03/2/15

Sheridan’s Raid on Scottsville, Virginia and Commemoration

If you live in central Virginia and are available this coming weekend visiting Scottsville and the commemoration of Sheridan’s War in ScottsvilleRaid. Scottsville is a small town at the big bend of  the James River. Sheridan’s force of cavalry and infantry raided the town in early March of 1865. Among his commanders were George Armstrong Custer, Wesley Merritt and Thomas Devin.

Sheridan led a force of 10,000 soldiers which marched down the Scottsville Road from Charlottesville, about a 20 mile march. His goal was Scottsville’s tobacco warehouses and other military supplies. He also wanted to destroy the James River and Kanawha Canal, a key transportation link with Richmond.

After four long years of war, the enemy and devastation came to Scottsville.  On March 6, 1865, Major General Philip H. Sheridan’s expedition of nearly 10,000 Union soldiers departed Charlottesville.  Their mission was to destroy the James River Canal and the Virginia Central Railroad.

The expedition separated into two columns with Sheridan and Brevet Major General George A. Custer leading the 3rd Cavalry southwest through North and South Gardens to destroy the railroad.  Brevet Major General Wesley Merritt and Brigadier General Thomas C. Devin headed south to Scottsville with the 1st Cavalry and orders to destroy the canal, bridges, mills, manufactories, and rebel food stores.

The destruction of Scottsville began at 3 p.m. on that March day, as noted in General Devin’s official report:

At this point, three canal boats were captured, one loaded with shell (9600) and two with the Government commissary stores and tobacco. These were totally destroyed and burned, together with a large cloth mill, a five-story flouring mill, candle factory, machine shop, and tobacco warehouse. Each of these buildings was crammed with products of its manufacture to a surprising extent, and all were totally destroyed.

The intense heat of the flour mill fire charred nearby homes, although no loss of life occurred. Canal locks and bridges above and below town also were destroyed or severely damaged. The last of Devin’s men departed Scottsville on March 7th and headed west up the towpath to continue their canal destruction duties and join Sheridan’s column at New Market (Norwood).

On March 8th, Sheridan’s united command moved back down the James River towards Columbia, arriving in Scottsville on Thursday night, March 9th.  The roads were horrible due to the spring thaw and heavy rains, and the soldiers were tired and hungry.  Legend has it that Sheridan and Custer rested the night at Cliffside while Merritt commandeered Old Hall. (These homes still exist.)

By this stage of the expedition, Sheridan’s men were down to their last ‘coffee and sugar’ rations, and their horses suffered from fatigue and hoof rot.  They relied on the Scottsville countryside for ‘subsistence and forage’ and ransacked and looted homes, barns, and any potential hiding place for food, horses, and valuables.  Cliffside’s carriage house and barn were torched, although the jewelry, which Mrs. John O. Lewis buried earlier near their chicken house, went undiscovered.

Yankees stuffed hams in their knapsacks and strapped dead chickens to their saddles.  At age 5, Fannie Patteson stood at a second floor window and watched her backyard fill with strange men, who upset their beehives and crammed honey into their mouths.

As the Yankees snatched up every horse they spotted, twelve year-old Luther Pitts hid two local horses in the basement of the Barclay House on Main Street.  Miletus Harris and his son, Charles, beat back the flames on their Main Street store as the nearby Columbian Hotel went up in smoke.

Finally on March 10th, Sheridan’s army departed Scottsville and continued along the James River to Columbia, leaving Scottsville charred and hungry.  It would take forty years for the town’s economy to recover.

You can read about the entire James River Campaign here.

Sheridan’s Raid on Scottsville, 6-8 March 2015
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You are invited to attend:

SHERIDAN’S RAID ON SCOTTSVILLE

Friday-Sunday, March 6-8, 2015

The weather was cold and rainy, and the James River was high when Union troops under General Phillip Sheridan came to Scottsville in 1865.  The town was undefended, and the Union troops stayed for a few days, appropriating supplies (food and horses), setting fire to several buildings and canal boats, and destroying the James River and Kanawha Canal.

On this 150th anniversary of Sheridan’s Raid, please join us in Scottsville onMarch 6-8, and learn more about the long-lasting impact of this raid on our town and its citizens.  We’ll see a procession of mounted Union soldiers riding through town to Canal Basin Square, a new Civil War exhibit in the Scottsville Museum, and presentations about Sheridan’s raid, the James River and Kanawha canal, and the African-American community in Scottsville

All events are free and open to the public.

