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petersburg campaign

Siege of Petersburg

The Richmond-Petersburg Campaign was a series of battles around Petersburg, Virginia, fought from June 9, 1864, to March 25, 1865, during the American Civil War. Although it is more popularly known as the Siege of Petersburg, it was not a classic military siege, in which a city is usually fully surrounded and all supply lines are cut off. It was ten months of trench warfare in which Union forces commanded by Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant assaulted Petersburg unsuccessfully and then constructed trench lines that eventually extended over 30 miles around the eastern and southern outskirts of the city. Petersburg was crucial to the supply of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's army and the Confederate capital of Richmond.

Lee finally yielded to the overwhelming pressure—the point at which supply lines were finally cut and a true siege would have begun—and abandoned both cities in April 1865, leading to his retreat and surrender in the Appomattox Campaign. The Siege of Petersburg foreshadowed the trench warfare that would be common in World War I, earning it a prominent position in military history. It also featured the largest concentration of African American troops employed in the war, who suffered heavy casualties at such engagements as the Battle of the Crater and Chaffin's Farm.

Background

Petersburg, a prosperous city of 18,000, was a supply center for the Confederate capital of Richmond, given its strategic location just south of the city, its site on the Appomattox River that provided navigable access to the James River, and its role as a major crossroads and junction for five railroads. The taking of Petersburg by Union forces would make it impossible for Robert E. Lee to continue defending Richmond.

The battle for the city began shortly after the Union defeat at Cold Harbor. Grant decided to take Richmond through Petersburg, and he began positioning the Union army on June 15 by slipping away from Lee and crossing the James River. This represented a change of strategy from that of the preceding Overland Campaign. There, confronting and defeating Lee's army in the open was the primary goal; now, Grant selected a geographic and political target and knew that his superior resources could besiege Lee there, pin him down, and either starve him into submission or lure him out for a decisive battle. Lee at first believed that Grant's main target was Richmond and devoted only minimal troops under Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard to the defense of Petersburg.

Opposing forces

At the beginning of the campaign, Grant's Union forces consisted of the Army of the Potomac, under Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, and the Army of the James, under Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler. The Army of the Potomac included:

The Army of the James included:

Grant made his headquarters in a cabin on the lawn of Appomattox Manor, the home of Dr. Richard Eppes and the oldest home (built in 1763) in what was then City Point, but is now Hopewell, Virginia.

Lee's Confederate force consisted of his own Army of Northern Virginia and a scattered, disorganized group of 10,000 boys and men defending Richmond under Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard. The Army of Northern Virginia was organized into four corps:

Beauregard's Department of North Carolina and Southern Virginia had four depleted divisions commanded by Maj. Gens. Robert Ransom, Jr., Robert F. Hoke, and William H. C. Whiting, and Brig. Gen. Alfred H. Colquitt. (Later in the campaign, Beauregard's department would be expanded and reorganized to consist of the divisions of Maj. Gens. Hoke and Bushrod Johnson.)

Grant's armies were significantly larger than Lee's during the campaign, although the strengths varied. During the initial assaults on the city, 15,000 Federal troops faced about 5,400 men under Beauregard. By June 18, the Federal strength exceeded 67,000 against the Confederate 20,000. More typical of the full campaign was in mid-July, when 70,000 Union troops faced 36,000 Confederates around Petersburg, and 40,000 men under Butler faced 21,000 around Richmond. The Union Army, despite suffering horrific losses during the Overland Campaign, was able to replenish its soldiers and equipment, taking advantage of garrison troops from Washington, D.C., and the increasing availability of African-American soldiers. By the end of the siege, Grant had 125,000 men to begin the Appomattox campaign. The Confederate army, by contrast, had difficulty replacing men lost through battle, disease, and desertion.

Battles, 1864

First Battle of Petersburg (June 9, 1864)
On June 9, Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler dispatched about 4,500 cavalry and infantry against the 2,500 Confederate defenders of Petersburg. While Butler's infantry demonstrated against the outer line of entrenchments east of Petersburg, Kautz's cavalry division attempted to enter the city from the south via the Jerusalem Plank Road but was repulsed by Home Guards. Afterwards, Butler withdrew. This was called the “battle of old men and young boys” by local residents. From June 14 to June 17, the Army of the Potomac crossed the James River and began moving towards Petersburg to support and renew Butler's assaults.

