The Petersburg Campaign, 1864-5

The Petersburg Campaign, 1864-5

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The Petersburg Campaign, 1864-5

The Petersburg campaign saw the final fighting in the Virginia theatre during the American Civil War. At the start of May, U.S. Grant, the new commanding general of Union forces, had launched his first campaign in the east, overland towards Richmond. His real target was Robert E. Lee's army. This campaign saw a new type of fighting. The previous pattern of short battles interspersed with periods of rest was reversed. For over a month the two armies had remained in almost constant contact, fighting all the time. The battles of The Wilderness (4-7 May), Spotsylvania (8-21 May), North Anna River (23-26 May) and Cold Harbor (31 May-3 June) had seen the two armies move from the area of the Rapidan River, north of Richmond, to the peninsula between the York and James rivers, east of the Confederate capitol.

There, Grant ran out of room. In a letter sent on 5 June to General Halleck he outlined his new plan. Originally he had hoped to beat Lee’s army north of the James River, and then besiege what remained of his army in Richmond. For this plan to work, Grant somehow had to force Lee to fight away from his fortifications. However, after the Battle of the Wilderness, Lee was able to block every move that might have forced such a battle. Grant now decided to cross over to the south bank of the James River, and attempt to cut off all of the remaining supply lines to Lee and Richmond.

Most of these supply lines passed through Petersburg, where three railroads met (The Norfolk & Petersburg, Petersburg & Weldon and South Side). If Grant could cut these railroads, then Lee would have to abandon Richmond.

One previous attempt had been made to cut the railroad between Richmond and Petersburg. Benjamin Butler, commanding the army of the James, had landed between the two cities at the start of May, briefly isolating Richmond. However, he had missed his great chance to capture the Confederate capitol. On 16 May 1864 he was defeated at Drewry’s Bluff, and forced back into a triangle of land between the Appomattox and James Rivers.

Despite the failure of this expedition, Butler’s army now played an important role in Grant’s new plan. Grant had borrowed one Corps from Butler to support him at Cold Harbor. That corps, under W.F. Smith, was now shipped back to Butler, in preparation for an attack on Petersburg. This was part of a much larger movement. On the night of 12-13 June, the Army of the Potomac withdrew from Cold Harbor, leaving one cavalry division to mask this movement. On 14 June it crossed over the James River on a pontoon bridge over 2,000 feet long, and began to move towards Petersburg.

Lee was utterly fooled by this move. It was Grant’s one great success in his repeated attempts to slip past Lee’s right flank. For several days, Lee and his army remained in their lines in front of Richmond. He did not move south until 18 June, and even then was not entirely convinced that Grant’s entire army had been moved south of the James. For a short period Petersburg was incredibly vulnerable. On 15 June there were probably only 2,500 men in the city.

Luckily for Lee, Grant’s army had also suffered badly during the fighting in May and early June. The army that arrived in front of Petersburg had lost over 50,000 men since entering the Wilderness. Even W.F. Smith’s men, who had not been present for most of that campaign, only joining at Cold Harbor, had lost 3,000 men.

Over the next four days (Battle of Petersburg, 15-18 June), both sides slowly increased the number of troops they had around Petersburg. On 15 June Smith lost a perfect chance to capture the city, and after that a series of disorganised, half-hearted Federal attacks failed to get into the city. Finally, Grant was forced to admit that his army was fought out, and called a halt to the fighting.

Grant now settled down to conduct a regular siege of Petersburg. This is the stage in the Civil War that most resembles the Western Front, still fifty years in the future. Both sides built elaborate trench systems along a twenty six mile front. The underground bunkers, communication trenches and the constant threat from snipers would have all be familiar to the soldier of 1914-18.

Grant now rearranged his armies. Butler and the Army of the James were now sent north, into the trenches opposite Richmond. Meade and the Army of the Potomac were placed opposite Petersburg. Grant’s main objective was to cut Lee’s railroad links from the south. This meant that much of the fighting to follow happened at the southern end of the lines, which slowly crept south and west. This was Lee’s greatest problem. Every Federal success forced him to extend his lines. Every time he had to extend his lines, those lines became thinner. It was only a matter of time before those lines were too thin to resist one of Grant’s attacks.

That time was still eight months distant. For the moment Lee’s men were able to resist all of Grant’s attacks, and extend their lines when needed. The most notable incident of this period was the Battle of the Crater (30 July). This was a result of one of the more imaginative attempts to break the deadlock. The commander of a regiment formed in a mining area, Lieutenant Colonel Henry Pleasants, suggesting tunneling under the Confederate lines and exploding a mine under them. This would involve a tunnel 500 feet long, longer than had ever been achieved in a military tunnel, but not so long for experienced miners. His corps commander, General Burnside, supported the plan, and managed to convince Grant that it was worth trying.

Things began well. The tunnel was built successfully. A division of fresh troops were found to lead the attack, and carefully trained in what to do after the explosion. All was ready for 30 July. At this point General Meade intervened fatally. The division that had been trained for the attack contained black troops. They were fresh, keen and prepared. Nevertheless, on 29 July Meade decided that they should not be used. He was motivated partly by a lack of confidence in the black soldiers, and partly by a concern that he would be blamed if they suffered heavily in the attack.

The division chosen to replace them was one of Burnside’s worst, commanded by a probable alcoholic, James Ledlie. With his plans disrupted, Burnside appears to have lost all interest in the scheme. The new troops were unprepared for the attack, and would have to fight without any real leadership. On 30 July Ledlie chose to command the attack from the vicinity of a crate of rum.

The mine was exploded on the morning of 30 July. It did everything that had been claimed for it, blasting a massive hole in the Confederate lines. A well planned attack now could have broken through. Instead, the newly chosen troops went forward slowly. Many of them clambered down into the crater! The Confederates were given the time they needed to organise a counterattack. The Union attack, which had begun with such promise, ended with nothing achieved, and costing 4,000 losses.

