The Bermuda Hundred Campaign
The Bermuda Hundred Campaign consisted of a series of battles that were fought on the east side of Richmond. The Federal Army of the James, commanded by Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler, was ordered to move up the Peninsula. They had two goals: threaten Richmond in order to draw off troops from Lee’s army facing the Army of the Potomac and cut the vital Richmond & Petersburg Railroad.
Benjamin Butler was a so-called political general. He was a lifelong Massachusetts Democrat. Before the war he had practiced criminal law with some distinction. He had served in the both the Massachusetts House of Representatives and the State Senate. He had been a delegate to the 1860 Democratic Convention he had been a supporter of Jefferson Davis, voting for him on the first 57 ballots. During the campaign he supported John C. Breckinridge.
Butler, although a brigadier general of the state militia, had virtually no military experience. Butler had been sent from Massachusetts with the first Massachusetts volunteers in April 1861. He distinguished himself during the riots in Baltimore by negotiating an end to the rioting.
He also took command of other troops that arrived in the Baltimore area. Having no authorization to take command, he was relieved by General Winfield Scott. However, Lincoln appointed one of the first three major generals of volunteers on May 16, 1861.
Butler held a succession of command with mixed results. His initial assignment was the command of Fortress Monroe and the Department of Virginia. His administration was noted for the policy of not returning fugitive slaves to their owners on the grounds that they were contraband of war. This practice was later formalized throughout the Federal army.
He commanded forces Federal forces at the Battle of Big Bethel, a humiliating Federal defeat. The battle took place on June 10, 1861 in Hampton and York counties in eastern Virginia. It was relatively insignificant but since it was so early in the war received a great deal of attention.
Butler commanded troops in the capture of Forts Hatteras and Clark in North Carolina in August 1861. He then shifted to the Gulf coast and participated in Army-Navy operations there in 1862.
He received some notoriety with his command during the capture and occupation of New Orleans. Butler continued his practice of declaring fugitive slaves as contraband of war.
In November 1863 Butler was given command of the Department of Virginia and North Carolina which was comprised of the Union-occupied parts of those two states. In May 1864 the forces under his command were designated as the Army of the James.
Butler’s force of 33,000 disembarked from naval transports at the small town of Bermuda Hundred on the James River on May 5, 1864. Opposing his force was a motley Confederate “army” of 18,000 under the command of General P.G.T. Beauregard.
Beauregard’s force was a collection of local troops, old men and young boys. In theory they were no match for Butler’s veteran troops. They had one advantage: Beauregard was a superior commander and with a great deal of skill held off Butler’s superior force by strategic use of the unique terrain of the area.
The Battle of Port Walthall Junction was the initial engagement of the campaign. On May 6th a Confederate brigade under the command of Brigadier General Johnson Hagood stopped Federal probes around Port Walthall Junction. On the next day a Federal division forced the reinforced Confederate force of two brigades to retreat from the rail junction which the Federals then captured. Total casualties for this action were 300 on the Federal side and 200 on the Confederates.
On May 9th Butler attempted an attack on Petersburg with a force of 14,000 men and 5 gunboats. He was met by a Confederate force of 4,200 from General Bushrod Johnson’s Division at Swift Creek. The Confederates attacked at Arrowfield Church but were unsuccessful. Butler’s force did not counterattack. They only tore up the railroad. The gunboats bombarded Fort Clifton in conjunction with an attack by U.S. Colored Troops who became bogged down in a marshy area. Both of these forces were driven off. The results were inconclusive and there were combined casualties of 990.
The following day Confederate General Robert Ransom’s Division conducted a reconnaissance in force against a part of Butler’s army around Chester Station. The Federals were in the process of destroying the station on the Richmond & Petersburg Railroad. The Federal force of 3,400 men was attacked by a Confederate force of 2,000 of infantry. A furious rifle and artillery battle ensued until the Confederates withdrew because of the superior number of Federal troops.
General Alfred Terry reported casualties of 280 killed, wounded and missing while Confederate brigade commander Colonel Seth Barton reported a total of 249 killed, wounded and missing, including one of his regimental commanders. The Federal force returned to their entrenchments at Bermuda Hundred. This was another inconclusive engagement.
On May 12th Federal forces moved north along Proctor’s Creek against the Confederate line at Drewry’s Bluff and Fort Darling. He went into a defensive posture when the gunboats did not support his attack. The following day the Federal attacked the line on the Confederate right, capturing a line of breastworks. Butler remained cautious and did not press the attack. This allowed Beauregard to concentrate his smaller force.
On the 16th General Robert Ransom’s Division counterattacked the Federal positions on the right and routed many Federal units. A heavy fog prevented further Confederate attacks but the damage had been done. Butler once more withdrew his forces to the Bermuda Hundred entrenchments.
The Federal force sustained casualties of 422 killed, 2,380 wounded and 210 missing or captured. The Confederate had 400 killed, 2,000 wounded, 100 missing or captured. The Confederate’s achieved a tactical victory here.
The final engagement of the Bermuda Hundred Campaign took place on May 20th at Ware Bottom Church. Beauregard attacked the Bermuda Hundred defenses. About 10,000 men were engaged in this battle. The Federals had pushed out their lines to beyond the Ware Bottom Church. The Confederates forced the Federal lines back to their original positions of May 6th. They then constructed a new defense line named the Howlett Line and were able to contain the larger number of Federal troops.
The Howlett Line was 8 miles of rifle pits, entrenchments and artillery redoubts that ran from the Appomattox River in the south to the James River in the north. The Confederates built Battery Dantzler, an artillery position that interdicted all river traffic on the James.
With the construction of the Confederate redoubts the Bermuda Hundred Campaign essentially ended. What followed was a pattern of artillery duels and infantry skirmishing between the two armies. Beauregard was able to send troops to reinforce Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in June, the opposite of what Grant hoped that the campaign would accomplish. Grant moved William Smith’s XVIII Corps and used it to reinforce the Army of the Potomac around Cold Harbor.
In his Personal Memoirs, Grant recounted a conversation that he had with his chief engineer about Butler’s situation:
He said that the general occupied a place between the James and Appomattox rivers which was of great strength, and where with an inferior force he could hold it for an indefinite length of time against a superior; but that he could do nothing offensively. I then asked him why Butler could not move out from his lines and push across the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad to the rear and on the south side of Richmond. He replied that it was impracticable, because the enemy had substantially the same line across the neck of land that General Butler had. He then took out his pencil and drew a sketch of the locality, remarking that the position was like a bottle and that Butler’s line of intrenchments across the neck represented the cork; that the enemy had built an equally strong line immediately in front of him across the neck; and it was therefore as if Butler was in a bottle. He was perfectly safe against an attack; but, as Barnard expressed it, the enemy had corked the bottle and with a small force could hold the cork in its place.