Review: On to Petersburg by Gordon Rhea

Rhea - On to PetersburgBack in September, I mentioned how excited I was about the arrival of Gordon Rhea’s book On to Petersburg: Grant and Lee, June 4-15, 1864. In October, my colleague Edward Alexander posted his thoughts about the book, situating it the larger historiography of the Overland Campaign. By the time I finished reading the book and prepared to comment on it, Civil War News Book Review Editor (and ECW colleague) Steve Davis asked me to review it for CWN. I’ve deferred commenting here until that review appeared in print—which it finally has! I invite you to check out the May 2018 issue Civil War News for my complete thoughts.

Except that I have more to say . . . !

On to Petersburg serves as a crucial bridge between the Overland Campaign and the Siege of Petersburg. “[T]he operation of flanking had come to an end, and the choice now lay between a direct attack and a new plan,” Rhea writes.

Confederate earthworks had already demonstrated over and over the costliness of mounting direct attacks against them, so Grant finally switched tacks. If he couldn’t crush Lee’s army in open-field combat, he would strangle Lee’s army by choking off its supplies. To do so, he targeted the rail hub of Petersburg, the second-largest city in Virginia. To get there, Federals first had to cross the swampy Chickahominy and then the wide, tidal James River. “For the gambit to succeed . . . “ Rhea writes, “the Army of the Potomac had to move with clocklike efficiency, a feat that it had rarely achieved.”

The story of the crossing of the James is a story of maneuver, including the logistical preparations and military actions necessary to make the move. Confederate artillerists and later memoirist A.P. Alexander called the move to the James “the most brilliant stroke in all the Federal campaigns of the whole war.” Rhea’s detailed attention to the maneuver reminds us of what a truly stunning military and engineering feat it was, standing among Grant’s most noteworthy achievements of the entire campaign.

From a narrative point of view, we tend to like our stories to build toward a climax. Rhea’s choice of the opening assault against Petersburg fulfills this basic storytelling function, ending the book with an engagement that then sets the table for the siege. Personality conflicts come to a head and new ones emerge, and communication issues continue to blunt Grant’s ambitious plans. “Coordination from the top—Grant’s responsibility—was . . . severely lacking,” Rhea reveals.

“[Grant’s] detachment on June 15, compounded by his failure to designate someone to oversee the offensive on the ground, stands as his most significant lapse during the entire campaign from the Rapidan to Petersburg,” he explains. “And it was a lapse that came at the campaign’s culmination, literally denying Union arms the objective they had fought so mightily to achieve during the previous forty-five days.”

Buffs tend to like to categorize Civil War actions, and a book that blurs the lines between the Overland Campaign and the Siege of Petersburg the way this one does can challenge those assumptions. However, if you’ve paid close attention to Rhea’s overall narrative, the Overland Campaign was one of maneuver, innovation, and improvisation, as well as battle. On to Petersburg situates the events of June 4-15 squarely in that context.

As a writer, I love Rhea’s ability to find the perfect phrase, and as a researcher, I love his ability to find surprising details. For instance, “soldiers routinely shot themselves in the second finger of their right hand in the hopes of being sent back to Washington,” Rhea wrote. While doctors customarily used chloroform on patients when tending such wounds, “as a punishment to the cowards the surgeons . . . perform the amputation of wounded fingers without any anesthetic.” Ouch! But those sorts of small episodes and details fill Rhea’s narrative and make it rich.

If I have any criticism of the book, it’s that the cover design doesn’t match up with the first four volumes in the series. That’s minor, of course, and it didn’t stop me from cracking the cover and diving into the book itself.

For more of my thoughts, please check out the most recent Civil War News. Out of respect for the paper and for our readers, I don’t want to repeat myself here. But do pick up On to Petersburg if you haven’t already. It’s a worthy culmination of twenty years of outstandingly thorough research by THE expert on the Overland Campaign.

Paying My Respects to Pap Thomas

Thomas GravesiteAs a Virginian who stayed loyal to the Union, perhaps it makes sense that George Thomas was laid to rest somewhere in the north. In that grand scheme of things, Troy, NY, seems as likely a place as anywhere. Troy was the hometown of his wife, Frances Lucretia Kellogg. The “Rock of Chickamauga” preceded his wife in death by nearly twenty years (he on March 28, 1870; she on December 26, 1889), so she had him interred in Troy’s Oakwood Cemetery where she, herself, planned to be laid to rest.

