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Bermuda Hundred

photos: Library of Congress

April 1864 to June 1864 On March 12, 1864, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant succeeded Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck as general in chief of the Armies of the United States. As March drew to a close, Grant decided to visit the Hampton Roads headquarters of the Department of Virginia and North Carolina to arrange an offensive campaign on Richmond. Gen. Benjamin Butler would command this expedition, and his Army of the James would number more than 40,000 men.

On April 1, Gen. Grant and his party arrived at Fort Monroe, and the Bermuda Hundred campaign was planned. Grant sought Butler's ideas for a spring advance upon Richmond from the south. He pointed out that the city's fortifications were less formidable to the south and noted that the Bermuda Hundred peninsula offered an excellent base of operation. Butler further suggested that City Point, a village located at the junction of the James and Appomattox Rivers across from Bermuda Hundred, be used as a supply point. Butler also recommended that Grant bring the Army of the Potomac to Bermuda Hundred and make this area his base of operation for an all out assault on Richmond. Grant replied that such course of action would be rejected by authorities in Washington who feared that the Capital would be exposed to Confederate attack. Grant then decided that since the Army of the Potomac could not leave Washington unprotected, Butler's force, supported by the navy, would seize Bermuda Hundred and then move to Richmond.

Impressed by Gen. Butler's efficiency, Grant proceeded to formulate goals for the Army of the James. Butler's first duty after arriving in the Bermuda Hundred-City Point area would be to fortify a base that would be safe from attack. After this, Butler's troops would take the offensive, capture Petersburg and move on Richmond. A secondary objective would involve breaking rail communications between the two cities. At the same time, Grant's Army of the Potomac would drive Gen. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia south toward Richmond. It was planned that 10 days from opening the final phase of the campaign, Gen. Grant's force would be on the outskirts of Richmond.

During the last week of April, Confederate commanders in the Richmond area began receiving information on the consolidation and buildup of troops in the Hampton Roads and Fort Monroe area. The Confederates realized that Richmond would be threatened. In order to prepare defenses south of Richmond, various units were called from South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia to defend the city.

After embarking from Fort Monroe and Newport News, the federal fleet steamed up the James and landed troops at City Point on May 5. At the same time, Butler's main force disembarked at Bermuda Hundred. On May 6, the Army of the James headed west, advancing across the Bermuda Hundred peninsula. At 8:30 a.m., Gen. William F. Smith's vanguard reached a high plateau overlooking a great bend in the Appomattox River. This point is known as Point of Rocks. Because of its commanding position, Point of Rocks and adjoining Cobb's Hill had been the site of a Confederate signal station. It was soon occupied by signalmen in blue. Butler selected this position to anchor his defense line, and Union engineers began staking out locations for fortifications from this point north to the James River. Around noon of the same day, the heavy work of constructing a defensive line across Bermuda Hundred began.

Advancing from Point of Rocks, following a road wandering through a ravine and past a mill, the Union Army finally emerged on the south side of Ashton Creek. From this point, they advanced west toward the railroad that ran north and south between Richmond and Petersburg. The first battle of Port Walthall Junction was imminent. Confederate forces under Col. Robert Graham, who had assumed overall command of the Port Walthall area, were in position and confronted Gen. Charles A. Hickman's contingent of the Army of the James. Fighting commenced at about 5 p.m. on May 6 and continued until dark. Repulsed, the Union troops fell back to their defenses at Point of Rocks.

On May 7, the second battle of Port Walthall Junction began with Union troops advancing down the Old Stage Road, (now Wood's Edge Road) from Cobb's Hill. Confederate forces held off Union assaults until the subsided that evening. During the battle, Union troops had advanced far enough west to start destroying the railroad line supplying Richmond. Greatly outnumbered, Confederate forces fell back to the south side of Swift Creek and dug in to await the next attack.

On May 8, the Union troops began their advance toward Petersburg and continued tearing up railroad tracks around Walthall Junction and the vicinity of Chester. After deploying troops on the north side of Swift Creek, the Union forces halted their advance. The Confederate position on the south side of the creek was perceived to be highly defended, and Butler did not want to risk a reckless assault.

On May 9, Gen. Johnson Hagood and his South Carolina troops counterattacked. Upon meeting stiff opposition, the Confederates retreated across the bridge at Swift Creek Mill.

On May 9, a Union force also moved northwest toward Chester Station. Their goal was to occupy the station and destroy as much of the rail as possible. Advancing slowly, they stopped two miles east of their objective along the Richmond Petersburg Turnpike. On May 10, at about 5:15 a.m., the Confederates advanced towards the Union forces east and north of Chester Station. Their purpose was to drive the Union troops back to their Bermuda Hundred positions. The brunt of this Confederate attack hit the 13th Indiana and 67th Ohio just west of the Winfree house on West Hundred positions. The Union position was saved by the 1st Connecticut light battery, which was reinforced just as the gunners were running out of ammunition. After an all-day battle, Union forces were further reinforced by troops from Swift Creek. The Confederates disengaged and withdrew to a defendable position just north of the Union line.

May 11, a day of rest for both sides, also was a day of preparation for renewal of the Union offensive that would begin the following morning. On May 12, the Army of the James began a major thrust toward the Confederate capital. They advanced northward along the Richmond Petersburg Turnpike toward the city. After difficult going, the Union troops reached a high ridge overlooking Proctor's Creek. Across the creek, Confederate forces were entrenched and prepared for action. Union forward units, not strong enough to engage the enemy, awaited the rest of the army before closing.

On May 13, the Union troops slowly crossed Proctor's Creek. This took most of the day. At the same time, a Union force also advanced west toward Chesterfield Courthouse and turned east behind the Confederate line at Woolridge Hill. After some heavy fighting, the Union troops occupied the Woolridge Hill position. They had turned the flank of the Confederate line. However, word of this success reached Gen. Butler too late to press the attack that evening.

On May 14, the Union Army at Proctor's Creek sent skirmishers to probe the fortifications that earlier appeared so formidable. Finding these defenses abandoned, they advanced, but ran into a second Confederate line that was heavily defended. The Union contingent that had occupied Woolridge Hill advanced and established their position directly west and in support of the forces moving north along the pike at Proctor's Creek.

On May 15, the Union Army made plans for an all-out assault on the Confederate positions just to their north. The Confederates, however, had also planned a counterattack for May 16. During this time, there was constant, heavy fighting along the line.

On May 16, at 4:45 a.m., the Confederate counterattack was aimed from the left side of their line and pivoted around Fort Stevens. This drive was designed to push Union forces away from their prepared base at Bermuda Hundred and to separate the Army of the James from its naval support. Although the counterattack was not a complete success, it did force Butler to retreat back into his prepared position at Bermuda Hundred.

On May 17, Confederate forces pressed their advantage and moved east in front of Butler's defensive line. The Confederates began to entrench from the James River on the north to the Appomattox River on the south. A heavy gun emplacement was begun at the Howlett House and later became known as Battery Dantzler, named after Col. O.M. Dantzler of the 22nd South Carolina who was killed in fighting near this point. This battery was instrumental in keeping the Union Navy at bay.

On May 21, the Confederate forces facing the Army of the James completed occupation of their new line, which was roughly three miles long. The line became known as Howlett Line defenses. This position was occupied and defended from the middle of May until the end of the war in April 1865. The defense not only kept the Army of the James "bottled up" but protected rail lines between Richmond and Petersburg, thereby extending the war for almost another full year.

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