General Ulysses S. Grant
The chiefs and the captains meet,
Lee erect in his best dress uniform,
His dress-sword hung at his side and his eyes unaltered.
Chunky Grant in his mudsplashed private’s gear
With the battered stars on his shoulders.
They talk a while
Of Mexico and old days.
Then the terms are stated.
Lee finds them generous, says so, makes a request.
His men will need their horses for the spring-ploughing.
Grant assents at once.
There is no parade of bright sword’s
Given or taken. Grant saw that there should not be.
It is over, then. . . .
Lee walks from the little room.
His face is unchanged. It will not change when he dies.
But as he steps on the porch and looks toward his lines
He strikes his hands together once with a sound. . . .
In the room he has left, the blue men stare at each other
For a space of heartbeats, silent. The grey ride off.
They are gone–it is over. . . .
The room explodes like a bomb, they are laughing and shouting,
Yelling strange words, dragging chairs and tables outdoors,
Bearded generals waltzing with one another
For a brief, wild moment, punching each others’ ribs,
Everyone talking at once and nobody listening,
“It’s over–it’s done–it’s finished!”
Then, order again.
The grey ghost-army falls in for the last time,
Marching to stack its arms.
As the ranks move forward
The blue guns go to “Present.” Gordon sees the gesture.
He sweeps his sabre down in the full salute.
There are no cheers or words from blue lines or grey.
Only the sound of feet. . . .
It is over, now. . . .
The arms are stacked from the war.
A few bronzed, tattered grey men, weeping or silent,
Tear some riddled bits of cloth from the color-staffs
And try to hide them under their uniforms.
Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown’s Body
I have always thought it appropriate that the national nightmare we call the Civil War ended during Holy Week 1865. Two remarkably decent men, Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant, began the process of healing so desperately needed for America on Palm Sunday, April 9, 1865 at Appomattox. We take their decency for granted, but it is the exception and not the rule for the aftermath of civil wars in history. The usual course would have been unremitting vengeance by the victors, and sullen rage by the defeated, perhaps eventually breaking out in guerilla war. The end of the Civil War could so very easily have been the beginning of a cycle of unending war between north and south. Instead, both Grant and Lee acted to make certain as far as they could that the fratricidal war that had just concluded would not be repeated. All Americans owe those two men a large debt for their actions at Appomattox. Continue reading
The Appomattox Campaign began on March 29, 1865, with Grant moving the V and II corps to the west to outflank Lee’s lines, while Sheridan and his troopers were sent south to rip up the rail lines linking Petersburg and Richmond to what remained of the Confederacy. Lee, with that preternatural sixth sense he seemed to often possess regarding the intentions of his enemies, had moved his cavalry, along with infantry under Major General George Pickett to the west to beat off Union attempts to outflank his army.
The first Union objective was to cut the Boydton Plank Road. After crossing Gravelley Run stream, the leading brigade of the first division of the V corps ran into Confederate fortifications. The brigade was led by Brigadier Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the heroic officer who had commanded the 20th Maine during its stand on Little Round Top at Gettysburg. In a fierce action of several hours duration, Chamberlain held his position only falling back as Union reinforcements arrived. The reinforcements caused the Confederates to retreat to their White Oak Line. Union casualties were 381 to 371 Confederate.