I’ve been through Troy dozens of times on my way back and forth to New England, but for most of that time, I never knew “Pap” Thomas was buried there. The town proudly proclaims its connection to “Uncle Sam” Wilson—the real-life prototype of Uncle Sam—but the Rock of Chickamauga has gone untouted. 

For fans of Thomas, that probably comes as no surprise. Today, he’s kind of like the Rodney Dangerfield of Union generals: he gets no respect. In life, he never got along with Ulysses S. Grant, which proved to be more and more problematic for his career as Grant advanced farther and farther. Grant didn’t outright harpoon Thomas’s career the way he did, say, William Rosecrans’s, but he didn’t give Pap a whole lot of love—or credit—either.

Even in death, even today, Thomas withers under the shadow of Grant. After all, just 40 minutes to the north, atop Mt. McGregor, the pageant of Grant’s final days played out. He passed away on July 23, 1885—fifteen years after Frances laid her husband to rest in Troy—and to this day, Grant Cottage remains a source of pilgrimage for thousands of people each year. I’ve been fortunate to make it up there annually for the past five years or so.

Thomas Bust @ Grants TombThomas does, appropriately enough, make a cameo of his own in Grant’s NYC tomb. The sarcophagi of Ulysses S. and Julia Dent Grant are surrounded by the busts of Grant’s top lieutenants from war, including Thomas. (If you think Thomas gets no love, try being George Gordon Meade, who was left out of the “top lieutenants” assemblage entirely.)

While Grant’s funeral was one of the largest events ever in New York, Thomas’s was a much different affair. Not a single one of Thomas’s blood relatives attended, bitter over his loyalty to the Union over Virginia. His wife’s family generously gave him a place to rest among them, instead, in a land far away from his own—and yet not. After all, Thomas believed we were all one country. New York, he had declared through his service, was his home turf as much as anywhere.

In fact, the Hudson Valley probably had a stronger claim on Thomas than most places. He’d attended West Point, downriver from Troy, from 1836-40—a formative period in the life of a man who became a professional soldier. He served until his death, in 1870, while stationed in San Francisco, California.

Thomas Gravesite MarkerLast week, I had the opportunity to speak to the Capital District Civil War Roundtable in Watervilet, NY—a suburb of Albany. Troy was literally right across the Hudson River, so I made a point to finally seek out old Pap. At Oakwood Cemetery, a series of small metal markers erected by the Col. G. L. Willard Camp of the Sons of Union Veterans pointed the way. The camp adopted Thomas’ grave and the graves of the entire Kellogg family, among whom Thomas and his wife were buried, and the pride of their work showed.

The Rock of Chickamauga stands tall atop a knoll at one of the highest points in the cemetery. The grave—a marble sarcophagus topped with an eagle—stands with dignity inside a small fenced-in area. An in-ground plaque provides details about Thomas’s military career. There’s no flash—just clean-white marble scrubbed bright by the conscientious attention of respectful admirers.

I have to think Pap would be pleased.

Thomas Gravesite Plaque

The Mississippi River Squadron and the “Great Artery of America” (Part 2)

Emerging Civil War welcomes back guest author Kristen M. Pawlak

Part 1 can be found here.

As the first of the major naval battles to secure the Mississippi River from 1862 until 1863, Fort Henry also marked a turning point in the strategic use of the Western Gunboat Flotilla. It was now a respected and powerful force the Union Army was able to use in the destruction of Confederate fortifications and strongholds along major rivers in the West. At Fort Donelson, just a week following the surrender of Fort Henry, Foote’s gunboats pounded the Confederate fortifications, but after holding their fire until the gunboats were in range, the Rebel guns opened up and forced the fleet to retreat. Though Foote’s attack against Fort Donelson failed, Grant’s Army of the Tennessee surrounded the garrison and forced the Confederates to surrender. In addition, the Confederate garrison at New Madrid, Missouri and Island No. 10 fell within weeks after Foote’s Flotilla bombarded them and transported thousands of Federal infantrymen past the Rebel defenses. On April 25, New Orleans surrendered to the West Gulf Blockading Squadron under the command of David Farragut, and later to Major General Benjamin Butler, which then opened the Mississippi River from the south.

