The Fall of Petersburg

April 2, 1865 – Federals finally broke the Confederate defenses and conquered Petersburg, Virginia after eight months of siege warfare.

At 4:40 a.m., U.S. General-in-Chief Ulysses S. Grant began his offensive all along the Petersburg lines through heavy fog. The thin Confederate defenses quickly collapsed at several points, but some of the exhausted and outnumbered defenders prevented a rout by delaying Federal advances on Forts Gregg and Baldwin. This gave Confederate General-in-Chief Robert E. Lee, commanding the Army of Northern Virginia, time to reestablish his lines for a retreat out of Petersburg and Richmond.[1]

The Fall of Petersburg | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

The Fall of Petersburg | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Lee wired Confederate Secretary of War John C. Breckinridge: “I see no prospect of doing more than holding our position here till night. I am not certain that I can do that. If I can I shall withdraw north of the Appomattox (River), and, if possible, it will be better to withdraw the whole line tonight from the James River.” Lee confided to a subordinate: “This is a sad business, Colonel. It has happened as I told them in Richmond it would happen. The line has been stretched until it is broken.”[2]

This morning, Federal infantrymen killed Lieutenant General A.P. Hill, Lee’s top corps commander, as he rode between the lines to rally his men near the Boydton Plank Road. When informed of Hill’s death, Lee said, “He is at rest now, and we who are left are the ones to suffer.”[3]

Lee soon began moving his men out of Petersburg and Richmond to a rallying point at Amelia Court House, 40 miles west. Confederate President Jefferson Davis was attending Sunday services at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond when a messenger delivered a note: “General Lee telegraphs he can hold his position no longer.” Lee also informed Breckinridge: “I advise that all preparation be made for leaving Richmond tonight.” Thus, the prized cities of Petersburg and Richmond were finally within the Federal grasp.[4]

This evening, as Davis gathered his cabinet and made arrangements to abandon the Confederate capital, the Federal XXIV Corps finally captured Fort Gregg, and VI Corps in the western sector had cut the Boydton Plank Road and the vital South Side Railroad. This made the Federal conquest inevitable. A Petersburg correspondent wrote, “With that Sunday’s sun the hope of the Rebels set, never to rise again.” Only Lee’s orderly retreat allowed the army to escape destruction and the Confederate government to evade capture.[5]

President Abraham Lincoln, visiting the Federal Army of the Potomac, saw some fighting around Petersburg and accepted an invitation to join Grant in the city the next day. He wired Grant at 8:15 p.m.: “Allow me to tender you, and all with you, the nations grateful thanks for this additional, and magnificent success.”[6]

On the morning of the 3rd, Lincoln wired U.S. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton: “Grant reports Petersburg evacuated, and he is confident Richmond also is. He is pushing forward to cut off, if possible, the retreating army. I start to join him in a few minutes.” Lincoln met with Grant on the front piazza of a private home in Petersburg and observed Federal troops entering the city as Confederate soldiers and civilians fled.[7]

Meanwhile, Lee’s broken army escaped across the Appomattox River. The Confederate lines had finally broken after eight months of grueling siege warfare, but Lee’s forces were not yet conquered.[8]

—–

[1] Crocker III, H.W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008), p. 87-91; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 663-64

[2] Crocker III, The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War, p. 87-91; Long with Long, The Civil War Day by Day, p. 663-64

[3] Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 138; Long with Long, The Civil War Day by Day, p. 663-64; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 365-68

[4] Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 566, 574; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011-01-26), Kindle Locations 18470-18480, 18570-18580; Long with Long, The Civil War Day by Day, p. 663-64

[5] Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 214; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 715-16; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 91-93; Long with Long, The Civil War Day by Day, p. 663-64

[6] Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, p. 715-16; Long with Long, The Civil War Day by Day, p. 663-64

[7] Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox, Kindle Locations 18766-18776; Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, p. 715-16; Korn, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles, p. 108-09; Long with Long, The Civil War Day by Day, p. 665-66

[8] Ward, Burns, Burns, The Civil War, p. 365-68

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3 thoughts on “The Fall of Petersburg

  1. […] receiving General-in-Chief Robert E. Lee’s message on the 2nd warning of the impending fall of Petersburg and Richmond, President Jefferson Davis promptly left St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and summoned his […]

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  2. […] President Davis received a message from Robert E. Lee while attending church services that Petersburg and Richmond must be abandoned. Later today, Petersburg fell to Federal forces. […]

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  3. […] President Davis received a message from Robert E. Lee while attending church services that Petersburg and Richmond must be abandoned. Later today, Petersburg fell to Federal forces. […]

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