Late in the afternoon Sheridan’s cavalry occupied Dinwiddie Court House without opposition. The end of the day saw the vital, for the Confederates, Boydton Plank Road cut in two locations, and the Confederate right dangerously exposed. Here is Chamberlain’s account of the fighting: Continue reading
A historic meeting occurred between Lincoln, Grant and Sherman on March 27-28, 1865 at City Point, Virginia. Sherman had no idea that President Lincoln was going to be there, he having traveled by sea from North Carolina to coordinate with Grant the final campaign of the War. This meeting was memorialized in the 1868 painting The Peacemakers, which was suggested by Sherman:
In Chicago about June or July of that year, when all the facts were fresh in my mind, I told them to George P. A. Healy, the artist, who was casting about for a subject for an historical painting, and he adopted this interview. Mr. Lincoln was then dead, but Healy had a portrait, which he himself had made at Springfield some five or six years before. With this portrait, some existing photographs, and the strong resemblance in form of [Leonard Swett], of Chicago, to Mr. Lincoln he made the picture of Mr. Lincoln seen in this group. For General Grant, Admiral Porter, and myself he had actual sittings, and I am satisfied the four portraits in this group of Healy’s are the best extant. The original picture, life-size, is, I believe, now in Chicago, the property of Mr. [Ezra B. McCagg]; but Healy afterwards, in Rome, painted ten smaller copies, about eighteen by twenty-four inches, one of which I now have, and it is now within view. I think the likeness of Mr. Lincoln by far the best of the many I have seen elsewhere, and those of General Grant, Admiral Porter, and myself equally good and faithful. I think Admiral Porter gave Healy a written description of our relative positions in that interview, also the dimensions, shape, and furniture of the cabin of the “Ocean Queen”; but the rainbow is Healy’s—typical, of course, of the coming peace. In this picture I seem to be talking, the others attentively listening. Whether Healy made this combination from Admiral Porter’s letter or not, I cannot say; but I thought that he caught the idea from what I told him had occurred when saying that “if Lee would only remain in Richmond till I could reach Burkesville, we would have him between our thumb and fingers,” suiting the action to the word. It matters little what Healy meant by his historic group, but it is certain that we four sat pretty much as represented, and were engaged in an important conversation during the forenoon of March 28, 1865, and that we parted never to meet again.
The original painting was destroyed in a fire, and what we have now is a copy found in 1922, lying forgotten in a family storehouse in Chicago. Harry Truman, ironically a proud card carrying member of Sons of Confederate Veterans, purchased the copy of the painting for the White House in 1947.
Here is Sherman’s recollections of the meeting from his Memoirs:
The railroad was repaired to Goldsboro’ by the evening of March 25th, when, leaving General Schofield in chief command, with a couple of staff-officers I started for City Point, Virginia, in a locomotive, in company with Colonel Wright, the constructing engineer. We reached Newbern that evening, which was passed in the company of General Palmer and his accomplished lady, and early the next morning we continued on to Morehead City, where General Easton had provided for us the small captured steamer Russia, Captain Smith. We put to sea at once and steamed up the coast, reaching Fortress Monroe on the morning of the 27th, where I landed and telegraphed to my brother, Senator Sherman, at Washington, inviting him to come down and return with me to Goldsboro. We proceeded on up James River to City Point, which we reached the same afternoon. I found General Grant, with his family and staff, occupying a pretty group of huts on the bank of James River, overlooking the harbor, which was full of vessels of all classes, both war and merchant, with wharves and warehouses on an extensive scale. The general received me most heartily, and we talked over matters very fully. After I had been with him an hour or so, he remarked that the President, Mr. Lincoln, was then on board the steamer River Queen, lying at the wharf, and he proposed that we should call and see him. We walked down to the wharf, went on board, and found Mr. Lincoln alone, in the after-cabin. He remembered me perfectly, and at once engaged in a most interesting conversation. He was full of curiosity about the many incidents of our great march, which had reached him officially and through the newspapers, and seemed to enjoy very much the more ludicrous parts-about the “bummers,” and their devices to collect food and forage when the outside world supposed us to be starving; but at the same time he expressed a good deal of anxiety lest some accident might happen to the army in North Carolina during my absence. I explained to him that that army was snug and comfortable, in good camps, at Goldsboro'; that it would require some days to collect forage and food for another march; and that General Schofield was fully competent to command it in my absence. Having made a good, long, social visit, we took our leave and returned to General Grant’s quarters, where Mrs. Grant had provided tea. While at the table, Mrs. Grant inquired if we had seen Mrs. Lincoln. “No,” said the general, “I did not ask for her;” and I added that I did not even know that she was on board. Mrs. Grant then exclaimed, “Well, you are a pretty pair!” and added that our neglect was unpardonable; when the general said we would call again the next day, and make amends for the unintended slight.
