The Pause in the Operations – Lee Misreads Grant

June 9, 1864 (Thursday)

Davis was getting a tad worried.
Davis was getting a tad worried.

“The indications are that Grant, despairing of a direct attack, is now seeking to embarrass you by flank movements,” wrote Jefferson Davis to General Lee on this date. The day previous, Davis had joined Lee at the front, together observing the lines of the enemy. When he returned to Richmond, he assessed what he saw and concluded that Grant was going to run around Lee’s right flank once more.

Lee was being stretched thin. Though he had necessarily contracted his lines at Cold Harbor, he had to deal with the defeat in the Shenandoah Valley. For this, he had already detached John Breckinridge’s troops, now numbering many less then they had when first arriving.

But there was also the Union cavalry under Phil Sheridan. General Grant had dispatched the cavaliers to destroy the Virginia Central Railroad running from the Shenandoah Valley to north of Richmond. He was to begin at Louisa Court House [near Greenwood on the map], ravaging westward toward Charlottesville and the Valley. While Sheridan left on the 7th, he took a wide route, staying north of the North Anna River. When Lee learned of the plot, he gathered his own cavalry, now under the helm of Wade Hampton.

As Sheridan’s ride was circuitous, it was held that Hampton’s number could cut off enemy before they were able to engage in too much destruction. For this, Hampton devised to hold the small depot of Trevilian’s Station, east of Charlottesville. He was given Fitz Lee’s division and three batteries of artillery. Along with his own division, he could field nearly 7,000. Sheridan moved with just over 9,000.

“If our cavalry, concentrated, could meet that of the enemy,” added Davis, “it would have moral as well as physical effects, which are desirable.”

Today's Approximate Map.
Today’s Approximate Map.

But Jefferson Davis not only had the line to the Shenandoah to worry about. Not far to the south of Richmond, General P.G.T. Beauregard reported that the Federals were moving upon Petersburg. Davis, at the time when he wrote Lee, gave it little credence. “Our scouts give no information as to the arrival of troops from below, and if none have come I cannot believe the attack to be of much force.”

Davis was hasty. The Union Army of the James, under Benjamin Butler, had been bottled up at Bermuda Hundred, southeast of Richmond, but it didn’t mean that it was completely neutered. Butler, wishing not to be completely outdone by the Army of the Potomac, called for a strike into Petersburg to capture the city. This he would attempt with cavalry as troops from various locations along Beauregard’s lines kept busy the Rebels who might otherwise put a sudden end to his machinations.

But then Butler, at the urging of General Quincy Gillmore, changed his mind. Instead of cavalry, it would be Gillmore’s infantry who would strike, with the cavalry in support. Nothing went as planned. The infantry arrived hours before the cavalry, which was hours too late. Up against the too-formidable Petersburg defenses, Gillmore ordered a faint and then simply retreated. When the cavalry finally arrived, they actually dashed into the city, but were themselves turned back by their Rebel counterparts.

Lee didn't always know his enemy.
Lee didn’t always know his enemy.

In the end, Davis might have been mistaken, but it hardly mattered. Beauregard requested that the division he loaned to Lee prior to Cold Harbor be returned to him. Davis left the final decision up to Lee, allowing that “your sources of information will enable you to appreciate the case justly.” But Lee, naturally, declined the invitation.

To the far west Davis turned, thinking of Joe Johnston’s Army of Tennessee facing off against William Tecumseh Sherman’s forces in Georgia. Johnson had already been reinforced by Leonidas Polk’s Army of Mississippi, and it had been hoped that Kirby Smith’s Army of the Trans-Mississippi could be rushed east from Louisiana.

“I do not think General Smith could re-enforce General Johnston in time for the battle which must be fought for Georgia,” Davis concluded. “Unless General Johnston strikes before the enemy have brought up all the re-enforcements reported to be moving, his chances will be greatly diminished for the success which seemed attainable before he retreated, and still seems to be practicable.”

If Sherman had his way, there would indeed be no time for Smith to reinforce Johnston. Even now, he was advancing his host toward the Rebel defenses scraped and carved along the slopes of Lost, Pine and Brush mountains, just north of Marietta. Soon, there would be blood.

White House Landing, Va. Headquarters of the U.S. Christian Commission (Taken on this date or the next)
White House Landing, Va. Headquarters of the U.S. Christian Commission (Taken on this date or the next)

In conclusion, Davis lamented that “the reserves in Virginia have not turned out as was hoped.” There simply were not enough men to fill the swiftly-depleting ranks of the Army of Northern Virginia. More and more, it was appearing as if Lee would have to fall back upon Richmond. A few days prior, Lee had said to Jubal Early: “We must destroy this army of Grant’s before he gets to James River. If he gets there, it will become a siege, and then it will be a mere question of time.”

If Grant was truly about to move around Lee’s flank, a plan must be devised, and quickly. But he waited. “The pause in the operations of Gen. Grant induces me to believe that he is awaiting the effect of movements in some other quarter,” wrote Lee to Davis.

But Grant had not paused. Even on this day, he was preparing, planning to move his base of operations to City Point southeast of Richmond on the James River – across it, in fact. He had already wired Washington, instructing them to send supplies and reinforcements there instead of to his present position. The army was electric with the thought. In a few days, they would move.1



  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 51, Part 2, p996; The Campaigns of General Lee by Jubal Early; Lee’s Dispatches: Unpublished Letters of General Robert E. Lee edited by Douglas Southall Freeman; Back Door to Richmond by William Glenn Robertson; Not War But Murder by Ernest B. Furgurson; Blood Roads South by Noah Andre Trudeau; Lee’s Last Campaign by Clifford Dowdey. []
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