(These three actions, occuring over nearly a two week period in late August, are interconnected and so must be treated together, even though that makes for a lengthy article.)
Second Deep Bottom (August 13-20)
In early August Grant learned from sources --- incorrectly, as it turned out --- that Lee had sent substantial reinforcements to the Shenandoah Valley. Deciding to take advantage of this, as well as force their recall, Grant ordered Meade to have Hancock, this time reinforced by troops from the Army of the James, make another stab at the Richmond end of the lines.
In an effort to deceive the Confederates, Hancock's men were loaded on steamers at City Point on August 13, and the fleet sailed eastward, as though the men were being sent to Washington. During the night the fleet reversed course and landed the men at Deep Bottom, the site of Hancock's July foray. Joining the II Corps veterans here was X Corps, commanded now by David Bell Birney, a former II Corps division commander. (Curiously enough, Birney was born in Huntsville, Alabama; sadly, he would be dead within a few weeks from a virulent strain of malaria.)
The geography of the area just inland from the landing would play an important part in the action and so is worth a description. Deep Bottom is formed, in part, by the mouth of Bailey's Creek, which flows southward into the James. A mill pond on the stream existed about two miles inland, creating an essentially impassible water barrier. The Rebel lines in this area were L-shaped, with the north-south leg parallel to Bailey's Run and the east-west leg along a small ridge known as New Market Heights, looking down on the Deep Bottom bridgehead. The Yankees had two bridges over the James River at this point: the Upper Bridge, which crossed west of the mouth of Bailey's Creek, and the Lower Bridge, which crossed east of the mouth of Bailey's Creek. A second creek, Four Mile Creek, flowed into Bailey's Creek from the west about one mile in from James River. By using the Lower Bridge, the Federals had easier access to the major hard-surfaced roads leading into Richmond, but they would have to force a crossing of Bailey's Creek to advance. By using the Upper Bridge they would avoid having to fight across the creek, but would instead have to fight their way across Four Mile Creek and up New Market Heights in order gain access to good roads.
The plan called for Hancock's force to disembark from the steamers early on the morning of August 14 and then join with Birney's X Corps column to launch simultaneous attacks on each side of Four Mile Creek and Bailey's Creek. However, in an oversight typical of Army of the Potomac operations, no one had ascertained if the wharf facilities at Deep Bottom could accomodate the steamers carrying Hancock's force. The result was that Hancock's men were not completely disembarked until mid-morning. This delay had two effects: it allowed the Confederates to respond, somewhat, to the developing threat; and it forced the troops to march through what turned out to be one of the hottest days of the summer.
Birney's orders were to cross the Upper Bridge and attack Rebel positions just opposite Deep Bottom itself, along New Market Heights. The main body, II Corps plus Gregg's Cavalry Division, would advance inland from the wharves on the east side of Bailey's Creek. Mott's division of II Corps would attack along the New Market Road, and Barlow, having command of the other two II Corps divisions (John Gibbon being on sick leave) would attack on the right flank at Fussell's Mill, just north of the mill pond. If Federal information was correct, that this front had been weakened to send troops to Early, at least one of these attacks should be able to break through. If a breakthrough could be exploited it would threaten the Chaffin's Bluff position, possibly opening up the water route to Richmond. As had been the case in July, Federal cavalry would attempt to get free on the right to destroy the Virginia Central Railroad.
However, Grant's information was in error and the Rebels were present in greater strength than supposed, although one of the Rebel divisions (under Charles Field) was in fact slated to be sent north, and the appearance of the Yankees did cause the recall of some of the troops that had left. In any event, Federal efforts on the 14th were completely stymied, except for some modest gains (including the capture of some heavy siege artillery) made by Birney against token opposition. The attacks of II Corps, scheduled to occur at daybreak in the original orders, were in fact not begun until early afternoon. In the center, Mott's division pressed up against the Rebel lines behind Bailey's Creek, but on the right flank, Barlow fumbled his opportunity. Under orders to attack in force along the Darbytown Road, where he faced only token opposition, he instead deployed his two divisions so to connect with Mott on his left, nearly two miles away, thus he had only a single brigade with which to make his attack on the Rebel flank.
