Second Deep Bottom August 13-20, 1864

In early August Grant learned from sources --- incorrectly, as it turned out --- that Lee had sent substantial reinforcements to the Shenandoah Valley. Deciding to take advantage of this, as well as force their recall, Grant ordered Meade to have Hancock, this time reinforced by troops from the Army of the James, make another stab at the Richmond end of the lines. In an effort to deceive the Confederates, Hancock's men were loaded on steamers at City Point on August 13, and the fleet sailed eastward, as though the men were being sent to Washington. During the night the fleet reversed course and landed the men at Deep Bottom, the site of Hancock's July foray. Joining the II Corps veterans here was X Corps, commanded now by David Bell Birney, a former II Corps division commander. (Curiously enough, Birney was born in Huntsville, Alabama; sadly, he would be dead within a few weeks from a virulent strain of malaria.)

The geography of the area just inland from the landing would play an important part in the action and so is worth a description. Deep Bottom is formed, in part, by the mouth of Bailey's Creek, which flows southward into the James. A mill pond on the stream existed about two miles inland, creating an essentially impassible water barrier. The Rebel lines in this area were L-shaped, with the north-south leg parallel to Bailey's Run and the east-west leg along a small ridge known as New Market Heights, looking down on the Deep Bottom bridgehead. The Yankees had two bridges over the James River at this point: the Upper Bridge, which crossed west of the mouth of Bailey's Creek, and the Lower Bridge, which crossed east of the mouth of Bailey's Creek. A second creek, Four Mile Creek, flowed into Bailey's Creek from the west about one mile in from James River. By using the Lower Bridge, the Federals had easier access to the major hard-surfaced roads leading into Richmond, but they would have to force a crossing of Bailey's Creek to advance. By using the Upper Bridge they would avoid having to fight across the creek, but would instead have to fight their way across Four Mile Creek and up New Market Heights in order gain access to good roads.

The plan called for Hancock's force to disembark from the steamers early on the morning of August 14 and then join with Birney's X Corps column to launch simultaneous attacks on each side of Four Mile Creek and Bailey's Creek. However, in an oversight typical of Army of the Potomac operations, no one had ascertained if the wharf facilities at Deep Bottom could accomodate the steamers carrying Hancock's force. The result was that Hancock's men were not completely disembarked until mid-morning. This delay had two effects: it allowed the Confederates to respond, somewhat, to the developing threat; and it forced the troops to march through what turned out to be one of the hottest days of the summer.

Birney's orders were to cross the Upper Bridge and attack Rebel positions just opposite Deep Bottom itself, along New Market Heights. The main body, II Corps plus Gregg's Cavalry Division, would advance inland from the wharves on the east side of Bailey's Creek. Mott's division of II Corps would attack along the New Market Road, and Barlow, having command of the other two II Corps divisions (John Gibbon being on sick leave) would attack on the right flank at Fussell's Mill, just north of the mill pond. If Federal information was correct, that this front had been weakened to send troops to Early, at least one of these attacks should be able to break through. If a breakthrough could be exploited it would threaten the Chaffin's Bluff position, possibly opening up the water route to Richmond. As had been the case in July, Federal cavalry would attempt to get free on the right to destroy the Virginia Central Railroad.

However, Grant's information was in error and the Rebels were present in greater strength than supposed, although one of the Rebel divisions (under Charles Field) was in fact slated to be sent north, and the appearance of the Yankees did cause the recall of some of the troops that had left. In any event, Federal efforts on the 14th were completely stymied, except for some modest gains (including the capture of some heavy siege artillery) made by Birney against token opposition. The attacks of II Corps, scheduled to occur at daybreak in the original orders, were in fact not begun until early afternoon. In the center, Mott's division pressed up against the Rebel lines behind Bailey's Creek, but on the right flank, Barlow fumbled his opportunity. Under orders to attack in force along the Darbytown Road, where he faced only token opposition, he instead deployed his two divisions so to connect with Mott on his left, nearly two miles away, thus he had only a single brigade with which to make his attack on the Rebel flank.

This first day of the operation revealed what was to be a recurring problem throughout the operation for the Federals: The severe heat caused many men to fall out of the ranks from heat exhaustion. One estimate suggests that as many as 3,000 men from Birney's 9,000 man X Corps force, and 35% of Barlow's division, were lost to this cause. Regardless of the exact numbers, nearly every report from the Federal side speaks to heavy straggling from the heat.

