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Saturday, October 27, 2018

Happy Burgess Mill Day!

It occurred to me this morning that if Lincoln had not won reelection and the North had consequently lost the Civil War, the little known Burgess Mill might well be considered one of the decisive battles of world history. 

This is its anniversary, as well as the anniversary of a connected fight, Williamsburg Road.

Burgess Mill took place when Meade launched IX and V Corps against works between Hatcher's Run and Petersburg that he supposed unfinished.  At the same time, two divisions of II Corps were to swing across Hatchers Run at Armstrong's Mill, recross to the left bank at Burgess Mill, cut the South Side Railroad and force the Confederates to abandon Petersburg and Richmond.

North of James River, Butler was to demonstrate opposite the Confederate lines there.  On his own initiative, he launched an assault along Williamsburg Road with XVIII Corps.

Oddly, neither Meade nor Butler had reconnoitered.  If they had, Meade would have known that the Secessionist lines between Petersburg and Hatchers Run had been completed, and Butler would have known that the Rebel lines near Williamsburg Road were unoccupied.  (This tends to support the cover story advance after the offensive's failure that it was a reconnaissance-in-force, sometimes known as a forced reconnaissance.)

Longstreet mauled one of the thrusts north of the James, and Butler failed to support the troops who made their way into the Confederate works north of Williamsburg Road. 

Hampton and Mahone, under the nominal command of Heth, thwarted Hancock's crossing to the left bank of Hatchers Run.  The White Club (Second) and Diamond (Third) divisions of II Corps gave as good as they got in the fighting at Burgess Mill but failed in their mission.

To cover the failure of his Sixth Offensive at Petersburg, Grant advanced the story that the fight resulted from a reconnaissance-in-force rather than from his last desperate grasp at Petersburg and Richmond prior to the November 1864 election.  He could not be sure that the capture of Atlanta and the clearing of the Shenandoah Valley were enough to ensure Lincoln's reelection.

The definitive account of this offensive is in Hampton Newsome's Richmond Must Fall.  Eyewitness accounts of Burgess Mill are in Newsome, Horn and Selby, eds., Civil War Talks:  Further Reminiscences of George S. Bernard and His Fellow Veterans

So if you have never heard of Burgess Mill, be glad.  It would only be a household work if Lincoln had not been reelected and the North had consequently lost the Civil War.

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