This first day of the operation revealed what was to be a recurring problem throughout the operation for the Federals: The severe heat caused many men to fall out of the ranks from heat exhaustion. One estimate suggests that as many as 3,000 men from Birney's 9,000 man X Corps force, and 35% of Barlow's division, were lost to this cause. Regardless of the exact numbers, nearly every report from the Federal side speaks to heavy straggling from the heat.
On the 15th Hancock, acting on Grant's advice, wanted to swing X Corps around from the left flank to the right flank in order to attack at Fussell's Mill, but Birney delayed matters by insisting that the division commanded by his brother lead the march. This put the troops on the move during the hottest part of the day, with the result that Terry's division more or less disintegrated due to straggling from the heat. Then Confederate reinforcements, in the form of Maj. Gen. W.H.F. Lee's cavalry division, attacked and drove back the Federal cavalry to the right of Birney's column, causing some distraction and confusion and further attendant delay. The attack was postponed until the 16th.
Meanwhile, other Confederate reinforcements reached the area. Initially, Maj. Gen. Charles Field's division, plus two brigades from Maj. Gen. Cadmus Wilcox's division, supported by a single cavalry brigade, had been the only Confederate troops in the area. On the 14th, Lee ordered two brigades of Mahone's division north of the James, along with his son Rooney's cavalry division. He also ordered the return of Maj. Gen. M.C. Butler's cavalry division, recently detached to the Shenandoah Valley.
On the morning of the 16th, the entire Federal expedition was arrayed east of Bailey's Creek, with Mott on the left near the New Market Road, then Smyth's division (2/II, normally commanded by the capable John Gibbon), then Birney's X Corps at the arbytown Road, then Barlow's division, then Gregg's cavalry along Charles City Road (click here for a map of the road network north of the James).
Hancock wanted to launch two simultaneous attacks at dawn of the 16th: Birney would attack along the Darbytown Road, at Fussell's Mill, and Gregg's cavalry, supported by some of Barlow's infantry, would attack along the Charles City Road. If this had been done it is probable that the thin Confederate lines would have been broken.
Gregg's attack went forward at about 6:00 a.m., the delay being due to the tardy arrival of Barlow's supporting brigade under Nelson Miles. At first the Yankee horsemen were successful, driving back the Confederate cavalry under Brig. Gen. John Chambliss, who was killed. By noon the Federals had penetrated well into Field's rear. "Rooney" Lee launched a counterattack with the rest of his division at 1:00 p.m. which drove Gregg back and stabilized the situation. Then, with Miles's supporting infantry sent away to assist Birney's attack (see below), Lee attacked again at 4:00 p.m. and was able to drive Gregg back in some confusion into White Oak Swamp.
Although Birney's troops had arrived in the vicinity of Fussell's Mill on the previous evening, apparently nothing had been done to develop the Confederate line. Thus, when the Federals pressed forward on the morning of the 16th, they found it impossible to attack at the designated point, due largely to the presence of a mill pond. Substantial time was lost as Terry's division (1/X) shifted northward. The result of all this confusion was that Terry did not launch his attack until nearly noon, almost seven hours later than plannned.
The target of Terry's initial attack was a small brigade of 825 Georgians commanded by French-born Brig. Gen. Victor Jean Baptiste Girardey. Spread thin, and without supporting troops to call upon for help, the Confederates gave way in some confusion. Girardey attempted to rally his men by waving one of the regimental colors, but all this did was attract the attention of an Ohio skirmisher, who shot him dead.
Fortunately for the Confederates, Terry was unable to exploit his breakthrough, and in fact, worried by the report of a captured enemy staff officer that 15,000 reinforcements were on their way to repair the breach, he began to plead for reinforcements. Counter-attacks by Alabamians of Law's brigade and DuBose's Georgians were able to seal the breach and drive the Federals out.
