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 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 Waltham
On May 6, Rebel soldiers commanded by Brigadier General Johnson Hagood turned back Heckman’s forces at Port Walthall Junction. The next day, the Federals returned with more soldiers. Despite enjoying a large numerical advantage, the Yankees failed to dislodge the Confederate defenders who had fallen back and formed a strong defensive line along the Richmond & Petersburg Railroad line. After destroying about a quarter-mile of railroad track, some telegraph lines, a sawmill, and a stash of lumber, the Union soldiers once again withdrew. During the night, the Rebels marched south and formed a new defensive line behind Swift Creek. Although the two-day Battle of Port Walthall Junction was a Union victory, Butler’s army was no closer to Richmond.
Butler Plans to Destroy Bridges
Possibly frustrated by his marginal victory at Port Walthall Junction, on May 9, 1864, Butler deployed a large task force comprising five brigades from the 18th Corps, commanded by Major General William F. “Baldy” Smith, and two brigades from the 10th Corps, commanded by Major General Quincy A. Gillmore, to confront the Rebels at Swift Creek. Butler’s prime aim was to disrupt traffic between Petersburg and Richmond by destroying bridges crossing Swift Creek, particularly the Richmond Turnpike Bridge, the Richmond & Petersburg Railroad Bridge, and the Brander’s Road Bridge. Hagood’s Brigade defended the Turnpike and Brander’s Bridge. The 51st North Carolina Regiment defended the railroad bridge.
Butler Rejects Alternative Proposal
Perhaps overestimating the strength of the Rebel defensive lines, Butler’s corps commanders, Gillmore and Smith, proposed an alternative plan to avoid unnecessary bloodshed. They suggested bypassing the Confederate defenders and attacking Petersburg which they believed would be lightly defended. Butler, however, rejected their proposal, thereby missing an opportunity to isolate Richmond by severing ties with the capital’s main supply center about twenty-five miles to the south.
Union Advance Toward Port Walthall
With artillery and cavalry in support, Smith and Gillmore dutifully marched south from Port Walthall Junction toward the Confederate defenses. Supporting their advance was a small flotilla of five Union gunboats steaming up the Appomattox River and an infantry division of U.S. Colored Troops deployed to anchor the far left of Butler’s line near the Rebel stronghold at Fort Clinton.
Awaiting the 14,000-man Union task force were roughly 4,200 well-entrenched Rebels under the field command of Brigadier General Bushrod Johnson. Major General George Pickett in Petersburg had recently reinforced Johnson’s command with the 11th South Carolina and the 7th South Carolina Battalion, the Tennessee Brigade, and the unattached 51st North Carolina.
May 9, 1864 — Clash at Swift Creek
Confederate Reconnaissance in Force
As the Federals arrived at Arrowfield Church in the early afternoon and began deploying for action, skirmishing erupted between the 11th South Carolina, the only unit north of the creek, and Heckman’s Brigade. The initial advantage went to the Rebels who temporarily stymied the Union advance. Puzzled by the listless conduct of the Yankee aggressors, Pickett instructed Johnson to order two regiments of Brigadier General Johnson Hagood’s Brigade to abandon their defenses for a “reconnaissance in force” north of Swift Creek to determine the strength of the Union troops. After arguing futilely that it was “perfectly evident that the enemy was there in force,” Hagood dutifully obeyed (although he later observed in his after-action report that he knew his men “could accomplish nothing”).
Upon crossing Swift Creek on the Turnpike Bridge, Hagood found the 11th South Carolina heavily engaged and moved to their support. Misinterpreting Hagood’s instructions, Colonel F. H. Gantt ordered a Confederate attack on Heckman’s brigade. In what was later known as “Hagood’s Charge,” the 21st South Carolina and part of the 25th South Carolina rushed forward screaming the “Rebel yell.”
The Federals greeted them with a deadly sheet of hot lead that left thirty-one Confederate soldiers killed, eighty-two wounded, and twenty-four missing. The Yankees did not escape unscathed, losing thirteen killed and 126 wounded. Despite repulsing the Confederate assault, the Union officers did not follow up on their success.
Meanwhile, heavy artillery fire from Fort Clinton sank the USS Brewster and badly damaged the USS Chamberlain before forcing the Union flotilla to retreat down the Appomattox River. When the gunboats retreated, Union leaders also abandoned the infantry assault by U.S. Colored Troops on Fort Clinton. The next afternoon, Johnson ordered his artillery to resume firing on the federal positions. After receiving no response, he ordered skirmishers across the creek who discovered that the Yankees had withdrawn.
Aftermath of the Battle
Although the Battle of Swift Creek was a tactical victory for Butler, it achieved little. His task force failed to achieve its aim of disrupting supplies sent from Petersburg to Richmond by destroying the bridges spanning Swift Creek. Despite their higher casualties, Southerners hailed the Confederates as the saviors of Petersburg. The battle was Butler’s last attempt to threaten Petersburg during the Bermuda Hundred Campaign.