Schedule of Events:

History Mobile:  A traveling museum of the Civil War in Virginia. Friday and Saturday (March 6-7), 9am-5pm.  Location: Village Square Shopping Center in Scottsville.
Museum Exhibits: Featuring artifacts of Sheridan’s raid, the lives of African-American families, and women in mourning after the war. Friday (March 6),10am-5pm; Saturday (March 7), 10am-4pm.  Sunday (March 8), 1-5pm.  Location:  Scottsville Museum, 290 Main Street.
Union Cavalry Reenactors Parade: 2nd U.S. Cavalry, Saturday (March 7),11am.  Location: From old Uniroyal Tire Plant on Bird Street, south on Valley Street to Main Street, east on Main Street to Canal Basin Square.
Living History Encampment – Union Army: Saturday (March 7), 11:30am-3pm. Location: Across from Scottsville Museum on Main Street.
Sheridan’s Raid & Scottsville: Saturday (March 7), 4pm.  Presentation by Richard Nicholas, author of Sheridan’s James River Campaign. Location: Victory Hall, 401 Valley Street.
African-American Families in War and Reconstruction:  Sunday (March 8),3pm.  Presentation by historians, Sam Towler (“The Families of Liberty Corner”) and Regina Rush (“The Rush Family of Chestnut Grove”).  Location:  Victory Hall, 401 Valley Street.
James River and Kanawha Canal:  Sunday (March 8), 4pm. Presentation by Roger Nelson and Brian Coffield of the Virginia Canals and Navigations Society.  Location: Victory Hall, 401 Valley Street.
Walking Tour: Pick up a free map and guide to Civil War sites in Scottsville.  Maps and information available at Victory Hall and the Visitor’s Center on Main Street, Scottsville.

For more information, see:
www.smuseum.avenue.org and www.SheridansRaid.org

See you in Scottsville!
Copyright ©2015  Scottsville Museum, All rights reserved.
02/27/15

Strange Weapons of the Civil War

The Civil War began as a conventional war with both sides being equipped with the same weapons, using the same tactics. After all the weapons used by the Southern Confederacy were seized from Federal armories spread throughout the South. The officer corps of both armies were mostly educated at West Point, although there were some exceptions like the Virginia Military Institute and the Citadel.

But as the war progressed each side attempted to leap ahead of the other when it came to weapons systems. Beyond the conventional systems like the various models of ironclads, timberclads, cottonclads and repeating rifles strange weapons began to appear on both sides. Here’s a look at some of the strange weapons of the American Civil War.

Here are some of the more common weapons that were invented or perfected during the war.

Hand GrenadeHand Grenades

The most popular model was the Union-issued Ketchum grenade, a projectile explosive that was thrown like a dart. The grenades came in one-, three- and five-pound models equipped with stabilizer fins and a nose-mounted plunger. Upon impact, the plunger would detonate a percussion cap and ignite a deadly supply of gunpowder.

Rockets

Confederate forces reportedly experimented with Congreve rockets, a British-designed explosive that had previously seen action in the War of 1812. These weapons resembled large bottle rockets and were so inaccurate that they never saw widespread use.

Meanwhile, Union forces employed the Hale patent rocket launcher, a metal tube that fired seven- and 10-inch-long spin stabilized rockets up to 2,000 yards. While a vast improvement on the Congreve, these projectiles were still quite unwieldy, and were only generally used by the U.S. Navy.

Machine Guns

Both sides understood that increasing there rate of fire in the age of mass armies was a key to victory. One attempt was the Winans Steam gun. Allegedly capable of flinging 300 rounds of ammunition per minute from its steam powered revolving drum for 100 yards, this centrifugal gun came into prominence during the 1861 Baltimore Riots. It was never used in a true combat situation. Video

Another invention was the so-called Coffee Mill Gun. The “devil’s coffee mill,” “coffee grinder” gun, “army in a box” or Agar gunCoffee Mill Gun was a hand-cranked machine gun firing .58 caliber cartridges at 120 rounds per minute. Having seen a demonstration in 1861, President Abraham Lincoln is said to have been quite enamored with the weapon. The Union War Department acquired 60 of them but they saw very little action.

Of these machine guns, perhaps none is more famous than the Gatling gun, a six-barreled piece that was capable of firing up to 350 rounds a minute. The U.S. government never ordered the Gatling in bulk, but Union General Benjamin Butler privately purchased several of the intimidating weapons in 1863 and later used them during the Petersburg Campaign.

Other rapid-fire guns included the Williams gun—a Confederate breechloader first unveiled at the Battle of Seven Pines in 1862—and the Billinghurst-Requa battery gun, which consisted of 25 rifle barrels arranged side by side. Viewed as too inefficient and unwieldy for infantry combat, these weapons were generally used for guarding bridges and other strategic locations.

Calcium floodlights

Better known as “limelights,” these chemical lamps used superheated balls of lime, or calcium oxide, to create an incandescent glow. The lights had been used in lighthouses and theaters since the 1830s. During an 1863 operation to retake Charleston Harbor, General Quincy Adams Gillmore laid siege to the Confederate stronghold at Fort Wagner. Gillmore’s Union guns bombarded the fort day and night with the help of this strange invention.

Also called “Drummond lights,” these calcium floodlights were later used as searchlights to spot Confederate warships and blockade runners. In early 1865, a Union light even helped detect a Confederate ironclad fleet as it tried to move along the James River under cover of darkness. A Southern officer later noted that a planned sneak attack was made impossible in part because of the Union’s “powerful calcium light.”

Hot Air BalloonHot Air Balloons

Civil War balloons were primarily used in a reconnaissance capacity. The Union even had an official Balloon Corps headed by “Chief Aeronaut” Thaddeus Lowe. Under his direction, balloons were launched for scouting purposes at several famous engagements, including the First Battle of Bull Run and the Battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. In a balloon tethered to the ground with a telegraph line, Lowe was able to give real-time updates on troop movements, and once even directed Union artillery fire from the sky.

