Part four in a series.
In my last post we examined the first large-scale fighting of the First Battle of Deep Bottom – the clash at Tilghman’s Gate on July 27, 1864. When we left Hancock and Sheridan, they were hesitant to follow up the gains they had won when they pushed the Confederates out of their line along the New Market Road. Hancock spent the rest of the morning of the 27th reorienting his corps from facing north to facing west. The cavalry began to push up the Long Bridge Road, encamping near the Darby Farm.
|The Darby House|
As word of the day’s events trickled back to Lee’s headquarters, it was readily apparent that Kershaw needed to be heavily reinforced. Lee thus decided to send Maj. Gen. Henry Heth’s Third Corps division over to help Ewell and Kershaw’s beleaguered forces. Lee looked to First Corps chieftain Lt. Gen. Richard H. Anderson to take overall control of the operation, ordering him to “examine the enemy’s position, endeavor to ascertain his strength, and if practicable drive him away and destroy his bridges.”
When Anderson arrived at Chaffin’s Bluff, he reported that “it was decided to attack the enemy’s right at as early hour as was possible the following morning.” Thus, both sides settled down for the evening planning to go on the offensive the next day.
On the morning of the 28th, Anderson ordered a battle group of four brigades – Lane’s Brigade (under Colonel Robert V. Cowan), McGowan’s Brigade (under Lieutenant Colonel J.F. Hunt), Kershaw’s Brigade (under Colonel John Williford Henagan) and Wofford’s Brigade – to attack. Leading these four brigades into action was Brig. Gen. James Conner. Anderson’s objective in this assault was to turn Hancock’s right and push him back to Curle’s Neck, where he could be defeated in detail.
After leaving the safety of the Confederate earthworks at Fussell’s Mill, Conner’s battle group had to traverse nearly two hundred yards of dense woods before they would enter a cornfield that was split almost completely in twain by a finger of woods jutting out from the opposite tree line. Conner would be put to the test to see if he could keep his three brigades in good order as they advanced through such treacherous terrain.
|Map by Steve Stanley|
The first of these fights developed among the fragment consisting of Cowan and Hunt’s men that had inadvertently maneuvered itself into the field west of the finger of trees. Hunt’s men emerged in the cornfield of the Darby Farm, where Sheridan’s troopers had camped on the evening of the 27th, and discovered that they were facing off against the Union cavalry all by themselves.
Unperturbed, they pushed toward the Federals, loading and firing as they went. In the meantime, Cowan encountered not only a swamp that slowed him down, but also Federal skirmishers. After pushing the pesky horse soldiers back, Cowan’s men pushed out of the woods into the open clearing, where Hunt’s men were already engaged. Seeing that Hunt was out in front all by himself, Cowan passed down the order for his men to advance at the double quick.
Meanwhile, Col. Thomas C. Devin was ordered to file down to Merritt’s left, putting him squarely in position to deal with Cowan’s oncoming troops. When Cowan’s men were within 200 yards of the Darby Farm, the Yankees opened fire into their flank and rear, causing a panic. One Tarheel noted that Col. Cowan “don sum of his big Swaring” and ordered the men to fall back. The same soldier who noted this heated use of profanity engaged in some of his own when he summed up the fight as follows: “we had our asses whip[ped] off us if the truth was knone.”
There was plenty of whipping to be had in the upper field as well. Just as Conner’s attack force was emerging from its works, Federal cavalry was advancing up the Long Bridge Road. This was the vanguard of Gregg’s Division, which had been tasked with spearheading the long-awaited turning movement of Sheridan’s cavalry. Gregg’s force arrived just as the cracks from Merritt’s skirmishers began to fill the air with the sound of carbine fire.
The remainder of Hunt’s and all of Henagan’s Brigades, numbering around 1,700 men, emerged from the woods and quickly closed the distance between themselves and their blue coated counterparts. Gregg was fortunate to have the assistance of two cannon under Lt. William N. Dennison’s battery of the 2nd U.S. Artillery. As the Confederates advanced, Dennison’s pieces “knocked gaps through their exposed columns, which were almost instantly filled by closing up.”
But the Rebels on this part of the field put up a more stubborn fight and they surged forward, driving the Federals back. The horse artillery kept firing but was forced to retire after one gun was captured by an enterprising young South Carolinian. The loss of Dennison’s gun enabled the Yankee cavalrymen to withdraw without serious loss.
While Hunt and Henagan’s men were ecstatic over their hard-won victory over the Yankee artillery and cavalry, their revelry was cut short by the realization that their comrades in the lower field had not been as successful. One startled soldier was heard to exclaim, “My God, men look yonder. You may all be fools enough to stay here but I’ll not.” With the remainder of Gregg’s Division nearby and Kautz’s troopers beginning to arrive, the Confederates were forced to retreat.
|Map by Steve Stanley|
In the end, Conner had taken severe casualties with not much to show for it. In all, it is estimated that the Confederates suffered 377 casualties in this attack, while the Federals suffered approximately 200. This would be the last large scale combat of the First Deep Bottom Campaign.