Grant had also been weakened by another Union failure in the Shenandoah Valley. This time it was General David Hunter who had failed. After marching up the valley to Lynchburg, he found himself facing a larger than expected Confederate army under Jubal Early. In response he retreated west, across the valley and into West Virginia. This left the valley empty of Union troops. Early marched down the valley, crossed the Potomac and launched his own invasion of the north! His men actually reached the outer defences of Washington itself. Grant was forced to dispatch one of his best corps, the sixth, back to Washington to man the defences. Even after Early retreated, that corps did not return to the lines. Grant decided to send Sheridan to the Shenandoah Valley, with orders to devastate the valley. The sixth corps went with him.

Grant launched a series of attacks on the Confederates during the rest of 1864 and into early 1865. Slowly the Confederate lines were stretched out to thirty five miles. Lee was down to 2,000 men for each mile. The two armies had very different winters. Grant’s men benefited from a superb supply system. Supplies were shipped to City Point, in the middle of their lines, and distributed efficiently along specially built railroads behind the lines.

In contrast, Lee’s men were increasingly short of supplies. There were two reasons for this. First, Grant was slowly cutting their supply lines. Since late August they had only had one railroad into Petersburg – the Southside, running west from the city. In January 1865 their last source of supplies from overseas was lost when the capture of Fort Fisher shut the port of Wilmington. More serious for the Confederate cause were the successes being won by Grant’s other armies. Sherman’s advance on Atlanta succeeded at the start of September. From there he began his march to the sea, reaching Savannah by the end of the year. When he turned north in February 1865 and began to march through the Carolinas his men started to feature as one of Lee’s problems. The autumn of 1864 saw Union success in the Shenandoah Valley. Sheridan defeated Early in a series of battles, ending at Cedar’s Creek on 19 October 1864. Lee’s best source of supplies was gone.

It was becoming increasingly clear that when spring came Lee’s army would not be able to hold its thin lines. Lee came up with a plan that he hoped would retrieve the situation. Instead of waiting for Grant’s attack, he would launch one of his own, against the centre of Grant's lines. Lee hoped that this attack would force Grant to shorten his line, giving Lee a change to pull his army out of the trenches around Richmond and Petersburg. Once he was free of Grant’s men, Lee would head south to join with the forces gathering in North Carolina under Joseph Johnston to oppose Sherman. The combined army would beat Sherman, then turn back north to defeat Grant. Quite what the Army of the Potomac would be doing during this time is not clear.

Lee’s plan failed almost at the first hurdle. On 25 March the attack was launched, and succeeded in taking Fort Stedman, a Union position due east of Petersburg. However, a quick Union counterattack regained all the lost ground, as well as some of the Confederate front line. Lee lost 5,000 men, Grant only 2,000. Grant did not need to shorten his lines.

Worse was to come. The failure at Fort Stedman meant that Lee was now too weak to hold his lines. Accordingly, he continued with his plans to withdraw, still hoping to slip past Grant’s left wing and escape south. If they were to have any chance of success, then Lee’s men would need to have at least a week’s worth of food on hand, to allow them to move as quickly as possible. While Lee was attempting to gather these supplies, Grant struck.

He dispatched a force under Sheridan to swing around Lee’s right. Lee had to respond, sending 10,000 men under General Pickett to prevent this force from cutting the Southside Railroad, Lee’s planned escape route. On 1 April Sheridan’s men smashed through the Confederate lines at Five Forks. Pickett lost at least half of his men, and the railroad was cut. Lee’s chances of escaping to the south were decreasing all the time.

The long defence of Petersburg and Richmond was about to end. Early in the morning of 2 April Grant finally launched an attack along the entire front. Lee’s lines were too thin to stop it. In several places around Petersburg the Confederate line was broken. A few hours into the fighting, Lee was forced to telegraph Richmond with the news that he could no longer hold the city. Eleven months after Grant launched his campaign in the Wilderness, Richmond and Petersburg fell. Lee had finally been forced out into the open. The remnants of his army began the desperate march west that was to end at Appomattox Courthouse.

Petersburg Campaign

The Petersburg Campaign was one of the final campaigns in the eastern theater during the American Civil War (1861–1865). It began on June 15, 1864, with the sustained contest to control the city—Virginia’s second largest and the supply center for the Confederate capital at Richmond —and concluded with its occupation by Union forces on April 3, 1865. The campaign included parallel actions north of the James River , east of Richmond, and was inextricably linked with simultaneous military actions elsewhere, most directly in the Shenandoah Valley . Union armies under Ulysses S. Grant failed to storm Petersburg from June 15 to 18 and on July 30, following the Battle of the Crater , in which a mine was exploded under the Confederate works. Southern forces led by Robert E. Lee , aided by an elaborate system of field fortifications that eventually stretched thirty-seven miles, fought on the strategic defensive, gradually surrendering the city’s supply lines to a series of Grant’s offensives. Grant at last shattered Lee’s defenses on April 2, 1865, leading to the evacuation of Richmond and Petersburg that night. Within a week , Lee would surrender the Army of Northern Virginia to Grant at Appomattox Court House , ninety miles west of Petersburg, for all practical purposes ending the Civil War in Virginia.

Thank You, San Francisco Civil War Round Table

San Francisco, Open Your Golden Gate!

On Thursday evening, October 19, I'll be talking to the San Francisco Civil War Round Table about General Gouverneur Kemble Warren's role in the fighting along the Weldon Railroad south of Petersburg in August 1864 as described in The Siege of Petersburg: The Battles for the Weldon Railroad, August 1864. Warren was an engineer. He had raised a regiment of Zouaves, the 5th New York Infantry, crushed by Hood's Texas Brigade at Second Manassas. He was a hero of Gettysburg for alerting General Meade to the significance of the Round Tops. Warren led II Corps in the fall of 1863, giving A. P. Hill a bloody nose at Bristoe Station and angering Meade by (correctly) calling off an attack at Mine Run. He led V Corps in the Overland Campaign, throughout which he annoyed his superiors to the point that shortly after Grant's army group arrived at Petersburg, Meade requested Warren's relief. Though Meade's wish was not granted, Warren failed to realize that he ought to seek employment elsewhere. Even his victory on the Weldon Railroad in August did not mollify his superiors. Prior to the battle of Five Forks in April 1865, Grant unintentionally set up Warren for a fall by carelessly leading Sheridan to expect Warren's arrival much earlier than possible and giving Sheridan the authority to relieve Warren if he were too slow. Sheridan waited until Warren had won the battle of Five Forks and then unjustifiably relieved Warren. Denied a court of inquiry for many years through Grant's intransigence, Warren obtained some degree of vindication posthumously.

