Chapter 21: the movement against Petersburg
- The crisis of the War. -- high price of gold. -- difficulty of recruiting in the north. -- Grant crosses the James and moves on Petersburg. -- Hancock's corps delayed. -- movements of Lee. -- Beauregard's defence. -- fighting of June 16 and 18. -- success of Grant's strategy.
It is now time to describe Grant's movement against Petersburg which, I think, more than any battle or other incident, constituted what may be called the Crisis of the War. Possibly the South never had any real chance of success from the first, and the actual crisis was past when she fired the first gun. But, though the North was immensely her superior in all the resources of war, the South was able to win many hard-fought battles, and her armies to cherish the hope, as year after year elapsed, that the desperation of her resistance might exact such a price in blood and treasure as would exhaust the enthusiasm of her adversary. Certainly, at no other period was there such depression among the people at home, in the army, in the field, or among the officials of the government in Washington. The expenses of the war were nearly $4,000,000 a day. Gold was at a high premium and advancing rapidly. It went from 168 in May to 285 in July. The following table shows the fluctuations for each month of 1864:—
|Jan.||19||159 3/8||6||151 1/2|
|April||26||186 1/4||4||166 1/4|
|Aug.||5||261 3/4||30||231 1/2|
War is sustained quite as much by the moral energy of a people as by its material resources; and the former must be active to bring out and make available the latter. . . . For armies are things visible and formal, circumscribed by time and space, but the soul of war is a power unseen, bound up with the interests, convictions, passions of men. Now so gloomy was the outlook after the action on the Chickahominy, and to such a degree, by consequence, had the public mind become relaxed, that there was at this time great danger of a collapse of the war.1 Had not success come elsewhere to brighten the horizon, it would have been difficult to have raised new forces to recruit the Army of the Potomac, which, shaken in its structure, its valor quenched in blood, and thousands of its ablest officers killed and wounded, was the Army of the Potomac no more.It was under these circumstances that Grant made his first move after the week of indecision which followed the battle of Cold Harbor. The most natural movement, and the one which Lee expected, was that he would merely cross the Chickahominy and take position on the north bank of the James at Malvern Hill, adjoining Butler on the south bank at Bermuda Hundreds. This would unite the two armies at the nearest point to Richmond, and they would have the aid of the monitors on the river in a direct advance. But Grant determined to cross the James at Wilcox's Landing, 10 miles below City Point, and entirely out of Lee's observation, and to move thence directly upon Petersburg with his whole army. He would thus pass in rear of Butler and attack the extreme right flank of the Confederate line, which, it was certain, would now be held by only a small  force. It involved the performance of a feat in transportation which had never been equalled, and might well be considered impossible, without days of delay. It was all accomplished, as will be seen, without mishap, and in such an incredibly short time that Lee refused for three days to believe it. During these three days, June 15, 16, and 17, Grant's whole army was arriving at and attacking Petersburg, which was defended at first only by Beauregard with about 2500 men. Lee, with Longstreet's and Hill's corps, for the same three days, lay idle in the woods on the north side, only replacing some of Beauregard's troops taken to Petersburg from in front of Butler. But for this, Longstreet's corps might have manned the intrenchments of Petersburg, when Grant's troops first appeared before them, and it is not too much to claim that his defeat would have been not less bloody and disastrous than was the one at Cold Harbor. For, while the intrenchments at Cold Harbor were the poorest and slightest in which we ever fought, the Petersburg lines had been built a year before, and were of the best character, with some guns of position mounted and all the forest in front cleared away to give range to the artillery. This, then, was really the nearest approach to ‘a crisis’ which occurred during the war, as will more fully appear as we follow the details. Instead of ‘success elsewhere,’ Grant here escaped a second defeat more bloody and more overwhelming than any preceding. Thus the last, and perhaps the best, chances of Confederate success were not lost in the repulse at Gettysburg, nor in any combat of arms. They were lost during three days of lying in camp, believing that Grant was hemmed in by the broad part of the James below City Point, and had nowhere to go but to come and attack us. The entire credit for the strategy belongs, I believe, to