Early the next day, March 28th, all the principal officers of the army and navy called to see me, Generals Meade, Ord, Ingalls, etc., and Admiral Porter. At this time the River Queen was at anchor out in the river, abreast of the wharf, and we again started to visit Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln. Admiral Porter accompanied us. We took a small, tug at the wharf, which conveyed us on board, where we were again received most courteously by the President, who conducted us to the after-cabin. After the general compliments, General Grant inquired after Mrs. Lincoln, when the President went to her stateroom, returned, and begged us to excuse her, as she was not well. We then again entered upon a general conversation, during which General Grant explained to the President that at that very instant of time General Sheridan was crossing James River from the north, by a pontoon-bridge below City Point; that he had a large, well-appointed force of cavalry, with which he proposed to strike the Southside and Danville Railroads, by which alone General Lee, in Richmond, supplied his army; and that, in his judgment, matters were drawing to a crisis, his only apprehension being that General Lee would not wait long enough. I also explained that my army at Goldsboro’ was strong enough to fight Lee’s army and Johnston’s combined, provided that General Grant could come up within a day or so; that if Lee would only remain in Richmond another fortnight, I could march up to Burkesville, when Lee would have to starve inside of his lines, or come out from his intrenchments and fight us on equal terms.
Both General Grant and myself supposed that one or the other of us would have to fight one more bloody battle, and that it would be the last. Mr. Lincoln exclaimed, more than once, that there had been blood enough shed, and asked us if another battle could not be avoided. I remember well to have said that we could not control that event; that this necessarily rested with our enemy; and I inferred that both Jeff. Davis and General Lee would be forced to fight one more desperate and bloody battle. I rather supposed it would fall on me, somewhere near Raleigh; and General Grant added that, if Lee would only wait a few more days, he would have his army so disposed that if the enemy should abandon Richmond, and attempt to make junction with General Jos. Johnston in North Carolina, he (General Grant) would be on his heels. Mr. Lincoln more than once expressed uneasiness that I was not with my army at Goldsboro’, when I again assured him that General Schofield was fully competent to command in my absence; that I was going to start back that very day, and that Admiral Porter had kindly provided for me the steamer Bat, which he said was much swifter than my own vessel, the Russia. During this interview I inquired of the President if he was all ready for the end of the war. What was to be done with the rebel armies when defeated? And what should be done with the political leaders, such as Jeff. Davis, etc.? Should we allow them to escape, etc.? He said he was all ready; all he wanted of us was to defeat the opposing armies, and to get the men composing the Confederate armies back to their homes, at work on their farms and in their shops. As to Jeff. Davis, he was hardly at liberty to speak his mind fully, but intimated that he ought to clear out, “escape the country,” only it would not do for him to say so openly. As usual, he illustrated his meaning by a story: Continue reading
Grant, a failure all of his life except for war, marriage and his last valiant race with the Grim Reaper to finish his memoirs and provide for the financial security of his family; seemingly a dull plodder, but possessed of iron determination and an uncanny ability to never let the trees obscure the forest; happily married and a firm believer in God, but subject to bouts of depression, usually when his wife was absent, when he would grasp for the bottle; the shabby little man who won the greatest war in American history.
On March 24, 1865 Grant sent out his movement order for the Army of the Potomac and the Army of the James. Grant planned a vast move to the west to force Lee to come out of his entrenchments to avoid Grant outflanking him on his right. While this was going on, Sheridan would strike with the Union cavalry to sever the rail lines linking Richmond and Petersburg to the dwindling remainder of the Confederacy. Grant planned for the movement to begin on March 29, 1865, taking advantage of the good weather that had dried the roads. The Appomattox campaign was about to begin. Continue reading
With his invasion of North Carolina underway, Sherman took time after the capture of Fayetteville, North Carolina to bring Grant up to speed with his immediate plans:
HEADQUARTERS MILITARY DIVISION OF THE MISSISSIPPI, IN THE FIELD,
FAYETTVILLE, NORTH CAROLINA, Sunday, March. 12, 1865.
Lieutenant-General U. S. GRANT, commanding United States Army, City Point, Virginia.
