The Battle of Baylor’s Farm

BaylorsFarmWikipedia

Order of Battle

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Background

In the predawn hours of June 15, 1864, with Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia too distant to reach the lightly defended “Cockade City” city of Petersburg, Virginia and its 18,000 residents, the Union Army of the James began the advance Ulysses S. Grant imagined would end the war.

Though the Army of the Potomac and a detached corps of the Army of the James suffered grievous casualties under Grant’s supervision at the Battle of Cold Harbor just 12 days before and morale in the army had never been lower, Union soldiers were still poised to advance on Petersburg in an operation Grant hoped would cut the vitally important Weldon & Petersburg and Southside railroads.

Cutting this rail junction would hamper Lee’s supplies arriving 20 miles from the south in Petersburg as well as place portions of a Union Army between Richmond and Petersburg.

The first stroke by Ulysses S. Grant and Army of the Potomac commander George Meade was a masterful one, with the combined Union force from Cold Harbor reaching the James River on June 14, 1864 poised to strike at Petersburg the following day. Grant’s transfer of Meade’s army south of the James River was a strategic boon after a terrible defeat at Cold Harbor, allowing Grant to continue to outflank Lee’s right.

While most of the Union force had arrived south of the James River via pontoon bridge at Weyanoke Neck 30 miles east-northeast of Petersburg, William F. “Baldy” Smith’s XVIII Corps from the Army of the James was only 8 miles from Petersburg since they were the only corps to be transported by boat to their river crossing destination and the other corps had marched overland after Cold Harbor. The XVIII Corps arrived at their river crossing destination at Point of Rocks on the north bank of the Appomattox River, at 11:00 PM on June 14, 1864.

William F. “Baldy” Smith was not unique in the eastern theater as a Smith, so he was given the nickname “Baldy” despite not being all that follically challenged. However, he was unique in the eastern theater in that he was the only army general commanding black soldiers.

In Baldy’s Army of the James, Brigadier General Edward W. Hinks commanded a 3,700 division entirely composed of black soldiers and since they were one of the only XVIII Corps divisions not engaged at Cold Harbor they were deemed healthy enough to lead the assault on Petersburg. 

This was a small step for the Petersburg assault, but a giant leap for black America. For the 3,700 men of Hinks’s division were about to conduct the first major offensive operation in Virginia by black troops.

34 years old at the time of the battle, Hinks was a seasoned vet who had been wounded twice in 1862, at Glendale and Antietam. The division of black soldiers he commanded was a disjointed one. The heavily “Jerseymen” 22nd U.S.C.T. was organized earlier in 1864 with 681 New Jersey residents on its rolls.[1]

The 4th U.S.C.T. (United States Colored Troops) was a 1,000 soldier regiment raised in Baltimore. The 6th U.S.C.T. was of similar size, raised in Pennsylvania and composed of many free black citizens. It distinguished itself as the first black regiment to parade in Philadelphia during the war.

While the 4th and 6th U.S.C.T. of Hinks’s division were commanded by progressive commanders with abolitionist leanings, the 5th U.S.C.T. was commanded by Col. James W. Conine, a fiercely unpopular politically conservative commander. While he commanded the regiment, Conine often made soldiers serve out punishments reminiscent of slavery.

For example, one soldier of the 5th was required to act as a personal servant for three months after an offense. Eventually Conine’s racism overtook his sensibilities, and in the days before the Petersburg assault on June 15th he faked an illness so that he would not have to command black soldiers in the assault.

Conine’s attitude was representative of white feeling in the Army of the Potomac and Army of the James about black soldiers. Though black soldiers had established themselves in combat across multiple theaters, they had yet to have a real opportunity in the eastern theater of Virginia. This theater was viewed as the most important in the war to Grant as evidenced by his decision to accompany Meade’s Army of the Potomac in the field on its 1864 Virginia campaign even though he commanded all Union armies.

Hinks’s division of black soldiers had previously participated in small-time war actions such as raids to free fellow slaves and fortifying a camp at Spring Hill outside Petersburg that oversaw POW exchanges. Undoubtedly, their favorite moment of the campaign to that point was their opportunity to whip a local slaveholder who was known for his propensity for whipping slave women in the nude.