In later posts we’ll take a look at more unusual weapons and ships of the American Civil War.

 

02/23/15

The Battle of Fort Stedman

The Battle of Fort Stedman was to be the final Confederate offensive action of the Petersburg-Richmond campaign. After the failed attack the Army of Northern Virginia would spend the final several weeks of their war continuously on the defensive.

In the latter part of March 1865 General John B. Gordon conceived a plan that centered on the attack on Fort Stedman, a fortification on the Federal siege lines. Fort Stedman was positioned closest to the Confederate lines opposite a position named Colquitt’s Salient and it had the fewest wooden obstructions protecting it. About a mile beyond Fort Stedman there was a supply depot on the U.S. Military Railroad, the main supply line for the Fort Stedman todaybesieging Federal army.

At this point in the siege General Lee realized that his army would need to abandon Petersburg and Richmond as soon as General William T. Sherman’s army crossed the Roanoke River. With Sherman joining his forces to Grant’s massive army he would be completely surrounded. He was hoping for drier roads in order to move to the west and link up with Joseph Johnston’s army in North Carolina.

Fort Stedman had been named for Griffin A. Stedman, a general who commanded a Connecticut infantry brigade. He had been killed in the area on August 6, 1864. It was a typical fortification along the siege lines being made of the combination of earth and wood construction. It was defended by troops from Maj. Gen. John G. Parke’s IX Corps with artillery batteries backing up the infantry.

Gordon’s plan for the attackers to capture the fort, then move north and south clearing the Federal fortifications in preparation for the main assault.General John Brown Gordon This assault would move across country to capture or destroy the Federal supply base at City Point, about 10 miles away. Rooney Lee’s Cavalry Division would spearhead the attack on City Point.

The main goal was to force Grant to withdraw his left and open the door for the Confederates to move south to North Carolina. If the plan succeeded they might cut of the Federal army from the James River, destroy the City Point base and perhaps, even capture Grant.

On the Federal side Grant was planning a counter-operation because he feared the very such attempt by the Confederates. He realized that Lee and his army had only one chance and that was to join forces with Johnston in North Carolina.

On March 24th Philip Sheridan’s two cavalry divisions entered the Federal lines on the Peninsula. They had defeated Early’s remaining forces in the Valley at Waynesborough and proceeded to destroy the Virginia Central track all of the way to Charlottesville. At Charlottesville, they continued to destroy the track heading north to Gordonsville. At the same time Sheridan sent troops to destroy the Orange & Alexandria track in the direction of Lynchburg. To complete their mission, they destroyed the James River Canal from New Market to Goochland Court House.

With Sheridan’s cavalry available to him Grant ordered an offensive against Lee’s right to begin in five days. That night Grant began to reposition his forces by having Edward Ord withdraw three divisions from the lines at Bermuda Hundred and the Peninsula. It was done so quietly that the Confederates never noticed their departure. They were to be used for the Southside operation.

Fort Stedman retakenMeanwhile Gordon’s attack which he planned to begin at midnight was delayed. After 4:00 AM Gordon gave the order to advance against Fort Stedman. He had three 100-man teams of sharpshooters and engineers who were pretending to be deserters. They surprised the Federal pickets and opened the way for the main attack.

The initial assault was successful with the Confederate attackers piercing the Federal lines on either side of Fort Stedman and taking the position from the rear. The officer responsible for the sector Brevet Brig. Gen. Napoleon B. McLaughlen was captured during the Federal counterattack.

Within minutes of the beginning of the attack the Confederates had possession of the Federal lines from Battery X to Battery XII, a distance of perhaps 1,000 feet. The Confederates had sent artillerists with the assault forces who manned the captured batteries and used them to provide supporting fire for the continuing attack.

Things were starting to go wrong by the time that Gordon arrived at Fort Stedman. He directed Clement Evans’ Division to attack to the south against Fort Haskell. However, the defenders were able to repulse Evans’ attack by using canister rounds.

Gordon’s 100-man infiltrating teams rather than penetrating into the enemy rear area were wandering around in confusion. Some had stopped toGen John F Hartranft eat captured rations. The cavalry could not find an avenue to the Union rear. Pickett’s Division had rail transportation problems with only three of his four brigades arriving on the scene and those were too late to help.

The main Federal forces in the area began to respond to the attack. General Parke ordered his reserve division commanded by Brig. Gen. John F. Hartranft to counterattack supported by the reserve artillery under Col. John C. Tidball. The artillery took up positions to the east of Fort Stedman and began to shell the Confederates. Hartranft convinced a senior general, Orlando B. Willcox, to give him tactical command of the operation. By   7: 30 AM he had the bulge ringed with troops and contained. The Federal artillery put down a punishing fire on Fort Stedman.

Gordon realized that his operation had failed and ordered a withdrawal to the Confederate lines with General Lee’s permission. Hartranft had 4,000 troops ready to counterattack by 7:45 AM. Ignoring a late order to hold off on the attack, Hartranft allowed the counterattack to proceed. It was successful and the Fort Stedman area returned to Federal control.