DEAR GENERAL: We reached this place yesterday at noon; Hardee, as usual, retreating across the Cape Fear, burning his bridges; but our pontoons will be up to-day, and, with as little delay as possible, I will be after him toward Goldsboro. A tug has just come up from Wilmington, and before I get off from here, I hope to get from Wilmington some shoes and stockings, sugar, coffee, and flour. We are abundantly supplied with all else, having in a measure lived off the country.
The army is in splendid health, condition, and spirits, though we have had foul weather, and roads that would have stopped travel to almost any other body of men I ever heard of.
Our march, was substantially what I designed–straight on Columbia, feigning on Branchville and Augusta. We destroyed, in passing, the railroad from the Edisto nearly up to Aiken; again, from Orangeburg to the Congaree; again, from Colombia down to Kingsville on the Wateree, and up toward Charlotte as far as the Chester line; thence we turned east on Cheraw and Fayetteville. At Colombia we destroyed immense arsenals and railroad establishments, among which wore forty-three cannon. At Cheraw we found also machinery and material of war sent from Charleston, among which were twenty-five guns and thirty-six hundred barrels of powder; and here we find about twenty guns and a magnificent United States’ arsenal.
We cannot afford to leave detachments, and I shall therefore destroy this valuable arsenal, so the enemy shall not have its use; and the United States should never again confide such valuable property to a people who have betrayed a trust.
I could leave here to-morrow, but want to clear my columns of the vast crowd of refugees and negroes that encumber us. Some I will send down the river in boats, and the rest to Wilmington by land, under small escort, as soon as we are across Cape Fear River. Continue reading
The Hampton Roads Conference between President Lincoln and three representatives of the Confederacy, led by Lincoln’s old friend, and fellow former Whig, Vice President Alexander Stephens, was an exercise in pointlessness, as Lincoln and Stephens both knew it would be. Lincoln was willing to negotiate on anything except Union and the end of Slavery, the two items that the Confederate emissaries lacked any authority to concede. The only result of the conference was that Lincoln agreed to release from captivity a nephew of Stephens, a Confederate POW. (Stephens did not request this until he was pressed by Lincoln as to whether there was anything he could do of a personal nature for him.) The war would go on and both Lincoln and Davis could tell their peoples that negotiations had been attempted and that only success on the battlefield could lead to peace. Here are the comments of Grant on this curious incident in the War: Continue reading
Examples of gross military incompetence were not rare in the Civil War. Perhaps the most outstanding example is the bungling of Major General Benjamin Butler in his handling of the first assault on Fort Fisher, the fort that guarded the last major port open in the Confederacy, Wilmington. Grant in his Personal Memoirs gives us the details:
I selected General Weitzel, of the Army of the James, to go with the expedition, but gave instructions through General Butler. He commanded the department within whose geographical limits Fort Fisher was situated, as well as Beaufort and other points on that coast held by our troops; he was, therefore, entitled to the right of fitting out the expedition against Fort Fisher.
General Butler conceived the idea that if a steamer loaded heavily with powder could be run up to near the shore under the fort and exploded, it would create great havoc and make the capture an easy matter. Admiral Porter, who was to command the naval squadron, seemed to fall in with the idea, and it was not disapproved of in Washington; the navy was therefore given the task of preparing the steamer for this purpose. I had no confidence in the success of the scheme, and so expressed myself; but as no serious harm could come of the experiment, and the authorities at Washington seemed desirous to have it tried, I permitted it. The steamer was sent to Beaufort, North Carolina, and was there loaded with powder and prepared for the part she was to play in the reduction of Fort Fisher.
General Butler chose to go in command of the expedition himself, and was all ready to sail by the 9th of December (1864). Very heavy storms prevailed, however, at that time along that part of the sea-coast, and prevented him from getting off until the 13th or 14th. His advance arrived off Fort Fisher on the 15th. The naval force had been already assembled, or was assembling, but they were obliged to run into Beaufort for munitions, coal, etc.; then, too, the powder-boat was not yet fully prepared. The fleet was ready to proceed on the 18th; but Butler, who had remained outside from the 15th up to that time, now found himself out of coal, fresh water, etc., and had to put into Beaufort to replenish. Another storm overtook him, and several days more were lost before the army and navy were both ready at the same time to co-operate.
