1864: “We Have Been In Line Of Battle”

In line of battle near Cold Harbor

Monday Morning June 6th 64

My own Darling Sister & father & mother

Last night after being relieved from outpost duty on my arrival in camp a letter from you was handed to me. I asked how it came & was told it had come down from the line of battle, curious way for a letter to come isn’t it? Yet so it is letters are constantly being passed up our lines to some of the different men in different Brigades & also accounts of the different fights pass in the same way, so we always know directly a fight is over at the end of the line we know how it went for us. I have been most anxious to hear from you all having heard that father had been taken prisoner & the town filled to overflowing with Yankee wounded & I was much afraid…

My anxieties are all at rest now & I feel much better, by this time, of course you have heard the Confederate accounts of the battles fought around Fredsbg, it was indeed a bloody one. The Yankees must have lost 75,000…

The Yankees were driven from all points on our line & had Whiting done what he was ordered to do we would have captured half of Butler’s army, but he did nothing although he had 10,000 men under his command. However the yankees escaped to the cover of their gunboats & have been hovering under their protection ever since. Butler can do nothing on the South Side & is now sending his troops to Grant[.] Immediately after we had driven the Yankees back to the river our Division was ordered up to Gen’l Lee and we immediately marched to Richmond and got on the [railroad] cars & got…within 25 miles of Fredsbg, we were met there by the whole left wing of Grant’s army & of course our little Brigade had to fall back which we did we fell back & met our Division at North Anna Bridge where we remained in line of battle some days but Grant failed to attack but worked his way continually by the flank towards the White House. We have been in line of battle here for some days & Grant has attacked our lines at different points some eight or nine times in 8 or 10 lines deep, but in every instance has he been repulsed with great slaughter he must have lost here about 10,000 men.

So dear sister having given an account of our travels up to this time I will try & write about other matters…

Robert Knox to his sister Virginia Knox, June 6, 1864, letter excerpts

Source: The Circle Unbroken: Civil War Letters of the Knox Family of Fredericksburg. The Central Rappahannock Heritage Center and The Historic Fredericksburg Foundation, 2013. (pages 197-199)

The Bermuda Hundred Campaign

Union trenches near Bermuda Hundred.

This campaign was supposed to launch from the James River and use maneuvers on the Virginia Peninsula to threaten Richmond, the Confederacy’s capital. Political General Benjamin Butler commanded the Union forces – X Corps and XVIII – through the series of battles that unfolded at the same time as the Overland Campaign and New Market Campaign.

  • May 6 – 7: Battle of Port Walthall Junction
  • May 9: Battle of Swift Creek
  • May 10: Battle of Chester Station
  • May 12-16: Battle of Proctor’s Creek
  • May 20: Battle of Ware Bottom Church

In the end, the Confederates blocked and forced Butler until he “bottled up” at Bermuda Hundred. Ultimately, the Union efforts managed to tie up Rebel forces and prevent reinforcements from joining Robert E. Lee, but once Butler was “secured” extra troops were hurried north to join the Overland Campaign.

Robert Knox and his unit had fought in the Bermuda Hundred Campaign, then quickly transferred to Lee’s depleted army, fighting in two important campaigns.

To The North Anna River & Beyond

For the Union Army of the Potomac and Confederate Army of Northern Virginia fighting out the Overland Campaign in central Virginia, the war moved on after the slaughter at Spotsylvania Court House. The next engagements in that campaign are often lumped together and called the Battle of North Anna.

On May 21-23, the Union army maneuvered toward the North Anna River. By the 23rd, fighting erupted at the Chesterfield Bridge and Jericho Mills. Lee formed a defensive line, but Grant’s men started crossing the important river landmark on May 24th, forcing Lee back again. The armies stalemated on the 25th and 26th, but Grant was already planning to swing his army east, marching to outflank Lee.

The Army of the Potomac has crossed the North Anna River! (By Map by Hal Jespersen, http://www.posix.com/CW, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12886193)

Again, Lee blocked the Union movement, resulting in the Battle of Cold Harbor. There, fighting began on May 31, but the main Union attack launched on June 3. It resulted in a horribly unsuccessful attack that Grant would later regret in his memoirs. After casualties for both sides nearing 18,000 at Cold Harbor, the armies fell into nine days of trench and siege-like operations. During this later period, Knox wrote this letter.

Historic Musings

“I will try to write about other matters.” Robert dutifully gives his family the account of his battles and the campaigns from his perspective, but then goes on to focus on other information. He particularly wanted to tell his sister about his sweetheart and see if she would approve of a courtship and future engagement!

The campaigns of 1864 wore soldiers down physically, mentally, and emotionally. However, we find examples of them consciously trying to turn their thoughts from war to something better. For younger men, it was often trying to think of their futures. Sometimes they had clear ideas – like Robert. Other times they were wondering what future they could have after their war experiences, but still trying to look beyond their current situation and scenes.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

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