Few campaigns in the American Civil War seemed to hold as much potential as Benjamin Butler’s Bermuda Hundred landings. Butler was expected to threaten and if possible capture Richmond, the long sought brass ring in the Eastern Theater. He could at least tie up forces that would otherwise reinforce the Army of Northern Virginia as it grappled with Ulysses S. Grant and George Meade’s Army of the Potomac further north
That is at least how it appeared on the surface. Butler had over 30,000 troops in the Army of the James and the support of a large array of warships. Yet, the Army of the James suffered from severe deficiencies. His corps commanders were Quincy Gillmore and William Smith, superb engineers but mediocre tacticians with a penchant for dissension. The division commanders were veterans, but many brigades were led by amateurs and the regiments were more experienced at garrison work and raiding instead of combat. Then there was Butler himself, timid and relatively inexperienced. His only great strength as a military commander was in administration.
Butler’s greatest advantage was the disarray of the Confederates. The brigades that would oppose him were mostly better led and the soldiers more experienced than his forces, but spread out from Hanover Court House, Virginia to Charleston, South Carolina. Jefferson Davis and his prickly advisor Braxton Bragg had a strained relationship with P. G. T. Beauregard, the department commander. All three men were sickly and touchy, with Davis and Beauregard having a particularly long running feud. In addition, in the opening days of May 1864 all three men were focused more on capturing New Bern, North Carolina instead of the army Butler was massing at Fort Monroe and Norfolk. Nevertheless, Beauregard was one of the South’s best and if he concentrated in time to counter the Army of the James, he would likely be successful.
Butler landed at Bermuda Hundred on May 5, 1864, gaining near complete surprise. Yet, he took his time to fortify his base camp while raiding the countryside. These attacks interrupted the flow of supplies and detained troops from going to Robert E. Lee. August Kautz’s cavalry was particularly effective in its raid through North Carolina and Virginia. Yet, by May 14 Beauregard had consolidated his forces, totaling some 18,000 troops, south of Richmond at Drewry’s Bluff. Butler marched to meet him with around 25,000 men. Butler though was not looking to capture Richmond, merely to keep Beauregard busy and cut the direct rail line to Lee’s army. He had no intention of attacking, and was even planning to fall back from his relatively exposed position just south of Drewry’s Bluff. Before he could Beauregard struck on May 16.
The fighting was confused and saw a command and control breakdown in both armies, perhaps inevitable with scratch forces that had never worked together before. Beauregard’s attack plan was at heart a good one: sweep the exposed right flank and then press the front with the rest of the infantry. Another division, posted south at Petersburg, would then strike the rear, either trapping Butler or at least throwing his army into disarray. To carry this out Beauregard had to rely upon four division commanders. Robert Ransom, who was tired and out of his depth, would lead the morning flank attack. Chase Whiting, who would strike the rear of the Army of the James with the Petersburg garrison, was a brilliant engineer. He was also an alcoholic who had not led troops into battle since the Seven Days. The best of the bunch was Robert Hoke, a calm and efficient officer who had won a stunning victory at Plymouth earlier in the year. He would strike the Union left and center after Ransom attacked. A small division, led by the unremarkable Alfred Colquitt, was kept in reserve. On the Union side, Smith and Gillmore arrayed their forces and entrenched. Smith was worried; his lines were close to the Confederates. To ensure they would not overtake him in a rush, he had telegraph wire strung in front of most of his lines. In a career noted for tactical mediocrity, it was one of Smith’s best moments.
Ransom struck Smith’s XVIII Corps in the right flank. The fog and stubborn defense by Charles Heckman’s brigade, stymied Ransom’s advance. Hoke and Colquitt launched their attacks on the rest of the line. Most of these attacks failed but there were enough local successes to force the Army of the James back. Smith and Gillmore advised a retreat and the ever cautious Butler complied. The Confederates had won, but they were unsatisfied. Ransom had failed to roll up the flank. Whiting, although he faced only minimal opposition, did not press north. Such an attack could have caused a rout. Indeed, James Dearing’s cavalry brigade did raid Butler’s rear as he withdrew and bagged 200 prisoners at Chester Station. What was doubly humiliating was that Davis was on hand to watch Beauregard’s grand scheme come up short.
Drewry’s Bluff was a victory but not a decisive one. Union looses were anywhere from 3,500 to 4,100 with the higher number being most likely. Beauregard claimed many trophies: 1,388 prisoners, five cannons, five flags, nearly 4,000 small arms, and 42,000 rounds of ammunition. Heckman was taken prisoner. After the victory the Rebels feasted on captured Union food. Yet, the battle was less important than it appeared. Butler had no real chance to capture Drewry’s Bluff and Richmond would not fall without a miracle. What was at stake was whether Beauregard would win a great victory or whether Butler would continue to tie up reinforcements for the Army of Northern Virginia. Drewry’s Bluff meant that Lee would receive those reinforcements. It also meant that the shaky morale in the Army of the James would now dip considerably. Relations between Smith, Gillmore, and Butler were wholly ruined. In June Butler arrested Gillmore for failing to take Petersburg and Smith schemed to remove Butler. In the end Butler out-foxed Smith but after a failed attempt to take Fort Fisher, North Carolina Butler was sacked. All three men ended the war with tarnished reputations; Drewry’s Bluff was part of that tarnish.
