Bryce A. Suderow on the Petersburg Campaign

by Brett Schulte on May 20, 2009 · 6 comments

Longtime student of the Petersburg Campaign and author of an unpublished manuscript on First and Second Deep Bottom Bryce A. Suderow was kind enough to offer up his opinions on the campaign in a recent comment here at TOCWOC – A Civil War Blog.  Bryce is not a fan of Ulysses S. Grant, as you will see below.  I enjoyed reading Bryce’s articles in North and South Magazine on both Deep Bottom battles and he has helped me greatly in my own study of the Petersburg Campaign.  His comments were lengthy and thought-provoking, just the sort of qualities which make those comments a great candidate for a blog entry…

For years Grant’s apologists have been blaming his incompetence on his subordinates.  Is it possible that they will do this in 3 or 4 upcoming books on the Siege of Petersburg?  I refer to books by Gordon Rhea, Will Greene and Gary Gallagher.  If they do excuse Grant it will require a slight-of-hand that Houdini would have admired.

Here are the facts:

Grant failed to capture Petersburg between June 15 and 18th because of his own mistakes.

Many of the were caused by what is known as Command and Control.  The first and perhaps the worst error Grant made was Butler’s attack on Petersburg on June 9th by Gillmore’s small force from the X Corps and Kautz’s cavalry.    It is true that the force defending the city was small but the works were mighty.  Perhaps the city could not have been captured by anyone given that small force.  Or perhaps the habitually cautious Gillmore was at fault  In any case the city did not fall and the Union attack alerted Beauregard to very real threat against the city.  He prepared for another attack just in case.

According to Porter on June 7th Grant sent him and Comstock to meet with Butler to discuss where Grant could cross the James.  They arrived on the 8th and left on the 10th to look for crossing points.  Thus they rs were there during the time that Butler hatched his plan for the attack and launched the attack.  Porter says they dispatched a note to Grant before setting out for their trip along the river.  (Campaigning With Grant, p. 188)

Presumably they informed Grant of the planned attack.  If Grant was aware of the proposed attack he should have cancelled it.  It was foolish to risk the key to Richmond on a hazardous enterprise;  no force smaller than the Army of the Potomac should have been employed to capture Petersburg.  If Grant was not aware of the proposed attack then he was a very poor Army Group Commander indeed and obviously failed to control Butler, his subordinate.  This was a command and control failure with a vengeance.

Grant also made errors because he did not create a good operations plan with a carefully thought out objective.  In fact Grant chose the wrong objective.  Bermuda Hundred, not Windmill Point, should have been the place where his army landed.  Reinforced by the Army of the Potomac directly under Grant’s and Meade’s command the Federals could have broken out of Butler’s “bottle” which was held only by Bushrod Johnson’s division.  They could have positioned themselves so that they cut the railroad and turnpike linking Lee to the north outside Richmond and Beauregard to the south at Petersburg.  Then at his leisure while holding the railroad and turnpike Grant could have captured Petersburg while Lee waited impotently to the north for the ax to fall.  Incidently Beauregard later expressed astonishment that Grant  failed to see this and he estimated that Richmond could only have held out for a very short time aftewards – I think a month or so if Grant had cut the lines.  I should also point out that when I first spoke to Terry Justice about this he told me he had glanced at a map years ago of Petersburg and Richmond anrd realized that Bermuda Hundred was the key to capturing both.

And you will recall that after Butler did secure the railroad and turnpike on June 16th when Beauregard pulled Johnson out of the Bermuda Hundred lines to save Petersburg, Grant weakened his forces bound for Petersburg by diverting the VI Corps to reinforce Butler to keep the turnpike and railroad cut.  Only belatedly did he see the importance of their possession.  And sending Wright to aid Butler came too late to help Butler and it fatally weakened his attacking force at Petersburg.

Ever heard of the German military concept of “point of main effort”?  Apparently Grant had not for he attempted to make two points of main effort with forces that were too limited in numbers and failed at both points.

