With the basic roles of the campaign determined (Grant-offense; Lee-defense) the commanders had to create the means to accomplish their goals. Frustrated by the lack of progress in front of Petersburg, Grant decided to make use of his two brigade bridgehead. He was determined to turn it into a base for a thrust at the enemy communications. In a July 25th message to Meade, Grant explained the concept of this operation.
“I propose to make a demonstration on the north side of the James River, having for its real object the destruction of the railroad on that side.”
The resources Grant intended to use for this mission were not insignificant. Slated for use was Hancock’s II Corps, then sitting in reserve behind the front line, and two divisions of Sheridan’s Cavalry Corps. The primary objective was the Virginia Central Railroad and to ensure the destruction of the bridges over the Chickahominy Grant also promised to attach 200 railroad men from Rufus Ingalls to the expedition.
The cavalry was to punch through the thin line Confederate line surrounding the bridgehead and advance as “rapidly as possible” while Hancock’s men ensured that Sheridan’s troopers were not cut off from the river. Hancock also was to use his discretion if in his judgment it was possible to launch his force or any part of his force at Richmond. In a second July 25th wire to Meade, Grant added another potential advantage to the Union effort. Burnside’s mine was nearly ready to be loaded with explosives and Grant felt “the expedition ordered may cause such a weakening of the enemy at Petersburg as to make an attack there possible.”
Of course before any of these benefits could be felt it was necessary to get the assigned troops into position to execute the plan. Grant wanted this to be done as secretly and rapidly as possible. The proposed movement placed two major water obstacles in their path, the Appomattox and James Rivers. The rapid deployment of such a large force required additional crossings. The Appomattox was bridged in an unopposed effort by Captain Henry Slosson and the 15th New York Engineers at Broadway Landing. Hancock was instructed to use the existing bridge at Point of Rocks and the cavalry was to cross at Broadway Landing. At the James, Lubey would again lead the effort to place another bridge.
For General Lee the goal was simpler. Lee had correctly evaluated the Union actions to be an attempt at “preventing our operations on the river.” Furthermore, the enemy had challenged his left flank and had to be checked. To accomplish this he ordered MG James Kershaw’s Division of I Corps to Chaffin’s Bluff early on July 23rd to supplement BG James Conner’s South Carolina Brigade. His order instructed the troops to “move by a route so as not to be observed by the enemy and as rapidly as possible.” There was no room for “unnecessary delay.”
Kershaw’s men were in position the following day. A report reached Lee describing the Federal activities. It also informed Lee that Kershaw had “disposed of his troops so as to defend” the roads radiating out from the Union bridgehead. Disappointed Lee chastised Kershaw through Ewell with a scathing commentary on his actions.
“My object in sending troops there was to endeavor to dislodge the enemy, drive them across the river and destroy the bridges, and if practicable I wish this done, and have sent a dispatch to General Kershaw to that effect. We cannot afford to sit down in front of the enemy and allow him to entrench himself whenever he pleases, and I wish you to see if you cannot break him up on the north side of the James River.”
Not surprisingly Kershaw responded to the request with a message that acknowledged his intent to attack. At this point both Kershaw and Lee believed that they were to assault two Federal brigades. The enemy was well entrenched and success was not guaranteed. Little did they know that a short distance to the south an entire Union corps and two cavalry divisions were about to enter the battle space.
Bridge at Deep BottomThe First Battle of Deep Bottom (Campaign Series)