Book Excerpt: The Battle of Petersburg, June 15-18, 1864, Part 6

BattleOfPetersburgJune1864ChickPotomacEditor’s Note: This post was first posted at The Siege of Petersburg Online and has been crossposted here. This series of posts offer a look at Sean Chick’s new book The Battle of Petersburg, June 15-18, 1864.  The Battle of Petersburg was part of Grant’s First Offensive against Petersburg. Sean Michael Chick is a 33 year old New Orleans native who has been reading Civil War book since he first saw the film Glory in 1990. He earned a Masters degree in 2007 from Southeastern Louisiana University. His thesis became the basis of The Battle of Petersburg. His tentative future projects include books on Bermuda Hundred, Honey Hill, Tullahoma, and Confederate New Orleans.  In the coming weeks we’ll be offering up several pages of Chapter 3, which focuses on the first day’s fighting on June 15, 1864.    These posts will take readers up to the release of the book in mid-June 2015, 151 years after the events described within.  Also keep an eye out for an exclusive interview with Sean as the last post in the series.  Be sure to check out the bottom of each post to see links for all of the published posts in this series to date.



Smith opted to rest on his laurels and not press forward; any hope for the city’s capture would rest with Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps, now arriving on the field. Smith had good reason to trust in Hancock’s ability to carry the day. Dubbed “Hancock the Superb” in the Union army and dubbed the “Thunderbolt of the Army of the Potomac” by his foes he had gained a reputation as an inspiring and fearless leader, particularly at Gettysburg. Popular with nearly everyone, Hancock was also adept at cultivating the press, who turned him into one of the premiere heroes of the war. As commander of II Corps, Hancock embodied the fighting spirit of the organization, which was considered the cream of the army. Most of all, many of the dramatic triumphs of the Overland Campaign had been achieved by Hancock and his men, but the fighting was straining his abilities and devastating his corps. By the time his men had charged at Cold Harbor, they were a drained lot. In addition, the hard campaign was taking a toll on Hancock’s health. Hancock’s weaknesses, including vanity and pettiness, were coming more to the fore. His temper tantrums, which could on occasion force men into action, were lately more vindictive and pointless.[i]

On June 15, Hancock was the victim of great blunders in communication. He had not been informed of the move to Petersburg and, in his mind, his duty was to get across the James River and await orders. Grant falsely believed that Hancock had no rations so he ordered Butler to forward rations to II Corps, which already had two days worth of them on hand. Yet, the rations did not arrive. Meade, who was informed of the campaign’s objectives that morning, ordered Hancock to go forward to Petersburg without them, only to cancel the order when the food arrived. II Corps finally started out at 10:30 a.m.

The maps were so poor that Hancock had to rely on local black guides to find Petersburg. Despite these problems, II Corps made good time, advancing fourteen miles in a little under five hours. Once again a breakdown in communication confounded Hancock as he did not know he was also supposed to attack Petersburg. When he heard artillery in the distance, he asked the locals what was going on. At 5:30 p.m. messages from Smith and Grant arrived, ordering Hancock to attack Petersburg. He had only two divisions immediately available. Brigadier General Francis C. Barlow’s division, which was guarding the wagon trains, made a wrong turn and was marching towards City Point. Despite these difficulties, Hancock pressed on. He sent his chief of staff, Lieutenant Colonel Charles H. Morgan to confer with Smith and decide where to place II Corps. Smith, probably distracted by the attack, which started soon after Morgan arrived, was vague. He offered no details beyond wanting Hancock on the left; nor did he send anyone from his staff to consult with Hancock.[ii]

Major General David Birney’s division of II Corps arrived at 6:30 p.m. behind Hinks. They were a dusty and tired lot, having marched twenty-five miles without scarcely any water in extreme heat. Color Sergeant Daniel Crotty of the 7th Michigan was so dehydrated and sick that when he rested in the leaves of a forest he expected to die. The approach of a rattlesnake abruptly woke him from his morose thoughts and he sprinted over a mile before passing out.[iii] He awoke to find himself in the care of the Christian Commission. Stragglers like Crotty were common, but the sounds of battle caused many men to march quickly, and they arrived disorganized but generally eager. Frank Wilkeson of the 11th New York Artillery was convinced that at last one of Grant’s flank movements had caught Lee off-guard. Wilkeson and the other veterans of the 11th New York Artillery encountered the USCT regiments dragging off captured artillery guns, flaming torches guiding the way as others danced “as though they were again in Congo villages making medicine.”[iv] Wilkeson had a low opinion of the USCT, describing them as “disorderly gangs of armed negros” but the sight of the captured guns thrilled him.[v]

