On to Petersburg . . . Almost (June 15, 1864)

A portion of the Confederate defenses taken by the XVIII Corps on June 15, 1864 (Library of Congress).

A portion of the Confederate defenses taken by the XVIII Corps on June 15, 1864 (Library of Congress).

Yet another of the Civil War’s lost opportunities, as described by Theodore Lyman. William F. “Baldy” Smith and the XVIII Corps attack the Dimmock Line around Petersburg and appear in a position to make their victory complete, but Smith holds back. Instead of having Hancock and the II Corps, newly arrived, press the advantage, Smith has them fill in for his exhausted men. Here Lyman expresses surprise at the fighting qualities of the African-American troops he had disparaged just the month before. Although he still expresses condescending impressions of black soldiers, this is something of a step forward. He also mentions “Wise’s Legion,” which are the troops commanded by Meade’s brother-in-law, Henry Wise. A former governor of Virginia, Wise’s first wife had been Meade’s wife’s sister.

A view of the pontoon bridge over the James Riber (Library of Congress).

A view of the pontoon bridge over the James River (Library of Congress).

Of course, the first thing was to visit the great bridge. The approach to it lay along the river border, under the bank, and had been prepared with much labor, for, a day or two previous, it had been covered with great cypresses, some of them at least three and a half feet in diameter, and these had to be cut close to the ground, and the debris carefully cleared away; in a portion of the road too there was a muddy swamp, which had to be laboriously spanned by a causeway; but there was the whole thing, finished, and of course a photographer making a “picture” of it. It was very simple: you have only to fancy a bridge of boats, thirteen feet wide and 2000 long, the while looking so light as scarcely to be capable of bearing a man on horseback. In the middle of the river were anchored two schooners, which gave greater stability to the bridge, by being attached to it with ropes. What added to the strangeness of the scene was the ci-devant Rebel iron-clad Atlanta, lying there, like a big mud-turtle, with only its back exposed. The group was completed by two or three gunboats and several steamers anchored near by. It was funny to run against the marine in this inland region, and to see the naval officers, all so smug and well brushed in their clean uniforms. Admiral L[ee] came to visit the General—a pleasant old lady apparently. While we were at dinner came Colonel Babcock, from Grant at City Point, with news that Baldy Smith had marched thence before daylight, engaged the enemy at five a.m., and was driving them towards Petersburg. Orders were immediately given to halt the waggon-train, now passing the bridge, and allow the 9th Corps to pass over and push on towards Petersburg (by the same route that Hancock had been following, during the day), and there form on his left. Smith, meantime, had hit the enemy, some three or four miles from City Point, in a wood, near where the main road crossed the rail. . . . How many there were I do not know, but they made a considerable fight with help of field batteries. Harry [Lyman’s brother-in-law], with 300 of his men, had the extreme left, and was wounded in this wood, early in the engagement..

The former Confederate ironclad Atlanta as Lyman would have seen her on the James River. She started life as the steamer Fingal before her conversion to an ironclad. the Union captured her in June 1863 (Library of Congress).

The former Confederate ironclad Atlanta as Lyman would have seen her on the James River. She started life as the steamer Fingal before her conversion to an ironclad. the Union captured her in June 1863 (Library of Congress).

A soldier told me he held on for an hour after he was hit; and I was further told his men did remarkably well. Within about two and a half miles of the town, Smith ran on the strong works long since constructed for its defence. These consist of a series of redoubts, with regular ditches and barbettes for guns, and connected in a chain by a heavy infantry parapet. The line was defended by Wise’s men (who look to me just like other Confederate soldiers) and by the local militia. What a difference that makes!! Their batteries opened a well-directed fire as our people advanced; but no sooner did the lines of battle debouch from the woods and push over the open ground, than the militia got shaky behind their works and, when our troops charged, they broke and ran, leaving sixteen guns and 300 or 400 prisoners in our hands. Everyone gives great credit to the negroes for the spirit they showed. I believe there is no question their conduct was entirely to their credit. . . . I shall never forget meeting, on the City Point road, five Confederate soldiers, under guard of nigs! . . . Three of the prisoners looked as if they could have taken off a tenpenny nail, at a snap. The other two seemed to take a ludicrous view of the matter and were smiling sheepishly. As to the negroes, they were all teeth, so to speak, teeth with a black frame. Hancock got up that evening and joined the 18th Corps. Their troops were all exhausted, but, oh! that they had attacked at once. Petersburg would have gone like a rotten branch. In war there is a critical instant—a night—perhaps only a half hour, when everything culminates. He is the military genius who recognizes this instant and acts upon it, neither precipitating nor postponing the critical moment. There is thus good reason why great soldiers should be so rare that generations pass without producing a single one. A great soldier must have, in addition to all usual traits of intellect, a courage unmoved by the greatest danger, and cool under every emergency, and the quickness of lightning, not only in conceiving, but in enforcing an order. . . .

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, p. 160-3. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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