The failure of the Confederate assault on Fort Stedman had serious implications for the Confederate positions in the area. Lee had weakened his forces on his right flank. The II and VI Federal Corps’ were able to capture the Confederate picket line in that area but found the main line still well defended. However, this prepared the ground for Grant’s offensive on April 2nd.

Federal casualties in the Battle of Fort Stedman were 1,044 (72 killed, 450 wounded, 522 missing or captured), Confederate casualties a considerably heavier 4,000 (600 killed, 2,400 wounded, 1,000 missing or captured). This battle was the final Confederate attempt to break the Union siege lines at Petersburg. The last action in the drama was to take place a week later all along the lines in an action sometimes called the Third Battle of Petersburg but more often referred to as “The Breakthrough”.

02/20/15

The Battle of Trent’s Reach

The Battle of Trent’s Reach was the Confederate Navy’s last, desperate attempt to break the Federal army’s stranglehold on the Confederate capital of Richmond.

The importance of the James River to Richmond and the Confederacy cannot be overstated. The James is a broad, tidal river up to Richmond, making that city a port. From colonial times ocean vessels were able to reach the city using the James.

Drewry's Bluff view of the James RiverAt the start of the war Confederate authorities were concerned that Union blockading ships would sail upriver to bombard the city. The mere rumor of the Union ship Pawnee spread fear and panic throughout the city. From that point forward the authorities sought to insure that Union vessels could not approach the city by water.

The Confederates mounted powerful batteries at Drewry’s Bluff and in May 1862 they pounded a Federal squadron so badly that they hesitated afterward to approach the city by water.

The Confederates also built a formidable squadron of three ironclads to impede any Federal attack. The flagship was the CSS Virginia II which was built in Richmond in 1864. It drew 13 feet of water and mounted 4 guns. The CSS Richmond was similar in design to the Virginia II. It was 180 feet long, drew 16 feet of water and also carried 4 guns. The CSS Fredericksburg was a ram that drew 11 feet of water and mounted 4 guns. In addition this fleet was accompanied by a number of lesser warships that include torpedo boats, gunboats and tugs.

By January 1864 the Confederate fleet had sat idle on the James for some time. In the meantime the Union navy had been diverted to the assault on Fort Fisher on the Cape Fear River in North Carolina. Naval units from all over were sent to the area. The Union Squadron was no exception.

The Confederates sensed an opportunity to strike a blow at the Union navy. Their target was the massive Federal supply base at City Point. All of the supplies for the large Federal army around Richmond and Petersburg moved through this base. To defend the base the Federals had built a river barrier at Trent’s Reach that was made from sunken vessels, torpedo mines, a net and other obstructions.

The Confederate fleets left its anchorage at Chaffin’s Bluff after dark on January 23, 1865 and headed to City Point. The Confederate fleet easily passed through the gauntlet of Federal shore batteries and rifle fire. By 10:30 PM the Confederates were at Trent’s Reach.

CSS Fredericksburg at Trent's ReachThe two Confederate ironclads stopped while the Fredericksburg tried to clear the obstructions so the fleet could pass through. Confederate gunboats cruised around reconnoitering the area.

There were three Federal gun batteries at Trent’s Reach and the kept up a steady fire on the Confederates. Sharpshooters joined in, firing on anything that moved on the water. Despite the steady fire, the obstructions were cleared by 1:00 AM and the Confederate fleet sailed through.

The Federal force that was mustered to stop the powerful enemy fleet was ill-prepared for combat. The USS Onondaga was a twin-turreted monitor-class ironclad. The other two vessels were wooden ships: the USS Massasoit, a double-ender, and the USS Hunchback, a converted ferryboat.

Instead of meeting the Confederates at the barrier, Commodore William Parker ordered his small force to fall back several miles to the bridge near Deep Bottom. General Grant realized the danger the Confederate fleet posed to his supply base and complained to the Navy Department about Parker’s tactics. Parker was relieved of command and replaced by Commodore William Radford, the commander of the USS New Ironsides in Norfolk.

This did very little for the immediate crisis and Grant agreed that the squadron’s second-in-command, Commander E.T. Nichols, would do for the moment.

Meanwhile, the Confederates, rather than striking immediately, were delayed by the falling tide. When they had anchored at 10:30 PM there was 5USS Onondaga fathoms (30 feet) of water under their keels. By 1:45 AM the tide had fallen and the Virginia II was aground. By 3:30 AM the Richmond, the wooden gunboat Drewry and one of the torpedo boats, the Scorpion, were also aground. They were aground under the tide came in at about 11:00 AM in the morning.

As the sun came up the Federal artillery and rifle fire became increasingly more effective. It began to have a devastating effect on the Confederate fleet. The ironclad Richmond was able to withstand the fire but the wooden vessels were torn apart.

At 6:55 AM the Drewry’s crew was evacuated to the Richmond. It was not a moment too soon. Fifteen minutes later, the Drewry’s magazine was hit and the vessel exploded. The explosion caused severe damage aboard the other Confederate ships. The Scorpion was hit and suffered so much damage that it began to sink. It was abandoned by its crew.

