The Battle of Drewry’s Bluff: The Fifty-First’s Terrific Charge

“We charged the enemy Monday, driving them before us in wild confusion.”

-Col. Hector McKethan, 51st North Carolina

The Bermuda Hundred Campaign

On May 5, 1864, General Benjamin “Beast” Butler landed the Army of the James at Bermuda Hundred and City Point. Butler’s orders were clear: attempt to capture Richmond, and if that objective failed, cut the railway line at Petersburg. Butler began his campaign by striking at the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad. After a week of skirmishing with a much smaller Confederate force, the Yankees had made little progress.

By May 13, Butler had given up on permanently cutting the railway between Petersburg and Richmond.  He decided instead to march on the Confederate capital.  That morning, most of the Army of the James left the defensive works at Bermuda Hundred and attacked the Confederates at Drewry’s Bluff.  In an all-day fight, the larger Federal force managed to push back the Rebel defenders, overrunning the outer trenches of the Confederate line.  But the Rebels fought back with determination, and the Yankee infantry could not make any more progress that day.

The 51st North Carolina had moved to Drewry’s Bluff during the night on the 10th of May.  The regiment spent the next couple of days in reserve, supporting recently promoted Major General Robert Hoke’s division on the right of the Confederate lines.  On May 13, 14 and 15, the unit saw hot action as skirmishers.  Over those three days, the regiment lost two men killed and thirty wounded.  Two of the wounded died later.

Private Joshua Rackley of Company A was wounded in the right hand while skirmishing with the Yankees on the 14th of May.  An ambulance arrived to carry him to the hospital.  As the wagon approached Rackley, the driver came too close and ran over the unfortunate private’s left arm, breaking the unwounded limb.  Private Rackley was furloughed for sixty days to recover from his wounds.  He returned to the regiment in September.

During the two days following the Yankee attack on Drewry’s Bluff, Butler’s troops skirmished frequently with the enemy.  In between fire fights, the Northerners stayed busy extending and strengthening their breastworks.  When the Federals were satisfied that their fortifications could withstand a Rebel counterattack, they began preparing for an assault on the enemy’s defenses. Beast Butler took his time planning and preparing the attack.

In the early morning hours of May 14, General P. G. T. Beauregard arrived at Drewry’s Bluff to take personal command of the defenses.  He brought several regiments of infantry and a detachment of cavalry to reinforce the defenders.  Beauregard left a small force, two brigades under General William H. C. Whiting, to guard Petersburg.  But defense was not what “Old Bory” had in mind.

Battle of Drewry’s Bluff

While surveying the Federal troop dispositions at Drewry’s Bluff, General Beauregard noticed a gap between the right of the Union line and the James River.  He felt that a surprise attack on the Union right could turn the Federal flank.  The turning movement, if successful, would be followed by a general assault along the entire Union line.  While the Rebels at Drewry’s Bluff pushed the Federals back, the two brigades still in Petersburg would strike the Union rear.  Hopefully, this combined assault would capture the bulk of the enemy troops before they could retreat to the safety of their Bermuda Hundred defenses.

On the evening of May 15, while Beast Butler was carefully planning his masterstroke against the Confederate defenses, Beauregard began positioning his troops for an attack on the Army of the James.  He moved four brigades to the Confederate left and put them under the command of Major General Ransom.  The remaining six brigades were split into two divisions, one commanded by Major General Robert Hoke and the other by Brigadier General Alfred Colquitt.  Hoke’s division, consisting of four brigades, was placed on the right of the Confederate line.*  Colquitt’s division of only two brigades was placed in reserve behind and slightly to the left of Hoke.

After moving his troops into position, General Beauregard issued orders to the division commanders.  Ransom would launch an attack on the Federal right flank at dawn.  Hoke’s division would demonstrate against the Union troops in its front to hold that end of the enemy line in check while Ransom advanced.  Once Ransom’s division had turned the Union flank, Hoke’s men would launch a full scale attack on the Federal line.  Colquitt’s division would provide a reserve in the center of the Confederate line, supporting Ransom and/or Hoke as needed.

Beauregard directed Whiting to move his two brigades from Petersburg to Swift Creek that night.  The next morning, he was to advance rapidly toward Drewry’s Bluff when he heard continuous firing.  Whiting’s two brigades would attempt to block the Union forces retreating toward Bermuda Hundred.  They were expected to engage any Union forces they encountered during the movement.