Many II Corps men freely talked of taking Petersburg and winning the war that very night. Having arrived on the heels of Smith’s victory they could have been thrown in to take advantage of the opportunity presented by the breach of the Dimmock Line. Smith, however, was wary of launching a night attack with tired troops. James McDonald of the 5th New Hampshire was emphatic when he described the trials on the long hard march to Petersburg: “There was a rage amongst us for water; the burning thirst should be satisfied, and many of the men were seized with diarrhoea. But military necessity knows no obstacles save those of the enemy…we rested our weary limbs within about two miles of the doomed city of Petersburg, having marched something like twenty-one miles.”[vi]

John Gibbon agreed with Smith, although he may not have made his thoughts known. More importantly, Hancock’s orders from Grant had an air of caution. Grant stated, “If Petersburg is not captured tonight it will be advisable that you and Smith take up a defensive position and maintain it until all the forces are up.”[vii] These were hardly words meant to inspire an all-out drive on Petersburg. The decision to either attack or wait until morning now depended on Hancock’s willingness to press on after a long and confusing day of marching.[viii]

Smith’s instructions to Hancock were vague so he went to meet with Smith, who at the time was consulting with Brooks. Exactly what occurred between Smith and Hancock when they met at 9:00 p.m. remains a mystery. What can be determined from the meeting is that Smith did not believe an attack was sound. Hancock, his superior in rank and now in overall command, agreed with him and wanted to press on in the morning. The decision not to attack may have later annoyed the aggressive Hancock, who let out his frustrations on Gibbon when he failed to deploy some of his troops in a defensive position. When Major Marlin of Barlow’s staff approached Hancock, he found him in a foul mood. Hancock was upset that Barlow had not personally reported to him. Marlin admitted that Barlow was in the rear cooling his feet in a stream. Hancock berated Barlow. Marlin and Colonel James Addams Beaver, one of Barlow’s brigade commanders, were unsure how to take things, and nervously laughed. Hancock was letting off steam after one of the most frustrating days of his life.

After speaking with Hancock, Smith went to personally congratulate Hinks, telling him “this is a stronger position than Missionary Ridge.”[ix] Hinks, flush with success from his men’s earlier exploits, wanted to press on but Smith simply told him that Beauregard had been reinforced and that they should hold on to what gains they had made. Smith was eager to move some of his men to the rear and he had Hancock relieve his troops on Jordan’s Hill.  He thought Confederate reinforcements were on the way and would try to retake the Dimmock Line. He wanted Hancock’s fresh troops ready to oppose any Confederate counter-attack that may occur. Smith ordered his men to take up defensive positions and to extinguish their campfires. Battery 3 was abandoned and the 2nd Pennsylvania Heavy Artillery, the position a mere two miles from Petersburg. By shortening the Union lines, Smith had robbed the army of a wonderful chance to overlap the Rebel lines, for the Confederates lacked the men to match a long line of battle. Yet, Smith was convinced that Beauregard now out-numbered him, despite some evidence to the contrary.[x]

That night the men of II and XVIII Corps cooked their food as the moon shone brightly and lit up the battlefield making conditions, at least before midnight, ideal for a night attack. The early evening dew made the night air cool, negating some of the heat that had made Union movements so sluggish. The city was visible in the moonlight from atop Jordan’s Hill, which gave a panoramic view of much of the countryside. The troops were in high spirits. One man yelled to the generals “Put us into it, Hancock, my boy; we will end this damned rebellion to-night!”[xi] The 118th New York eagerly turned some captured guns on Petersburg firing directly on the city. The history of the 177th New York recalled the situation thus: “That evening of the 15th of June we stood on the heights, and by the light of a brilliant moon contemplated the silent valley, arid beheld the nearly defenceless city. Why we did not then go down and possess them is the question, which occurred and recurred times innumerable, during the months of carnage which followed on that line.”[xii] The men understood that the enemy was at their mercy. Every attack on June 15, except for Stedman’s, had swept the Confederates away. Members of the 106th Pennsylvania, part of the hard fighting Philadelphia Brigade, could hear the noise of trains hauling in troops, and of Beauregard’s men wheeling up artillery. The sound of trains had caused Smith to pause; to the men it was the reason to press onward before it was too late. Still, no orders arrived. Most of the troops simply cooked their bacon and caught what rest they could. Some soldiers in the 93rd New York spent their time pilfering abandoned Confederate knapsacks. The 1st Maine Heavy Artillery was ordered to send out skirmishers. Sergeant George H. Coffin led twelve men forward. After finding three dead Rebels, they fought a brief skirmish. They went no further.[xiii]

