The Siege of Petersburg Begins

June 20, 1864 – Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, announced to his subordinates, “I have determined to try to envelop Petersburg.”

Federal General U.S. Grant | Image Credit:

The Federal Army of the Potomac and XVIII Corps of the Army of the James had been unable to penetrate the Confederate defenses east of Petersburg after four days of costly fighting. Grant therefore resolved to duplicate his siege of Vicksburg by starving Petersburg into submission. Since Petersburg was Richmond’s main source of supply from the south, it was hoped that the fall of Petersburg would topple Richmond as well.

The 110,000 Federals were opposed by no more than 50,000 Confederates from General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and General P.G.T. Beauregard’s Department of Southern Virginia and North Carolina. Lee officially absorbed Beauregard’s department into his army on the 19th.

Lee had to prevent the Federals from seizing any more ground that could force him to fall back to Richmond. The capital had to be protected from any potential surprise attack, and all railroads had to continue functioning to supply the defenders. Therefore, Lee’s men began constructing an east-facing defense line that stretched 22 miles from Richmond to Petersburg.

Outside Petersburg, the Confederate line anchored on the Appomattox River to the north; it extended south and then west below the city to the Jerusalem Plank Road. Within this line, the Confederates defended three railroads needed for supplies:

  • The Richmond & Petersburg, which connected the two cities;
  • The South Side, which ran west to the Shenandoah Valley;
  • The Weldon, which ran south to North Carolina.

Federals began entrenching, and siege warfare soon replaced the open combat that had characterized this campaign since it began in early May. The Federal line east of Petersburg mirrored that of the Confederates. Grant sought to extend this line all the way around Petersburg until it reached the Appomattox River west of town, but for now he could only stretch it to the Jerusalem Plank Road, southeast of town.

Meanwhile, Grant endured heavy criticism in the North for incurring such a terrible loss of men in this campaign. Many noted that George B. McClellan had gotten much closer to Richmond two years before while losing far fewer men. Members of Congress began calling Grant a failure, and First Lady Mary Lincoln said more than once, “He is a butcher, and is not fit to be the head of an army.” All this prompted President Abraham Lincoln to calm his own “anxiety” by traveling to Grant’s headquarters at City Point on the James River to meet with him in person.

Lincoln left the Washington Navy Yard aboard the steamer Baltimore on the night of the 20th. He was joined by his son Tad and Assistant Navy Secretary Gustavus V. Fox. The Baltimore reached City Point the next morning, 16 hours later. According to Colonel Horace Porter of Grant’s staff:

“As the boat neared the shore, the general and several of us who were with him at the time walked down to the wharf, in order that the general-in-chief might meet his distinguished visitor and extend a greeting to him as soon as the boat made the landing. As our party stepped aboard, the President came down from the upper deck, where he had been standing, to the after gangway, and reaching out his long, angular arm, he wrung General Grant’s hand vigorously, and held it in his for some time, while he uttered in rapid words his congratulations and expressions of appreciation of the great task which had been accomplished since he and the general had parted in Washington.”

Lincoln told Grant, “I just thought I would jump aboard a boat and come down and see you. I don’t expect I can do any good, and in fact I’m afraid I may do harm, but I’ll put myself under your orders and if you find me doing anything wrong just send me right away.”

The men went into the after-cabin of the steamer, where Grant told Lincoln, “You will never hear of me farther than Richmond than now, till I have taken it. I am just as sure of going into Richmond as I am of any future event. It may take a long summer day, as they say in the rebel papers, but I will do it.” Lincoln replied, “I cannot pretend to advise, but I do sincerely hope that all may be accomplished with as little bloodshed as possible.”

The men had lunch, and then Grant escorted Lincoln out to inspect the troops in the new Petersburg siege lines. The men rode on horseback, and as Porter recalled of Lincoln:

“Like most men who had been brought up in the West, he had good command of a horse, but it must be acknowledged that in appearance he was not a very dashing rider. On this occasion, by the time he had reached the troops he was completely covered with dust, and the black color of his clothes had changed to Confederate gray. As he had no straps, his trousers gradually worked up above his ankles, and gave him the appearance of a country farmer riding into town wearing his Sunday clothes.”

The men inspected white troops, and then Lincoln accepted Grant’s suggestion to visit the black troops. Porter wrote that the black men were almost hysterical with excitement upon seeing “the liberator of their race”:

“Always impressionable, the enthusiasm of the blacks now knew no limits. They cheered, laughed, cried, sang hymns of praise, and shouted in their negro dialect, ‘God bress Massa Linkum!’ ‘De Lord save Fader Abraham!’ ‘De day ob jubilee am come, shuah…’ The President rode with bared head; the tears had started to his eyes, and his voice was so broken by emotion that he could scarcely articulate the words of thanks and congratulation which he tried to speak to the humble and devoted men through whose ranks he rode. The scene was affecting in the extreme, and no one could have witnessed it unmoved.”

Lincoln met with Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac. He also conversed with Grant and his staff that night. The next morning, the president met with Major General Benjamin F. Butler, commanding the part of his Army of the James trapped at Bermuda Hundred. Lincoln also visited with Rear Admiral Samuel P. Lee, commanding the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron. After inspecting the naval squadron, Lincoln returned to Washington, satisfied that Grant had matters well in hand.

The next day, Grant wrote Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck at Washington. Grant preemptively asked Halleck to not detach any troops from Grant’s army to defend the capital because, “The siege of Richmond bids fair to be tedious, and in consequence of the very extended lines we must have, a much larger force will be necessary than would be required in ordinary sieges against the same force that now opposes us.”


References; Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 19, 33-63; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 428-29; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 10974-85; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 9231-62, 9305-15; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 459; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7741; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 629; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 524-28; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 536-37; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 812

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