Deep Bottom – Take One

“July 21st (1864) we drew potatoes, beets, turnips, onions, and pickles from the Sanitary Commission. They had previously issued good provisions to us and at this time we were living as good as anyone could ask.” – Sgt. Edward Wade (Co. F, Fourteenth Connecticut Volunteer Infantry)

Today, some of us might turn up our noses at this fare, but for Union foot soldiers, the vitamins and nutrients provided were essential for maintaining their health. At this time in the siege, they were receiving regular rations of fresh bread baked in huge ovens at City Point. Herds of beef cattle were slaughtered and the men were regularly blessed with rations of fresh meat. Now imagine the enticing aroma of beef stew simmering in a smoke-blackened pot over your campfire.

The year before at Vicksburg, after the first few days of trying to take the city by force, Gen. Grant was content to besiege the city and wait for hunger and deprivation to bring the siege to its inevitable conclusion. Confederate forces under Gen. Pemberton sheltered in their earthworks and hoped for deliverance from the outside, namely a second army under Gen. Joseph Johnston that was rumored to be lurking in Grant’s rear ready to strike. We might view the siege of Vicksburg as a slow and steady strangulation.

The siege of Petersburg was different. Strategies were employed on both sides in attempts to gain a decisive victory. Grant scheduled the explosion of the mine under the Confederate breastworks for Saturday, July 30th. On the 26th he ordered the Second Corps along with most of Sheridan’s cavalry to move north across the Appomattox River. After a march of about twenty miles, the Union force marched over a pontoon bridge that had been laid across the James River at a place known as Deep Bottom.

Gen. Lee reacted to this threat to his eastern flank by sending two divisions from the Petersburg entrenchments. This was exactly what Grant had hoped for. On July 27th, Hancock assaulted the Confederate breastworks along Bailey’s Creek with his First Division. According to Sgt. Wade, this initial assault met with some success, but eventually the division was repulsed. (Click here to view a Civil War Trust battle map in a new window.) The men of the Fourteenth Connecticut were not involved in this fight. After the crossing of the James, they filed into a line of breastworks near the river and watched a large gunboat and a turreted monitor lob shells over their heads toward the enemy.

On the 28th, Sheridan’s cavalry tried to storm the works as well, but Confederate infantry under Gen. Richard Anderson counterattacked and drove the Union cavalry backward to the Darby farm. Sheridan’s men rallied. They stood firm and used their repeating rifles with deadly effect. The Confederate infantry assault was stopped and hurled back, and the Union horse soldiers took over 200 prisoners.

The Battle of First Deep Bottom was not a big fight with just over 1,000 total casualties for both sides. Initially, Grant’s plan worked well. Lee weakened his defenses around what would become known as “The Crater.” On July 29th, both Hancock’s and Sheridan’s troops recrossed the James and were marching hard back toward the Petersburg lines. And so, by evening of that day, an overwhelming force of Union infantry had been assembled opposite the thinly held works of the enemy, waiting for a match to be struck to the fuse and ready to go forward at a moments notice.

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