Second Battle of Petersburg (June 15June 18)

Meade's Army of the Potomac crossed the James River on transports and a 2,200-foot long pontoon bridge at Windmill Point. Suspecting an attack, Beauregard brought Bushrod Johnson down from Bermuda Hundred, and Hoke's troops began arriving from Lee's army, bringing the defensive strength to 5,400. Butler's leading elements (Smith's XVIII Corps, Hinks's infantry division, and Kautz's cavalry) crossed the Appomattox River at Broadway Landing and attacked the Petersburg defenses on June 15. Beauregard's men were driven from their first line of entrenchments (the "Dimmock Line") back to Harrison Creek. After dark the XVIII Corps was relieved by the II Corps. On June 16, the II Corps captured another section of the Confederate line; on June 17, the IX Corps gained more ground. Beauregard stripped the Howlett Line at Bermuda Hundred to defend the city, and Lee rushed reinforcements to Petersburg from the Army of Northern Virginia. The II, XI, and V Corps attacked on June 18 but were repulsed with heavy casualties. Union commanders were apprehensive about continuing to attack, as Beauregard had engaged in a set of elaborate feints to fool the Union into believing he had more men and more guns than he actually did, including lighting many campfires and building fake cannons out of logs ("Quaker Guns"). By now the Confederate works were heavily manned, and the greatest opportunity to capture Petersburg without a siege was lost. With the Union's blunders during the first days of the battle, the stage was set for a drawn out siege.

Battle of Jerusalem Plank Road (June 21June 24)

On June 21, the Union II Corps, supported by the VI Corps, attempted to cut the Weldon Railroad south of Petersburg, one of the major supply lines into the city. The movement was preceded by Wilson's cavalry division, which began destroying tracks. On June 22, troops from A.P. Hill's corps, led by Brig. Gen. William Mahone, counterattacked, forcing the II Corps away from the railroad to positions on the Jerusalem Plank Road. Although the Federals were driven from their advanced positions, they were able to extend their siege lines farther to the west.

Battle of Staunton River Bridge (June 25)

On June 22, the cavalry divisions of Wilson and Kautz were dispatched from the Petersburg lines to disrupt Confederate rail communications. Riding via Dinwiddie Court House, the raiders cut the South Side Railroad near Ford's Station that evening, destroying tracks, railroad buildings, and two supply trains. On June 23, Wilson proceeded to the junction of the Richmond & Danville Railroad at Burke Station, where he encountered elements of Rooney Lee's cavalry between Nottoway Court House and Blacks and Whites (modern-day Blackstone). Wilson followed Kautz along the South Side Railroad, destroying about thirty miles (50 km) of track as he advanced. On June 24, while Kautz remained skirmishing around Burkeville, Wilson crossed over to Meherrin Station on the Richmond & Danville and began destroying track. On June 25, Wilson and Kautz continued tearing up track south to the Staunton River Bridge, where they were delayed by Home Guards, who prevented destruction of the bridge. Lee's cavalry division closed on the Federals from the northeast, forcing them to abandon their attempts to capture and destroy the bridge. By this time, the raiders were nearly 100 miles (160 km) from Union lines. Battle of Sappony Church (June 28)
Rooney Lee's cavalry division pursued Wilson's and Kautz's raiders who failed to destroy the Staunton River Bridge on June 25. Wilson and Kautz headed east and, on June 28, crossed the Nottoway River at the Double Bridges and headed north to Stony Creek Depot on the Weldon Railroad. There they were attacked by Wade Hampton's cavalry division. Later in the day, Rooney Lee's division arrived to join forces with Hampton, and the Federals were heavily pressured. During the night, Wilson and Kautz disengaged and pressed north on the Halifax Road for the supposed security of Reams Station, abandoning many fleeing slaves who had sought security with the Federal raiders. First Battle of Ream's Station (June 29)
Early morning June 29, Kautz's cavalry division reached Ream's Station on the Weldon Railroad, which was thought to be held by Union infantry. Instead, Kautz found the road barred by Mahone's Confederate infantry division. Wilson's division, fighting against elements of Rooney Lee's cavalry, joined Kautz's near Ream's Station, where they were virtually surrounded. About noon, Mahone's infantry assaulted their front while Fitzhugh Lee's cavalry division threatened the Union left flank. The raiders burned their wagons and abandoned their artillery. Separated by the Confederate attacks, Wilson and his men cut their way through and fled south on the Stage Road to cross Nottoway River, while Kautz went cross-country, reaching Federal lines at Petersburg about dark. Wilson continued east to the Blackwater River before turning north, eventually reaching Union lines at Light House Point on July 2. The Wilson-Kautz raid tore up more than 60 miles (100 km) of track, temporarily disrupting rail traffic into Petersburg but at a great cost in men and mounts. First Battle of Deep Bottom (July 27July 29)
During the night of July 26 to July 27, Winfield S. Hancock led the Union II Corps and two divisions of Sheridan's cavalry across to the north side of James River to threaten Richmond. This demonstration diverted Confederate forces from the impending attack at Petersburg on July 30 (the Crater). Union efforts to turn the Confederate position at New Market Heights and Fussell's Mill were abandoned when the Confederates strongly reinforced their lines and counterattacked. During the night of July 29, the Federals crossed the river again, leaving a garrison to hold the bridgehead at Deep Bottom.

