Battles: First Deep Bottom

On Saturday, the 23rd of July, Kershaw’s Division and the 13th Regiment were called out of the Petersburg trenches by General Lee.

They left at 6:30 a.m., according to the First Corps Diary in the Official Records, and may have marched north, across the pontoon bridge spanning the James River at Chaffin’s Bluff, or taken the train to Richmond and marched east on the New Market Road.

Lee had offered them the train but the available record isn’t clear about what they chose to do. They probably did ride somewhere close to Chaffin’s Bluff, though, because the diary says that was their immediate destination and they were in a hurry to help Lee contain what appeared to be a developing Union attack on Richmond.

They didn’t know they were playing into a Union feint to weaken the Petersburg lines for an attack near their old trenches at the Elliot Salient which would become known as the Union disaster of the Battle of the Crater.

Kershaw’s ultimate destination was northeast of Chaffin’s Bluff, in the vicinity of the 13th’s old battlegrounds during the Seven Days battles of 1862—terrain along and northeast of the New Market Road near Glendale. Kershaw had been ordered to drive the Union force there back to the James River and, if possible, destroy their pontoon bridges.

“I expect to employ all my troops in these operations,” Kershaw wrote Gen. R.S. Ewell, who was commanding the Confederate lines east of Richmond, on Sunday evening, July 24.

They would be fighting the mainly New York, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts troops of Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock’s  Second Corps which had advanced across a pontoon bridge from Deep Bottom, a horseshoe bend of the James River. Hancock was aided by two divisions of Gen. Phillip Sheridan’s cavalry which Gen. Grant hoped might break through the Confederate defenses and ride north around Richmond.

“The plan, in the main,” Grant wrote in his post-war memoirs, “was to let the cavalry cut loose and, joining with Kautz’s cavalry of the Army of the James, get by Lee’s lines and destroy as much as they could of the Virginia Central Railroad, while, in the meantime, the infantry was to move out so as to protect their rear and cover their retreat back when they should have got through with their work.”

The fight opened on Wednesday, July 27, when infantry of the Second Corps moving north from the pontoon bridge overran Kershaw’s rifle pits along a hill overlooking the New Market Road.

They also captured four pieces of artillery, 20-pounder Parrott guns of the Rockbridge Artillery which had previously been captured from the Union at Winchester and Harper’s Ferry. Hancock finally took up position across Bailey’s Run, on Long Bridge Road where it met the Darbytown Road on the east and the New Market Road on the west. He decided he was up against a formidable Confederate force well dug-in.

“The troops having marched all night were fatigued,” Grant wrote army headquarters in Washington City that night, “and did not follow up their success as they otherwise would. Generals Sheridan and Kautz are now with Hancock, and the two together will try in the morning to push the enemy back into Richmond or south of the James River.”

“Hancock the Superb,” as the Northern newspapers called him, was a veteran of fighting Lee’s army—at Gettysburg, for instance— and historian Robert K. Krick has said that every time he confronted Lee, Hancock tended to fear Rebel flanking or encirclement. So, now, at what would become known as the First Battle of Deep Bottom, he preferred to cautiously reconnoiter the situation. His troops hunkered down for a while.

The next morning, Thursday, the 28th, Kershaw’s South Carolina, Georgia and Mississippi regiments, along with Connor’s, Lane’s and Wofford’s brigades, counterattacked.

“The first three,” according to the First Corps Diary, “become engaged near Whitlock’s and Darby’s house, capturing 1 piece of artillery and about 75 prisoners, but without gaining the Long Bridge road. Our loss is about 250 in killed, wounded, and missing.”

According to Grant the Rebels inflicted about 200 casualties on the Federals while losing about 200 men captured.

“We have failed in what I had hoped to accomplish,” Grant reported to Washington City that night, “that is, to surprise the enemy, and get on to their [rail]roads with the cavalry near to Richmond and destroy them out to South Anna. I am yet in hopes of turning this diversion to account, so as to yield greater results than if the first object had been accomplished.”

No record of the 13th Regiment’s employment in the fight remains or apparently has been subsequently reported. Nor are there any clear records of the number of wounded or captured.

Kershaw’s four brigades of infantry, numbering something less than 5,000 men in all (his 21 regiments thus being about the size of five early-war ones), seem to have been mainly preoccupied with Sheridan’s 6,000 cavalrymen.

Krick says the Union troopers delighted in shooting at the Rebel infantrymen with their repeating seven-shot Spencer carbines when the infantrymen were advancing in the open with their single-shot rifled muskets, but the horse soldiers  didn’t advance very far to take them on when they returned to their rifle pits. So Sheridan’s goal was unmet and the fight was soon over.

The Rebels waited until afternoon on July 29 to do more. “Kershaw and Conner,” according to the First Corps Diary, “moved down to Darby’s to occupy with skirmishers the junction of the Long Bridge and Darbytown roads.”

Meanwhile, Grant wrote in his memoirs, “Hancock and Sheridan were brought back near the James River with their troops. Under cover of night they started to recross the bridge at Deep Bottom, and to march directly for that part of our lines in front of…” the Battle of the Crater on July 30. 

Kerhsaw’s Division did not return to Petersburg. “In the evening [of July 30] Kershaw recrosses [the James] to the south side by Chaffin’s Bluff to halt for the night near the Clay house,” the First Corps Diary records.

Later in the evening, or on the next day, the record is unclear, the division went into camp near Chester Station on the Telegraph Road, along the rail lines connecting Richmond and Petersburg. Lee would soon have other work for them to do.

UPDATE: The TOCWOC blog, which links to this post, concludes: “The Confederates, with the time allotted them by Hancock’s move away, used terrain and defensive works that allowed a handful of undermanned brigades to stop a much more powerful force. The Union cavalry was able to use their rapid fire weapons to create a volume of fire that allowed them to defeat a foe that had traditionally scoffed at them. The concept of force multipliers is still a major factor in American military planning.”

About Dick Stanley

Retired Texas daily newspaperman
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4 Responses to Battles: First Deep Bottom

  1. Gary Donald says:

    My Great-Great-Great Grandfather was Major George Lavelle Donald of the 13th Mississippi.

  2. Pingback: The First Battle of Deep Bottom: July 27-29 by Dan O’Connell — The Siege of Petersburg Online

  3. Pingback: First Battle of Deep Bottom – Conclusion — TOCWOC - A Civil War Blog

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