Another German concept is the one Clauswitz originated “friction” where the simplest task becomes difficult because of faulty staff work, poorly worded orders, hesitant subordinates and so forth.  Apparently Grant never grasped that idea either.

Grant’s failure to appreciate the role that friction plays in war seems odd, especially since the very victory that won him top command of the Union forces was a model of friction.  I refer to Lookout-Mountain/Missionary Ridge.  Grant ordered Sherman to make the decisive attack on Missionary Ridge, but the point he chose to attack was the wrong one and he didn’t give Sherman enough time to reach his objective- poor intelligence gathering so Sherman attacked late and in the wrong place.  Grant ordeed Thomas to make a demonstration to cause the rebels to weaken their forces in front of Sherman.  The demonstration turned into an attack that neither Thomas nor Grant ordered.  The attack would have failed except for the faulty placement of some Confederate troops.  Grant’s luck saved him but the battle had not gone the way Grant planned it.

Grant failed to gather adequate information about the strength of the Confedeates at Petersburg after the June 9th attack – poor intelligence at work again.  He should have assumed that beauregard would strengthen the garrison after the failed attack on June 9th – but he did not allow for this change.  Thus he repeated Butler’s mistake of June 9th – he trusted too small a force to make the attack.

Let’s imagine there’s a bookmaker, the kind of man who lays odds on sports events.  But this time he’s laying odds on whether Grant can succeed in capturing Petersburg.

Optimimum Scenario

1.  Through uncharacteristic foresight Grant collects enough transports to move the II Corps to Bermuda Hundred on June 13th and the other corps on the 14th.

2.  Meade commands the movement.of the troops.  On June 14th at the head of 100,000 troops he attacks Bushrod Johnson’s lines, held by 5000 troops.

Odds 10-1 in favor of Grant

Second-Best Scenario

1.  Grant does not allow Butler to attack Petersburg on June 9th

2.  Through uncharacteristic foresight Grant collected enough pontoons and transports to move the II Corps to Windmill point on June 13th and the other corps on the 14th.

3.  Meade commands the movement of troops and attacks Petersburg on June 14th with 100,000 troops.  It is defended by 2000 militia and 2000 cavalry.

Odds:  5-1in Grant’s favor

Third Scenario

1. Butler attacks Petersburg on June 9th.  Beauregard strengthens the garrison.

2.  Through uncharacteristic foresight Grant collects enough pontoons and transports to move the II Corps to Windmill point on June 13th and the other corps on the 14th.

3.  Also through uncharacteristic foresight Grant assumes Beauregard has strengthened Petersburg so he commits the entire Army of the Potomac.  Meade commands the movement of troops and attacks Petersburg on June 14th with 100,000 troops.  It is defended by Wise’s 2000 regulars, 2000 militia and 2000 cavalry.

Odds:  3-1 in Grant’s favor

Fourth Scenario

1. Butler attacks Petersburg on June 9th.  Beauregard strengthens the garrison.

2. Although the II Corps reached the James on the 13th and the rest of the corps arrived the next day, the pontoons arrive late and there aren’t enough transports.

3.  However through uncharacteristic foresight Grant assumes Beauregard has strengthened Petersburg so he commits the entire Army of the Potomac.  Meade commands the movement of troops and attacks Petersburg on June 14th with 100,000 troops.  It is defended by Wise’s 2000 regulars, 2000 militia and 2000 cavalry.

Odds 2-1 in Grant’s favor

Fifth Scenario

1. Butler attacks Petersburg on June 9th.  Beauregard strengthens the garrison.

2. Although the II Corps reached the James on the 13th and the rest of the corps arrived the next day, the pontoons arrive late and there aren’t enough transports.

3.  On May 12th Grant sends the XVIII Corps to Cole’s Landing on the Chickahominy River instead of White House on the Pamunkey.  Rawlins orders Smith to take his time loading the boats so that brigades and divisions are kept together.  The troops land without difficulty in evening of the 13th, a day early.  This gives them time to sort themselves out and rest.  Kautz and his cavalry are also ready.

