Tag Archives: Army of Northern Virginia

Petersburg: The Tunneling Expedition Continues

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.

Maj Gen G.G. Meade | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

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.”

Gen W.F. Smith | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

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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References

Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 64-93, 116-21; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 434; 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 9611-42, 9803-13, 11331-51, 11154-64; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 463, 468, 471, 473; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7809; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 540-42, 545; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 833; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 757-58; Simon, John Y., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 699; Sommers, Richard J., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 179-80; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 190; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q364

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The Battle of Fort Stevens

July 11, 1864 – Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s Confederate Army of the Valley spread panic throughout Washington by reaching the capital’s suburbs and attacking a portion of the city’s defenses.

Confederate Gen. Jubal Early | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

The day after their victory on the Monocacy River, Early’s Confederates continued moving southeast through Maryland toward Washington. Early hoped that his raid would divert Federal forces from laying siege to Petersburg south of Richmond. Slowed by heat and fatigue, the Confederates stopped for the night near Rockville, less than 10 miles from Washington on the Georgetown Pike.

Meanwhile, panic spread throughout both Baltimore and Washington. Northerners eager for the fall of Richmond were now suddenly terrified that their own capital might fall. A group of Baltimore civic leaders wired President Abraham Lincoln accusing him of leaving their city vulnerable to Early’s Confederates. Lincoln replied, “They can not fly to either place. Let us be vigilant but keep cool. I hope neither Baltimore or Washington will be sacked.”

Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, sent VI and XIX corps from Virginia to reinforce the Washington defenses. Grant telegraphed Lincoln offering to come in person to command the forces, and then advised, “All other force, it looks to me, should be collected in rear of enemy about Edwards Ferry and follow him (Early) and cut off retreat if possible.” Lincoln replied:

“Gen. Halleck says we have absolutely no force here fit to go to the field. He thinks that with the hundred day-men, and invalids we have here, we can defend Washington, and scarcely Baltimore. Now what I think is that you should provide to retain your hold where you are certainly, and bring the rest with you personally, and make a vigorous effort to destroy the enemie’s force in this vicinity. I think there is really a fair chance to do this if the movement is prompt.”

Lincoln concluded, “This is what I think, upon your suggestion, and is not an order.” Halleck agreed with Grant’s plan to get into Early’s rear, but, he wrote, “we have no forces here for the field” except “militia, invalids, convalescents from the hospitals, a few dismounted batteries, and the dismounted and disorganized cavalry sent up from James River.” Grant assured Washington that reinforcements would soon arrive, writing, “They will probably reach Washington tomorrow night. I have great faith that the enemy will never be able to get back with much of his force.”

Early’s army continued its advance on the 11th, moving southward down both the Georgetown Pike and the Seventh Street Pike. The troops destroyed bridges, railroad tracks, warehouses, factories, and homes along the way. Early recalled:

“This day was an exceedingly hot one, and there was no air stirring. While marching, the men were enveloped in a suffocating cloud of dust, and many of them fell by the way from exhaustion. Our progress was therefore very much impeded, but I pushed on as rapidly as possible, hoping to get to the fortifications around Washington before they could be manned.”

In Washington, officials frantically organized militia, invalids, government clerks, and anyone else they could muster to man the capital defenses in preparation for an invasion. Federals from the Army of the Potomac’s VI Corps began arriving as the Confederates approached Fort Stevens, Washington’s northernmost defensive work, around 1 p.m.

Fort Stevens outside Washington | Image Credit: BlogSpot.com

The Confederates drove the Federal pickets back into the fort, but Early hesitated to launch an all-out attack due to Federal artillery, stifling summer heat, and exhaustion from marching all day. Early also noted the Federal fortifications:

“They were found to be exceedingly strong, and consisted of what appeared to be enclosed forts for heavy artillery, with a tier of lower works in front of each pierced for an immense number of guns, the whole being connected by curtains with ditches in front, and strengthened by palisades and abattis. The timber had been felled within cannon range all around and left on the ground, making a formidable obstacle, and every possible approach was raked by artillery.”