Less than two months after the fall of Island No. 10, the Flotilla now under the command of Charles H. Davis – which included the Ram Fleet and Mississippi Marine Brigade — took Fort Pillow and Memphis within two hours on June 6, 1862, after delivering a crushing blow to the Confederate River Defense Fleet. Created and commanded by Col. Charles Ellet, the Ram Fleet consisted of specialized steam-powered towboats with reinforced hulls used to ram enemy ships. Ellet’s son Charles Rivers Ellet transferred from the Army as an assistant surgeon to join his father’s naval unit. He would later command the Ram Fleet’s USS Queen of the West after Col. Ellet’s mortal wounding during the Battle of Memphis. As a part of the Ram Fleet, the 350-man Mississippi Marine Brigade, commanded by Col. Ellet’s younger brother Alfred Ellet, consisted of soldiers that served as marines, artillery, and cavalry.

An artist’s rendition of the “Total Annihilation of the Rebel Fleet” during the battle of Memphis. (Photo courtesy of the United States Navy)

On June 6, 1862, the Union naval force approached Memphis, where the Confederate River Defense Fleet protected the forts there. Just days before, the Union Armies of the Tennessee, the Ohio, and the Mississippi forced the withdrawal of the Confederates from the town; this, in turn, effectively cut Confederate-occupied Memphis off from the east. The Rebel garrison fled to Vicksburg and other vulnerable Confederate strongholds. However, the River Defense Fleet was unable to acquire the necessary coal to flee before the Mississippi River Squadron arrived. Nonetheless, the River Defense Fleet chose to fight the Federal fleet. According to Western Gunboat Flotilla commander Charles Henry Davis, the fight began when “the rebels . . . opened fire.” A combination of gunfire and ramming, “compelled the remaining [Rebel] vessels to resort to their superiority in speed as the only means of safety.”[1] Ultimately, the fleeing River Defense Fleet traveled between 5 and 10 miles downstream, “until all of the rebel fleet were either sunk or captured,” with the exception of the General Van Dorn that escaped.[2] In less than two hours, the city of Memphis fell into Union hands as one of the victories of the Mississippi River Squadron. The Commander of the USS Carondelet Henry Walke believed that the “chief of all results of the work of the flotilla was the opening of the Mississippi River once and for all from Cairo to Memphis, and the complete possession of Western Tennessee by Union forces.”[3]

Rear-Admiral David D. Porter, commander of the U.S. Navy’s Mississippi River Squadron. (Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress)

The victory at Memphis also solidified the decision by the army to transfer command of the Western Gunboat Flotilla to the navy. On October 1, 1862, the navy renamed it “the Mississippi River Squadron,” and Admiral David D. Porter assumed command. In the official War Department orders, the navy credited the “brilliant and important service of the gunboats” as the main reason for the transfer. They also considered the flotilla’s success on the Mississippi River as “one of the brightest pages in the history of the war for the preservation of the integrity of the country and the suppression of a causeless and wicked rebellion.”[4] In October 1862, the only two Rebel garrisons left on the Mississippi River were positioned at Vicksburg and Port Hudson, Mississippi. To secure both of these bastions, “will be a severe blow [to the enemy], and, if done effectually, will be of great advantage to us, and probably the most decisive act of the war.”[5]

From December 1862 until March 1863, Grant and the Army of the Tennessee made several failed attempts to take Vicksburg. These included Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s frontal assault at Chickasaw Bayou and Grant’s expeditions to construct artificial waterways through the bayous bypassing Confederate batteries defending the city. To finally achieve success and force the surrender of Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton’s garrison there, Grant devised a combined-operational strategy between his ground troops and the gunboats. Using intelligence gathered by Porter’s Mississippi River Squadron, Grant finalized a plan to take Vicksburg: “I will go below Vicksburg and cross over if I can depend on you for a sufficient naval force. I will prepare some transports … and we’ll start as soon as you are ready.”[6]

The Army of the Tennessee would advance south from Milliken’s Bend, Louisiana along the western side of the Mississippi to New Carthage, where the army would cross into Mississippi south of Vicksburg. In the meantime, on April 16, the Mississippi River Squadron was ordered to run the batteries at Vicksburg to bring vital supplies and transport vessels to Grant’s army positioned near Grand Gulf. In the cover of the late-night darkness, the squadron embarked with engines muffled, lights off, and protected with cotton bales, “to prevent the enemy from becoming aware of our design.”[7]