On the night of the 23d the powder-boat was towed in by a gunboat as near to the fort as it was safe to run. She was then propelled by her own machinery to within about five hundred yards of the shore. There the clockwork, which was to explode her within a certain length of time, was set and she was abandoned. Everybody left, and even the vessels put out to sea to prevent the effect of the explosion upon them. At two o’clock in the morning the explosion took place—and produced no more effect on the fort, or anything else on land, than the bursting of a boiler anywhere on the Atlantic Ocean would have done. Indeed when the troops in Fort Fisher heard the explosion they supposed it was the bursting of a boiler in one of the Yankee gunboats.
Fort Fisher was situated upon a low, flat peninsula north of Cape Fear River. The soil is sandy. Back a little the peninsula is very heavily wooded, and covered with fresh-water swamps. The fort ran across this peninsula, about five hundred yards in width, and extended along the sea coast about thirteen hundred yards. The fort had an armament of 21 guns and 3 mortars on the land side, and 24 guns on the sea front. At that time it was only garrisoned by four companies of infantry, one light battery and the gunners at the heavy guns less than seven hundred men with a reserve of less than a thousand men five miles up the peninsula. General Whiting of the Confederate army was in command, and General Bragg was in command of the force at Wilmington. Both commenced calling for reinforcements the moment they saw our troops landing. The Governor of North Carolina called for everybody who could stand behind a parapet and shoot a gun, to join them. In this way they got two or three hundred additional men into Fort Fisher; and Hoke’s division, five or six thousand strong, was sent down from Richmond. A few of these troops arrived the very day that Butler was ready to advance.
On the 24th the fleet formed for an attack in arcs of concentric circles, their heavy iron-clads going in very close range, being nearest the shore, and leaving intervals or spaces so that the outer vessels could fire between them. Porter was thus enabled to throw one hundred and fifteen shells per minute. The damage done to the fort by these shells was very slight, only two or three cannon being disabled in the fort. But the firing silenced all the guns by making it too hot for the men to maintain their positions about them and compelling them to seek shelter in the bomb-proofs.
On the next day part of Butler’s troops under General Adelbert Ames effected a landing out of range of the fort without difficulty. This was accomplished under the protection of gunboats sent for the purpose, and under cover of a renewed attack upon the fort by the fleet. They formed a line across the peninsula and advanced, part going north and part toward the fort, covering themselves as they did so. Curtis pushed forward and came near to Fort Fisher, capturing the small garrison at what was called the Flag Pond Battery. Weitzel accompanied him to within a half a mile of the works. Here he saw that the fort had not been injured, and so reported to Butler, advising against an assault. Ames, who had gone north in his advance, captured 228 of the reserves. These prisoners reported to Butler that sixteen hundred of Hoke’s division of six thousand from Richmond had already arrived and the rest would soon be in his rear.
Upon these reports Butler determined to withdraw his troops from the peninsula and return to the fleet. At that time there had not been a man on our side injured except by one of the shells from the fleet. Curtis had got within a few yards of the works. Some of his men had snatched a flag from the parapet of the fort, and others had taken a horse from the inside of the stockade. At night Butler informed Porter of his withdrawal, giving the reasons above stated, and announced his purpose as soon as his men could embark to start for Hampton Roads. Porter represented to him that he had sent to Beaufort for more ammunition. He could fire much faster than he had been doing, and would keep the enemy from showing himself until our men were within twenty yards of the fort, and he begged that Butler would leave some brave fellows like those who had snatched the flag from the parapet and taken the horse from the fort.
The last significant military operation at Petersburg in 1864, the battle of Boydton Plank Road, was part of the efforts of the Army of the Potomac to cut the Confederate South Side Railroad that supplied Petersburg and Richmond from the west. This was no small operation, consisting of Winfield Scott’s corps, reinforced by infantry divisions from other corps and a cavalry division.
On October 27, 1864 Hancock crossed Hatcher’s Run creek and moved around the Confederate right flank heading for Burgess Mill. General Henry Heth, commanding A.P. Hill’s corps due to the illness of Hill, interposed two divisions to stop Hancock. Hancock made good progress when Meade ordered a hault to the offensive, concerned about a five mile gap developing between the Union left and Hancock.
