July 15, 1864 – As the Federals outside Petersburg settled in for long-term siege operations, Confederates finally began digging countermines to try to find the Federals supposedly tunneling under their lines.
During the first half of July, the combined Federal Armies of the Potomac and the James settled into fortifications running from northeast to southeast of Petersburg. Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac, issued orders declaring that operations would be conducted according to “regular approaches.”
This meant initiating siege tactics and gradually extending the Federal line until the defensive line of General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia broke. Federal crews began building railroad lines around the Petersburg perimeter, which would bring in supplies from City Point, at the confluence of the James and Appomattox rivers.
However, technically this campaign was not a siege because siege tactics were traditionally undertaken when an enemy was surrounded, and the Confederates were not. Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, sought to eventually move around the Confederate right flank and surround the enemy, but the Confederates were too strong to allow it.
Meanwhile, northern dissatisfaction with Grant’s performance increased. A cavalry raid in late June had failed, and it seemed that no real progress was being made outside Petersburg. An article in the New York World asked, “Who shall revive the withered hopes that bloomed on the opening of Grant’s campaign?” Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck confided in his friend, Major General William T. Sherman:
“Entre nous, I fear Grant has made a fatal mistake in putting himself south of the James River. He cannot now reach Richmond without taking Petersburg, which is strongly fortified, crossing the Appomattox, and recrossing the James. Moreover, by placing his army south of Richmond he opens the capital and the whole North to rebel raids. Lee can at any time detach 30,000 to 40,000 men without our knowing it till we are actually threatened. I hope we may yet have full success, but I find that many of Grant’s general officers think the campaign already a failure.”
The enormous number of casualties shocked the administration so much that President Abraham Lincoln felt it necessary to respond to a message Grant had sent Sherman:
“In your dispatch of yesterday to General Sherman I find the following, to wit: ‘I shall make a desperate effort to get a position here which will hold the enemy without the necessity of so many men.’ Pressed as we are by lapse of time, I am glad to hear you say this; and yet I do hope you may find a way that the effort shall not be desperate in the sense of a great loss of life.”
Lincoln issued a proclamation on the 18th calling for 500,000 more volunteers to replenish the Virginia losses. To avoid another Wall Street crisis like that in May, Lincoln encouraged men to volunteer before the draft, which Lincoln ordered to take place after September 5 to fill any remaining quotas. This unpopular move endangered Lincoln’s reelection chances in the upcoming presidential election; a Democratic editor even said, “Lincoln is deader than dead.”
Major General William F. “Baldy” Smith, whom Grant respected due to his work on the “cracker line” into Chattanooga last year, was removed as XVIII Corps commander. His blunder at Petersburg on June 15 would have been enough cause for removal, but Smith had also feuded with his superior (Major General Benjamin F. Butler) and criticized Meade, which reflected on Grant. Smith’s lobbying in his own defense only made matters worse for him. He was replaced by Major General E.O.C. Ord.
The only potentially positive development for the Federals was the tunneling expedition, which had begun in late June. The 48th Pennsylvania, a regiment consisting mainly of anthracite coal miners, worked through most of July to tunnel under the Confederate lines at Elliott’s Salient, southeast of Blandford Cemetery.
Brigadier General E. Porter Alexander, the chief Confederate artillerist, had warned that the Federals were tunneling under their lines, but the Confederates did not start digging countermines until over two weeks later. They dug around Elliott’s Salient and other nearby redans, but they could not find the Federals beneath them.
The Pennsylvanians completed the tunnel on the 23rd. Lieutenant Colonel Henry Pleasants, commanding the 48th, later asserted that had his men been furnished with the proper mining tools, they “could have done it in one-third or one-fourth of the time.”
The main gallery was 511 feet long and five feet high. It was reinforced to withstand the weight of Confederate batteries overhead, and it was dug at a slight angle for drainage. Two lateral chambers extended on either side of the gallery for 75 feet at the end, enabling the Federals to detonate gunpowder directly below the enemy trenches. With the tunnel ready, the Federals now had to wait for approval up the chain of command to proceed with their plan.
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