Battles of Cold Harbor, Brices Crossroads, and Kennesaw Mountain; Siege of Petersburg Begins; USS Kearsarge sinks CSS Alabama: June 1864
150 Years Ago in the Civil War
As the month began, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant’s Union Army moved closer to Richmond, Virginia. On May 31st, Federal cavalry under Major General Philip Sheridan captured the road junction at Cold Harbor, near the 1862 Gaines’ Mill battlefield. A Confederate counter attack was beaten back the next day as Union infantry reached Cold Harbor.
Both sides dug in. During the Overland Campaign, Grant had attacked, battles ensued, the Union Army maneuvered, and the Confederates matched the Federal flanking movements. It had been an exhausting and bloody campaign, and the Union commander decided to try an assault on the Rebel lines to break through and attack Richmond directly. Grant brought in the 18th Corps from Major General Benjamin Butler’s army at Bermuda Hundred as reinforcements, and ordered an assault on the Confederate works for dawn on June 3rd.
Grant had counted on the Rebels being exhausted after a month of nearly continuous fighting, but badly underestimated the strength of the Confederate defensive position and the fighting resolve of the Rebel army. The well entrenched Confederate defenders were ready and delivered deadly fire, cutting down the advancing Federals by the dozens. There was only one minor breakthrough, on the southern end of the assault line, and that was quickly beaten back by a counterattack. Advancing Union troops were mowed down by musket and artillery fire and most never reached the Confederate works.
Grant finally called off the attack around 12:30 p.m. At a cost of approximately 7,000 casualties for the day’s fighting, the Federals had gained nothing . The two armies continued to fight each other from their trenches until the Army of the Potomac pulled out on June 12th and marched southeast. Grant decided against making any more direct attempts to take Richmond, and instead decided to cross the James River and attack the city of Petersburg, a vital railroad center. It’s capture would cut off essential supply lines for both Richmond and the Confederate army.
Believing that Grant intended to strike at Richmond again, General Robert E. Lee kept his army near the Confederate capital city. Meanwhile, Union Army engineers built a 2100 foot long pontoon bridge over the James, and on June 14th, the first Federal troops crossed the river.
Major General William F. Smith’s 18th Corps was the first to reach the outer defenses of Petersburg on the 15th, with the 2nd Corps not far behind. With Lee still up by Richmond, General P.G.T. Beauregard had only a small force to defend Petersburg. Smith attacked that evening and drove the Confederates back to another defensive line. But Smith was overly cautious and did not follow up, preferring to wait until the next day to resume the attack, despite his overwhelming numerical superiority, and the opportunity to take the city quickly was gone. Two divisions of reinforcements arrived during the night, and more were on the way. Union attacks continued for the next three days, but failed to make a breakthrough. After final assaults on the 18th were repulsed with heavy casualties, the order was given to dig in and begin siege operations.
In the Shenandoah Valley, Major General David Hunter continued the campaign that had begun under the now reassigned General Franz Sigel. Hunter’s force entered Lexington, Virginia on June 11th and burned the Virginia Military Institute as punishment for VMI cadets participating in the Battle of New Market in May. Lee sent Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s 2nd Corps to the Shenandoah to deal with Hunter. Grant sent Sheridan and his cavalry to link up with Hunter at Charlottesville and to destroy portions of the Virginia Central Railroad.
Sheridan’s cavalry didn’t make it to Charlottesville. Confederate cavalry under Generals Wade Hampton and Fitzhugh Lee engaged Sheridan at the Battle of Trevilian Station on June 11th and 12th. After failing to defeat Hampton and Lee on the second day of battle, Sheridan gave up trying to reach Hunter and returned to the Army of the Potomac. In the Shenandoah Valley, Early reached Lynchburg on June 17th, and engaged Hunter that day and on the 18th. Hunter was running short of ammunition and other supplies due to attacks on his supply lines by Lieutenant Colonel John S. Mosby’s guerrilla units, and retreated from Lynchburg out of the Valley and into West Virginia.
In northern Mississippi, another Confederate cavalry general was in action. Major General William T. Sherman’s ordered Brigadier General Samuel Sturgis to find and destroy the cavalry of Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest, who presented a threat to Sherman’s lines of communication. Forrest was waiting for Sturgis at an intersection called Brice’s Crossroads. Despite being outnumbered by more than two to one, Forrest attacked and routed the Federals, and then pursued them on the retreat. Rear guard actions by a couple of African American regiments managed to keep Sturgis’ army from being captured in its entirety.
Forrest had reached the top of his military career with this one sided victory at the Battle of Brice’s Crossroads against a much larger opponent. The defeat marked the end of Samuel Sturgis’ Civil War service, although not his military career. After the war, he served on the Great Plains and other points in the West.
In northern Georgia, Sherman continued to maneuver around General Joseph E. Johnston’s flanks as his army moved closer to Atlanta. There was fighting at Pine Mountain on June 14th; one of the casualties was Confederate General Leonidas Polk, who was killed when he took a direct hit from a Federal artillery shell. At Kolb’s Farm on June 22nd, General John B. Hood attacked what he apparently thought was a weak position in the Union lines. Actually, Hood’s Corps was up against the entrenched front of the Union 20th and 23rd Corps, who were waiting for him. Hood suffered over 1000 casualties while the Union defenders had about 350.
In general, Sherman himself preferred not to make frontal assaults but he made an exception to this on June 27th. With Johnston’s Confederates occupying the high ground of Kennesaw Mountain, and his campaign bogging down, Sherman believed an assault against the Confederate center might work to break what the Union commander thought was a defensive line stretched too thin. It would also keep Johnston guessing as to what tactics Sherman would use.
But the assault uphill against entrenched Confederate defenders had a predictable end. The Federals attempted some diversionary attacks that did not fool the Rebels. The actual attacks were repulsed after intense fighting, at a cost of some 3000 total Union casualties to about 1000 for the Confederates. The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain was a Confederate victory, but only briefly slowed Sherman’s advance on Atlanta.
Far away from the battlefields in the English Channel, the U.S. Navy tracked down and destroyed one of the Confederacy’s biggest threats to American merchant shipping. On June 19th, the USS Kearsarge, under the command of Captain John Winslow, attacked the commerce raider CSS Alabama, commanded by Captain Raphael Semmes a few miles off the coast of Cherbourg, France. Kearsarge sank the Alabama, and in the process about 40 Rebel crewmen were killed and 70 were captured. But Semmes and many of his officers were rescued by the British yacht Deerhound, which had been observing the battle. Deerhound set off for England, and Semmes and his officers escaped capture.
On the political front, Republicans and some War Democrats formed the National Union Party and nominated Abraham Lincoln for a second term as president at its convention in Baltimore on June 8th. The Party also nominated Andrew Johnson, a War Democrat who had been a U.S. Senator and was now the Military Governor of his home state of Tennessee, to replace Hannibal Hamlin as Vice President. Lincoln accepted the nomination, but his reelection was in doubt. The president needed significant battlefield victories in the months before the election if he was to win a second term.