Separate Roads to Petersburg: The Fractured Federal High Command, April 1865

Routes of Meade (green) and Grant (blue) to their Harmon House meeting
Routes of Meade (green) and Grant (blue) to their Harmon house meeting

Ever have a dispute with someone turn so ugly that you don’t want to even share the same road? From all appearances, that may have been the case on April 2, 1865 with the damaged relationship between Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Maj. Gen. George G. Meade. While researching Grant’s experience on that decisive day of the Petersburg Campaign for a park tour, I found the parallel paths that both he and Meade rode up Duncan and Boydton Plank Roads to be curious. And perhaps a good metaphor for the dynamic within the Federal high command.

Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant made his headquarters in the last days of March 1865 near Dabney’s Mill, south of Hatcher’s Run. For most of the campaign he stayed at the Eppes plantation at City Point, but now the Federal commander wanted to be closer to the scene of action as it shifted to the southwest into Dinwiddie County.

It was there at Dabney’s Mill that Grant received the fateful news from Lt. Col. Horace Porter of Maj. Gen. Phil Sheridan’s victory at Five Forks on April 1, 1865. While staff officers ecstatically slapped each other’s backs in glee, Grant calmly walked into his tent and crafted a dispatch. He reemerged shortly thereafter with the news: “I have ordered a general assault along the lines.”

Grant wanted to immediately press the Confederate earthworks along the entire front to prevent Gen. Robert E. Lee from slipping reinforcements out to Five Forks or abandoning the entire line altogether. The various Union corps opposing the main Confederate defenses along the Dimmock Line and the extension protecting Boydton Plank Road were not, however, in position for an immediate attack. Eventually the orders were amended for the VI and IX Corps to stage a direct assault the next morning while the II Corps and Army of the James felt the Confederate line for weaknesses.

“A little after midnight the general tucked himself into his camp-bed and was soon sleeping as peacefully as if the next day was to be devoted to a picnic instead of a decisive battle,” recalled Lt. Col. Porter. “Every one at headquarters had caught as many catnaps as he could, so as to be able to keep both eyes open the next day, in the hope of getting a sight of Petersburg, and possibly Richmond.”

Porter was awoken the next morning by “the thunder of hundreds of guns” which “shook the ground like an earthquake.” The soldiers of the VI and IX Corps rushed boldly at the Confederate earthworks while the II and XXIV Corps cautiously probed the enemy’s picket line.

At 5:15 Grant received a message from Maj. Gen. Horatio G. Wright that the VI Corps had carried the Confederate line opposite Fort Welch and were continuing to push forward. Shortly thereafter he learned that the IX Corps had captured the outer works southeast of Petersburg and took 800 prisoners and 12 pieces of artillery. Major General John G. Parke was having a harder time following up this initial success, however.

More dispatches poured in from across the wide front and Grant waited at headquarters to keep correspondence with his various subordinates. He wanted to remain in a position “where he could be easily communicated with, and from which he could give general directions.”

At 6:40 he wrote President Abraham Lincoln, back at City Point: “Both Wright and Parke got through the enemy’s line. The battle now rages furiously. Sheridan, with his cavalry, the Fifth Corps, and Miles’s division of the Second Corps, which was sent to him since one this morning, is now sweeping down from the west. All now looks highly favorable. Ord is engaged, but I have not yet heard the result in his front.”

Petersburg April 2, 1865, Map by Hal Jespersen,
Petersburg April 2, 1865, Map by Hal Jespersen,

Major General George Gordon Meade, meanwhile, began his morning just below where the Vaughn Road crosses Hatcher’s Run, approximately two miles from Grant’s headquarters. Though the two seemed to start things off on the right foot back in early 1864 after Grant’s promotion and arrival to Virginia, their working relationship had quickly soured during the Overland Campaign.

“The papers are giving Grant all the credit of what they call successes,” grumbled Meade to his wife in early June. “I hope they will remember this if anything goes wrong. Grant’s decision to ride along with the Army of the Potomac during the 1864 campaigns stripped much of Meade’s autonomy.

