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 and the Army of the Potomac against General Robert E. Lee and the 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.
Clash at Port Walthall Junction
Near 4 p.m., on May 6, Heckman’s 2,700 soldiers encountered a force of roughly 600 Confederates defending a short section of track connecting the Petersburg & Richmond Railroad to the Appomattox River. Under the direct command of Colonel Robert Graham, the Rebels were members of Brigadier General Johnson Hagood’s South Carolina brigade, assigned to Major General Bushrod Johnson’s Division. Not knowing the small size of the Confederate force in front of him, and under orders not to start a general engagement, Heckman ordered a single regiment to probe the Confederate defense. As the Yankees advanced, Graham’s men initially gave ground before entrenching themselves along a sunken road. As the Rebels mounted a stout defense from their new position, Heckman withdrew as darkness approached.
During the night, the rest of Bushrod Johnson’s Division joined Hagood’s Brigade, increasing the number of Rebel defenders to 1,800. The next morning, Major General D. H. Hill arrived at the Confederate defenses with an additional 2,668 soldiers. Being senior in rank, Hill assumed command of the combined Rebel forces.
The next morning (May 7), Butler deployed a much larger force of about 8,000 Federals, commanded by Brigadier General William H. T. Brooks, charged with dislodging the Rebel defenders and destroying the railroad at Port Walthall Junction.
As Brooks’ 8,000 Federals advanced toward Port Waltham Junction, Hill ordered his roughly 4,500 Confederate soldiers to fall back behind the Richmond & Petersburg Railroad and waited. When the Yankees failed to show by 10 a.m., Hill dispatched a reconnaissance party that collided with the vanguard of the Union force about a mile from the Confederate line. Following a sharp skirmish, the Rebels returned to their defenses west of the main railroad while Brooks drew up battle lines in front of his enemies. After several futile advances against the well-entrenched Rebels, along the embankment of the railroad line, Brooks eventually withdrew after destroying about a quarter-mile of railroad track, some telegraph lines, a sawmill, and a stash of lumber.
Overnight, Hill’s troops abandoned Port Walthall Junction, marched down the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike, and established a better defensive position south of Swift Creek.
Aftermath of the Battle
The Union won round one of the Bermuda Hundred Campaign. The Federals suffered about 300 casualties (killed, wounded, missing/captured), compared with 200 losses for the Confederacy. Despite the victory, Butler’s army was no closer to Richmond.