Prelude to the Battle
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 about 13,000 casualties, Grant abandoned his hope to defeat Lee’s army head-on. Instead, Grant chose 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. By early June 1864, Grant’s forces were digging in around the east side of Petersburg.
Petersburg, Virginia, sits on the south bank of the Appomattox River, roughly twenty miles below Richmond. During the Civil War, the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad, which connected the two cities, served as a vital conduit for supplies for 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 west. If Grant could cut these rail lines, he could force the Confederate government to abandon Richmond.
At the same time that Grant was threatening Richmond and Petersburg, Lieutenant General Jubal Early launched a Confederate offensive in the Shenandoah Valley, known as Early’s Valley Campaign, that eventually imperiled Washington, DC. Without opposition, Early’s 14,000 soldiers marched north through the valley, past the Federal garrison at Harpers Ferry, and crossed the Potomac River into Maryland at Shepherdstown on July 5 and 6.
In early August, Grant placed Major General Philip Sheridan in charge of the newly created Army of the Shenandoah and sent him to the Shenandoah Valley to deal with Early. Robert E. Lee responded by sending an infantry and cavalry division north to Culpeper, Virginia, where they could aid Early but still return quickly to Richmond or Petersburg if needed.
Grant Tries a Second Advance on Richmond at Deep Bottom
Lee’s deployment of troops to Culpeper prompted Grant to try a second advance on Richmond at Deep Bottom in mid-August. Grant had several good reasons for launching the new offensive:
- Although not likely, the Federal assault might accomplish a breakthrough at Richmond.
- An advance against Richmond would discourage Lee from using the troops at Culpeper to reinforce Early.
- A demonstration against Richmond might force Lee to send more troops away from Petersburg, where Grant was preparing an assault against the Weldon Railroad.
Federals Cross the James River at Deep Bottom
During the night of August 13–14, Major General Winfield Scott Hancock led the Union 2nd Corps, 10th Corps, and Brigadier-General David M. Gregg’s cavalry division across the James River at Deep Bottom. Upon completing the crossing, Hancock established his assault line with the 10th Corps on the left, the 3rd Division of the 2nd Corps in the center, and the 1st and 2nd Divisions of the 2nd Corps, on the right.
Hancock’s plan charged the 10th Corps with demonstrating against New Market Heights, while the 2nd Corps attempted to turn the Confederate left at Fussell’s Mill on the Darbytown Road. Hancock ordered Gregg’s cavalry to cover the Federal right flank and to look for an opportunity to enter Richmond.
Blistering heat that caused the debilitation and death of many soldiers slowed the Union’s advance. The delay enabled the Confederates to reinforce the area around Fussell’s Mill. By the time that the Yankees attacked along the Darbytown Road in the afternoon, the reinforced Rebels repulsed their advances.
Confederates Give and Regain Ground
On August 15, Hancock increased his troop strength around Fussell’s Mill by shifting the 10th Corps to the Union right. On August 16, he renewed his assault against the Confederate line above Fussell’s Mill. An initial charge by 5,000 Bluecoats commanded by Brigadier-General Alfred Terry forced the Rebels to abandon their trenches. Later in the afternoon, Confederate Major General Charles W. Field led a furious counterattack that recovered the lost entrenchments.
Meanwhile, Gregg’s horsemen encountered Major General William Henry Fitzhugh “Rooney” Lee’s cavalry division as the Northerners attempted to flank the Confederate defenders to sweep into Richmond. After a hard-fought cavalry engagement, the Rebels repulsed the Yankee horsemen. Union soldiers killed Confederate Brigadier General John R. Chambliss while he led his men during the engagement.
On August 17, 1864, the officers in charge agreed to a truce to enable both sides to retrieve their dead and wounded.
Ineffective Confederate Cavalry Attack
The next day, Lee ordered a general counterattack against Gregg’s cavalry and the Federal infantry near Fussell’s Mill. The poorly organized assault developed slowly and accomplished little.
During the night, Hancock began withdrawing Federal troops to support Grant’s offensive against the Weldon Railroad south of Petersburg. By August 20, all the Union invasion forces had withdrawn.
Aftermath of the Battle
The Second Battle of Deep Bottom resulted in a Confederate victory.
The Union suffered nearly 3,000 casualties at the Second Battle of Deep Bottom (327 killed, 1,851 wounded, and 721 missing, or captured) compared to Confederate losses of approximately 1,500 soldiers (two hundred killed, nine hundred wounded, and four hundred missing/captured). Heatstroke caused some fatalities.
As with the First Battle of Deep Bottom, the second conflict failed to pose a threat to Richmond. Still, the encounter accomplished Grant’s objectives of preventing Lee from reinforcing Early’s army in the Shenandoah Valley and of drawing Rebel troops away from Petersburg as the Union forces prepared to move against the Weldon Railroad.