This photograph from Massaponax Church during the Overland Campaign perfectly illustrates Meade's complaint about his supervisor looming over his shoulder.
This photograph from Massaponax Church during the Overland Campaign perfectly illustrates Meade’s complaint about his supervisor looming over his shoulder.

With the sacking of Maj. Gen. Gouverneur Warren the day before, Grant now had all new corps commanders in place when compared with the previous spring. Brigadier General Charles Griffin now commanded the V Corps. Wright took helm of the VI Corps after John Sedgwick’s death at Spotsylvania and Maj. Gen. Andrew A. Humphreys took command of the II from the embattled Winfield Scott Hancock in late 1864. Meanwhile in the IX Corps, which Grant did finally officially attach to Meade’s Army of the Potomac after beginning the Overland Campaign as an independent unit, Parke had finally replaced Ambrose Burnside for good.

Joining the four corps south of the Appomattox River was Sheridan’s cavalry. Meade detested the brash, aggressive trooper. One can surmise the fact that Sheridan gave the direct order to relieve Warren from the V Corps, Meade’s old command, could have rankled the “goggle-eyed snapping turtle.”

In addition, Grant brought three divisions from Maj. Gen. Edward O.C. Ord’s Army of the James south from Richmond to join the Army of the Potomac for the decisive campaign against Petersburg. Meade could not issue orders for those units that connected the VI Corps with the II Corps.

The ground in between Ord and Maj. Gen. Henry Heth’s three Confederate brigades near Hatcher’s Run was treacherous for an advance. Grant decided that he did not want Ord to commit his men into a frontal assault and retasked the XXIV Corps, minus Brig. Gen. Thomas Maley Harris’s three West Virginia regiments, with moving up behind the Union fortifications to help exploit Wright’s breakthrough. Grant hoped they could sever the South Side Railroad, if not take Petersburg outright. Meanwhile seven of the VI Corps brigades pivoted south from their initial penetration of the Confederate works near Tudor Hall to sweep down Heth’s line from the north until they reached Hatcher’s Run.

After receiving a flurry of dispatches, Meade rode for Grant’s headquarters early in the morning on April 2 and found the general in an open field in front of Dabney’s Mill. The two enjoyed only “a few moments of conversation” before Meade continued along for Humphrey’s headquarters near the Rainey house on Boydton Plank Road. The cheers of Maj. Gen. Gershom Mott’s division warmed the general’s ears as he quickly rode from his brief meeting with his superior.

Grant remained at Dabney’s Mill, waiting to hear back from Humphreys and Ord, who were still testing the Confederate defenses south of Hatcher’s Run. By 7:30 the II Corps had begun pushing the Confederates from their White Oak Road line and by 8:00 he learned that Brig. Gen. William Hays’s division carried an imposing fort near the plank road with three guns and most of its garrison. Half an hour later Ord reported that Harris’s brigade had carried the last of the Confederate earthworks south of the stream.

“It was all now one battlefield from Petersburg to beyond Five Forks,” wrote Lt. Col. Adam Badeau, of Grant’s staff. “Everywhere the national columns had burst the rebel barriers, and were surging inward towards the railroad and the town that had been their goal for a year. The various corps were becoming confused as they converged, and it needed the chief to disentangle the lines.”

While maintaining communications with Meade, Sheridan, Humphreys, Ord, Wright, Parke, Lincoln, and Maj. Gen. Godfrey Weitzel up in Richmond, Grant began to worry about the cooperation between Wright’s VI Corps, Army of the Potomac, and Maj. Gen. John Gibbon’s XXIV Corps, Army of the James, as they sought to stamp out the last remaining Confederate resistance. He decided to abandon Dabney’s Mill once all dispatches returned and ride forward to help coordinate the follow-up to the initial stunning success.

