American Civil War
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: Continue reading
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 chose 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: Continue reading
Forrest is the devil, and I think he has got some of our troops under cower…I will order them to make up a force and go out to follow Forrest to the death. If it costs ten thousand lives and breaks the Treasury. There will never be peace in Tennessee until Forrest is dead.
General William T. Sherman to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton-June 15, 1864
General Nathan Bedford Forrest gained some incredible victories in the Civil War, but his victory at Brice’s Cross Roads in which he routed a well supplied Union force outnumbering his by almost three to one, ensured that he would enjoy mythic stature for the remainder of his life.
Sherman made Forrest one of his chief targets in the late spring of 1864, Sherman being concerned that Forrest would raid and shred his supply lines as he moved further south into Georgia. For that purpose Major General Samuel D. Sturgis was given a mixed force of 8500 infantry and cavalry and given the mission of finding Forrest and destroying him. Leaving Memphis on June 1, 1864, Sturgis headed into Mississippi.
As in so many times in his Civil War career, Forrest the hunted, quickly became Forrest the hunter. Commanding only 3200 men, Forrest decided that he would fight Sturgis on ground of his choosing. Realizing that Sturgis was heading for Tupelo, Mississippi, Forrest decided to fight at Brice’s Crossroads about 15 miles north of Tupelo. The prospective battlefield had heavily wooded areas and one creek, Tishomingo Creek, with only one bridge across it, which the Union force would have to use to reach Brice’s cross roads. Forrest was aware that the Union cavalry part of the force of Sturgis was about three hours ahead of the Union infantry, wearily marching over muddy roads.
At 9:45 AM a brigade of General Benjamin Grierson’s cavalry division crossed the bridge over Tishomingo Creek and headed towards Brice Crossroads. Forrest immediately launched a delaying attack with one of his cavalry brigades. By 11:30 AM all of the Union cavalry was committed and Forrest was driving them back with his cavalry.
By 1:30 PM Union the exhausted Union infantry regiments began to arrive after struggling all morning marching along the muddy roads.. The Union force briefly went on the offensive attacking Forrest’s left. Forrest repulsed this attack and launched attacks on both Union flanks while battering the Union center with his artillery. An unsuccessful attack on the bridge over Tishomingo Creek at 3:30 PM caused a panic in the Union force. Sturgis decided to retreat and the retreat became a rout with panic beginning as the bridge across the creek became a bottle neck. Sturgis by this time was hoping merely to escape as he indicated to Colonel Edward Bouton of the 59th US Colored Infantry: “For God’s sake, if Mr. Forrest will let me alone I will let him alone. You have done all you could and more than was expected of you, and now all you can do is to save yourselves. ” Continue reading
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.
Cold Harbor represented the nadir of Union fortunes during the Overland Campaign. After huge casualties, 55,000, the Army of the Potomac still confronted an Army of Northern Virginia that could hold any position it chose to defend. Grant seemed at loose ends for a while after the defeat of June 3, uncertain what to do next. However, during the Civil War Grant never allowed any setback he suffered to remain final. A failure all of his life except for war, matrimony and his last gallant race with the Grim Reaper at the very end to complete his Personal Memoirs to restore the family fortunes, he was determined that neither the Union nor he was going to lose this War. Here are his comments in his Memoirs about the assault at Cold Harbor of June 3: Continue reading
Something for the weekend. Marching Along by William B. Bradbury. Bradbury was a human song writing machine of the 19th century. Of all the songs he wrote, doubtless the best known is the tune for Yes, Jesus Loves Me which I frequently sang as a child. He wrote that tune the same year, 1862, that he wrote Marching Along. Marching Along, appropriately enough, was a favorite marching song of the Army of the Potomac, and they sang it endlessly during their marathon marches of the Civil War.
Lee realized that he was reaching a limit to how he could respond to Grant’s continual movement to the southeast. Protecting Richmond was nailing his army in place, depriving it of the ability to maneuver as Grant used his superior numbers to outflank Lee’s defense. Lee’s left and center along the Totopotomoy were relatively easy to defend, but his right was at a right angle tot he creek as the Union forces were continuing their push south to outflank him. It was for this reason that Lee ordered Early, now in command of the II corps after Lee had relieved Ewell, attack Warren’s V corps.