There is a humorous, if little-known, anecdote coming out of this fight. The Confederate commander in the area was Charles Field; during the fight one of his aides ran up to him, greatly excited. "They're breaking, General, they're breaking!" Field, being a good and confidant Southern soldier, replied, "Well, I knew they would." To which the aide replied: "No, general, not the Yankees! It's our men who have broken!"
For the next several days the situation north of the James would be very quiet. Hancock's directions were to remain in place and in as threatening a posture as possible. On the 18th, Lee tried to marshall one effort to eliminate the Federal presence in front of Richmond but the attack was late and made without much spirit and the Yankees easily repulsed it. On August 20th Hancock was withdrawn to the Petersburg lines. The effort north of the James had cost the Federals 2,900 men, roughly. Rebel losses are unknown, but several sources suggest 1,000 as an estimate, which this author thinks is low.
Globe Tavern (August 18-21)
With the Confederates occupied by Hancock and Birney north of the James, Grant decided to unleash his left hand against the Weldon Railroad. V Corps, under Warren, was detailed to strike the railroad at or near Globe Tavern and destroy as much as possible, at the same time advancing northward to establish the new Federal lines as close to Petersburg as possible.
Warren arrived at the tavern between 9 and 11 a.m. of August 18, against light opposition, and immediately set his men to work. While Griffin's division began tearing up the track, Ayres and Crawford formed a line running east-west and began advancing north towards Petersburg. Cutler's division was held in reserve. The terrain was heavily wooded and tactical visibility was restricted.
The Weldon Railroad was too important for Lee not to react quickly. At about 3 p.m. on the 18th, Heth launched an attack against Ayres's right flank, which was in advance of Crawford's left, driving the Federals back before himself being driven back by a counterattack. Both sides decided to reinforce, Grant by bringing some of Hancock's troops back across James River.
Late in the afternoon of the 19th, A.P. Hill launched a second effort to dislodge Warren, sending Heth directly at Ayres's front and Mahone around Crawford's right flank, which was imperfectly linked to the established Federal lines. (A single brigade was covering the long frontage in dense woods.) Heth made little headway but Mahone's attack was successful, driving the Federals back with some loss, mainly in prisoners from Crawford's division, but the Yankees were able to counterattack and regain the lost ground. On the 20th Warren fell back to a better defensive position closer to Globe Tavern, and arranged his troops in an L-shaped line. On the 21st, Hill made another try, flinging the better part of three divisions at Warren's lines to no effect. The only success was had by Johnston Hagood's brigade, which slipped into a gap near the corner of the Federal line, but was then trapped and nearly destroyed. By now the IX Corps had extended the Federal lines to connect with Warren's position and it was clear that the Yankees were on the Weldon Road to stay.
Total Federal casualties in the Globe Tavern operation are estimated at 4,200, the majority of which (2,500) were prisoners lost when Mahone turned Crawford's right on the 19th. The only estimate of Confederate losses comes from Warren's report that his men buried 211 dead after the attack on the 21st, and took 517 prisoners. Adopting the 5-1 rule to estimate the wounded that were brought off gives a Confederate casualty figure of nearly 1,800, just for the 21st.
Reams Station (August 25)
When Meade first visited with Warren at Globe Tavern, he was displeased with the job of wrecking the railroad. Warren's men had been too busy fighting to have done much of a job on the tracks, and Meade wanted to put a permanent break in the Weldon. Thinking that extra manpower was the answer, he summoned II Corps -- "Hancock's Foot Cavalry," as the men were beginning to call themselves. It was to be an unfortunate choice.
II Corps had borne the brunt of the hardest work ever since the campaign had begun in early May. At the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, and in every operation since arriving at Petersburg, the men with the trefoil badge had led the way. While they had often given as good as they had got, or more so, there is no denying that the toll was beginning to tell. Many of the men in the ranks were green, many of the officers inexperienced. Just as important, the corps had spent over a week north of the James and had just begun to settle in to their camps when the word came to move out.
