Battle of Port Walthall Junction
In conjunction with the opening of Grant’s Overland Campaign, Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler’s Army of the James, 33,000 strong, disembarked from transports at Bermuda Hundred on May 5, threatening the Richmond-Petersburg Railroad. On May 6, Hagood’s brigade stopped initial Federal probes at Port Walthall Junction. On May 7, a Union division drove Hagood’s and Johnson’s brigades from the depot and cut the railroad at Port Walthall Junction. Confederate defenders retired behind Swift Run Creek and awaited reinforcements. (NPS summary)
Port Walthall Junction – May 6
On the same day that the Battle of the Wilderness began a flotilla of vessels of every description departed Fort Monroe and Newport News with the Army of the James. In accordance with Grant’s directive the first order of business was securing City Point. Brigadier General Edward Hinks’ USCT division of XVIII Corps was selected for the mission. Brigadier General Edward Wild deployed his 1st Brigade troops by placing the 1st and 22nd USCT and two sections of Choates Battery at Wilson’s Wharf and the 10th and 37th USCT with one section of guns at Fort Powhatan. Meanwhile, Colonel Samuel Duncan used his entire 2nd Brigade (4th, 5th, 6th USCT) to secure City Point with Choates’ last section and one from Howell’s Battery. Fortifications were begun immediately and by the 8th of May four heavy guns (1-30lb, 2-20lb and 1-8” howitzer) were mounted in the works.
Butler’s main force landed at Bermuda Hundred early on the morning of 6 May. The landing surprised a small Confederate signal party who were fishing the river. These men beat a hasty retreat leaving their catch behind in the boat they were using. Shortly after disembarking, Major General Smith sent a vanguard west across the peninsula. The unopposed party suffered at least one casualty. Captain Center of Co. C, 23rd Massachusetts accidently shot himself in the foot loading his revolver. Although the captain gamely attempted the march despite his injury he was forced to quit the column. While conducting the march the Federal troops were taunted by a rebel scout who “cheekily beckoned for our column to advance” while staying just out of range. At 0830 they reached Point of Rocks and nearby Cobb’s Hill overlooking the Appomattox River. Engineers began laying out a defensive line anchored on this natural strongpoint. By early afternoon the construction of a set of works was begun across the peninsula that would eventually become the base for Butler’s operations.
A reconnaissance comprised of Brigadier General Charles Heckman’s “Star” Brigade (23rd, 25th, 27th Massachusetts and the 9th New Jersey) was ordered forward to reach the railroad at Port Walthall Station. The four mile march went unopposed until the column reached the Barnes Plantation. Identifying a Confederate force formed behind a fence in a sunken road about 300 yards from the rail line Heckman prepared to give battle. Behind the fence Colonel Robert Graham was posted with the 21st South Carolina and three companies from the 25th South Carolina. Major General George Pickett, still in command while he awaited the arrival of Beauregard, had sped the 600 men forward to thwart the expected Union effort against the rail line and to gain time to consolidate a force to challenge Butler. A Federal advance pushed back the Confederate skirmishers but was stopped cold by a volley from the main rebel line. Both commanders incorrectly believed that they faced two brigades of the enemy. Thinking himself outnumbered Heckman made only a weak effort to displace the stubborn Confederate line before falling back to the main body. This minor affair accounted for 68 casualties for Heckman’s command. A perfect half of the killed and wounded was suffered by the 9th New Jersey with 4 killed and 30 wounded. Heckman lamented that he did not have enough litters to bring all the dead and wounded off the field so some of the dead were left as they fell. Graham’s men suffered 2 killed and 28 wounded. Both sides prepared for a larger confrontation the following day.
Port Walthall Junction – May 7
Determined to accomplish the mission of destroying the railroad Butler formed an impressive task force of five brigades of infantry, a battery of artillery and a 350 trooper cavalry contingent of the unattached 1st New York Mounted Rifles. They headed west in the early morning hours numbering about 8,000 men under the command of Brigadier General William H. T. Brooks. The Confederate forces were also being hastily reinforced. Brigadier General Bushrod Johnson arrived with the remainder of his division after the previous evening’s brief engagement. In the morning Major General D. H. Hill arrived at the Confederate position to assume overall command of the 2,668 defenders. Hill and Johnson skillfully deployed their troops and artillery along the Old Stage Road and waited. At 1000 the Hill became impatient and set out at the front of Hagood’s brigade in search of the Federals. They marched only about a mile before they bumped into the 1st New York Mounted Rifles acting as a vanguard for the infantry. Brigadier General Hagood deployed two of his South Carolina regiments to delay the advance. A brisk skirmish was maintained while the Confederate main body scurried back to their defensive positions.
Gradually the delaying action was pushed back and the Union forces drew up battle lines in front of the rebels. The rebel line feature Hagood’s brigade on the left with the 25th and 27th South Carolina in the front and the 21st South Carolina in reserve. To the right the Tennessee brigade (63rd TN, 44th/25thTN and 17th/23rd TN) fronted three regiments with another in reserve. Barton’s Brigade (115th, 48th, 47th NY and 76th Pa) moved forward about 1300 and took a position in a dense piece of woods across from the South Carolinians. They overlapped the Confederate line easily on the left. A Confederate officer with staff in tow rode in front of his line to get a better look at the situation and to encourage his men. The 115th New York “''emptied three of the saddles” while the rest galloped away at full speed.” The 115th then received orders to engage the enemy at long range to pin them while the remainder of the brigade tended to the destruction of the railroad line. The 21st South Carolina had been called up to extend Hagood’s line and now was threatened by this flanking movement. They were deftly maneuvered through a cross-fire to change their facing. The Confederates were determined to contest any effort on the railroad and mounted an attack on the Union forces there. Now out in the open as they formed for their assault they made a plump target that the 115th could not resist. The Iron Hearted Regiment dashed down the hill at the double quick and struck the rebel formation. The attack was halted and the two sides exchanged a lively fire until the New Yorkers found themselves threatened on both flanks. Moving by the right flank they broke through the attempted encirclement. The episode cost them 90 killed and wounded. Oddly, Co. H carrying the colors, usually a prime target, “lost not a single man dead.” The total Union losses neared 300. Hagood reported 177 killed and wounded, with 4 of 7 field grade officers going down. The Tennessee Brigade, under Colonel John Fulton, remained fairly idle and suffered only 7 wounded. The fighting died down around 1700. Content with destroying about a quarter mile of track, some telegraph lines, a saw mill, and a quantity of lumber the Union forces retreated back to their main defenses. The Confederates received an order from Pickett to retire to the south side of Swift Creek at 2200 if they felt they could not hold their position against a renewed assault. Without reinforcements they chose to vacate their ground. They spent the 8th and the morning of the 9th digging rifle pits and artillery emplacements at their new position.
OR’S Volume XXXVI Part II
Back Door to Richmond - The Bermuda Hundred Campaign April-June 1864, William Glenn Robertson
The Official Virginia Civil War Battlefield guide, John S. Salmon
Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, edited by Robert Johnson and Clarence Buel
The Iron Hearted Regiment: An Account of the Battles, Marches and Gallant Deeds by the 115th Regiment NY Volunteers, by James H Hunt
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