June 3, 1864: Cold Harbor-Not War But Murder

ColdHarbor-June3

And, after that, the chunky man from the West,

Stranger to you, not one of the men you loved

As you loved McClellan, a rider with a hard bit,

Takes you and uses you as you could be used,

Wasting you grimly but breaking the hurdle down.

You are never to worship him as you did McClellan,

But at the last you can trust him.  He slaughters you

But he sees that you are fed.  After sullen Cold Harbor

They call him a butcher and want him out of the saddle,

But you have had other butchers who did not win

And this man wins in the end.

 

Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown’s Body

The main Union assault at Cold Harbor went in on the foggy morning of June 3 at 4:30 AM, the three corps of Smith, Wright and Hancock hitting the Confederate left.  Some of the Union veteran troops, in those pre-dog tag days, pinned white notes with their names and addresses on the backs of their uniforms so their bodies could be identified, they having learned the hard lesson that assaulting fortified lines held by Confederate infantry was bound to cause huge casualties among the attacking force.  The attack went in blind, as, stunningly, no had bothered to reconnoiter the Confederate lines and draw up maps.  One Union soldier in Gibbon’s division had an apt comment on this military malpractice:   “We felt it was murder, not war, or at best a very serious mistake had been made.”

Smith’s attack on the right quickly bogged down, his men being funneled through two ravines where they were cut down in large numbers.  Wright’s men in the middle, still weary from their attacks on June 1, made little effort, and their attack was pinned down almost as soon as it started.  Hancock’s attack on the Union far left pierced the Confederate lines, but the breach was sealed and the Confederates repulsed Hancock with heavy loss. The attacks were all over by 7:30 AM.  Grant wanted attacks to resume, but by 12:30 PM  he had become convinced that further attacks were simply impossible.

The Union casualties from the assault have been estimated from 3,000-7,000.  I believe the upper estimate is more likely correct.  The Confederates incurred about 1500 casualties.  The armies would remain confronting each other at Cold Harbor until June 12, but there would be no further attacks.  Total Union casualties from all the fighting at Cold Harbor were around 12,000 to 5,000 Confederate, the same disparity as at Fredericksburg, the Cold Harbor assault of June 3 resembling the futile Union assaults of that battle. (more…)

Published in: on June 3, 2022 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on June 3, 1864: Cold Harbor-Not War But Murder  
Tags: , , , ,

June 11, 1864: Battle of Trevilian Station

Sheridan's_Trevilian_Station_Raid

The largest all cavalry battle of the War, the battle of Trevilian Station occurred during a raid by Major General Philip Sheridan leading 9000 Union troopers.  Grant ordered the raid with a two-fold purpose:  first to draw off Confederate cavalry as he prepared to disengage from Cold Harbor and cross over the James River to attack the Confederate rail road hub at Petersburg south of Richmond, and, second for Sheridan to tear up as much as he could of the Virginia Central railroad that connected the Shenandoah Valley to Richmond.

The second goal was reached as Major General Wade Hampton, now commander of the Army of Northern Virginia Cavalry Corps after the death of Major General Jeb Stuart, set off in pursuit of Stuart with 6,000 Confederate cavalry, with Hampton traveling west south of the North Anna river, while Sheridan traveled west north of the North Anna.

Sheridan planned to destroy the railway station at Trevilian Station.  Both forces converged on Trevilian on June 10, with the fighting raging on for two days from June 11-12.  Although Sheridan claimed a victory, the outnumbered Confederates actually inflicted more casualties on the Union force than they sustained, 1000 to 800, and Sheridan only damaged six miles of the Virginia Central railroad.  Sheridan had made certain however that when Grant crossed the James, General Lee had very little cavalry to determine what Grant was up to, and Lee was operating blind for a precious few days. (more…)

May 16, 1864: Second Battle of Drewry’s Bluff

advance-on-drewry's-bluff

 “It seems but little better than murder to give important commands to such men as [Nathaniel P.] Banks, [Benjamin F.] Butler, [John A.] McClernand, [Franz] Sigel, and Lew. Wallace, and yet it seems impossible to prevent it.”

General Henry W. Halleck, letter to General William T. Sherman, April 29, 1864

 

Butler during the Bermuda Hundred campaign in May of 1864 threw away chance after chance to take Richmond, with a timidity that rose to astonishing levels and an ineptitude at leading his forces that defies belief.

While Grant was occupying Lee in the Overland Campaign, Butler was to take his 33,000 man Army of the James and strike at Richmond.

peninsulacampaignmapbattles

The above map is of the 1862 Peninsula Campaign, but it is useful for understanding the geography of the 1864 Bermuda Hundred Campaign.  Butler’s army steamed up the James to the fishing village of Bermuda Hundred and disembarked on May 5, 1864 the same day that fighting began in the Wilderness.  Richmond was only a short distance away and it appeared to be merely a matter of marching for Butler to take it.

