Soon after Gen. Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia started marching from Fredericksburg toward the fateful July 1-3, 1863, Battle of Gettysburg, the telegraph line to Fort Monroe starting humming.
"Lee's Army is in motion toward the Shenandoah Valley," wrote Union General in Chief Henry W. Halleck in a coded message to the commander of the Department of Virginia.
"All your available force should be concentrated to threaten Richmond by seizing and destroying their railroad bridges over the South and North Anna rivers. … If you cannot accomplish this, you can at least occupy a large force of the enemy."
A century and a half later, the three-week campaign mounted by Maj. Gen. John A. Dix has long been eclipsed by Gettysburg's shadow.
But between June 25 and July 4, when he took advantage of Lee's absence to stage an advance that menaced the Confederate capital from fewer than 20 miles away, the high commands and newspapers of both North and South focused on the looming potential of the Gettysburg campaign's second front to produce a watershed moment.
"Look at the Richmond Dispatch during this time. It wasn't Gettysburg they were concerned about. It was Dix," said Diane Depew, a historian at Colonial National Historical Park in Yorktown, where the Union mobilized an army of 30,000 soldiers.
"Gettysburg turned out to be the biggest story of the war. But before it was decided, this was the threat to the Confederate capital — and you have to ask yourself what would we'd be talking about today if they had taken Richmond."
The Union edge
Tentative Union leadership and a palpable failure of nerve decided that question before Dix's Peninsula Campaign ended.
But when the old veteran of the War of 1812 began gathering troops at Yorktown in mid-June, he looked like he might have a telling advantage in the attempt to make Lee pay for his gamble.
Drawing from Suffolk and Williamsburg as well as Yorktown and Fort Monroe, Dix assembled a force several times larger than the scattered brigades of 6,000 to 10,000 Confederates that had been left to help the artillerymen and battalions of clerks, postal workers and quartermaster personnel defending Richmond.
"He had gigantic numerical advantage. He had a strong mounted force. The Confederates didn't know where he was going to strike," said Robert E.L. Krick of Richmond National Battlefield Park. "But the result was disappointing. It was a campaign of lost opportunities."
Transportation delays slowed Dix from the start, creating a lapse of 10 days between Halleck's order of June 14 and the build-up of a force large enough to embark from Yorktown.
Not until June 25 could he assemble the 14 steamers needed to move Col. Samuel P. Spear and 1,050 cavalrymen up the York to White House Landing on the Pamunkey River, where they secured a landing point only 20 miles east of Richmond.
Soon after posting his sentries, Spear drove northwest toward Hanover Courthouse, where he surprised a detachment of North Carolina troops guarding the Virginia Central Railroad Bridge over the South Anna River.
With reinforcements, the Confederates held out for an hour before part of Spear's force managed to cross the river and attack from a second direction.
"The enormous odds prevailed," a North Carolina soldier recalled, describing a fierce fight that left 9 Confederates killed, 13 wounded and 125 captured.
"But only after a most desperate and hand-to-hand conflict with pistol, sabre and bayonet."
The bloodied Union cavalrymen also made a brief thrust at the Richmond & Fredericksburg Railroad bridge 2 1/2 miles away, only to fall back and burn the bridge already taken.
Then they rode back toward White House Landing, capturing Brig. Gen. W. H. F. "Rooney" Lee — a son of Robert E. Lee — as they passed a plantation where the wounded cavalryman was convalescing.
"Spear's raid produced the best results of the expedition," Krick says.
"But this was an expedition that happened in surges, and the rest of them were not as good."
Fear in Richmond
When Spear's cavalry returned to the Pamunkey on June 27, Dix's force there had swelled to nearly 19,000, including infantry and artillery as well as a locomotive and half-a-dozen rail cars from Norfolk.
But the shortage of transport ships had forced some to march from Yorktown on mud-choked roads in the early summer heat, leaving them worn and foot-weary.
Still, officials in Richmond sounded the alarm at 3 p.m. on the 27th.
President Jefferson Davis, Gov. John Letcher and Mayor Joseph Mayo issued proclamations calling the city's militia and citizen self-defense units to arms. Hospital officials began making lists of convalescing soldiers who could reinforce the extensive but lightly manned fortifications ringing Richmond.
Outside the city, the scattered units led by Maj. Gen. Daniel Harvey Hill positioned themselves to move as quickly as possible where ever the Union threatened.
"Hill was not well-liked by Lee. But his combat record was second to none, beginning with the first battle of the war at Big Bethel," former Virginia War Museum Director John V. Quarstein says.
"He didn't have much of a force, but he was very good at putting them in the right place at the right time — and then moving them again if he had to."
Delay and paralysis
Three days passed before Dix and his generals decided to strike north and east of Richmond.
And not until July 1 did Brig. Gen. George Washington Getty — who'd saved the Union's Nansemond River flank during the April 1863 Siege of Suffolk — head northwest with 10,000 men to destroy the Richmond & Fredericksburg Railroad bridge over the South Anna.
Maj. Gen. Erasmus D. Keyes — who commanded the Union bastion at Yorktown — marched southwest with 6,000 troops in a diversionary move against Bottoms Bridge.
Three miles short of his objective, however, Keyes not only stopped but began fortifying his position after his lead brigade — which had been pulled from Fort Magruder and Williamsburg — encountered skirmishers and sniper fire.
By 7 p.m., veteran troops from South and North Carolina were probing his line sharply, rattling the West Pointer so much that he asked Dix if he should withdraw. Message after message passed between the two overnight and during the following five days as Keyes resisted every entreaty to press forward.
Not long after five pieces of Confederate artillery opened fire on the morning of July 2, Hill decided that the Bottoms Bridge attack posed so little threat that he told Richmond to send its reserves north, where they could used against Getty at Hanover Junction.
"Keyes was a West Pointer. He understands the theory of war. But he doesn't know how to lead in battle," Quarstein says.
"Every message he sent showed Dix he was incompetent and in over his head. He was the wrong man for the job."
The Union falters
To the north, Getty pressed forward, struggling with the heat that was slowing his column and depleting his numbers.
Between 2,000 and 3,000 men straggled along the road unable to keep pace, a Rhode Island soldier reported. Many dropped from heat exhaustion.
"There is scarcely a worse sight than a man dying of sunstroke," a New Hampshire veteran wrote.
Still, Getty sent Brig. Gen. Robert Foster and a tired force of infantry, artillery and cavalry ahead hoping to carry out his objective.
What they found when they arrived late on the Fourth was a well-entrenched force of about 2,500 Confederates who drove the Union attack off in the dark with artillery and infantry fire that killed 2 and wounded 7.
Even the loss of 1 killed, 6 wounded and 10 captured Southerners couldn't keep Hill from gloating over this anti-climactic conclusion to the Union threat.
"Where have the Yankees gone?" he wrote to the Confederate Secretary of War on July 5.
"The design on Richmond was not a feint but a faint."
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