Civil War Book Review: The Battle of First Deep Bottom

by Brett Schulte on October 21, 2014 · 10 comments

Editor’s Note: This review first appeared yesterday at The Siege of Petersburg Online and has been cross-posted here.

Price, James S. The Battle of First Deep Bottom. (The History Press: September 2014). 160 pages, illustrations, over 35 images, 3 maps, notes, bibliography, index. ISBN: 978-1-60949-541-1 $19.99 (Paperback).

FirstBattleOfDeepBottomPrice2014Benjamin F. Naylor of the 183rd Pennsylvania asked, “who will write up the Deep Bottom fights?” in the October 18, 1883 edition of the National Tribune, a Union veterans newspaper based out of Washington, D. C.  He’s had to wait an incredibly long time to see results, but the wait is over.  Jimmy Price’s new book The Battle of First Deep Bottom, published by the History Press, covers the action north of the James River during Grant’s Third Offensive against Petersburg in late July 1864.  Bryce Suderow wrote an excellent article on the battle which was published in the now defunct North & South, but this is the first time a book has been specifically dedicated to First Deep Bottom.

James S. Price is the Historic Site Manager at Bristoe Station Battlefield Heritage Park.  He has a Masters in Military History from Norwich University.  This is not his first Siege of Petersburg effort, having previously written The Battle of New Market Heights: Freedom Will Be Theirs by the Sword. Price also maintains the Civil War blog Freedom by the Sword: A Historian’s Journey through the American Civil War Era.

The First Battle of Deep Bottom, contested from July 27-29, 1864 and consisting of several disparate engagements, is nearly unknown today.  The difference between its planning and actual execution is striking as well as somewhat confusing.  Winfield Scott Hancock was to take his own Second Corps, Army of the Potomac, two of Phil Sheridan’s cavalry divisions, and Kautz’s cavalry division, and launch an expedition north of the James River, crossing over at Deep Bottom.  Ultimately, Hancock was to drive west and northwest from the Deep Bottom bridgehead and attack the Confederate infantry he found opposite him.  Sheridan was to take his cavalry and drive north to destroy a portion of the Virginia Central Railroad between Richmond and the South Anna River.  He would then return and help the Second Corps take Richmond.  If the operation resulted in success, Grant would call of the mine explosion he had panned.  If not, he hoped the threat to Richmond would draw off some of Lee’s men defending Petersburg.  Except for the last part, none of this actually happened.

The area known as “Deep Bottom” is on the James River where it makes a hard turn from north to west.  It was so named due to the quick current in this area creating a very deep point in the James River here.  Grant had ordered a bridgehead developed earlier in the Siege of Petersburg, and its presence had irked Lee for some time.  His biggest fear, that the Union force would launch an attack from this bridgehead, was about to come true.

Camp Pope Publishing

Hancock was supposed to cross the James River west of Four-Mile Creek on the upper pontoon bridge on the night of July 26th into July 27th.  Instead he crossed at Tilghman’s Wharf on the lower pontoon bridge further east, fearing a Confederate attack and looking for some natural protection in the form of Bailey’s Creek.  Hancock was already headed northeast rather than west and northwest.  The first day’s fighting on July 27th near Strawberry Plains consisted of a Union division sized attack on the Confederate forward line on the River Road, held by two infantry brigades, Gary’s cavalry brigade, and the four 20-lb Parrotts of Graham’s Battery.  After the Confederate infantry fled and Gary’s counterattack on the Union right flank came too late, Graham’s four guns were captured by Northern skirmishers.  All four had originally been Union guns, captured at various points in the war by the Confederates.  They were Union once more.

After this initial successful attack, Hancock seemed reluctant to attack.  In fact he preferred to stay where he was.  Eventually, he moved his infantry in a giant left wheel, facing the Confederate forces which had retreated beyond Bailey’s Creek.  Then, he sent Sheridan’s Cavalry further to the right, but not to send them on their way to the Virginia Central Railroad.  Instead, he modified the plan and simply had three divisions of cavalry patrol his right flank.  He wasted the rest of the day trying to cautiously probe for the Confederate left flank, and even a personal visit from Grant to this area of the front failed to move him.

