“Better men were never better led”: October 1864 and the Crisis in the Union Armies at Petersburg

“Better men were never better led”: October 1864 and the Crisis in the Union Armies at Petersburg

In early October 1864, Gen. U. S. Grant planned a trip to Washington. He believed that 30,000 to 40,000 troops were gathered in “depots all over the North” and wanted to “see if I cannot devise means of getting [them] promptly into the field.” Although he canceled the trip, his concern was well placed.[1]

The Army of the Potomac had begun the summer of 1864 with more than 100,000 men, but the massive casualties incurred during the Overland Campaign, along with the redeployment of some units, had left it with about 50,000 effectives at the end of the summer. Replacements did appear throughout the fall, but the Army of the Potomac was a very different organization than it had been three months earlier, and Union generals were almost as worried about the preparedness of their men as they were about the Confederates they faced across the wrecked Virginia landscape.

A lot was being asked of these men. Soldiers were constantly adjusting their lines, improving old earthworks, and destroying or modifying captured enemy works. Moreover, the wood and dirt fortifications, hard-used by the men, subject to heat and rain, and fouled by decomposing bodies and human waste, constantly had to be rebuilt. Others dug mines and countermines, while still others created primitive minefields by planting “torpedoes.” These major construction projects occurred during nearly constant skirmishing, scouting, and artillery duels. By early fall, insects, rats, lice, dirt (and, when it rained, bottomless mud) further plagued the men who were digging, fighting, and dying in the Union trenches.[2]

Fort Sedgwick near Petersburg. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Throughout the fall campaign, Grant and his generals fretted about the readiness of new recruits, frequently reorganized units, and, on occasion, delayed operations until a time when more battle-ready men were available. Gen. Winfield Hancock worried that his men, particularly replacements, were being asked to work too hard; “there are a good many recruits in the command whom we are trying to drill, and I have not allowed them to be worked within the last few days on that account.”[3] In early October, Gen. G. K. Warren, a famous worrier, warned that “We need time to get our new levies in order, and no matter how great the pressure, we cannot succeed with them till they have at least acquired the . . .rudiments of their drill and discipline.”[4] Gen. Nelson Miles complained that some of his regiments “are mainly composed of substitutes who have recently joined, and the frequency of desertions among this class of men renders it necessary that they be placed in positions where they can easily be watched and guarded.” In fact, Nelson wanted his new soldiers to be moved out of the trenches so they could be better trained and disciplined.[5]

At the other end of the Union position, north of the James River, Gen. Benjamin Butler’s Army of the James was also going through growing pains. Butler complained of a group of about 300 “unorganized recruits” intended as replacements for a New York regiment. They seemed to have been sent by the War Department without orders or leaders; “the captains that have been commissioned have deserted them and cannot be found.” The men had elected their own officers, but had become “a mob.” Butler wanted them sent to their intended regiment so they could be integrated into “good companies.” “Otherwise, they are worse than useless for months.” This was apparently not the only time a group of reinforcements had appeared without clear directions. “We have suffered so much from these new organizations rendering men useless that I trust that where there is no organization we shall not wait for a mob to make one.”[6]

These desperate messages remind us that, despite our hindsight-influenced sense that the Confederacy was on its last legs by October 1864, that was not necessarily how Union commanders saw it. They doubted the capacity of their men to withstand the rigors of this new—to them—form of warfare, and seemed to be worrying that the effectiveness of the army had hit a tipping point. They had to make Grant and the War Department aware, through more negative than usual rhetoric describing their men, that winning the war required further investment in men and training.

