Monday, January 12, 2015


[The Battle of First Deep Bottom by James S. Price (The History Press, 2014). Softcover, 3 maps, photos, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:129/156. ISBN:978-1-60949-541-1 $19.99]

After a long dry period, the recent upswing in Richmond-Petersburg campaign studies is fairly remarkable both in numbers and quality. A new addition to this impressive group is James Price's The Battle of First Deep Bottom which tells the tale of the northern wing of U.S. Grant's "Third Offensive." This operation north of the James River was led by Winfield Scott Hancock, his command consisting of three II Corps infantry divisions and three cavalry divisions (two from the Army of the Potomac and one from the Army of the James). The Union plan was to quickly cross the James River at a previously established bridgehead, the infantry immediately pressing directly toward Richmond while the cavalry swung north and west to strike the railroads leading into the capital. Though Richmond itself was not the express goal, it was hoped that the threat against the city would at the very least force Robert E. Lee to weaken his Petersburg front, where the main Union offensive effort would be made.

With the flawless establishment of a fortified bridgehead (with two pontoon crossings) opposite a sharp bend in the James River at Deep Bottom, the campaign got off to an auspicious start in late June. With few mobile formations north of the river, the Confederate response was initially weak. Lee would eventually dispatch the divisions of Henry Heth and Joseph Kershaw to Chaffin's Bluff and New Market Heights to contain and hopefully eliminate the Union strongpoint. Distrustful of Richard Ewell, he would also eventually place Richard Anderson in charge of the attack.

On the night of July 26, Hancock led his command across the river. During the next day, his advance defeated Martin Gary's small Confederate cavalry brigade and two of Kershaw's brigades near Tilghman's Gate. Instead of pressing forward with the aggression that Grant wished Hancock only consolidated his position. Meanwhile, the three cavalry divisions moved ahead with their part of the operation, utilizing the opening afforded them by the previous day's victory to ride around the the Confederate New Market Heights position using the Long Bridge Road. In the woods and fields on either side of the Darby Farm, they were struck by three Confederate brigades led by Anderson. In the short range fighting, Sheridan's troopers were able to use their breechloading carbines to good effect, driving the Confederate infantry back to their initial positions near Fussell's Mill. A rattled Hancock then went entirely on the defensive, his infantry and cavalry deployed in a defensive arc around Deep Bottom. Meanwhile, Anderson received massive reinforcements, the entire Army of Northern Virginia save three divisions left behind in the Petersburg trenches. Slipping across the river on the night of the 29th, the federals denied the Confederates the opportunity to try to bag Hancock and Sheridan.

As part of a book series designed to appeal to both serious students and more general interest Civil War readers, James Price's The Battle of First Deep Bottom strikes an ideal balance when it comes to small unit detail within a larger battle narrative. The author proves himself adept at simplifying complex events without the demanding reader feeling shortchanged in the bargain. How the topographical features of Deep Bottom's surrounding military landscape would affect both defensive and offensive operations are clearly explained in the text but they are also well rendered visually in the three maps created by master cartographer Steven Stanley. What's missing are maps expanding the front to offer a better sense of the big picture. Also, a discussion of the Richmond front's road network might have led the author to another reason for the failure of the Union operation. With the best roads emanating from Richmond itself and running lengthwise up and down the Peninsula (perpendicular to Sheridan's proposed movement), Confederate infantry could use interior lines to even greater advantage in negating the Union cavalry's superior mobility.

In author Price's estimation, both Union and Confederate commanders performed poorly at Deep Bottom. It would be difficult to disagree with him. Hancock possessed none of the confidence and dash demonstrated during his prime. Changing the initial plan and cautiously crossing both infantry and cavalry at the lower bridge, Hancock needlessly created a traffic jam and squandered the element of surprise. Price persuasively argues that the Hancock of July 1864 was not to be trusted with independent command. Declining to vigorously test the Confederate defenses in front with his infantry following the success at Tilghman's Gate, the Union commander made no serious attempt to achieve the operation's primary objectives. Serially seeking higher guidance at key stages, Hancock's passivity and delay demonstrated a complete lack of initiative while the weak substance of his unseemly public beratings of soon to be ex-friend John Gibbon cast further doubt on his judgment.

The situation was little better for the Confederates. The chain of command was a muddled, with Richmond Defenses head Richard Ewell nominally in charge of all units north of the James but field command of the force opposing Hancock assigned to a series of representatives from Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. Finally, Richard Anderson, the heavily experienced corps commander eventually tasked with attacking the Deep Bottom bridgehead, bungled the affair at Darby's Farm.

Unofficially, Grant must have been deeply disappointed in Hancock's handling of the Deep Bottom operation. However, with the Confederates leaving their Petersburg defenses dangerously thin to oppose it, the Union commander couldn't have asked for a better diversion to aid the main effort of his Third Offensive, the July 30 Crater battle that so famously and disastrously failed. In the overall history of the 1864-65 Richmond-Petersburg campaign, that is the legacy of First Deep Bottom and James Price's study is a very solid overview of this unfairly overshadowed series of events.

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