Hancock’s advance on July 27 alarmed the Confederates, and they took the offensive the next day.  Lee ordered Henry Heth’s Third Corps division to march from Petersburg and reinforce Kershaw’s forces north of the James.  Heth’s Division was used to hold the New Market line from Chaffin’s Farm to Fussell’s Mill, while Richard H. Anderson put together a strike force of four brigades from Kershaw’s and Wilcox’s divisions.  This force was to be led by Brigadier General James Conner from Wilcox’s Division.  Ultimately, only three of the four brigades actually attacked, and they did so without a skirmish line to tell them what was lurking ahead.  They ran headlong into elements of Sheridan’s two cavalry divisions near the Darby Farm, and after a hard fight the Union troopers managed to drive back the Confederate foot soldiers.  The attack suffered from the need to advance over treacherous terrain and lack of coordination.

On July 29, the two sides had opposite goals.  Hancock was at this point simply trying to bluff the Confederates into bringing more troops north of the James, having already sent back Mott’s Division to support the mine attack scheduled for the morning of July 30.  The Confederates, on the other hand, were concentrating, and hoped to move into advantageous positions on the 29th for a major attack on the 30th, an attack which would never come.  Hancock retreated from the Bailey’s Creek line back to the River road, the line he had taken from the Confederates on July 27.  This shorter line required fewer men to defend.  He also had a portion of his cavalry ride south of the James during the night and then march back across the lower pontoon bridge on foot, mimicking infantry reinforcements.  Anderson, on the other hand, received cavalry reinforcements in the form of Rooney and Fitz Lee’s divisions.  At the high point of this Confederate build-up, only three infantry divisions (Mahone’s, Hoke’s, and Johnson’s) remained behind to defend Petersburg.  Hancock’s diversion was having the desired effect.

At nightfall, having done his job, Hancock’s force was marched across the James, over Bermuda Hundred, and back to a supporting role on the lines east of Petersburg in time to support the ill-fated mine attack which turned into the Battle of the Crater.

Author Jimmy Price is not afraid to criticize anyone, and his dissatisfaction with Winfield Scott Hancock’s performance during this opportunity for independent field command stands out.  Price believes Hancock never wanted to attack from day 1.  His odd decision to cross the James on the lower pontoon bridge put a formidable defensive obatacle, Bailey’s Creek, between his forces and Richmond.  In messages to Meade and Grant during the First Deep Bottom operation, he often seems to be pleading with them not to make him go forward.  In addition, Hancock was involved in several embarrassing public spats with respected division commander John Gibbon.  The two had gotten along very well prior to this point, but Hancock’s repeated verbal abuse led Gibbon to seek, and gain, a transfer to the Army of the James. Sheridan, always an aggressive commander, seems to have been strangely passive at First Deep Bottom.  His comments later simply claimed that he was following Hancock’s orders, but Price doesn’t buy it.  Grant receives a modest level of criticism as well, both for the way the expedition was quickly launched without much forethought and for the way Grant mostly left Hancock and Sheridan to their own devices.  Lee, Anderson and Kershaw come in for some criticism on the Confederate side.  Kershaw was surprised on July 27, and his lack of action and inability to control the situation led to the capture of Graham’s Battery.  Anderson’s attack on July 28 was launched without any advance scouting, and one of his four brigades assigned to the attack never even made it into the fight.  Lee failed to assign one commander to the forces  north of the James, with Kershaw and then Anderson commanding forces from the Army of Northern Virginia, while Richard S. Ewell continued to be in charge of all troops from the Department of Richmond.

Bryce Suderow has been studying First and Second Deep Bottom for decades, and it’s clear that he selflessly helped the author in this endeavor.  Price mentions him specifically by name early in the book.  As editor of The Siege of Petersburg Online, Bryce has given me numerous primary accounts of the fighting in this area, so many of the bibliographical sources Price lists are familiar to me.  He was able to obtain quite a few good first person accounts, and the soldiers are often allowed to tell the story of the fighting in their own words.  The maps by Steven Stanley are well done, as is typical with him.  They go down to regimental level and cover the fighting on July 27 (1 map) and July 28 (2 maps).  The only complaint, a minor one, is the lack of a larger strategic map to show where Deep Bottom is located in relation to Richmond and Petersburg.

