150 Years Ago in the Civil War
As July 1864 began, the Army of the Potomac was engaged in siege operations outside of Petersburg, Virginia. In northern Georgia, Major General William T. Sherman’s army was returning to a campaign of engagement and maneuver after the failed assault at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain. But away from these two centers of the action, a serious threat to Washington DC was emerging from Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.
Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s Corps had been sent to the Shenandoah in June to fight a Union army under Major General David Hunter that had been operating in the valley. Hunter had withdrawn out of the Shenandoah and into West Virginia, leaving the valley open to the Confederates. Now Early was ordered to move north and threaten Washington in the hope that Union forces at Petersburg would be sent to the capital city, relieving some of the pressure at Petersburg.
Early crossed the Potomac River at Shepherdstown, West Virginia and headed east toward Frederick, Maryland. The Union Army commander in Baltimore, Major General Lew Wallace, was alerted by officials from the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad that a large Confederate force was on its way toward Washington or Baltimore. Wallace threw together about 2800 troops and set up a defense at Monocacy Junction, a strategic rail and road junction just outside Frederick. Except for some of his cavalry, the troops Wallace had were almost all inexperienced in combat. Meanwhile at Petersburg, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant sent a division of the 6th Corps (about 3000 men) under Brigadier General James Ricketts north to reinforce Wallace. The reinforcements reached Monocacy Junction early on July 9th, just before Early arrived and the fighting began.
Even with the reinforcements, Wallace was still outnumbered but he was prepared to fight a delaying action. He deployed his men to good defensive positions, shifted his troops around as needed, and held off the attackers. Finally, late in the afternoon the Rebels launched a simultaneous attack against the front and both flanks of the Union position. Wallace was forced to withdraw, but he had done all he could have reasonably been expected to do.
The Confederates had won, but their march to Washington had been delayed by a day. The city was ringed by strong fortifications, but most of the troops manning them had been sent to the Army of the Potomac due to the high casualties of the Overland Campaign. Grant sent two more divisions of the 6th Corps, and some more reinforcements from the 19th Corps, north to defend the capital and, thanks to Wallace, they began arriving in Washington in time. The Confederates reached Fort Stevens on the northwest side of the city on July 11th. Early and the Union forces engaged in some skirmishing and exchanged artillery fire over the next two days; Confederates also burned the home of U.S. Postmaster General Montgomery Blair in Silver Spring, Maryland a couple of miles away. Among those at Fort Stevens was Abraham Lincoln himself, who came out to see for himself what was going on, and who became the only sitting president to come under enemy fire. Early decided not to attempt an all out assault on the formidable defensive line of the forts, and withdrew to Leesburg, Virginia on the night of the 12th to the 13th.
Early wasn’t quite finished. Eluding a half hearted Union pursuit, the Confederate commander sent two cavalry brigades under Brigadier General John McCausland back north, this time to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. McCausland arrived there on the 30th, and demanded $500,000 in currency or $100,000 in gold to compensate for Union army depredations under General David Hunter in the Shenandoah. The town wouldn’t, and possibly couldn’t, pay that sum, and McCausland burned much of Chambersburg to the ground.
At Petersburg, Virginia, both sides were working on fortifications and trenches as they settled into siege operations. But on the Union 9th Corps side of the line facing a section of Confederate works called Elliott’s Salient, digging and construction was happening underground. The 48th Pennsylvania Infantry, whose ranks included a large number of coal miners, was in the process of building a mine that extended under the Confederate lines. The plan was to pack the end of the mine underneath the Rebel line with gunpowder and blow a huge hole in the line. Union troops would then go around the hole, push through the shattered line, and take the heights above Petersburg. The 9th Corps had a division of United States Colored Troops (USCT) that was being specially trained to lead the assault.
But a few hours before the mine was scheduled to be blown up, Major General George Meade ordered General Ambrose Burnside to have his white divisions lead the attack. Burnside protested the order to Grant, but the General in Chief approved the order. Grant later explained his reasoning that if the attack went wrong, it would be said that “we were shoving these people ahead to get killed because we did not care anything about them”. Neither Meade nor Grant had much enthusiasm for the plan to begin with and apparently lacked confidence in it as well.
Burnside resorted to having his white division commanders draw straws to determine which unit would lead the attack. The “winner” was Brigadier General James H. Ledlie. But Ledlie, a third rate general with a fondness for alcohol, did not brief his command on how they were to attack.
