The Second Battle of Petersburg: Day Four

June 18, 1864 – Federal forces launched yet another assault on the Petersburg defenses, but by this time General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia was arriving to resist.

By the morning of the 18th, Lee’s entire army (except for a corps in the Shenandoah Valley and a division at Bermuda Hundred) was now either at Petersburg or on its way there. The Confederates had abandoned their fortifications east of Petersburg the previous night and now manned new defensive works about a mile closer to the city.

Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, issued orders for an all-out assault that morning, in which the Federals were to seize the enemy fortifications “at all costs.” The battle began at dawn, with Major General William F. “Baldy” Smith’s XVIII Corps and Major General David B. Birney’s II Corps advancing on the Federal right, or the northeastern and eastern sectors of the line.

Action east of Petersburg | Image Credit:

Birney’s Federals easily stormed through the defenses before realizing that the Confederates had fallen back to stronger works. They did not approach the new fortifications a mile west until mid-morning. The Confederates expected the Federals’ approach and sharply repulsed them. This indicated to the Federal commanders that Lee’s army had arrived to reinforce General P.G.T. Beauregard’s defenders.

Lee personally arrived in Petersburg at 11 a.m. Beauregard later wrote that Lee was “at last where I had, for the past three days, so anxiously hoped to see him–within the limits of Petersburg.” The two commanders inspected the defenses, and Beauregard proposed counterattacking the Federal left flank. Lee demurred, arguing that the men were too exhausted to take the offensive. Thus, the Confederates would stay in their defenses.

Near noon, Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s IX Corps came up on Birney’s left to assault the eastern and southeastern sectors of the line. Major General Orlando Willcox’s division suffered particularly terrible losses, emerging from the fight with just 1,000 men uninjured.

Major General Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps came up on Burnside’s left and attacked Rives’s Salient, where the Confederate line ended at the Jerusalem Plank Road south of Petersburg. The Confederates repelled this assault and seriously wounded Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain, known for his heroic stand at Gettysburg. Not expecting Chamberlain to survive, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, promoted Chamberlain to brigadier general.

Maj Gen G.G. Meade | Image Credit:

After sustaining heavy losses for no gain, the Federal corps commanders would not comply with Meade’s orders to renew the assaults. Meade angrily wrote one commander, “What additional orders to attack you require I cannot imagine.” He wrote another, “Finding it impossible to effect cooperation by appointing an hour for attack, I have sent an order to each corps command to attack at all hazards and without reference to each other.”

The renewed attack started at 6:30 p.m., but several Federal units would not advance. Those that did were repelled with severe losses. The 1st Maine Heavy Artillery, a unit of new gunners converted to infantry, prepared to charge, but nearby veterans warned them against it. The Maine troops charged anyway and sustained the worst loss of any regiment in any single battle of the war–632 of 850 men. The survivors became known as the “Bloody First Maine.”

When the fighting ended that night, the four-day battle for Petersburg was over. Meade reported to Grant, “It is a source of great regret that I am not able to report more success. Our men are tired, and the attacks have not been made with the vigor and force which characterized our fighting in the Wilderness; if they had been, I think we should have been more successful.”

Grant replied, “I am perfectly satisfied that all has been done that could be done, and that the assaults to-day were called for by all the appearances and information that could be obtained. Now we will rest the men and use the spade for their protection until a new vein can be struck.”

Grant had brilliantly moved the Army of the Potomac across the James River and into Lee’s rear, but he had followed that up with four days of futile and costly assaults. Since the 15th, the Federals sustained 11,386 casualties (1,688 killed, 8,513 wounded, and 1,185 missing or captured). Since Grant launched his offensive on May 4, he had lost almost 75,000 men, but reinforcements received during that time still left him with 110,000 troops.

The Confederates lost about 4,000 (200 killed, 2,900 wounded, and 900 missing or captured) since the 15th. Beauregard’s skillful defense of Petersburg was a remarkable feat considering the size of the enemy his men faced. Since opening the campaign, the Confederates suffered about 30,000 losses, which could not be replaced. The combined forces of Lee and Beauregard defending Petersburg numbered no more than 50,000 men.

Despite maintaining their numerical advantage, most Federals were exhausted and demoralized after a month and a half of constant marching, fighting, and dying. Officers lost their tempers with each other and their men, and Meade acknowledged that “the moral condition of the army” was broken. Warren said, “For 30 days it has been one funeral procession past me, and it has been too much!”

With more direct assaults on the Confederate defenses out of the question, Grant looked to duplicate what he had done at Vicksburg and place Petersburg under siege.



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