previous next

7% of the text is displayed below. If you wish to view the entire text, please click here


Chapter 15: operations of the Army of the James around Richmond and Petersburg.

  • Truth regarding Grant's position learned at length
  • -- the last fight at Drury's Bluff -- Butler retires to Bermuda hundred according to agreement -- Beauregard's attacks and withdrawal -- Smith's Corps called to the Army of the Potomac -- the tenth of June General Gillmore marches up to Petersburg and then marches down again -- Butler requests Gillmore's removal -- an incident: while on a lookout Butler becomes a target -- a pontoon Bridge built under difficulties -- Gen. William F. Smith ordered to attack Petersburg on June 15 -- he dallies and delays until it is too late -- Conduct and character of Smith critically considered -- his accusation that Grant was drunk -- verdict as to Smith

On the morning of May 16, shortly before five o'clock, I was awakened by a very sharp musketry fire. I at once mounted my horse and rode to the field. I ascertained that the demonstration on the right was too vigorous to be a feint. I immediately issued an order to Gillmore to attack the enemy with rapidity,1 supposing that they had massed their troops on the right and that Gillmore would be able to go through their line if he attacked with promptness and resolution. But the enemy had made a feint on his line by some artillery fire, and by the exhibition of hardly more than a skirmish line.

I got a reply2 from him some hours afterwards in which he stated that the enemy had made two attacks upon his front and were handsomely repulsed, but he made no explanation why, with my order in his hands, he did not, having repulsed the enemy, follow up the repulse and make his attack while the repulsed troops were retreating.

I did not appreciate then, as I do now, that it was not the practice in our war where the enemy's attacks were repulsed, that the advantage gained should at once be followed up. A very notable instance of this was at the battle of Gettysburg, where, if the repulse of Lee's army had been followed up, all know now it would inevitably have been destroyed, and every officer ought to have known it then. On the other hand, an example of what can be done by following up a repulse is seen in the result of the action of General Thomas at Nashville, by which he substantially destroyed Hood's army.

From an interview with Sheridan, I learned what Lee and Grant had done in the march from the Rapidan. The position of [656] Grant's army and its distance from Richmond, contradicted all the despatches I had received from Washington, and I judged that it was impossible for him to do otherwise than to take the alternative in the plan agreed upon between us, in case he failed to turn Lee's left and drive him back into Richmond, where I was to meet him in ten days. Evidently Grant was not coming to Richmond but had marched by his left flank to join me at City Point, intending to continue his operations on the south side. I had performed my part by being around Richmond, holding its outer defences on the south side of James River, and now that Richmond had been so largely reinforced, and as the army of Beauregard was continually receiving troops from the South in my rear, I concluded that I would not continue to hold my position more than a day or two longer — long enough to hold a road open for Kautz to find his way back to join us if he had met with disaster. The fortifications of our intrenched camp at Bermuda were by no means in such condition as they needed to be, to be thoroughly impregnable to the attack of the whole of Lee's army, he having the interior or shorter line. He might attempt to carry them and thus force Grant, whom he had learned was to make this his new base, into the position in which McClellan was at Harrison's landing. Accordingly it was imperative that I should no longer peril the safety of Grant's new base, and also probably the safety of his army.

In other words, I must carry out the other branch of the plan agreed upon between Grant and myself, namely, to make him an impregnable base to which to bring his army in case of repulse, and whence he might commence his operations against Richmond,--where, in my belief, they ought to have been begun at first.

Impressed with these considerations I had determined,--in case of failure in getting possession of Drury's Bluff, which, once obtained, could be held by us as an almost impregnable camp for any length of time, as it could be reached by our boats on the James,--to retire and finish the intrenchments at Bermuda Neck.

I had done up to this time what I had agreed with General Grant to do: I had seized City Point and Bermuda by a surprise; I had brought my army, against all opposition and without any considerable loss, to the intrenchments of Richmond, and was there victoriously awaiting him; and I had kept more than thirty thousand [657] rebel troops more than ten days, busy defending Richmond, so that they might not join Lee's army. I had also cut the Weldon Railroad two successive times by my cavalry. I had cut the Petersburg Railroad and prevented the sending forward of troops and supplies, and I had cut in many places the Danville Railroad, the other supply road of Lee. This statement needs no corroboration now, but if it did, the despatches of Beauregard to the rebel war authorities would be sufficient. They would show the danger to which I was exposed, as the Confederates believed, if they should get between me and my intrenched camp,--a danger wholly frustrated by the conclusion to which I came. They also bear witness to the enhanced value and the great importance to our forces of the strategic movement, admittedly devised by myself, of seizing and holding City Point and Bermuda Hundred.

To determine advisedly any course of action at once save the one directed to Gillmore, it was necessary to wait until the very thick fog, which had enveloped everything, could be cleared away by the sun. When that had been done, I learned that the Confederates had massed by far the largest portion of their troops in the breastworks opposite my right flank, which was held by the Eighteenth Corps, with the intention of turning it and then seizing the shortest and best road to my intrenchments, the river road, getting their forces there by a break through the weak line I had left, and seizing Bermuda Hundred with all its advantages, thus accomplishing results of the greatest moment.3

During the day before the battle of Drury's Bluff, May 16, the line covering Smith's corps had been intrenched. The line of Gillmore's corps was defended by the outer line of the enemy's intrenchments which we had taken and were using substantially in reverse.

Breast-high intrenchments had been made in front of the line held by the Eighteenth Corps, and in a substantially clear field almost within cannon shot of the intrenchments of the enemy. These works had been extended as far as the line could be covered, leaving only a short space, say a quarter of a mile, between the James River and the right of the line, which was held by the cavalry pickets only. [658]

To prevent a night surprise, a farmhouse about one hundred yards beyond the right of my line had been seized, and I had ordered it to be held by a picket of some sixty sharp-shooters. This would prevent a noiseless turning of our flank in the night-time. The enemy, appreciating this, had twice during the day attempted its capture, but it was held.

At the suggestion of General Weitzel, General Smith had ordered the front of his corps to be protected by telegraph wires taken from the poles of the line along the railroad — of which we had nine miles uninterrupted possession — and wound around the stumps of trees in front of his line and around posts driven into the ground. This wire was strung at such a height that the enemy making a charge in the night would assuredly stumble over it and be thrown down in masses within some fifty yards of the muzzles of our guns.

That order was carefully and properly executed by Weitzel and Brooks in the front. They commanded the left and centre divisions of the Eighteenth Corps line. Heckman's brigade and Weitzel's division held the extreme right. For some reason, never yet satisfactorily explained, the putting up of that wire, which events proved would have been of the greatest security, was neglected in front of Heckman's brigade, the extreme and exposed right of the line. As that brigade was “in the air,” that is, substantially without support on its right, there was almost a necessity for a double line of wire in its front. But there was none whatever there. The order to put it there, his division commander reports, was given to

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 Places (automatically extracted)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: