On July 15, 1863, the United States War Department issued General Orders No. 217, combining the Department of Virginia with the Department of North Carolina to form the Department of Virginia and North Carolina, and appointing Major General John G. Foster to command the new department. A few months later, on October 28, 1863, the War Department issued General Orders No. 350, appointing Major General Benjamin F. Butler to command the department and the 18th Army Corps. Butler arrived at Fort Monroe, Virginia, and assumed command on November 10.
The next spring, on March 10, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln issued an executive order appointing Lieutenant-General Ulysses S. Grant to command the armies of the United States. Grant assumed his new command on March 17. Upon his arrival in Washington, Grant drafted a plan to get the various Union armies in the field to act in concert. He also devised his Overland Campaign to invade east-central Virginia and to destroy Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia. Grant instructed General George Meade, who commanded the Army of the Potomac, “Wherever Lee goes, there you will go also.” Grant realized that with the superior resources that he had at his disposal, Lee was destined to lose a war of attrition, as long the Northerners persistently engaged the Confederate.
Grant’s operations against Lee also incorporated the troops under Butler’s command. On April 12, 1864, Grant wrote a detailed letter to Butler instructing him that:
You will collect all of the forces from your command that can be spared from garrison duty—I should say not less than twenty thousand effective men—to operate on the south side of the James River, Richmond being your objective point. To the force you already have will be added about ten thousand men from South Carolina, under Major-General Gillmore, who will command them in person. Major-General W.F. Smith is ordered to report to you, to command the troops sent into the field from your own department.
The forces under Butler’s command were thereafter known as the Army of the James.
Bermuda Hundred Campaign
In broad strokes, Butler’s orders were to move his army of over 30,000 soldiers across the James River onto the Virginia Peninsula at the village of Bermuda Hundred, to support Meade’s operations against Lee. Butler’s two objectives were to sever the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad and to threaten Richmond from the east, forcing Lee to divert troops away from Meade’s Army of the Potomac advancing from the north.
The plan proved to be partially unsuccessful because of Butler’s indecisive leadership. During the month of May 1864, Butler led a series of largely fruitless attacks against much smaller Confederate forces commanded by General P. G. T. Beauregard. Beauregard not only prevented Butler from achieving his two objectives; he also bottled up the Army of the James on the Virginia Peninsula for the rest of May, rendering it nearly useless to support Grant’s larger operations.
First Battle of Petersburg
By June, Beauregard withdrew his troops to help defend Richmond and Petersburg. On June 9, 1864, Butler dispatched nearly 4,500 soldiers from the Army of the James against Petersburg from the east. Only 2,500 local militiamen (most of whom were old men and young boys) commanded by Beauregard lightly defended Petersburg. Despite Butler’s superior numbers, Beauregard repulsed the Union force at the First Battle of Petersburg, also known as the Battle of Old Men and Young Boys.
Second Battle of Petersburg
One week later, on June 15, Grant kicked off his Petersburg Campaign by ordering Butler’s army to cross the Appomattox River and to launch a second assault against Petersburg. Beauregard’s defenders now totaled approximately 5,400 men, but the 16,000 soldiers that Butler fielded greatly outnumbered them. Delays and indecision marred Butler’s offensive. Over the course of the next two days, the total number of troops involved swelled to almost 62,000 Yankees and nearly 42,000 Rebels. Once again, the smaller Confederate force prevailed, holding off the Union onslaught at the Second Battle of Petersburg, prompting Grant to call off the assault and to focus on cutting off Richmond’s supply lines instead.
Battle of Chaffin’s Farm and New Market Heights
In late September, Grant launched yet another strike at Richmond, this time to serve as a diversion for his simultaneous movement to extend his lines south of Petersburg. Once again, he chose Butler’s Army of the James to lead the Richmond offensive. Preparations for the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm and New Market Heights began during the night of September 28–29, 1864. By 5 a.m., September 29, all of Butler’s force was across the Appomattox River and poised to attack. Launching simultaneous attacks against New Market Heights, east of the Confederate capital, and the area near Chaffin’s Farm, southeast of Richmond, Butler’s men sustained heavy casualties but achieve their objective of drawing Rebel defenders away from the Petersburg area, thus enabling Grant to move against the South Side Railroad, southwest of Petersburg.
On December 3, 1864, the U.S. War Department issued General Orders No. 297 reorganizing the Army of the James. The order discontinued the 10th and 18th Army Corps. Officials merged white infantry troops from those two corps to form the new 24th Army Corps commanded by Major General Edward Ord. They melded black troops from the two discontinued corps to create the new 25th Army Corps commanded by Major General Godfrey Weitzel.
Ord Replaces Butler
Later in December, Grant ordered Butler to lead a provisional corps of his army in an assault on Fort Fisher, which guarded the port of Wilmington, North Carolina, the Confederacy’s last major Atlantic seaport. Operating in conjunction with Rear Admiral David D. Porter, Butler troops began landing near the fort following a naval bombardment of over 10,000 shells. After establishing a beachhead, Butler incurred Grant’s wrath when he called off the operation after deciding that the shelling had not damaged the fort enough to capture it.
Lacking confidence in Butler’s leadership, Grant appealed to President Lincoln and Secretary of War Stanton for authorization to replace Butler. On January 7, 1865, the Adjutant-General’s Office issued General Order Number 1, which stated in part that, “By direction of the President of the United States, Major General Benjamin F. Butler is relieved from the command of the Department of North Carolina and Virginia.” On the same day, U.S. Army Headquarters issued special orders appointing Major General Edward Ord to temporary command of the Department and of the Army of the James.
Ord commanded the Army of the James throughout the rest of the Petersburg Campaign and also during the Appomattox Campaign. When Richmond, Virginia fell on April 2, 1865, black soldiers of the 24th Corps of the Army of the James were among the first Union troops to occupy the city on the following day. At Appomattox, the 25th Corps of the Army of the James cut off the Army of Northern Virginia’s last avenue of escape, prompting Robert E. Lee’s and the Army of Northern Virginia’s surrender on April 9, 1865.
Texas Service and Dissolution
At the conclusion of the Civil War, much of the Army of the James served as an occupying force in Virginia. Later, The army ordered the 25th Corps to Texas for border duty. The War Department mustered the entire army out of volunteer service in February 1866.