The Confederate attack, although pressed heroically by the men of Ramseur’s division, proved a costly failure with 1500 Confederate casualties to 700 Union, the Union troops cheering the valor of the Confederate troops they repulsed and captured. Continue reading
Grant, after the fruitless skirmishing on the North Anna, decided to resume his drive by once again heading east and south, around Lee’s left, the same type of movement he had been making since the outset of this campaign. However, he had a tricky problem to resolve: How to cross to the north bank of the North Anna without Lee becoming wise to his intentions, and launching an assault on the Union army as it straddled the North Anna? To divert Lee’s attention, Grant sent two divisions of cavalry west to convince Lee that Grant was going to move west instead of east. The ruse worked, and Grant quietly moved his infantry corps successfully across the North Anna on the evening of the 26th-27th.
Lee on the 27th instantly realized what Grant was doing, and sent his army hurtling south to take up a strong defensive position at Atlee’s Station, only nine miles north of Richmond, where he could guard the railroads that supplied Richmond and his army.
Grant sent his cavalry ahead to blaze a path across the Pamunkey River for his infantry marching southeast. On May 27th Union cavalry established a bridgehead over the Pamunkey at Dabney Ford with a Union engineer regiment building a pontoon bridge. General Custer’s cavalry beat off a Confederate counterattack and Union infantry and Cavalry passed over the Pamunkey on the pontoon bridge.
On the 28th Union and Confederate cavalry fighting dismounted, clashed at Haw’s Shop while the remainder of Grant’s army crossed the Pamunkey, except for Burnside’s corps that was guarding the army’s wagon train.
Lee now knew that Grant was across the Pamunkey but was unsure what Grant’s next move would be, and for now held his position behind Totopotomoy Creek at Atlee’s Station. Here is Grant’s account of this movement in his Personal Memoirs: Continue reading
After the battle of Resaca, go here to read about it, Johnston retreated to the Allatoona Pass, fighting the battle of Adairsville on May 17 during his retreat. Sherman viewed Johnston’s Allatoona Pass position as too strong to assault. He moved his armies to the West,hoping to Johnston’s left. Johnston anticipated this move. At New Hope Church on May 25, Johnston bloodily repulsed Hooker’s corps, inflicting 1665 casualties for 350 of his own.
Attacking Johnston’s right at Pickett’s Mill with O.O. Howard’s corps, Sherman suffered another bloody repulse, losing about the same proportion of Union casualties (1600) to Confederate (500) as at New Hope Church.
A Confederate probe at Dallas was repulsed on May 28.
Tactically Johnson won these engagements and stopped Sherman’s advance for a brief period. Strategically, Sherman won by drawing Johnston’s army away from Allatoona, which Sherman’s cavalry captured on June 1. Sherman moved towards Allatoona on June 5, now being able to supply his army up to that railhead. Johnston followed, as he had to if he was to stop Sherman from advancing down the rail line. Here is an excerpt, from an article that Johnston wrote for the August 1887 edition of Century Magazine on his portion of the Atlanta Campaign, which deals with these battles : Continue reading
“God give me strength for I am not a good preacher.”
Born in Marigny, France on April 12, 1813, Isidore Francois Turgis loved the classics and the Church. He was ordained on May 31, 1846. During the Crimean War he attempted to served as a chaplain, but was rejected for physical reasons. However, while his flesh was frail, Father Turgis had a spirit of pure steel and his persistence was rewarded in 1857 with an appointment to the Corps of Chaplains. During the Second Italian War of Independence he served with the French army at the battles of Montebello, Palestro, Magenta, Crossing of the Tessin, Marignan, and Solferino. He also served with the French army in Cochin China (Vietnam).
Some priests seem to be destined to lead adventurous lives. After returning to France, he decided that he was called to be a priest in New Orleans. Arriving there he was assigned to serve at the Saint Louis Cathedral. He quickly became popular with the creole population and was asked to serve as chaplain of the Orleans Guards. He hoped that he would not have to preach often as a chaplain in the Confederate Army: “God give me strength for I am not a good preacher.”
Letters from troops in his regiment, which later became the 30th Louisiana Infantry, attest to the courage, kindness and faith of Father Turgis. At Shiloh he was one of the few Catholic priests who was present at an engagement, and this fact still stuns even after 152 years, where more Americans were battle casualties, 23,000, than in all of America’s prior wars combined. His courage stood out during two days when courage was not in short supply on either side.
Lieutenant Colonel S.F. Ferguson, an aide de camp to General Beauregard, was placed in command of a brigade during the battle of Shiloh. One of the regiments was the Orleans Guard in which Father Turgis was chaplain. In his report to General Beauregard he stated “and of Father I. Turgis, who, in the performance of his holy offices, freely exposed himself to the balls of the enemy”, in commending the priest’s courage.