At 10:30 AM in the engagement the monitor USS Onondaga, the double-ender the USS Massasoit, the converted ferry USS Hunchback and a torpedo boat USS Spuyten Duyvil entered the fight. The Onondaga began to engage the enemy ship at a range of about ½ mile at 10:45 AM. The Confederate ships were helpless. Aground, they were unable to maneuver to aim their guns.

Within 15 minutes the Confederate ironclads refloated and began to return fire. After a brief duel the two fleets withdrew, the Confederates returning upriver and the Federals downriver.

The Confederates had lost the Drewry and the Scorpion with a second torpedo boat being disabled. The CSS Virginia II was badly damaged having taken 70 hits.

The Confederate commander, Commodore John K. Mitchell, decided to make a second attempt downriver as soon as there was a favorable tide. However, the CSS Virginia II had suffered a hit to their propulsion system and a steam leak prevented the pilot from seeing to maneuver.

The Federals had also installed Drummond lights on the southern shore near the obstruction, allowing the Federal gunners to see “almost as well at night as by day”. After conferring with the other skippers, Mitchell elected to return to the anchorage at Chaffin’s Bluff.

Neither commander fared very well afterward. Commodore William Parker was court-martialed and although the sentence was dismissed on a technicality by Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, he was placed on the retirement list.

Commodore John K. Mitchell was relieved of his command of the James River Squadron within three weeks. He was replaced by Rear Admiral Raphael Semmes, the former commander of the Confederate commerce raider Alabama.

The following month the Federal squadron was reinforced by the powerful ironclads the USS New Ironsides and the USS Atlanta. The Confederate James River Squadron never ventured downriver again. Within two months Richmond had fallen and Lee had surrendered. The Confederacy was no more.

02/18/15

The Battle of Hatcher’s Run

Several significant events took place before the Battle of Hatcher’s Run in February 1865. After the reelection of Lincoln there was no political need to retain Ben Butler in command of the Army of the James. General Grant relieved him of his command on January 8, 1865 and appointed General Edward Ord as his replacement.

General Edward OrdGeneral Lee responding to calls of aid from South Carolina dispatched Kershaw’s Old Brigade of Kershaw’s Division was sent there to assist the Confederate troops against Sherman’s army.

On January General Alfred Terry with the assistance of the navy took Fort Fisher in North Carolina by storm. This eliminated the Confederacy’s last major port. It also cut off Petersburg and Richmond from supplies that had been carried in by blockade runners.

Fitzhugh Lee’s Division arrived on the Peninsula from the Shenandoah Valley about a week after the fall of Fort Fisher. The destruction of the Weldon Railroad coupled with loss of their last major port contributed to a shortage of forage for the horses of the Confederate cavalry. At this point almost half of the cavalry lacked mounts.

Wade Hampton had suggested to Lee that Matthew Butler’s Division turn their horses over to Rooney Lee’s Division. In turn, Butler’s Division would go to South Carolina and procure remounts. Lee reluctantly agreed to Hampton’s plan and Hampton went with the dismounted cavalrymen. It was hoped that they would return in the spring.

On February 3rd a Confederate peace delegation met with President Lincoln at Old Point Comfort, at the mouth of Hampton Roads. They were hoping that they could reach a compromise with Lincoln and get advantageous terms for peace. Lincoln dashed their vain hopes with his demand of unconditional surrender. At the same time the Confederate Congress forced Jefferson Davis to name a supreme military commander. Davis namedHatcher's Run Lee.

All of these events set the stage for the Battle of Hatcher’s Run. Hatcher’s Run was a waterway that ran at the western end of the siege lines. General Grant saw an offensive at this point in the line as an opportunity to cut off the supply wagon traffic along the Boydton Plank Road.

Maj. Gen. Andrew Humphreys had been appointed to replace General Hancock after his resignation in November. Humphreys’ II Corps advanced to Armstrong’s Mill on the north bank of Hatcher’s Run. On his left Warren’s V Corps advanced across the run and about halfway to Dinwiddie Court House.

The Federal cavalry was now under the command of Brig. Gen. J. Irvin Gregg after the resignation of his cousin David on the eve of the operation. They moved forward and occupied Dinwiddie Court House, a key road junction into Petersburg. There Battle of Hatcher's Run, February 5, 1865were only a few Confederate supply wagons there, however.

Humphreys anticipated the Confederate’s attempt to force a wedge in between the two Federal corps’ by strengthening the link between the two with two brigades. It was a good guess.

Lee immediately ordered a counterattack. Henry Heth attacked with three brigades at the exact spot that Humphreys had anticipated. Three separate Confederate charges were repulsed by the Federal brigades stationed in this spot on the line.

Meade had a concern for Confederate cavalry in his left rear so he order Warren and Gregg to withdraw to the Vaughan Road Crossing over Hatcher’s Run in the early morning of February 6th.

Later in the morning Meade ordered a general advance westward by both Humphreys and Warren. Humphreys moved out immediately while it took a visit from Meade to make Warren begin his advance at about noon.

