One More River to Cross

On June 10th, 1864, the Fourteenth Connecticut Volunteer Infantry, still at Cold Harbor and with less than 200 men fit for duty, withdrew from the breastworks they had built and went to the rear for rest. Thousands of other men fresh from the front lines drew three-days’ rations and ammunition from long trains of supply wagons. The men of the Fourteenth filled their cartridge and cap boxes and had a bite to eat, but before they were issued any rations, they were ordered back to their works.

The men were ordered to keep up a lively fire on the enemy in order to give the impression that the army was still determined to fight along that line, but Gen. U. S. Grant had another plan. Two days later, units of the Army of the Potomac began to withdraw from Cold Harbor and started south toward the James River. The men of the Fourteenth fought deep, pressing hunger as much as they fought the Rebels. Herbs and berries, and whatever else they could forage supplied their only sustenance.

At nine o’clock on the evening of June 12th, the Fourteenth Connecticut finally began to march south and west toward the river. It was a warm, sultry, moon-lit night, but the light of the moon was nearly obscured by the thick pall of dust the hung over the road and caked the sweat-dampened skin of the men. The following evening, after marching almost thirty miles and with the James River almost in sight, a band of Confederate cavalry was spotted closing fast from the rear. At nearly the same instant, a larger body of Union cavalry appeared and drove the Rebel horsemen away.

Hancock’s Second Corps was the first Union corps to reach the James. They filed into fortifications around Harrison’s and Wilcox’s Landings that had been constructed under Gen. George McClellan two years before. Early on the 14th, Warren’s Fifth Corps arrived and Hancock’s men began to cross the James. (Click here for a great Harper’s Weekly illustration of the Second Corps starting to cross at Wilcox’s Landing, courtesy of Be sure to scroll down.) You can find Wilcox Landing on Google Earth about three miles southwest of Charles City, VA.

The entire Second Corps was across the river by daylight on the 15th, but I am uncertain as to how the Fourteenth Connecticut made the crossing. In the History of the Fourteenth Regiment, Charles Page wrote that the regiment crossed over on a long pontoon bridge, a true feat of engineering that was built just south of Wilcox’s landing. But a soldier in the 108th New York, in Smyth’s brigade along with the 14th, wrote about the “exquisite pleasure of being afloat on the broad bosom of the deep” as they crossed on a steamship.

Regardless, the half-starved men of the Fourteenth Connecticut, along with their comrades in the Second Corps, endured another hard march north toward Petersburg, arriving outside the Confederate works on the 16th. They would be thrown into battle almost immediately, but all was not well with their commanding general, the “superb” Winfield S. Hancock.

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