Book Excerpt: The Battle of Petersburg, June 15-18, 1864, Part 8

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.



Just like Lee, Smith and Hancock were inactive as their men encamped before Petersburg. Neither man saw June 15 as a failure and truthfully, very few of their colleagues would have disputed them. Hinks praised Smith’s battle plan even after the war and Thomas L. Livermore, an officer critical of Smith, later noted that his tactics anticipated those used by the Prussians in the Franco-Prussian War. Even Charles A. Dana, who was accompanying Grant, made an optimistic report to Stanton. Dana stated that Lee had not yet moved to Petersburg. The only hitch he noted was that transport ships promised by Halleck had not yet arrived. Dana believed that Smith’s actions on June 15 constituted a major victory since the city’s vaunted defensive line had fallen. Union troops were still crossing the James and they rejoiced upon hearing of Smith’s advance.

Smith himself saw June 15 as a success because the Dimmock Line had been pierced. He informed Butler around midnight that “It is impossible for me to go further to-night, but unless I misapprehend the topography, I hold the key to Petersburg.”[i] Smith seemed to forget the real lesson of Cold Harbor: if given sufficient time, the Confederates could erect nearly impregnable entrenchments. Hagood’s men were too tired to do this just yet, but they did hold a good position and both of Hagood’s flanks consisted of the parts of the Dimmock Line that the Union troops were unable to capture. As Butler later wrote, “Smith says…he held the key to Petersburg. True, he did; but what is the use of holding the key when you have not the courage to turn it in the lock?”[ii]

In the years afterward, generals, veterans, and historians would wonder how the Union army failed on June 15 when it held nearly all the advantages. George Ulmer, a drummer boy in the 8th Maine, was empathic about his disappointment: “I swore all night. I kicked and condemned every general there was in the army for the blunder I saw they were making. I only wished I could be the general commanding for one hour. But it was no use; I couldn’t be.”[iii] Ulmer, who was often derided by his older comrades as the “midget orator of the Army of the Potomac” was nonetheless applauded for condemning the timidity of the army’s generals. The history of the 112th New York declared “That day was the golden moment.”[iv] Few since then have doubted that sentiment but at the time, Smith’s advanced looked like a prelude to a greater victory. Among the few to see the opportunity slipping right before their eyes was Major B. C. Ludlow of Butler’s staff. He informed his master that night that Smith had failed to press his advantage. Ludlow gave the perfect epitaph for the actions of June 15 when he said that Smith and Hancock “must have concluded to release the prize when it is already in their grasp.”[v] Butler, who had mostly been encouraging Smith to press on, was upset.[vi]

There had, undoubtedly, been a failure in the Union high command. Grant failed to properly inform and motivate his subordinates, which led to much confusion. Indeed, even after the war, Brigadier General Andrew Humphreys, Meade’s chief of staff, was unsure what Grant’s exact plans were for Petersburg. By not informing Meade or Hancock, Grant increased the chances of surprise but he also added to the muddled and aimless command decisions of the day. Grant also remained generally ignorant of the situation, staying in City Point and making little effort to encourage his generals or at least to make an accurate appraisal of the situation.

Despite his stoic exterior, Grant was also suffering from the long campaign and likely lacked the will to carry out a successful drive. In a letter to his wife Julia, he said, “A few days now will enable me to form a judgment of the work before me. It will be hard and may be tedious however. I am in excellent health and feel no doubt about holding the enemy in much greater alarm than I ever felt in my life.”[vii] While these words were optimistic, they no longer reflected the fighting spirit of his dispatches from Spotsylvania. Instead, Grant seemed to accept the tedious nature of an attritional campaign before it had really begun. This was mirrored by Rawlins, who’s health was also poor. He believed Smith would be out-numbered by June 16, and a siege like operation would be needed to capture Petersburg. Grant and his staff had gotten the Army of the Potomac across the James and had misled Lee, but they were not actively working to capture Petersburg. Dispirited corps commanders were left to their own devices, even though they were tired, used up from weeks of fighting, and acting without clear objectives. So it was that on June 15 Grant did not provide the leadership or the motivation for the offensive to be carried out with élan. Instead, the responsibility for victory rested with two run-down officers, each talented but suffering from the effects of a hard campaign.[viii]