Battle of the Crater (July 30)

In an attempt to break the siege, former coal miners from the 48th Pennsylvania infantry, commanded by Lt. Col. Henry Pleasants, in Burnside's IX Corps, mined a 511-foot (156 m) long tunnel under the Confederate lines at Elliot's Salient and placed 8,000 pounds of explosives directly under the Confederate troops. On July 30, they detonated the explosives, creating a crater some 135 feet (41 m) in diameter that remains visible to this day. Some 280 to 350 Confederate soldiers were instantly killed in the blast. The Union plan was to exploit the explosion by sending well-rehearsed African-American troops of Ferrero's division into the gap and driving for critical objectives deep in the Confederate rear area. The plan was modified at the last minute, however, because of political concerns about the effect the black troops would have on the Confederate defenders and the public in general. Instead, the unrehearsed division of James Ledlie was substituted and disaster resulted. The troops entered the crater instead of moving around its rim. Unable to exit the steep sides of the crater, they were slaughtered by Confederates firing down on them. The division of William Mahone on the Confederate right flank was able to recover quickly and bring a strong counterattack to bear. Over 5,300 Union troops were casualties in the ill-fated battle that achieved none of its objectives.

Second Battle of Deep Bottom (August 13August 20)

During the night of August 13 to August 14, the Union II Corps, X Corps, and Gregg's cavalry division, all under command of Winfield S. Hancock, crossed the James River at Deep Bottom to threaten Richmond, coordinating with a movement against the Weldon Railroad at Petersburg. On August 14, the X Corps closed on New Market Heights while the II Corps extended the Federal line to the right along Bailey's Creek. During the night, the X Corps was moved to the far right flank of the Union line near Fussell's Mill. On August 16, Union assaults near Fussell's Mill were initially successful, but Confederate counterattacks drove the Federals out of a line of captured works. Heavy fighting continued throughout the remainder of the day. After continual skirmishing, the Federals returned to the south side of the James on August 20, maintaining their bridgehead at Deep Bottom.

Battle of Globe Tavern (August 18August 21)