Grant, though possibly it may be shared by Meade's chief of staff, Humphreys, whose modest narrative makes no reference to the subject. On Saturday, June 11, the 5th corps was moved down the Chickahominy, about 10 miles to the vicinity of Bottom's Bridge. The next night it crossed on two pontoon bridges, and, inclining to the right, it took position east of Riddle's Shop, where it  intrenched to cover the passage of the other corps. All of the other corps moved at the same time. The 2d corps crossed at the same bridge and marched to Wilcox Landing on the James. The 6th and 9th corps crossed the Chickahominy at Jones's Bridge and marched to the same place; the 18th corps, under Smith, was sent back to the White House, where it took transports for City Point, and was landed there the night of the 14th. Here it was joined by Kautz's cavalry, about 2400 strong, and by Hink's colored division, 3700, making in all about 16,000 men, who were ordered to march at dawn on the 15th for Petersburg, about eight miles, which they were to attack. Here we may leave them for a while. Hancock's 2d corps reached Wilcox's Landing at 6 P. M. on Monday, the 13th, after an all-night march of about 30 miles. The 5th corps, under Warren, held its position covering the passage of other corps until night of the 13th, when it followed Hancock and reached Wilcox's Landing the next noon. The cavalry and infantry had had some sharp skirmishing, and reported their casualties as 300 killed and wounded. The 6th and 9th corps, whose marches had been from 5 to 10 miles longer than Hancock's, arrived in the afternoon of the 14th. During the 14th, the transports, which had brought the 18th corps around from the White House to City Point, were employed in ferrying Hancock across the James. By the morning of the 15th, his whole corps was across, with most of its artillery, and at 10.30 A. M., it set out for Petersburg, following Smith who had gone from City Point for the same destination about sunrise. Hancock had about 20,000 men, and about 16 miles to go. All the complicated movements involved in this manoeuvre, and in the capture of Petersburg at which it was aimed, had been as usual well thought out, and covered in the orders and instructions to the different commanders, with a single exception. This exception was very serious in its results, as it postponed the capture of Petersburg for over nine months. It had its rise in the division of command and responsibility between the cooperating armies. This, in its turn, had arisen from the political necessity of placing Butler in command of the Army of the James. Smith's corps was a part of that army, and Grant,  feeling that secrecy was essential to success, visited Butler on the 14th, and at his quarters prepared the orders for Smith's advance and attack on Petersburg the next day. When he returned to the Army of the Potomac, he failed to notify Meade of the hour of Smith's march, and other details, and Meade, of course, did not inform Hancock. It resulted that Hancock was not ordered to march until 10.30 A. M., when he might just as easily have marched at sunrise, and he was directed by a route an hour or two longer than one he might have used. Finally, he came upon the field at Petersburg after dark, when he might have arrived in time to unite in Smith's assault. Meanwhile, the 5th, 6th, and 9th corps on the banks of the James, awaited the construction of the greatest bridge which the world has seen since the days of Xerxes. At the point selected, the river was 2100 feet wide, 90 feet deep, and had a rise and fall of tide of 4 feet, giving very strong currents. A draw was necessary for the passage of vessels. The approaches having been prepared on each side, construction was begun at 4 P. M., on the 14th, by Maj. Duane, simultaneously at both ends. In eight hours the bridge was finished, and the artillery and trains of the 9th, 5th, and 6th corps began to cross in the order named, that being the order in which the corps would follow. For 48 hours, without cessation, the column poured across, and at midnight on the 16th Grant's entire army was south of the James. Let us now turn to Lee. On the morning of the 13th, finding the enemy gone, he at once put his army in motion, crossed the Chickahominy, and that afternoon took position between White Oak Swamp and Malvern Hill. Hoke's division went on to Drury's Bluff. His cavalry came in contact with Wilson's cavalry, and also with Warren's infantry, which had intrenched itself on the Long Bridge road not far in front of his position. Some sharp skirmishing took place, as shown by Warren's report of 300 casualties. The presence of Warren was taken as assurance that Grant's army was about to advance on the north side of the James, and Warren's withdrawal at dark, discovered the next day, was supposed to mean only a drawing nearer to Butler's position, where the narrowness of the river would permit the easy  establishment of pontoon bridges. On the 14th, a staff-officer of Beauregard's came over from Petersburg to lay before Lee the defenceless position of that city, and to beg for reenforcements. Lee consented that Beauregard should take Hoke's division, which had already gone to Drury's Bluff, but would not consent to weaken Longstreet or Hill, who were near Riddle's Shop. Hoke was accordingly started for Petersburg early on the 15th, with 18 miles to go. His leading brigade, Hagood's, was picked up by railroad trains and reached Petersburg about sunset, the rest of the division arriving about 9 P. M. Until Hoke came, the whole force at Petersburg consisted of Wise's brigade of infantry ‘not more than 1200 strong,’ two small regiments ‘of cavalry under Dearing.’ ‘Some light artillery with 22 pieces . . . besides a few men manning three or four heavy guns in position.’2 Besides these, there were some old men and boys, called Local Reserves, who on June 9 under Col. F. H. Archer, a veteran of Mexico, and Gen. R. E. Colston, disabled at Chancellorsville, had acted with great gallantry in repelling a raid by Kautz's cavalry. The total gross of all arms is given as 2738. After Beauregard's staff-officer had left him, Lee gave orders to our corps to march the next morning, the 15th, to Drury's Bluff. About sunrise, we broke camps and took the road, but there was a demonstration of the enemy's cavalry about Malvern Hill and we were halted to learn what it meant. About midday, the report came that the enemy had fallen back, but our march was not resumed, and we later returned to our bivouacs. On the 16th, the 1st corps headquarters, with Pickett's and Field's divisions, were hurried across the pontoon bridge at Drury's Bluff and down to the Bermuda Hundreds lines, which had been held by Bushrod Johnson's division, but had been abandoned the night of the 15th when Beauregard had withdrawn it for the defence of Petersburg. Kershaw's division followed us only as far as Drury's Bluff, and was halted there. We reached the ground in time to drive off one of Butler's brigades which had come out to the railroad and begun to tear it up. We drove this brigade back very nearly into their original  lines, and, on the next afternoon, the 17th, a charge of Pickett's division entirely regained our lines which had been abandoned by Bushrod Johnson. During these three days, the 15th, 16th, and 17th, Beauregard, while defending Petersburg, with great skill and tenacity, had repeatedly reported to Lee the arrival of Grant's army at Petersburg, and begged for reenforcements. Lee's replies were as follows: —
‘June 16, 10.30 A. M. I do not know the position of Grant's army and cannot strip the north bank of troops.’ ‘June 17, 12 M. Until I can get more definite information of Grant's movements, I do not think it prudent to draw more troops to this side of the river.’On this day, Grant's entire force being now on the field, his attacks were urged with increasing vigor, and at 6.40 P. M. Beauregard telegraphed Lee as follows:—
‘The increasing number of the enemy in my front, and inadequacy of my force to defend the already too much extended lines, will compel me to fall back within a shorter one, which I will attempt to-night. This I shall hold as long as practicable, but, without reenforcements, I may have to evacuate the city very shortly. In that event I shall retire in the direction of Drury's Bluff, defending the crossing of Appomattox River and Swift Creek.’After the receipt of this despatch, Kershaw's division was ordered to proceed during the night to Bermuda Hundreds, and a little later the order was extended to continue the march to Petersburg. The fighting on Beauregard's lines lasted until nearly midnight. But when it was over, and the transfer of his troops to their new line was fairly under way, he began to take more radical measures to convince Lee of the situation. He sent three of his staff, one after the other, within two hours, with details about the prisoners captured from different corps of the Federal army, with the stories told by each of their marches since leaving Cold Harbor on the 12th. The first messenger was Beauregard's aide, Col. Chisolm, who interviewed Lee, lying on the ground in his tent near Drury's Bluff, between 1 and 2 A. M. on the 18th. Lee seemed very placid and heard many messages, but still said he thought Beauregard was mistaken in  supposing that any large part of Grant's army had crossed the river. He said also that Kershaw's division was already under orders to Petersburg, and he promised to come over in the morning. Chisolm was soon followed by Col. Alfred Roman, but he had to leave his messages, as Lee's staff would not disturb him again. About 3 A. M., Maj. Giles B. Cooke arrived and insisted upon an interview. He brought further statements by prisoners which, laid before Lee, thoroughly satisfied him that Grant's army had now been across the James for over 48 hours. The following telegrams, which were immediately sent, will indicate his change of view.
