During the 1864 Siege of Petersburg, deserters from both sides foiled an imminent bloody assault.
Mid-July 1864 found Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and Union Major General George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac facing off in the grim Siege of Petersburg, Va. Although Lee’s outnumbered force had shown remarkable resilience, the May-June 1864 Overland Campaign that had maneuvered the two sides into the siege had been an ongoing slaughter. Nearly 100,000 combined Confederate and Union casualties had badly dulled the edges of both armies.
For the Confederates, however, the situation was made worse by the South’s inability to properly feed, clothe and equip its Soldiers. The result was a constant and increasing flow of deserters crossing over to Union lines. These men revealed to Union commanders not only the specifics of the Confederate order of battle (units, commanders, troop strength, etc.) but also valuable tactical information of immediate importance. July 17, 1864, opened with another hot, humid Virginia summer morning. As the sweating Confederate Soldiers of 44th Alabama Regiment cleared brush from a ravine, they were surprised to see their division commander, Major General Charles Field, four brigadier generals and the 44th Alabama’s colonel pass through to the forward picket line. Using binoculars, the officers closely observed the Union positions.
One Alabama Soldier was close enough to overhear the leaders as they spoke. The 44th’s colonel remarked that the enemy would see his regiment moving into the attack once his men left the ravine in which they were to be sheltered; however, Field replied that he would have time to deliver his assault. It did not take a genius to realize that 44th Alabama was to be the spearhead of a major attack by the Army of Northern Virginia’s I Corps. The eavesdropping Soldier promptly deserted – and he wasn’t alone.
As word filtered down through the ranks to prepare for the upcoming operation, many men concluded they already had seen too much “glory” to look forward to yet another bloody attack. They began deserting their regiments and slipping through the picket lines. Yet this act was becoming increasingly dangerous, since in response to the rising number of desertions the pickets now had peremptory orders to shoot any Soldier attempting to pass beyond the lines. Many men, however, found ways to get through, perhaps aided by sympathetic Soldiers on picket duty who were reluctant to shoot their comrades.
Under Union interrogation, the Confederate deserters provided information about the impending assault that was consistent down to the details: Apparently, Lee planned to launch Lieutenant General Richard H. Anderson’s I Corps in an attack against Union Major General Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps, while sending Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s III Corps in an enveloping attack against the open Union flank west of Petersburg. The ravine cleared by the 44th Alabama Soldiers was to hide their regiment’s initial assault parties. The attack would begin late that night or the next morning before dawn. The troops involved had been issued five to seven days of rations, indicating this would be a major operation of several days’ duration.
Based on this information, Meade quickly began preparing his men for battle. He ordered General Ambrose Burnside’s IX Corps and Warren’s V Corps to repel the Confederate attack once it had begun and then to conduct an immediate counterattack. He then ordered Major General Winfield Scott Hancock to have his II Corps ready to pitch in.
Meade seemed to welcome the Confederates coming out from behind their entrenchments, telling Grant, “I most earnestly hope they will try the experiment, for I think it will relieve us greatly.” What he did not know, however, was that one of his Union Soldiers had deserted. Perhaps the Soldier’s incentive was that the Confederates were known to transfer Union deserters to the Shenandoah Valley and then release them to make their way back North.
On the night of July 17, the Union IX Corps and V Corps Soldiers waited at the ready for the expected Confederate attack. The forward lines were heavily manned, with reserves positioned close at hand. The night was long and sultry, and the men were edgy from the anticipation of being attacked by the Army of Northern Virginia’s mighty I Corps.
This was the same battle-hardened Confederate corps that had crushed the Union left wing at the July 1862 Battle of Second Bull Run and the Union left wing at Chickamauga in September 1863. More recently, I Corps had arrived on the second day of the May 5-7, 1864, Battle of the Wilderness and had shattered Hancock’s Union attack. However, I Corps’ veteran commander, Lee’s “Old War Horse,” Lieutenant General James Longstreet, was wounded during that attack and had been replaced by Lieutenant General Richard H. Anderson.
The Union Soldiers tensed as the light of dawn brightened the horizon on July 18. The sun continued to rise until the morning shone bright and clear, but still the enemy did not appear. The day wore on, and yet no Confederate attack materialized.
Confederate deserters who had arrived at Union lines around 3 a.m. began to reveal what had happened: So many of the South’s Soldiers had deserted that the Confederate commanders reluctantly concluded the vital element of surprise had been thoroughly compromised. Indeed, as Grant noted, “Many deserters had come into our lines and exposed their plans.”
Another Union officer, however, wrote of an additional reason for the canceled attack: “We learn[ed] from one of [the Confederate deserters] that a deserter from our army went over yesterday afternoon and gave himself up to [the Confederates]. One of the informants thinks [the Union deserter] communicated something of importance concerning the attack and our preparations for it.”
Although Soldiers on both sides were greatly relieved to be spared another bloody battle, the generals were disappointed. Meade thought he had missed an opportunity to inflict a serious defeat on his enemy. In the end, both the Confederate attack and the Union counterattack had been compromised by men who chose to desert rather than endure yet another bloodbath in a seemingly endless series of them.
Peter Tsouras is the author of 26 books on military history. He served in the Army and Army Reserve and worked for the Defense Intelligence Agency until retiring in 2010 to devote himself to writing, his roses and his grandchildren.
Originally published in the November 2014 issue of Armchair General.