At 4:45 the next morning, May 16, Ransom’s division advanced in two lines through a thick fog.  They quickly ran into Union skirmishers.  After an hour of hard fighting, Ransom’s troops pushed beyond the Union rifle pits and drove the Yankees out of their entrenchments.  Because of poor visibility, the division had become dangerously disorganized during the assault.  The Confederates were also running low on ammunition.  Ransom halted his advance and called for one of Colquitt’s reserve brigades to continue the attack while his division organized its lines and replenished its ammo.

General Hoke formed his division into line of battle and waited for Ransom’s attack to go forward.  Johnson Hagood’s brigade was on the far left.  Bushrod Johnson’s brigade was to Hagood’s right, and Clingman’s brigade was next to Johnson.  Corse’s brigade anchored the extreme right of the line.

When Hoke heard firing to his left, he knew that Ransom’s division was advancing, but the dense fog prevented him from seeing how the attack was progressing.  When the firing died down after an hour, Hoke assumed that the flank attack had succeeded, and the Yankees were retreating.  He ordered Hagood and Johnson to move their brigades forward.

Within minutes, the two brigades came into contact with Union troops.  The Yankees were occupying two lines of trenches, one behind the other.  They had eight pieces of artillery in support.  The strength of the Federal force surprised Hoke, but now that he had begun his advance, he had no choice but to press forward.  He ordered Hagood and Johnson to charge the Union works.  The Confederate infantry quickly overran the Union trenches and captured five cannon.

General Hoke, unaware that Ransom’s attack had stalled, ordered Hagood’s brigade to slide left and make contact with Ransom’s division.  As Hagood’s troops moved toward Ransom’s position, the leftmost regiment (27th South Carolina) ran into a withering fire from Union infantry.  The regiment charged and was quickly repulsed with heavy losses.  Hoke commented after the battle, “It was not intended that this regiment should attack the enemy in this position, as the movement was to be made by the [Ransom’s] troops on the left, but they in their eagerness to enter the engagement did so, and, I am sorry to say, suffered most heavily.”1

Hagood fell back to regroup.  Hagood’s withdrawal left Bushrod Johnson’s brigade exposed.  The Federals in front of Hoke launched a furious counterattack against Johnson’s right.  Seeing Johnson’s precarious position, Hoke ordered Corse’s brigade and two regiments of Clingman’s Brigade (31st North Carolina and 51st North Carolina) to advance and relieve the pressure on Johnson’s right.  The 31st and 51st Regiments led the attack.  The Confederate, a Raleigh newspaper, described the charge:

In a moment the troops mounted the breastworks, and over across the field in front drove the enemy’s skirmishers in confusion, and charged with a terrific yell two of their lines of breastworks, killing and capturing hundreds, sending nearly a whole regiment of Yankees to the rear.  These troops then charged a third time, where thousands of the enemy were concealed, killing and capturing many in their lines.2

Captain Lippitt, leading Company G, estimated that the 51st Regiment took 300 prisoners during the assault.  They also captured “6 guns, all their horses and eight mules.”  The men “got more clothing than they could carry away.”  General Beauregard later complimented the regiment’s men on their action.3

The momentum of the charge carried Clingman’s and Corse’s troops well in front of Johnson’s lines.  The two brigades were isolated and began taking fire on both flanks.  Hoke, realizing the danger of the brigades’ advanced position, ordered them back to their entrenchments.  These two units would sit out the rest of the fight.

While General Ransom was waiting for ammunition, he received word that Hoke was being pressed hard by the Federals.  Ransom immediately dispatched a regiment and Colquitt’s reserve brigade, which had just arrived, to Hoke’s aid.  He then hurriedly aligned his division and began an advance against the Union troops in his front.  Ransom hoped this movement would relieve the pressure on Hoke’s line.

As Ransom advanced, he ordered the right of his line to make and keep contact with Hoke’s division.  Ransom rode to the right to hurry the maneuver and discovered the entire right wing of his line marching toward Hoke’s location.  A couple of the regiments had already overlapped Hoke’s line.  General Hoke was on the field, and Ransom soon discovered that Hoke had ordered the movement.

Ransom immediately called a halt to the advance.  The troops that Hoke had ordered to the right were needed for Ransom to resume his attack on the Union flank.  Ransom ordered his line to shift back to the left, and he began realigning his division again.  By now, it was ten o’clock.  Ransom decided to consult with Beauregard before continuing his attack.

Beauregard called a general halt while he assessed the situation.  Visibility was still poor.  Beauregard decided to hold onto the ground his troops had gained and wait for the attack from Petersburg to begin.  As soon as Whiting engaged, he would order his two divisions forward again.

