Assigning Blame at Drewry’s Bluff: Whiting and Ransom

Pierre G.T. Beauregard

Emerging Civil War welcomes back guest author Sean Michael Chick

When General P.G.T. Beauregard attacked Major General Benjamin Butler at Drewry’s Bluff on May 16, 1864, he intended to win a great victory. The plan was for Butler to be pinned in place by an attack led by three divisions. The divisions were led by Major Generals Robert Hoke and Robert Ransom and Brigadier General Alfred Colquitt. Ransom, who was expected to crumple Butler’s exposed right flank, was the crux of the main attack. While this happened, a fourth division, led by Major General William Chase Whiting, would attack Butler’s rear. In Beauregard’s words Butler would be “environed with three walls of fire.”[1]

Ransom and Whiting were peculiar choices for Beauregard to rely upon. Ransom was an old cavalry officer who had spent much of the war leading infantry, including a brief stint under General Robert E. Lee as a division commander. Since 1863, he was a commander in the Richmond defenses. He was troubled by ill health and was generally fussy.

Whiting was a great engineer, but an erratic field commander. In 1861 he served on Beauregard’s staff, most ably at Fort Sumter. However, he complained about his fellow officers in a letter to Jefferson Davis, which led to his removal. General Joseph Johnston restored him to command of a division but his record was spotty. Whiting was again removed. By now his star had fallen. Mary Chesnut, among his last admirers, wrote in May 1864, “Lucifer, son of the morning! How art thou fallen!”[2]

Ransom opened the battle by attacking Butler’s right flank in the midst of a fog. He managed to overrun Brigadier General Charles Heckman’s brigade, but took heavy losses. Colonel William R. Terry’s brigade alone lost over 300 men out of 700 engaged. Brigadier General Archibald Gracie lost three of his regimental commanders. Even worse, Gracie and Terry saw their brigades dissolve into a mob.

Map of operations at Bermuda Hundred and Drewry’s Bluff, Virginia, May 1864. (See sources for citation).

The rest of Ransom’s division fared worse than Terry and Gracie. Colonel William G Lewis’ regiments were hampered by telegraph wire strung around tree stumps. On May 15, the Federals had taken spare wire to create a kind of proto-barbed wire; it was effective in breaking up the Confederate attack. Lewis asked Ransom for orders. Ransom told him to attack further to the left, which likely led to a gap developing in Lewis’ attack line. Colonel Birkett D. Fry’s brigade came in through the gap, but both brigades were defeated.

By 6:00 am, Ransom’s attack had stalled and by 7:30 a.m., the Union line had reformed. His failure to press the attack and reorganize his men meant many wasted their bullets in desultory long range firing. Around 9:00 a.m., the fog lifted, but Ransom cautioned against another attack.

As the morning wore on, Hoke and Colquitt were committed to the battle, each mauling the Union lines but failing to make much headway. Beauregard’s offensive had stalled, although he remained optimistic. The plan though hinged on Ransom. Once his thrust faltered, the attack unraveled into an unequal shoving contest.

Benjamin Butler

It appeared Butler had won the day, but the Union high command was unraveling. Starting at roughly 7:45 a.m., Major General William F. Smith began a withdrawal to Half-Way House. Gradually, Butler fell back to Proctor’s Creek. During the retreat Hoke made several local attacks that severely mauled the Union lines.

Lewis tried to prompt Gracie and Terry to attack, but they told him they had orders to stand in place. At 10:00 a.m., Beauregard met with Ransom, who believed his division was again ready to strike. Instead, Beauregard called off the attack. Beauregard’s hopes now rested with Whiting.

Whiting moved out of Petersburg at around 5:00 am with about 5,000 men. Confronting Whiting was Brigadier General Adelbert Ames with the 13th Indiana, 169th New York, Battery E 3rd US Artillery, and part of the 1st USCT Cavalry. They held the ridge near Ashton Creek between the Old Stage Road and Richmond Turnpike. Whiting shelled Ames who was reinforced by the 97th Pennsylvania and 115th New York.

Whiting occupied Port Walthall Junction at 11:00 a.m. but his attack stalled. Whiting had not slept in days and he was concerned for the safety of Petersburg. Due to an acoustic shadow he could not hear the fighting at Drewry’s Bluff. Furthermore, he was possibly drunk, but more likely suffering from alcohol withdrawals. Whiting withdrew and at noon sent Brigadier General Dearing north to form a junction with Beauregard.