Confirmation and updates still poured in from all directions. “Finding at length that they were all in, I mounted my horse to join the troops who were inside the works,” Grant recalled as he rode to supervise the final movement to envelop Petersburg.

“Thank God the Lieutenant General has commanded it himself and not permitted the spirit, or, I might say, the genius of his orders, to be dampened by his subordinate commander,” gleamed his chief of staff, Brig. Gen. John A. Rawlins, at the end of the day in a clear censure of Meade.

Duncan Road is visible in the background of this aerial photograph of the Hart Farm. The building on the right dates back to the war.
Duncan Road is visible in the background of this aerial photograph of the Hart Farm. The building on the right dates back to the war.

Grant spurred his black horse “Jeff Davis” to the Duncan Road and crossed Hatcher’s Run before riding another three and a half miles to where Maj. Gen. Truman Seymour’s VI Corps division punched through the line manned a detachment of just two North Carolina regiments under Lt. Col. Eric Erson detached from Brig. Gen. William MacRae’s command.

It is likely that the general entered the Confederate works at the site of the six-gun battery near Mrs. Hart’s house. “When I arrived there I rode my horse over the parapet just as Wright’s three thousand prisoners were coming out,” recalled Grant.

“His whole attention was for some time riveted upon them, and we knew that he was enjoying his usual satisfaction in seeing so large a capture,” claimed Lt. Col. Porter who rode in the long cavalcade with Grant. “Some of the guards told the prisoners who the general was, and they manifested great curiosity to get a good look at him.”

Captain Lemuel Abbott of the 10th Vermont Infantry was among those rounding up the prisoners and provided a stirring, though probably exaggerated description of Grant’s crossing of the Confederate works at the Hart farm which had long kept his men at bay:

“He was mounted on a proud-stepping dark charger, dressed with unusual care and never appeared to better advantage. The occasion inspiring it, he was a perfect picture of a conquering hero, but seemed all unconscious of it. The artist who could put Grant and his suite on canvas as he appeared then would win renown. As Grant’s eye caught the motley group of prisoners with me, who were regarding him with silent, open-mouthed wonder, he smiled slightly, drew in his horse a little as though to speak or in doubt of his safety, seeing the rebs had guns, but finally dashed on, an impressive picture not only in the midst of war, but surrounded by grand fortifications and the victorious and defeated living, wounded, dying and dead, real heroes of both the blue and the gray, never forgotten by those who were fortunate enough to see it.”

Grant came up next with the bulk of Seymour’s division “flushed with success, and rushing forward with a dash that was inspiring beyond description.” When they spotted Grant they began a cheer that spread along the line. “Boys, here’s General Grant, three cheers for him,” shouted a New Jersey sergeant who claimed the men “cheered him with the wildest enthusiasm.”

Grant reciprocated their praise with his “head uncovered” and “bowed his thanks for the soldiers’ hearty greeting.” He “sat on his horse in a plain blouse suit,” remembered a Connecticut lieutenant, whose description of Grant is probably more accurate than Captain Abbott’s; “if I had not known him by sight I would have said he and his staff were just an ordinary bunch of cavalryman.”

Grant shook hands “with great heartiness” with Wright and his division commanders before galloping along past Tudor Hall “staying neither for prisoners nor cheers” as he continued to send and receive dispatches. “The dead and the wounded showed that the works had not been too easily won,” claimed Badeau.

Soon the commander arrived at Duncan’s Road intersection with the Boydton Plank Road, where he briefly stopped at the Harmon house.

Approximate routes of Meade (green) and Grant (blue) to their Harmon house rendezvous. Base map is Nathaniel Michler - Petersburg and Five Forks (Library of Congress).
Approximate routes of Meade (green) and Grant (blue) to their Harmon house rendezvous. Base map is Nathaniel Michler – Petersburg and Five Forks (Library of Congress).

On December 8, 1858, Sheriff John W. Harmon had purchased 35 acres at this intersection from Athaliah Boisseau, matriarch of Tudor Hall, for $800. By 1860 he had completed construction of his home, likely a simple frame structure. On some campaign maps it shows up as the “Red House.”

