American Civil War
Unbeknownst to the Confederates, on July 27, 1864 the Union forces around Petersburg were putting the finishing touches on a huge mine under a fort in the Confederate defenses known as Elliot’s Salient. To divert Confederate attention from this sector of the line, Grant ordered Hancock and Sheridan to cross the James River at Deep Bottom and make a lunge towards Richmond. Grant assumed this would cause a weakening in the Confederate defenses around Petersburg and he was correct in that assumption. Lee in response to Grant’s move pulled some 16,500 men out of the Petersburg lines and into the Richmond fortifications.
In fighting on the 27th and 28th which resulted in 488 Union casualties to 679 Confederate, Hancock and Sheridan’s drive toward Richmond was stopped, but Grant had achieved his goal of drawing Lee’s men to the north side of the James, as Grant noted in his Memoirs: →']);" class="more-link">Continue reading
After the battle of Peachtree Creek Hood ordered his army to withdraw to Atlanta, hoping that an opportunity would present itself to destroy a portion of the Union army as Sherman advanced on Atlanta.
While Stewart’s corps held the fortifications north of Atlanta, Hood planned to attack McPhersons Army of the Tennessee which was approaching from the east. Cheatham’ corps would attack from the eastern fortifications of Atlanta, while Hardee’s corps would attack from the south, with Wheeler’s cavalry launching assaults on the supply lines of the Army of the Tennessee.
Hardee’s corps took much longer to get into position for the attack than Hood anticipated, and McPherson reinforced his left to meet this anticipated attack. The attack of Hardee when it went in caused the Union line to waver and begin to retreat before it was repulsed. It was during this attack that McPherson was slain. Major General John “Blackjack” Logan, the most able of the Union political generals, took temporary command of the Union army and successfully led it during the remainder of the battle.
Cheatham’s corps attacked from the Atlanta entrenchments. Here most of the fighting centered on Baldy Hill, with that conflict going on to nightfall. Two miles to the north Cheatham’s corps made a breakthrough of the Union lines, that was only repulsed after much hard fighting, spearheaded by Logan’s corps supported by a heavy Union artillery bombardment.
At the end of the day, Union casualties were 3,000 to Confederate casualties of 5,000. Hood was unable to repulse the Union forces and the battle of Atlanta now became the siege of Atlanta.
The essential tragedy of the Civil War is that it was “a war without an enemy” in which Americans were fighting each other. This sad fact is epitomized by this tribute penned by Hood in regard to his classmate and roommate James Birdseye McPherson:
I will record the death of my classmate and boyhood friend, General James B. McPherson, the announcement of which caused me sincere sorrow. Since we had graduated in 1853, and had each been ordered off on duty in different directions, it has not been our fortune to meet. Neither the years nor the difference of sentiment that had led us to range ourselves on opposite sides in the war had lessened my friendship; indeed the attachment formed in early youth was strengthened by my admiration and gratitude for his conduct toward our people in the vicinity of Vicksburg. His considerate and kind treatment of them stood in bright contrast to the course pursued by many Federal officers.
Here is Sherman’s report of the battle: →']);" class="more-link">Continue reading
Sherman was closing in on Atlanta. General Joseph Johnston had delayed the advance of Sherman but he had not been able to stop him. On July 8 Sherman crossed the Chattahoochie River, the last major physical obstacle between him and Atlanta. Johnston withdrew across Peachtree Creek north of Atlanta, planning to attack Sherman’s army as it crossed the creek. As he made his preparations, Johnston was suddenly removed from his command by Davis. Davis and Johnston were old enemies, but Davis removing Johnston was more an act of desperation than anything else. If Atlanta fell, the Confederate heartland was open for an invasion by Sherman, and Johnston’s strategy of maneuver and retreat convinced Davis that Johnston would not fight for Atlanta. Rolling the dice, Davis promoted one of Johnston’s corps commanders to the temporary rank of full general and John Bell Hood found himself in command of the Army of Tennessee.
Thirty-three years old and a West Point graduate, Hood had earned a reputation as an aggressive and successful division commander in the Army of Northern Virginia. At Gettysburg he was severely wounded and lost the use of his left arm. At Chickamauga he led the assault that cracked the Union army, and was again wounded losing his right leg. Equipped now with a wooden leg, Hood had lost none of his aggression and self-confidence. Under him retreat was to be a thing of the past, as he swiftly readied his army to take aggressive action to save Atlanta.