Admiral Porter described the scene after the war in his Incidents and Anecdotes of the Civil War, “as I looked back at the long line I could compare them only to so many phantom vessels. Not a light was to be seen nor a sound heard throughout the fleet.”[8] As the fleet approached Vicksburg, large fires around the Confederate defenses illuminated the river to spot approaching Federal gunboats. Rebel batteries opened up on the now-visible fleet. Confederate infantry lined the levees along the river and fired their muskets just twenty yards away. Fortunately for the Mississippi River Squadron, only two transport ships were lost and several sailors wounded or killed. “The Vicksburgers must have been disappointed when they saw us get by their batteries with so little damage,” Porter later boasted.[9] The squadron’s incredible feat to bypass Vicksburg opened the door to victory: “General Grant had turned the enemy’s flank with his army, I had turned it with the gun-boats; now Grant had to cross the river and trust to his brave soldiers.”[10]

An etching of the Mississippi River Squadron’s fabled run past the defenses of Vicksburg on April 16, 1863. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia)

The army was to cross at Grand Gulf, guarded by Rebel Fort Wade and Fort Coburn.. To establish a beachhead, Porter’s fleet was again called to bombard and neutralize the enemy fortifications. In the morning of April 29, 1863, seven of Porter’s ironclads opened fire on both forts.[11] After “five hours and thirty-five minutes,” they silenced the guns of Fort Wade, but not Fort Coburn, which was out of the range of fire for the ironclads’ guns.[12] Additionally, Porter cited the “strong current . . . and strong eddies” as “the most difficult portion of the river in which to manage an ironclad.”[13] The failure to take Coburn forced Grant to slightly change his plans for the crossing. The army was to cross just south of Grand Gulf at Bruinsburg.

The next morning, the first part of Grant’s army boarded Porter’s transports at Disharoon’s Plantation and embarked across the river to Bruinsburg. With Confederate troops alert at Grand Gulf, the main challenge was to cross the river unseen by the enemy. Covered by darknesslike the first run past Vicksburg’s defenses, “the navy and transports ran the batteries successfully . . . by the time it was light the enemy saw our whole fleet, iron-clads, gunboats, river steamers and barges, quietly moving down the river three miles below them.”[14] On May 1, thanks to the Mississippi River Squadron, Grant’s force crossed the mighty Mississippi. Without the Mississippi River Squadron, the army’s crossing of the Mississippi would have been tremendously difficult, if not, impossible.

From May 1 through May 17, Grant pushed deeper into Mississippi, inflicting heavy casualties on Rebel defenders at Port Gibson, Raymond, Jackson, Champion Hill, Big Black River Bridge, and in the defenses at Vicksburg. On May 19 and 22, Grant launched several frontal assaults to dismantle the Confederates and seize their strongholds, but ultimately failed. According to Grant, “the experience of the 22d convinced officers and men that [a siege of Vicksburg] was best.”[15] The Federal lines outside Vicksburg were built with entrenchments, rifle pits, batteries, and parapets reinforced with logs. Grant had no siege guns, but instead relied upon Porter’s naval guns from his fleet to blast the Confederate fortifications. “Our men are much used up, but we will bombard all we can,” Porter wrote to Grant from the USS Black Hawk.[16] Until July 3, the Mississippi River Squadron continued the bombardment with unrelenting ferocity. Recalling the siege in a poem entitled, “The Siege of Vicksburg,” Porter wrote, “And the fleet lends its cannon to add to the din . . . but the fires burned down, leaving Vicksburg in gloom, And the phantom-ships floated on — sealing her doom.”[17]

On July 4, 1863, Pemberton finally surrendered his approximately 30,000-man Army of Mississippi after two months of siege, starvation, death, and destruction. In the days prior, the Rebel commander had discussed terms of surrender for his defeated army with Grant, who insisted upon an unconditional surrender and the parole of all Confederate forces at Vicksburg. Pemberton finally agreed on the evening of July 3 and formally surrendered the next day. On July 9, 1863, less than one week after the fall of the “Gibraltar of the Confederacy,” the final Confederate fortification on the Mississippi River at Port Hudson fell to Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks. The decisive victories for the North on the Mississippi caused a relieved President Abraham Lincoln to declare, “the Father of Waters goes unvexed to the sea.” The Mississippi River was finally back in Union hands.

