June 16, 1864 – Federals launched renewed attacks on the vital railroad city of Petersburg, while Confederates scrambled to strengthen the defenses outside town.
By the morning of the 16th, about 14,000 Confederates from General P.G.T. Beauregard’s army from south of the James River and General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia had assembled in the defenses east of Petersburg. Their left flank was anchored on the Petersburg & City Point Railroad northeast of town, and their right flank was near the Jerusalem Plank Road to the southeast. Only small cavalry patrols held the fortifications from the Jerusalem Plank Road to the Appomattox River west of Petersburg.
To the east of Petersburg were about 50,000 Federals in three corps:
- Major General William F. “Baldy” Smith’s XVIII Corps/Army of the James on the right (northeast).
- Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps/Army of the Potomac in the center (east).
- Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s IX Corps/Army of the Potomac on the left (southeast).
Lee was awakened at 2 a.m. with a message from Beauregard: “I have abandoned my lines of Bermuda Neck to concentrate all my force here: skirmishers and pickets will leave there at daylight.” This enabled the remainder of Major General Benjamin F. Butler’s Army of the James to threaten the Richmond & Petersburg Railroad. Beauregard asked, “Cannot these lines be occupied by your troops? The safety of our communications requires it. Five thousand or 6,000 men may do.”
Lee still had most of his army north of the James River and was unaware that Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, had moved the Army of the Potomac south of the river. Nevertheless, he ordered Major General George Pickett’s division to defend Bermuda Hundred and put the rest of his army in motion to reinforce Beauregard. Lee crossed the James around 9:30 a.m., just as Butler was breaking out of Bermuda Hundred and advancing southwest toward Petersburg.
Beauregard notified Lee, “We may have force sufficient to hold Petersburg. Pickett will probably need re-enforcements on the lines of Bermuda Hundred Neck. At Drewry’s Bluff at 9 a.m. or later no news of Pickett’s division.” Lee responded, “Am glad to hear you can hold Petersburg. Hope you will drive the enemy. Have you heard of Grant’s crossing James River?” Lee sent another message an hour later: “Has Grant been seen crossing James River?” Beauregard could only state that signalmen had counted 42 transports moving up the James recently.
Grant directed the Federals to probe the Confederate defenses. Hancock was in overall command until Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac, could arrive. Grant returned to his new headquarters at City Point and notified Meade, “Smith has taken a line of works there, stronger than anything we have seen this campaign. If it is a possible thing, I want an assault made at 6 o’clock this evening.”
Meade soon reached the Federal lines and consulted with Hancock. An artillery barrage would precede the advance of all three corps on the Petersburg defenses. Smith and Hancock would comprise the attack force, with Burnside’s men feinting to the southeast. The Federals launched two fierce assaults, but they failed to achieve any significant breakthroughs. Beauregard quickly filled any gaps caused by the attacks, and the Confederates regained three redans that they initially lost.
Fighting and entrenching continued through the night. Beauregard later wrote:
“It is evident that if the enemy had left one corps in my front and attacked with another corps by the Jerusalem plank-road or westwardly of it, I would have been compelled to evacuate Petersburg without much resistance. But they persisted in attacking on my front where I was strongest (excepting the gap from battery five to nine, which had been lost the evening before), and the result was that they were repulsed during the day with great loss, although their attacks were made with two gallant corps, numbering about 20,000 men each.”
Lee wrote President Jefferson Davis at 7 p.m., “I have not learned from General Beauregard what force is opposed to him. Nor have I been able to learn whether any portion of Grant’s army is opposed to him.” Lee did not know until late on the 16th that the entire Army of the Potomac was indeed across the James. From City Point, Grant said, “I think it is pretty well, to get across a great river and come up here and attack Lee in the rear before he is ready for us.”
On the 17th, Meade wrote his wife about the fighting at Petersburg:
“I at once ordered an attack, which commenced at 6 p.m. and lasted pretty much continuously till 4 a.m. to-day–that is, 10 hours–eight of which was by moonlight, another unparalleled feat in the annals of war. Our attack was quite successful, as we captured several of their works, four guns and 500 prisoners. We find the enemy, as usual, in a very strong position, defended by earthworks, and it looks very much as if we will have to go through a siege of Petersburg before entering on the siege of Richmond, and that Grant’s words of keeping at it all summer will prove to be quite prophetic. Well, it is all in the cruise, as the sailors say.”
As more Federals assembled west of Petersburg, they planned to renew their assault the next day.
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