On July 19, Hood learned that Sherman was dividing his army, following his usual course of having the Army of the Cumberland under Thomas cross Peachtree Creek for a direct advance on Atlanta, while the Army of the Tennessee under McPherson and the Army of the Ohio under Schofield maneuvered to the East, to outflank the Confederates and to cut rail lines and the Confederate supply lines. For a commander as fond of attack as Hood this was a golden opportunity to launch an assault on Thomas. →']);" class="more-link">Continue reading
The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
Abraham Lincoln, conclusion of his First Inaugural Address
A video clip of a movie, The Better Angels, coming out in the fall of this year. The film deals with the boyhood of Lincoln and centers on the death of his mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln. She died when Lincoln was nine and Lincoln helped his father make her coffin. Throughout his life Lincoln was surrounded by death: his younger brother Thomas who lived only three days, his mother, his beloved sister Sarah who died at age 20 giving birth to a still born son, his son Eddie who died in 1850 age three, his son Willie who died in 1862, age 11 and the grim death toll of the Civil War, larger than that of all other American wars combined until Vietnam. These deaths helped increase the melancholy that always lurked below the surface for Lincoln and which he fought off with his humorous story telling.
Lincoln’s religious beliefs during his life were a subject of controversy and so they have remained after his death. However, all the deaths that he personally witnessed convinced him that God had His own purposes that were unknown to mortals. Lincoln gave this belief immortal form in his Second Inaugural:
Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. →']);" class="more-link">Continue reading
General Nathan Bedford Forrest did not lose many battles during the Civil War, and the battle of Tupelo is one of the handful he lost. After his masterpiece of Brice’s Cross Roads, go here to read about it, Forrest was regarded as a potential mortal threat to the supply lines of Sherman. Major General Andrew C. Smith was sent out from La Grange, Tennessee on July 5, 1864 with a Union force of 14,000 men. His mission was to find Forrest and defeat him, and thereby prevent him from staging raids into middle Tennessee to cut Sherman’s supplies. On July 11, 1864 Smith was in Pontotoc, Mississippi. Forrest was nearby at Okolona, Mississippi, and was under orders from his commander Stephen D. Lee not to engage Smith until Lee reinforced him. On July 13, Smith became apprehensive of an ambush and marched his force to Tupelo, Mississippi and took up a defensive position.
Lee having reinforced Forrest, on July 14, beginning at 7:30 AM, Lee launched a series of uncoordinated attacks with his force of 8,000, all of which were bloodily repulsed. Lee halted the attacks after a few hours. Forrest would attack again, once in the evening and once on the morning of the 15th, both attacks being repulsed. Smith attempted no pursuit, for which he was heavily criticized, and on July 15 retreated himself back to Memphis, pursued by Forrest. Smith did accomplish his goal of stopping Forrest from raiding into Tennessee and he was now a member of the exclusive, and minute, club of Union commanders who defeated Forrest in battle. Union casualties were 648 to 1300 Confederate.
Here is Forrest’s report of the battle: →']);" class="more-link">Continue reading
The culmination of Early’s raid on Washington, the skirmishing at Fort Stevens, one of the many forts guarding Washington, on July 11-12, really didn’t amount to much, Early quickly realizing that the fort was now manned partially by veteran troops of the VI corps from the Army of the Potomac, dispatched by Grant to guard Washington, and that whatever opportunity he had ever had to seize Washington by a coup de main was now gone.
Early withdrew on the evening of July 12 and by July 13 was south of the Potomac, his raid on Washington becoming simply a matter for historians. The attack on Fort Stevens is now chiefly remembered for the visit by President and Mrs. Lincoln during the engagement, and Lincoln becoming the only American president during his term of office to come under combat fire. →']);" class="more-link">Continue reading
On July 10, 1864 Jubal Early’s men were approaching the outer suburbs of Washington and panic was seizing the city. Lincoln’s telegram to Grant does not indicate any panic on the part of Lincoln, but worry about whether Early would take the city: →']);" class="more-link">Continue reading
In early July 1864 Washington was in something of a panic. Jubal Early fresh from his victories in the Shenandoah Valley was driving north towards Washington. The extensive fortifications of Washington had been stripped of men, sent south to participate in Grant’s Overland Campaign. Grant on July 6, ordered two veteran brigades of the VI Corps to be shipped to Baltimore by sea. Until they arrived, all that stood between early was Major General Lew Wallace and 6300 Union troops, many of them recently recruited 100 day men, short term enlistees mustered into service in the Spring of 1864. Few of Wallace’s men had ever seen combat.
