June 15, 1864 (Wednesday)
While most of Grant’s Army had crossed the James River the day previous, the Eighteenth Corps, commanded by “Baldy” Smith, had taken transports down the Pamunkey River and then up the James. They had arrived at Bermuda Hundred in the waining hours of the 14th.
Bermuda Hundred was a peninsula between the James and Appomattox Rivers, located between Richmond and Petersburg. It was also home to Benjamin Butler’s Army of the James, which had been bottled up and rendered impotent by the Rebels under P.G.T. Beauregard, defending Petersburg, itself south of Richmond. The standoff was a stalemate and neither side could attack the other. During the fighting before Cold Harbor, Grant had ordered Baldy Smith’s Corps to join him from Butler’s realm. This gave Beauregard room to breath and he rested easy until Smith’s return.
“Return of Butler’s forces sent to Grant,”wrote General Beauregard to Richmond, “renders my position more critical than ever, if not reinforced immedaitely; for the enemy could force my lines at Bermuda Hundred Neck, capture Battery Dantzler, now nearly ready, or take Petersburg, before any troops from Lee’s army or Drury’s Bluff could arrive in time. Can anything be done in the matter?”
For Beauregard, help could not come soon enough. His small command, wholly separate from Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, was holding two lines – Bermuda Hundred and Petersburg, each separated by the Appomattox. “I fear my present force may prove unequal to hold both,” wrote Beauregard to Richmond at 1:45pm. No reply and no reinforcements could be expected.
Baldy Smith had been ordered to attack Petersburg. In the early morning, the Eighteenth Corps began to cross the river on a pontoon bridge. But his troops had become scattered during the excursion from Cold Harbor, and it took him some time to collect and organize them. Even when they were brought together, Smith was heedless in their management.
With cavalry to the front, his three divisions marched toward the northeastern corner of the city. While two moved along the railroad, a third, consisting wholly of black troops, advanced on their left along a parallel road.
General Butler doubted the Confederates would hold. Even Beauregard was in doubt. But against the cavalry, the Petersburg lines withstood the attack. Smith then threw forward the black division. These were raw recruits, untested in battle and unsupported. Their numbers were bloodied, but breeched the embattlements of the enemy. The retreating Rebels left behind their artillery, and the new soldiers roared in ecstasy, hugging the piece and joyous of their success.
But it was only local. Smith had believed the Rebel position to be abandoned or scantily manned. It was not, and this gave him pause.
As Smith’s first division stabbed at the Petersburg defenses, Beauregard pulled Robert Hoke’s Division from the Bermuda Hundred lines to fill the gaps. It was then that he warned Richmond and Lee that they now needed to make a decision – hold Bermuda Hundred or Petersburg – it could not be both.
Fortunately for Beauregard, there fell a lull over the battle at Petersburg’s door. Smith reconnoitered the ground and the defenses, known as the Dimmock line. Finally, he determined to spread out his force and attack all along the enemy’s works. Smith called for the artillery to lead with a bombardment, but soon it was discovered that the artillery had been moved far to the rear. More hours would pass before any troops would again move.
In the meanwhile, General Grant was fuming. According to his original plan, “Smith was to move under cover of night, up close to the enemy’s works, and assault as soon as he could after daylight.” The confusion from the start set the Eighteenth Corps back, and Smith’s indecision through the afternoon did it no favors.
“I believed then, and still believe,” wrote Grant in his memoirs, “that Petersburg could have been easily captured at that time. It only had about 2,500 men in the defenses besides some irregular troops, consisting of citizens and employees in the city who took up arms in case of emergency.” Not to be too harsh, Grant allowed that there was a line of defenses where no defenses were supposed.
Grant hurried forward the Second Corps, under Winfield Scott Hancock, believing that he could reinforce Smith faster than Lee could reinforce Beauregard. And so Grant ordered General George Meade, actual commander of the Army of the Potomac, to send Hancock’s Corps across the pontoon bridge and to make sure they had rations for the next morning. They were to move to join Smith before dawn.
At 7pm, Baldy Smith was finally ready to commence his assault. Its success was strange. Rather than attack in tightly-held lines of battle, Smith’s forces advanced as thick skirmishers. Typically, in storming such works, the infantry would advance in columns, break the lines at specific points and then fan out. And so when the Rebels saw the skirmishers advance, they waiting, holding their ammunition, expecting to see thick blue columns.
But they never came. Instead, it was only a “cloud of skirmishers,” as E. Porter Alexander described, “against which our artillery fire could accomplish little.” Porter concluded that “Smith’s device was eminently successful. Our artillery would not fire at the skirmishers at all. They reserved their fire for the storming columns which they expected to follow. The skirmishers over ran and captured two redans at a salient where the line crossed the railroad to City Point, capturing about 250 prisoners and four guns.”
According to Porter, the white Federal division “sent to the right accomplished nothing. But Hinck’s colored division, sent to the left, in a couple of hours got possession of five more redans.”
It was not enough. Though many portions of the Confederate line fell, enough of it was retained that the attack was ultimately not a victory. Night had fallen, and through the line of a full moon, the Rebels could see the arrival of Hancock’s lead elements. At Smith’s headquarters, Hancock offered his services, giving over his command to the needful. If another attack was to be made that night, it would be augmented by the Second Corps.
But Smith saw no hope in these matters. He refused to send his men forward once again, and Hancock alone could not over run the Rebel works. By this time, only a division, perhaps, had arrived on the field. The rest would have to await the dawn.
Later that night, General Beauregard decided on his own to give up Bermuda Hundred, and concentrated his entire force in the defenses of Petersburg. Through some fate, Petersburg could have, but did not, fall on this date. Smith had no idea how close he was to victory, and Beauregard’s lines were now held by 14,000.1
- Sources: Military Operations of General Beauregard by Alfred Roman; Fighting for the Confederacy by E. Porter Alexander; Personal Memoirs by Ulysses S. Grant; The Last Citadel by Noah Andre Trudeau. [↩]