In the Confederate lines, pandemonium reigned. Beauregard arrived at Petersburg at 6:00 p.m. And while inspecting the lines witnessed the flight of Wiose’s command. Around 9:00 p.m. he informed Richmond that the Dimmock Line had been overrun. He set up his headquarters at the Customs House and set about reorganizing the city’s defenses. Losses had been high, and were around 400 for the day. Two regimental commanders had been captured and another had been wounded. Sturdivant, probably the best battery commander on hand, was a prisoner. In the panic many of Wise’s men had thrown away their guns and crossed the Appomattox. Only the 59th Virginia, which had arrived just as the lines were ruptured, was still holding its lines. Help was on the way though. The gray-clad troops pouring into Petersburg were the seasoned soldiers of Hoke’s division. Hoke was widely considered to be one of the South’s best division commanders. He was the youngest major general in the army, having risen from the rank of lieutenant. He had recently become a hero for his victory at Plymouth and his leadership at Cold Harbor. His modesty and lack of overt ambition meant that he was less celebrated, but his reputation and adherence to duty made him a respected figure in the army.

The first unit into Petersburg was a South Carolina brigade led by Brigadier General Johnson Hagood, who arrived in the city just after Jordan’s Hill fell. Although he owed his command to his prominence as a planter, Hagood was a graduate of the Citadel and had become a favorite of Beauregard after his spirited defense of Fort Wagner. As Hagood’s men arrived, the citizens of Petersburg cheered and some wept declaring, “We are safe now.”[xiv] Still, many knew the hour of desperation was at hand, and some had even started to evacuate the city. As civilians fled Hagood’s men detrained and formed up in the city’s streets. Hagood was originally ordered to take up positions south of the city, but he was now directed to march up the City Point Road. The brigade had to wade through Wise’s routed brigade. Even with the aid of Colonel David Bullock Harris, Beauregard’s chief engineer, and a full moon, it was hard to get into position.

Sometime after midnight, a dense fog rose up, negating some of the moonlight. Civilian guides offered confusing instructions and eventually Hagood and his staff went on a personal reconnaissance mission. They were warned off by a wounded Confederate lying on the roadside and just barely avoided a Yankee skirmish line. Only when Harris sent for a map and a tallow candle was Hagood able to take up a defensive position. His flanks were covered by portions of the Dimmock Line still held be the Rebels. In the center he placed his brigade on Hare House Hill, along Harrison’s Creek. The house itself was an elegant structure. The wooded hill overlooked an open valley behind the captured portion of the Dimmock Line and offered a good field of fire. Hoke arrived and approved of Hagood’s position, but soon made a shocking discovery. South of Hare House Hill there were no Confederates posted and few were on hand at that moment. If the Union made a dawn attack, they could easily sweep the line. Yet, as the night wore on, the rest of Hoke’s division arrived, bringing Beauregard’s force to roughly 7,000 men. Beauregard even briefly considered an attack. Apparently the 21st South Carolina was aligned for such a move and William Wiatt, chaplain of the 26th Virginia, recorded in his diary that he expected an attack either that night or early the next morning. Beauregard eventually realized his men were too exhausted. A North Carolina brigade led by Brigadier General James G. Martin had not even reached the line, collapsing in the rear from sheer exhaustion.[xv]