The historiography of the Vicksburg Campaign tends to focus on Ulysses Grant’s leadership and his strategic brilliance in seizing the garrison at Vicksburg. Over the course of time unfortunately, the history books  have not thoroughly discussed or analyzed the naval contribution to securing the Mississippi River and capturing Vicksburg.

For Grant, the hero of Vicksburg, the Mississippi River Squadron won the campaign for the North. Immediately after the surrender, Grant rode from his headquarters to the river to personally thank and congratulate Porter and his sailors for their invaluable service during the campaign.[18] “The navy under Porter was all it could be, during the entire campaign. Without its assistance, the campaign could not have been successfully made with twice the number of men engaged . . . The most perfect harmony reigned between the two arms of the service,” Grant later wrote in his Memoirs.[19] Additionally, this same navy was vital in defending and protecting Union interests on Western waters, especially in controlling waterways and suppressing enemy smuggling and irregular warfare. It can be said, the Mississippi River Squadron not only saved the rivers, it saved the West and, therefore, the United States.

Kristen M. Pawlak is the Development Associate for Stewardship at the Civil War Trust. She also sits on the Board of Directors at the Missouri Civil War Museum, and actively volunteers with the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation. She graduated from Gettysburg College in 2014 with a BA in History and Civil War Era Studies, and is currently pursuing her MA in Nonprofit Leadership and Management at Webster University. From St. Louis, Kristen has a fond interest in the Civil War in Missouri, Civil War medicine, and the war experiences of soldiers.


[1] Charles Henry Davis, “Detailed Report of Flag-Officer Davis,” June 6, 1862, in Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies, series1, vol. 23, 119, 120.

[2] “Report of Commander Walke,” June 6, 1862, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies, series1, vol. 23, 122.

[3] Henry Walke, “The Western Flotilla at Fort Donelson, Island Number Ten, Fort Pillow and Memphis,” in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, v. 1: 452.

[4] “General Orders No. 150,” October 2, 1862, in Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies, series1, vol. 23, 389.

[5] W.T. Sherman to F. Steele, George W. Morgan, A.J. Smith, and M.L. Smith, December 23, 1862, in William T. Sherman, Memoirs of General William T. Sherman (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1957), 287.

[6] Porter, Incidents and Anecdotes, 174.

[7] Ibid., 175.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 177.

[10] Ibid., 178.

[11] David D. Porter, “Detailed Report of Acting Rear-Admiral Porter, U.S. Navy,” April 29, 1863, in Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies, series 1, vol. 24, 611.

[12]Ibid., 610.

[13] Ibid., 611.

[14] Grant, Memoirs, 477.

[15] Ibid., 532.

[16] David D. Porter, “Letter from Acting Rear-Admiral Porter to Major-General Grant,” May 22, 1863, in Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies, series 1, vol. 25, 30.

[17] Porter, Incidents and Anecdotes, 198.

[18] “Vicksburg Campaign: Unvexing the Father of Waters,” Civil War Trust, accessed December 18, 2017,

[19] Grant, Memoirs, 574.

Symposium Spotlight: Christopher Kolakowski

Welcome back to another installment of our 2018 Emerging Civil War Symposium Spotlight. Our final speaker on Saturday, August 4, will be Christopher Kolakowski. He will bridge the divide between battlefield and political turning points of the war as he examines Ulysses S. Grant, his rise to ultimate command, and how this one man became a turning point in Federal war effort. Chris has researched and written extensively on the topic. He sent along a preview of his presentation for this year’s symposium below.

On March 9, 1864, Ulysses S. Grant received promotion to Lieutenant General and designation as Commanding General of the U.S. Army. Often discussed in passing as regards the 1864 campaigns, to contemporary eyes this was a major event in the war. His leadership made a key difference in the next 13 months, and proved the wisdom of Lincoln’s choice. Kolakowski’s talk will review the reasons behind this appointment, and its effects on U.S. strategy and conduct of the war in 1864.

Christopher L. Kolakowski was born and raised in Fredericksburg, Va. He received his BA in History and Mass Communications from Emory & Henry College, and his MA in Public History from the State University of New York at Albany.

Chris Kolakowski

Chris has spent his career interpreting and preserving American military history with the National Park Service, New York State government, the Rensselaer County (NY) Historical Society, the Civil War Preservation Trust, Kentucky State Parks, and the U.S. Army. He has written and spoken on various aspects of military history and leadership from 1775 to the present. He has published two books with the History Press: The Civil War at Perryville: Battling For the Bluegrass and The Stones River and Tullahoma Campaign: This Army Does Not Retreat. Chris is a contributor to the Emerging Civil War Blog, and his study of the 1941-42 Philippine Campaign titled Last Stand on Bataan was released by McFarland in late February 2016. In September 2016 the U.S. Army published his volume on the 1862 Virginia Campaigns as part of its sesquicentennial series on the Civil War.