John Pegram’s Division of John Gordon’s Corps was on the Confederate left. Their line extended from Dabney Mill Road to Vaughan Road. Pegram’sHatchers Run 6th Feb NPS Map right had no problem halting the Federal cavalry’s advance.

The left was an entirely different situation with the tide of battle surging back and forth. The Confederates were initially forced back from Dabney’s Mill to the Crow house. Then Evan’s Division arrived on Pegram’s left and the Federals were forced back to the mill. Warren deployed three brigades on the Federal left and the Confederates were forced back again. In the process Brig. Gen. John Pegram was killed.

Finally, Mahone’s Division led by Brig. Gen. Joseph Finegan plunged in between the Confederate divisions and routed the Federals at Dabney’s Mill. They were pushed back to the Federal line near the Vaughan Road crossing of Hatcher’s Run.

The following day Warren advanced Crawford’s Division forward and pushed the Confederates back to their main line near the Crow house. The Battle of Hatcher’s Run ended at this point.

The Federals extended their lines to the Vaughan Road crossing of Hatcher’s Run which gave them a good point at which to stage future operations against the Confederate right. This forced the Confederates to extend their ever-thinning lines. The Federal forces had 1,539 total casualties against about 1,000 total casualties for the Confederates.

02/16/15

Attacks against Richmond

As the year turned to October, Robert E. Lee planned to respond to the capture of Chaffin’s Heights and Fort Harrison by the Federals. He planned an offensive against their right flank in the area of Darbytown and New Market Roads.

The Federal lines were held by David Birney’s Corps and August Kautz’s Cavalry Division positioned along New Market Road. Additional cavalry was stationed along Darbytown Road.

Richmond-Petersburg Map, Fall 1864Lee assigned the divisions of Maj. Gens. Charles Field and Robert Hoke to the attack. Their initial assault was against the cavalry that was stationed along the Darbytown. These overmatched forces routed and the attack continued to the next Union defensive positions along New Market Road. In the fighting the commander of the Texas Brigade, Brig. Gen. John Gregg was struck in the neck and killed along the Charles City Road. The Confederate force was repulsed and retreated back into Richmond. The Federals suffered 458 total casualties and the Confederates 700 in what was a Union victory.

On October 13th a Union brigade under Maj. Gen. Alfred Terry advanced against the Confederate fortifications to feel out their strength and exact positions. They were repulsed with heavy casualties and retired to their original positions along New Market Road. The total combined casualties for this engagement were 950 men.

Two weeks later on October 27th General Ben Butler’s forces executed a two-pronged assaulted along Darbytown Road and in the Fair Oaks area. The Federal X Corps attacked the Richmond defensive line along Darbytown Road. The XVIII Corps marched to the north and was soundly repulsed by the Confederate division of Maj. Gen. Charles Field. Field’s forces counterattacked and captured 600 men. The Union forces retired to their original positions on the following day having sustained 1,603 casualties while the Confederate losses were less than 100.

The only purpose that these various assaults accomplished was to take Lee’s attention away from Federal plans on the Southside. The Federal army executed an assault against Boydton Plank Road at the same time as Butler’s attack against the Darbytown Road and Fair Oaks.

02/13/15

The Battle of Boydton Plank Road

The Battle of Boydton Plank Road was the last significant ground action around Petersburg and Richmond in 1864. General Grant planned another assault against the Boydton Plank Road defenses to take place simultaneously with Butler’s attacks in the north. Again, the Federal goal was to seize this important supply line and cut the South Side Railroad. This double victory would cut off vital supplies for Petersburg and Richmond from the south and west.

Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps had been pulled out of the trenches and shifted to a position opposite the Confederate Boydton line. His corps had been reinforced with divisions from V Corps, IX Corps, and Brig. Gen. David McM. Gregg’s cavalry division, all of whom were in the area. This gave Hancock an overall strength of 30,000 men against an estimated Confederate strength of less than 12,000.

Boydton Plank Road 27Oct NPS MapOn October 27th Hancock’s forces marched across Hatcher’s Run, brushed past the Confederate pickets and attacked the Confederate flank in the direction of Burgess Mill. Gershom Mott’s Division quickly crossed Boydton Plank Road and threatened to cut off Wade Hampton’s cavalry from the rest of the Confederate forces.

Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill, who was in overall command in this critical area, ordered his units to respond to the attack. However, Hill was too ill to continue and turned over tactical command to Maj. Gen. Henry Heth.

Heth placed two divisions in the path of the onrushing Federals but Hancock’s force pushed them aside and continued to advance. However, when Meade and Grant surveyed the field, Meade realized that Hancock’s force and the V Corps were diverging and a gap was opening between them. He ordered Hancock to halt his advance.

Samuel Crawford’s Division from the V Corps was ordered to link up with Hancock but they became entangled in the dense woods and were unable to accomplish their mission.Winfield Scott Hancock

Meanwhile, General Grant made a personal reconnaissance of the Confederate positions. Coming under fire, he determined that they were too strong to take and called off the offensive.

Never having linked up with Crawford, Hancock’s II Corps returned to Hatcher’s Run crossing but found that it was blocked by Confederate cavalry. The entire II Corps was on the north side of the run, isolated and without support. The Confederates saw this as an opportunity to destroy the entire II Corps.

