Battle of Swift Creek
On May 9, Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler made a thrust toward Petersburg and was met by Bushrod Johnson’s Division at Swift Creek. A premature Confederate attack at Arrowfield Church was driven back with heavy losses, but Union forces did not follow up. After skirmishing, Butler seemed content to tear up the railroad tracks and did not press the defenders. In conjunction with the advance to Swift Creek, five Federal gunboats steamed up the Appomattox River to bombard Fort Clifton, while Hincks’s U.S. Colored Troops infantry division struggled through marshy ground from the land side. The gunboats were quickly driven off, and the infantry attack was abandoned. (NPS summary)
Swift Creek – May 9
Frustrated by the marginal gains made by his command, MG Butler decided to make an effort at destroying the railroad bridge and the turnpike bridge over Swift Creek. Once again he assembled a task force that should easily have been enough to accomplish the mission. Five brigades from XVIII Corps and two brigades from X Corps marched southwest with artillery and cavalry in support. Additionally Butler arranged for a foray of gunboats to support the efforts at the far left of his line at the Confederate stronghold at Fort Clinton. The Federal task force arrived at Arrowfield Church in the early morning and deployed with the brigades of Heckman, Marston, and Burnham straddling the railroad and turnpike. On their right and stretching west as far as Brander’s Bridge were the brigades of Wistar, Alford, and White. On the left a brigade under BG Martindale aligned about a mile and a half north of Fort Clinton.
Opposing the Federal thrust was 4200 men of Hagood’s Brigade, newly reinforced by the 11th SC and the 7th SC Battalion, the Tennessee Brigade and the unattached 51st North Carolina. They were supported by 18 pieces of artillery and the heavy guns at Fort Clinton. The badly stretched Confederates had spent the previous day entrenching their troops and digging in the artillery. Although outnumbered at least four to one the Confederate line presented a formable appearance to the Union leadership, who feared heavy losses in a direct assault. The Corps commanders, Gillmore and Smith, had an alternate plan to avoid the unnecessary bloodshed they knew would accompany an attack on the rebel line. In a message signed by both they proposed that Butler’s plan be abandoned and an all out drive made for Petersburg by crossing the Appomattox on a pontoon bridge. They reasoned that the city would be lightly defended and since all rail lines ran through the city the communication network with Richmond could be more readily disrupted by seizing the city. The inexperienced Butler, however, could not or would not think outside the limits of his assigned mission and probably fearing failure more than inviting success passed on a great opportunity. He rejected the proposal and insisted on Richmond and the railroad network into the capital as their objective. He believed that his cavalry expedition would cut the rail south of Petersburg making the city invalid as a military target.
The fighting started as skirmishing between the 11th SC, the only unit north of the creek and Heckman’s brigade. The timidity of the Union commanders emboldened Pickett to order a reconnaissance in force north of the creek. Hagood argued that it was “perfectly evident that the enemy was there in force.” Nevertheless, he obeyed the order although he stated in his report that he knew his men “could accomplish nothing”.
Crossing the creek on the Turnpike Bridge he found the 11th heavily engaged and moved to their support. Colonel F. H. Gantt interpreted this movement as a Confederate attack and ordered a charge on Heckman’s brigade. The 21st SC and a portion of the 25th SC joined the advance with a rebel yell. The move was halted by a massive volley from the Union line.
The gallant effort failed at a high price. Hagood lost 31 killed, 82 wounded, and 24 missing. The Union losses were also high. Heckman’s brigade lost 13 killed and 100 wounded while the nearby brigade of Wister added 26 wounded to the count. The tentative Union commanders did not follow up their success. Further east the 63rd TN was over-watching Level Ford from a position at the Dunlap house about a half mile from Fort Clinton. Union skirmishers moved to within 500 yards of the house where “sharpshooters were enabled to annoy our line considerably. Companies A and K were assigned the task of driving them off. This was done and the fighting died down for the night.
The Union gunboats fared no better against the gunners at Fort Clinton. Using plunging fire to their advantage they sank the USS Brewster and badly damaged the USS Chamberlain as it ran aground and had to be pulled to safety by the USS Putnam. Elsewhere Federal advances were successfully met all along the line and the valuable bridges remained intact. A flanking maneuver on Fort Clinton through the swamp by Hinks’ USCT division was aborted when it became clear that it could not accomplish its assigned mission. At 0700 the next morning the Union forces were gone. The days fighting added 990 to the growing casualty lists. This would be the last attempt at any movement southward by Butler’s men.