The future author of the block buster novel Ben Hur, the West Point trained Wallace had not had a good war up to this point. Unfairly made a scape goat after Shiloh, Wallace had been shunted aside to non-combat assignments, his most notable achievement being his preparation of Cincinnati for a Confederate attack that never came during Bragg’s invasion of Kentucky in 1862.
Now the commander of the Mid-Atlantic region, the War had come to him.
Wallace decided to stand and fight at Monocacy Junction three miles south of Frederick, Maryland. At Monocacy the Georgetown Pike to Washington and the National Road to Baltimore both crossed the Monocacy River there as did the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. Delaying Early here would give at least one more day for reinforcements to get to Washington. Wallace was in luck and VI Corps troops from Baltimore reached him before the battle. The odds were still long however, 5800 Union troops facing 14000 Confederates, with Wallace’s men defending a six mile front to guard the Georgetown Pike, the National Road and the Baltimore and Ohio.
The Union beat off two attacks by Confederate divisions attacking along both the Georgetown Pike and the National Road. An attack by Gordon’s division on the left forced a retreat of Wallace to Baltimore beginning in the late afternoon. However, he and his men succeeded in delaying Early just long enough to save Washington, as Early noted in his memoirs:
Some of the Northern papers stated that, between Saturday and Monday, I could have entered the city; but on Saturday I was fighting at Monocacy, thirty-five miles from Washington, a force which I could not leave in my rear; and after disposing of that force and moving as rapidly as it was possible for me to move, I did not arrive in front of the fortifications until after noon on Monday, and then my troops were exhausted…
Union casualties were 1294 to some 700-900 Confederate.
Wallace proposed that a memorial should be built at Monocacy to the Union troops who died there stating:
“These men died to save the National Capital, and they did save it.”
Such a memorial has never been built, but it should be. The report of Lew Wallace on the battle: →']);" class="more-link">Continue reading
On July 5, 1864, Early’s Corps marched into Maryland in an attempt to take the pressure off Lee. As part of this invasion Early sent Brigadier General John McCausland, Jr. to occupy Hagerstown, Maryland and demand a ransom from the town of $200,000.00 in recompense for the destruction wreaked in the Valley by Union General Hunter. McCausland took the town without fighting early in the morning of July 6.
For some unknown reason McCausland demanded only $20,000.00 and 1500 suits of clothes for the ragged Confederates. The dismayed citizens of Hagerstown raised the sum from three local banks and the clothes were provided. McCausland and his men rode off at 1:00 AM on July 7.
Hagerstown got off lightly. Frederick, Maryland during this campaign paid a ransom of $200,000.00. The city of Frederick would be paying off this debt to local banks for almost a century, with the last payment made in 1951. →']);" class="more-link">Continue reading
Any understanding of this nation has to be based, and I mean really based, on an understanding of the Civil War. I believe that firmly. It defined us. The Revolution did what it did. Our involvement in European wars, beginning with the First World War, did what it did. But the Civil War defined us as what we are and it opened us to being what we became, good and bad things. And it is very necessary, if you are going to understand the American character in the twentieth century, to learn about this enormous catastrophe of the mid-nineteenth century. It was the crossroads of our being, and it was a hell of a crossroads.
I agree with historian Shelby Foote that it is impossible to understand the United States without understanding the Civil War, and it is “therefore fitting and proper” that over the Fourth Civil War movies come to mind. This is a repeat of a post I originally did in 2011, with changes to some of the video clips.
10. Ruggles of Red Gap (1935)-We begin with a non-Civil War movie with the video clip at the beginning of this post. In 1908 English Bulter Charles Ruggles, well played by actor Charles Laughton, comes to work in the American West. It is a hilarious fish out of water comedy, as Ruggles, with his culture and British reserve comes face to face with the Wild West. While living in America, Ruggles becomes interested in American history, and becomes a great admirer of Abraham Lincoln. When he recites the Gettysburg Address, the impact on his listeners is obvious, and reminds us that for Americans the Civil War will never be a matter simply relegated to books or memory, but is something that still has a vast impact on us to this day.