The division was composed of two brigades, the aforementioned 4th/5th/6th/22nd U.S.C.T. made up the first brigade commanded by Col. Samuel A. Duncan, a 28 year old schoolteacher from New Hampshire. The second brigade was commanded by Col. John H. Holman and composed of the 1st U.S.C.T. Infantry regiment and 5th Massachusetts Cavalry, which included Frederick Douglass’s son, Sgt. Charles Remond Douglass

The division of black soldiers commanded by white men crossed a pontoon bridge at Broadway Landing on The Appomattox River before midnight on June 14th and began to mass on the south bank of the river at 2:00 AM on the 15th in preparation for the advance that might end the war.

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Above: Modern site of Broadway Landing pontoon bridge crossing

Before Hinks’s division could begin their assault on Petersburg 8 miles to the south-southwest, Union cavalry under Brigadier General August Kautz was called upon to clear the way. Unfortunately, Kautz’s cavalry was beset by problems from the get-go. Though they were supposed to cross the pontoon bridge at Broadway Landing, they got a late start and didn’t fully arrive on the south bank until 5:00 AM. With the first streaks of dawn and 3:30 AM and sunrise at 4:38 AM that day, the opportunity for surprise was lost. Kautz’s cavalry set off southwest towards Petersburg along the City Point Road at 5:00 AM with Hinks’s division in its rear.

At 6:00 AM, Kautz’s cavalry encountered its first rebel resistance. A Confederate force of 850 soldiers and 2 artillery pieces stood in their way led by Brigadier General James Dearing, a shameless self-promoting 24 year old who had earned demerits at West Point before the war for singing the soon-to-be Confederate national anthem “Dixie.” After Gettysburg, the artillerist was rapidly promoted from major to brigadier general leading to ire from many of the Confederates under his command.

This smaller Confederate force (850 to 3,700) included two 12-lb. Howitzer cannons commanded by Capt. Edward Graham’s Battery from the Petersburg city defenses, and the horsemen of the 4th North Carolina Cavalry led by Col. Dennis D. Ferebee. Ferebee was a fascinating foil for his commander Dearing since he was unpopular in the south due to this anti-secessionist leanings. Typical of Tar Heel feeling during the war, Ferebee was one of a line of North Carolina Civil War figures who felt Confederate President Jefferson Davis paid too much attention to Virginia, while ignoring the safety of the strategically important North Carolina.

Dearing’s undersized Confederate brigade halted the lead element of Kautz’s Union cavalry force at Perkinson’s Mill on the City Point Road 5 miles northeast of Petersburg where elements of the 4th North Carolina had thrown up breastworks made from nearby fence rails. The Union cavalry was pinned in a ravine from 6:00-7:35 AM, forced to hunker down until Hinks’s infantry arrived.

Though the horsemen were briefly relieved by 14 rounds from an artillery piece of a 4th Wisconsin battery, this gun was quickly silenced and Kautz’s cavalry remained largely pinned down and out of the fight until Hinks’s division arrived shortly after 7:35 AM. What took place next was 25 minutes of battle that would announce the arrival of black soldiers in the eastern theater.

Battle

While Confederate general Dearing rapidly fired dispatches to Petersburg warning of the Union advance along City Point Road, Kautz’s cavalry removed itself from the action and Hinks’s division readied their advance at the order of  XVIII Corps commander “Baldy” Smith.

It began on a well intentioned, but embarrassing note. Eager to show his ability as a commander and fire up the black soldiers of his division before their first major assault, division commander Hinks spurred his horse to the front of the battle line but the animal got tripped up in a ditch and flung the commander from his saddle. Though he was able to remount his horse briefly, he gave most of his orders for the coming battle at ground level. To add further injury to insult, he reopened the wound he received at Antietam in the fall from his horse.

There was a hint of malice in Baldy Smith’s selection of Hinks’s division to be the infantry division to lead the assault on Petersburg. Though outnumbered more than 3:1, Dearing’s rebels occupied a strong defensive position. A thick woodlot flanked City Point Road beginning at the point of the Union advance and continued until the Union attackers emerged from the woods to continue to 300 yards of open field on a rapidly rising ground leading to the rebel earthworks in front of the local Baylor family farm. The two artillery pieces under Capt. Graham commanded this road approach, forcing the first Union attacking force to march through marshes and dense vines measuring 20 feet high.

Since this was such a difficult position for the attacking Union force to occupy, Smith wanted to preserve his seasoned white veterans of the XVIII Corps for the main assault on the Petersburg defenses that he believed would follow. In fact, Hinks’s specific mission as described by Smith was to clear the rebels from the City Point Road at this point southwest of Perkinson’s Mill.