On the 15th Hancock, acting on Grant's advice, wanted to swing X Corps around from the left flank to the right flank in order to attack at Fussell's Mill, but Birney delayed matters by insisting that the division commanded by his brother lead the march. This put the troops on the move during the hottest part of the day, with the result that Terry's division more or less disintegrated due to straggling from the heat. Then Confederate reinforcements, in the form of Maj. Gen. W.H.F. Lee's cavalry division, attacked and drove back the Federal cavalry to the right of Birney's column, causing some distraction and confusion and further attendant delay. The attack was postponed until the 16th.

Meanwhile, other Confederate reinforcements reached the area. Initially, Maj. Gen. Charles Field's division, plus two brigades from Maj. Gen. Cadmus Wilcox's division, supported by a single cavalry brigade, had been the only Confederate troops in the area. On the 14th, Lee ordered two brigades of Mahone's division north of the James, along with his son Rooney's cavalry division. He also ordered the return of Maj. Gen. M.C. Butler's cavalry division, recently detached to the Shenandoah Valley. On the morning of the 16th, the entire Federal expedition was arrayed east of Bailey's Creek, with Mott on the left near the New Market Road, then Smyth's division (2/II, normally commanded by the capable John Gibbon), then Birney's X Corps at the arbytown Road, then Barlow's division, then Gregg's cavalry along Charles City Road (click here for a map of the road network north of the James).

Hancock wanted to launch two simultaneous attacks at dawn of the 16th: Birney would attack along the Darbytown Road, at Fussell's Mill, and Gregg's cavalry, supported by some of Barlow's infantry, would attack along the Charles City Road. If this had been done it is probable that the thin Confederate lines would have been broken.

Gregg's attack went forward at about 6:00 a.m., the delay being due to the tardy arrival of Barlow's supporting brigade under Nelson Miles. At first the Yankee horsemen were successful, driving back the Confederate cavalry under Brig. Gen. John Chambliss, who was killed. By noon the Federals had penetrated well into Field's rear. "Rooney" Lee launched a counterattack with the rest of his division at 1:00 p.m. which drove Gregg back and stabilized the situation. Then, with Miles's supporting infantry sent away to assist Birney's attack (see below), Lee attacked again at 4:00 p.m. and was able to drive Gregg back in some confusion into White Oak Swamp. Although Birney's troops had arrived in the vicinity of Fussell's Mill on the previous evening, apparently nothing had been done to develop the Confederate line. Thus, when the Federals pressed forward on the morning of the 16th, they found it impossible to attack at the designated point, due largely to the presence of a mill pond. Substantial time was lost as Terry's division (1/X) shifted northward. The result of all this confusion was that Terry did not launch his attack until nearly noon, almost seven hours later than plannned.

The target of Terry's initial attack was a small brigade of 825 Georgians commanded by French-born Brig. Gen. Victor Jean Baptiste Girardey. Spread thin, and without supporting troops to call upon for help, the Confederates gave way in some confusion. Girardey attempted to rally his men by waving one of the regimental colors, but all this did was attract the attention of an Ohio skirmisher, who shot him dead.

Fortunately for the Confederates, Terry was unable to exploit his breakthrough, and in fact, worried by the report of a captured enemy staff officer that 15,000 reinforcements were on their way to repair the breach, he began to plead for reinforcements. Counter-attacks by Alabamians of Law's brigade and DuBose's Georgians were able to seal the breach and drive the Federals out.

There is a humorous, if little-known, anecdote coming out of this fight. The Confederate commander in the area was Charles Field; during the fight one of his aides ran up to him, greatly excited. "They're breaking, General, they're breaking!" Field, being a good and confidant Southern soldier, replied, "Well, I knew they would." To which the aide replied: "No, general, not the Yankees! It's our men who have broken!" For the next several days the situation north of the James would be very quiet. Hancock's directions were to remain in place and in as threatening a posture as possible. On the 18th, Lee tried to marshall one effort to eliminate the Federal presence in front of Richmond but the attack was late and made without much spirit and the Yankees easily repulsed it. On August 20th Hancock was withdrawn to the Petersburg lines. The effort north of the James had cost the Federals 2,900 men, roughly. Rebel losses are unknown, but several sources suggest 1,000 as an estimate, which this author thinks is low.

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