9. Friendly Persuasion (1956)-Starring Gary Cooper as Jess Birdwell, the head of a Quaker family in southern Indiana during the Civil War, the film is a superb mix of drama and comedy as the Quakers have to determine whether to continue to embrace their pacifist beliefs or to take up arms against General John Hunt Morgan’s Confederate cavalry during his Great Raid of the North in June-July of 1863. When the oldest son of the Birdwell family, portrayed by Anthony Perkins in his pre-Psycho days, takes up arms, his mother, played by Dorothy McGuire is aghast, but Cooper, as Jess Birdwell, defends him. Although he remains true to his pacifist convictions, Birdwell understands that his son is acting in obedience to his conscience, and, as he tells his wife, ” A man’s life ain’t worth a hill of beans except he lives up to his own conscience.”
8. Major Dundee (1965)-Sam Pekinpah’s flawed, unfinished masterpiece, the film tells the fictional account of a mixed force of Union soldiers and Confederate prisoners who join forces to hunt and ultimately defeat an Apache raider, Sierra Charriba, in 1864-65. Charlton Heston gives an outstanding performance as Major Amos Dundee, a man battling his own personal demons of a failed military career, as he commands this Union-Confederate force through northern Mexico on the trail of the Apache, with fighting often threatening to break out between the Union and Confederate soldiers. Use of Confederate prisoners as Union soldiers in the West was not uncommon. Six Union infantry regiments of Confederate prisoners, called “Galvanized Yankees”, served in the West. The final section of the film involving a battle between Major Dundee’s force and French Lancers, the French occupying Mexico at the time, has always struck me as one of the best filmed combat sequences in any movie.
7. The Horse Soldiers (1959)-In 1959 John Ford and John Wayne, in the last of their “cavalry collaborations”, made The Horse Soldiers, a film based on Harold Sinclair’s novel of the same name published in 1956, which is a wonderful fictionalized account of Grierson’s Raid. Perhaps the most daring and successful Union cavaly raid of the war, Colonel Benjamin Grierson, a former music teacher and band leader from Jacksonville, Illinois, who, after being bitten by a horse at a young age, hated horses, led from April 17-May 2, 1863 1700 Illinois and Iowa troopers through 600 miles of Confederate territory from southern Tennessee to the Union held Baton Rouge in Louisiana. Grierson and his men ripped up railroads, burned Confederate supplies and tied down many times their number of Confederate troops and succeeded in giving Grant a valuable diversion as he began his movement against Vicksburg. John Wayne gives a fine, if surly, performance as Colonel Marlowe, the leader of the Union cavalry brigade. William Holden as a Union surgeon serves as a foil for Wayne. Constance Towers, as a captured Southern belle, supplies the obligatory Hollywood love interest. Overall the film isn’t a bad treatment of the raid, and the period. I especially appreciated two scenes. John Wayne refers to his pre-war activities as “Before this present insanity” and Constance Towers gives the following impassioned speech: Well, you Yankees and your holy principle about savin’ the Union. You’re plunderin’ pirates that’s what. Well, you think there’s no Confederate army where you’re goin’. You think our boys are asleep down here. Well, they’ll catch up to you and they’ll cut you to pieces you, you nameless, fatherless scum. I wish I could be there to see it. →']);" class="more-link">Continue reading
I have heard men say that if they ever killed a Yankee during the war
Throughout his maneuvers to slow Sherman’s drive on Atlanta, General Joseph Johnston often occupied strong positions that he hoped Sherman would assault. At Kennesaw Mountain on June 27, 1864 he got his wish.
Following the battle of Pickett’s Mill on May 27,1864, go here to read about it, the Union and Confederate armies would spend June with Sherman attempting to find some way to outflank or make his way through the defensive lines constructed by Johnston to defend Marietta, Georgia, and his rail supply line.
Sherman having successfully turned his initial line, Johnston fell back on a previously prepared fortified line astride Kennesaw Mountain, an immensely strong position, on June 18-19. Sherman’s attempt to turn the left of Johnston’s position came to a halt at the Battle of Kolb’s Farm on June 22. Here Hood, in a foreshadowing of dark days to come for the Confederate Army of Tennessee, had his corps attack without adequate reconnaissance and incurred heavy losses of 1500 to 250 Union. Nonetheless, Sherman’s flanking movement was stopped.