Butler was opposed by General P.G. T. Beauregard who now had the finest hour of his mixed record during the Civil War.  Stripping the Richmond garrison and bringing into his ranks militia consisting of men too old, and boys too young, to be conscripted into the Confederate Army, he assembled a force of 18,000 men.  After a week, Butler’s slow motion advance on Richmond came to an end at the Second Battle of Drewry’s Bluff, also known as the battle of Proctor’s Creek, where Beauregard’s ragtag force launched an attack which convinced the demoralized Butler to withdraw to Bermuda Hundred.

Beauregard constructed the Howlett Line, a series of Confederate fortifications that kept the Army of the James bottled up at Bermuda Hundred until Lee withdrew from Richmond on April 2, 1865.  In the Civil War there were defeats, debacles and the Bermuda Hundred Campaign, where Butler made bad generalship almost an art form.

 Grant summed up Butler’s generalship well in his Personal Memoirs when he recalled a conversation with his Chief of Engineers: (more…)

Published in: on May 16, 2021 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on May 16, 1864: Second Battle of Drewry’s Bluff  
Tags: , , ,

May 12, 1864: The Bloody Angle

Spotsylvania_Court_House_May_12

After his attacks on May 10, 1864, Grant used May 11 as a planning day.  Impressed by the initial success of Upton’s charge on May 10, 1864, Grant decided to use Upton’s tactics of a swift attack along a narrow front, by troops with unloaded rifles, on a much larger scale.  Hancocks II corps was to attack the mule shoe salient using Upton’s tactics, while Burnside launched a supporting attack on the Mule Shoe from the east and Wright attacked the Mule Shoe from the west, while Wright launched decoy attacks on the Laurel Hill sector of the Confederate lines west of the Mule Shoe.

Attack preparations showed a complete break down in elementary staff work.  Hancock’s corps was completely ignorant of the configuration of the Confederate position they were to attack, the obstacles in their way, or indeed the basic nature of the ground to be covered.  Hancock had his attack columns assemble in torrential rain.  The attack was to begin at 4:00 AM. Hancock wisely delayed the attack until 4:35 AM, fearing that his men could not find the Confederate position, let alone attack it, in the rainy dark.

Now luck began to shine on the Union.  The rain stopped and dawn broke with a mist to conceal the Union attack.  Unbeknownst to the Union attackers, the Confederate division holding the section of the Mule Shoe they were going to attack, had been denuded of its artillery due to a false report received by Lee that the Union army was going to withdraw to Fredericksburg.  If this occurred, Lee wanted his artillery to be withdrawn and readied for an attacking that he planned to make on the withdrawing Federals.  Confederate Major General Allegheny Johnson, commanding the target division of the Union assault, became fearful of a forthcoming attack and appealed to his corps commander Lieutenant General Ewell for the return of his artillery.  Ewell granted the request at 3:30 AM, too late for the artillery to be put back into place before the start of Hancock’s assault.

Hancock’s 15,000 men attacking on a half mile front crashed into the Mule Shoe and overran Johnson’s division.  The rain had made useless much of the Confederate and Union gunpowder and the fighting was grim hand to hand combat.  Hancock’s men, fighting on such a narrow front, quickly lost all unit cohesion and became an armed mob, wading through the mud to battle the Confederates.  General Lee swiftly sent reinforcements to attempt to plug the breakthrough made by Hancock. (more…)

Published in: on May 12, 2021 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on May 12, 1864: The Bloody Angle  
Tags: , , , ,

June 15, 1864: Assault on Petersburg Begins

Petersburg_June15-18

Generals Lee and Grant were two of the finest generals in American history.  However, they both had off days, and few episodes in the Civil War cast both of these men in a poorer light than the failure of the Union attempt to seize Petersburg from June 15-18, 1864.

Grant inexplicably assigned to Butler’s Army of the James the task of spearheading the Union effort to take Petersburg.  Considering the poor performance of this army during the Bermuda Hundred campaign and the assault on Petersburg on June 9, this was a poor choice.  Smith’s corps and the cavalry of Kautz would attack over the same route followed on the June 9 attack.  Hancock’s corps of the Army of the Potomac would follow up after the initial assault.

The attack didn’t get under way until 7:oo PM with Smith then taking 3.5 miles of entrenchments from the almost unmanned Confederate defenses.  Smith then decided to wait until dawn before advancing further.  Hancock, demonstrating yet again that he was no longer the aggressive battlefield commander he had been earlier in the War, agreed with Smith’s decision to wait until dawn.

Beauregard, commanding the defenses of Petersburg, having no other troops, stripped the fortified Howlett line that kept most of Butler’s army of Confederate troops bottled up at Bermuda Hundred.  Butler could then have smashed through the Howlett line with  ease, but he did nothing.  Beauregard now had 14000 men to hold Petersburg while he awaited reinforcements from General Lee.