June 18, 3.30 A. M. Superintendent R. & P. R. R. Can trains run to Petersburg? If so, send all cars available to Rice's Turnout. If they cannot run through, can any be sent from Petersburg to the point where the road is broken? It is important to get troops to Petersburg without delay.
To Gen. Early, Lynchburg. Grant is in front of Petersburg. Will be opposed there. Strike as quick as you can. If circumstances authorize, carry out the original plan or move upon Petersburg without delay.At the same time, orders were sent Anderson for Field's division and the corps headquarters and artillery to follow Kershaw's division into Petersburg. Kershaw arrived there about 7.30 A. M.; the rest of us about nine. We must now return to Smith's column, which we saw start to Petersburg, about 16,000 strong, at daylight on the 15th, with about eight miles to go, 2500 of the command being cavalry, 3700 of them colored troops. Beauregard awaits them in the lines of Petersburg which encircle the city, about two miles out, from the river above to the river below, a development of about 10 miles. The intrenchments had no abattis or obstructions in front and consisted only of a small outside ditch and a parapet, with platforms and embrasures for guns at suitable intervals. As Beauregard expected Hoke's division about dark, every moment of delay was valuable. To prolong it, he used the old device of sending forward a regiment of cavalry and a battery. These delayed the approach for about three hours,  at the expense of a gun captured. The march was then resumed, and about 9 A. M. the head of the column came to the zone of felled forest in front of the intrenchments. Beauregard, fortunately, had a good supply of guns and ammunition which he used freely in preventing the enemy from establishing his batteries or moving his troops within sight, and it was 1.30 P. M. when the column was deployed. Smith had still to make his reconnoissance, and this occupied him until 5 P. M. But it had been efficiently made, for he learned that our infantry was stretched out in a very thin line, and it led him to decide that his charge should be made, not with a column, but with clouds of skirmishers. Another hour was taken to form the troops, and at 6 P. M. all would have been ready, but it was now found that the chief of artillery had sent all the horses to water, and it required an hour to get them back. Tall oaks from little acorns grow! By such small and accidental happenings does fate decide battles! Petersburg was lost and won by that hour. At 7 P. M., the guns returned and opened a severe fire, to which the Confederate guns did not reply, reserving their fire for the columns which they expected to see. These never appeared, but instead, the cloud of skirmishers overran the works and captured the guns still loaded with double canister and defended by only a skirmish line of infantry. Hink's colored division, which made the charge, lost 507 killed and wounded from the fire of the skirmishers. It captured four guns and 250 prisoners. Lines of battle followed, and by 9 P. M. occupied about one and a half miles of intrenchment, from Redan No. 7 to No. 11, inclusive (counting from the river below), getting possession of 16 guns. Hancock's corps had arrived on the ground during the action, and, when it was over, at Smith's request it relieved his troops. Smith had been informed of the approach of reenforcements to both sides, and he thought it wiser to hold what he had, than to venture more and risk disaster. Kautz's cavalry had been kept beyond the intrenchments all day by Dearing's cavalry and a few guns, which fired from the redans in the vicinity of No. 28. About 6 P. M., hearing no sounds of battle from Smith, Kautz withdrew, with a loss of 43 men, and went into bivouac. After the fighting began, Beauregard had recognized that he  would need every available man to defend the city, and he ordered Johnson to leave only Gracie's brigade in his lines, and to come to Petersburg with the rest of his division. Johnson brought about 3500 men, which, with Hoke, gave Beauregard in the morning an effective force of about 14,000 infantry. During the night he built a temporary line, throwing out the captured portion, while his efficient chief engineer, Col. D. B. Harris, laid out and commenced a better located permanent line at an average distance of a half-mile in the rear. On the 16th, Hancock was in command, and the 9th corps arrived on the field, giving him about 48,000 effectives. He devoted the day to attacks upon each flank of the broken line and succeeded in capturing one redan, No. 4, on Beauregard's left, and three, Nos. 12, 13, and 14, on his right. On the 17th, the fighting began at 3 A. M. and was continued until 11 P. M. The attack at three was conducted by Potter's division of the 9th corps, and was a complete surprise. Extraordinary precautions had been adopted to make it so. No shot was fired. Canteens had been packed in knapsacks, and all orders were transmitted in whispers. The Confederates were so exhausted, by their incessant fighting by day and working by night, that they were sound asleep, with arms in their hands, and double canister in their guns. Only a single gunner was waked in time to pull a single lanyard