners, and, in conjunction10 with Johnson, five pieces of artillery--three 20-pounder Parrotts and two fine Napoleons.
He then took position in the works, his left regiment being thrown forward by Hoke to connect with Ransom's right.
In advancing, his regiment encountered the enemy behind a second line of works in the woods, with abatis, interlaced with
Attack at that point not being contemplated, it was ordered back to the line of battle, but not before its intrepid advance had brought on it considerable loss. . . .
Johnson, meanwhile, had been heavily engaged.
The line of the enemy bent around his right flank, subjecting his brigade, for a time, to fire in flank and front.
With admirable firmness he repulsed frequent assaults of the enemy, moving in masses against his right and rear.
Leader, officers, and men alike displayed their fitness for the trial to which they were subjected. . . . The brigade, holding its ground nobly, lost more than a fourth of its entire number.
I hurried two regiments of the reserve to its support, but they were not properly posted by the officer leading them, and afforded but little assistance.
Two regiments of Clingman
's brigade were likewise sent by General Hoke
to reinforce Johnson
They also failed to accomplish the object for which they were pressed forward.
Seeing this, I now ordered Hoke
to relieve his right center with his right; and Clingman
's remaining regiments and [M. D.] Corse
's whole brigade being used by him for that purpose, the enemy was soon forced to give way before them.
A gap intervening between the troops on the left of Clingman
and his own command led him to fall back to prevent a flank movement, thus isolating Corse
, who, believing his right flank seriously menaced, retreated almost simultaneously, but not as far back as he was when first ordered to move forward.
These two commands participated but little in the succeeding events of the day, though both were afterward marched again to the front, and gave evidence of their readiness to perform any duty that might be required of them.
The enemy, however, did not occupy the ground from which Corse
had compelled him to retire, but held his own, none the less, with much stubbornness in Hagood
's and Johnson
's front; and, though giving way to Johnson
's right, succeeded in securing a good position abreast of Proctor's Creek
, near the turnpike, and also at the Charles Friend house
But General Johnson
, with the timely assistance of the Washington Artillery, finally drove back the opposing forces from his right flank, and was thus enabled to clear his entire front.
One of the pieces captured was now used against the enemy,--who gave way beyond the Proctor Creek ridge
, leaving but a skirmish line to keep up the appearance of a continuous contest.
I took advantage of this somewhat unexpected lull in the movements of the enemy, first, to inquire into the whereabouts of General Whiting
, the sound of whose guns was said to have been heard at 1:45 P. M., but who had given no further sign of an early junction with our forces; and second, to reorganize our lines, in order to present a more united front, were the enemy to show a desire to resume the offensive.
No news came of Whiting
The only portion of his force which communicated with me on the 16th was a detachment of Dearing
's command, acting as an escort to General T. M. Logan
, one of the bearers of my instructions to General Whiting
the day before, who had come, with the utmost celerity and through great danger, to inform me “that I need not rely on any advance being made that day by General Whiting
From him I also learned that Dearing
, impatient at his commander's tardiness to obey my orders, and desirous of accelerating General Logan
's return to me, had encountered the enemy's pickets near Chester
, and had gallantly driven them in, forcing them back as far as the Half-way House
capturing a large number of stragglers; that there was great demoralization among the Federal
troops; that nothing would have prevented Whiting
from capturing the entire force of General Butler
, had he followed my instructions.
I ordered the original formation of our lines to be resumed, and General Hoke
was directed to send two regiments along the “Court House road” to flank the enemy at that point, if possible, and erect enfilading batteries west of the railroad.
A heavy storm of rain now came on, which very much retarded the movement.
The enemy had opened a telling fire upon us just at that moment, but it took us very little time to silence it. Darkness prevented a farther advance that evening.
's intrenched camp was too near, and too many obstacles might have been met with to justify any unguarded move on my part.
I therefore halted the troops for the night, and sent word to General Whiting
that I expected his cooperation, early the next morning, at the railroad, on the right of our line.
We had defeated Butler
and forced him to take refuge within his fortified lines.
The communications south and west of Richmond
We had achieved the main object for which our forces had encountered the enemy.
But, though unable, for the present, to do us any harm,--though hemmed in, or “bottled up,
” as was said of him at that time,--he was none the less there, scarcely beyond cannon-shot of us; not much weakened in number, for during the progress of the fight we had only taken some 1400 prisoners, five pieces of artillery, and five stand of colors.
We could and should have done more.
We could and should have captured Butler
's entire army.
Incomplete, however, as was the result of the Confederate
victory at Drewry's Bluff
, it had thwarted and annulled the main object of Butler
's presence at Bermuda Hundred
, and his expected cooperation, later on, with General Grant
joined me on the 17th near midday.
He was thoroughly downcast.
No word was spoken by him, and no attempt was made to throw off the responsibility of his failure to unite his forces to mine the day previous.
He admitted the error of which he had been guilty, and expressed most heart-felt regret.
At his own request he was relieved from duty in the field, and returned to the command of his department.
His after-conduct during the closing scenes of the war, and his heroic conduct at Fort Fisher
, contributed largely to reinstate him in the good opinion of his comrades-in-arms and of the entire South
The forces just arrived from Petersburg
had scarcely been put in position, when, by order of the War Department, and against my protest, the whole of Ransom
's division was withdrawn from Drewry's Bluff
and marched back to Richmond
I was then pursuing the enemy, and still driving him nearer and nearer to his base.
Fortunately for us, his rout of the 16th had been such as to preclude, on his part, all thought of any determined resistance.
He was clearly demoralized, if not destroyed, and his main object seemed to be to reach a secure position and shield himself from all further pursuit.
He was successful in that, if in no other feature of his plan.
, who fully understood Butler
's actual position with respect to mine, took immediate
advantage of the fact, and caused Smith
's entire corps, numbering some sixteen thousand men, to be transferred from the Army of the James to the Army of the Potomac.
winced under the order, but obeyed.
This reduced his force at Bermuda
, Hundred to about thirteen thousand.
To oppose it I could command not more than twelve thousand men. The difference was insignificant; but it must be remembered that the Federal
commander possessed many an advantage which I had not, and that, not-withstanding his defeat and the drain made upon him, he could, and eventually did, continue to threaten General Lee
's communications with his main sources of supply through Richmond
, thereby constantly endangering both of these cities.
For that reason I considered it unwise to send reenforcements to the Army of Northern Virginia, as the War Department was already pressing me to do. Nor could I, later on, accept the proposition of General Lee
to leave a sufficient guard for the purpose of watching Butler
's movements, and with the rest of my command move to the north side of the James
, to lead the right wing of his army.
But the War Department, in its great anxiety to increase the strength of the Army of Northern Virginia, readily yielded to the applications of its distinguished commander, and I was finally left with.
a portion only of Bushrod Johnson
's division, say 3200 mel, and Wise
's brigade, 2200 more, including the local militia, making in all some 5400 men, with whom I was expected to protect, not only the Bermuda Hundred
line, but also the city of Petersburg
, and, to a certain extent, even Richmond
Nor should I omit to mention here that fully one-third.
of that force had to be kept unremittingly on picket duty.