Battles & Leaders of the Civil War
FOUR DAYS OF BATTLE AT PETERSBURG. (1)
THE movement of the Army of the Potomac to the south side of the James (2) began on the evening of the 12th of June, and Smith's corps (the Eighteenth) was at Bermuda Hundred in the early afternoon of the 14th. From Point of Rocks it crossed the river that night and was pushed forward without delay against Petersburg. Kautz's cavalry and Hinks's command of colored troops had been added to it. (3)
It was with a view to thwart General Grant in the execution of such a plan that I proposed to the War Department [June 9th] the adoption - should the emergency justify it, and I thought it did-of the bold and, to me, safer plan of concentrating all the forces we could readily dispose of to give battle to Grant, and thus decide at once the fate of Richmond and of the cause we were fighting for, while we still possessed a comparatively compact, well disciplined, and enthusiastic army in the field.
From Swift Creek, early on June 14th, I telegraphed to General Bragg : " Movement of Grant's across Chickahominy and increase of Butler's force render my position here critical. With my present forces I cannot answer for consequences. Cannot my troops sent to General Lee be returned at once ? . . ." No answer came. Late in tho evening of the same day, having further reason to believe that one corps at least of General Grant's army was already within Butler's lines, I telegraphed to General Lee : `` A deserter from the enemy reports that Butler has been re-enforced by the Eighteenth and a part of the Tenth Army Corps." To this dispatch, likewise, there came no response. But, as prompt and energetic action became more and more imperative, and as I could no longer doubt the presence of Smith's corps with Butler's forces, I sent one of my aides, Colonel Samuel B. Paul, to General Lee with instructions to explain to him the exact situation. General Lee's answer to Colonel Paul was not encouraging. He said that I must be in error in believing the enemy had thrown a large force on the south side of the James; that the troops referred to by me could be but a few of Smith's corps going back to Butler's lines. Strange to say, at the very time General Lee was thus expressing himself to Colonel Paul, the whole of Smith's corps was actually assaulting the Petersburg lines. But General Lee finally said that he had already issued orders for the return of Hoke's division ; that he would do all he could to aid me, and even come himself should the necessity arise.
The Confederate forces opposed to Smith's corps on the 15th of June consisted of the 26th, 34th, and 46th Virginia regiments, the 64th Georgia, the 23d South Carolina, Archer's militia, Battle's and Wood's battalions, Sturdivant's battery, Dearing's small command of cavalry, and some other transient forces, having a real effective for duty of 2200 only. These troops occupied the Petersburg line on the left from Battery No. 1 to what was called Butterworth's Bridge, toward the right, and had to be so stationed as to allow but one man for every 4 % yards. From that bridge to the Appomattox-a distance of fully 4% miles-the line was defenseless.
Early in the morning - at about 7 o'clock - General Dearing, on the Broadway and City Point roads, reported his regiment engaged with a large force of the enemy. The stand made by our handful of cavalry, near their breastworks, was most creditabe to themselves and to their gallant commander, and the enemy's ranks, at that point, were much thinned by the accurate fiery under Graham. But the weight of numbers soon produced its almost inevitable result, and, in spite of the desperate efforts of our men, the cavalry breastworks were flanked and finally abandoned by us, with the loss of one howitzer.
At 10 o'clock A. m. the skirmishing had assumed very alarming proportions. To the urgent demands of General Wise for reenforcements, I was enabled at last to answer that part of Hoke's division was on the way from Drewry's Bluff and would be in time to save the day, if our men could stand their ordeal, hard as it was, a little while longer. Then all along the line, from one end to the other, the order was given "to hold on at all hazards!" It was obeyed with the resolute fortitude of veterans, though many of the troops thus engaged, with such odds against them, had hardly been under fire before. At 12 M., and as late as 2 P. M., our center was vigorously pressed, as though the Norfolk and Petersburg Railroad were the immediate object of the onset. General Wise now closed the line from his right to strengthen Colonel J. T. Goode and, with him, the 34th Virginia ; while, at the same time and with equal perspicacity, he hurried Wood's battalion toward the left in support of Colonel P. R. Page and his command.
The enemy, continuing to mass his columns toward the center of our line, pressed it more and more and concentrated his heaviest assaults upon Batteries Nos. 5, 6, and 7. Thinned out and exhausted as they were, General Wise's heroic forces resisted still, with such unflinching stubbornness as to equal the veterans of the Army of Northern Virginia. I was then on the field and only left it when darkness set in. Shortly after 7 p. M. the
(1) Taken by permission from the "North American Review" for December, 1887, an) For the particulars of the previous attempt on Petersburg, see the article by General Beauregard, p. 195, and that by General William F. Smith, p. 206.-EDITORS.
(3) The Ninth Corps (Burnside's) and the Sixth (Wright's) moved by way of Jones's Bridge and Charles City Court House road. The Second Corps (Hancock's) and the Fifth (Warren's) were marched from Long Bridge to Wilcox's Landing.-G. T. B.