before the enemy swept over and got possession of Redan No. 16, with 4 guns and 600 prisoners. Nowhere else during the long day were they able to make any headway. The 5th corps had now arrived and one division of the 6th. About dark in the afternoon, Redan No. 3, on the left, had been taken and held temporarily by Ledlie's division of the 9th corps. Gracie's brigade, which had just come in from Bermuda Hundreds, was put to charge them, and drove them out, capturing over 1000 prisoners. After the fighting ceased, Col. Harris superintended the withdrawal of the troops from the temporary line to the new location which had been prepared in the last 48 hours. At 4 A. M. on the 18th, a general advance was made by the 2d, 5th, and 9th corps, the 6th and 18th supporting in reserve. The  ground in front of the points which had been assaulted was thickly strewn with the Federal dead, and the slight trenches, from which they had fought so long and desperately, were filled with the slain there had been no opportunity to bury or remove. A few deserters or prisoners were picked up, and from them Meade learned that Beauregard's whole force had been but two divisions and Wise's brigade, now reduced by heavy losses, but trying to occupy a hastily constructed line a half-mile, more or less, in the rear. This information was conveyed to all the corps commanders, who were ordered to press forward vigorously and overwhelm our lines in their unfinished condition. No army could ask a more favorable chance to destroy its antagonist than was here presented. Their whole army was at hand, and the reenforcement of Longstreet's corps, even now coming to Beauregard, was not over 12,000 men and was still about three to five hours away. The little which was accomplished during the whole day is striking evidence of the condition to which the Federal army had now been reduced. At first, much time was lost in driving in our pickets, and in efforts to arrange for simultaneous assaults by the different corps. Meade himself at last fixed upon twelve o'clock, and ordered each corps at that hour to assault with a strong column. By that time Kershaw's division had relieved Johnson's, taking its place in the trenches. Hoke, Wise, and none of the artillery could be relieved until after dark, without unwise exposure of the troops. Field's division took position in the trenches on Kershaw's left, but it did not become engaged. Humphreys states that about midday the 2d corps made two assaults, ‘both repulsed with severe loss.’ Later Meade again ordered —
‘assaults by all the corps with their whole force, and at all hazards, and as soon as possible. All the corps assaulted late in the afternoon, and at hours not widely apart: Birney with all his disposable force; Nott from the Hare house . . . supported by one of Gibbon's brigades; Barlow on Mott's left, — but were repulsed with considerable loss. Burnside found the task of driving the enemy [it was but a picket force] out of the railroad cut a formidable one, and, assaulting, established his corps within a hundred yards of the enemy's main line. . . . Warren's assault was well made, some of Griffin's men being killed within 20 feet of the  enemy's works, but it was no more successful than the others. His losses were very severe. . . . On the right, Martindale advanced and gained some rifle-pits, but did not assault the main line.’On the Confederate side, the day was not considered a day of battle, but only of demonstrations and reconnoissance. None of our reenforcements were engaged, the only fighting done having been by Hoke's division and Wise's brigade, who, under Beauregard, had already borne the whole brunt of the four days and three nights. The official diary of Longstreet's corps says of the day:—
‘We arrive in Petersburg and Kershaw relieves Bushrod Johnson's division, Field taking position on Kershaw's right. A feeble attack is made in the afternoon on Elliott's brigade.’No official report is given of any brigade except Hagood's, which describes only skirmishing, and one attempted charge on our extreme left, ‘which never got closer than 250 yards.’ It was necessary to wait until night before Beauregard's artillery could receive its plaudit of ‘Well done! good and faithful servants,’ and be relieved by the fresh battalions of Longstreet's corps. Of all the moonlight nights I can remember, I recall that Saturday night as, perhaps, the most brilliant and beautiful. The weather was exceedingly dry, the air perfectly calm, with an exhilarating electrical quality in it. The dust rose with every movement and hung in the air. The whole landscape was bathed and saturated in silver, and sounds were unusually distinct and seemed to be alive and to travel everywhere. It was not a night for sleep in the trenches. There was a great deal to be done at all points, to strengthen and improve them, and every man was personally interested in working at his immediate location. In spite of all pains, the drawing out of old guns and approach of new was attended with sounds which wandered far and with luminous clouds of dust gradually rising in the air. Then the enemy would know we were moving and there would come crashes of musketry at random and volleys of artillery from their lines. Then our infantry would imagine themselves attacked, and would respond in like fashion, and the fire would run along the parapet to right and left, and gradually subside for a while,  to break out presently somewhere else. I was accompanied by Lt.-Col. Branch, a Col. of artillery of Beauregard's army, a very competent and gallant officer, unfortunately killed in 1869 by the falling of a bridge near Richmond. Grant did not renew his assaults on the 19th, but expressed himself satisfied that all had been done which was possible, and he now directed that the troops should be put under cover and have some rest. Humphreys writes: —
