FORT MAGRUDER, February 8, 1864.
Have just arrived after a 15-mile gallop with staff only from Burnt Ordinary, where I left the infantry and artillery strongly posted, with orders to march here at 6 a.m. The cavalry arrived here some time before me, having been sent forward for the want of forage. I regret your disappointment. It is no greater, I assure you, than mine. More might have been done for eclat by attacking the bridge; but under the circumstances, distance from base, no available troops in department to re-enforce me, evident preparation by enemy, and, above all, the entire defeat of the real objectin any event it would not have been wise in my judgment. Was I right? Have you any orders for the cavalry before it all leaves I would like to use a little of it in Gloucester
HEADQUARTERS U. S. FORCES,
Yorktown, February 9, 1864.
MAJOR: I have the honor to report the following operations of the forces under my command, undertaken with a view to the surprise and capture of Richmond, and incidental results:
All the infantry and cavalry placed at my disposal by the general commanding, being about 4,000 of the former and 2,200 of the latter, was suddenly concentrated behind my lines at Williamsburg after dark on the evening of the 5th instant, together with Hunts¹ and Belger's² light batteries.
The infantry, consisting of three white regiments, brigaded under Col. R. M. West, First Pennsylvania Light Artillery. and three colored regiments under Colonel Duncan, Fourth U. S. Colored Troops, moved thence at 9 a. m. on the 6th, carrying on the person six days rations in the knapsack and 70 rounds of cartridges 40 in the boxes and 30 in the knapsack.
The cavalry, being detachments of five regiments under Col. S. P. Spear, Eleventh Pennsylvania Cavalry, moved two hours later. Colonel Spear was directed to arrive at Bottoms Bridge, 12 miles this side of Richmond, by 3 a.m. of the 7th, surprise it, and move on rapidly to Richmond. A picked company under Captain Hill, First New York Mounted Rifles, with selected horses, was placed in advance to ride down the three pickets at New Kent, Baltimore Cross-Roads, and at the bridge. Arrangements had been previously made to have the telegraph wire between Meadow Station and Richmond cut between dark and midnight of the 6th. By these means it was hoped to surprise the enemy's Battery No. 2, on the Bottoms Bridge road near Richmond, and occupy Capitol Square in that city for at least two or three hours; detachments previously detailed and carefully instructed breaking successively from the main column, on entering, for various specific purposes. Of course the success of the enterprise was based upon the sudden and noiseless surprise of the strong picket at Bottoms Bridge, without which it would be impossible for cavalry alone to pass Battery No. 2. Colonel Spear failed to capture the pickets at Baltimore Cross-Roads, owing to the excessive darkness of the night, which unfortunately proved to be cloudy and rainy. He reached Bottoms Bridge, a distance of 51 miles, ten minutes before the time designated, but found the enemy there in strong force, with infantry, cavalry, and artillery. They had received notice some sixteen hours previously, as appeared from the testimony of various persons in the vicinity, including women, children, and negroes, separately examined, of the arrival near Williamsburg of accessions to our usual force, and had during that time been vigorously making preparations. The bridge planks had been taken up, the fords both above and below effectually obstructed, extensive earth-works and rifle-pits constructed, and a strong force of troops brought down by the York River Railroad, by which large accessions were still arriving.
The darkness prevented an attack till morning, when a detachment of the New York Mounted Rifles, under Major Wheelan, made a gallant but unsuccessful charge on the bridge by the only approach long causeway flanked on either hand by an impassable marsh. The enemy opened with canister, first checking and then repulsing the charge, with a loss to us of 9 killed and wounded and 10 horses killed. All our men were subsequently brought off, as well as the saddles and equipments. The river was reconnoitered both above and below for some miles, but at every possible crossing the enemy was found in force with newly placed obstructions. Three regiments of infantry were plainly seen, besides other infantry, which fired from the woods, where their numbers could not be ascertained. Four batteries of field artillery were counted, and at least one heavy gun was in position, its shot reaching the bluff on this side and falling far in our rear.
Our infantry had marched on the 6th 33 miles, arriving at New Kent Court-House at 2 a. m. on the 7th. After a halt of three hours I moved on with them rapidly as possible toward the firing at the bridge, which was plainly audible. At ii a. in., knowing from the continued firing ahead that Colonel Spear had not succeeded in effecting a passage, and that even if now effected our object of surprising the city must necessarily be defeated, I sent him orders to retire, but kept pushing on to his support lest his condition might be worse than I supposed. The infantry had arrived within 7 miles of the bridge when it met the head of his returning column, and after hearing from him the full state of the case, I reluctantly felt obliged to retire my whole force, not feeling authorized to incur the loss necessary to force the position without any longer an ulterior object to justify it. The cavalry was suffered to pass ahead, except about 300 men of the Third New York Cavalry, under Lieutenant-Colonel Lewis, retained for rear guard. At Baltimore Store the enemy overtook and attacked my rear guard with vigor, but were quickly and handsomely repulsed by it, with the aid of a section of Belger's battery, the two pieces being alternately fired and retired to new positions. The enemy in this affair lost at least one officer and some few men, whom they abandoned till we had passed on.
The command bivouacked at New Kent unmolested, and on the 8th, the cavalry being out of forage, which the country did not afford, were sent ahead, arriving at Williamsburg the same evening. The infantry bivouacked in order of battle at Burnt Ordinary, and to-day returned to their former camp, having marched during the four days of their absence 33, 28, 18, and 25 miles, respectively, with alacrity and cheerfulness, and almost without straggling, the colored troops being in this respect, as usual, remarkable. With the exception of a little looseness of discipline in one or two of the cavalry regiments in returning, the conduct of officers and men, both in action and on the march, was everything that could be desired.
The whole result of the expedition, in addition to one or two prisoners captured and a few refugees, escaped Union prisoners, and negroes picked up and brought in, is the obvious fact that a small force in this vicinity, actively handled, can and should hold a much superior force of the enemy in the immediate vicinity of Richmond inactive except for its defense.
I have the honor to be, major, with great respect, your obedient servant,
ISAAC J. WISTAR,
Maj. R. S. DAVIS,
HDQRS. DEPT. OF VIRGINIA AND NORTH CAROLINA,
Fort Monroe, February 12, 1864.
The operation was skillfully and brilliantly done. It gives the commanding general renewed confidence in General Wistar as a commander of a division.
BENJ. F. BUTLER,
Major- General, Commanding.
- The war of the rebellion: a compilation of the official records of the Union and Confederate armies.; Series 1 Volume 33
¹ Hunt's battery= Battery D, Fourth United States Artillery.
² Belger's battery= Battery F, First R.I. Artillery.