He now confronted three corps of 50,000 men, Burnside’s corps having come up to join Smith’s and Hancock’s.  Hancock, in temporary command of the Army of the Potomac until Meade arrived, launched a three corps attack at 5:30 PM on June 16.  Beauregard and his men hanging on just barely, constructing entrenchments behind their lines to contain Union breaches.

June 17 was a day of uncoordinated Union assaults which gave Beauregard the opportunity to construct a new defensive line around Petersburg to which he and his men withdrew on the evening of June 17-18.

Throughout the struggle for Petersburg Beauregard had frantically been asking Lee to send him reinforcements.  Lee denied all such entreaties until his son General Fitzhugh Lee and his cavalry finally confirmed that the Army of the Potomac had crossed the James and was attacking Petersburg.  At 3:00 AM on June 18, Lee dispatched two divisions to shore up the Petersburg defenses.

Beauregard now had 20,000 troops against 67,000 Federals.  The Union attacks on June 18 were repulsed with heavy loss and the siege of Petersburg began.  The Union had sustained 11000 casualties against 4000 Confederate casualties during the fighting of June 15-18, and the last opportunity to end the War quickly had vanished.

Here is an account of the fighting from June 15-18th by General Beauregard that he wrote for the North American Review in 1887: (more…)

Published in: on June 15, 2020 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on June 15, 1864: Assault on Petersburg Begins  
Tags: , , , , ,

May 8, 1864: The Battle of Spotsylvania Begins

Spotsylvania_Court_House_May_07

Grant, undaunted by his losses at the battle of the Wilderness, sent his army racing down Brock Road on the night of May 7-8 to seize the crossroads of Spotsylvania Court House and get between Lee and Richmond.

Lee was unsure of Grant’s plan, reasoning that Grant would either be heading east towards Fredericksburg or moving south.  In either case it was obvious to Lee that the Spotsylvania Court House crossroads would be essential and sent his cavalry ahead to delay the advance of the Union troops and to seize the crossroads.  He also ordered the First corps under its new commander General Richard Anderson to seize the crossroads.

Union cavalry under Sheridan was bogged down during the nights in running battles with the Confederate cavalry.

By dawn on May 8 the Confederates had control of the crossroads.  Fighting ensued throughout the day as Confederate and Union arriving units were fed into  battle with the Confederates beating off badly coordinated Union attacks.  As night fell, both armies began to dig in and prepare fortifications.

 

Spotsylvania_Court_House_May_09

The Union and Confederate armies would spend another 11 days at Spotsylvania, with more bloody fighting to come.  Here is Lee’s brief reports to the Secretary of War regarding the fighting on May 8. (more…)

Published in: on May 8, 2020 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on May 8, 1864: The Battle of Spotsylvania Begins  
Tags: , , , ,

May 7, 1864: Grant Wins the War

Grant wins the War

Grant has come East to take up his last command

And the grand command of the armies.

                                    It is five years

Since he sat, with a glass, by the stove in a country store,

A stumpy, mute man in a faded Army overcoat,

The eldest-born of the Grants but the family-failure,

Now, for a week, he shines in the full array

Of gold cord and black-feathered hat and superb blue coat,

As he talks with the trim, well-tailored Eastern men.

It is his only moment of such parade.

When the fighting starts, he is chewing a dead cigar

With only the battered stars to show the rank

On the shoulderstraps of the private’s uniform.

Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown’s Body

Fighting was not resumed at the Battle of the Wilderness on May 7, 1864.  The Confederates had fortified their positions and further Union assaults would have been fruitless.  Veteran Union troops knew what was going to happen next.  The latest offensive under the latest General had been stopped, with over 17,000 casualties, the same as at the Union defeat at Chancellorsville the year before.  The army would retire north for a period of rest and recuperation before trying again.  Likely Grant would be removed and a new General brought in to try his luck.  The Union troops had been through this many times before over the past three years. (more…)

Published in: on May 7, 2020 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on May 7, 1864: Grant Wins the War  
Tags: , ,

May 6, 1864: Battle of the Wilderness-Second Day

Wilderness_May6_1400.

 

 

 

 

..”Attention Texas Brigade” was rung upon the morning air, by Gen. Gregg, “the eyes of General Lee are upon you, forward, march.” Scarce had we moved a step, when Gen. Lee, in front of the whole command, raised himself in his stirrups, uncovered his grey hairs, and with an earnest, yet anxious voice, exclaimed above the din and confusion of the hour, “Texans always move them.”
…never before in my lifetime or since, did I ever witness such a scene as was enacted when Lee pronounced these words, with the appealing look that he gave. A yell rent the air that must have been heard for miles around, and but few eyes in that old brigade of veterans and heroes of many a bloody field was undimmed by honest, heart-felt tears. Leonard Gee, a courier to Gen. Gregg, and riding  by my side, with tears coursing down his cheeks and yells issuing from his throat exclaimed, “I would charge hell itself for that old man.”

