Petersburg Day Three: Friday, June 17, 1864 

George Meade’s June 17 battle plan conformed to Francis Barlow’s suggestion for hitting the flank. The proposed attack would be carried out by Ambrose Burnside’s IX Corps, namely the divisions led by Robert Potter and James H. Ledlie. Potter had a good reputation, but Ledlie was a drunk and a coward. One member of his staff confessed that “He was a good soul, but a very weak man, and no more fit to command a division than half the privates under him.”[1]

James Ledlie

Burnside ordered Potter to take Hickory Hill, an exposed piece of high ground held by a Tennessee brigade. Ledlie was to follow Potter’s attack and exploit any breakthrough. Several ravines cut into the hill and provided cover to any attacking force that could reach them. Barlow had driven out the Confederate pickets on June 16 and Potter managed to place his men that night.

At 3:15 a.m. the officers of Potter’s division whispered “All ready!”[2] The officers then drew their sabers, the sign for the men to attack. They achieved almost total surprise, bagging 600 prisoners, five flags, and four cannon. Unfortunately, Ledlie did not have his division ready. When they did march out their advance was broken up by rough terrain. As such, Potter’s success was not exploited. As the hours passed, a new Confederate line of entrenchments took shape along the Baxter Road, a turnpike that offered a direct path into Petersburg.

After the disaster at Hickory Hill, P.G.T. Beauregard begged Lee for troops. Lee did not act, but Beauregard called in his last reserves, some 2,000 men who were guarding the northern approaches to Petersburg.

Ulysses Grant remained absent from the events at Petersburg. Instead, he was overseeing what might have been the most ridiculous battlefield transfer of the war. He became focused on Benjamin Butler’s request for William F. Smith’s XVIII Corps to replace Horatio Wright’s VI Corps at Bermuda Hundred. Wright immediately disliked Butler and refused to cooperate. When Wright would not attack, Butler shot back “I send you an order to fight; you send me an argument.”[3] However, Wright’s men agreed with their commander. Emory Upton, one of Wright shrewdest and bravest brigade commanders, believed the proposed attack would be “a deliberate murder of our troops” and mockingly referred to such an attack as “a glorious charge![4]

Robert E. Lee could have pushed on to Petersburg but he concentrated upon Butler and restored the Howlett Line. Beauregard meanwhile requested troops in order to launch his own attack. Beauregard’s erratic messages were possibly products of his tendency for wild mood swings, they were also possibly born out of frustration. Lee had failed to send more troops and Beauregard might have thought that Lee, with his reputation for audacity, would react well to an attack plan. Regardless, Beauregard’s confusing messages were seemingly having the opposite effect. Indeed, on June 17 Lee kept A. P. Hill’s Corps north of the James River and even after defeating Butler he sent no troops to Petersburg.

Back at Petersburg, Meade became cautious. He feared that Beauregard might strike his flank, likely with Lee’s army. Winfield Hancock suggested that Meade hit the exposed Confederate right flank. Gouverneur Kemble Warren’s V Corps was nearby, but as per Cyrus Comstock’s orders, Warren had most of his corps behind IX Corps.

Around 11:00 a.m., Meade ordered Warren to scout the ground east and south of Baxter Road, but did not encourage Warren to make an all-out attack. Warren’s ability to scout the area though was compromised because August Kautz’s cavalry was returned to Butler’s command. Also Warren’s men were in poor condition. The soldiers of the 118th Pennsylvania were so parched that they once drank water from a swamp, disregarding the green scum on the surface. Whenever they stopped, some men dug holes in a frantic search for something to quench their thirst. In addition, Meade was emotionally erratic throughout the summer of 1864. Sarah Butler, wife of Benjamin Butler, wrote “I would rather be a toad, and feed upon the vapors of a dungeon, than in Meade’s place now. If success attends, the glory is Grant’s…”[5] Meade had a penchant to sulk when things did not go his way and the failure of June 16 likely effected the emotionally volatile Meade. Rather than plan an attack, Meade sat down at noon to compose a letter to his wife Sarah. He had not written her since June 12, but writing a personal letter in the midst of a major battle during daylight hours was ridiculous. Tellingly, he  admitted that “it looks very much as if we will have to go through a siege of Petersburg before entering on the siege of Richmond…Well, it is all in the cruise, as the sailors say.”[6] Meade was already settling for a siege.