If you still have not purchased your tickets for this year’s Symposium, Aug. 3-5, 2018, they are available to order here. They include Friday night’s reception, speakers, keynote address, and historians’ roundtable; Saturday’s line-up of talks; coffee service and lunch on Saturday; and Sunday’s tour of Stonewall Jackson’s final days.

The Decision to Attach William F. Smith to the Army of the James

General William F. “Baldy” Smith

Emerging Civil War welcomes back guest author Sean Chick

Major General William Farrar Smith is one of the Civil War’s most controversial commanders. He was twice removed from command. He was once considered for an army command. He was one of the few men to befriend Ulysses Grant and lose Grant’s full confidence. That loss started the moment Grant posted Smith to command of XVIII Corps.

Smith was known throughout the army as “Baldy” to distinguish him from the eleven other generals with his surname. Smith ran a relaxed headquarters, serving champagne and fine food. He was popular with his subordinates but hypercritical of his superiors. He was a schemer who undermined his superiors. He was also given to bouts of poor health due to his previous exposure to malaria.

In 1862, Smith was a rising star, noted for his bravery at the Seven Days and Antietam. At Fredericksburg, he led the VI Corps. However, in early 1863, he made several mistakes. First, he condemned his superior, Major General Ambrose Burnside, in messages sent to Abraham Lincoln. Second, he was a friend and supporter of Major General George McClellan even after McClellan’s removal. Smith also wanted to attack Richmond by using the peninsula approaches, although Lincoln vehemently opposed such a strategy. All three factors led to his dismissal from the Army of the Potomac. The Senate also failed to confirm his nomination to major general.

After leading militia forces during General Robert E. Lee’s invasion of Pennsylvania, Smith was sent to the Army of the Cumberland. It was his finest hour. Working as chief engineer, he managed the “Cracker Line” which saved the army under siege in Chattanooga. He also bickered with Major General William S. Rosecrans. When Major General Ulysses S. Grant took over at Chattanooga, Grant was impressed with Smith’s abilities. He also knew that Smith was no friend of Rosecrans, a man Grant detested.

In early 1864, Grant got Smith a promotion to major general. Yet, what Grant was going to do with Smith was unclear. Smith was rumored to be the replacement for Major General George Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac. Meade however was humble, dutiful, and pliant in his meeting with Grant. Despite pressure to relieve Meade, he stayed in command. Smith might have been made a corps commander, but he had many enemies in the army, in particular Burnside. Grant needed to find a new home for Smith.

On April 1, 1864 Grant, accompanied by Smith, Brigadier General John Rawlins, and Colonel Cyrus B. Comstock, went to Norfolk to meet with Major General Benjamin Butler. In a war noted for contentious personalities, few could compete with Butler. He was an accomplished politician, lawyer, and businessman. In the American Civil War, he became famous for being among the first generals who refused to return escaped slaves and for his stormy administration of New Orleans. Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward wanted Butler to command the drive on Vicksburg. Butler turned them down. Instead, he made speeches in the North, tacitly setting himself up as an alternative to Lincoln. In November 1863, Butler was given the Department of Virginia and North Carolina to mollify him.

Grant discussed strategy with Butler, and they decided to attack Richmond, or at least threaten the Confederate capital. Smith was not present at every meeting, and soon found out he would command XVIII Corps under Butler’s newly minted Army of the James. Why Grant chose Smith for the XVIII Corps is at first not hard to fathom. Smith was a good engineer. He was widely considered one of the Union’s best tacticians, and he could be innovative. Butler had never led troops into a major battle, and Smith could offer good advice and a steady hand. Smith had also long favored an offensive similar to what Butler was attempting. Yet, there was probably a less kindly reason for Smith’s placement. In Butler’s department, Grant had no one who could monitor the situation. In addition, if Butler needed to be removed, Smith was the obvious choice.

