“I feel desirous to do something…”: Foster looking for action along the James

On this day (October 8) in 1863, Major-General John G. Foster, commanding  the Department of Virginia and North Carolina, wrote to Major-General Henry Halleck in Washington to propose a series of operations in his sector.  Foster’s command included everything from the Virginia Peninsula down to the northern border of South Carolina.  Earlier in the summer, he’d forwarded reinforcements to the Department of the South when operations on Morris Island evolved into an extended siege.  Such limited Foster’s activity through the summer. Not one to be idle, he looked to create an opening that fall to break the quiet James River sector.  From his headquarters at Fort Monroe, he addressed Halleck:

General: I feel desirous to do something, and although my force is very small, I hope, by substituting the defense of citadels for that of the long lines, as Williamsburg, Yorktown, Gloucester, and Getty’s line, outside of Portsmouth, to obtain a small but effective movable column. The sickness which has prevailed at Williamsburg, Gloucester, Yorktown, and throughout the whole of North Carolina, has very much enfeebled the troops and made them for a time incapable of long marches. They are, however, available for expeditions by water, and what marches I may be forced to make can be borne by the negro troops. This is the case in the expedition now out scouring Matthews-County, of which the infantry is wholly composed of negro troops. To come to the point, I propose (now that I am obliged to understand that the troops sent to the Department of the South cannot be replaced so as to give me force enough to go to Weldon or to take Fort Caswell) to undertake little operations in succession, calculated to attract the attention of the enemy and draw off his force, which can be made very safe by means of the aid of the navy and the army gunboats.

The first point is Fort Powhatan, now deserted, which I propose to seize and turn into a small but strong work for us, from which I can commence a system of cavalry raids. Then, as soon as this has attracted the attention of the enemy so as to accumulate force enough to stop the operations of the cavalry, to seize a point on the other shore of the James, higher up, say, at Wilcox’s or Swynyard’s Wharves, or Harrison’s Landing, and pursue the same game. Then, with a small increase of force, City Point may be seized and fortified, and a dash be made toward Petersburg. To make sure of taking it will require quite an increase of force, say, 20,000 men; but this force can be sent, if you judge expedient, at any time. All that I can do now is to annoy the enemy, and from time to time to accumulate a force to meet an apprehended attack. If this meets with your approval, I will at once enter upon the necessary preparations.

I have the honor to be, general, your obedient servant,
J. G. Foster, Major General.

With hindsight we know this proposal was dead on arrival.  After September 21, the weight of the Federal armies shifted towards Chattanooga, Tennessee.  Sickness and the need to hold the purchase gained at Morris Island prevented Gillmore from releasing troops.  And within a day the Army of Northern Virginia would take up the march once again, threatening to take back any gains of the summer’s fighting in the east.

Take Petersburg to cut off connections to the deep South?  Foster was about a year ahead things.

(Foster’s letter appears in OR, Series I, Volume 29, Part II, Serial 49, page 267.)

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One response to ““I feel desirous to do something…”: Foster looking for action along the James

  1. Pingback: “I shall commence to make offensive movements….”: Foster feeling agressive at Charleston | To the Sound of the Guns

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