What were Warren's alternatives to his request for a court of inquiry?

Forgive me for mentioning such a thing, but earlier in the war, a Union Brig. Gen. Jefferson C.Davis had shot dead Maj. Gen. William "Bull" Nelson in a personal quarrel. Davis' political patron was present and Davis went on to command an army corps later in the war. Ought Sheridan to have shot Sheridan dead on the spot when he was confronted and refused to rescind the order relieving Warren of command? There was still enough Confederate lead flying around that a good defense lawyer might well have gotten Warren off. But Little Phil's chief of staff seems to have been present, and terminating him with extreme prejudice would have taken the matter our of the realm of manslaughter and into that of murder though it was a matter of honor and people cut one another more slack for such things back then.

Another alternative would have been to challenge Little Phil to a duel. Mark Twain had been challenged to a duel in 1864. What did Warren have to lose?

What do you think? I think Warren should have sought a transfer after his victory on the Weldon Railroad. He might have done better with Sherman, who ultimately granted him his court of inquiry.

The Siege of Petersburg

It was well before dawn, October 27, when the Union forces went into motion. The Ninth Corps developed the enemy line but was unable to find a weak point. This left the prime responsibility on the shoulders of Hancock and the Second Corps, which had a hard march along a single road that was barely passable in places. Despite stubborn delaying actions by Rebel outposts at several stream crossings, Hancock's men reached the Boydton Plank Road shortly after 10:30 A.M. They cut it near its intersection with the White Oak Road, a short distance below Burgess' Mill and its associated mill pond.

Up to this point Hancock's only opposition had come from Wade Hampton's cavalry, but confronting him at Burgess' Mill was a line of infantry and artillery posted across Hatcher's Run and covering the Boydton Plank Road bridge. Every passing second meant more defenders were on their way from Petersburg. According to the original plan, Warren was supposed to support Hancock, but his route led him into a nearly impenetrable underbrush. In a very short time his units became lost, confused, and unavailable to Hancock.

At about 1:30 P.M., while Hancock was preparing for the next phase of his advance, Grant, Meade, and their staffs arrived. Grant undertook a personal reconnaissance of the enemy's line behind Hatcher's Run and concluded that a break through would not be possible. Still hoping to punish the Rebels, Grant issued instructions for Hancock to hold his position until noon the next day "in hope of inviting an attack." Grant and Meade left Hancock about 4:00 P.M.

Thirty minutes later the Confederates did attack from three directions. Some of Hampton's cavalry pushed east along the White Oak Road while another portion of it came up the Boydton Plank Road from the south, pressing Hancock's rear guard. A force of Confederate infantry led by General Mahone swept down across Hatcher's Run and flanked one Union brigade. This time Hancock's men stood their ground and beat off each attack, though they paid a heavy price for doing so. When night fell, Hancock decided to withdraw along the miserable road his men had used coming out, but a lack of ambulances meant that many of the most seriously injured would be left behind. The morning of October 28 found the Confederates in possession of a battlefield littered with military debris and Yankee wounded. Private Bernard, whose regiment fought here, concluded that the "enemy must have suffered heavily, as they withdrew their troops from the Plank Road."

(click on image for a PDF version)
In an attempt to encircle Petersburg from the south, Grant orders three corps to cut the Boydton Plank Road and the South Side Railroad by pressing and outflanking Lee's extreme right. Efforts by the IX and V Corps fail. Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock's II Corps reaches the plank road but is caught in converging attacks by Confederate cavalry and infantry (shown here). Following an afternoon of fierce fighting, Hancock retreated after dark, leaving many of his wounded in Confederate hands.

This time there was no extension of the Union trenches to mitigate the loss of nearly 1,800 men. The Confederates could claim a victory, though their cost was also high, about 1,300 men. Among them were two of Wade Hampton's sons, one killed, the other seriously wounded. Never again would this grieving father allow any of his children to serve with him. This combat operation was also the last for Winfield S. Hancock in the Army of the Potomac. The much respected officer would step down on Thanksgiving Day to accept a reassignment.

Hardly had the soldiers returned to their camps when they all—Yank and Reb—became caught up in one of the most important events of the war, the 1864 presidential election. George B. McClellan, who once commanded the Army of the Potomac, headed the peace-oriented Democratic ticket that hoped to oust the Lincoln administration. For Southerners the outcome was seen as a barometer of their hopes for independence. "A great revolution of feeble sentiment is in rapid development in the North," George Bernard wrote in his diary, "looking to a suspension of hostilities. God grant the movement may result in peace." In a letter written on November 7, a soldier in a Pennsylvania regiment summarized the attitudes expressed by Confederate deserters. They say if Abe is re-elected they will soon give up, but if McClellan is elected they have the hopes of getting a convention of the states then they will get it fixed up some way that it will be honorable to them.

For the first time, troops in the field would be voting and almost everyone had an opinion. "McClellan was our first commander, and, as such, he was worshipped by his soldiers," declared a Maine private. Countered a New Yorker, "As for McClellan I don't think I shall let my love for the soldier do injury to my principles as a man." The troopers in one cavalry regiment told of an incident at this time: "Two of our pickets were captured . . . and on being asked who they would vote for, replying that they were McClellan men, they were promptly released by the rebel scoundrels, and allowed to poll their votes at liberty."


At Grant's headquarters, staff officers and aides fidgeted uncomfortably on election night as Grant read the returns aloud as fast as they were telegraphed to him. Each time he solemnly announced that McClellan was leading. Only after midnight did he confess to his little joke he had been reversing the count. The soldier vote was 4 to 1 for "Old Abe" and contributed to his popular plurality of 2,203,831 to McClellan's 1,797,019. Summing up the results to a friend, Grant said, "It will be worth more than a victory in the field both in its effect on the Rebels and in its influence abroad."