 

Private Robert Campell, 5th Texas Infantry

The fighting erupted early on the second day of the Battle of the Wilderness.  Grant assumed that Hill’s corps had been fought out on the first day and could be overrun with a strong attack.  At 5:00 AM Hancock attacked with three divisions, with two in support.  By 6:00 AM Hill’s corps was in full retreat and disaster loomed for Lee.  At that time the 800 man Texas Brigade, perhaps the elite fighting unit in the Army of Northern Virginia, the vanguard of Longstreet’s corps arrived and saved the day.  Longstreet launched a two division counterattack up the Orange Plank Road, with the Texans, who suffered 650 casualties, leading the attack on the north side of the Road.  By 11:00 AM Hancock’s corps was in full retreat after Longstreet launched a four brigade attack against the left wing of Hancock’s line.  Hancock’s men rallied behind fortifications along the Brock Road.  In an episode reminiscent of Jackson’s fatal wounding a year ago, Longstreet was shot in the neck by a group of Virginians who thought he and his party were Union troops.  Longstreet, unlike Jackson, would survive his wounding, but he would be unable to rejoin the army until October.  Lee the next day would place General Richard Anderson in command of the First Corps in place of Longstreet.

On the Orange Court House Turnpike inconclusive fighting raged all day.  Shortly before dark General John B. Gordon launched a divisional assault against Sedgwick’s right that made good progress until Union reinforcements restored the Union line.  That brief crisis elicited this famous event:   a nervous Union officer stating his fears to Grant:  “General Grant, this is a crisis that cannot be looked upon too seriously. I know Lee’s methods well by past experience; he will throw his whole army between us and the Rapidan, and cut us off completely from our communications.”  Greatly annoyed, Grant responded , “Oh, I am heartily tired of hearing about what Lee is going to do. Some of you always seem to think he is suddenly going to turn a double somersault, and land in our rear and on both of our flanks at the same time. Go back to your command, and try to think what we are going to do ourselves, instead of what Lee is going to do.”

 

 

 

Here is Lee’s report on the second day. (more…)

Published in: on May 6, 2020 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on May 6, 1864: Battle of the Wilderness-Second Day  
Tags: , , , ,

June 12, 1864: Grant’s Crossing of the James Begins

Richmond-Petersburg%20fall%201864

 After the attack on Lee’s Cold Harbor line was bloodily defeated on June 3, Grant realized that trying to bull his way through Lee’s fortified line was useless.  As he had throughout the Overland Campaign Grant decided to move again south and east around Lee’s left.  He decided to not only cross the Chickahominy River but also the James River, a move he hoped would take Lee completely by surprise and allow him to seize Petersburg, the rail hub supplying Richmond.

To divert Lee’s attention he sent Sheridan and most of his cavalry on a raid to the West.  Grant then began the construction of an entrenchment line behind his Cold Harbor position.  On the night of the 12th Hancock’s and Wright’s corps withdrew to the new entrenchments.  Warren’s corps crossed the Chickahominy River and headed south.  Burnsides corps followed with Hancock and Wright’s corps taking up the rear.  Smith’s corps marched to White House on the Pamunkey River and were shipped by the navy to Bermuda Hundred.

At 4:00 PM on June 15th Union engineers began work on a 2200 feet pontoon bridge on the James between Windmill Point to Fort Powhatan and completed it seven hours later.  Grant then crossed his army over the James during the next two days with Lee still unsure as to his intentions, in one of the most daring, and successful, maneuvers of the War.  Grant in his Memoirs describes why he decided to take his biggest gamble of the War: (more…)

Published in: on June 12, 2014 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on June 12, 1864: Grant’s Crossing of the James Begins  
Tags: , , , ,

June 1, 1864: Initial Assaults at Cold Harbor

Overland_Campaign_June_1

 

 

As May 1864 faded into June, Grant’s Overland Campaign was clearly headed for some sort of climax.  Grant had forced Lee back to the outskirts of Richmond. With Lee’s lines along,  and south east of, Totopotomoy  Creek being too strong in Grant’s estimation, he moved yet again south and east to flank Lee’s right.  On May 31, Union cavalry took Old Cold Harbor while Confederate cavalry held New Cold Harbor.  Both locations were  only ten miles from Richmond.

Lee planned to seize New Cold Harbor on the morning of June 1 from the Union cavalry holding it.  Bungled command arrangements and a fierce defense from the entrenched Union cavalry gave sufficient time for the infantry of Wright’s corps to come up and hold New Cold Harbor. (more…)

Published in: on June 1, 2014 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on June 1, 1864: Initial Assaults at Cold Harbor  
Tags: , , , ,