Prelude to the Battle
Grant in Charge
On March 10, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Ulysses S. Grant as General-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States. Grant brought with him, from his successes in the Western Theater of the war, a reputation for the doggedness that Lincoln was seeking in his generals. Unlike other Union generals, Grant was tenacious.
Grant Focuses on Lee
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. Unlike previous campaigns into that area, Grant’s plan focused upon defeating General Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia rather than capturing or occupying geographic locations. Grant instructed Major General George G. Meade, who commanded the Army of the Potomac, “Wherever Lee goes, there you will go also.” Grant realized that, with the superior resources he had at his disposal, Lee would lose a war of attrition, as long as Northern troops persistently engaged the Confederates.
On May 4, 1864, Grant launched his Overland Campaign when the Army of the Potomac crossed the Rappahannock and Rapidan Rivers, occupying an area locally known as the Wilderness. For the next eight weeks, the two sides engaged in a series of horrific battles that produced unprecedented numbers of casualties. Following a bloody frontal assault at Cold Harbor that cost the Federals roughly 13,000 casualties, Grant abandoned his hope to defeat Lee’s army head-on. Instead, Grant aimed to isolate the Army of Northern Virginia at Richmond and slowly starve it into submission by cutting off its supply lines. The key to the plan was capturing Petersburg, Virginia.
Petersburg, Virginia, sits on the south bank of the Appomattox River, approximately twenty miles south of Richmond. During the Civil War, the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad was an important conduit for supplies to the Confederate capital. Besides the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad, two other rail lines converged at Petersburg. The Weldon Railroad (also called the Petersburg and Weldon Railroad) connected Petersburg to the Confederacy’s last linkage to overseas markets at Wilmington, North Carolina. Farther to the west, the South Side Railroad joined Petersburg to Lynchburg, Virginia, and points westward. If Grant could cut the rail lines, it would force Lee to abandon Richmond.
Federals Cross the James River at Deep Bottom
After six weeks of engagements in the Richmond-Petersburg area, Grant ordered the 2nd Corps of the Army of the Potomac, along with two divisions of Major General Philip Sheridan’s cavalry, under the overall command of Major General Winfield Scott Hancock, to cross to the north side of James River on the night of July 26–27, 1864. The site of their crossing was a horseshoe-shaped bend in the river, southeast of Richmond and northeast of Petersburg, known locally as Deep Bottom. Their primary objective was to draw Confederate troops away from Petersburg to prepare for an impending assault on the city scheduled for July 30.
Grant ordered Hancock to occupy Confederate defenders at Chaffin’s Bluff, while Sheridan’s cavalry attacked Richmond. If Sheridan could not reach the Confederate capital, he was to ride around the city to the north and to the west to cut the Virginia Central Railroad, which brought supplies into Richmond from the fertile Shenandoah Valley.
The Bluecoats began their crossing at 3 a.m. on July 27. The 2nd Corps quickly broke through the initial line of Confederate rifle pits and advanced to the east bank of Bailey’s Creek. Seeing the well-fortified Rebels on the opposite bank, Hancock did not push forward.
Meanwhile, Sheridan’s cavalry rode to the high ground on the Union right. After some initial federal gains, Rebel infantry counterattacked and drove the Yankees back. Lee reacted to the federal diversion just as Grant had hoped. He dispatched 16,500 soldiers to reinforce Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s 2nd Corps, which was guarding Richmond.
The next day, Sheridan attempted to turn the Confederate left, but a Rebel attack pinned down his forces. After a Union counterattack drove the Greycoats back to their fortifications, Sheridan abandoned plans to cut the railroad. Satisfied that the mission had accomplished its primary objective, Grant ordered a withdrawal. The last of the invasion force re-crossed the James River during the night of July 29.
Aftermath of the Battle
Union casualties at the First Battle of Deep Bottom were 488 (62 killed, 340 wounded, 86 missing/captured). The Confederacy suffered 679 losses (8 killed, 391 wounded, 208 missing/captured). Tactically, the engagement was a Confederate victory, because the Rebel defenders forced Hancock and Sheridan to withdraw without threatening Richmond. Strategically, however, Grant achieved his intention of forcing Lee to send large numbers of reinforcements to the Confederate capital.