Smith’s presence though was insidious. He wanted an independent command and sent reports to Grant with Grant’s permission. This was a poor decision, since Grant was giving Smith a chance to bad-mouth Butler. It also showed that Grant did not wholly trust Butler. In addition, Smith was being assigned to an officer with a tongue so acidic that Confederate Lieutenant General Richard Taylor once wrote “in the war of epithets he [Butler] has proved his ability to hold his ground against all comers as successfully as did Count Robert of Paris with sword and lance.” (Taylor, Destruction and Reconstruction, 112) It was practically pre-ordained that Smith and Butler would bicker.

Grant and some of his generals

Smith proved to be a liability. He did not wholly agree with Butler’s plan to take Bermuda Hundred and threaten Richmond. He favored making City Point the main base with Petersburg as the target, but he did not make his point to Butler. Throughout the Bermuda Hundred Campaign, he quarreled with Butler on tactical decisions. On the eve of the Battle of Drewry’s Bluff, Smith told his friends Major General Phillip Sheridan and Brigadier General James Wilson that Butler should be removed. It was understood that Sheridan and Wilson would say as much to Grant when they next saw him.

Grant hardly seemed surprised by Smith’s machinations, and admitted to Major General Henry Halleck that the discord in the Army of the James could be Smith’s fault. Grant’s solution was to have XVIII Corps transferred to Meade’s command and then sent to attack Petersburg, but not under Butler’s supervision. The solution failed, and Smith and Meade started to bicker. Smith also failed to take Petersburg on June 15. Grant at first praised Smith for his leadership in the battle, but with hindsight, he became more critical. By July 1864, Smith was removed.

Grant was a capable manager of men during the Civil War. Although known to hold grudges, he promoted men who were friendly with each other, creating a relatively positive command atmosphere. Grant’s lieutenants were not perfect, but with few exceptions they were not incompetent. Unlike Major General John Pope, Grant successfully managed many difficult personalities in the eastern theater despite being an outsider. However, the question of what to do with Smith was vexing, given his character and reputation. Sending him to Butler kept Smith away from men such as Burnside, but the alternative proved to be no better. Smith’s feud with Butler was a major source of woe in the Union high command. As Grant wrote in his memoirs, “I was not long in finding out that the objections to Smith’s promotion were well founded.” (Grant, Memoirs of U.S. Grant, Vol. 2, 367)

Preservation News: June 1, 1864 at Cold Harbor

Recently the Civil War Trust announced an effort to preserve land related to the June 1, 1864 fighting at Cold Harbor. This combat has often been overshadowed by the Union assault which took place there on June 3. Cold Harbor had yet to become, in the words of Union staff officer Thomas Hyde, “the Golgotha of American history.” When I read through the announcement and examined the map which included the targeted tracts my eyes were immediately drawn to a particular segment of the property. It lays just north of the Cold Harbor Road and above and slightly to the right of the Miles Garthwright House.

On May 30, with Union cavalry operations heating up around Cold Harbor, Gen. Robert E. Lee began shuffling men there to secure the area. This effort continued the following day, as the Federal cavalry attacked and eventually captured the road junction. Late in the evening of the thirty-first, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Maj. Gen. George Meade also began to funnel infantry toward Cold Harbor. The crossroads was vitally important to the commanders. One road led directly to the Union supply base on the Pamunkey River while another ran directly to the Confederate capital at Richmond, less than a dozen miles to the southwest. Grant planned to attack there the next morning. The General-in-Chief, however, was asking too much of his soldiers.

Walking over the battlefield at Cold Harbor, one of the things that comes to mind is the condition of the men in both armies who fought there. The Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia had been locked in a desperate, non-stop campaign for nearly a month. They were completely exhausted. Grant’s expectation to immediately launch an assault following a harrowing night march was unrealistic. The first blue infantry to reach Cold Harbor was Maj. Gen. Horatio Wright’s VI Corps, which tramped in at about 10 a.m. It was not until 2:30 that afternoon that Wright’s last division arrive and deploy for battle. Wright was to coordinate the offensive with Maj. Gen. William “Baldy” Smith’s XVIII Corps, recently arrived from the Army of the James.  Smith’s orders had been botched, adding miles and hours to his march. His men finally arrived around mid-afternoon. The delay gave Wright’s men time to wait and contemplate the inevitable assault. Across the open space before them stood Brig. Gen. Robert Hoke’s division and Lt. Gen. Richard Anderson’s First Corps. The Confederates had spent much of the morning preparing and improving their defenses. Among those who waited anxiously to make the assault was a brigade commanded by a colonel from New York, Emory Upton.