As the weather turned colder and the prospects of further campaigning began to diminish for the year, life on the Petersburg front took on a different rhythm. "Dull, duller, dullest nothing can exceed the monotony of camp-life," complained a New York soldier. "We read, we look after the duties of our office we walk, we ride, we gaze at the sky, the stars, the sun, the moon yet we are compelled to return to the same surroundings, camps, arms, intrenchments, and lines of defense." As the season changed from fall to winter, sniping along the front seemed to die down. A Rhode Island man observed that it was not unusual for the pickets on both sides to amuse themselves "conversing across the lines, singing songs of the war, . . . and doing a little trading when unobserved by their superior officers."

At the beginning of the Civil War, Virginia had a slave population of about 491,000 and a free black population of almost 58,000. About half of Petersburg's 18,266 residents were black, of which 3,164 were free. Petersburg was considered to have the largest number of free blacks of any Southern city at that time. Many of the freedmen prospered here as barbers, blacksmiths, boatmen, draymen, livery stable keepers, and caterers. There were also those who owned considerable property, particularly in the communities of Blandford and Pocahontas.

When Petersburg became a major supply center for the newly formed Confederacy and its nearby capital in Richmond, both freedmen and slaves were employed in various war functions. More than 850 slaves and free blacks worked for the numerous railroad companies that operated in and out of the city. In the latter part of 1862, when a ten-mile-long defense line was begun around Petersburg, Captain Charles H. Dimmock used both freedmen and slave labor to construct the trenches and batteries. In the many hospitals that sprang up in the city, blacks served as nurses and servants.

Once the siege began in June 1864, African-Americans continued working for the Confederacy. In September 1864, General Lee asked for an additional 2,000 blacks to be added to his labor force. In March 1865, with the serious loss of white manpower in the army, the Southern army called for 40,000 slaves to become an armed force in the Confederacy. A notice in the April 1, 1865, Petersburg Daily Express called for black recruits with the statement, "To the slaves is offered freedom and undisturbed residence at their old homes in the Confederacy after the war. Not the freedom of sufferance, but honorable and selfwon by the gallantry and devotion which grateful countrymen will never cease to remember and reward." It is not known how many responded to this challenge. The war ended before any major contribution could be made.


Serving the Union: U.S. Colored Troops in the Siege of Petersburg

During the war, a total of 186,097 blacks served in the Union army, with the first regiments activated after September 1862. In front of Petersburg, two black divisions numbering about 7,800 men (nineteen regiments) saw action.

In the initial assault upon the city on June 15, 1864, a division of General Edward Hincks attacked the Confederate Dimmock Line. Comprising 3,500 men from the Eighteenth Corps of the Army of the James, which was commanded by General Benjamin F. Butler, Hincks's troops helped capture and secure a section of the Southern defenses from Batteries 7 through 11. In the initial stage of this action, located at Baylor's Farm on the City Point Road, the black troops also captured a gun from Captain Edward Graham's Petersburg Artillery. On the fifteenth, Hincks's Division lost 378 killed and wounded. They acted in a supporting role on the June 18 assault, suffering a loss of 36 men.

The other division of United States Colored Troops to serve at Petersburg was the Fourth Division, Ninth Corps, under General Ambrose E. Burnside and the Army of the Potomac. Four thousand, three hundred strong, these men were involved in one of the most well-known events of the Siege, the Battle of the Crater, fought on July 30, 1864.

For three weeks as a Pennsylvania Regiment dug a tunnel under a Confederate fort to blow it up, the black troops were being trained to lead the assault once the battle commenced. The black troops were chosen because they were numerically superior, and having been mainly wagon guards up to this point, they had seen little action. With the white troops showing exhaustion after the severe fighting of the campaign from the Wilderness to Petersburg, it was believed the blacks would have a better chance at being successful.

Unfortunately for the black soldiers, the commander of the Army of the Potomac, General George G. Meade, would change Burnside's plan twenty-four hours before the battle. Instead of leading the assault, their division, led by General Edward Ferrero, would now be the last to go in.

Once the explosion took place on the morning of July 30, the three white divisions tried to reach their objective, Cemetery Hill. Stiff Confederate resistance along with a lack of leadership on the Union side, bogged down the Union assault in the area of the Crater. When Ferrero's troops attempted their attack, they ran into a Confederate counterattack led by General William Mahone. As the blacks were forced back into the Crater with Burnside's other troops, stiff hand-to-hand combat now began and the face of battle changed. Some claimed the black troops went into the battle yelling "Remember Fort Pillow," the site of an earlier massacre of black prisoners in Tennessee, while others said "no quarter" was shouted by the blacks. Many of the Confederates were enraged that black troops were being deployed against them, and the fighting became vicious. As a result, many blacks who surrendered were not taken prisoner the division suffered 209 killed, 697 wounded, and 421 missing or captured, a total of 1,327 or 38 percent of the Ninth Corps loss.

Following the battle, Sergeant Decatur Dorsey of the 39th U.S.C.T. received the Medal of Honor for "rushing forward in advance of his regiment and placing his colors on the Confederate trenches." Three white officers who commanded black troops at the Crater also received medals.

The division captured approximately 300 prisoners and one battle flag during the engagement. In December 1864, all the United States Colored Troops around Petersburg were incorporated into three divisions and became the Twenty-Fifth Corps of the Army of the James. Commanded by General Godfrey Weitzel, it was the largest black force assembled during the war and varied in numbers from 9,000 to 16,000 men.

When Petersburg fell to the Union army on April 3, 1865, some of the Twenty-Fifth Corps marched through the city on their way to Appomattox. A newspaper reporter wrote "A negro regiment passing seems to take special pride and pleasure in maintaining the dignity becoming soldiers, and are neither boisterous nor noisy." These men continued to march with Grant's army and were present at Lee's surrender on April 9, 1865.


African-Americans at City Point

With General Grant's logistical supply base located at City Point (now Hopewell) on the James River, African-Americans served in varying capacities for the Union army. The soldiers acted as sentries, guarding the numerous ships that were docked at the wharves. Some employees of the U.S. Military Railroad Construction Corps were Northern blacks and worked as laborers in building the needed facilities. An observer wrote "legions of negroes were discharging the ships, wheeling dirt, sawing the timber, and driving piles." Many also worked at the Depot Field Hospital, with the women serving as laundresses and in the diet kitchen, the men as cooks. About 160 blacks assisted there.

