Civil War: The Battle of Deep Bottom was fought to protect the Confederate capital

Generals Lee and Grant faced off at the James River, directing their generals. Photo: Site of Deep Bottom Battle on the James River today

VIENNA, Va.,  July 27, 2012 — A minor Civil War battle was fought along the James River in Henrico, County, Va. 148 years ago this week in an area that had numerous names.

Known alternatively as Darbytown, Strawberry Plains, New Market Road, or Gravel Hill, the Battle of Deep Bottom was part of the Siege of Petersburg, leading up to the well-known Battle of the Crater at the end of the month. Since it was basically at a horseshoe shaped bend of the river, known as Jones Neck, and said to have been a very deep portion of the James, it ended up being called Deep Bottom, a good crossing point on the James.

The battle pitted Maj. Gens. Winfield S. Hancock and Philip Sheridan against CSA Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell and his Second Corps and Lt. Gen. Richard H. Anderson. The initial plan called for Hancock’s troops and the cavalry of Sheridan to make a charge across the river to Deep Bottom, after putting together a pontoon bridge, so as to be able to march against the capital at Richmond.

General Philip Sheridan

General Ulysses S. Grant wanted Hancock to keep the Confederates busy at Chaffin’s Bluff, which would prevent any reinforcements from bothering the cavalry in their attempt to attack Richmond. At the same time, Sheridan was supposed to ride around the city on the north and west side, cutting the lines of the Virginia Central Railroad. Supplies from the fertile Shenandoah Valley kept Richmond supplied and Grant’s forces wanted to bring an end to this.

The Union troops broke through the Confederate rifle pits on the New Market Road (hence one of the names) and captured four cannons as they headed towards the Long Bridge Road.  Despite some random fire from the Confederates, Sheridan rode onto the higher ground, which overlooked the millpond.  That appeared promising for a brief time, but the 10th and 50th Georgia Infantry regiments drove them back in a heavy counterattack.

General Robert E. Lee began to bring up more reinforcements from near Petersburg, which was exactly what Grant had hoped for. Lee called up troops from Anderson as well as Henry Heth’s infantry division and the cavalry division of Maj. Gen. W. H. F. “Rooney” Lee, as well as calling for troops from Richmond.

On the morning of July 28, Grant called up reinforcements from Hancock’s troops to try and take out the Confederate left with a charge against Gravel Hill (one of the other names), but the Confederates launched their own counterattack and disrupted them. Three brigades of CSA forces, Lane’s McGowan’s and Kershaw’s instantly pounded Sheridan’s right flank. This was countered by the Union’s own cavalry which formed a battle line, lying prone just beyond where a shallow ridgeline was. It was not sufficient for defense, and when the Rebels came charging over the small crest, the answer was extremely heavy fire from the Union’s repeating carbine rifles.

General Robert E. Lee

Sheridan’s mounted forces took over in pursuit and capturing  nearly 200 Confederate prisoners; the Confederate forces were able to come out with only Yankee cannon before they withdrew to their shallow earthworks.

When that afternoon came, Hancock had reworked his divisions to permit the men to go back to Deep Bottom and its crossing point with no problem. There wasn’t any additional fighting and for the time being, the action against the the Confederate capital and its railroads ended, and Grant could go ahead with his anticipated battle of the Crater near Petersburg in a few days, which would be an interesting debacle.

The U.S. forces lost 488 men, 62 killed and 340 wounded, and 86 either missing or wounded.  For the Confederates, the casualties were 679, with 80 killed, 391 wounded, and 208 missing or captured. Technically it was a Union victory, but a Second Battle of Deep Bottom would take place a month later, on August 13-20, 1864.

Every summer, the Strawberry Plains Festival is celebrated in Richmond, a grim reminder of the earlier action and the small town of Delaplane, Va. has a Strawberry Festival on Memorial Day as well.

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Martha M. Boltz

Martha Boltz is a frequent contributor  to the long running Civil War features in The Washington Times America At War feature in the print and online editions. She has been a regular contributor to the original Civil War Page and its successor page since 1994, and is a civil war buff, historian, and writer. "Someone said that if we don't learn about the past, we are condemned to repeat it," she said, "and there are lessons of all sorts inherent in this bloody four-year period of our country's history."  She is a member of several heritage and lineage groups, as well as the Montgomery County Civil War Round Table. Her standing invitation is, "come on down - check the blog - send me your comments and let's have fun with its history and maybe learn something at the same time."


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