April 29, 1864 (Friday)
General P.G.T. Beauregard was still in North Carolina, even though George Pickett had been screaming for weeks that the Federals were about to storm up the Virginia Peninsula. Beauregard had been plucked from the defenses of Charleston to essentially replace Pickett, who was now and still in command of the defenses of Petersburg.
From the middle of April, Pickett began to receive the bad news that the once inactive Federals were moving from Yorktown to Portsmouth for a foray into North Carolina. Pickett reported this to Richmond, but a day later, he sent a message stating that Union troops under Ambrose Burnside were gathering near Williamsburg for an advance up the Peninsula. Soon after, he reported that Burnside’s men were actually heading into North Carolina. In all, not a word of this was true.
All this contradiction bought for Pickett only admonishment from Braxton Bragg in Richmond. “I must warn you of the evil resulting from exaggerated or unreliable reports,” came Bragg’s reply. “Some of your agents are certainly amenable to this charge. The reports sent recently are so contradictory as to render them all useless, if not injurious.” Pickett was injured, and would soon find a way out.
Over the next few days, Richmond discovered on their own General Grant’s basic plan, including what Benjamin Butler (and not Ambrose Burnside) was up to at Yorktown. The more it became clear that there was to be some sort of landing near to Richmond or Petersburg, the more Pickett became worried. The officer who once commanded an entire division in General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia had now at his call but 2,000 men, many of whom were nothing more than home guards and militia.
Beauregard now commanded 10,000 or so men, but they were spread thin across southern Virginia and North Carolina. If the more recent reports were true, that Butler’s Federals numbered over 30,000, he would need more men to defend Petersburg – perhaps 10,000 alone for such a task. Beauregard, however, was worried that once his troops got to Petersburg, they would be sucked into the whirlwind that was General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.
Though others, aside from Pickett, seemed to be blind to it, Beauregard was becoming more and more convinced that Petersburg, and not Richmond (or perhaps along with Richmond) would be Butler’s intended target. He had poured over the maps and conjectured that there might be a landing somewhere along the Petersburg side of the James River, near the Richmond & Petersburg Railroad. He ordered one of his engineers to scout the area known as Bermuda Hundreds, as well as a few places below City Point.
Soon after, though well before his engineer would be able to follow his orders, Beauregard brought this matter up to Richmond. Still believing that the Federals would be commanded by Burnside in the field, Beauregard wrote:
“Every indication is that Burnside will attack Richmond via Petersburg. Are we prepared to resist him in that direction? Can the forces of this Department be concentrated in time? are questions worthy of immediate consideration by the War Department.”
If the Federals advanced upon Richmond, and Beauregard was given the troops needed, he wondered, “could I not strike Burnside in rear from Petersburg, if he advanced on Richmond from Yorktown?”
Braxton Bragg at Richmond allowed Beauregard to shuffle a few brigades under General Hoke to Petersburg. He bade Beauregard to “urge him into action.” Meanwhile, a telegram from President Davis, send on the 28th, seemed to brush aside most of Beauregard’s concern, wishing instead that he would concentrate upon operations in North Carolina.
“The capture of Newbern, and the possession of the Sound [Pamlico] by our vessels, increased as they may be by the addition of others,” wrote Davis, “will relieve the necessity for guarding the whole line of the railroad as proposed.”
But Beauregard would not let up. His own scouts had reported on the 25th that up to 60,000 enemy troops were on the Peninsula at Yorktown and Williamsburg. Beauregard believed the number to be a bit high, but the spirit was there.
Two days later, Pickett wrote to Beauregard, passing along information from scouts, who informed him that “50,000 are at Yorktown and Baltimore, 10,000 of whom are negroes. All or most of the troops reported at Portsmouth have gone to Yorktown. There are moving and landing troops at night.” From this Pickett concluded that “the enemy will either advance up the Peninsula or will move by transports down river to the James.”
The day following (the 28th), Pickett again wrote. His signal station had reported that “Nine gun-boats, eleven steamers, eight square-rigged vessels, and five tugs off Newport News. Two gun-boats off Pagan Creek – guard boats.” He added that this was “an increase of more than two-thirds of usual number of vessels.”
That same day, Pickett received news strikingly accurate. As previous reports went, this also concluded that Federal troops were ate Yorktown and Williamsburg. And though others has calculated the numbers to be even as high as 90,000, this scout believed them to be around 30,000, and in command of “Baldy” Smith. The scout, however, could not find General Burnside, but heard that he was in Annapolis. Nearly everything reported was true.
Meanwhile, and on this date, Beauregard’s attention was being siphoned into General Hoke’s small expedition against Washington, North Carolina. Hoke had found the place defended much stronger than expected, and Beauregard was going there himself to what could be done. If Washington would not surrender, he would move against New Berne. He promised to return in two or three days.
But Beauregard was not completely ignoring Petersburg or the Federals on the Peninsula. On this date, he ordered Pickett, who wanted only to return to Lee’s army, to mount an expedition from Petersburg towards Suffolk and Portsmouth that he might obtain better information. As Pickett was arranging for this, further information came in that even more Federals were arriving from Norfolk, Virginia. There seemed to be a general concentration on the Peninsula, and still so few troops to resist it.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 33, p1314, 1315; Vol. 51, Part 2, p863-864, 877, 879, 880; Military Operations of General Beauregard by Alfred Roman; Back Door to Richmond by William Glenn Robertson; General George E. Pickett in Life & Legend by Lesley J. Gordon. [↩]