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Above: crude author-made comparison of Baylor’s Farm interpretive sign battle map and modern location in Google Maps

In addition to the thick woodlot, the soldiers of Hinks’s division would have to navigate around the narrow Cabin Creek in the middle of the woodlot. Nevertheless, morale was high as the first black soldier offensive in the eastern theater kicked off shortly after 8:00 AM with a cheer and artillery barrage by Battery B of the 2nd U.S.C.T. and Battery E of the 3rd New York Cavalry, still hanging around after Kautz’s withdrawal.

The cheer was the only positive from the first assault. Though 1st Brigade Col. Samuel Duncan had a sound battle plan directing regimental commanders to first pass through the woods and reform before opening fire on the rebels, as often happens in battle the best made plans go awry.

The combination of the strong defensive position, geography of the advance, and inexperience hurt the U.S.C.T. division badly at first. The 4th U.S.C.T. under Lieutenant Colonel George Rogers, perhaps too excitedly, started out of the woodlot and towards the rebel earthworks and emerged first from the woodlot. However, the swampy ground around Cabin Creek meant that each regiment would have different rates of advance and the 4th emerged alone from the woods, and ripe for enemy fire.

The regiment began across the clearing towards Baylor’s Farm without waiting for orders and were wrecked by case and canister shot from Confederate cannons as well as enemy musketry across the entire advance.

4th U.S.C.T. commander George Rogers saw the danger in his regiment attacking alone and chased after the men of his regiment during the messy charge in a futile attempt to call them back. The results of the charge were disastrous for the 4th: 120 casualties in a matter of minutes, an officer killed, and three captains wounded.

They had arrived at the clearing alone because Col. Joseph B. Kiddoo’s 22nd U.S.C.T got lost in a swamp before being found by elements Col. John W. Ames’s 6th U.S.C.T. and regrouping. Located in the center-left of the Union battle line straddling City Point Road, Col. Ames’s regiment attempted to relieve the men of the shattered 4th. However, the 6th’s relief attempt met similar results to the 4th’s initial assault on Dearing’s rebel earthworks. With consistent musket fire raking the 4th and 6th on the left side of the line, both regiments retreated to the relative safety of the woodlot to regroup.

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Above: Battle map from Sean M. Chick’s The Battle of Petersburg p. 111

The men of the 4th and 6th became further rebel fodder when they had to halt in the face of a friendly fire attack by Col. Henry S. Russell’s inexperienced 5th Massachusetts Cavalry unit from Holman’s brigade in reserve. The 5th MA Cav were inexperienced as a infantry unit since they had been indifferently drilled for foot service and were said to be, “spiritless” being forcibly dismounted.

Russell himself fell wounded in the incident and Col. Dennis D. Ferebee’s 4th North Carolina Cavalry continued to rain down musket fire on the Union left. All seemed lost in a matter of minutes just after 8:00 AM. Enter Col. Joseph B. Kiddoo’s 22nd U.S.C.T. on the Union right.

While Ferebee’s North Carolinians focused on the Union left, Col. Kiddoo formed a coherent battle line with the 22nd and 5th U.S.C.T. on the Union right. The soldiers of these regiments were particularly enraged. From their part of the line, some men could see a Confederate officer riding his white horse along the horizon of battle, barking orders at his men seemingly unmoved by Union counter fire from black soldiers.

Sergeant Major Milton M. Holland of the 5th U.S.C.T., the son of a white slaveholding Texas Secretary of State-turned-Confederate-adjutant and an African American enslaved woman, saw race as a factor in the rebels’ carefree attitude towards Union fire writing, “We could see him plainly riding up and down the rebel lines, could hear him shouting from the top of his voice to stand, that they had only n*****s to contend with.” Holland was manumitted by his father Bird in 1850 and allowed to move to Ohio and attend a school run by abolitionists. Earlier that year, Milton’s father had been killed in combat in Louisiana during the Red River Campaign. Milton would go on to be awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions at the Battle of New Market Heights later in 1864.

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Above: photo of Medal of Honor recipient Milton M. Holland from W.E.B. Du Bois’s 1900 Negro Exhibit of the American Section at the Paris Exposition Universelle as part of an exhibit to show the economic and social progress of African Americans since emancipation

In addition to their anger of the rebel officer’s taunting, all of Hinks’s division at the Battle of Baylor’s Farm was angry over a massacre committed in April by rebels against surrendering black troops at Fort Pillow on the Mississippi River in Tennessee. At Fort Pillow, after overwhelming Union defenders and taking the fort Confederates “gave no quarter, shooting unarmed Union soldiers in the act of surrendering.” The results were 281 casualties, two-thirds of which were black soldiers.

