“These forts must have their artillery”: Hunt directs battle handover and transition to maneuver operations at Petersburg

150 years ago, the ninth and final offensive was underway at Petersburg.  Brett Schulte has several posts up on Beyond the Crater discussing the details of this operation – including some excellent map resources.  In particular, one of his posts covered the period from March 24 to 28, in which Federal leaders worked out the details of the offensive and began movement.  The movement boiled down to a shift of forces to the left.  Among those units moving to “jump off” positions for this offensive was the Second Corps, Army of the Potomac at that time commanded by Major-General Andrew A. Humphreys.  As the Second Corps moved, elements of the Army of the James would assume positions on the siege lines.  In short, the Second Corps would perform a battle handover to the Army of the James, preparatory to the offensive operations.

What is a battle handover?  According to the book it is a variety of “tactical enabling operation” – meaning an operation designed to facilitate a separate offensive or defensive operation.  In this case a flanking maneuver on the Confederate right.  In order to get the Second Corps in position to participate in the flanking maneuver, Humphreys had to disengage from the line he currently held, keeping the Confederates in place.  Then the Army of the James had to occupy the position formerly held by Second Corps and assume the mission of confronting the Confederate line.

Sounds simple, but battle handovers are notoriously complex. There are many moving parts.   Two soldiers cannot occupy the same place at the same time.  Likewise two regiments, brigades, divisions, or corps cannot hold the same point at the same time.  So part of the “choreography” is to rotate formations, unit by unit, points on the line.  Nowhere is that more difficult than with crew-served weapons… or in the Civil War conventions, the artillery.

In the Petersburg siege lines, the artillery pieces were in place to dominate sections of the trenches.  Each gun tube had a specific field of fire to address a particular tactical need – be that an approach the enemy might use or an enfilade of an enemy position.  Moving a gun would require repeated surveys, sighting, and registration.  Leaving the guns in place could ease the process of battle handover.

That is exactly what Major-General Henry Hunt had in mind on March 28, 1865 when he wrote to Lieutenant-Colonel John Hazard, Second Corps Artillery Chief:

General [Horatio] Wright says you propose to withdraw your guns from Forts Welch, Gregg, and Sampson to-morrow morning. General Meade says that General Wright will hold the Sixth Corps here to-morrow at least, and these forts must have their artillery. Arrangements must be made accordingly. The forts on your line, A, B, C, D, E, you report March 26 as having twenty guns; General Ord can replace sixteen. You reported Welch, Gregg, and Sampson twelve guns; sixteen are thus required for the lines.

The section of the line in question, Forts Welch, Gregg, and Sampson, formed a “refuse” on the Federal left flank, and thus were rather important shielding the preparations.  To keep up appearances, and retain the pressure to prevent Confederates from shifting their forces, Hunt wanted the same number of guns in those forts after the battle handover.

SecondCorpsFortsMar28_65

On the surface, Hunt is pointing out a mismatch of forces.  The Second Corps plan was to remove thirty-six guns off the line (in the batteries and forts) along with a dozen surplus weapons.  The Army of the James, wold bring in sixteen guns to fill the void.  That math does not work.  So Hunt turned to creative math to resolve the problem… specifically asking Hazard to organize his artillery to support the planned maneuvers and leave the remainder behind:

You report forty-eight guns in your corps, of these I understand that twelve are of surplus sections. If these are all sent back it will take twenty-eight guns from your artillery, leaving you but five batteries, and General Meade directs that rather than strip the forts you take but twenty guns, five batteries, with your corps. I wish you, therefore, to arrange to keep the guns in Forts Sampson, Welch, and Gregg. If you can put two surplus sections in, you will keep your six batteries with the corps. The batteries you propose to Send to Colonel Tidball will therefore be left, four guns with General Ord and twelve with General Wright, which will remain with him until the Sixth Corps line is abandoned, and will then report to General Tidball, unless otherwise ordered. These arrangements must be made at once, and you will report to me what batteries move with your corps, and that provision is made to leave the sixteen guns on the line as directed.

Very creative math.  But what supports this is the transition to a new phase of operations. Sitting in the siege lines, the Second Corps, as had all the Federal formations, had acquired extra guns to meet specific needs on the lines.  Now facing the prospect of quick maneuvers in pursuit of the Confederates, should all turn well, the Second Corps only needed five or six batteries.

Hazard responded promptly on this matter, but with a slight modification to the design:

I have arranged to leave four guns in Fort Gregg: four in Fort Sampson, and four in Battery A, and to take six batteries with me. If General Ord brings with him sixteen guns it will be sufficient to arm the line to the left of Battery A. Shall take two of my guns from Fort Welch, leaving four in it belonging to Sixth Corps. I trust this arrangement will be satisfactory. Shall take with me Battery B, Rhode Island; B, New Jersey; K, Fourth United States; M, First New Hampshire; Tenth Massachusetts, and Eleventh New York, leaving on the line, in command of Capt. C. A. Clark, Twelfth New York, Sixth Maine, and F, First Pennsylvania. Please answer by telegraph as soon as convenient if this arrangement meets with your approbation.

While not exactly as Hunt specified, the arrangement would allow Hazard to retain some organizational integrity within the artillery brigade supporting the Second Corps.  Please note that of those six batteries retained with the Second Corps, only one of them had been under Hazard’s lead during July 1-3, 1863.  Little wonder after the many reorganizations of the Army of the Potomac during the intervening time.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 46, Part III, Serial 97, pages 227-8.)

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