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.
Battle of Chester Station
The next day (May 10) the Confederates conducted a reconnaissance-in-force mission that resulted in an inconclusive minor engagement known as the Battle of Chester Station. Growing increasingly impatient with his lack of progress, Butler gave up his offensive against Petersburg and spent the next two days preparing for a thrust against Richmond to the north.
Battle of Proctor’s Creek
Beauregard used the two-day lull to reinforce his defenses near Drewry’s Bluff, between Richmond and Butler’s headquarters at Bermuda Hundred. Rounding up about 13,000 men, the Confederate general established a defensive line along Proctor’s Creek, a tributary of the James River roughly seven miles south of Richmond.
On May 12, 1864, six days after landing at Bermuda Hundred, Butler finally began his movement toward the Confederate capital. By May 14, Butler had established a defensive line facing Beauregard’s line along Proctor’s Creek.
Meanwhile, Beauregard bolstered his line with reinforcements from Richmond and North Carolina. With roughly 18,000 Confederate soldiers manning the works around Drewry’s Bluff, Beauregard’s defenders now outnumbered Butler’s Federals. Sensing his advantage, Beauregard boldly ordered a Rebel assault that began on May 16. By the end of the day, the Rebels sent Butler’s forces fleeing back toward their defenses at Bermuda Hundred.
On May 17, the pursuing Rebels closed in on the Army of the James and formed a line across the peninsula that paralleled the federal earthworks. Before Beauregard could complete the line, however, Confederate officials in Richmond began siphoning off his troops. Consequently, Beauregard planned to assault Butler’s line with the aim of anchoring the left end of the Rebel line on the James River and the right flank on the Appomattox River.
Clash at Ware Bottom Church
On May 20, Confederate soldiers attacked both ends of Butler’s line. On the right flank, near Ware Bottom Church, the Rebels forced Quincy Gillmore’s 10th Corps to withdraw despite several spirited counterattacks. On the left flank, William F. Smith’s 18th Corps held on longer before Beauregard’s troops drove them back as well. By the end of the day, the Confederate assault had forced Butler’s entire line east to a new position closer to Bermuda Hundred.
Aftermath of the Battle
Data regarding casualties and the number of troops who fought at the Battle of Ware Bottom Church are vague. Historians estimate that roughly 10,000 soldiers were engaged. Each side suffered about 750 casualties (killed, wounded, and captured/missing).
With the size of his force dwindling, Beauregard realized that he did not have the wherewithal to attack Butler’s army concentrated at Bermuda Hundred. Instead, he ordered his soldiers to construct fortifications and entrenchments stretching from the James River to the Appomattox River across the Bermuda Hundred Peninsula. Known as the Howlett Line, the Confederate bulwarks virtually trapped the Army of the James on the tip of the peninsula. As General Grant later noted in his memoirs, Butler’s army “was as completely shut off from further operations directly against Richmond as if it had been in a bottle strongly corked.”
The Battle of Ware Bottom Church was the final engagement of the Bermuda Hundred Campaign. For the next few weeks, the two sides engaged each other in skirmishes and artillery duels that produced no substantive results. Eventually, the standoff prompted Grant to withdraw the 18th Corps to bolster his operations at Cold Harbor (May 31–June 12, 1864). Afterward, Beauregard felt so secure that he pulled soldiers away from the Howlett Line to reinforce his main defenses during the Second Battle of Petersburg (June 15, 1864). Despite the withdrawal of troops, the Confederates successfully held the Howlett Line until General Robert E. Lee evacuated Richmond on April 2, 1865.