A Rather Slow, Stupid Affair – Lee Loses Grant

June 13, 1864 (Monday)

Slave cabin near the Long Bridge, Chicahominy River, Va., June 13th 1864 by Edwin Forbes
Slave cabin near the Long Bridge, Chicahominy River, Va., June 13th 1864 by Edwin Forbes

The Confederates in the ranks understood it plainly. The day previous, their commanders – all of them – were summonsed to General Lee’s headquarters. This could only mean a move, a strike. And at 3am, through the dark folds of the predawn, left the tramping of 8,000 men.

“Our whole Corps,” wrote the topography Jedediah Hotchkiss in his journal, “under command of Lt. Gen. Early, for some distant expedition. [Robert] Rodes’ Division moved in front. We started from our camp, a mile west of Gaines’ Mill, and went via Mechanicsville and Meadow Bridge to the Brooke Turnpike, then up the Plank Road to Goodall’s Tavern were we turned down the Old Mt. Road and went to he banks of the South Anna, near Auburn Mills, where we encamped.”

It was a march of twenty-five miles, and it was in the opposite direction of a movement, perhaps large, made by the Federals. Hotchkiss, who first stopped in Richmond, noted that Union troops had crossed the Chickahominy at Long Bridge. Early’s Corps and those enemy farthest east were nearly fifty miles apart. But General Lee, believed most, knew what he was doing. Meanwhile, the remaining two corps of the Army of Northern Virginia, remained in their entrenchments at Cold Harbor, Lee having no idea at all that Grant’s entire army was moving around his right flank. He would not understand it until after dawn, and would not relay the news to Richmond until 10pm.

General Grant arrived at Long Bridge, after Winfield Scott Hancock’s Second Corps was already crossing the Chickahominy. A 2,000 foot long pontoon bridge had been stretched across the water, constructed in but ten hours. Over it would pass a thirty-five mile column of Federals and all the equipment of war. Over half of the infantry would utilize the span, 4,000 of the cavalry, artillery, ambulances, various supply wagons, even 3,500 head of cattle.


Grant waited at the bridge for the remainder of Hancock’s Corps to pass, but he actually wished to stay close to Gouverneur Warren’s Fifth Corps, whose mission was something apart from the rest of the army’s. Acting more as cavalry, Warren was to screen the rest of the infantry, covering the only roads that Lee might take to assail the right flank of the Army of the Potomac, now spread out and moving toward the James River.

The Fifth Corps crossed, rested for a spell, and set out westward on the road through White Oak Swamp, edging closer to Richmond. At a place known as Riddell’s Store, made somewhat famous during Jeb Stuart’s ride around McClellan two years before, they encountered a stiff line of Rebels. As was normal, both sides stopped and entrenched.

The men encountered by Warren were indeed from General Lee’s Army. It was afternoon, and Lee learned about Grant’s move hours before. He was furious. Those near to him had never seen him in such a rage. “He was mad all over,” wrote one. But even more than that, he was uncertain. “When we waked on the morning of the 13th and found no enemy in our front we realized that a new element had entered into this move,” Robert Stiles of the Confederate artillery wrote, “the element of uncertainty. Thus far, during the campaign, whenever the enemy was missing, we knew where, that is, in what direction and upon what line, to look for him; he was certainly making for a point between us and Richmond. Not so now-even Marse Robert, who knew everything knowable, did not appear to know what his old enemy proposed to do or where he would be most likely to find him.”

Charles City Court House, Va. Taken on this date by Timothy O'Sullivan.
Charles City Court House, Va. Taken on this date by Timothy O’Sullivan.

“I have little or no recollection of our search for Grant,” Stiles continued in his memoirs, “except that there was nothing about it calculated to make an impression — that it seemed rather a slow, stupid affair.”

It was, however, not as slow and stupid as for some as it was for Stiles. Lee issued orders for the infantry to move at 8am.

General Lee’s army was now diminished to 30,000 men, while Grant led well over 100,000. By such numbers, he could do little more than plug gaps where they formed and hope to figure out where Grant was moving. Lee knew it was on his right, and so set both corps in motion, realigning them with the old defenses at White Oak Swamp and Malvern Hill. One division was even sent to Drury’s Bluff – a fortuitous move.

In Warren’s front came the skirmishers of A.P. Hill’s Corps, and a sharp skirmished evolved against the two Federal brigades sent forward under Samuel Crawford. The bulk of the fighting, however, was done by the Union cavalry. A brigade helmed by Col. George Chapman had moved from White Oak Swamp toward Richmond around noon.

“Proceeding about a mile my advance came upon the enemy strongly posted in a belt of timber in front of Riddell’s Shop. After some skirmishing, rinding the enemy disposed to contest the position with obstinacy, I directed the Third Indiana and Eighth New York to prepare to fight on foot, and forming them in line of battle advanced into the woods at a double-quick. A brigade of rebel cavalry, dismounted and armed mainly with rifled muskets, held the position, but they soon gave way before the impetuosity of my men, leaving many of their dead and wounded on the field.”

With a bit of space, Col. Chapman established a proper line of battle and even began to dig entrenchments. But around 6pm, the Rebels came once more, “advancing in strong line of battle and heavy column down the Bottom’s Bridge road, the entire force, so far as it was developed, being infantry. Soon the entire line became heavily engaged.”

The Army of the Potomac on the march from the Chicahominy [sic] to the James River. Drawn by Edwin Forbes on this date.
The Army of the Potomac on the march from the Chicahominy [sic] to the James River. Drawn by Edwin Forbes on this date.

“My ammunition being nearly exhausted, and the enemy showing vastly superior numbers, I deemed it prudent to retire to the position held by my second line, which was done in good order. Having reported that I needed reenforcements in order to hold the enemy in cheek, two or three regiments of infantry came up and were disposed without any directions from me. Until near dark nothing transpired save a good deal of desultory skirmishing along the lines. At near dark the enemy advanced from the cover of the timber in strong line of infantry, and a regiment of our infantry, which had been posted on the right of my line, gave way rapidly and with scarcely a show of resistance, throwing the right of my line into considerable confusion.

But that’s really all that came of it, on this day anyway. As was usual, lines were established so both Northerner and Southerner could glare at each other across the void. The bulk of both armies was still on the move.

At 10pm, General Lee finally informed Richmond of Grant’s march toward the James. “At daylight this morning it was discovered that the army of General Grant had left our front,” wrote Lee. “Our skirmishers were advanced between one and two miles, but failing to discover the enemy were withdrawn, and the army was moved to conform to the route taken by him. He advanced a body of cavalry and some infantry from Long Bridge to Riddell’s Shop, which were driven back this evening nearly two miles, after some sharp skirmishing.”1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 40, Part 1, p644; Part 2, p6, 8, 645, 647, 665-666; Four Years Under Marse Robert by Robert Stiles; “Happiness is Not My Companion”: The Life of General G.K. Warren by David M. Jordan; The Battle of the Crater: A Complete History by John F. Schmutz; Fighting for the Confederacy by E. Porter Alexander; Campaigning with Grant by Horace Porter; With Meade and Grant by Theodore Lyman; Make Me a Map of the Valley by Jedediah Hotchkiss. []
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One thought on “A Rather Slow, Stupid Affair – Lee Loses Grant

  1. A line of men 35 miles long?! What a sight this must have been. Also hope the 3500 head of cattle were sure-footed on that pontoon bridge, but I’m sure an errant step or two must have sent a few swimming.

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