April 28, 1864 (Thursday)
“If no unforeseen accident prevents, I will move from ehre on Wednsday, the 4th of May,” wrote General Grant to Benjamin Butler. Just the day previous, he had written his wife, confessing that he had not yet set a date upon which the campaign in Virginia would begin, adding the caviat: “would not tell you if I did know.”
While Grant’s specific plan for the Army of the Potomac was fairly cut and dry – cross the Rapidan, hit Lee’s army, the movements for Butler’s Army of the James were less obvious.
“Start your forces on the night of the 4th,” Grant continued, “so as to be as far up the James River as you can get by daylight the morning of the 5th, and push from that time with all your might for the accomplishment of the object before you.”
Butler was well conscious of his objective. Grant had explained it in a letter written on the 18th. While the Army of the Potomac was fighting Lee between the Rapidan and Richmond, Grant called for Butler to be ready if Lee should retreat, when the Army of the Potomac would unite with the Army of the James.
“Could I be certain that you will be able to invest Richmond on the south side, so as to have your left resting on the James above the city, I would form the junction there. Circumstances may make this course advisable anyhow. I would say, therefore, use every exertion to secure footing as far up the south side of the river as you can, as as soon as possible.”
Butler was warned to “attack vigorously,” if the enemy appeared before him. And if it was not in his power to capture the city, “at least detain as large a force there as possible.”
General Butler’s objectives were two. First, he was to be close enough to Richmond so as to enter it almost at will, and to hold close as many of the enemy’s troops, so that they might not reinforce General Lee. And so the more Butler found success with one objective, the more difficult other other became.
By this date, most of the preparations were coming together. All through April, troops from North Carolina had filtered toward Fortress Monroe on the Virginia Peninsula and their camps sprawled upon either side of the York River. Meanwhile, Butler was in arguments with the navy’s Admiral Samuel Lee, who needed clarification of his branch’s role in the coming campaign along the James River.
By Butler, the navy was to hold both the James and the Appomattox River high enough to keep the Confederate vessels from disrupting the infantry transports. He also requested artillery support from the gunboats.
But there were problems. Samuel Lee broke the news to Butler that his ironclads required too deep a draw to ascend the James as high as requested, and that only wooden vessels could be used on the Appomattox. Lee gave several other reasons why this plan was a horrible one, but still managed to pledge his branch’s “intelligent and hearty co-operation” in the affair.
However, on this date, Admiral Lee confessed to Naval Secretary Gideon Welles that it might be even more difficult than he indicated. Butler wanted everything in readiness by the 30th, giving Lee, at the time of the conference, only four days to assemble a fleet. His worry stemmed from the suspicion that the Confederates had placed torpedoes all through the water ways, and there was no time to make an inspection.
“The scheme is not practical,” wrote Welles in his diary, “yet it has the sanction of General Grant. It must, however, be a blind, intended to deceive the enemy, and to do this effectually he must first deceive our own people.” Welles was wholly in the dark as to not only Grant’s unstated intentions, but as to Butler’s role in the campaign. “A somewhat formidable force has been gathered in General Butler’s department,” continued Welles, trying to suss out the details, “and there is no doubt but that General B. himself fully believes he is to make a demonstration up James River. It may be that this is General Grant’s intention also, but if it is, I shall be likely to have my faith in him impaired. Certainly there have been no sufficient preparations for such a demonstration and the call upon the Navy is unreasonable.”
Welles wasn’t the only one questioning Butler’s reasoning. General William F. Smith (this is “Baldy Smith,” not “Extra Billy Smith”) had come east with General Grant, after impressing the commander with his engineering skills in the Army of the Cumberland, as it was he who had designed the plan to open the Cracker Line, thus breaking the siege of Chattanooga. Grant placed Baldy Smith as commander of the Eighteenth Corps, one of two comprising Butler’s Army (the other being the Tenth Corps).
Smith was in near constant communication with Grant’s staff, bypassing Butler in the process. On the 26th, he wrote strongly suggesting that Grant place a staff officer to act as a liaison and spy to ensure that Butler stick to Grant’s plans. The matter was, by now, brought up with Grant, but, according to the staff officer, “the general is very fixed in letting Butler have his own way with all minutia.”
On this date, Baldy Smith got off a letter to General William Franklin, commanding a corps along the Red River. He feared with Butler in charge, the campaign would be “full of unnecessary risks and of the kind that may produce the most terrible disaster.”
Nevertheless, Butler insisted that he would not only be ready to move by May 4, but that he would follow Grant’s plan to the letter.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 33, p1009, 1019; Diary by Gideon Welles; Back Door to Richmond by William Glenn Robertson; The Bermuda Hundred Campaign by Bruce R. Wells. [↩]