Hancock retreated to Hatcher’s Run, only to find the ford now being held by Confederate cavalry. Heth now went on the offensive, hoping to bag Hancock’s corps, isolated as it now was from the rest of the Union army.
Hancock kept calm, beat off the Confederate attacks and retreated across Hatcher’s Run during the night. Union casualties were 1700 to 1300 Confederate. Grant in his memoirs summed up this action and the closing down of operations around Petersburg for the remainder of the year: Continue reading
On August 17, 1864 Grant was heartened when he received a telegram of support from President Lincoln. Go here to read about it. Grant remarked to his staff after reading the telegram: “The President has more nerve than any of his advisors.”
Lincoln had advised Grant: Hold on with a bull-dog gripe, and chew & choke, as much as possible. Unbeknownst to the President, Grant already had underway an operation to do just that. Major General Gouverneur K. Warren was ordered by Grant to take his V corps, supported by units of the IX and II corps and a small cavalry division, and move to the left to capture a section of the Weldon railroad, the main supply line for the Confederate forces at Richmond and Petersburg, which led south to Wilmington, the last major port of the Confederacy.
By 9:00 AM on August 18, 1864, Warren had brushed aside Confederate pickets and reached the Weldon railroad at Globe Tavern. He deployed a division of his corps to destroy track, held another division in reserve and set another brigade, deployed in line of battle, north to guard against Confederate attempts to retake the railroad. A.P. Hill, launching his attack at 2:00 PM used two divisions from his corps to retake Globe Tavern, but Warren counterattacked and recovered the ground he lost, his troops entrenching as night fell.
On the 19th, the IX corps reinforced Warrens V corps while the Confederates received three brigades of Major General William Mahones’ division along with “Rooney” Lee’s cavalry division. Mahone, cementing his reputation, after the part he played in retaking the Crater, as one of the best generals for the Confederacy in 1864, launched a slashing flank attack that captured two Union brigades. A Confederate frontal assault by Major General Henry Heth was easily repulsed, and the fighting ended with a IX corps counterattack leading to hand to hand fighting as nightfall brought a close to the day’s fighting.
Torrential rains on the 20th prevented large scale combat. Warren withdrew on the night of the 20-21 to a new fortified line. Confederate attacks failed to dislodge him, and the battle of Globe Tavern ended with the Union in permanent possession of several miles of the Weldon railroad which necessitated the Confederates to bring in supplies to Petersburg and Richmond thirty miles from the nearest section of the Weldon railroad not under Union control. Union casuaties were 4, 296 to 1,620 Confederates but the noose had been tightened around Petersburg and the Confederacy.
Here are the comments of General Grant on this operation in his Personal Memoirs: Continue reading
The gaunt man, Abraham Lincoln, lives his days.
For a while the sky above him is very dark.
There are fifty thousand dead in these last, bleak months
And Richmond is still untaken.
The papers rail,
Grant is a butcher, the war will never be done.
The gaunt man’s term of office draws to an end,
His best friends muse and are doubtful. He thinks himself
For a while that when the time of election comes
He will not be re-elected. He does not flinch.
Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown’s Body
In August of 1864 the bottom seemed to be giving out from underneath the Union war effort. Grants’s drive against Richmond and Sherman’s drive against Atlanta seemed to have stalled, with Confederate armies holding tenaciously to both cities. Casualties, especially in the eastern theater of the War, had been appallingly high since the campaigning season opened in April, and after a massive effusion of blood the War seemed no closer to a Union victory. Northern governors feared draft riots in their cities in the face of a growing conviction that the South could not be conquered. On August 15, Grant wrote to Chief of Staff General Henry Halleck, in response to proposals that troops could be sent from the Army of the Potomac to put down draft riots:
CITY POINT, VA., August 15, 1864-9 p. m.
Washington, D. C.