While Hancock's command demonstrated north of the James River at Deep Bottom, the Union V Corps and elements of the IX and II Corps under command of Gouverneur K. Warren were withdrawn from the Petersburg entrenchments to operate against the Weldon Railroad. At dawn August 18, Warren advanced, driving back Confederate pickets until reaching the railroad at Globe Tavern. In the afternoon, Maj. Gen. Henry Heth's Confederate division attacked driving Ayres's division back toward the tavern. Both sides entrenched during the night. On August 19, William Mahone, whose division had been hastily returned from north of James River, attacked with five infantry brigades, rolling up the right flank of Crawford's division. Heavily reinforced, Warren counterattacked and by nightfall had retaken most of the ground lost during the afternoon's fighting. On August 20, the Federals laid out and entrenched a strong defensive line covering the Blick House and Globe Tavern and extending east to connect with the main Federal lines at Jerusalem Plank Road. On August 21, Hill probed the new Federal line for weaknesses but could not penetrate the Union defenses. With the fighting at Globe Tavern, Grant succeeded in extending his siege lines to the west and cutting Petersburg's primary rail connection with Wilmington, North Carolina. The Confederates were now forced to off-load rail cars at Stony Creek Station for a 30-mile (50 km) wagon haul up Boydton Plank Road to reach Petersburg. Second Battle of Ream's Station (August 25)
On August 24, the Union II Corps moved south along the Weldon Railroad, tearing up track, preceded by Gregg's cavalry division. On August 25, Heth attacked and overran the faulty Union position at Ream's Station, capturing 9 guns, 12 colors, and many prisoners. The old II Corps was shattered. Hancock withdrew to the main Union line near the Jerusalem Plank Road, bemoaning the declining combat effectiveness of his troops. Battle of Chaffin's Farm or New Market Heights (September 29September 30)
During the night of September 28 to September 29, Butler's Army of the James crossed the James River to assault the Richmond defenses north of the river. The columns attacked at dawn. After initial Union successes at New Market Heights and Fort Harrison, the Confederates rallied and contained the breakthrough. Lee reinforced his lines north of the James and, on September 30, he counterattacked unsuccessfully. The Federals entrenched, and the Confederates erected a new line of works cutting off the captured forts. As Grant anticipated, Lee shifted troops to meet the threat against Richmond, weakening his lines at Petersburg. Battle of Peebles' Farm (September 30October 2)
In combination with Butler's offensive north of the James River, Grant extended his left flank to cut Confederate lines of communication southwest of Petersburg. Two divisions of the IX corps under Maj. Gen. John G. Parke, two divisions of the V Corps under Warren, and Gregg's cavalry division were assigned to the operation. On September 30, the Federals marched via Poplar Spring Church to reach Squirrel Level and Vaughan Roads. The initial Federal attack overran Fort Archer, flanking the Confederates out of their Squirrel Level Road line. Late afternoon, Confederate reinforcements arrived, slowing the Federal advance. On October 1, the Federals repulsed a Confederate counterattack directed by A.P. Hill. Reinforced by Maj. Gen. Gershom Mott's division, the Federals resumed their advance on October 2, captured Fort MacRae (which was lightly defended) and extended their left flank to the vicinity of Peebles' and Pegram's Farms. With these limited successes, Meade suspended the offensive. A new line was entrenched from the Federal works on Weldon Railroad to Pegram's Farm.

Battle of Darbytown and New Market Roads (October 7)

Responding to the loss of Fort Harrison and the increasing Federal threat against Richmond, Gen. Robert E. Lee directed an offensive against the Union far right flank on October 7. After routing the Federal cavalry from their position covering Darbytown Road, Field's and Hoke's divisions assaulted the main Union defensive line along New Market Road and were repulsed. The Federals were not dislodged, and Lee withdrew into the Richmond defenses. Battle of Darbytown Road (October 13)
On October 13, Union forces advanced to find and feel the new Confederate defensive line in front of Richmond. While mostly a battle of skirmishers, a Federal brigade assaulted fortifications north of Darbytown Road and was repulsed with heavy casualties. The Federals retired to their entrenched lines along New Market Road. Battle of Fair Oaks and Darbytown Road (October 27October 28)
In combination with movements against the Boydton Plank Road at Petersburg, Benjamin Butler attacked the Richmond defenses along Darbytown Road with the X Corps. The XVIII Corps marched north to Fair Oaks where it was soundly repulsed by Field's Confederate division. Confederate forces counterattacked, taking some 600 prisoners. The Richmond defenses remained intact. Of Grant's offensives north of the James River, this was repulsed most easily. Battle of Boydton Plank Road (October 27October 28)
Directed by Hancock, divisions from three Union corps (II, V, and IX) and Gregg's cavalry division, numbering more than 30,000 men, withdrew from the Petersburg lines and marched west to operate against the Boydton Plank Road and South Side Railroad. The initial Union advance on October 27 gained the Boydton Plank Road, a major campaign objective. But that afternoon, a counterattack near Burgess' Mill spearheaded by Henry Heth's division, and Wade Hampton's cavalry isolated the II Corps and forced a retreat. The Confederates retained control of the Boydton Plank Road for the rest of the winter. It marked the last battle for Hancock, who resigned from field command because of injuries sustained at Gettysburg.

