June 17, 1864 – Federal forces from the Armies of the Potomac and the James launched another assault on Petersburg’s eastern defenses, as General Robert E. Lee was uncharacteristically slow to respond.
General P.G.T. Beauregard’s Confederates south of the James River had held firm against repeated Federal assaults on Petersburg, the vital railroad city 22 miles south of Richmond. The Confederate line ran northeast of Petersburg to south of the city. The Federals, under Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant’s overall command, held opposing positions to the east:
- Major General William F. “Baldy” Smith’s XVIII Corps/Army of the James held the right (northeastern) flank.
- Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps/Army of the Potomac held the center (east).
- Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s IX Corps/Army of the Potomac held the left (southeastern) flank.
- A division of Major General Horatio G. Wright’s VI Corps/Army of the Potomac was to support Smith’s exhausted Federals.
- The remainder of Wright’s VI Corps was to move northeast and break the rest of Major General Benjamin F. Butler’s Army of the James out of Bermuda Hundred, a peninsula formed by the James and Appomattox rivers.
- Major General Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps/Army of the Potomac was to come up on Burnside’s left and extend the Federal line to the Jerusalem Plank Road, south of Petersburg.
The Federal force numbered about 80,000 men. The main portion of General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia still had not crossed the James River, leaving Beauregard with only about 15,000 troops. But two of Lee’s divisions sealed off the Bermuda Hundred peninsula, effectively trapping Butler’s army once more.
Burnside’s Federals opened the day’s fighting when Brigadier General Robert B. Potter’s division charged just before sunrise and captured nearly a mile of the Confederate line, along with about 600 prisoners, four guns, and 1,500 small arms. Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac, notified Burnside at 7 a.m., “I am satisfied the main body of Lee’s army is not yet up, and it is of the utmost importance to do all we can before they get up.”
However, the Confederates fell back to another line of fortifications, and Potter’s Federals were pinned down by enfilade fire. The rest of Burnside’s corps came up to join the fray around 2 p.m.; this included a division led by Brigadier General James Ledlie, who was noticeably drunk during the battle.
Burnside made no progress because he was not supported by the other corps. Warren did not come up on Burnside’s left because Confederates blocked his men along the Norfolk & Petersburg Railroad. Hancock, who had been struggling with a wound from Gettysburg that had not yet healed, was forced to relinquish command of II Corps to Major General David B. Birney. Confederates in the northeastern sector repelled disjointed assaults by Smith and Wright.
Burnside and Birney launched a strong assault at 6 p.m., but the Confederates eventually drove the Federals back. Meade halted the fighting and issued orders for an attack all along the Confederate line the next morning. Brigadier General E. Porter Alexander, the chief Confederate artillerist, later wrote:
“The fighting was continuous and severe all day. Parts of our line were taken and retaken, but when the struggle finally ceased, which it did not do until near midnight, our lines were practically intact and Beauregard and what were left of his splendid little force had covered themselves with glory. For they had successfully stood off Grant’s whole army for three days.”
Beauregard established a new defense line closer to Petersburg, which ran along Taylor’s Creek to the Appomattox River. Meanwhile, Lee remained unconvinced that the entire Army of the Potomac was at Petersburg. He wired Beauregard that morning, “Can you ascertain anything of Grant’s movements? I am cut off now from all information.” That afternoon, Lee asked Beauregard, “Has Grant been seen crossing James River?”
Beauregard telegraphed Lee at 12:40 a.m.: “All quiet at present. I expect renewal of attack in morning. My troops are becoming much exhausted. Without immediate and strong reinforcements results may be unfavorable. Prisoners report Grant on the field with his whole army.” He dispatched three messengers to find Lee and tell him in person to hurry his army to Petersburg.
Beauregard later expressed frustration with Lee’s indecision: “The Army of Northern Virginia was yet far distant, and I had failed to convince its distinguished commander of the fact that I was then fighting Grant’s whole army with less than 11,000 men.”
Lee finally received positive confirmation that Grant and Meade had crossed the James from his son, Major General W.H.F. “Rooney” Lee of the cavalry. Lee prepared to send his army to Petersburg, led by Lieutenant General Richard H. Anderson’s First Corps. Anderson’s advance elements arrived before dawn on the 18th and immediately began strengthening the fortifications before the next Federal attack came.
As the sun rose, Beauregard now had about 20,000 Confederates in strong defenses. But they still faced 80,000 Federals preparing to launch a massive, overwhelming assault.
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