Grant sends Hancock forward promptly on the morning of the 15th with orders to join Baldy Smith at Petersburg and participate in the attack.

Odds:  1-1 even odds

Sixth Scenario (What really happened)

1. Butler attacks Petersburg on June 9th.  Beauregard strengthens the garrison.

2. Although the II Corps reached the James on the 13th and the rest of the corps arrived the next day, the pontoons arrive late and there aren’t enough transports.

3.  On May 12th Grant sends the XVIII Corps to White House on the Pamunkey.  Rawlins orders Smith to load the boats as fast as possible without regard to organization thus mixing up brigades and divisions are kept together.  The troops land at night in evening of the 14th.  It takes all night to sort the troops out.  They are exhausted.  Kautz and his cavalry are not ready.

Grant tells Butler to send Hancock rations while the corps waits – without sending a staff officer to insure the rations arrive.  He issues Hancock a faulty map and tells him to halt at a creek that isn’t there – and wait for further orders.

Odds:  2-1 against Grant

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Richard D. Boles May 20, 2009 at 12:31 pm

Mr. Suderow, History is what it is , not what could have been or should have been. Grant made his decisions on Petersburg using the subordinates he had and with the information at hand. I believe after reading about the Civil War for a few years, It was a complete miracle that any given battle went the way it was plannned if planned at all. Luck , Devine provendence or what ever you want to call it helped even the best Gernerals. Including The Audacious Robert E. Lee. Ragging on Grant seems to be a national sport to some Historians. Bill Clinton is the most gifted politicion in modern history .George Bush kept us safe after 9.11. Grant was the Commanding General who received the surrender of The Army of Northern Virginia,commanded by General Robert E. Lee. It is what it is!

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elektratig May 21, 2009 at 7:24 pm

Brett,

I’m a huge admirer of Gen. and Pres. Grant, but this is a great post anyway. What do I read to get the background?

Reply

admin May 21, 2009 at 10:53 pm

elektratig,

Before I get to the books, I HIGHLY recommend visiting Jim Epperson’s Siege of Petersburg web site:

http://www.petersburgsiege.org/

There are several books I can and will recommend, but I think the best will be Gordon Rhea’s upcoming fifth and final book in his Overland Campaign series, which will end with the four day Battle of Petersburg Bryce describes above.

First, there are two pretty solid books on the Bermuda Hundred Campaign:

1) Back Door to Richmond: The Bermuda Hundred Campaign, April-June 1864 by William Glenn Roberston

2) Bermuda Hundred Campaign by Hubert Schiller

For a look at the June 9 “Battle of Old Men and Young Boys”, an ill-fated attempt by Butler to take Petersburg before the main armies arrived, check out the H.E. Howard book by William Glenn Robertson called “Petersburg Campaign the Battle of Old Men & Young Boys June 9 1864”.

Lastly, for a look at the Battle of Petersburg, get another H.E. Howard book, this one by Thomas Howe, The Petersburg Campaign: Wasted Valor: June 15-18, 1864.

For a look at a good portion of the campaign as a whole, check out The Last Citadel: Petersburg, Virginia June 1864-April 1865 by Noah Andre Trudeau.

I hope this helps!

Brett

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elektratig May 22, 2009 at 4:57 pm

As always, thanks Brett!

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admin May 23, 2009 at 11:28 am

You’re welcome! I’m always happy to help, but especially so when it comes to Petersburg.

Brett

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John Stephen Futini January 13, 2012 at 10:36 am

Dear Bryce,
I was a fellow history student at Sonoma State College from 1974-1976. Your dedicated Civil War research is impressive. Please keep up the good work in this regard. If you may recall, I did a Civil War paper on the Battles of Fort Fisher, NC, with your invaluable input. I will be giving two Civil War talks about the military and naval history of the conflict at Sonoma State (University) during the next two weeks. I trust all is well. If you visit the Bay Area, please let me know at the above email address.
Sincerely and Respectfully yours,
John Stephen Futini, Civil War buff.

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