To Divide the Attention of the Enemy’s Troops: Establishing the Deep Bottom Bridgehead

Today, we are pleased to welcome back guest author Jimmy Price

Part two in a series.

Pontoon Bridge at Deep Bottom. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Pontoon Bridge at Deep Bottom. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In my previous post I outlined the important series of actions fought north of the James River during the Richmond-Petersburg Campaign from July – October 1864. This post will explore the means by which Federal forces participated in these battles – the Deep Bottom bridgehead. The name “Deep Bottom” refers to an area on the James River 11 miles southeast of Richmond located at a horseshoe-shaped bend in the river known as Jones’ Neck. This area remained relatively quiet throughout the war, but all of that changed once the first series of Union assaults on the Petersburg defenses failed.

Determined to avoid a prolonged siege, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant boarded a ship with Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler of the Army of the James on June 20, 1864 to seek out a location to open up simultaneous operations against Richmond.

Grant determined that Deep Bottom was the most suitable location. Since it was convenient to the Bermuda Hundred Peninsula, where Butler’s army was currently operating, Deep Bottom was the perfect place to “divide the attention of the enemy’s troops, and to confuse them as to whether to expect an attack upon Richmond or Petersburg,” according to Grant’s aide Horace Porter.

Grant ordered Butler to send a brigade of 2,000 men “to seize, hold, and fortify” Deep Bottom and have the army’s engineers construct a pontoon bridge. Brig. Gen. Robert S. Foster of the X Corps was chosen to lead this small expedition. At 5:00 p.m. on June 20th, Foster’s command marched three miles through intense heat and dust to Jones’ Neck, where the pontoons were assembled and waiting.

The expedition was fraught with danger: Confederate pickets were only three hundred yards away and, once on the north side of the river, the wooded bluffs would have to be scaled and a perimeter established before any work could commence.

Still, by 11:00 p.m., all of Foster’s men were on the far side of the river and by the early morning hours of June 21st the bridgehead was in place and expanding. At 1:15 a.m., Foster proudly reported back to headquarters, “I have established my picket-line without resistance. My intrenching and slashing parties are at work.”

Word of the Yankee incursion came to Lee’s headquarters early on the morning of June 21st from his eldest son, Brig. Gen. George Washington Custis Lee. When the size of the force was determined, Richard S. Ewell, newly appointed commander of the Department of Richmond, appealed to Old Marse Robert for “an increase of force on this side of the river.”

Lee dispatched Henry Heth’s Third Corps division to the north side of the James on June 22nd to assuage Ewell’s fears. The front would remain static for over a month while the two main armies focused on Petersburg.

But Robert E. Lee was none too pleased about the irksome presence of the Yankee troops, telling Ewell, “I do not like the continuance of the enemy on the north side of the James River and the maintenance of the pontoon bridge at Deep Bottom.” On July 23, 1864 Lee reached a breaking point and decided to send Maj. Gen. Joseph B. Kershaw’s entire division across the river to destroy the pesky bridgehead once and for all.

Giving up that many troops from the Petersburg front was extremely stressful for Lee, and the harried commander wrote to his son on the 24th to unload his secret worries:

“I sent yesterday Genl. Kershaw’s division to Chaffin’s, which I can ill spare & which I fear I shall be obliged soon to recall…I directed Genl Kershaw to take command of the brigades under Conner, examine the enemy’s position at Deep Bottom, & see what could be done. I have not heard from him yet…Where are we to get sufficient troops to oppose Grant?”

Kershaw wasted no time taking up the offensive. On July 26th his men launched an attack against Foster’s troops, shouting “Go home you red devils!” to a regiment still brave enough to wear Zouave uniforms at this point in the war. The attack successfully dislodged Foster’s men from their advanced positions, but they clung tenaciously to the Deep Bottom bridgehead.

As the evening fighting tapered off, the Confederates were blissfully ignorant of the fact that over 24,000 Union soldiers were marching their way at that very moment.

The stage was set for the First Battle of Deep Bottom.



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