"The winter of 1864-65 was one of unusual severity, making the picket duty in front of the intrenchments very severe," a Federal officer recollected. A soldier in a North Carolina regiment later summed up his unit's term at Petersburg this way: "It lived in the ground, walked in wet ditches, ate its cold rations in ditches, slept in dirt-covered pits."


Helping alleviate conditions on the Union side was the U.S. Military Railroad that ran from City Point behind the trench lines just past Globe Tavern. Knowing that this railroad would not have to last a long time, Federal engineers simply laid the tracks on the ground with minimal grading. Watching one supply train undulate its way across the landscape, a staff officer likened it to a "fly crawling on a corrugated washboard."



The wheels of military justice took no respite, however, and there was no slacking in the punishment of those found guilty of desertion, rape, or murder. A veteran Confederate officer remembered during this winter that the "scarcity of supplies in the army and still more the suffering of the men's families at home produced a great deal of desertion. . . . Executions were frequent." "It has a gruesome sound," avowed a Union soldier, "but the chief diversion of the latter part of 1864 was the attending of hangings in the vicinity." An area near Fort Stevenson even became known as "Hangman's Ground" because, recalled one onlooker, "there deserters were hanged or shot, usually on Fridays." Recalled another Federal, "We lose all human feelings toward such dastards and traitors."

While the enlisted men on both sides were prepared to call it quits for the year, Grant was not. The failure of his August operation against the Weldon Railroad meant that Lee continued to use it. The portion of the line coming up from North Carolina was intact as far as Stony Creek Depot, about 16 miles below Petersburg. This made it possible for Lee to ship supplies to that point by rail, then transfer them to wagons for transport via the Boydton Plank Road into Petersburg. It was a slow, cumbersome route, but it worked, and Grant was determined to disrupt it. On December 5 he instructed Meade to organize a large-scale expedition to rip up the tracks between the depot and Weldon, North Carolina.

The force Meade put together and placed under the command of General Warren consisted of three divisions from the Fifth Corps, one from the Second, and the Army of the Potomac's sole cavalry division. In all about 22,000 infantry with 4,200 cavalry would take part.

With the mounted units leading, the long column began its march southeast early on the morning of December 7. Warren chose not to follow the rail line but moved along the Jerusalem Plank Road, which diverged slightly to the east. Once his men reached Hawkinsville, Warren turned south, crossed the Nottoway River, and passed through Sussex Court House. From there he could strike west to the railroad and spread along it to the north and south to carry out his mission objective.

Warren's cavalry reached the tracks around 9:00 A.M. on December 8. The first units on the scene veered north, quickly reaching and destroying the Nottoway River Bridge. By noon Federal infantry had come up to the railroad line and the pace of destruction accelerated. A Pennsylvania soldier who was there recalled, "As far as the eye could reach were seen innumerable glowing fires, and thousands of busy blue-coats tearing up the rails and piling the ties. It was at once a wild, animated scene."

Back in Petersburg, Robert E. Lee could not let this threat to his supply line go unchallenged. Wade Hampton, whose cavalry had been skirmishing with Warren's column since it set out, was busy organizing his troopers and local defense forces to protect Weldon. To assist Hampton, Lee ordered A. P. Hill to take a hastily organized force down to confront the Yankees.

Hampton's command took up a blocking position along the south bank of the Meherrin River at Hicksford (modern Emporia), Virginia. The Yankee cavalry that was still screening Warren's advance tested Hampton's line on December 9. The vigorous response that met these probes, and the threat of an impending winter storm, convinced Warren not to attack. That night, a deluge of sleet and rain spread over the men of both sides, leaving the landscape coated with a glaze of ice and making road movement difficult. Warren withdrew his long column the way it had come in, while squadrons of Hampton's men pressed the rear guard hoping to delay the Yankees long enough for Hill's men to arrive.


The Federal withdrawal now became ugly. At some places, the Union soldiers discovered caches of a local brew of apple jack, and drunken men threatened military discipline. Elsewhere, stragglers from the Union column were waylaid and brutally murdered. Angry Yankee boys turned on the local populace, setting fire to houses, barns, and even slave quarters. "Is this what you call subjugating the South?" one anguished woman screamed at her tormentors.


By December 11 Warren's men had safely retired. Despite forcing the pace of his march in the teeth of the bone-chilling storm, A. P. Hill was unable to close the distance in time to intercept. In his report, General Warren boasted "the complete destruction of sixteen miles of the railroad" at a cost of about 314 casualties. Yet, while the six-day operation severely shook Lee's fragile supply line, it did not break it.

"Peace on earth," a North Carolina soldier wrote in his diary on Christmas Day, adding the pointed question, "good will to men?" Another diarist, this one a Virginian, wrote, "Christmas once again but oh! how changed from that of former times, when our beloved land was not draped in mourning." A Tarheel officer who was able to ride into Petersburg to attend Christmas services at St. Paul's Church remembered the scene: "Five festoons of cedar hung from the five ornaments in the center of the church to the bannisters of the gallery on each side. . . . The church was crowded and many were outside and could not get seats at all."

Out along the trench lines, both sides enjoyed an impromptu and unauthorized truce. According to a Georgian, "The men had suspended their work without being so ordered and in a few minutes they were passing in full sight of each other, shouting the compliments of the season, giving invitations to cross over and take a drink, to come to dinner, to come back into the Union, . . . and other amenities, which were a singular contrast to the asperities of war."

Many of the Union troops enjoyed what a New Hampshire soldier noted in his diary as a "fine Christmas dinner for all." On the Confederate side there was a concerted effort to see that the men at the front got something special this day. "The newspapers urged the movement forward, committees were appointed to collect and forward the good things to the soldiers," wrote a Virginian in gray. The effort paid off for some. "We had . . . a big Christmas dinner and . . . our Christmas passed off very pleasantly," reported a North Carolina infantryman. In another company the men eagerly waited for the Christmas bounty to arrive. When it did finally show up (two weeks late) it consisted of "one drumstick of a turkey, one rib of mutton, one slice of roast beef, two biscuits, and a slice of lightbread." It was the thought that counted for most, and, recalled a young Rebel, "we thanked our benefactors and took courage."



Yet even amid these holiday reflections, signs of the end were apparent. A New York boy, writing home December 25, observed, "We have cheering news every day—it is evident the confederacy is rapidly falling to pieces."

