Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Sheridan's Trevilian diversion

I've begun The Last Citadel, Petersburg, Virginia, June 1864 - April 1865 by Noah Andre Trudeau. On pages 16-19 Trudeau without mentioning the name Trevilian Station, sheds light on the reason for the diversion Grant intended Sherman to make:

"Ulysses Grant had made his decision to move south of the James on June 5, two days after his bloody failure at Cold Harbor. In a communication that day to Henry Halleck in Washington, Grant rejected the suggestion that he place the army between Lee's men and Washington. He also issued orders for a diversionary action, instructing Phil Sheridan to take his cavalry on a raid against Confederate rail lines northwest of Richmond. Sheridan departed on June 7, leaving behind Wilson's division to scout and screen for the infantry.

"The course Grant had determined to follow was a daunting one, requiring disengagement along an almost ten-mile front, a march of nearly fifty miles across swampy, ravine-rippled ground, and the bridging of a tidal river at a point where it was a half-mile wide. To further complicate matters, the crossing place could be reached by Confederate gunboats from Richmond.

"On June 6, Grant sent his aides Cyrus Comstock and Horace Porter to coordinate the planned movement with Benjamin Butler, whose army held positions south of the James, at Bermuda Hundred and City Point. On June 9, Grant instructed George Meade to have his Chief of Engineers, Major James C. Duane, 'select and intrench a line in the rear of the position at Cold Harbor, to be held while the army was withdrawing.' Duane finished the job on June 11. That day, Grant ordered Meade to see 'that all preparations may be made for the move tomorrow night.'

"Even before Grant came to his decision, Robert E. Lee was anticipating the move. As early as June 4, he warned his corps commanders that the enemy 'is preparing to leave us tonight, and I fear will cross the Chickahominy.' Lee's only hope was to catch the Union army in motion. 'General Lee is exceedingly anxious to be advised of any movement the enemy may undertake,' A First Corps circular noted on June 7. When Grant's army was discovered to be leaving its trenches, it was Lee's plan to move 'down and attack him with our whole force, provided we could catch him in the act of crossing [the Chickahominy].

"Even as he waited for Grant to make his move, Lee's attention was also turned to events int he Shenandoah Valley, where Federal activities so threatened the Confederate breadbasket that help was required. Lee sent off 2,100 men under Major General John C. Breckenridge on June 7, Two days later, Wade Hampton rode out of camp with most of the Confederate cavalry to intercept Sheridan's raiders. Richmond continued its pressure on Lee to send even more men north. In a June 11 note to Jefferson Davis, Lee grumbled that it would take at least a corps to do the job. He would release that many men if Richmond so ordered, but he warned, 'I think that is what the enemy would desire.' Nevertheless, the next day Lee issued instructions to Jubal Early 'to move, with the 2nd corps to the Shenandoah Valley.' Early's men set out on the morning of June 13."

[Trudeau then spends a couple of pages describing how Grant got his army across the James without Lee's knowledge.]

"Robert E. Lee learned at daybreak on June 13 that Grant's army had slipped away during the night. According to Eppa Hunton, one of George Pickett's brigadiers, 'It was said that General Lee was in a furious passion -- one of the few times during the war. When he did get mad he was mad all over.'"

Comment: If Trudeau is right then Grant didn't care how much railroad track Sheridan tore up, how badly he defeated Hampton or even if he defeated him at all. What he did care about was whether Lee would be distracted enough so Grant could get his army across the James without interference.

While Sheridan was fighting Hampton at Trevilian Station, Grant got his army across the James. Did Sheridan "win" at Trevilian Station? I think so, but someone else will say that Trevilian Station was inconsequential and that Sheridan's campaign was larger than Trevilian. But Trudeau tells us that Grant's whole army was at risk. Grant knew it and so did Lee. Grant needed Sheridan to do something that would distract Lee from while Grant crossed the James. Trudeau doesn't say that Sheridan's diversion was a success, but it seems to me that it was.

How much of a distraction was Sheridan's diversion? Trudeau doesn't say, but Richmond was distracted and urged Lee to send troops to stop whatever it was that Sheridan was doing. Richmond must have distracted Lee a bit even if Sheridan didn't.

Who precisely should have been keeping an eye on what Grant was up to? Probably Lee's cavalry, but as we have seen, on June 9, "Wade Hampton rode out of camp with most of the Confederate cavalry to intercept Sheridan's raiders."

The "Battle of Trevilian Station" took place on June 11-12 between Sheridan's forces and Hampton's. Grant was crossing the James on June 12th and Early's Corps set out from Lee's Army on the morning of June 13th.

Since Grant's Army crossed the James on the 12th, the "distractions" which may have blinded Lee were 1) the fact that his "eyes" in the form of Hampton's cavalry were off fighting with Sheridan, and 2) Early's Corps was engaging in whatever disruption the leaving of Lee's camp on the morning of June 13th would have involved.

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