The Confederates though did not celebrate a great victory. Losses were high. Nearly 3,000 had become casualties. Whiting was accused of drunkenness by his subordinate, Henry Wise. Davis concurred but most did not agree with Wise. Daniel Harvey Hill, no friend of Whiting, said he was sober and had shown physical, if not moral courage, on May 16. Indeed, Whiting might have been suffering from alcohol withdrawals since he had not touched a drop in days. Comically, David Harris, Beauregard’s brilliant chief engineer, believed if Whiting had been drunk it would have cleared his mind and given him enough will to drive at the enemy. Regardless, Wise wanted to bring charges but did not at Whiting’s pleading. Wise also had no one else willing to support him. Beauregard knew Whiting had failed, but the men were friends; Whiting had served on Beauregard’s staff at Fort Sumter. As such charges were not sought. Beauregard instead foisted his rage on Ransom. As for Davis he was disappointed with Beauregard. Relations between the two had somewhat improved before the battle. Now they were irreparably wrecked. Against Beauregard’s wishes, nearly 4,000 of his men were transferred to Lee soon after Drewry’s Bluff. Ironically, Beauregard’s victory left him weaker and less popular with Davis.
While the Confederates were unsatisfied, Butler made an effort to portray the battle as a success. Butler ended the night of May 16 by lamely telling Secretary of War Edwin Stanton that his men had driven off a Rebel attack but owing to rain and exhaustion were going back to Bermuda Hundred. Having made his demonstration on Richmond, Butler felt he had made good on his promises to Grant, namely in tying down Rebel troops and disrupting their rear communications. It was not a wholly unreasonable position. Since May 5 Butler had kept as many as 10,000 troops from Lee’s army. Butler now saw his mission as protecting what had been gained. He wanted to guard his bases at Bermuda Hundred and City Point, and await Grant’s arrival. Even in this Butler failed. On May 20 Beauregard won a confusing battle at Ware Bottom Church. The victory allowed him to contain Butler in Bermuda Hundred by building entrenchments on a narrow front. Butler could use the navy to leave, but his options now were fewer. Furthermore, the victory allowed Davis to send Hoke’s division to Lee in time for Cold Harbor. Arguably and ironically, Ware Bottom Church, a much smaller and even lesser known battle than Drewry’s Bluff, was almost as important as the biggest engagement of the campaign.
Even by Civil War standards Drewry’s Bluff was a battle defined by bungling and command errors. Some of this had to do with the troops and their officers. Few, especially on the Union side, had seen a battle of this scale and violence. The Confederates in particular were a scratch force that lacked command cohesion. It was also an infantry fight; both lacked cavalry to properly scout before the battle and exploit success afterwards. This lack of decisive results was a common feature of most Civil War battles. Civil War armies were adept at defensive tactics. West Point was seen by many as more of an engineering school. Assault tactics were neither refined nor practiced and the result was a conflict were successful attacks were rare, particularly in 1864 when entrenching became more refined and veterans were less eager to press home an attack. Although the forces at Drewry’s Bluff were not wily but uneager veterans, the top commanders were, except for Butler, engineers. The men they led were not drilled in the art of assault and their commanders lacked the training and motivation.
To be fair, battles in general are rarely decisive. For every Austerlitz and Königgrätz there are dozens of lesser known effusions of blood that were unable to turn the tide. Some battles if taken together though equal a decisive shift. William Tecumseh Sherman never won a great victory in his drive on Atlanta, but taken as a whole his battles equaled a great victory. Drewry’s Bluff was to fall into neither category. This is one reason why Drewry’s Bluff is one of the oddities of Civil War scholarship. Although it is among the thirty most bloody battles of the war, with combined looses in excess of 6,600-7,100 (suffered in only a few hours), it has never received a one volume monograph. It is dealt with mostly in the occasional campaign study, such as those by Glen Robertson and Herbert Schiller.
Yet there is another reason the battle has been mostly forgotten, and for reasons beyond the control of Butler, Smith, and Gillmore. Grant and Meade failed to smash the Confederates, in part for the same reasons Drewry’s Bluff had been a failure: misuse of cavalry, the primacy of defensive tactics, poor offensive tactics, and high command errors. The inability of Grant and Meade to win a major battle negated Butler’s success in tying down Beauregard’s 18,000 Confederates and for two weeks disrupting communications between Richmond and North Carolina. The result was a stalemate that endangered Abraham Lincoln’s reelection hopes. Ultimately, the course of the war would not be decided by Grant, Meade, and Butler in Virginia, but by Sherman and George Thomas in Georgia.