Category Archives: 1864 – Summer

Political Correctness Civil War Style

Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s plan for what would become known as the Battle of the Crater was fairly simple. At a point about a half mile southeast of Petersburg, where the Confederate works were only about 125 yards away from those of the Federals, a mine would be dug underneath the works of the enemy, The mine would be filled with black powder and exploded. Before the debris had even settled, a well-trained assault force would rush toward the breach and establish a foothold within the enemy lines that would then be exploited by tens of thousands of additional troops held at the ready.

Pennsylvania miners employed their brawn and skills in digging a 500-foot-long tunnel underneath the Rebel works. At the end of the tunnel chambers were dug to the right and left, large enough to accommodate six tons of black power. The assault force was drilled over and over. They would rush forward in three columns, passing to around the edge of the crater, rather than running down into it. Once inside the Confederate works, they would split into three sections. The first would engage the enemy to the left while the second did the same on the right right. The third column would drive straight ahead toward the Jerusalem Plank Road. In the words of their commanding officer, the men “practiced these movements till they could have been executed as perfectly in the dark as in the light.” The men were also trained in the use of the weapon of choice for this assault—the bayonet.

Late in July 1864 the tunnel was completed. The mine was scheduled to explode at 3:30 a.m. on Saturday, July 30th. The black powder arrived and was carried keg by keg down the long tunnel and stacked in the two chambers. But there was only four tons rather than six, and the fuse, which should have been a single continuous strand from powder chamber to tunnel mouth, was supplied in short sections. Many splices were required to achieve the required distance.

Alfred Waud's sketch of fighting near the explosion of July 30 (Library of Congress Digital Collection)

Alfred Waud’s sketch of fighting near the explosion of July 30 (Library of Congress Digital Collection)

two days before the scheduled explosion, Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac, made a decision that doomed the entire operation to failure. The troops chosen to lead the assault were the 43rd U. S. Colored Troops, and Meade thought it “impolitic” to trust these men with so important a job. They were a new division, untried in battle, but the real reason behind Meade’s decision to shelve the 43rd USCT was because casualties would likely be high in the lead units, and he feared the political and racial criticisms he would be subject to because of the loss of more black soldiers than whites in the assault.

The lead division was then chosen by lot, not by ability. The lot fell to Brig. Gen. James Ledlie’s Division. The explosion was delayed over an hour by the faulty fuses. And when it finally did explode, Ledlie’s untrained men, led by a man whom Gen. Grant considered the worst commander in the Ninth Corps, surged forward into the pit created by the explosion. Unable to climb out, they were trapped there, and what the Confederates called a “turkey shoot” was on.

The men of the Fourteenth Connecticut, along with the rest of Second Corps, stood ready to go forward should any success be achieved by Burnside’s Ninth Corps. But there was only abject failure and the Second Corps took no part in this disaster. Total Ninth Corps casualties were 3,800, with over 500 men killed, many of whom were black soldiers from the 30th USCT. Gen. Grant said it best—”the saddest affair I have ever witnessed in the war.”


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.

Seeing The Big Picture

As I alluded in last week’s post, the month of July was for the most part relatively quiet along the siege lines at Petersburg, but the Civil War was not being decided only in those entrenchments. Momentous events were taking place elsewhere, and Lt. Gen. U. S. Grant seemed to have a good understanding of the entire scope of the war. He was decisive, and decisions he made during this time would be of lasting benefit to the Union cause.

In June, unknown to Grant, Lee had sent Gen. Jubal Early’s Corps to deal with a Union force under Gen. David Hunter in the Shenandoah Valley. After a very minor engagement at Lynchburg, VA, Hunter retreated northward. His only opposition gone, Early lost no time marching up the valley to the Potomac. When Grant finally learned of Hunter’s complete failure and this new threat to Washington, he ordered Gen. Lew Wallace, in command of a garrison at Baltimore to march out and slow Early down. Then Grant ordered the Sixth and Nineteenth Corps to Baltimore immediately.

Wallace’s command of raw troops met Early’s veterans at Monocacy, MD on July 9th, and the result was predictable. The Union infantry never stood a chance of victory, but they did buy just enough time for reinforcements to arrive. On July 12th Early’s men approached Fort Stevens, just six miles north of the capitol building, Wright’s Sixth Corps was manning the parapets. After a brief fight, Early was forced to retreat back the way he had come. Washington was saved because of Grant’s quick and decisive response to the sudden threat.

In Georgia, by July 10th, Union Gen. W. T. Sherman had pressed the Confederate army under Gen. Joe Johnston south of the Chattahoochee River and into their defenses around Atlanta. The only worry Sherman seemed to have was enemy cavalry interfering with his supply and communications lines. Grant sent Gen. A. J. Smith out of Memphis to deal with the problem and on July 14th, Smith defeated the combined Confederate cavalry forces of Generals Stephen D. Lee and Nathan Bedford Forrest at the Battle of Tupelo, MS.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis relieved Gen. Johnson of command at Atlanta and replaced him with the impetuous Gen. John Bell Hood on July 17th. Hood attacked Sherman’s forces three times, and every time Hood’s veteran troops were soundly defeated: Peachtree Creek – July 20th, Battle of Atlanta – July 22nd, Ezra Church – July 28th.