Hancock’s only line of retreat was along Dabney Mill Road. Confederate General William Mahone attacked through the same woods to stopped Crawford and captured the road. Meanwhile, Rooney Lee’s Cavalry Division had come up behind the Federal force.

Mahone had moved his division far around the II Corps and Hancock found himself surrounded on three sides. Hancock didn’t panic and seized the initiative. Mahone found himself isolated in turn and Hancock ordered attacks on both of Mahone’s flanks. Hampton’s cavalry was unable to hold off the Union cavalry of David Gregg and he was able to aid in the routing of Mahone’s Division. The tables being turned the Confederates were forced to retreat up Boydton Plank Road.

David McMurtrie GreggHancock realized that his position was unstable and left with the decision to stay or withdraw by Grant; he chose to return to his initial positions. The Federals sustained 1,758 total casualties and the Confederates had 1,300.

The Battle of Boydton Plank Road ended all offensive operations for both armies around Petersburg and Richmond for the year. Both armies went into winter quarters until the ground fighting resumed in February 1865.

The Battle of Boydton Plank Road also marked the final battle in the careers of two fine Union officers. In November, Maj. Gen. Winfield Hancock resigned from field command due to complications with the wound he had received on July 3, 1863 at Gettysburg. In January 1865, David McM. Gregg unexpectedly resigned his command. His letter of resignation alluded to an anxiety of being away from his home. Meade’s chief-of-staff, Maj. Gen. Andrew Humphreys would take over command of the II Corps and lead it through the final months of the war.

02/11/15

The Battle of Peebles’ Farm

Peebles Farm Aftermath NPS Map

The second half of Grant’s plan, an attack against the western end of the Confederate lines at Peebles’ Farm, commenced on the morning of September 30th. The attacking force consisted of Gouverneur K. Warren’s V Corps and Brig. Gen. David McM. Gregg’s Cavalry Division with units from the IX Corps and II Corps in support.

Warren had been ordered to attack the fortifications at Boydton Plank Road. This was a key road carrying supplies from the railhead at Stony Creek into the city of Petersburg. Blocking it would tighten the siege even further. Butler’s attack at New Market Heights had forced Lee to shift forces north so this area was weakened and vulnerable.

The Confederate line was being extended to the Union position at Globe Tavern with a temporary line being held along Squirrel Level Road. Warren’s force marched along Poplar Springs Road toward the Squirrel Level line. Here are the orders of battle of the opposing forces.

Charles Griffin’s Federal Division attacked the Confederate positions near Poplar Springs Church at about 1:00 PM and captured Fort Archer along the Squirrel Level line. The Confederates along the line broke and ran so quickly that very few of them were captured. Warren ordered a halt so that his men could reinforce the line. He also did not want to advance to far ahead of the IX Corps which was on his flank.

The IX Corps was on Warren’s left but for some reason was unable to make an effective link with him. The Confederate counterattack under Maj. Gen. Henry Heth at about 4:30 PM routed them and one Federal brigade was captured. Warren was able to rally the IX Corps, stop the Confederate attack and organize the defense.

On the morning of October 1st Heth attacked again without success. Wade Hampton’s cavalry attempted an attack but it too was repulsed.

On October 2nd Gershon Mott’s Division reinforced the Federal line and attacked toward the Boydton Plank Road. They easily overran Fort MacRae but didn’t reach the key supply road. They did extend their line of fortifications to the area of Peebles’ Farm and Pegram Farm.

This Federal victory at the Battle of Peebles’ Farm solidified their positions in this area and gave them jumping off spot for further attacks to capture the Boydton Plank Road. Casualties on the Federal side totaled 2,889 men, nearly 10% of the attacking force. Most of them were due to the capture of entire brigade. The Confederates suffered a total of 1,239 casualties.

02/9/15

The Battle of New Market Heights

At the beginning of the war the Confederates had constructed permanent defenses around their capital of Richmond. Along New Market Heights just north of the James River at Chaffin’s Farm in a large open area also known as Chaffin’s Bluff they constructed a line of fortifications. This line was backed up by an intermediate and inner system of fortifications that was much closer to the capital.

Grant planned his now familiar tactic of an attack against Richmond in the north in order to draw troops from the South. Then, his plan called for an attack Southside on the Confederate supply lines. He hoped to take Richmond but failing that he would be satisfied cutting the South Side Railroad. At worst he hoped to prevent Lee from reinforcing Jubal Early in the Valley. His plan called for the attack to commence on the morning of September 29th.

New Market Heights MapGrant gave the northern assignment to Ben Butler and his Army of the James. Butler had David Birney’s and Edward Ord’s two infantry corps’ and August Kautz’s Cavalry Division. The southern force would be two divisions each from Warren’s Corps and Parke’s Corps plus David Gregg’s Cavalry Division.

Butler’s plan called for surprise attacks against the Confederate right and center rather than the previously unsuccessful attempts to turn the Confederate left. Birney’s infantry and Kautz’s cavalry would cross the James River on the upper Deep Bottom pontoon bridge while Ord would attack north on the Varina Road. While Birney stormed New Market Heights, Kautz would drive for Richmond.

