Led by Major General Benjamin Butler's Army of the James, the Bermuda Hundred Campaign was an unsuccessful Union offensive in May 1864 that failed to achieve its main objectives of threatening Richmond and diverting Confederate troops away from Ulysses S. Grant's Overland Campaign.
Prelude to the Bermuda Hundred Campaign
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 Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia.
Grant Meets with Butler
Grant’s operations against Lee also incorporated the troops under Butler’s command. On March 31, 1864, Grant traveled to Fort Monroe near Hampton, Virginia, where he met with Butler the next day. Together they devised a plan for Butler’s participation in the spring offensive near Richmond and Petersburg, Virginia.
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 War Department merged Gillmore’s 10th Corps and Smith’s 18th Corps to form the Army of the James under Butler’s command.
In broad strokes, Grant ordered Butler 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. Only about fifteen miles to the northwest, the Confederate capital seemed to be Butler’s for the taking.
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 transferred to Major General George E. Pickett, whose reputation had suffered considerably at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. To his credit, Pickett acquitted himself well during Beauregard’s absence and throughout the campaign. Much like Pickett, when Beauregard returned to action, the Bermuda Hundred Campaign proved to be his finest hour leading Confederate troops in the field.
Although the Rebels could muster only about 18,000 troops—many of whom were local militiamen and “soldiers” from the Richmond garrison who were too old to fight or too young to be drafted into the Confederate Army—Butler’s indecisiveness enabled Beauregard to stall the Union offensive and foil Grant’s.
Battle of Port Walthall Junction (May 6–7, 1864)
Instead of immediately striking toward Richmond after his army disembarked 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 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. Round one of the Bermuda Hundred Campaign, the Battle of Port Walthall Junction (May 6–7), went to the Union, but Butler’s army was no closer to Richmond.
Battle of Swift Creek (May 9, 1864)
On May 9, 1864, Butler deployed a large task force comprising five brigades from the 18th Corps and two brigades from the 10th Corps to confront the Rebels at Swift Run Creek. Perhaps overestimating the strength of the Confederate 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. What followed instead was 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 (May 10, 1864)
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 mission that resulted in another inconclusive minor engagement known as the Battle of Chester Station. Growing increasingly impatient with his lack of progress, Butler issued orders for a concentrated move toward Richmond to begin in two days.
Battle of Proctor’s Creek (also known as the Second Battle of Drewry’s Bluff and the Battle of Fort Darling) (May 12–16, 1864)
On May 12, 1864, six days after landing at Bermuda Hundred, Butler finally began his movement toward the Confederate capital. After deploying his cavalry on a raid to destroy railroads, Butler left two divisions behind and led about 15,000 foot-soldiers out of his defensive works. His initial objective was Fort Darling, on Drewry’s Bluff overlooking the James River, about five miles below Richmond. Butler’s assault on the stronghold began well as the Federals drove the Rebel defenders away from their outer defenses the next morning. Nonetheless, when naval gunboats could not support the offensive because the river was too shallow, Butler hesitated. On May 14, he established another defensive line with Smith’s 10th Corps on the left and Gillmore’s 18th Corps on the right.
In the meantime, Beauregard arrived at Fort Darling 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.
At 4:45 A.M. that morning, Major General Robert Ransom’s four brigades slammed into Smith’s left flank, capturing over 500 startled Yankees. Soon thereafter, Rebel forces led by Major General Robert F. Hoke charged Gillmore’s lines on the Union right. Gillmore halted the Confederate assault with a spirited counterattack, but around 10 a.m. Butler ordered his forces to withdraw toward his original defensive lines at Bermuda Hundred. Beauregard’s victory at the Battle of Proctor’s Creek was the turning point in the Bermuda Hundred Campaign.
Battle of Ware Bottom Church (May 20, 1864)
Following his victory at Drewry’s Bluff, Beauregard emerged as the stalker and Butler became the prey. On May 20, 1864, Beauregard launched an attack against the Union lines near Ware Bottom Church. The assault forced Butler’s pickets to quit their advance rifle pits. After a futile Union counterattack, the Yankees abandoned their forward positions.
Beauregard followed up by constructing a series of strong defensive works roughly parallel to Butler’s line stretching across the peninsula from the James River to the Appomattox River. Known as the Howlett Line, the Confederate bulwarks virtually trapped the Army of the James on the tip of the peninsula. As 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.”
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 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.
Aftermath of the Bermuda Hundred Campaign
The Bermuda Hundred Campaign was nearly a complete failure. Butler’s cavalry inflicted some minor damage to railways and other infrastructure in the area. Still, Butler’s indecision and a lack of cooperation between Butler, Smith, and Gillmore prevented the Army of the James from threatening the Confederate capital as initially envisioned. Had the Union leaders focused on Richmond or Petersburg, instead of vacillating between the two, they likely could have seized either. Instead, the Yankees threatened neither, despite their vast numerical advantage.
The campaign also failed to achieve Grant’s aim of weakening the Army of Virginia by forcing Robert E. Lee to divert troops to his southern flank. Instead, the campaign created the opposite result. Butler’s indecisiveness early in the campaign accorded Beauregard valuable time to bolster his meager forces on the peninsula without drawing soldiers away from Lee. After bottling up thousands of Union soldiers, Beauregard eventually re-deployed troops to the defenses around Petersburg, thereby prolonging the war.