July 27, 1864 (Wednesday)
Word had it that General Robert E. Lee was going to attack, attempting to throw General Grant on the defensive so that the Confederates might detach troops for service near Atlanta. In an attempt to stop this before it started, Grant had a plan.
I had other objects in view, however, besides keeping Lee where he was. The mine was constructed and ready to be exploded, and I wanted to take that occasion to carry Petersburg if I could. It was the object, therefore, to get as many of Lee’s troops away from the south side of the James River as possible. Accordingly, on the 26th, we commenced a movement with Hancock’s corps and Sheridan’s cavalry to the north side by the way of Deep Bottom, where Butler had a pontoon bridge laid. The plan, in the main, was to let the cavalry cut loose and, joining with Kautz’s cavalry of the Army of the James, get by Lee’s lines and destroy as much as they could of the Virginia Central Railroad, while, in the mean time, the infantry was to move out so as to protect their rear and cover their retreat back when they should have got through with their work.
Philip Sheridan’s Cavalry was to lead Hancock’s infantry north across the Appomattox River. Both stepped off in the afternoon of the day previous, hoping to deceive Lee into sending the bulk of his infantry to the north side of the James River. Most of the move would be under cover of darkness. Its failure or success would be determined in the coming days.
Into this, Hancock fed his entire corps, pressing forward from Deep Bottom toward Chaffin’s Bluff, picking up John Foster’s Tenth Corps along the way. Upon crossing to the north bank of the James River, Hancock met with a strong Confederate resistance along the road to Malvern Hill.
“By daylight Hancock was across, the cavalry following,” recalled Sheridan in his memoirs. “Soon a portion of his corps attacked the enemy’s works on the east side of Bailey’s Creek, and, aided by the cavalry moving on its right, captured four pieces of artillery.”
“As rapidly as the troops could be brought forward in the country, about which we then knew nothing. they were pushed up the New Market and Malvern Hill road in pursuit of the enemy, the Second Division in advance.”
But where the road crossed Bailey’s Creek, the Rebels hand constructed some pretty formidable works, and Hancock found that he could not cross it. “The works appeared to be filled with men, and a number of pieces of artillery were in position,” wrote Hancock in his report. “After a careful examination of the position it was decided that the chances of successful assault were unfavorable, and it was determined to maneuver to the right, with the view of turning the position.”
After much searching, however, no flank could be found. Even Sheridan’s cavalry, try as they might, could do nothing. In the middle of the afternoon, General Grant himself ventured to the front to see for himself. But neither could he see anything hopeful in an attack.
It was disheartening, but in reality, the whole point of the operation was to force Lee to send troops from the south side of the James to the north. This would lessen the forces before the bulk of the Army of the Potomac, and possibly make Petersburg much easier to take.
During the night, Hancock related, “I received intelligence that the enemy were re-enforcing from the south side of the James.” This was fine news in the overall scheme of things, but for Hancock it meant that the Rebels might just attack him – something he was ill-prepared to receive.
The next day would be spent in defending a small probe and hoping for orders to return.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 40, Part 1, p310-311; Memoirs by Ulysses S. Grant; Memoirs by Philip Sheridan. [↩]