August 13, 1864 (Saturday)
“2d Corps suddenly picked up its duds and marched off!” wrote General Meade’s staff officer, Theodore Lyman in the August 12th entry of his diary. According to a fellow staffer with that corps, it was “understood they were going in transports to Washington.” The Second Corps was indeed on the move, but it was not to Washington.1
Two days earlier, Grant had received information that a division from James Longstreet’s Corps had been detached from Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia to reinforce Jubal Early’s army in the Shenandoah Valley. A day later, word had it that three other divisions – an entire corps – was en route to face down Phil Sheridan.
Word from an agent working inside Richmond held “that it was understood that three divisions of infantry went to Early in the first part of the week. Great secrecy was observed in the movement, and the troops were taken through the city mostly in the night.” All he could learn was that they were from Longstreet’s Corps (now commanded by Richard Anderson).
With time, on the 12th, Grant had sussed out the truth, more or less. “The enemy has sent north two if not three divisions of infantry, twenty-three pieces of artillery, and one division of cavalry.” In reality, there were two divisions of infantry under Anderson and one of cavalry under Fitz Lee.
Fearing the worst, that Sheridan would be crushed, and that Lee would receive Early’s force. “To prevent as much as possible these reinforcements from being sent out from Richmond,” wrote Grant in his memoirs, “I had to do something to compel Lee to retain his forces about his capital. I therefore gave orders for another move to the north side of the James River, to threaten Richmond.”
The reason Lt. Col. Lyman believed that the Second Corps was headed to Washington was because that’s what he (and everyone else) was supposed to believe. While Grant seemed content enough to simply march Winfield Scott Hancock’s Corps across the James to Deep Bottom, one of his staff dreamed up the scheme to load the troops on transports and steam them down the river at midnight, being very vocal about going to Washington. But once down stream a ways, the ships would be turned around and slipped back upriver to Curles Neck, where they would be unloaded.
While the troops were crowding themselves for the charade, General Hancock and his staff took a small craft upstream to Deep Bottom to select a landing spot for his troops. When he arrived and took in the ground, he “foresaw that the difficulties of disembarkation would be greater than were apprehened, and at my suggestions the transports left City Point at 10pm instead of at midnight, as was originally contemplated.”
The whole idea was for Hancock’s Corps to attack the Confederate entrenchments, threatening the lines between Richmond and Petersburg. If all went well, at the very least Lee might give up the latter city to save the former.
“If the enemy are reduced as much in numbers as we have reason to believe they are, Hancock’s movements tomorrow may lead to almost the entire abandonment of Petersburg,” wrote Grant to Meade on this date. “Have this watched as closely as you can, and if you find this view realized, take such advantage of it as you deem best.”
To the north in the Shenandoah Valley, Phil Sheridan had received Grant’s warning about the coming Rebels. Grant urged him not to attack. “I was making preparations to attack them when your dispatch arrived,” wrote Sheridan to Grant on this date. “It did not appear as though they would make a stand, and looked more like an invitation for me to follow them up. I did not think it best to do so, and have taken position on the south side of Cedar Creek.”
While the Rebels had taken up fine defensive positions on Fisher’s Hill, Sheridan was not at all happy with his own. “The position here is a very bad one,” he continued, “as I cannot cover the numerous roads that lead in on both of my flanks to the rear.” Asking for Grant’s advice, Sheridan decided to wait. Before him, however, the Confederates climbed to the summit of Three Top Mountain which overlooked both the Shenandoah and the parallel Lauray Valleys. It was in the Lauray where Anderson’s men were to come up.
The forces in the Shenandoah would soon be evenly matched as Grant struggled to create such a diversion to force Lee to draw back troops from Sheridan’s front.2
- In his diary, Lyman also noted this: “Col. Henry G.] Thomas got taken by mistake, on the day of the truce, and was carried to Petersburg, but was liberated afterwards. He described the look of the streets and said he saw bird cages in the windows, which sounds queerly. He also discovered a bawdy house! Bravo! I wish the rebs had kept him. He is a low-minded, scheming fellow.” [↩]
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 42, Part 1, p217; Part 2, p131, 141, 143, 144-145; Vol. 43, Part 1, p775; Personal Memoirs by Ulysses S. Grant; Personal Memoirs by Philip Sheridan; A Memoir of the Last Year of the War For Independence by Jubal A. Early; Meade’s Army by Theodore Lyman; The Last Citadel by Noah Andre Trudeau. [↩]