Surprisingly, even at this point in the war, with his reelection secure and the end of the fighting in sight, Abraham Lincoln was still prepared to negotiate an end to the conflict. While it would have been political suicide for him actively to promote such talks, it was not impossible for him to use intermediaries to accomplish the same goal. So when a veteran Washington politician named Francis P. Blair, Sr., came to him with a fantastic scheme to unite North and South in a common war against Mexico, Lincoln gave him a pass to travel to Richmond to present his plan to Jefferson Davis in the hope it would lead to broader talks.

Through Blair the groundwork was laid for such a discussion, though it was Davis who sought to use the occasion to political advantage. If he could force Lincoln to declare a posture of unconditional surrender toward the Confederacy, it might stiffen sagging Southern morale enough to extend the fighting through the summer when, perhaps, the Northern electorate would finally grow weary of the bloodshed. To this end Davis appointed three men who favored a negotiated settlement to a peace commission, but he fatally limited their authority by refusing to let them even discuss the issue of Confederate independence. Lincoln arrived at the conference—which took place on February 3 on board the steamer River Queen anchored off Fortress Monroe, Virginia—equally determined to reunite the fractured United States. He was prepared to offer Southern slaveholders financial recompense for the "property" they would lose because of the abolition of slavery, but the discussions never got that far.



The three commissioners returned to Richmond, where two of them appeared at a mass meeting to denounce Lincoln's demand for "unconditional surrender." A Union soldier before Petersburg, after reading accounts in Northern and Southern newspapers, reflected, "Poor deluded wretches these Confederates, they will never unite with us again until every hope of success is lost!"

Grant, who had personally intervened to facilitate the talks, moved with equal purpose to show that there was no lack of will to win. On February 4 he ordered an expedition to the Boydton Plank Road with instructions to interdict the enemy's wagons that were still bringing supplies up from Stony Creek Depot. General Meade futilely protested the operation, certain that there would be no dramatic victory to satisfy the press, which would then lambast him for ordering such a purposeless undertaking.

The Petersburg Campaign

The events of June 9, 1864, would soon pale in scale to the operations that commenced on June 15. The vanguard of Grant’s entire army captured more than a mile of the Dimmock Line that evening, but hesitated to push into the city. Confederate general Pierre G. T. Beauregard crafted a masterful defense for the next two days until General Robert E. Lee arrived with the Army of Northern Virginia on June 18. Grant now determined to capture Petersburg, the key to Richmond’s viability, by cutting the city’s supply lines. For the next nine months Union forces gradually fought their way west, eliminating Petersburg’s transportation routes one by one.

Almost as an afterthought, Grant placed artillery in the captured works east of the city and began a desultory bombardment aimed ostensibly at Petersburg’s military assets. In reality, the shelling assumed a more random nature. More than six hundred structures would be hit during the campaign, and by early July, the eastern half of Petersburg had been depopulated. In addition to enduring chronic shortages of life’s necessities, many citizens now became refugees, some reduced to scavenging for berries and living under blanket shelters in the countryside.

The Petersburg Campaign ground on for 292 days and the siege of Petersburg, which lasted about nine months, was the longest yet on U.S. soil. On April 2, 1865, Grant at last punctured Lee’s defenses southwest of the city, and the Confederate commander ordered an evacuation that night. Amid moderate amounts of arson and looting (although nothing on the scale of what happened that night in Richmond), Petersburg’s citizens watched in horror as their defenders marched across the Appomattox River bridges before burning the spans near dawn.


Ulysses S. Grant’s assault on Robert E. Lee’s armies at Petersburg failed to capture the Confederacy’s vital supply center and resulted in the longest siege in American warfare.

How it ended

Although the Confederates held off the Federals in the Battle of Petersburg, Grant implemented a siege of the city that lasted for 292 days and ultimately cost the South the war.

In context

General Ulysses S. Grant’s inability to capture Richmond or destroy the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia during the Overland Campaign (May 4–June 12, 1864) caused him to cast his glance toward the critical southern city of Petersburg. His strategic goals shifted from the defeat of Robert E. Lee's army in the field to eliminating the supply and communication routes to the Confederate capital at Richmond.

The city of Petersburg, 24 miles south of Richmond, was the junction point of five railroads that supplied the entire upper James River region. Capturing this important transportation hub would isolate the Confederate capital and force Gen. Robert E. Lee to either evacuate Richmond or fight the numerically superior Grant on open ground.

From June 15–18, 1864, Confederate general Beauregard and his troops, though outnumbered by the Federals, saved Petersburg from Union capture. The late appearance of Lee’s men ended the Federals’ hopes of taking the city by storm and ensured a lengthy siege. For the next nine months, Grant focused on severing Petersburg’s many wagon and rail connections to the south and west. He eventually attacked and crippled Lee’s forces, forcing the South to surrender at Appomattox on April 9, 1865.

After the crushing Union defeat at Cold Harbor, Grant uses stealth and deception to shift his army south of the James River. His troops begin crossing the river both on transports and a brilliantly engineered 2,200-foot-long pontoon bridge at Windmill Point on June 14. By the morning of June 15, Grant is ready to launch his attack.

Standing in his way is the Dimmock Line, a series of 55 artillery batteries and connected infantry earthworks that form a 10-mile arc around the city. However, with Lee still defending Richmond, a scratch force of only 2,200 soldiers under Confederate general P. G. T. Beauregard stand guard in Petersburg’s eastern defenses—from Battery 1 on the Appomattox River to Battery 16 nearly three miles to the south.

June 15. Union general William F. "Baldy" Smith cautiously leads his Eighteenth Corps westward from City Point. Smith delays his assault until 7:00 p.m., expecting the momentary arrival of Gen. Winfield S. Hancock’s Second Corps. Once under way, the Union attack proves anti-climactic. Federal troops gain the rear of Battery 5, throwing the defenders from the Twenty-sixth Virginia and a single battery of artillery into a panic. Batteries 3 through 8 also fall. Batteries 6 through 11 are captured by U.S. Colored Troops, commanded by Brig. Gen. Edward Hinks. Colonel Joseph Kiddoo, commanding the Twenty-second U.S. Colored Troops, later notes in his report that the “officers and men behaved in such a manner as to give me great satisfaction and the fullest confidence in the fighting qualities of colored troops.” After dark, Smith, joined at last by Hancock, decides to postpone further offensive action until dawn.

