First Battle of Deep Bottom – Part IV

July 27th (2400-0800)
While Foster conducted his isolated fight to preserve the bridgehead Hancock began his move. His orders were to cross the Appomattox at dark and proceed to Deep Bottom. After crossing that river he was to travel by side roads “so that the cavalry, which was crossing at Broadway Landing, might have an unobstructed road to Deep Bottom. “ The difficult passage down the unknown road in the dark was eased by General Butler who arranged to have the way lit by small fires placed at convenient intervals.

Arriving at the James, Hancock met with Sheridan and Foster. During the meeting Hancock briefed what he understood of his role in the operation. He was to take positions near Chaffin’s Bluff and prevent the Confederates from crossing troops to the north side of the river. This clearly was at odds with Grant’s commander’s intent to draw the Confederates in that direction to weaken the force in front of Burnside. Hancock went on to state that all other moves on his part were dependent on Sheridan’s actions. Again this seemed in contrast to Grant’s concept that had Hancock holding open the way by engaging the enemy west of Sheridan’s axis of advance.

These apparent misconceptions about his role in the operation were compounded after Hancock was briefed on the conditions across the river by Foster. After hearing what Foster had to say Hancock believed he was facing seven brigades (roughly 6000 men).* Based on this information Hancock made a startling announcement, instead of crossing at the upper bridge as planned he would move his corps to the lower bridge. It was an odd choice for two reasons. First he based his decision on Foster’s report alone that the enemy he was intended to drive away (or at least occupy) “held, apparently in considerable force a strong position near the upper bridge.” He did not report conducting a reconnaissance. Second using the lower bridge not only took him away from his target but placed a significant natural obstacle (Bailey’s Creek) squarely in his path. More surprisingly Meade readily assented to the change in plans in a 2:15 a.m. message stating only:
“You may use the lower bridge for the object selected.”

Hancock wasted no time acting on this approval. At 3:00 a.m. he issued the following order;

“We will use the lower bridge for the infantry; let division commanders be ready at daylight. I shall develop the enemy’s position by General Barlow and, if necessary General Mott**, seizing, if possible, the position in front and holding the crossing over Four Mile Run. We will then see if we can break through while the cavalry is passing us…”

The march to the lower bridge consumed the remainder of the night. It was not until 7:25 a.m. that Hancock could report his last brigade was crossing the bridge. Hancock, who announced that he did not use the upper crossing partly because it would cause the operation to “lose the character of surprise” had given the Confederates extra time to fortify their defense at the creek.

*Actual Confederate strength in the vicinity of the bridgehead was approximately 4000-4200, with another two brigades at Chaffin’s Bluff. With the cavalry Hancock’s force totaled about 22000-24000.
** Mott replacing Birney who departed 23 July to assume command of X Corps.

The First Battle of Deep Bottom (Campaign Series)


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