Meanwhile, Burnside prepared IX Corps for another major attack with Orlando B. Willcox’s division. It would be an assault with one lone division being hurtled at an entrenched position. Willcox struck at 2:00 p.m. The men advanced with a cheer but came under a murderous fire. On the left flank the 2nd Michigan came under heavy fire and marched to the north, gradually throwing the attack into disarray. Nearly 800 fell in the attack. The leftmost companies of the 2nd Michigan suffered 80% casualties. Among the wounded was brigade commander Benjamin C. Christ, who had fought with IX Corps since its inception. Christ never returned to field command.

Ambrose Burnside

Burnside tried again. For the next attack he chose Ledlie’s division. Ledlie though was drunk and passed command of the division to Jacob P. Gould of the 59th Massachusetts, a brave and outstanding officer. Gould aligned his men well and they attacked with a shout. One soldier in the 56th Massachusetts recalled, “we charged — and such a charge — the whole line seemed to move on wings. I do not think in all my boyhood days I ever ran so fast.”[7]

Jacob Gould

After two horrific charges and at least one close range volley from Gould’s men, the 23rd South Carolina broke for the rear at around 7:00 p.m. Gould’s men captured over 100 troops, a stand of colors, and some artillery. Beauregard would later say that at that moment he feared that “the last hour of the Confederacy had arrived.”[8]

Gould’s men had a lodgement in Beauregard’s lines, but there were no reserves to help them expand it. Ammunition also gave out. William B. Phillips of the 2nd Provisional Pennsylvania Heavy Artillery recalled that “Our ammunition gave out and we held our ground at the point of the bayonet.”[9] Nearby Confederate units adjusted their lines and contained the breakthrough but were too weak to wipe it out. Barlow meanwhile made an attack to aid Gould. His assault pinned Robert Hoke’s division, but his losses were quite heavy.

Robert F. Hoke

At 8:00 p.m. Meade ordered Warren to move forward. Warren though failed to move his men with any vigor, although they were opposed by only light forces. Partially it was due to the rough terrain and Meade’s orders, which indicated that Warren should only press ahead if success was certain.

While Warren dithered, the fighting around Gould’s lodgment continued. By 10:00 p.m. Beauregard had assembled his reserves and ordered a series of counterattacks. Fighting was hand to hand and by midnight Golud’s lodgement was no more. D. Oscar Brunson of the 23rd South Carolina later recalled it as “the grandest struggle between the North and the South.” The fighting lasted for five hours and was recalled by nearly everyone as one of the most desperate contests of the war.

Major General Gouverneur K. Warren

The opportunity to seize Petersburg was now quickly evaporating. Lee at long last ordered a major cavalry probe, which confirmed that Meade’s army was south of the James River. Lee shifted A.P. Hill to Chaffin’s Bluff, but still did not send any troops to Petersburg. That night, Beauregard sent Lee a message where he made it clear that, without fresh troops, he would have to abandon Petersburg on June 18. Lee ordered James Kershaw’s veteran division to Petersburg, but there was no urgency in the orders. Kershaw was allowed to rest his men and head out in the morning.

 

 

Sources:

[1]   John Anderson, The Fifty-Seventh Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteers in the War of the Rebellion (Boston: E.B. Stillings & Company, 1896), 140.

[2]   Charles Carleton Coffin, Four Years of Fighting (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1866), 365.

[3]   Alfred S. Roe, The Ninth New York Heavy Artillery (Worcester, MA: Alfred Seelye Roe, 1899), 109.

[4]   Peter S. Michie, The Life and Letters of Emory Upton (New York: D. Appleton and Company), 117.

[5]   Butler, Private and Official Correspondence of Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, Vol. IV, 364-65.

[6]     George Gordon Meade, Life and Letters, Vol. II, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), 205.

[7]   Camp of 56th (Mass) Reg.,” Quincy (MA) Patriot, August 27, 1864, p. 1 col. 6

[8]      Bruce Catton, A Stillness at Appomattox (New York: Doubleday and Company, 1953), 196.

[9]   “Interesting Letter.” Pittston (PA) Gazette. July 14, 1864, p. ? col. ?

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