June 16. The Union Second Corps capture another section of the Confederate line. The Confederates lose Batteries 12 through 14.

June 17. The Union Ninth Corps gains more ground, but the fight is poorly coordinated. That night, Beauregard digs a new line of defense closer to Petersburg that meets up with the Dimmock Line at Battery 25, and Lee rushes reinforcements from other elements of the Army of Northern Virginia.

June 18. The Union Second, Ninth, and Fifth Corps attack but are repulsed with heavy casualties. The 850 men of the First Maine Heavy Artillery advance across a cornfield and straight into Confederate fire. Supporting units fail to protect their flanks. Within ten minutes, 632 men lay dead or wounded on the field. It is the largest regimental loss of the entire Civil War. With Confederate works now heavily manned, the opportunity to capture Petersburg without a siege is lost.

After four days of fighting with no success, Grant begins siege operations. Grant’s strategy is to surround Petersburg and cut off Lee’s supply route to the South. As he attacks Petersburg, other Union troops simultaneously attack around Richmond, which strains the Confederacy to the breaking point. During the 10 months of the siege, both armies endure skirmishing, mortar and artillery fire, poor rations, and intense boredom. By February 1865, Lee has only 45,000 soldiers to oppose Grant’s 110,000. Grant continues to order attacks and cut off rail lines. On April 2, Union forces launch an all-out assault that cripples Lee’s army. That evening, Grant evacuates Petersburg. Lee surrenders to Grant at Appomattox Court House a week later.

Captain Charles Dimmock of the Confederate Corps of Engineers designed the impressive ten-mile trench line that stretched around Petersburg in a "U" shape and was anchored on the southern bank of the Appomattox River. The fortifications held 55 artillery batteries and the walls reached as high as 40 feet in some areas.

Work on the defense line began in the summer of 1862. Under the orders of Maj. Gen. Daniel H. Hill, Dimmock used soldiers and enslaved laborers to execute the plan. Some 264 enslaved people from Virginia's Eastern Shore and more than 1,000 from North Carolina dug the fortifications. But progress on the defenses was continually hampered by a shortage in manpower. By December 1862, Dimmock asked the Petersburg Common Council for "200 negroes" to perform more labor. The slaves were "to report each morning upon the work … at eight o'clock [and] to be dismissed and permitted to return home at 4 p.m.," which he saw as a means to preserve the slaves' health from "nefarious discomfort and exposure of camp life."

Labor on the Dimmock Line continued through the rest of 1863. Captain Dimmock wrote that by late in July 1863, the Dimmock Line was "not entirely completed, but sufficiently so for all defensive purposes." Due to movements by Union troops late in the spring of 1864, work stopped on the Dimmock Line. Though incomplete, the fortifications were an initial obstacle to Union troops as they descended on Petersburg in June 1864. But once the city was under siege by the Federals, the trenches of the Dimmock Line proved to be as much of a prison as a protection for the exhausted and hungry Confederate troops trapped there throughout the winter.

African Americans served as soldiers and laborers for both the Union and Confederate armies in the battle and siege at Petersburg. Petersburg was considered to have the largest number of free Blacks of any Southern city at that time. About half of the city’s the population was Black of which nearly 35 percent were free. Before the battle and siege of Petersburg, both freedmen and slaves were employed in various war functions, including working for the numerous railroad companies that supplied the South.

Once the siege began in June 1864, African Americans continued working for the Confederacy. In September of that year, Confederate general Robert E. Lee asked for an additional 2,000 Blacks to be added to his labor force. In March 1865, as white manpower in the army dwindled, the desperate Confederacy called for 40,000 slaves to become an armed force. A notice in the April 1, 1865, Petersburg Daily Express read, "To the slave is offered freedom and undisturbed residences at their old homes in the Confederacy after the war. Not freedom of sufferance, but honorable and self won by the gallantry and devotion which grateful countrymen will never cease to remember and reward." However, the war ended soon after this offer was made.

The successful and even abortive escape attempts of Virginia slaves to the North often engendered a visceral response from the white population. In 1855, the Norfolk Southern Argus wrote that the “frequent escapes of fugitives from our port” were “an intolerable evil.” >Read More

On May 5, 1864, Union Major General Benjamin F. Butler landed his 30,000-man Army of the James at Bermuda Hundred, commencing what became known as the Bermuda Hundred Campaign. After about four weeks of fighting in Chesterfield County, Butler ’s spies indicated in early June that only the 7th North Carolina Cavalry Regiment, 300 members of the 7th Confederate Cavalry Regiment, and a “few pieces of artillery” remained in Petersburg. (Photo by Tim Talbott) >Read More

War of the Rebellion: Serial 087 Page 0857 Chapter LIV. THE RICHMOND CAMPAIGN.

NEAR PETERSBURG, VA., August 17, 1864-10 a.m.

All quiet here yesterday and last night. No material change reported in enemy's movements or position. Thirty-six wagons and ten ambulances passed this morning on military road, rear [of] Battery 5, going in direction of City Point.


General R. E. LEE,

Chaffin's Bluff.

NEAR PETERSBURG, August 17, 1864-5 p.m.

Have ordered our batteries to open daily for thirty minutes, at 2 and 3 a.m. to prevent enemy's concentration of troops for an attack.


General R. E. LEE,

Chaffin's Bluff.

NEAR PETERSBURG, August 18, 1864-10.15 a.m.

Following dispatch just received from General Dearing:

Enemy has driven in my pickets and reserve in front of Yellow House. I am just going up with another regiment. Colonel Taliaferro reports them in force with infantry and cavalry.

Can any cavalry re-enforcements be sent him? I have none here.


General R. E. LEE,

Chaffin's Bluff.

NEAR PETERSBURG, August 18, 1864-12 m.

Artillery firing of this morning has developed nothing. General Dearing reported just now: "Enemy is advancing in force both upon railroad and Vaughan road." I have ordered two brigades of infantry to support General Dearing. They must return to-night to their positions.


General R. E. LEE,

Chaffin's Bluff.

NEAR PETERSBURG, August 18, 1864-3.40 p.m.

