September 30, 1864 – While Federal forces attacked the Confederate siege lines north of the James River, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant directed the Army of the Potomac to attack the Confederate line southwest of Petersburg.
As Major General Benjamin F. Butler prepared his assault outside Richmond, Grant, the overall Federal commander, informed Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac at Petersburg, that “a movement will take place intended to surprise and capture the works of the enemy north of the James River between Malvern Hill and Richmond.”
Grant envisioned a two-pronged assault that would extend the lines of General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia until they broke. In conjunction with Butler’s move to the north, Grant instructed Meade, “As a co-operative movement with this you will please have the Army of the Potomac under arms at 4 a.m. on the 29th ready to move in any direction.”
Grant wanted Meade’s Federals to continue pushing southwest of Petersburg and seize the South Side Railroad, Lee’s last supply line via rail. Grant instructed Meade, “I will leave the details to you, stating merely that I want every effort used to convince the enemy that the South Side road and Petersburg are the objects of our efforts.”
The day after Butler’s Federals seized Fort Harrison and New Market Heights north of the James, Grant ordered Meade to attack Lee’s southernmost lines below Petersburg: “You may move out now and see if an advantage can be gained. It seems to me the enemy must be weak enough at one or the other place to let us in.”
Meade dispatched 16,000 Federals from V and IX corps under Major Generals Gouverneur Warren and John G. Parke for the assault. Brigadier General David M. Gregg’s Federal cavalry would guard the Federals’ left (south) flank. The Federals moved west in two columns toward the Confederate defenses along the Boydton Plank Road, which Lee was using in place of the Weldon Railroad (lost to the Federals in August) as a supply line.
Warren’s men led the advance before halting along the Squirrel Level Road and deploying for battle. The Federals then attacked and drove the Confederates back from Poplar Springs Church. Warren’s division under Brigadier General Charles Griffin captured the important Fort Archer on Peebles’s Farm.
The Confederates regrouped on a line closer to the Boydton Plank Road. Warren informed Meade at 2:20 p.m., “I will push up as fast as I can get my troops in order toward Petersburg on the Squirrel Level road.” However, Warren would not advance until Parke’s corps came up on his left and the Federals secured a connection to Globe Tavern.
During that time, Confederates from Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s corps under Major Generals Henry Heth and Cadmus M. Wilcox arrived and counterattacked. Warren’s Federals were knocked back into Parke’s, and the Confederates pushed them for over a mile until they entrenched at Peebles’s Farm. The Federals held firm until the Confederates disengaged for the night. Meade reported to Grant:
“About 4 p.m. General Parke was advancing to the Boydton plank road when he was vigorously attacked by the enemy, said by prisoners to have been two divisions of Hill’s corps. The fighting for some time till after dark was very severe, and after the Ninth Corps rallied and Griffin attacked it is believed the enemy suffered heavily.”
Grant told Meade that he “need not advance tomorrow unless in your judgment an advantage can be gained, but hold on to what you have, and be ready to advance. We must be greatly superior to the enemy in numbers on one flank or the other, and by working around at each end, we will find where the enemy’s weak point is.”
The fighting north of the James, along with this fighting on the 30th southwest of Petersburg, stretched Lee’s army to the limit and forced a desperate shift of troops from one threatened front to the other. Lee informed Secretary of War James A. Seddon that while Grant extended his lines and increased his numbers, the Army of Northern Virginia could “only meet his corps, increased by recent recruits, with a division, reduced by long and arduous service.”
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 150, 155; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 464-65; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 502-03; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 576-77; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 567-68; http://www.petersburgsiege.org/peebles.htm