Even though Beauregard did all he could to protect the city; he was acting with only meager support from Bragg and Lee, who still did not understand the situation. Beauregard believed his position was impossible unless it was reinforced, and to this end he bombarded Bragg with messages, asking him whether he was to hold the Howlett Line or Petersburg, since he could not hold both. Bragg told Beauregard to use his judgment which caused Beauregard to take drastic action. He had kept Bushrod Johnson’s division in the Howlett Line. Beauregard was now convinced that the entire Union effort was aimed at Petersburg, so at 10:25 p.m. he ordered Johnson to abandon the lines. The heavy guns at Battery Dantzler, named for the former commander of the 22nd South Carolina, could not be moved and had to be hidden. The position was a strongpoint that blocked Union access to Dutch Gap, a marshy region along the James River. Fortunately, its abandonment was supervised by David Harris. He was one of the South’s best engineers, having planned the defenses of Charleston and Vicksburg. Beauregard said he was “the only officer in his command who never made a mistake.”[xvi] The only reason Harris was not a general was due to his long association with Beauregard, which made Davis less eager to promote him. His only defect was his poor health.

The only troops left to contest Butler were a 1,000 man Alabama brigade led by the gallant Archibald Gracie III, a wealthy New Yorker who had graduated from Heidelberg University and West Point. After fighting with the 11th Alabama he raised the 43rd Alabama. His men were tough veterans of Chickamauga, but the brigade was also a depleted outfit. They would hold a thin line along Swift Creek, to delay Butler should he advance towards Petersburg from the north. Gracie’s brigade was perhaps chosen for this role because it included the 23rd Alabama Battalion. They were a sharpshooter outfit that excelled in skirmishes and picket duty, which would be important if Butler’s larger force, marched south to Petersburg. The other three brigades scurried south. It was a risky move, and would mean that Beauregard would be out of contact with Bragg and Lee should Butler advance and cut his communications.

[i]           Catton, A Stillness at Appomattox, 51; Grant, Personal Memoirs, Vol. II, 249; Rhea, The Battle of the Wilderness, 38; Regis de Trobriand,  Four Years with the Army of the Potomac (Boston: Ticknor, 1889), 596-97.

[ii]           Howe, The Petersburg Campaign, 29-30; Frank E. Peabody, “Crossing of the James and First Assault on Petersburg, June 12-15, 1864,” 133-134; Trudeau, The Last Citadel, 35-40; Official Records, XL, Pt. 2, 86-7.

[iii]          It appears Crotty was mistaken. According the James Blankenship, a histornian at the Petersburg Battlefield, the Petersburg area has copperheads and moccasins not rattlesnakes.

[iv]          Wilkeson, 158.

[v]           Ibid., 161.

[vi]          Letter from the 5th New Hampshire Vols.” Irish American Weekly. July 16, 1864, p. ? col. ?

[vii]         Grant, The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, Vol. XI, 53.

[viii]         Adams, 101-02; D. C. Crotty, Four Years Campaigning in the Army of the Potomac (Grand Rapids: Dygert  Brothers & Company, 1874), 140-42; Smith, Chattanooga to Petersburg Under Generals Grant and Butler, 201; Wilkeson, 157-58.

[ix]          Thomas L. Livermore, “The Failure to Take Petersburg, June 15, 1864.” In Papers of the Military Historical Society of Massachusetts: Petersburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg. (Boston: Military Historical Society of Massachusetts, 1906), 68.

[x]           Gibbon, 243-44; Smith, Chattanooga to Petersburg Under Generals Grant and Butler,105-06; Francis A. Walker, History of the Second Army Corps in the Army of the Potomac (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1886), 530-32; Ward, History of the Second Pennsylvania Veteran Heavy Artillery, 64-65.

[xi]          Wilkeson, 160.

[xii]         Mowris, 115.

[xiii]         George H. Coffin, Three Years in the Army (n.p., 2002), 13; Cunningham, 132; Denny, 347; King, 77; Ward, 228.

[xiv]         Thomas, “The Slaughter at Petersburg June 18, 1864,” 224.

[xv]          Walter Clark, Histories of the Several Regiments and Battalions from North Carolina Vol. IV (Goldsboro, NC: Nash Brothers, 1901), 534; Denny, 347; Hagood, Memoirs of the War of Secession (Columbia, SC: The State Company, 1910), 266; Howe, The Petersburg Campaign, 119.

[xvi]         Allardice, 119.


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