Monday, July 29, 2013

First Deep Bottom: July 27-29, 1864

Today marks the 149th anniversary of the conclusion of the inglorious sortie that has come down to history as the campaign and battle of First Deep Bottom.

The First Battle of Deep Bottom – also on occasion referred to as the Battle of Darbytown, Strawberry Plains, Tilghman’s Gate, New Market Road ,Gravel Hill, and even Malvern  Hill (the latter causing a great deal of confusion) – has been relegated to the status of a historical footnote. One would think that an expedition to threaten the Confederate capital led by such Union luminaries as Winfield Scott Hancock and Philip H. Sheridan would have garnered a substantial amount of attention by Civil War scholars, but this has not been the case.

First Deep Bottom was part of Grant’s Third Offensive of the Richmond-Petersburg Campaign, which culminated in the horrific Battle of the Crater. In addition to the more famous mine assault, Grant also planned to send an expedition to the north side of the James River. Hancock’s II Corps, along with two divisions of Sheridan’s cavalry and one division of Kautz’s Army of the James cavalry would cross the James River at Deep Bottom and threaten Richmond.

Union Pontoon Bridge at Deep Bottom
The cavalry was to ride hard and fast to destroy the Virginia Central Railroad as far as the North Anna River. The blue cavaliers were then to ride down to Richmond and attempt to carry the city in a joint effort with the II Corps. If the raid was successful in destroying the railroad and taking Richmond, Grant intended to call off the mine attack.

Over the night of July 26-27, the II Corps crossed the James on a pontoon bridge at Deep Bottom and advanced east of the bridgehead there into an area called Strawberry Plains. The expedition started well on the 27th, with Union forces capturing four 20 pounder Parrott rifles of Graham’s Virginia Battery and forcing the Confederates to pull back to the New Market Line. 

The Capture of Graham's Battery
Unfortunately, this brief success is what caused the rest of the campaign to unravel. The new line occupied by the Confederates was too strong to attack head on and, in Hancock’s mind at least, there were not enough men to flank the position. Hancock decided to pull the plug on Sheridan’s raid and kept his horsemen with the main infantry column. In a revealing note to Grant, Hancock said he wanted to be as “cautious as possible to avoid any bad luck” – a clear indication that the devastating casualties inflicted upon the II Corps since the start of the Overland Campaign were preeminent in Hancock’s decision-making.

While Hancock gave up the initiative (and thus any real chance of obtaining any of Grant’s offensive goals) his mere presence was enough to worry Lee into sending Richard H. Anderson with four divisions (2 infantry, 2 cavalry) north of the James.

The next day, these Confederate reinforcements plowed into Sheridan’s horsemen at 10:00 a.m. After a fierce clash near the Enroughty Farm (recently preserved by the Richmond Battlefields Association and the Civil War Trust), the rebels were driven back. In this fight, Pvt. Timothy O’Connor of Co. E, 1st U.S. Cavalry was awarded the Medal of Honor for capturing the regimental colors of the 18th North Carolina Infantry. Although the Yankee soldiers had prevailed, Hancock was undeterred from maintaining his defensive posture. 

By the morning of July 29th Hancock had already sent one division back to Petersburg and decided to hunker down and use the rest of his force as bait in the hopes that Lee would shuffle even more troops north of the James. In this, he was successful. Edward Porter Alexander noted that “nearly six Confederate divisions” had been shifted to the north side of the James by the time the mine exploded, affording the IX Corps a real chance to achieve a decisive breakthrough. Hancock’s men had abandoned their positions near Deep Bottom and were already in front of Petersburg by the morning of July 30th, when the explosion was triggered.

The ensuing Battle of the Crater ensured that First Deep Bottom would languish in relative obscurity for many years. However, in recent decades, renowned historian and researcher Bryce A. Suderow has been compiling a massive amount of data on the battle, some of which was published in his 1997 article “Glory Denied: The First Battle of Deep Bottom July 27th - 29th 1864” which remains the standard account of the battle after 16 years.

In addition to the great work already done by Suderow, I am in the process of writing The First Battle of Deep Bottom: Grant vs. Lee North of the James, 1864 which will be released by The History Press just in time for the 150th anniversary of the battle.  

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