If there is any danger of an uprising in the North to resist the draft or for any other purpose our loyal Governors ought to organize the militia at once to resist it. If we are to draw troops from the field to keep the loyal States in harness it will prove difficult to suppress the rebellion in the disloyal States. My withdrawal now from the James River would insure the defeat of Sherman. Twenty thousand men sent to him at this time would destroy the greater part of Hood’s army, and leave us men wherever required. General Heintzelman can get from the Governors of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois a militia organization that will deter the discontented from committing any overt act. I hope the President will call on Governors of States to organize thoroughly to preserve the peace until after the election.
U. S. GRANT,
Lincoln responded to Grant, and, if the anachronism may be allowed, his message back had a Churchillian ring to it: Continue reading
In late July Northern newspapers were filled with the raids into the North being staged by Jubal Early and his corps in the Shenandoah Valley. In order to distract Lee from sending reinforcements to Early, Grant decided to make another attempt on Richmond at the sector named Deep Bottom north of the James River. (Grant had just made a similar attempt at Deep Bottom to divert Confederate attention just before the mine explosion of the battle of the Crater. Go here to read about the first battle of Deep Bottom.) As in the first battle of Deep Bottom, Hancock’s corps crossed to the north side of the James, with hard fighting on August 14-20. Hancock could not make any substantial headway and withdrew south of the James on the night of the 20th. Union casualties were 2,889 -1500 Confederates.
Here is Grant’s account of this operation in his Personal Memoirs: Continue reading
The gaunt man, Abraham Lincoln, lives his days.
For a while the sky above him is very dark.
There are fifty thousand dead in these last, bleak months
And Richmond is still untaken.
The papers rail,
Grant is a butcher, the war will never be done.
The gaunt man’s term of office draws to an end,
His best friends muse and are doubtful.
Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown’s Body
By the beginning of August 1864 Lincoln began to suspect that he was going to lose re-election and the Union was going to lose the War. Grant, at an immense cost in blood, had pushed Lee back to Richmond and Petersburg, but both cities still were controlled by the Confederates and Lee’s army was still a force to be reckoned with. The North was still reeling from Early’s victories in the Shenandoah, his daring raid on Washington and his burning of Chambersburg on July 30. In the West the Confederate Army of Tennessee still clung to Atlanta, and the Confederacy still controlled almost all of its heartland. The War seemed to be entering a stalemate, and if it remained so until November, Lincoln would be a one term president and the Union would be permanently sundered. With that on his mind, Lincoln sent a warning telegram to Grant. Lincoln never lost his faith in Grant, but clearly he wanted Grant to understand that unless victories were forthcoming the Union was in peril. Ironically, in this telegram Lincoln approves Sheridan being place in command in the Shenandoah, and it was Sheridan’s string of victories in the fall that probably ensured Lincoln’s re-election: Continue reading
When looking at the battle of the Crater, it is a study in contrasts. The digging of the tunnel and the explosion of the mine at dawn on July 30, 1864, go here to read about the tunnel construction, was a tribute to the ingenuity and sheer compentence of Lieutenant Colonel Henry Pleasants and his men of the 48th Pennsylvania, who, with almost no help from the rest of the army, gave the Army of the Potomac a golden opportunity to take Petersburg and bring the War to a rapid conclusion. That this opportunity was missed was largely attributable to criminal incompetence on the part of the generals involved.
Here are the generals who contributed to the debacle:
1. Grant and Meade-Burnside, the commander of the IX corps making the assault, had trained a division of United States Colored Troops to lead the advance after the explosion of the mine. The day before the battle Meade, concerned that the attack would fail and that their would be political repercussions if black troops incurred heavy casualties as a result, ordered Burnside to assign a white division to lead the attack. Burnside protested this decision, but Grant backed Meade up.
2. Burnside-Burnside had the white division chosen by lot rather than picking the best division. Burnside made no effort to make certain that his attacking divisions had access ways cleared of debris and fortifications so they could rapidly advance after the explosion. He made no effort to inform the new white division leading the assault that it was to go around any crater created by the explosion instead of going down into it, which is precisely what the attacking divisions did, making themselves sitting ducks at the bottom of a large hole when the Confederate counter-attack began. Rather than calling off the attack after it became obvious that no breakthrough was possible, Burnside kept feeding troops into the Crater with the only effect being to lengthen the list of Union dead and wounded.