Here is a summary of a letter written after Shiloh that Father Turgis wrote to the formidable Archbishop Jean-Marie Odin, second Archbishop of New Orleans, in which he modestly told him not to believe what the newspapers were saying about his valor at Shiloh:
Turgis begs pardon for not having given (Odin) any sign of life since the terrible days of (April) 6 and 7. He has been trying ever since, as much as his energy permits, to make himself useful visiting the 18th, 24th, 17th, 13th and 4th regiments at Corinth, in all 296 sick, of whom 207 have confessed and 121 have received Communion. He begs (Odin) to believe nothing which newspapers say in his regard, the Orléans Guards are so favorable to him that they exaggerate everything, regarding as self-sacrifice that which is only the accomplishment of a duty. About the Battle (of Shiloh): There were about 18 to 20 thousand Catholics, all speaking or understanding French, and he was the only priest. He gave absolution for 18 hours without stopping, but he cannot prevent himself from weeping continually in thinking about those thousands of Catholics who asked for him and whom it was impossible to see. The pastor of the cathedral had told him there would be 6 or 7 priests and that he would be unneeded, but without him the elite of their Creole population would have been exposed to being lost for eternity. If (Odin) could visit some of the wounded in (New Orleans), such as Major or young Labar(?), etc., he believes it would result in great good and also greatly relieve their suffering. On the field of battle a colonel made him promise to spend eight days amid his brigade of 2,000 men, camped 40 miles away. All are Catholic. Captain Stayaise (?) of the 4th of Orléans Guards took the name of this place; he went to New Orleans without leaving this address for Turgis. He asks (Odin) to get it for him. Continue reading
We can lie about him,
Dress up a dummy in his uniform
And put our words into the dummy’s mouth,
Say “Here Lee must have thought,” and “There, no doubt,
By what we know of him, we may suppose
He felt—this pang or that—” but he remains
Beyond our stagecraft, reticent as ice,
Reticent as the fire within the stone.
Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown’s Body
Ultimately the North Anna portion of the Overland Campaign produced little in the way of fighting. Four skirmishes fought over four days with total casualties of 2600 for the Union and 1500 for the Confederacy, high enough for the men killed and wounded and their families but as nothing compared to the casualties amassed at The Wilderness and Spotsylvania. However, one tantalizing question emerges from this section of the campaign: did the Confederates miss a golden opportunity to defeat Grant on May 24 due to the illness of General Lee. The armies now were closer in size than they would be at any time before or later during the campaign: 68,ooo in the Army of the Potomac and 53,000 in the Army of Northern Virginia, Lee having received reinforcements, consisting of Breckinridge’s Valley force, fresh from their victory at New Market and three out of four brigades from Pickett’s James River defense force, Butler and his Army of the James now being safely bottled up. If the Confederates were to go over on the offensive, this was their window of opportunity from a numerical standpoint.
After skirmishing on the 23rd, Lee confronted an interesting strategic situation. Warren had his corps ready to cross the North Anna on his left at Jericho Mills. Wright, Burnside and Hancock’s corps were still north of the North Anna confronting his center and right. In the face of this Lee fortified his line in an inverted V with its apex on Ox Ford. Lee hoped that Grant would assume that he was retreating and cross, allowing Lee to use his inverted V fortifications to divide Grant’s force and allow him to attack the Union troops crossing on his right while his left held off the Union troops crossing the North Anna on the left side of the inverted V. Continue reading
Extricating himself from the Spotsylvania battlefield, Grant moved southeast, with Lee moving to keep ahead of him, ultimately stopping Grant with defensive lines south of the North Anna river and north of Hanover Junction. Grant was now just a little over 25 miles from Richmond, and Lee’s options regarding maneuver were becoming limited if he was to keep Grant from taking the city. Grant’s account below of the movement is interesting for two reasons.
First Grant states that the army had no maps of the area, which is stunning after three years of war that highly detailed maps of Virginia from Richmond and its environs north had not been prepared and distributed throughout the army. Even elementary staff work was sometimes missing in the Civil War.
Second Grant believes that Lee missed a golden opportunity to defeat Union corps separately during this march.
Here is Grant’s account: Continue reading
You see him standing,
Reading a map, unperturbed, under heavy fire.
You do not cheer him as the recruits might cheer
But you say “Ulysses doesn’t scare worth a darn.
Ulysses is all right.