Author Jimmy Price wrote in his Preface “It is my hope that this book will be the starting point for all who wish to further their understanding of this important action and the tone it would set for the confrontations between Grant and Lee for the remainder of 1864.”  His hope is fulfilled with The Battle of First Deep Bottom.  Anyone interested in learning about the “other” operation which was going on prior to the Battle of the Crater during the Third Offensive against Petersburg will want to own this book.  Those looking for a “battle book” which focuses on new operations rather than rehashing Gettysburg for the 10,000th time will find it well written and entertaining.  It may give Gettysburg buffs new insight into Hancock, one of the heroes of that famous fight.  The author and publisher are to be commended for bringing to light not one but two obscure Petersburg Campaign battles with Price’s first two books.  Buy this book and Price’s earlier effort on New Market Heights.  Both are excellent introductions to the late war fighting around Richmond and Petersburg.

An e-copy of this book was provided gratis for the purposes of this review.

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

James F. Epperson October 22, 2014 at 9:35 am

Not sure where I read these, but I have seen two theories on why WSH was so cautious at Deep Bottom: 1. He was afraid of having his troops flanked as had happened at Jerusalem Plank Road in June (when Birney was in temporary command of the corps). 2. His Gettysburg wound was bothering him. I am inclined to a combination of the two. I think his deteriorating relationship with Gibbon was also a factor.

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Brett Schulte October 22, 2014 at 10:43 am

Thanks for weighing in. I know for sure Jimmy covers #2 in the text, but I don’t recall if he mentioned #1 or not. If so, I missed it. Both are plausible and both probably contributed to his uncharacteristic caution.

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Drew W. October 22, 2014 at 11:01 am

I’ve often wondered to what degree we should reassess the time honored Gettysburg wound excuse for Hancock’s often frighteningly bad command performances later in the war.

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Brett Schulte October 22, 2014 at 11:08 am

Interesting point Drew. Jerusalem Plank Road, First and Second Deep Bottom, Reams Station…it’s actually quite a long list at Petersburg alone.

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James F. Epperson October 22, 2014 at 11:29 am

WSH wasn’t at Jerusalem Plank Road—that was Birney—point the point is still valid. I think the difference might be defensive vs. offensive fighting.

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Brett Schulte October 22, 2014 at 11:33 am

Yep, forgot about that. That was the first time his Gettysburg wound acted up at Petersburg. That’s also a good point regarding defense vs. offense. Hancock was asked to do things at Petersburg which were not required of him at Gettysburg.

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James F. Epperson October 22, 2014 at 12:09 pm

It is actually a good point to make about the entire AotP command structure in 1864. As part of a talk I give on the opening of the Wilderness Campaign, I pose the following question:

Of the higher commanders who followed Grant over the Rapidan, who had had the greatest success at the highest level of command in an offensive capacity?

Here are my answers:

Meade: Some success as a division commander at Antietam and Fredericksburg
Hancock: A single brigade attack at Williamsburg.
Warren: None that I can find.
Sedgwick: Led small force (very cautiously) at Second Fredericksburg and then much better at Rappahannock Station.
Sheridan: Led a division on campaign, but not in battle (offensively).
Burnside: Led a corps which seized eastern North Carolina in 1862; took Knoxville in 1863.

You are in real trouble when Burnside is your man 😉

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Dan O'Connell October 24, 2014 at 7:07 am

While Hancock takes legitimate heat for the poor showing here Sheridan seems to get a pass. He was equally passive and added almost nothing to the operation.

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Brett Schulte October 24, 2014 at 5:20 pm

Dan, you’ll be happy to know Jimmy agrees with you and comments on that very thing. It really is odd that a combination of Hancock, Sheridan, and Grant produced so little in terms of actual fighting. They DID manage to pull all but three Confederate infantry divisions north of the James, but it has always seemed odd to me that Hancock crossed at the lower pontoon bridge and voluntarily placed Bailey’s Creek in his path.

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James F. Epperson October 24, 2014 at 5:32 pm

That has always bothered me, as well. I think WSH is the key here. Grant was looking to “shake the tree” and catch what fell—if the attack worked, great, if it drew Lee to send troops north, so much the better for the Mine. I’m not sure what Sheridan’s issue was, although several of his divisions had recently been roughly handled.

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