3. James H. Ledlie-Brigadier General James H. Ledlie earned a notable distiction during the battle. It was not unusual for Civil War generals to make bad decisions, and to not infrequently show a distinct lack of common sense, however almost all of them were very brave men. Ledlie was not. In addition to being a very bad commander as indicated by his failure to inform his division of what was expected of them after his division was chosen by lot to lead the assault, he spent the battle drunk and well behind the lines, safe and secure as his men went into the meat grinder. He richly earned his dismissal from the Army after the battle.
4. Edward Ferrero-Brigadier General Edward Ferrero was the foremost dance instructor in the country prior to the War. He should have stuck to that trade. The commander of the black division involved in the battle of the Crater, he spent the battle in the same bomb proof dugout behind the line as Ledlie, and he shared Ledlie’s bottle with him. Ferrero’s behavior is somwhat incomprehensible as he had shown extreme valor in other battles. Astonishingly he was not cashiered from the service, and in December of 1864 he received a brevet promotion to Major General of Volunteers for “bravery and meritorious services”.
With this type of leadership it is no wonder that the attack failed. The initial mine explosion killed 278 Confederates and wounded hundreds of others. For 15 minutes the stunned Confederates did not fire at the attacking Union units. Union troops went down into the Crater and within an hour were receiving heavy fire from Confederate troops at the top of the side of the Crater facing Petersburg. Confederate Brigadier General William Mahone, in charge of the Confederate counterattack, called it a turkey shoot. Instead of calling off the attack when it became clear that the Confederates had sealed the breach caused by the explosion, Burnside kept sending divisions, including the black division, down into the Crater where they were quickly slaughtered. Some Confederate troops murdered black troops who were trying to surrender. When General Lee heard of this he supposedly sent a message to General Mahone telling him to put a stop to this or he would be removed from command.
Union casualties were 4000 to 1500 for the Confederates. The whole debacle was the subject of a lengthy investigation by the Congressional Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War.
Here is Grant’s assessment of the fiasco from his Personal Memoirs: Continue reading
By far the most unusual event during the siege of Petersburg was the attempt by Grant to take Petersburg by a huge mining operation.
The idea of the tunnel was devised by Lieutenant Colonel Henry Pleasants, the 33 year old commanding officer of the 48th Pennsylvania. Pleasants was a mining engineer in civilian life and many of his men were coal miners. He became convinced that his men could dig a tunnel under the Confederate fort known as Elliot’s Salient, then fill a mine under the fort sufficient to blow it to kingdom come, along with nearby Confederate trenches. Pleasants took the idea to his corps commander Major General Ambrose Burnside. He and his men had received permission, but he received virtually no assistance from the rest of the Army in the digging of the tunnel, he and his men having to improvise everything they used. Engineering officers told Pleasants that he was crazy and at 511 feet the tunnel would be too long and his men would die of asphyxiation digging the tunnel long before it could be completed.
The tunnel was elevated as it advanced toward the Confederate fort to prevent moisture clogging it up. Fresh air was pumped in by air-exchange mechanism near the entrance. Pleasants had constructed a ventilation shaft located well behind Union lines, and connected it to the mine with canvas. At the shaft’s base, a fire was kept continuously burning. A wooden duct ran the entire length of the tunnel which protruded into the outside air. The fire heated stale air inside of the tunnel, forcing it up the ventilation shaft and out of the mine. The resulting vacuum then sucked fresh air in from the mine entrance via the wooden duct which transported the fresh air to the digging miners.
The took took a bit over two weeks to dig and the mine fifty feet under the Confederate fort took almost another two weeks to construct. It was filled with four tons of gunpowder. The Confederates attempted some desultory countermining operations, but the Union tunnel troops went about their work undiscovered. By July 28, 1864 the mine was ready to explode whenever the high command gave the word. That word would be given on July 30, 1864.
Here is a portion of an article on the tunneling operation that led up to the Battle of the Crater, written by Major William H. Powell, United States Army, which appeared in volume 4 of Battles and Leaders of the Civil War. Continue reading
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: 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: 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: Continue reading