Battles, 1865

Battle of Hatcher's Run (February 5February 7, 1865)
On February 5, 1865, Gregg's cavalry division rode out to the Boydton Plank Road via Ream's Station and Dinwiddie Court House in an attempt to intercept Confederate supply trains. Warren's V Corps crossed Hatcher's Run and took up a blocking position on the Vaughan Road to prevent interference with Gregg's operations. Two divisions of the II Corps under Maj. Gen. Andrew A. Humphreys shifted west to near Armstrong's Mill to cover Warren's right flank. Late in the day, John B. Gordon attempted to turn Humphrey's right flank near the mill but was repulsed. During the night, the Federals were reinforced by two divisions. On February 6, Gregg returned to Gravelly Run on Vaughan Road from his unsuccessful raid and was attacked by elements of Brig. Gen. John Pegram's Confederate division. Warren pushed forward a reconnaissance in the vicinity of Dabney's Mill and was attacked by Pegram's and Mahone's divisions. Pegram was killed in the action. Although the Union advance was stopped, the Federals extended their siegeworks to the Vaughan Road crossing of Hatcher's Run. Battle of Fort Stedman (March 25)
As the siege continued, Grant attempted to break or encircle the Confederate forces in multiple attacks moving from east to west, and both armies' lines were stretched out until they surrounded the city. By March 1865, the siege had taken an enormous toll on both armies, and Lee decided to pull out of Petersburg. He amassed nearly half of his army in an attempt to break through Grant's Petersburg defenses and threaten his supply depot at City Point. Led by Gordon, the pre-dawn assault on March 25 overpowered the garrisons of Fort Stedman and Batteries X, XI, and XII. The Confederates were brought under a killing crossfire, and counterattacks led by Maj. Gens. Parke and John F. Hartranft contained the breakthrough, cutting off and capturing more than 1,900 of the attackers. During the day, elements of the II and VI Corps assaulted and captured the entrenched picket lines in their respective fronts, which had been weakened for the assault on Fort Stedman.

Aftermath

After nearly ten months of siege, the loss at Fort Stedman was a devastating blow for Lee's army, setting up the Confederate defeat at Five Forks on April 1, the breakthrough at Petersburg on April 2, and the surrender of the City of Petersburg at dawn on April 3.

After his victory at Five Forks, Grant ordered an assault along the entire Confederate line beginning at dawn on April 2. Parke's IX Corps overran the eastern trenches but were met with stiff resistance. At 5:30 a.m. on April 2, Wright's VI Corps made a decisive breakthrough along the Boydton Plank Road line. Wright's VI Corps initial breakthrough was halted mid-day at Fort Gregg. Gibbon's XXIV Corps overran Fort Gregg after a heroic Confederate defense. This halt in advancement into the City of Petersburg allowed Lee to pulled his forces out from Petersburg and Richmond on the night of April 2, and headed for the west in an attempt to meet up with forces under the command of General Joseph E. Johnston in North Carolina. The resulting Appomattox Campaign led to Lee's surrender on April 9 at Appomattox Court House.

Richmond-Petersburg was a costly campaign for both sides. The initial assaults on Petersburg in June 1864 cost the Union 11,386 casualties, to approximately 4,000 for the Confederate defenders. The casualties for the siege warfare that concluded with the assault on Fort Stedman are estimated to be 42,000 for the Union, and 28,000 for the Confederates.

Classifying the campaigns

Military historians do not agree on precise boundaries between the campaigns of this era. This article uses the classification maintained by the U.S. National Park Service.

An alternative classification is maintained by West Point; in their Atlas of American Wars (Esposito, 1959), the period of March 29 to March 31, including Five Forks, is considered to be in the end of "The Siege of Petersburg, II" (which started in October 1864). The remainder of the war in Virginia is classified as "Pursuit to Appomattox Court House — The Defeat of Lee (April 3–9, 1865)".

See also

References

  • Bonekemper, Edward H., III, A Victor, Not a Butcher: Ulysses S. Grant's Overlooked Military Genius, Regnery, 2004, ISBN 0-89526-062-X.
  • Davis, William C., and the Editors of Time-Life Books, Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg, Time-Life Books, 1986, ISBN 0-8094-4776-2.
  • Eicher, David J., The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War, Simon & Schuster, 2001, ISBN 0-684-84944-5.
  • Esposito, Vincent J., West Point Atlas of American Wars, Frederick A. Praeger, 1959.
  • Trudeau, Noah Andre, The Siege of Petersburg, National Park Service Civil War Series, Eastern National, 1995, ISBN 0-915992-82-5.
  • National Park Service battle descriptions

Notes

External links

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