General Hill reports that prisoners taken state that two divisions of Fifth Corps are on railroad. Has Fifth Corps left your front?


General R. E. LEE,

Chaffin's Bluff.

NEAR PETERSBURG, August 18, 1864-7 p.m.

General Dearing reports having checked enemy's advance at the Davis house, where they have formed strong line of battle in his front. He does not think, however, the force more than a few regiments of infantry and one or two of cavalry. I have sent some infantry to his assistance.


General R. E. LEE,

Chaffin's Bluff.

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Tour Civil War Richmond and Petersburg in One Day

Petersburg National Battlefield Rob Shenk

The cities of Richmond and Petersburg were vital to the survival of the Confederacy. Known as the "Cockade City," Petersburg was a vital rail and supply center situated 23 miles south of the Richmond. For 292 days. from June of 1864 to April of 1865, Federal forces besieged the city, the longest such siege in United States Army history. The city fell to Union forces on April 3, 1865.

Following the secession of Virginia from the Union, the capital of the Confederacy was transferred from Montgomery, Alabama, to Richmond, Virginia. Besides being home to the Confederate government, Richmond also played host to Confederate hospitals, Tredegar Iron Works, and the notorious Union prisoner of war camps Libby Prison and Belle Isle. Although the city sat 105 miles from the Union capital of Washington D.C., Richmond did not fall into Union hands until April 3, 1865.

  • Print or download the Tour Map.
  • Watch the Overland Campaign Animated Map.
  • Download the Malvern Hill Battle App, for more detail and touring assistance.
  • Download the Petersburg Battle App, for more detail and touring assistance.

Tour Stop #1: Richmond National Battlefield

Richmond National Battlefield comprises 13 different sites, spanning multiple years of the Civil War. Richmond's Civil War sites range from hospitals to iron works.

  • Pay the parking fee.
  • Find out what Ranger Programs are scheduled
  • See the exhibits and watch the introductory film if you have time.

Tour the battlefield. You have several options:

  • Follow the NPS Auto Tour Route and get out and explore each stop.
  • Purchase a touring CD from the bookstore.
  • Use the Civil War Trust's free Malvern Hill Battle App on your smart phone.
  • Hike one of the many battlefield trails.
    . For two weeks, May 31-June 12, 1864, the armies of Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant tangled in a complicated series of actions. A determined Confederate defense turned away a massive Federal attack on June 3rd. A small visitor facility (with restrooms) will help orient you. – On June 27, 1862, Union and Confederate soldiers fought the bloodiest battle of the Seven Days actions. In one day, 15,000 men fell killed, wounded, or missing. – Nearly 1,200 Federal soldiers from the battles for Richmond are buried here. Many of the soldiers interred here died in the battles on June 30 and July 1, 1862. – On July 1, 1862, a large portion of the Confederate army made poorly coordinated attacks up the slope of Malvern Hill into the face of a strong Union defensive line. The power of Federal artillery, coupled with the natural strength of the hill, contributed to the Confederate defeat in the final battle of the Seven Days Campaign. – Constructed between March and May 1862, Fort Drewry stood as a vital bastion blocking the progress of the U.S. Navy up the James River toward Richmond. A decisive battle on May 15, 1862, permanently ended the Union naval threat to the capital city when defenders defeated the USS Monitor and four other warships.
  • Visit the Chimborazo Medical Museum – Chimborazo became one of the Civil War's largest military hospitals. When completed it contained more than 100 wards, a bakery, and even a brewery. Although the hospital no longer exists, a museum on the same grounds contains original medical instruments and personal artifacts.
  • Do what strikes your fancy. Richmond National Battlefield is a very diverse park, on which you could spend hundreds of hours and never do the same thing twice. Explore what interests you!

Insider tip: Tredergar Iron Works produced almost 1,100 cannons, roughly one-half of all guns made in the south during the war. It was second only to the Parrott foundry in Cold Spring, New York, in production for the entire United States.

Petersburg National Battlefield Rob Shenk

Tour Stop #2: Petersburg National Battlefield

Union forces attacked the Petersburg defenses on June 15, 1864, and were initially successful in driving the Confederate defenders back from their first line of entrenchments. However, Lee rushed in reinforcements and the Confederates were able to repulse further Union attacks, resulting in heavy Federal casualties. By now the Confederate works were heavily manned and the greatest opportunity to capture Petersburg without a siege was lost.

  • Pay the entry fee.
  • Find out what Ranger Programs are scheduled
  • See the exhibits and watch the introductory film if you have time.

Tour the battlefield. You have several options:

  • Follow the NPS Auto Tour Route and get out and explore each stop.
  • Purchase a touring CD from the bookstore.
  • Use the Civil War Trust's free Petersburg Battle App on your smart phone.
    – This massive 17,000 pound seacoast mortar was used by Union forces during the siege of Petersburg. The gun standing today is a replica from the same era, and is located near the Eastern Front Visitor Center. – After the initial campaign for Petersburg ended on June 18, 1864. Federal forces attempted to explode a mine under the Confederate defenses around Petersburg. On July 30, Union forces detonated the mine, but ended up charging into the crater instead of going around it, resulting in a massacre. – During the siege of Petersburg, General Ulysses S. Grant's headquarters were located at Appomattox Manor, at City Point. The plantation owned by Dr. Richard Eppes, was the nerve center for the Federal armies, as well as a key supply base for the Union armies around Petersburg. – 6,718 Federal soldiers from the Petersburg Campaign are buried here. As is the case with many national cemeteries established after the war, only 2,139 bodies were positively identified.
  • Visit Pamplin Park. Located on the site of the April 2, 1865 battle that ended the Petersburg Campaign and led to the evacuation of the Confederate capital at Richmond, Pamplin Park offers more than 400 acres of museums, historic homes, battlefield trails, and a Civil War Adventure Camp, where citizens of the 21st Century can experience life asa Civil War soldier.
  • Do what strikes your fancy. Petersburg National Battlefield is a vast park on which you could spend hundreds of hours and never do the same thing twice. Explore what interests you!

Insider tip: In the postwar years, the Crater was integrated into a golf course and used as a sand trap.

Watch the video: Under Siege! - S01E05: Petersburg 1864 - Full Documentary


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