Nevertheless, Hancock had his men (two divisions, under Miles and Gibbon; the Third Division was in the trench lines supporting IX Corps) in motion by noon of the 23rd and by the evening of the 24th they had destroyed eight miles of track and were bivouacked near Reams Station, five miles south of Warren's position at Globe Tavern. Gregg's cavalry division was with them as support.
That evening Federal signalmen reported that several columns of Confederates had been seen marching in either Warren or Hancock's direction.
The Confederates consisted of A.P. Hill's entire corps, supported by two divisions of cavalry under Hampton and W.H.F. Lee, and their target was Hancock, who was most vulnerable for being relatively isolated from the Federal main line.
On the morning of the 25th there was increased skirmishing between the horsesoldiers of Gregg and Lee. At around noon Hill launched a probing attack which Gibbon and Gregg beat off with some effort.
During June the Federals had briefly occupied this area with some cavalry and an imperfect set of fieldworks had been erected at that time. They were C-shaped, with the open end on the east. Hancock ordered his two divisions to take up positions in these works, Miles holding the north bar (Federal right) and Gibbon the south bar (Federal left) of the C. At 2 o'clock came the first serious Rebel attack, which was beaten off despite being made with great determination.
The entire Federal command was aware that Hancock was vulnerable, and Meade had sent two divisions to reinforce him, but he sent them by an indirect route which meant that they would not get there in time to help.
At 5 p.m. the main Rebel attack began, heralded by an artillery barrage that showed clearly the defects of the Federal position. Although the northward bar of the C was targeted by the barrage, the Yankees holding the southward bar were thoroughly undone by the effect of shot and shell landing in their backs, so much so that many of the men crossed over to the other side of the works for protection. (Many of Gibbon's men were under fire for the first time.)
The attack was aimed at the northwest corner of the C, and after a spirited resistence the line was carried when two regiments in the center of the Federal defenses gave way, and the reserve troops ordered to fill the gap refused to do so. The breakthrough enfiladed the rest of the Federal line along the north of the C, and put fire in the rear of the troops holding the south of the C. Gibbon's men were not yet under attack and should have been able to to seal the breach in Miles's line, but could not be got to advance. Hancock was in deep trouble.
Nelson Miles almost saved the day. He sacrificed an artillery battery to get enough time to rally one of his best regiments, the 61st N.Y., for a counterattack that drove the Rebels out of his lines and even recaptured the battery that had been overrun. But then disaster struck in the shape of Hampton's cavalry, which attacked Gibbon's front. Half of Gibbon's men were on the outside of the works seeking shelter from the fight inside, and these men were in no position to defend themselves from an attack. Those on the inside were facing the fight along Miles's front, although doing precious little to assist their comrades. In any event, none of them were in either the position or the mood to put up much resistence to Hampton's attack. They completely abandoned their lines along the south bar of the C, which of course exposed Miles's rear and forced him to fall back as well.
Gregg's Federal cavalry attacked Hampton's flank, which probably provided enough of a distraction to get Gibbon's men away from Hampton, but the situation was beyond recovery at this point. The promised reinforcements arrived soon after the decision to leave the field was made and they were able to discourage any follow-up effort by the Rebels. At a cost of around 720 men, Hill's troops had inflicted 2,400 casualties on the Federals.
There is no denying that Reams Station was a debacle for the Federals in general, and II Corps in particular. But it should not be overstated. A month later elements of the corps would perform creditably in the Peebles Farm action, and a month after that the entire corps would be used in an effort to force Hatcher's Run. But for now the troops of the famous "Clubs are trumps!" corps would need rest and reorganization.
The Federal hold on the Weldon was secure, but the railroad was still of use to the Confederates. Trains ran as far north as Hicksford Station, about 20 miles south on the Meherrin River. There, the loads were transferred to wagons which took a roundabout route into Petersburg. Lee's supply line was certainly stressed, but it was not completely broken --- yet.
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