Spurred on by artillery fire and anger, the 22nd U.S.C.T. advanced with their own version of the “rebel yell,” frantically shouting “Remember Fort Pillow” as they charged the rebel earthworks. The 5th spontaneously joined the charge and suddenly the 4th North Carolina Cavalry began to face a coordinated line of assault and had to expend more ammunition.

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Above: Monument to the United States Colored Troops at Stop 3 on the Petersburg National Battlefield Eastern Front driving tour

As Dearing’s brigade became dangerously low on ammunition, the combined 22nd/5th U.S.C.T. force on the Union right overran the rebel earthworks, sending the rebels to retreat and finally giving black soldiers their moment in the eastern theater.

The flagbearer for the 5th planted the regiment’s colors on Dearing’s abandoned earthworks and claimed a 12-pound Howitzer left behind by Graham’s Petersburg Battery. Frederick Douglass’s son, Sgt. Charles Remond Douglass, and a guard of 50 soldiers carried the gun around Union lines after the battle and received cheers from the all-white 134th and 148th Ohio regiments. Milton Holland again recalled the Confederate general on the white horse taunting them and couldn’t help but see the irony in his taunts, writing that “in a few moments more we mounted the rebel parapets. To our great surprise, we found that the boasted Southern chivalry had fled. They could not see the n***** part as the man on the white horse presented it.”

The mood was jubilant all along the Union line. In the 117th New York regimental history, an unidentified black older of Hinks’s division was quoted saying “Tell you boys, we made um get. We druv (drove) em!” to the white soldiers of the 117th.

Though New York Herald correspondent John A. Brady reported that before the battle that all of the white soldiers of Baldy Smith’s XVIII Corps expected the black soldiers to run, in fact they did the opposite. And then some.

Lt. S. Millett Thompson of the 13th New Hampshire, a regiment that arrived shortly after Hinks’s division captured the rebel earthworks, wrote of the black soldiers’ resolve: “Black soldiers will keep on their feet, and move on, with wounds that would utterly lay out white men, and they stick like death to their guns. A white man severely wounded throws his gun away.”

In the 117th New York’s regimental history, the author described the change in attitude towards black Union soldiers after the Baylor’s Farm success: “On that occasion, those who were politically the most conservative, suddenly experienced an accession of respect for the chattel on this discovery of its ‘equal’ value in a possible emergency.”

Aftermath

Though Baylor’s Farm was secure, Dearing’s rebel brigade withdrew successfully and continued to fight with Hinks’s division and Kautz’s cavalry as they advanced towards Petersburg.

Union forces arrived at the Dimmock Line of Petersburg’s defenses at 11:00 AM, but no serious Union attack was organized until 7:00 PM. Although Hinks’s division had opened up the road to Petersburg, Baldy Smith was unable to organize the master stroke to end the war.

The Battle of Baylor’s Farm was a tactical Union victory because Hinks’s division drove Dearing’s brigade from the battlefield. However, it was a strategic Confederate victory because the two hours that Dearing’s brigade held the Union in check around Perkinson’s Mill and Baylor’s Farm was long enough to prevent an early morning assault against Petersburg’s defenses.

Battlefield Preservation

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Though there is a small interpretive sign of the battle outside of the Hopewell-Prince George VA Visitor Center where Hinks’s division began their advance on the rising ground leading to Baylor’s Farm, none of the battlefield is preserved.

The modern geography of the area is entirely different than it was at the time of the battle. The woodlot Hinks’s division advanced through was taken down during the construction of the I-295 interchange at SR-36. The rising ground the black soldiers had to charge across is no longer visible due to commercial development. 

The site of the Baylor’s Farm is mostly located within a restricted area in the northeast corner of Fort Lee. There are no interpretive signs for the battle on base.


References

 

Chick, S. (2015). The Battle of Petersburg, June 15-18, 1864. Potomac Books.

 

Perdreau, C. (2018). A Biographical Sketch of Master Sergeant Milton Holland. Retrieved from http://grosvenor-cwrt.org/our-moh-recipients/more-about-master-sergeant-milton-holland/

 

Rhea, G. (2017). On to Petersburg: Grant and Lee, June 4-15, 1864. LSU Press.

 

Smith, J. (2001). Black Soldiers in Blue: African American Troops in the Civil War Era. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press.