Unknown to Beauregard, Whiting had lost his nerve.  He had moved, as ordered, to Swift Creek the night before.  He started toward Drewry’s Bluff the next morning, but after encountering a single Union regiment, he ordered his two brigades back to the defenses around Petersburg.  During the hasty withdrawal, Whiting relinquished command to General D. H. Hill, who was on hand as an adviser.  With all the confusion, Hill was unable to turn Whiting’s brigades around and resume the movement toward Drewry’s Bluff.

General Beauregard, unaware of Whiting’s actions, kept waiting for the attack on the Union rear to begin.  By early afternoon, Beauregard became impatient and decided to continue to push the Union forces back from Drewry’s Bluff.  By then a heavy rain had started falling.  The rain thwarted Beauregard’s plans, and the Confederates could not resume a coordinated attack.  Both divisions pushed cautiously forward.

The stop-and-start nature of the attack allowed Butler to start a fighting withdrawal.  Through the afternoon and until nightfall, the Confederates pressed the Yankee infantry, but they made little progress.  Nightfall brought an end to the battle.  Under the cover of darkness, the Army of the James slunk back to its trenches at Bermuda Hundred.

The exhausted Confederates camped where they stopped.  They “bivouacked among the unburied corpses of the enemy, and feasted that night upon the unwonted luxuries of coffee, sardines, and canned meats, with which its abandoned camps were abundantly supplied.”  One South Carolina regiment replaced its smoothbore muskets with Union Enfield rifles.4

Corking Butler’s Bottle

The next day, Beauregard’s men advanced to Butler’s Bermuda Hundred fortifications.  The Confederates constructed works facing the Union entrenchments.  The two sides skirmished for the next few days.  On May 20, Beauregard launched an assault on the Yankee defenses centered around Ware Bottom Church.   As the Rebel infantry crested the Union breastworks, they bayoneted and clubbed “such of the enemy as had the temerity to remain.”5 The Confederates occupied the abandoned works, “bottling up” the Army of the James.

In his report on the campaign, General Grant observed that Butler’s army “though in a position of great security, was as completely shut off from further operations directly against Richmond as if it had been in a bottle strongly corked.   It required but a comparatively small force of the enemy to hold it there.”  With Butler’s army “hermetically sealed” in its bottle, Beauregard was able to send reinforcements to assist General Lee north of Richmond.6 The Bermuda Hundred Campaign had failed.

Fifty-First North Carolina Casualties

The 51st North Carolina took heavy losses during the Bermuda Hundred Campaign.  Most of the casualties occurred during the battle at Drewry’s Bluff.  Official losses given by Colonel McKethan for the battle were 25 killed, 111 wounded, and 23 missing.7 The regiment’s service records show twenty-one soldiers being captured.

The 51st Regiment’s adjutant, John R. Latta, listed the casualties for the rest of the campaign as five killed and twenty-two wounded.8

Newlywed Private William Brewer, Company F, was wounded by a ball that entered the right side of his neck and passed through his right shoulder.  He was listed as “mortally” wounded, but he survived his wound and survived the war.  Brewer had been listed as killed in action at Battery Wagner the year before.

Private Matthew Gregory, Company E, received an extremely painful wound when a “minnie ball entered the forehead mashing the skull in against the brain.”  He would not return to duty.

Sergeant James C. Faulk, Company F, was wounded for the third time.  He had previously been wounded at Goldsboro and Battery Wagner.  He would return to duty in a couple of months, only to be wounded again.

The fight at Drewry’s Bluff took a toll on the regiment’s command structure.  Four of the ten company commanders were casualties.  Captains Willis Pope (Company E), Samuel Maultsby (Company H) and George Sloan (Company I) were wounded.  Pope died of his wounds the next day.  Captain William Murphy (Company K) was captured.

One lieutenant was killed, five were wounded, and three were taken prisoner.  Two of the wounded were among those captured.  Company D lost all three of its lieutenants.

One NCO was killed and another sixteen wounded.  Of the wounded, two died of their wounds, and one was captured.

During the Bermuda Hundred Campaign the 51st North Carolina lost almost 20% of its fighting strength.  Sadly, this was just the beginning.

* Clingman’s brigade was one of the four assigned to Hoke’s division.  The brigade, including the 51st North Carolina, would serve under General Hoke for the remainder of the war.

1Official Records, Series 1, 36 (part 2):  237.

2Daily Confederate 21 May 1864.

3Wilmington Journal 26 May 1864.

4Johnson Hagood, Memoirs of the War of Secession (Columbia:  State Company, 1910) 249.

5Wilmington Journal 26 May 1864.

6Official Records, Series 1, 36 (part 1):  17.

7Wilmington Journal 26 May 1864.

8Wilmington Journal 2 Jun. 1864.

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