You might think, with the Civil War well into its third year, that some of the hard lessons the Army of the Potomac learned earlier in the war would have stuck. But you would be wrong. Lawrence J. Peter’s principle of organizational structures, known as The Peter Principle, states that people are promoted until they reach their level of incompetence, and the army was a tragic example of the principle. The command structure of the Army of the Potomac was still populated with Ineffective or incompetent officers, and as the siege of Petersburg got under way, this ineptitude would cost many soldiers in blue their lives.
Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock had been wounded July 3rd, 1863 at Gettysburg during Pickett’s Charge. A nail and shards of wood, possibly from his saddle, were driven deep into his upper thigh. The wound had healed slowly, and Hancock did not return to command of the Second Corps until April, 1864. The Overland Campaign had been hard on him and his men,and, as the general’s physical reserves were drained from him, the old wound became more and more of a problem. When the corps drew up before Petersburg, he could barely walk, let alone ride a horse. On June 18th, Hancock yielded command of the Second Corps to his senior division commander, Maj. Gen. David B. Birney, a political general who had the reputation of being cold, and who was not well-liked by the men in the ranks.
Early on Wednesday, June 22nd, the Union Second and Sixth Corps held a long line of breastworks south of Petersburg along the Jerusalem Plank Road (Jerusalem is now Courtland, VA). The Second Corps, under Birney, held the northern part of the line, while the Sixth, under Maj. Gen. Horatio Wright held the south, with a combined force of about 27,000 men.
The plan for the day was simple. The two corps were to work together to advance in a grand right wheel movement (like a swinging gate) to take control of the Weldon Railroad to the west and bring them up squarely against a new line of Confederate works. The north end, or pivot point, of the Second Corps line was anchored by Gen. Gibbon’s Division, which included the Fourteenth Connecticut Volunteer Infantry. They would have the shortest distance to march. Gen. Mott’s Division formed the center of the Second Corps line and the south end, next to the Sixth Corps, was held by Gen. Barlow’s Division. (Click here for a Wikipedia map.)
When the advance started at about 8 a.m., the Second Corps began to swing right as expected, but Wright’s Sixth Corps advanced along the Globe Tavern Road. When they ran into Wilcox’s Confederates, Wright’s men dug in and Wright refused to go any farther. A gap widened between the Sixth Corps and Barlow’s Division of the Second.
Gen. William Mahone, an aggressive division commander in Lt. Gen. A. P. Hill’s Corps seized the opportunity and at about 3 p.m., launched an attack on Barlow’s exposed flank. Barlow’s flank collapsed. Fire from three sides quickly routed them and sent them falling back on Mott’s Division with Mahone’s men close behind. Mott’s men did little to stem the Confederate assault and fell back to the works they had left that morning. And after some fighting Gibbon’s Division also withdrew to the line parallel to Jerusalem Plank Road as did Wright’s Corps. The Union force had been soundly defeated by less than one third their number. Poor execution by Wright’s corps caused some to call for his dismissal.
Second Corps casualties in this miserable affair were almost 2,400 (650 killed or wounded, 1742 captured). Sixth Corps total casualties were only 150. As the fortunes of war go, the men of the Fourteenth Connecticut saw hardly any fighting. The Confederates withdrew to their entrenchments, and two days later the Federals advanced to claim all of the land they had tried to take by force.
This unfortunate episode in the history of the Second Corps brought to light several serious problems in the Army of the Potomac. I have already alluded to the problems of command. Additionally, the men were worn out from being constantly on the go since the beginning of May. A supply base on the south side of the James River had not yet been built, so food shortages continued to be a problem. It was also learned that men could not just be replaced when they fell in battle. About his own division, Gen. Gibbon reported that on May 1st he had 6,800 men fit for duty. As of June 30th, casualties were almost 6,200, among whom were 380 officers. The ranks had been filled with 4,263 replacements. His division had, both literally and figuratively, been drained of life and was virtually unfit for further duty.
I have no doubt that,had a rested and ready Army of the Potomac arrived before Petersburg, rather than a spent and exhausted one, the city would have been quickly taken. As it was, the siege that resulted from Federal failure would stretch out over nine months.