He can finish the job.”
And at last your long lines go past in the Grand Review
And your legend and his begins and are mixed forever
Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown’s Body
One hundred and fifty years ago the battle of Spotsylvania was drawing to a close. Since the attack at the Bloody Angle on May 12, Grant had been shifting towards his left and he assumed that Lee would be weakening Ewell’s lines as a result to move forces over to his right. Grant had Hancock’s corps move back into position to attack Ewell during the evening of May 17, with the attack to go in at dawn. Lee had not weakened Ewell’s position however, and Ewell’s artillery alone was sufficient to break up Hancock’s attack before it got past the abatis in front of his lines. Grant’s reaction was to decide that no further attacks could succeed at Spotsylvania, and to continue to move to the southeast to drive Lee back towards Richmond. Casualties at Spotsylvania were 18,000 for the Union and 12,000 for the Confederacy. Adding in the Wilderness casualties, in less than two weeks the Union had lost 35,000 casualities and the Confederacy 23,000. Northern public opinion was appalled at the shocking casualty lists in such a short period, but the Union could easily replace every man lost, while Lee was losing the veterans that his outnumbered army needed to maintain an essential combat edge.
Grant in his Personal Memoirs recalled this time as one of the low points for the Union of the Campaign of 1864:
But that night Hancock and Wright were to make a night march back to their old positions, and to make an assault at four o’clock in the morning. Lee got troops back in time to protect his old line, so the assault was unsuccessful. On this day (18th) the news was almost as discouraging to us as it had been two days before in the rebel capital. As stated above, Hancock’s and Wright’s corps had made an unsuccessful assault. News came that Sigel had been defeated at New Market, badly, and was retreating down the valley. Not two hours before, I had sent the inquiry to Halleck whether Sigel could not get to Staunton to stop supplies coming from there to Lee. I asked at once that Sigel might be relieved, and some one else put in his place. Hunter’s name was suggested, and I heartily approved. Further news from Butler reported him driven from Drury’s Bluff, but still in possession of the Petersburg road. Banks had been defeated in Louisiana, relieved, and Canby put in his place. This change of commander was not on my suggestion. All this news was very discouraging. All of it must have been known by the enemy before it was by me. In fact, the good news (for the enemy) must have been known to him at the moment I thought he was in despair, and his anguish had been already relieved when we were enjoying his supposed discomfiture, But this was no time for repining. I immediately gave orders for a movement by the left flank, on towards Richmond, to commence on the night of the 19th. I also asked Halleck to secure the co-operation of the navy in changing our base of supplies from Fredericksburg to Port Royal, on the Rappahannock. Continue reading
“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.
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: Continue reading
“And New Market’s young cadets.”
Southern Birthright, Bobby Horton
John C. Breckinridge, fourteenth Vice-President of the United States and current Confederate Major General, had a big problem. His task was to hold the Shenandoah Valley, the bread basket of the Army of Northern Virginia, for the Confederacy, and he was confronted with two Union columns seeking to rendezvous at Staunton, Virginia and place the Valley under Union control. One column under George Crook was coming from the West Virginia. The second column under Franz Sigel was coming down the Valley. Sigel had twice the men that Breckinridge could muster, 9,000 to 4000, but Breckinridge saw no alternative but to march north and engage Sigel before the two Union columns could join against him.
The Confederacy by this time was robbing the cradle and the grave to fill out its ranks. In the cradle contingent with Breckinridge were 257 cadets of the Virginia Military Institute, who ranged in age from 15-24.
Breckinridge brought Sigel to battle at mid-morning on May 15, 1864 south of New Market. With detachments Sigel’s force was down to 6,000 men. However, 2 to 3 was still very poor odds for an attacking army. Continue reading
While Grant and Lee were engaging in non-stop combat in Virginia, a different type of campaign by different types of generals was getting underway. Sherman, leading an army group consisting of the 98,000 men of the Army of the Tennessee, the Army of the Cumberland and the tiny Army of the Ohio, confronted the 60,000 Confederates of the Army of Tennessee under General Joseph Johnston. Both Sherman and Johnston were more strategists than tacticians, military chess players rather than great captains of the battlefield. Johnston especially had good reason to fear the result of a battle going against him. His army, and his army alone, stood between the vital interior of the Confederacy, thus almost entirely untouched by the War, and Union conquest. Sherman understood that there were many excellent defensive positions between him and Atlanta, and if he was going to get there he had to depend more on maneuver than direct attacks. Continue reading