‘The positions gained by the several corps close against the enemy were intrenched, and the two opposing lines in this part of the ground remained substantially the same in position to the close of the war.’In brief review, it must be said that Grant successfully deceived Lee as to his whereabouts for at least three days, and thus, at the most critical period of the war, saved himself from a second defeat, more bloody, more signal, and more undeniable than Cold Harbor. For, if Beauregard alone, with only 14,000 men, was able to stop Grant's whole army even after being driven by surprise into temporary works, what would Lee and Beauregard together have done from the strong original lines of Petersburg? Grant, personally, was at that period not abstemious, and that his troops knew of it [perhaps sometimes exaggerating facts in speaking of it] was known, even to the Confederates, from the stories of prisoners captured at Cold Harbor. Such a defeat in case of any disaster, with such rumors afloat, would have cast a baleful back-light over the campaign, even to Spottsylvania and the Wilderness. He was now able to base a quasi claim to victory in establishing himself within the lines of Petersburg. But all the odium of repeated defeats would have been heaped upon his campaign, had it terminated with a final and bloody repulse. All this had been changed by his well-planned and successfully conducted strategy. The position which he had secured was full of great possibilities, as yet not fully comprehended. But, already, the character of the operations contemplated, removed all risk of serious future catastrophe. However bold we might be, however desperately we might fight, we were sure in the end to  be worn out. It was only a question of a few months, more or less. We were unable to see it at once. But there soon began to spring up a chain of permanent works, the first of which were built upon our original lines captured by the skirmishers the first afternoon, and these works, impregnable to assault, finally decided our fate, when, on the next March 25, we put them to the test. Of this period following the battles of Cold Harbor and Petersburg, the future historian may find something to say. By all the rules of statecraft, the time had now arrived to open negotiations for peace. There would no longer be any hope of final success, but there would still be much of blood, of treasure, and of political rights, which might be saved or lost. The time never came again when as favorable terms could have been made as now. For it was the hour of the lowest tide in Federal hopes. It remains a fact, however, that for many months, even until the very capture of Richmond, both the Confederate army and the people would have been very loth to recognize that our cause was hopeless. Lee's influence, had he advised it, could have secured acquiescence in surrender, but nothing else would. His confidence in his army, doubtless, for some months delayed his realization of the approaching end. Even when he foresaw it, his duty to his government as a soldier was paramount, and controlled his course to the very last. And there is this to be said. In every war there are two issues contended for. First, is the political principle involved; which with us was the right of secession. The second is prestige or character as a people. Conceding our cause, did we defend it worthily, history and posterity being the judges? We lost the first issue; and the more utterly it was lost, the better it has proved to be — for ourselves, even more than for our adversaries. Without detracting from their merit, but displaying and even enhancing it, we have gained the second by a courage and constancy which could only be fully developed and exhibited under the extreme tests endured, and by the high types of men who became our leaders. Is not that end worthy of the extreme price paid for it, even to the last drop of blood shed at Appomattox? I am sure that to the army, any end  but the last ditch would have seemed a breach of faith with the dead we had left upon every battle-field. The Federal casualties for Petersburg and for the campaign are given as follows: —
June 13 to 18: killed 1,298, wounded 7,474, missing 1,814, total 10,586. May 5 to June 18: killed 8,412, wounded 44,629, missing 9,609, total 62,750.No returns exist for Beauregard's losses, but they have been estimated at: killed, 500, wounded 2200, missing 2000, total 4700. The losses among the general officers were severe on both sides, being of Confederates: killed 8, wounded 15, captured 2, total 25, and of Federals: killed 6, wounded 8, captured 2, total 16.