Despite the errors of Ransom and Whiting, Drewry’s Bluff was a Confederate victory since Butler withdrew back towards Bermuda Hundred. Yet, many considered it a lost opportunity. Colonel Alfred Roman of Beauregard’s staff wrote “The day was ours. Butler’s army was driven back, hemmed in, and reduced to comparative impotency, though not captured.”[3] Beauregard, although upset he did not win a greater victory, surmised, “The communications south and west of Richmond were restored. We had achieved the main object for which our forces had encountered the enemy.”[4]

In the Rebel camp, Whiting received the most blame. Thomas R. Roulhac of the 49th North Carolina later wrote “…the hand of Fate had penned the decree of our defeat; but of all those [blunders] which contributed to our downfall, that of…Whiting, on the afternoon of May 16, 1864, was one of the most glaring and stupendous.”[5] After the war, Lewis surmised that “Had General Whiting advanced from Petersburg as ordered, there is no doubt we would have captured Butler’s entire army, which would have enabled General Lee to take Beauregard’s army…and attack Grant’s army, with almost a certainty of defeating him.”[6] Brigadier General Henry Wise was convinced Whiting was drunk and Jefferson Davis believed him. Whiting never again held a field command.

To be fair, what Whiting could have accomplished with two infantry brigades with a limited supply of ammunition, remains unclear. Butler could have marched around Whiting’s small division unless Whiting had occupied Ware Bottom Church, which was close to the Bermuda Hundred lines. Whiting could have turned the tide of battle, but he also had a small force and lacked good intelligence. Whiting was uneven commander given a difficult task.

William H.C. Whiting

Whiting conferred with Beauregard at the Winfree House at noon. Beauregard described Whiting as “thoroughly downcast” but the meeting was cordial.[7] To his credit, Whiting offered no justifications, but merely asked to be returned to Wilmington. Command was passed to Major General Daniel Harvey Hill and Whiting remained at Petersburg until a replacement was appointed. Beauregard wrote Whiting “I hope, [you] may yet clear your military reputation of the cloud which rests at present upon it.”[8]

By contrast, Beauregard both then and later, heaped most of the blame on Ransom. The two had no close relationship, and it is possible Beauregard was unimpressed with Ransom’s record. On May 10, Ransom fought Butler in a small battle at Chester Station. Ransom lost control of his men much as he had at Drewry’s Bluff. Although no court of inquiry was called, shortly after the battle Ransom was returned to the Richmond defenses. His brother Brigadier General Matt Ransom served under Beauregard but the two had a tense relationship.

Ransom had certainly failed to control his men and he did not make good use of Fry’s brigade, which would have been better served exploiting the destruction of Heckman’s brigade. Yet, Ransom’s defeat had as much to do with Union forces. Although Heckman’s brigade was shattered, they inflicted heavy losses before routing. The rest of Smith’s XVIII Corps easily repulsed Lewis and Fry. Given such an effective defense, Ransom’s chances of crumpling the right flank of an entire corps with his division were slim.

Ransom and Whiting played their part in Drewry’s Bluff, and neither with much skill. Beauregard ended up blaming Ransom, and while he did acknowledged that Whiting had failed they were friends even after. Historians, while hard on both, have generally found more blame with Whiting. Unlike Beauregard and Chesnut, historians have no personal attachment to Whiting, who even his contemporary detractors agreed, was a brilliant engineer.

Sources:

[1] OR, Vol.36, pt. 2, pp. 199-200.

[2] Chesnut, A Diary from Dixie, 307

Sneden, Robert Knox. Map of operations at Bermuda Hundred and Drewry’s Bluff, Virginia, 10th May. [S.l., to 1865, 1864] Map. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/gvhs01.vhs00178/. (Accessed March 29, 2018.)

[3] Roman, The Military Operations of General Beauregard in the War Between the States, 1861 to 1865, 209

[4] Beauregard, “Drury’s Bluff and Petersburg. May and June, 1864,” 258

[5] Thomas R. Roulhac, “History of the Forty-Ninth N. C. Infantry, C. S. A., 1862-’65,” 69

[6] Lewis, Sketch of the Life of W.G. Lewis, 23

[7] Beauregard, Battles and Leaders, 204

[8] OR, Vol.36, Part II, p.1026

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3 Responses to Assigning Blame at Drewry’s Bluff: Whiting and Ransom

  1. tps says:

    Excellent overview of the leadership elements of this bungled affair.

  2. rarerootbeer says:

    Sounds like average military leaders on uneven and disturbed ground, asked to achieve above their own and soldiers’ abilities. Soldiers in substandard conditions asked to act perfectly, as if they are nice clean red and blue lines on a historian’s computer overhead projector. Id like to hear more of the gritty realism of fighting in swampy and spider infested foliage. I think both sides fought well, considering most US Civil War battles were bungled at some point in a given battle. The superior officiers and soldiers saw their opportunities, if given good intelligence, and met their potential. I am disappointed in the “blame game” soldiers felt they needed to say after each battle.

    • One thing that is perplexing about Whiting is that all of his subordinates were urging him to attack. He also had more cavalry than Beauregard and so his intelligence was solid. James Dearing reported the area was filled with straggler and he bagged 200 of them at Chester Station.

      That said, he had only 5,000 men on hand. One bad scrap and his command could have been destroyed.

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