Battle of Proctor's Creek
After his repulse at Swift Creek and Fort Clifton on May 9, Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler withdrew into his entrenchments at Bermuda Hundred. A Confederate army of 18,000 was patched together under command of Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard to confront Butler’s 30,000. On May 12, Butler moved north against the Confederate line at Drewry’s Bluff but again adopted a defensive posture when his attack was not supported by gunboats. On the 13th a Union column struck the right flank of the Confederate line at the Wooldridge House, carrying a line of works. Butler remained cautious, however, giving Beauregard time to concentrate his forces. On May 16 at dawn, Ransom’s Confederate division opened an attack on Butler’s right flank, routing many units. Subsequent attacks lost direction in the fog, but the Federals were disorganized and demoralized. After severe fighting, Butler extricated himself from battle, withdrawing again to his Bermuda Hundred Line. This battle stopped Butler’s offensive against Richmond. (NPS summary)
Proctor's Creek – 12-16 May
After the repulse at Swift Creek and retreat into the Bermuda Hundred line Butler spent two days deciding his next move. The lull gave P T G Beauregard, newly arrived from North Carolina and commanding from Petersburg, time to reinforce his army and occupy a strong defensive line along Proctor’s Creek. With 18,000 men he hoped to block any Union move on Richmond.
Butler accommodated Beauregard’s design by sending a strong column on a thrust toward the Southern capital. MG Gillmore moved elements his X Corps along the axis of the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad to form the left of the Union line while MG Smith’s XVIII Corps troops followed the Richmond Turnpike on the right. When the Federal columns approached the Confederates at the creek they deployed for battle. Butler waited for the 13th to launch his attack on the Confederate right near the Woolridge House. The assault managed to take the outer set of works and push the defenders back to Drewry’s Bluff. Butler, however, would not follow up on this early success because the gunboats that were intended to support his right failed to materialize when the water level was discovered to be too low. Instead of remaining aggressive Butler simply followed the retreating enemy back to their main line of prepared positions. There they spent the 14th trying to establish a line opposite the sturdy defenses. Problems surfaced almost at once. Colonel William Barton noted in his report that the line stretched out “reaching nearly to the James River”. MG Smith informed Butler that the line was short and requested reinforcements to extend it on to the river and fill the dangerous gap. Two regiments were sent to Heckman on the extreme right. With these reinforcements the line was stretched but was still, in the words of Gillmore, “long, thin, and weak.” The Union commanders were not the only ones noticing trouble near the river. Beauregard, now in personal command, saw it as well.
While the tentative Federals built up for an all out attack on the fortress the Confederate leader decided to go on the offensive. In his instructions for a surprise attack Beauregard told MG Robert Ransom that “we shall attack and turn by the river road his right flank”. To accomplish this he stacked four brigades, under Ransom, on his extreme left with orders to begin the assault early on the 16th. The morning of the assault found a dense fog enveloping the entire area. The poor visibility initially aided the attack force by masking their movements into their jump off positions. Anticipating a grand success Beauregard gave the attacking force a secondary mission of cutting the Union forces off from their line at Bermuda Hundred. The Confederate commander expected that Butler would give way under his attack and make for the safety of his own entrenched line. To assist Ransom in preventing the Yankees from reaching their line Beauregard ordered a secondary attack by a force from Petersburg. This force consisted of the Virginia brigade of BG Wise, the North Carolina brigade of BG Martin (with one regiment from Colquitt attached) and Dearing’s cavalry brigade. It was a bold, imaginative and elaborate plan and Beauregard was supremely confident in it.
When visibility finally reached a minimum for operations Ransom hit the Federals like a thunderbolt at 0445. The entire right end of the Union line collapsed in confusion. A follow on assault by Hagood and Johnson met much stiffer resistance but still the blue line was pushed back. These two brigades fought off a desperate counter attack. Hagood’s South Carolinians were savaged in the days fighting. The brigade reported 664 casualties for their effort, by far the most of any Confederate brigade. On the Confederate right Hoke experienced the same problem against rugged Union resistance. The fog made it impossible to take full advantage of the early success. The overwhelming success of the attack actually proved to be its downfall. The rapidly advancing Confederate lines became entangled and lost in the fog in their rush forward. Ransom and Hoke were forced to bring the advance to a halt to sort the scrambled units. These pauses, created by the confusion in the Confederate ranks, allowed Butler enough time to begin his fighting withdraw. The battle lasted thirteen hours as the Rebels pursued Butler’s troops southward. Whiting’s force, that was supposed to block the retreat route, never appeared. Suffering from poor communications and the extremely timid leadership of Whiting the blocking force did not reach the expected location in time and ended up bivouacking while Butler made good his escape. The action was costly for both sides. About 6600 equally divided causalities littered the field. Hundreds of Federal prisoners, including BG Heckman, five battle flags and several artillery pieces were claimed. Beauregard was disappointed that the complete destruction of the Federal forces had not been accomplished and placed a major portion of the blame on Whiting, who asked for and was given relief. Butler, however, was back where he started and now had very little hope of influencing the campaign.