The two men entrusted with taking Petersburg on June 15 were not incompetent, but each had their share of flaws. Smith was an overly critical man prone to see the pitfalls of any situation. His movements were lethargic after Baylor’s Farm. In this Smith was not alone, for Hancock showed no initiative once he arrived. The key to each man’s lethargy lay with their poor health, made worse by a particularly hot day. Hancock was in so much pain that he made the march to Petersburg not on horseback, but in a wagon. In spite of this, both men did many things right. Once the confusion over rations was settled, Hancock made a long, hard march deep into enemy territory despite not having the benefit of a cavalry screen. Smith’s attack on the Dimmock Line was well-planned and executed, and his decision not to press on was inherently sound. His men were tired; he did not know the ground ahead of him; and, most importantly, night was falling upon the field. If anything, Smith’s was mistake was waiting until dusk to carry out the attack. His failure then was not out of incompetence but rather an inability to see the importance of taking Petersburg at all costys. Smith’s decisions were sound, but the situation called for daring and energy, of which Smith had neither on that day. Woefully, there was no other officer to fill that void.

Confederate stubbornness in front of a larger foe was decisive in making Smith pause both before and after his evening assault. After Baylor’s Farm, he was unwilling to simply push on and try his luck. William Valore Islzar of the 25th South Carolina summed it up best when he wrote “Grant’s army had been handled so roughly, and beaten so badly in every engagement with the Southern troops after crossing the Rapidan, that General Smith lacked confidence in his men…the experience they had met with in recent conflicts with Lee’s army had to a great extent destroyed the morale of Grant’s army.”[ix] Islzar was wrong to suppose that the XVIII Corps had low morale, but correct to see that Smith’s caution at Petersburg was a result of previous weeks of heavy losses and defeats. Smith’s experience at Cold Harbor led him to pause when he should have pushed on. By contrast, the Confederates were unwilling to withdraw without a fight. Wise did not panic. He held firm and his subordinates used their artillery effectively to delay Smith’s attack. The large numbers of artillery guns were more appropriate to a division of troops, and not Wise’s garrison, and therefore caused uncertainty in the Union ranks.

Regardless, the fate of Petersburg still hung in the balance. John L. Cunningham, an officer in the 118th New York, went to bed that night certain “that the morrow would give us Petersburg.”[x] Although Davis and Bragg had not yet grasped the gravity of the situation, J. B. Jones, a clerk in the war department, did see the situation for what it was. He assumed that Grant was swinging at Petersburg with most of his army and after the fighting on June 15 he wrote “The war will be determined, perhaps, by the operations of a day or two; and much anxiety is felt by all.”[xi] Smith had failed to take Petersburg on June 15, but the Union was in an excellent position to take the city on June 16.

Meade, after hearing of Smith’s success, interrupted his dinner to give new orders. He had the wagon trains moved aside so that IX and V Corps could cross the James and head directly to Petersburg to capitalize on the situation. If all went well, Smith’s optimism after the first day would be well founded. Yet to any discerning eye, the events of June 15 portended a bleak future. Beauregard was acting decisively and placing his forces on strong ground. Caution and exhaustion had ruled the day on the Northern side. Grant was not taking control of the situation, and his commanders were not acting with the energy required to achieve victory. While Smith made mistakes on June 15, he was not the only officer to do so. Nor could he be solely blamed for the blunders made in the days to come.[xii]

[i]           Butler, Private and Official Correspondence of Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, Vol. IV, 383.

[ii]           Benjamin F. Butler, Autobiography and Personal Reminiscences of Major-General Benjamin F. Butler (Boston: A. M. Thayer, 1892), 690.

[iii]          Ulmer, 46.

[iv]          W. L. Hyde, History of the One Hundred and Twelfth Regiment, N.Y. Volunteers (Fredonia, NY: McKinstry, 1866), 87.

[v]           Butler, Private and Official Correspondence of Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, Vol. IV, 382.

[vi]          Howe, The Petersburg Campaign, 36.

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

[viii]         Andrew A. Humphreys, The Virginia Campaign of ’64 and ’65 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1883), 213.

[ix]          William Valore Izlar,  A Sketch of the War Record of the Edisto Rifles, 1861-1865 (Columbia, SC: The State Company, 1914), 67.

[x]           Cunningham, 132.

[xi]          J. B. Jones, A Rebel War Clerk’s Diary Vol. II (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Company, 1866), 232-33.

[xii]         Lyman, 161; Official Records, XL, Pt. 2, 117.


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One response to “Book Excerpt: The Battle of Petersburg, June 15-18, 1864, Part 8”

  1. James F. Epperson Avatar

    Given the lack of successful night actions in the Civil War, I am not prepared to be overly critical of Smith and Hancock for not pressing on after dark. Smith deserves some flak for taking far too much time so that the only opportunity for exploitation was after dark. No one seems to have done much thinking about what to do on the 16th, and no one seems to have thought about swinging a force around to the left to hit the unoccupied part of the Dimmock line behind the new Confederate line.

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