The Confederates detected the Federal crossings and Lee called three brigades up from Petersburg to reinforce the line in the north. However, he was too late. Butler’s attack was exploiting the divided command opposite him on the Peninsula with Richard Ewell on the right and John Gregg on the left.

At New Market Heights, Birney’s division of United States Colored Troops (USCT) assaulted the Confederate position to no avail. After a hard fight Birney’s men finally took New Market Heights. When Gregg heard about the fall of Fort Harrison he moved troops to reinforce Forts Gilmer, Gregg and Johnson. The Federals turned to the northwest and assaulted Fort Gilmer, a salient position. They simultaneously attacked Fort Gregg which was south of Fort Gilmer. Both of these attacks failed.

However, one of Ord’s divisions drove up Varina Road, overrode the enemy’s picket line and stormed Fort Harrison. Fort Harrison was the keystone of the Confederate position at Chaffin’s Bluff and the entire Peninsula. During the heavy fighting to hold the fort General Ord personally led his troops but was critically wounded. His replacement, Brig. Gen. Charles Heckman, frittered away his men with disjointed attacks. The Federal troops halted their offensive.

In the late afternoon the Confederates reinforced their positions with a brigade from Pickett’s Division and three brigades from Field’s Division. At this point a Confederate counterattack might have swept the Federals of the heights but Lee wanted to wait until he could concentrate his forces. This gave the Federals the opportunity to turn the captured fortifications to face the enemy.

August Kautz’s cavalry now moved northwest cross-country toward Richmond. By midnight they had reached Creighton Road. They fired on each other first, and then they had a brief skirmish with the militia manning the fortifications. Kautz reversed course and headed his exhausted troopers home.

On the night of September 29-30 both armies labored around Fort Harrison: the Federals to fortify it and the Confederates to bring up reinforcements to retake it. By the morning the Federals were ahead with the fortifying of Fort Harrison. Lee was still trying to concentrate his forces.

Meanwhile, Meade had begun his offensive on Southside. Lee was forced to recall two brigades that he had initially sent up to help retake Fort Harrison. The Confederates finally attacked Fort Harrison but their assault was repulsed with heavy casualties.

At the Battle of New Market Heights and Chaffin’s Farm the Federal army suffered at total of 3,372 casualties (391 killed, 2,327 wounded, 649 missing or captured), the Confederates had 2,000 casualties (250 killed, 1,250 wounded, 500 missing or captured). Thirteen Medals of Honor were awarded to African-Americans at this battle.

Grant had accomplished his goal. His forces had taken the important high ground. The attack had succeeded in drawing off Confederate forces from the south where the Federal attack at Peebles’ Farm was ultimately successful.

01/30/15

Wade Hampton’s Cattle Raid

One of the strangest actions of the siege took place in mid-September. On September 5th Sergeant George D. Shadburne who was a scout for the Jeff Davis Legion informed his superiors that he had discovered thousands of cattle at Edmund Ruffin’s Plantation on Coggins Point. It is a widely held belief that the secessionist firebrand Ruffin fired the first shot of the Civil War at Fort Sumter. His plantation had come under the control of the Federal Army and was used as a supply base.

The Confederates were short of food due to the tightening Federal siege and any opportunity to acquire beef was welcome. On August 22, 1864 General Lee had reported that the corn that was used to feed his soldiers was exhausted. Supply had become a serious problem for the Confederates with the Federal destruction of a significant part of the Weldon Railroad. The Confederates had to off-load the trains and bring their supplies into Petersburg by wagon.

Sgt. Shadburne reported that they were lightly guarded by 250 men of the D.C. Cavalry and 150 soldiers of the 13th Pennsylvania. Wade Hampton sensed and opportunity and ordered 4,500 cavalry to join him in an attempt to capture the cattle herd.

Hampton led his men south behind Union lines on September 14th. He took a round-about route through Dinwiddie Court House and Stony Creek Station in order to circumvent the Federal lines. He crossed the Blackwater River at what was once Cook’s Bridge. He had his engineers reconstructCattle Raid Map the bridge and at 5:00 AM on the 16th his force attacked in a three-prong formation with the center group targeting the cattle.

The opposition was extremely light. The Confederates captured 2,468 cattle, 11 wagons and 304 prisoners against a loss of 10 killed, 47 wounded and 4 missing.

They returned the same way they came. The Federal response was weak because most of their cavalry was with Sheridan in the Shenandoah. The only force that was available was August Kautz’s small division and the 2nd Cavalry Division under Brig. Gen. Henry Davies. They only had 2,800 men to Hampton’s 4,500. After some inconsequential skirmishing the Confederates were able to move the cattle behind their lines and the Federals retired.

Abraham Lincoln called the raid “the slickest piece of cattle-stealing” he ever heard of.General Lee’s adjutant Walter H. Taylor said it made up for the loss of the Weldon Railroad, a claim historians consider to be overstated. Asked by a reporter when he would take Petersburg, Grant said, “Never if our armies continue to supply him with beef cattle.”

A fictionalized account of the raid is in the 1966 movie Alvarez Kelly.