U.S. Grant had often been criticized for the apparently unsophisticated nature of his plans for the 1864 Virginia campaign. The campaign fought by the Army of the Potomac, starting in the Wilderness (4-7 May), appeared to be making little or no progress towards the final defeat of Robert E. Lee, at the cost of increasingly high casualties.
This is unfair to Grant. His original plans provided for three subsidiary expeditions, intended to draw troops away from Lee, or at least prevent him from being reinforced. All three of those expeditions came to grief.
The most promising of the three involved the Army of the James under General Benjamin Butler. Butler had 30,000 men on the Peninsula between the James and York rivers. He was ordered to take those men up the James River, land between Richmond and Petersburg and threaten either or both cities while Robert E. Lee was occupied fending off Grant further to the north.
Butler began well, landing half way between the two Confederate cities on 5 May, one day after Grant had started his own campaign. Richmond and Petersburg were virtually undefended. The total garrison of the two cities was only 5,000 strong, and their new commander, General Beauregard, was still on his way from Charleston. Butler had one of the best opportunities of the entire war, but he missed it.
For a week, Butler remained almost entirely inactive near his landing place. Finally, on 12 May he began to move his army towards Richmond, but the great opportunity had gone. Beauregard had arrived, bringing with him enough reinforcements to allow his to met Butler on equal terms.
On 16 Butler was only eight miles from Richmond, at Drewry’s Bluff. He had 16,000 of his men with him, which meant that he would be outnumbered by Beauregard’s 18,000. Beauregard was able to launch a surprise attack against a weak point in Butler’s line. His intention had been to cut Butler off from his base in Bermuda Hundred. In this he failed – Butler was able escape back to his base – but otherwise Beauregard had won a crucial victory. Butler retreated back to his base, at the junction of the James and Appomattox Rivers. Beauregard built a defensive line between the two rivers. Butler’s army remained inactive in Bermuda Hundred until Grant crossed the James himself in mid-June.