Several times during the war, Lee had sent large bodies of troops elsewhere to try to stem the advances Union forces were making. (Early’s dispatch to the Shenandoah was just the latest example of the is strategy.) Grant knew this and he planned to do what he could to hold the remainder of Lee’s forces in and around Petersburg. The mining of the Confederate works mentioned at the start of last week’s post was part of this plan.

A second part of the plan was set in motion during the last week of the month. Gen. W. S. Hancock, now returned from medical leave, was ordered to take his Second Corps back across the James River to the north side, along with Sheridan’s cavalry corps. The idea was to attract Lee’s attention and force him to keep all of his troops close to Richmond and Petersburg. In this Grant succeeded well, but the results, as we shall see next week, were not what he had hoped for.




Siege Work – Can You Dig It?

150 YEARS AGO TODAY the siege of Petersburg continued into its fourth week. Men of the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry of Burnside’s Ninth Corps, many of whom had been coal miners before the war, were busy tunneling under the Confederate fortifications along the Jerusalem Plank Road line about two miles southeast of the center of the city. The tunnel would extend over 500 feet. Chambers dug at the far end would be packed with 8,000 lbs. of black powder. On July 30th, at 4:44 a.m. a tremendous explosion would blow a huge hole in the Confederate line and the ensuing Battle of the Crater would prove exceedingly ghastly and bloody, particularly for the men of the Ninth Corps.

But little of great consequence, except for the incessant sharpshooting was happening elsewhere along the siege lines. When Confederate Maj. Gen. Jubal Early advanced into Maryland and caused panic to sweep through Washington, Wright’s Sixth Corps was dispatched to deal with the threat.

For our friends in the Fourteenth Connecticut, it was a time of being always at the ready, but not being called upon to go into battle. To celebrate July 4th, they turned out in their best, and probably only, attire for dress parade, their first in over two months. Over the following days, they formed up to march, but only went a short distance one way or another. On the 15th, the regiment marched some distance toward the rear, likely in the direction of City Point again, and it looked like they were in for an extended stay. “Clean up the area, lay out streets, and set up camp,” were the orders. No doubt the men were pleased with this development.

Then, at about 11:00 p.m., after most of the men were enjoying deepest slumber, their brigade commander, Brig. Gen. Thomas Smyth galloped through the quiet camp. “Fall in immediately,” he cried. “Light marching gear.”

We must be needed desperately at the front, the men must have thought. Battle must be imminent for such an alarm to be raised. The regiment was ready to march in eight minutes, but it was only a work detail. Just as the Pennsylvania men were doing miles away, the men of the Fourteenth Connecticut manned picks and shovels in the heat and dust to level a portion of the fortifications abandoned by the Rebels weeks earlier. The work lasted two or three days and then on Tuesday, July 19th, it rained long and hard, blessed and refreshing, the first such rain in six weeks.


Foragers’ Delight

On Friday, June 24th, after the sad affair along the Jerusalem Plank Road, the Fifth Corps came up to the long line of earthworks along the road to relieve the Second Corps. The weary men marched a couple of miles east and camped in some woods for the weekend. The weather continued hot and dry. Dust and thirst were their constant companions. On Monday, the 27th they continued eastward, crossed the Petersburg and Norfolk Railroad, and then marched another three miles toward the James River. The total distance marched was only about five miles, but many fell by the wayside because of the intense heat.

The army was being supplied by scores of steamships that came up the James River from Hampton Roads every day. During the early weeks of the siege the U. S. Military Railroad had not yet been built, so the Union soldiers were being supplied the way they had during most of the conflict, by wagon trains. Gibbon’s Second Division was used as a strong picket line to protect the wagon trains from Rebel attacks. Their position was probably between Prince George and Hopewell.

A huge bonus in this guard duty was that food was abundant. According to Sgt. Edward Wade (Co. F, 14th CT), as recorded by Charles Page in The History of the Fourteenth Regiment, “There were quite a number of plantations around here, and plenty of hogs, cows, sheep, geese, and turkeys which were confiscated by the troops. The inhabitants had mostly cleared out and left what they couldn’t carry with them, which came very handy for us. Some of their provisions they had put in barrels and hid in the woods nearby, but soldiers’ eyes are ever open….” Wade also reported that they had to dig several wells to get suitable drinking water.

Now, here’s the weird part. This guard duty and foraging expedition lasted only for one day. On Tuesday, June 28th, at about eleven in the morning, the men were ordered to march back toward the front. But they must not have returned empty handed, because Sgt. Wade added, “We lived well for a while.”

The Road to Jerusalem

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.

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.