June 17, 1864 (Friday)
Through the night the reports filtered into General Meade’s headquarters – Lee’s army was on the move, south toward Petersburg. Soon, rather than 14,000 Rebels dug in behind the entrenchments, there would be upwards of 40,000. And soon, it would be General Lee at their helm, rather than P.G.T. Beauregard. If ever there was a time for immediate action, it was now.
And Meade sent forward the Ninth Corps under Ambrose Burnside. The attack was to be made at night, but it wasn’t until just before the sunrise that they went forward. When finally they came, they numbered only a division. But there was success. A mile of embattled Rebel lines fell. 600 prisoners were taken, four pieces of artillery, and 1,500 rifles.
“The division had been quietly brought within 100 yards, in a ravine, during the night, and advanced with empty guns in their hands,” recalled E. Porter Alexander after the war. “One of our gunners alone was awake, and saw them, and discharged his cannon, which was the only shot fired.”
At 7am, General Meade found himself an almost unsuspected victor, but his day had only begun. To Ambrose Burnside, he sent a message: “I am satisfied the main body of Lee’s army is not yet up, and it is of the utmost importance to do all we can before they get up.”
Hours would pass but at 2pm, on they came again, now supported by the Second Corps under an ailing Winfield Scott Hancock. Soon the battle was joined by Gouverneur K. Warren’s Fifth Corps and elements of Horatio Wright’s Sixth. But little was gained. Then again at 6pm, they charged, taking much of the Confederate works before being forced back by their previous tenants.
“The fighting was continuous and severe all day,” continued Alexander. “Parts of our line were taken and retaken, but when the struggle finally ceased, which it did not do until near midnight, our lines were practically intact and Beauregard and were left of his splendid little force had covered themselves with glory. For they had successfully stood off Grant’s whole army for three days.”
General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was, for the most part, holding the Bermuda Hundred lines, having arrived the day before. Lee was nearly convinced that the swing at Petersburg was a feign, that Grant was trying to draw Lee south so the Federal army could capture Richmond. But that was not so.
For days now, Lee had been contemplating Grant’s intentions and awaiting word from Beauregard about which enemy troops were before him. Lee was insistent that none of Grant’s army had crossed the James River. It was only Benjamin Butler’s army manning the Bermuda Hundred defenses as well as attacking Beauregard at Petersburg. Lee was mistaken.
Beauregard had been in regular contact with Lee through the 16th and 17th. Both were wondering if Grant had yet to cross the James, and both were counting upon the other to relay that information. Lee counted on Beauregard to know which Federal troops were attacking him, while Beauregard counted on Lee to know Grant’s position since it had been in Lee’s immediate front. Both commanders had lost track of the enemy.
“I do not know the position of Grant’s army,” wrote Lee on the morning of the 16th. “Have not heard of Grant’s crossing James River,” he related a few hours later. Still an hour later, at 4pm, Lee asked Beauregard, “Has Grant been seen crossing James River?”
On this day, Lee called upon A.P. Hill, holding his left, to fish for Grant before Richmond. Meanwhile, Beauregard finally learned that it was indeed the Army of the Potomac before him, and sent word to Lee, who responded: “I have no information of Grant’s crossing James River.”
Slowly, however, Lee was coming around, and ordered Hill to abandon his position and move south, unless he learned that Grant had not actually crossed. Beauregard grew frustrated at Lee’s indecision, especially now that it was known the Army of the Potomac was before Petersburg, not Richmond.
Rather than a simple message, Beauregard dispatched three of his staff officers to Lee’s headquarters to relay the word in person. They told in succession of the prisoners taken from Meade’s army, detailing that they had come from the Ninth, Second and even Fifth and Sixth Corps.
“The first messenger was his aid Col. A.R. Chisolm,” remembered Alexander, “who interviewed General Lee lying on the ground in his tent, between 1 and 2am on the 18th. General Lee was very placid and heard all the messages, but still he said he thought General Beauregard was mistaken in supposing that any large part of Grant’s army had crossed the James.”
And so Lee sent only a division, which had already been ordered to Petersburg anyway. The next day, he would come himself. He then went to bed. A second staff officer sent by Beauregard was turned away, but a third demanded to see Lee, who was roused from his sleep. It was he, “Major Giles B. Cooke, who insisted upon an interview and who brought details (states by prisoners, etc) which when laid before General Lee thoroughly statisfied him that Grant’s whole army was across.”
With that, Lee sent messages to his officers – they would abandon whatever positions they now held and concentrated upon Petersburg the next morning.
Before any of this could happen, however, Beauregard made the decision to abandon his most forward lines. These, he felt, could not be held against another attack. He ordered myriad campfires to be built to simulate the encampment of an entire army, and around midnight withdrew closer to the streets of Petersburg.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 40, Part 2, p659, 663; 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; Life and Letters by George Meade. [↩]