June 1864 Order to Steamer "Decatur" to Transport 18th Corps to Bermuda Hundred Ahead of the Failed First Offensive at Petersburg - Signed by Several Notable Potomac Army Staff Officers


June 1864 Order to Steamer "Decatur" to Transport 18th Corps to Bermuda Hundred Ahead of the Failed First Offensive at Petersburg - Signed by Several Notable Potomac Army Staff Officers


Item No. 8423689

An interesting June 1864 Army of the Potomac order with connections to the battles of Cold Harbor and Petersburg. Signed by Assistant Quartermaster Captain Perley P. Pitkin at White House Landing, the order instructed the captain of the steamer Decatur to embark troops from General William F. Smith’s 18th Corps at White House Landing on the Pamunkey River and transport them to Bermuda Hundred on the James River. The 18th Corps, part of General Benjamin Butler’s Army of the James, had joined the Potomac Army at Cold Harbor. Following the unsuccessful attacks and subsequent stand-off there, the entire army shifted south toward the James River. While the 2nd, 5th, 6th, and 9th Corps extricated themselves from the Cold Harbor fortifications and marched south, Smith’s 18th Corps was to take the river route specified in the order.

One of the great lost opportunities of the war then followed. Smith and the 18th Corps returned to Butler’s army at Bermuda Hundred unaware that they were to make an attack against Petersburg. As Gordon Rhea writes in On to Petersburg: Grant and Lee June 4-15, 1864:

Importantly, while Grant had suggested to Butler that Smith’s arrival at Bermuda Hundred might enable his corps to immediately attack Petersburg, Grant gave no such instructions to Smith. His written orders were simply to march the 18th Corps to White House Landing, board transports, and rejoin the Army of the James. As Smith later explained, he received “no intimation” that upon reaching Bermuda Hundred, he would be expected to lead an offensive against Petersburg.

But that’s exactly what happened. The result, of course, were the disorganized and unsupported attacks by the 18th Corps on June 15 at Petersburg, which most historians agree could have succeeded had there been better coordination among the Union Army’s high command.

As for Decatur, the reverse side of the order reveals how her journey unfolded. After disembarking the troops at Bermuda Hundred she received new orders from Captain George S. Dodge (later brevet brigadier) to move downriver to Willcox Landing on the north bank of the James, where the other Union corps were gathering in preparation to be ferried across or to march over the river via one of the pontoon bridges under construction. Upon arrival at Willcox, however, it was determined that she drew too much water to approach the wharf (docket entry signed by future brigadier Lieut. Col. Charles H. Morgan). She then reported at Fortress Monroe on June 15 and then back to White House on June 16.

The order was written on the front and back of a single sheet of lined stationery measuring about 8” x 10”. Very good condition with light toning and foxing. Creased where folded. There is some slight edge separation at one of the folds, extending just 1 1/2” from the edge. Very stable otherwise.

The full transcript follows:

Depot Quarter Master’s Office
Army of the Potomac, White House Va.
June 12, 1864

Captain of Steamer ”Decatur”

You will take on board troops belonging to the 18th Army Corps and at once proceed to Bermuda Hundred Va. and upon your arrival report to the Asst. Quartermaster.

Having debarked your troops you will return to this place without delay and report to me.
Respectfully Yrs
P[erley] P. Pitkin
Capt. and A.Q.M.

The order is docketed on the reverse with entries at each of Decatur’s subsequent stops at Bermuda Hundred, Wilcox Wharf on the James River, Fortress Monroe, and back to White House Landing. It reads:

Reported arrival at Bermuda Hundred Va. at 12.45 P.M. June 14 1864 & after disembark troops ordered to report to Senior officer at Wilcox Landing & if not needed there proceed to obey the within orders.
Geo. S. Dodge [later Brevet Brigadier General]
Capt. & A.Q.M.

Reported at Wilcox wharf. Draw too much water.
C[harles] H. Morgan [later Brigadier General]
Lt. Col. Chf Staff

Reported arrival at Fort Monroe Va June 15th 1864 at 7 ocl. A.M.
A. S. Hunbau[?]
Capt. & A.Q.M.

Reported arrival at White House Va June 16th 1864 at 5 o’clock A.M.
H[enry] B. Blood
Capt. & A.Q.M.

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