Understanding Confederate Forces before Petersburg
The early days of the Petersburg Campaign, when the Army of the Potomac had found itself on the south side of the James River, completely uninformed regarding the opposition it faced, the army would revisit an old method of gaining intelligence on such important issues as troop strength and identification. Two thirds of the cavalry corps remained on the opposite side of the river and had not crossed until the end of June 1864, while one division commanded by Brigadier General James H. Wilson having made the crossing, was busily preparing for an early expedition against the Southside and Danville Railroad, miles from the active operations before the Cockade City.
The federal army had been initially reluctant to strike hard on the Petersburg line upon first crossing. Much had been hard learned about trench warfare during the violent days of Cold Harbor. The sniping left many timid to believe they had actually stolen a march on their infamous adversary; the Army of Northern Virginia.
Colonel George H. Sharpe, assigned intelligence and attached to the Provost Marshal General's Office began the task of collecting what he considered reliable information as to the commands opposed to them along the Petersburg front and informing army headquarters through their Chief of Staff, Major General Andrew A. Humphreys.
The evening of June 17th 1864, ten prisoners were brought in through the lines of the Ninth Army Corps, all belonging to the 26th Virginia Infantry. They were assigned to the brigade of Brigadier General Henry A. Wise and held a portion of the line outside the city proper, having spent the last three days inside the trenches without relief. There had been rumors of Confederate Third Army Corps in route; but nothing found that would substantiate its truth. Those of their comrades visiting the front for a look at the growing numbers of blue uniforms as well as those passing to the rear mentioned nothing of any new troop arrivals. All those interviewed, felt that only General Beauregard's forces held the defenses alone. Sharpe was convinced to inform headquarters of only one line of enemy works before that of Major General Ambrose Burnside.
The following morning, forty two prisoners brought in from the front opposite Second Army Corps revealed a part of Brigadier General James G. Martin's brigade on the Confederate right; but none of these recalled passing a second line of works on their way there to that assigned position. Furthermore when inquired about the Army of Northern Virginia, none of them seemed to know anything of their presence. The strength estimated by the conversations seemed the Confederate forces had roughly nine brigades of infantry defending Petersburg. These, relatively stronger than those from Lee's army, had an estimated three to four thousand men per each.
Major General George Gordon Meade found the information worthy enough to pass on to both Ninth Corps and Fifth Corps stressing the importance of pushing the advantage before Lee's forces were to arrive.
The first news of General Robert E. Lee's arrival at Petersburg came on June 21, 1864, when five prisoners of war were brought in along the front of Major General Winfield Hancock and identified as soldiers of Perrin's Alabama brigade of Lieutenant General Richard H. Anderson's division. Other facts presented to the Provost Marshal's office caused Colonel Sharpe to conclude that Major General Henry Heth's division had been on line from Hill's corps as well as Charles Field's division of Longstreet's corps. Furthermore, out of these prisoners came the knowledge that Richard Ewell's corps, now commanded by Lieutenant General Jubal Early; had left the defenses of Cold Harbor and assumed marched out towards the western part of the state.
In the absence of cavalry, much of what was being recorded by prisoner testimony was true. General Grant had stolen more than just a march on General Lee; they had preceded him by nearly a week. It had been the 16th of June before the Confederate army commander was convinced his adversary was south of the James River, when he removed himself to Drewry's Bluff; yet still leery to cross the army along with him. It was mid morning that day when Lee corresponded with General Beauregard that he had no prior knowledge of Grant's whereabouts and his interest laid solely on whether Petersburg had sufficient forces to maintain the defensive. It was forty eight hours later when Lee's arrival at the Cockade City was announced to Richmond. That same 18th of June marked the relief of Beauregard's forces in the trenches with those divisions marching in behind Lee.
In the absence of cavalry during these crucial days, Colonel Sharpe having returned to his old method of intelligence collection, provided sound information to the army regarding strength and identification of Confederate units resisting their overwhelming numbers, as he had one year earlier when acting under such orders at the head of the Bureau of Military Intelligence. Before General Meade's army was comfortable to act in a coordinated, all out assault; however, it proved too late to have taken the initiative, perhaps in driving a hole through the Confederate defenses so wide it certainly would have left Richmond and the Confederate government vulnerable to yet another early end to the war; a war that would now draw its breath and provide both sides with yet another ten months of hell.
Editors Note: Mr.Moran is a feature writer on the US-Civilwar.com writers staff. He may be contacted with your questions, ideas and requests at firstname.lastname@example.org