But a decidedly different rhetorical style reflected another of the war’s imperatives. Butler bragged that at Chaffin’s Farm his 2500 black soldiers had “carried intrenchments at the point of the bayonet” that had previously stymied twice the number of white troops. “Treated fairly and disciplined, they have fought most heroically.” The same day he declared that he could break the Bermuda line between the Appomattox and the James Rivers “with 3,000 negroes” and asked for more black regiments.[7]

This flag, “One Cause, Once Country,” was the regimental flag of the 45th USCT, several companies of which fought with Gen. Benjamin Butler’s Army of the James at Petersburg. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Butler’s message to the “Soldiers of the Army of the James” on October 11 featured fulsome praise for the officers and men of every unit in his army, including the Third Divisions of the Eighteenth and Tenth Corps, both of which were comprised of black troops. “Better men were never better led, better officers never led better men,” Butler declared. In addition to congratulating dozens of white officers, he spent several paragraphs noting the heroics of black soldiers, from the private who bayonetted a Rebel officer trying to rally his men to the sergeant who led his company into the enemy’s works after their captain was killed. Several black soldiers were noted for their gallant action to take over for disabled color bearers, despite being wounded themselves. By the time Butler wrote his message, at least four of the companies in the Sixth U. S. Colored Troops were led by black sergeants after their officers had been killed or wounded, and several companies in other regiments also went into battle behind black sergeants. Butler ordered a “special medal” created in their honor.[8]

Butler was a famous self-promoter, and he drew glory from the excellent performance of black units that many commanders were reluctant to command. But he also knew that, even as the fighting qualities of white soldiers seemed to be on the decline, the black troops fighting for the freedom of their race needed to be seen as effective, showing high morale and leadership possibilities.

The war was, in fact, entering its final phase in the fall of 1864—but the generals could not be sure of that. As a result, they shaped their messages to illustrate the immediate needs of the army, arguing that the army’s poor condition required urgent measures and implying that victory could still slip away. But a few also highlighted the contributions of the black soldiers, hoping that the aftermath of the war for African Americans could be shaped by public recognition of their loyalty and courage.



[1] Grant to Gen. George G. Meade, October 3, 1864, The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1880-1901), Ser. 1, Vol. 42, Pt. 3, 51. Hereafter call the OR.

[2] Earl J. Hess details the growth of the entrenchments around Petersburg, and the lives of the men who built them, in In the Trenches at Petersburg: Field Fortifications and Confederate Defeat (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009), esp. 50-77.

[3] Hancock to Meade, October 15, 1864, OR, Ser. 1, Vol. 42, Pt. 3, 238.

[4] Warren to Meade, October 1, 1864, OR, Ser. 1, Vol. 42, Pt. 3, 20.

[5] Miles to Maj. H. H. Bingham, Acting Assistant Adjutant General, Second Corps, October 11, 1864, OR, Ser. 1, Vol. 42, Pt. 3, 160.

[6] Butler to Grant, October 12, 1864, OR, Ser. 1, Vol. 42, Pt. 3, 184.

[7] Butler to Stanton, October 3, 1864, OR, Ser. 1, Vol. 42, Pt. 3, 65.; Butler to Grant, October 3, 1864, OR, Ser. 1, Vol. 42, Pt. 3, 65.

[8] Gen. Benjamin Butler, “Soldiers of the Army of the James,” October 11, 1864, OR, Ser. 1, Vol. 42, Pt. 3, 161, 163, 167-170.


James Marten

James Marten is professor of history at Marquette University and a past president of the Society of Civil War Historians. The author, editor, or co-editor of over twenty books, including Buying and Selling Civil War Memory in Gilded Age America, Co-edited, with Caroline E. Janney (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2021); America’s Corporal: James Tanner in War and Peace (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2014), and Sing Not War: The Lives of Union and Confederate Veterans in Gilded Age America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011).

2 Replies to ““Better men were never better led”: October 1864 and the Crisis in the Union Armies at Petersburg”

  1. Interesting to hear about Grant’s “nervousness” at Petersburg. I’m reading a “defense” of Hood’s 1864 Tennessee Campaign and how Grant was worried about maintaining a hold on Nashville. No doubt his concerns around Petersburg added to those worries.

  2. A major, major USCT (Civil War – Unites States Colored Troops) research tool has just been added to the Camp William Penn, Cheltenham Township, Montgomery County, Pa. website (Database and Archive). Every USCT soldier of the Camp William Penn regiments has his own computer folder, 18,000 folders, 400,000 documents. Every soldier’s military file. Some of the soldier’s photo, death certificate, grave location, gravestone photo, stories, genealogy and more. A major new development in USCT genealogical and historical research.

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