Grant Surprises Lee North of the James

September 29, 1864 (Friday)

Click on map to expand it, okay?
Click on map to expand it, okay?

“I hope it will lay no constraint on you,” wrote President Lincoln to General Grant on the morning of this date, “no do harm anyway, for me to say I am a little afraid lest Lee sends re-enforcements to Early, and thus enables him to turn upon Sheridan.”

Philip Sheridan had scored a major victory in the Shenandoah Valley, and had backed Jubal Early’s Confederates nearly out of the Valley itself. Lincoln’s fears were justified. If Early were to be reinforced, and if history was any measure, Sheridan would be whipped back to Washington. But Grant was also aware of such late history and made his reply in the early afternoon:

“I am taking steps to prevent Lee sending re-enforcements to Early by attacking him here.”

This had been in the planning for days. On the 27th, Grant had informed General George Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac, that on the morning of the 29th, “a movement will take place intended to surprise and capture the works of the enemy north of the James River between Malvern Hill and Richmond.”


While Grant would direct Benjamin Butler’s Army of the James north of the James River, separating Richmond from Petersburg, Meade was to prepare for a battle of his own. Grant’s instructions, however, were thus far vague.

“As a co-operative movement with this you will please have the Army of the Potomac under arms at 4a.m. on the 29th ready to move in any direction,” Grant began, allowing that they should have up to four days’ worth of rations in their haversacks. Grant originally intended to give Meade specific instructions over which troops and which targets should be selected and attacked, “but, on reflection, I will leave the details to you, stating merely that I want every effort used to convince the enemy that the South Side [rail]road and Petersburg are the objects of our efforts.”

The only real stipulation Grant had was that if the road to Petersburg was open, take it. And whatever ground they held should be maintained.

Almost immediately, things went wrong. Meade was confused by Grant’s suggestive orders. “Do you refer to movements within or without our lines?” he asked. Unstated, at least at first, was that Grant wanted Meade to give the appearance that Butler’s troops on the Union right were actually being shuffled over to Meade on the Union left.

Grant and Butler’s attack was the main thrust. Meade was to exploit it if Lee shifted troops from the south to the north. The next day, Meade made his plans and prepared his forces. He would send two divisions from John Parke’s Ninth Corps, which would be supported by two divisions from Gouverneur K. Warren’s Fifth.

From two Confederate deserters, Meade learned that Lee had done his best to reinforce the lines southwest of Petersburg – near where he planned to hit them, near a farm owned by the Peebles Family and the Poplar Spring Church, north of the Federal left, up the tracks from Reams Station. The Rebels told of two large fortifications and thick hordes of their former comrades lining trenches paralleling the Boydton Plank Road.

This information solidified Grant’s suspicions that Lee still clung to Petersburg and any full on attack by Meade’s Army of the Potomac would be a pointless, bloody mess. It also supported the notion that once Butler made his attack north of the James, Lee would shift troops out of Meade’s way south of Petersburg.

Ord's troops attack Fort Harrison.
Ord’s troops attack Fort Harrison.

Butler had masterfully kept his own plans a secret. There were no leaks and on the morning of this date, nobody gray suspected a thing. With two full corps, he crossed the James River – the Tenth Corps under David Birney on the right, the Eighteenth under Edward Ord on the left. They slipped across the pontoon bridge near Deep Bottom to direct their blow against New Market Heights.

A line of Confederate entrenchments extended east toward the crossing, but it was held by less than two thousand Rebels. The attack was led by a brigade from the Tenth Corps composed exclusively of black Union troops. They came, but were at first repulsed. Then, once more, they attacked – now reinforced to the strength of a division. The new bulk was so designed that it overcame the Confederate left and pried them from their defenses.

But this was only the work of the Tenth Corps. Ord’s Eighteenth was also on the hunt. Upon crossing the James, they separated, Ord continued west toward Fort Harrison along the main Confederate lines from which the New Market Heights line jutted. This was hardly an attack. Before the Federals were able to launch, the Rebels took notice, fired a few rounds, and escaped to a second line of defenses to the west.

Sketch by Andrew Waud.
Sketch by Andrew Waud.

With the Confederate works taken by Ord, and the New Market Heights line in retreat, the Rebels were compacted and able to stop any further Federal gains. But what they had lost was telling enough. Fort Harrison was gone and with it went some small control of the James River.

Lee was faced with two options – he could either do nothing and allow the Federal attacks to go unpunished, or he could strip forces from Petersburg to retake the fort and New Market Heights. “The enemy still hold Battery Harrison on the exterior line,” he wrote late on this date. “Our loss is very small.”

And it was. In all, the Confederates suffered fifty or so casualties to the bloodletting experienced by the attacking Federal forces, which numbered over 850 thus far. It was decided to retake Harrison, and Lee pulled 10,000 men from the Petersburg defenses to do it.

As Lee would attack the following day, so would Meade, taking unknown advantage of the lessened Confederates in the Petersburg lines. Warren and Parke’s men were at the ready and were now awaiting the dawn.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 42, Part 2, p1046-1048; Personal Memoirs by Ulysses S. Grant; Meade’s Army by Theodore Lyman; The Last Citadel by Noah Andre Trudeau; The Petersburg Campaign, Vol. 2 by Edwin Bearss. []
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