The Siege and the Shell Game
The last summer of war in Virginia
By August, 1864, the Civil War in Virginia had ground to a halt. Richmond and Petersburg were under siege. The stand-up fighting tactics used early in the war had been replaced by trench warfare.
Since May, the vastly outnumbered Confederate forces under Gen. Robert E. Lee had parried every thrust of Federal forces under the overall command of General U.S. Grant. Undeterred by his inability to pierce the trenches dug by Lees famed Army of Northern Virginia, Grant staged a series of flank marches around Lees right which caused Lee to retreat south from Fredericksburg to Richmond. Unable to take Richmond, Grant continued his flank movements and crossed the mighty James River in an effort to take Petersburg.
After several weeks of charging entrenchments, Union troops had become leery of trenches. Well planned entrenchments outside Petersburg stopped Grants plans in June and July for direct attacks upon Petersburg. The only thing left to do was flank.
"General Lee was uneasy. He was defending two cities and a line of intrenchments enveloping both thirty-five miles long, and could not know with certainty at what point in them the real blow would be delivered." - Gen. Fitzhugh Lee, nephew and biographer of Gen. Robert E. Lee.
For the remainder of the war, the back and forth movements seen during this month would be the model for engagements for the remainder of the war in Virginia. The first blow in a complicated series of blows during August, 1864, would fall north of the James River on the extreme right of the Union line at a place known as Deep Bottom.
1. The Battle of Second Deep Bottom (13-20 August 1864)
Principal Commanders: Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock [US]; Gen. Robert E. Lee and Maj. Gen. Charles Field [CS]
During the night of August 13-14, the Union Second Corps, Tenth Corps, and Greggs cavalry division, all under command of Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, crossed the James River at Deep Bottom to threaten Richmond, coordinating with a movement against the Weldon Railroad south of Petersburg. Rather than go up river to Deep Bottom, the transports were sent down river in a successful ploy to conceal the real point of attack. Before boarding, rumors spread that the Corps was being sent to Washington D.C. to bolster defenses there. At midnight, the transports were turned about and steamed upriver.
On August 14, the Tenth Corps closed on New Market Heights while the Second Corps extended the Federal line to the right along Baileys Creek. During the night, the Tenth Corps was moved to the far right flank of the Union line near Fussells Mill. On August 16, Union assaults near Fussells Mill were initially successful, but Confederate counterattacks drove the Federals out of a line of captured works. Heavy fighting continued throughout the remainder of the day. Confederate general John Chambliss was killed during cavalry fighting on Charles City Road. After continual skirmishing, the Federals returned to the southside of the James on the 20th, maintaining their bridgehead at Deep Bottom.
Result(s): Confederate victory
Estimated Casualties: Federal (3,000), Confederate (1,500)
2. The Battle of Globe Tavern or Second Weldon Railroad (18-21 August 1864)
Principal Commanders: Maj. Gen. G.K. Warren [US]; Gen. Robert E. Lee, Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill, Maj. Gen. Henry Heth, and Maj. Gen. William Mahone [CS]
"I think with the force you are sending me it will be safe to trust me to hold on to the railroad." - Gen. G. Warren of the Fifth Corps to Army of the Potomac commander, Gen. Meade.
"It is touching a tigers cubs to get on that road!" - prophetically exclaimed an aid of Gen. Meade who was present with Gen. Warren at Globe Tavern.
While Hancocks command demonstrated north of the James River at Deep Bottom, the Union Fifth Corps and elements of the Ninth and Second Corps under command of Maj. Gen. G.K. Warren were withdrawn from the Petersburg entrenchments to operate against the Weldon Railroad. At dawn on August 18, Warren advanced, driving back Confederate pickets until reaching the railroad at Globe Tavern. In the afternoon, Maj. Gen. Henry Heths division attacked driving Ayress division back toward the tavern. Both sides entrenched during the night.
"although we drove them a mile, we couldnt make them relinquish their hold on the road - being too weak for them.... today, I doubt not, we shall dislodge them, though it may cost a good many men," - wrote an adjutant in a C.S. Third Corps artillery unit on the morning of 19 August.
On August 19, Maj. Gen. William Mahone, whose division had been hastily returned from north of James River, attacked with five infantry brigades, rolling up the right flank of Crawfords division. Heavily reinforced, Warren counterattacked and by nightfall had retaken most of the ground lost during the afternoons fighting. On the 20th, the Federals laid out and entrenched a strong defensive line covering the Blick House and Globe Tavern and extending east to connect with the main Federal lines at Jerusalem Plank Road. On August 21, Hill probed the new Federal line for weaknesses but could not penetrate the Union defenses. With the fighting at Globe Tavern, Grant succeeded in extending his siege lines to the west and cutting Petersburgs primary rail connection with Wilmington, North Carolina. The Confederates were now forced to off-load rail cars at Stony Creek Station for a 30-mile wagon haul up Boydton Plank Road to reach Petersburg.
"I fear that the Weldon RRd is now lost to us as the Yankees entrenched themselves strongly there while Gen Lee was occupied on the north of the James River." - A member of Gen. Beauregards staff.
Estimated Casualties: 5,879 total (4,279 US; 1,600 CS)
Result(s): Union victory
3. The Battle of Reams Station (25 August 1864)
Principal Commanders: Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock [US]; Maj. Gen. Henry Heth [CS]
On August 24, Union Second Corps moved south along the Weldon Railroad, tearing up track, preceded by Greggs cavalry division. The Second Corps had boarded transports and trains at the extreme right of the Union lines while Warren was fighting to hold his position at Globe Tavern. They were rushed to the extreme left of the lines on a mission to extend the line and wreck the railway miles below Globe Tavern. On August 25, Maj. Gen. Harry Heth attacked the isolated and exhausted Second Corps by overrunning the faulty Union position at Reams Station and capturing 9 guns, 12 colors, and many prisoners. The old Second Corps had been shattered. Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock withdrew to the main Union line near the Jerusalem Plank Road, bemoaning the declining combat effectiveness of his troops.
"If Hancocks heart could have been examined there would have been written on it REAMS as plainly as the deep scars received at Gettysburg and other fields were visible." - Gen. Harry Heth.
Estimated Casualties: 2,600 Union of which 2,000 were missing or captured; 800 Confederate.
Result(s): Confederate victory
4. Result of the August Campaign
Although Confederates prevailed in two of the three contests, they lost the campaign as Union forces forced Confederates to stretch their lines around Richmond and Petersburg ever farther. Another result was that much needed supplies from North Carolina and other areas of the South became more difficult to ship to Richmond and Petersburg as the Weldon Railroad became hors de combat. This caused extensive shortages of supplies for soldiers and civilians in these two cities.
Over the next eight months, Union forces would continue advancing their lines to the right towards Richmond and to the left around Petersburg. Onto these lines poured the ever increasing numbers of material and manpower from the North. The advances forced the Army of Northern Virginia to extend its lines ever further, and man them with fewer troops at any given point as no new troops were available to the Southern Cause. Like a rubber band stretched beyond its limit, the lines would eventually break. That breaking point would occur on 2 April, 1865. One week after fleeing the lines, Lee would surrender his once proud army to a pursuing General Grant at Appomattox Courthouse.
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