The 1860 census shows that Harmon owned two female slaves and rented a male slave. Born around 1828, and thus approximately thirty-seven at the time of the Breakthrough, the sheriff does not appear in any Confederate enlistment records. If he did stay in his home during the winter encampment of 1864-1865, however, he would have shared it with Confederate officers.

After the war, John Harmon struggled to pay off some antebellum debts and thus sold the property to Emma Cardwell in September 1867 for a reduced  price of $520. Over the next half-century, fifteen individuals owned the property. In 1944 it was purchased by Mary L. Bowman, and her grandson Robert owned the tract in 1994 during the formation of Pamplin Park Civil War Site. On October 16, 1997, the Pamplin Foundation purchased the now 29 acre tract at the intersection of Duncan and Boydton Plank Roads.

Here Grant met Meade for a second time that morning, who had taken an opposite path to reach the junction.

Major General George Gordon Meade
Major General George Gordon Meade

Meade departed from Humphrey’s headquarters at the Rainey house and rode across ground that had witnessed combat many times during the campaign–October 27, 1864, at the battle of Burgess Mill (or Boydton Plank Road); February 5-7, 1865, at the battle of Hatcher’s Run; March 29, 1865, at the battle of Lewis Farm; March 31, 1865, at the battle of White Oak Road; and then the II Corps own limited attacks on the morning of April 2, 1865.

The Army of the Potomac’s commander did receive a similar, hearty greeting from the soldiers along his journey as he climbed the Boydton Plank road up from where it crossed Hatcher’s Run at Burgess Mill. “As we got to the top of a rise, we struck the open country that surrounds the town, for several miles, and here the road was full of troops, who, catching sight of the General trotting briskly by, began to cheer and wave their caps enthusiastically!” recalled Meade’s chief of staff, Lt. Col. Theodore Lyman. “This continued all along the column, each regiment taking it up in turn. It was a goodly ride, I tell you!”

Eventually Meade’s ride took him into an unexpected collision with his superior at the Harmon house. “Presently we spied General Grant seated on the porch,” stated Lyman, “and there too we halted.” While the generals once more conversed, the staff officer poked around the empty structure: “It seemed a deserted building and had been occupied by a Rebel ordnance sergeant, whose papers and returns were lying about in admirable confusion. A moral man was this sergeant, and had left behind a diary, in one page of which he lamented the vice and profanity of his fellow soldiers. He was not, however, cleanly, but quite untidy in his domestic arrangements.”

Lyman walked outside, where Meade and Grant had quickly concluded their hasty conversation, and glimpsed around at his surroundings while Meade saddled up. “From this spot we had an admirable view of our own works, as the Rebels had, for months, been used to look at them. There was that tall signal tower, over against us, and the bastions of Fort Fisher, and here, near at hand, the Rebel line, with its huts and its defenders sorely beleaguered over there in the inner lines against which our batteries were even now playing.”

Colonel Thomas O. Osborn’s brigade of the XXIV Corps had assumed the lead in the advance toward Petersburg and was slowly driving Brig. Gen. Nathaniel H. Harris’s four Mississippi regiments back to the two solitary forts that stood in between the Federals and Petersburg’s vacated inner lines.

Grant wanted to get a better view of the situation for himself and mounted “Jeff Davis” to depart the Harmon house, and Meade, in favor of another humble dwelling half a mile closer to the action. From a slightly elevated knoll at the Banks House, Grant watched as multiple brigades from Gibbon’s command hurled themselves at the ramparts of Fort Gregg. Wright’s exhausted VI Corps meanwhile took up a supporting role, stretching the line up to the Appomattox River, while the Army of the James sunk the final nail in the Confederate coffin.

For all Meade’s bitterness, the last days of the Petersburg Campaign illustrated why a Grant was needed to pull strings across the entire front to finally wrest control of the Cockade City from the Confederates.

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