‘We Ought to Be Able to Hold Against Everything’ – Warren and Beauregard Prepare for Battle

August 20, 1864 (Saturday)

“Gen-earl Hill reports enemy still occupying part of railroad where he is fortifying,” wrote P.G.T. Beauregard to General Lee. “Am endeavoring to make necessary arrangements to dislodge him to-day, if practicable.”

General Beauregard
General Beauregard

Beauregard’s five brigades hadn’t exactly been defeated the previous day, but neither did they hold the field. They mauled two entire divisions of Federal infantry, and though they were hungry for more, Beauregard grew cautious, almost wishing they would be gone from his front. Through the day, Beauregard would pull every man he could from the trenches, trying once more to throw together a striking force that might break the Union hold on the Weldon Railroad.

General Lee knew that if the Federals were to be driven from the line, Beauregard would have to move with great haste. Otherwise, the enemy would build trenches where their impromptu breastworks were thrown together. But as the day continued on and further reports arrived concerning Union reinforcements, he grew less certain about making a successful attack.

“Every available man who can be spared from trenches has been withdrawn,” countered Beauregard. “Shall try attack in the morning with all the force I can spare.”

On the previous day’s battlefield, still in Union command, Col. William Humphrey, commanding a brigade in the late attack, sent forward “a detail of men to gather up the arms and accouterments that lay strewn along the line and through the wood.” In all, they brought back 513 rifles. Most were found “either standing along the pit, with the accouterments hanging across the muzzles of the pieces, or in a line of stacks some distance in the rear of the pits.”

This indicated that many of the Fifth Corps troops never had a chance to fire a shot. They were surprised by the flank attack and ran for their lives, leaving behind them anything that was not already on their person.

As Gouverneur Warren surveyed his lines, which had been collapsed and overrun by the Rebel assault the previous day, he was every bit as leery of battle as was Beauregard. “I do not think with our present force we can hold a line across where I established the picket-line yesterday,” he wrote to General Meade. Mostly, however, his mind was upon the cavalry, and several dispatches about the location of enemy troopers were exchanged with army headquarters.

By the afternoon, both Meade and Warren were fixed upon destroying the railroad. If the Rebels were leaving them alone, why not at least attempt to accomplish the original task? But as the day wore on, prisoners coming through the lines warned that an attack was soon coming. And with the waning hours returned Warren’s assuredness.

General Beauregard
General Beauregard

In reporting on of the prisoners’ warnings that an imminent Southern assault was coming, Warren concluded: “His statement seems based upon his own opinions, and he is an ignorant fellow. I think, however, it is quite true that they will attack us, but I think we ought to be able to hold against everything.”

And it was true, Beauregard was still planning an attack, though not for this day. “Expect to attack early in the morning,” he wrote Lee at 7pm. He had borrowed two additional brigades and felt as sure as he could that victory would come. “No available force shall be left behind.”

What was deemed as “available” were eight brigades divided into two divisions, once again commanded by Generals Harry Heth and William Mahone. A.P. Hill would again be the field commander.

But as they were planning the assault for the next morning, the Federals were shifting their positions. Rather than maintaining a straight line perpendicular to the railroad, Warren refused his left flank, bringing it to almost a right angle with his right. This created a salient, but it was filled to the brim with artillery. An attack would come, and he would be ready.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 42, Part 1, p596; Part 2, p338-341, 1192-1193; The Military Operations of General Beauregard by Alfred Roman; The Petersburg Campaign by Edwin Bearss; The Last Citadel by Noah Andre Trudeau. []
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