Growing impatient, on June 27 Sherman launched the last frontal assault of his career. Assuming that Johnston had stretched his line too thin, Sherman attacked the Confederate center. The attack began with a furious cannonade at 8:00 AM involving 200 cannon. The Union attack went in and was bloodily repulsed with 3000 Union casualties to 1000 Confederates. The fighting was over by 10:45 AM. Sherman twice urged General Thomas to renew the assault. Thomas flatly refused, saying “One or two more such assaults would use up this army.”
The aftermath of the battle was anti-climactic. The armies stood facing each other for five days, until July 2, 1864 when Sherman again attempted to outflank Johnston’s left, this time with success, Johnston retreating to prepared lines at Smyrna. Here is Sherman’s account of the battle in his memoirs: →']);" class="more-link">Continue reading
The greatest of the Confederate commerce raiders that wreaked havoc on the Union merchant fleet, the CSS Alabama in her two year career took 65 prizes. That career came to a screeching halt when she was sunk by the USS Kearsarge in a dramatic battle off the coast of Cherbourg on June 19, 1864. Here is the account of Captain John Winslow, Captain of the Kearsarge, of the engagement:
U. S. S. KEARSARGE,
English Channel, July 30, 1864
SIR: In obedience to the instructions of the Department I have the honor to make the following supplementary report of the action between the Kearsarge and the Alabama: On the morning of the 19th ultimo, the day being fine, with a hazy atmosphere, wind moderate from the westward, with little sea, the position of the Kearsarge at 10 o’clock was near the buoy which marks the line of shoals to the eastward of Cherbourg, and distant about 3 miles from the eastern entrance, which bore to the southward and westward. At 10:20 o’clock the Alabama was descried coming out of the western entrance, accompanied by the Couronne (ironclad). I had, in an interview with the admiral at Cherbourg, assured him that in the event of an action occurring with the Alabama the position of the ships should be so far offshore that no question could be advanced about the line of jurisdiction. Accordingly, to perfect this object, and with the double purpose of drawing the Alabama so far offshore that if disabled she could not return, I directed the ship’s head seaward, and cleared for action with the battery pivoted to starboard. Having attained a point about 7 miles from the shore, the head of the Kearsarge was turned short round and the ship steered directly for the Alabama, my purpose being to run her down, or if circumstances did not warrant it, to close in with her. Hardly had the Kearsarge come round before the Alabama sheered, presented her starboard battery, and slowed her engines. On approaching her, at long range of about a mile, she opened her full broadside, the shot cutting some of our rigging and going over and alongside of us. Immediately I ordered more speed, but in two minutes the Alabama had loaded and again fired another broadside, and following it with a third, without damaging us except in rigging. We had now arrived within about 900 yards of her, and I was apprehensive that another broadside, nearly raking us as it was, would prove disastrous. Accordingly, I ordered the Kearsarge sheered, and opened on the Alabama. The position of the vessels was now broadside and broadside, but it was soon apparent that Captain Semmes did not seek close action. I became then fearful, lest after some fighting he would again make for the shore. To defeat this, I determined to keep full speed on, and with a port helm to run under the stern of the Alabama and rake, if he did not prevent it by sheering and keeping his broadside to us. He adopted this mode as a preventive, and as a consequence the Alabama was forced with a full head of steam into a circular track during the engagement. →']);" class="more-link">Continue reading
The United States Sanitary Commission was a private organization established in 1861 to aid sick and wounded Union soldiers. During the War it raised 25 million dollars in private contributions, and sent thousands of volunteers, many of them women, to work in camps as nurses and cooks, and to administer hospitals and hospital ships and to establish rest homes and soldier’s homes for Union troops. The Sanitary Commission was quite successful in improving the health and living condition of the common soldiers and was much appreciated by them. Fairs were held by the Sanitary Commission in Northern cities to raise funds and Lincoln spoke at such a fair in Philadelphia on June 16, 1864. Lincoln was a highly unusual politician and we see this in the speech. He does not sugarcoat the horrors of war and while acknowledging that everyone is anxious for the ending of the War, that he, and he assumes the nation, are willing to fight on if it takes three more years to attain the goals for which the War was initially begun. Here is the text of Lincoln’s speech: →']);" class="more-link">Continue reading
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: →']);" class="more-link">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: →']);" class="more-link">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. ” →']);" class="more-link">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: →']);" class="more-link">Continue reading