Prelude to the Battle
On July 15, 1863, the United States War Department issued General Orders No. 217, merging the Department of Virginia with the Department of North Carolina to form the Department of Virginia and North Carolina. The order appointed 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.
Grant in Charge of Union Armies
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 the Army of Northern Virginia, which was under the command of Robert E. Lee.
Grant Meets with Butler
Grant’s operations against Lee incorporated the troops under Butler’s command. On April 1, 1864, Grant met with Butler, and they devised a plan for Butler’s participation in the spring offensive near Richmond and Petersburg, Virginia. On April 12, 1864, Grant ordered Butler to prepare for operations south of the James River in Virginia. Butler’s forces comprised roughly 20,000 soldiers from his 18th Corps, commanded by Major General William F. Smith, and about 10,000 men from the 10th Corps, commanded by Major General Quincy A. Gillmore. Butler subsequently referred to the merged forces under his overall command as the Army of the James.
In broad strokes, Butler’s orders were to move his army up the James River to its confluence with the Appomattox River. After securing the village of City Point, Virginia, the bulk of his army was to disembark farther upstream at the fishing village of Bermuda Hundred. From there, he would support Grant’s Overland Campaign, which pitted Major General George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac against General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Butler’s two main 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 main thrust.
Butler on the Move
By May 5, 1864, (the same day that the Battle of the Wilderness began) a flotilla of naval vessels started moving the roughly 39,000 troops Butler commanded up the James River. The next day, the soldiers began disembarking at City Point and Bermuda Hundred. Instead of immediately striking toward Richmond after his army disembarked at Bermuda Hundred, Butler ordered his soldiers to entrench as he sent Brigadier General Charles Heckman’s brigade west on a reconnaissance mission.
Beauregard in Command of Confederate Forces at Petersburg
On the same day that Butler’s army disembarked, General P. G. T. Beauregard assumed command of the Confederate defenses around Petersburg. During the first few days of Butler’s offensive, however, Beauregard was ill. The leadership of the Confederate troops in the field devolved to Major General George E. Pickett, whose reputation had suffered considerably at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863.
Battle of Port Walthall Junction
Instead of immediately striking toward Richmond after disembarking at Bermuda Hundred, Butler ordered his soldiers to entrench as he began probing the Confederate defenses. On May 6, Rebel soldiers turned back Union reconnaissance forces at the Battle of Port Walthall Junction. The next day a federal task force pushed the Confederate defenders to Swift Run Creek, where the Rebels spent the next two days digging rifle pits and awaiting reinforcements. After destroying about a quarter-mile of railroad track, some telegraph lines, a sawmill, and a stash of lumber, the Yankees returned to their main defensive line.
Battle of Swift Creek
On May 9, 1864, Butler deployed a large task force to confront the Rebels at Swift Run Creek. The two sides engaged in a series of minor engagements collectively known as the Battle of Swift Creek that bought more time for Beauregard to solidify his forces.
Clash at Chester Station
By May 10, 1864, Beauregard had recovered from his illness and assumed command of his forces. On the same day, the Confederates conducted a reconnaissance-in-force mission near Chester Station. They found Butler’s troops deployed in two wings. The left-wing, commanded by Major O. S. Sanford, destroyed tracks along the Richmond & Petersburg Railroad as they moved toward Chester Station. When the right-wing, commanded by Colonel C. J. Dobbs, encountered the Confederates, Dobbs formed battle lines and requested reinforcements from Sanford.
When the Rebels approached, the Yankees unleashed a withering fire. As Sanford’s reinforcements arrived, the Confederate withdrew and regrouped. When the Greycoats advanced again, they stood little chance against the reinforced Federals. A sheet of hot lead and artillery fire drove the Rebels into nearby woods.
As the scorching heat neared 100 degrees, fires ignited the woods, endangering the lives of wounded Yankees and Rebels alike. As darkness approached, the Confederates returned to Drewry’s Bluff, and the Federals withdrew toward Bermuda Hundred.
Aftermath of the Battle
The Battle of Chester Station was an inconclusive minor engagement. Casualties were light and fairly even. The Union lost about 280 men (killed, wounded, and missing/captured) and the Confederacy roughly 249 soldiers. After the battle, Butler grew increasingly impatient with his lack of progress and issued orders for a concentrated move toward Richmond to begin in two days.