A post war photo of Emory Upton. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

I’ve always been fascinated by Upton. Socially awkward but incredibly brilliant, he was the Sheldon Cooper of his day.  Upton had been one of the few men to recognize that the technology of the 1860s, especially the rifled musket and the advent of field fortifications, had rendered the tactics of the day obsolete. Just weeks earlier, Upton led an attack on the Mule Shoe Salient at Spotsylvania. He massed his twelve regiments in a column, three across and four deep. His men were directed not to open fire as they stormed the enemy works. The bayonet assault was initially successful, however, supporting troops did not arrive in time to exploit the breach. Impressed with the effort, Grant utilized Upton’s methods and sent the II Corps crashing into the salient on May 12. Once again, the attack was not properly coordinated which allowed the Confederates to recapture and hold part of the line.

As time ticked away that afternoon, Upton prepared for the assault. He formed his regiments into two lines. The 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery formed the first, with battalions stacked upon one another. Behind them was the 5th Maine, 95th Pennsylvania, 96th Pennsylvania and part of the 121st New York.

The 2nd Connecticut, led by Col. Elisha Kellogg, was a new regiment which had spent much of the war in the Washington defenses. Due to losses sustained in the campaign, they were converted to infantry and sent south, arriving with the army on May 21. I wonder what it was like for those men, who had never seen combat, to prepare for the attack. What thoughts went through their minds? What feelings did they have? One thing, I think, was certain. Derisively viewed for their lack of experience by their sister regiments, whose own ranks had been depleted by casualties, the Nutmeggers wanted to prove they were up to the task which awaited them.

Upton likely planned for his lines to move forward in concert. The “Heavies” were to carry the brunt of the assault while the remaining regiments awaited the outcome. If they were successful, Upton would send his second line forward to exploit the breach. Should Kellogg meet stiff resistance, Upon would send individual regiments from the second line forward with the expectation that the additional weight would break the Confederate position.

Kellogg took his place at the head of his regiment. He ordered his men to unsling their knapsacks and any other accouterments that might impede their movement. Around 6 p.m. the blue soldiers moved forward. “The Second Connecticut…moved to the assault in beautiful order,” Upton wrote. “Crossing an open field, it entered a pine-wood, passed down a gentle declivity and up a slight ascent. Here the charge was checked. For seventy feet in front of the works the trees had been felled, interlocking with each other, and barring all further advance. Two paths, several yards apart, and wide enough for four men to march abreast, led through the obstructions. Up these, to the foot of the works, the brave men rushed, but were swept away by a converging fire…I directed the men to lie down, and not to return fire. Opposite the right of the regiment, the works were carried…in this position, without support on either flank, the Second Connecticut fought, when the enemy fell back to a second line of works.”

Watching from the rear, a member of the 121st New York wrote “as soon as the heavies began to charge, the Rebel works were bordered with a fringe of smoke from the muskets and the men began to fall very fast, and many wounded began going to the rear.” The 2nd Connecticut approached Brig. Gen. Thomas Clingman’s brigade and a section of the line held by the 51st North Carolina. Aghast, the Empire Stater observed the Connecticut soldiers “fall in all shapes. Some would fall forward as if they had caught their feet and tripped and fell. Others would fall backward. Others would stagger about a few paces before they dropped.” Among the dead was Kellogg. Wounded early in the attack, he remained at the front before being shot down, struck multiple times. Kellogg’s personal example helped ensure that his regiment would no longer be called “band box soldiers.”

Although Upton’s attack had ground to a halt, on his right, Union infantry overran part of Clingman’s line. Upton quickly pushed elements from the 2nd Connecticut to his right and over the works. He then shifted to the left and managed to capture that portion of the entrenchments from which the Confederates had so badly mauled his men only minutes before. Later on, he pressed his second line up to hold against enemy counterattacks. Elsewhere, other units from the VI and XVIII Corps achieved similar results. This temporary success prompted Grant to launch his famous army wide assault on June 3.

2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery Monument at Cold Harbor.

Today, a monument stands within the National Park Service boundary to the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery. Some of the ground over which the regiment traversed during their attack has been identified by the Trust for this purchase. It represents an opportunity to further pay tribute to the valor of  Upton, Kellogg, the men who followed them and the other soldiers who fought at Cold Harbor that share in our American experience.