There is a line in the movie Gettysburg where General Strong Vincent says to Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain, “You’re the end of the line.” Vincent has emphasized that the Maine unit occupies a key spot, and cannot withdraw or retreat. One can feel the pressure put on Chamberlain.
The actions that followed, with Confederate attacks coming close to flanking the defenders, then a desperate and successful counterattack, are well known. Recently I studied a lesser-known End of the Line, at the battle of Second Drewry’s Bluff, fought May 16, 1864.
Union forces under General Benjamin F. Butler had land south of Richmond in May 1864 and were threatening the city from below. Hastily gathered Confederate forces under General P.G.T. Beauregard occupied fortifications near the river fort of Drewry’s Bluff. The Confederates blocked the way north, astride the main road (now US 1). Butler’s troops took position opposite the southerners and dug in.
Beauregard’s forces attacked at dawn on May 16 and stole the initiative from Butler. Occupying the far left flank of the Union army was the 39th Illinois. Organized in Chicago in 1861, they had bounced around West Virginia, the Shenandoah Valley, and the Peninsula.
They were the End of the Line this day, and it would be no easy task for them to hold out. Attacking them was a brigade of Virginia troops under General Montgomery Corse. The Midwesterners fought tenaciously, repulsing three attacks and even counter attacking at one point. Low on ammunition and becoming surrounded, they fell back, losing 200 men. They reported that they had to fight their way out. Among the officers, the colonel, major, three captains, and two lieutenants were all hit. The Virginians suffered as well, with the 15th Virginia losing 124 soldiers: half their numbers, their heaviest loss of the entire war. One company lost 26 of its 45 men.
Recently I walked the site of this action, now a Chesterfield County Park called, ingeniously, 39th Illinois Park. It’s a small site but the shallow trenches spared from nearby development are reminders of the desperate fighting that took place here. The position is not anchored on a natural feature like creek, hill or outcropping. The midwestern soldiers found themselves here at this random spot and did the best they could, not unlike the more famous action at Little Round Top.
The battlefield of Second Drewry’s Bluff is one of those sites that has been largely lost, chopped up by suburban development and industrial growth. Thankfully the county has preserved little pieces like this. To learn more get the outstanding guidebook, Bermuda Hundred Campaign Tour Guide, which includes maps and driving directions to battle sites. Of course, you should also pick up the excellent new book, Grant’s Left Hook by Emerging Civil War’s own Sean Michael Chick. Lastly, check out Chesterfield County’s great website which has information on visiting the battle sites today: www.chesterfield.gov/862/Historical-Sites.