At 4:45 a.m. on July 30th, 8000 pounds of gunpowder in the mine was detonated, sending an enormous amount of dirt, debris, equipment, bodies and parts of bodies of Confederate soldiers into the air, and blowing a hole 170 feet long, 60 feet wide, and 30 feet deep in Elliott’s Salient. Ledlie’s division then advanced, but instead of going around the crater, the men went into it. Ledlie was not present to lead them; at the time of the assault he was behind the lines in a bombproof shelter drinking a bottle of rum. The other white divisions followed Ledlie’s into the Crater, and began to take casualties from Rebel artillery. The African American troops went in last and made some progress until Brigadier General William Mahone led a Confederate counterattack and reached the hole itself. Vicious fighting, including hand to hand combat in the Crater itself, continued until Union forces withdrew in the afternoon.
The Battle of the Crater had cost the Federals nearly 3800 casualties, including 504 dead, with nothing gained. Confederate losses were about 1500 total casualties with 361 killed.
This disaster had repercussions. Burnside was sent home on leave and never recalled. He resigned from the army on April 15th, 1865. Ledlie was effectively dismissed from the army by Grant, although he was absent on a sick leave until December. He formally resigned his commission January 15th, 1865.
In Mississippi, a Union force again tried to destroy General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry, which was a continual threat to supply lines serving the Union army’s operations in Georgia. General A. J. Smith had his men dig in and build breastworks near Tupleo, Mississippi on the night of July 13th. Forrest attacked on July 14th, but a series of assaults were repulsed. The Battle of Tupelo was a rare defeat for Forrest, but a brief one. Smith pulled out of Tupelo the next day and returned to Tennessee, and Forrest continued to be a threat to Union supply lines.
Near Atlanta, Major General William T. Sherman moved his three armies–the Army of the Cumberland, Army of the Ohio, and Army of the Tennessee– around Kennesaw Mountain and crossed the Chattahoochee River on July 8th as he continued to close in on Atlanta. General Joseph E. Johnston continued to retreat as Sherman maneuvered, and crossed Peachtree Creek north of Atlanta. Johnston was preparing to attack the Army of the Cumberland as it crossed Peachtree Creek, when he received word on July 17th that he had been relieved of command and would be replaced by General John Bell Hood. President Jefferson Davis wanted a more aggressive general who would take the offensive as opposed to Johnston’s maneuvering and retreating in the face of Sherman’s advances.
Hood carried out the attack on Army of the Cumberland on July 20th, attacking both the left and right of the Union position. The attack on the Federal right made some progress until a Union counterattack stopped the Confederates. The attack on the Union left was poorly executed and went nowhere. The Battle of Peachtree Creek cost the Confederates about 2500 total casualties to the Union’s 1900, and Hood lost his first battle against Sherman.
Hood didn’t wait long to attack again. On July 22nd, Hood attacked Major General James B. McPherson’s Army of the Tennessee, which was on the Union left, east of Atlanta. Early in the afternoon, two of Hood’s divisions attacked McPherson’s left. McPherson had anticipated such a move, and had reinforced his left with the 16th Corps. While this was going on, Major General Patrick Cleburne found a gap between the right of the 16th Corps and the left of the 17th Corps. Cleburne, along with Brigadier General George Maney’s division, attacked the flank and rear of the 17th Corps and pushed forward, driving the Federals back; eventually a new defensive line was formed and held. Hood ordered the divisions of Generals Benjamin Cheatham and G.W. Smith to attack the 15th Corps on the Union right. Again, the Federal units were initially pushed back, but a counterattack supported by Union artillery ended Cheatham’s attack. Fighting continued until nightfall, but the Confederates were unable to break the Union defenses. The Battle of Atlanta as this was called, cost the Confederates an estimated 8500 total casualties; Union losses were put at 3641. One of those killed was General McPherson.
Sherman sent the Army of the Tennessee, now under Major General Oliver O. Howard, from the far left to the far right of the Union lines in an effort to cut the railroad line from Macon, Georgia to Atlanta. Hood sent two Corps under Generals Steven D. Lee and A.P. Stewart to intercept the Federals before they reached the railroad. Howard, a classmate of Hood’s at West Point, anticipated this move and had his men put up breastworks and other cover and waited for Hood near Ezra Church, a crossroads a couple of miles outside of Atlanta. On July 28th, the two sides clashed, and the dug in Union army again turned back attacks by Rebel soldiers. The Confederates had another 3000 casualties; the Federals suffered 642.
As July drew to a close, Sherman was preparing for a partial siege of Atlanta, while in Virginia, the two armies at Petersburg were already engaged in a siege. Though some very costly progress had been made since the start of the spring campaigns, the Confederates were still a long way from being defeated.