President and Mrs. Lincoln visited Fort Stevens as the Confederates approached, with one witness later writing, “While at Fort Stevens on Monday, both were imprudently exposed,–rifle-balls coming, in several instances, alarmingly near!” Lincoln watched the action from a parapet, where his tall figure made a prime target. When a man near Lincoln was shot, a soldier called for the president to get down before he had his head knocked off.

Private Elisha H. Rhodes of the 2nd Rhode Island recorded in his diary:

“On the parapet I saw President Lincoln… Mrs. Lincoln and other ladies were sitting in a carriage behind the earthworks. For a short time it was warm work, but as the President and many ladies were looking on, every man tried to do his best… I never saw the 2nd Rhode Island do better. The rebels, supposing us to be Pennsylvania militia, stood their ground, but prisoners later told me that when they saw our lines advance without a break they knew we were veterans. The Rebels broke and fled… Early should have attacked early in the morning (before we got there). Early was late.”

Lincoln finally left the parapet, and he and the first lady went to the Sixth Street wharves where they watched troops from the Army of the Potomac debarking from their ship transports. Lincoln mingled “familiarly with the veterans, and now and then, as if in compliment to them, biting at a piece of hard tack which he held in his hand.” The Federals marched up Seventh Street to help defend Fort Stevens. After the Federal artillery drove the Confederates back, Early ordered his men to rest.

That evening, Early and his four division commanders took up headquarters in the mansion owned by the politically prominent Blair family. Early wrote, “I determined to make an assault on the enemy’s works at daylight next morning, unless some information should be received before that time showing its impracticability.” That information came when Early learned that VI Corps had arrived and XIX Corps would be there by morning. However, Early did not want to withdraw without at least trying to fight, so he ordered a probe the next day to look for an exploitable weakness in Fort Stevens.

Meanwhile, a Confederate cavalry detachment under Brigadier General Bradley Johnson wreaked havoc throughout Maryland. According to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles:

“The Rebels captured a train of cars on the Philadelphia and Baltimore Road, and have burnt bridges over Gunpowder and Bush Rivers… General demoralization seems to have taken place among the troops, and there is as little intelligence among them as at the War Office in regard to the Rebels… no mails, and the telegraph lines have been cut; so that we are without news or information from the outer world.”

The Confederates advanced again on the 12th, but the panic had subsided among the Washington residents now that Federal veterans arrived. Many curious onlookers came to see the action, including Lincoln once again. Despite warnings from Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton about possible assassination attempts, Lincoln adjourned a cabinet meeting and visited several forts around Washington with Secretary of State William H. Seward. The visit ended at Fort Stevens, where Lincoln watched the action with Major General Horatio G. Wright’s VI Corps.

Wright unwisely invited Lincoln to watch from the parapet, where he was exposed to enemy fire from the waist up. According to legend, young officer (and future Supreme Court justice) Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. shouted to him, “Get down, you damn fool, before you get shot!” Lincoln sat down but repeatedly jumped up to see the action. As he watched the Federals charge, a nearby surgeon was shot and Wright insisted that Lincoln leave or else be forcibly removed. Wright later recalled, “The absurdity of the idea of sending off the President under guard seemed to amuse him…”

The Federals drove the Confederates off by 10 p.m., ending the last threat to Washington. Early’s troops withdrew, and as they moved through Silver Spring, Maryland, they burned the home of Francis P. Blair, Sr., a political icon since the days of Andrew Jackson. Early wrote, “The fact is that I had nothing to do with it, and do not yet know how the burning occurred.” Early stated that it was unwise “to set the house on fire when we were retiring, as it amounted to notice of our movement.” Some claimed that it was Confederate retaliation for the Federals burning the home of Virginia Governor John Letcher.

Nevertheless, as his soldiers formed columns to begin marching back to Virginia, Early told an aide, “Major, we haven’t taken Washington, but we’ve scared Abe Lincoln like hell!”

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 176; Catton, Bruce, The Army of the Potomac: A Stillness at Appomattox (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1953), p. 266; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20420-29; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 434-36; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 11033-44; 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 9455-76, 9487-97, 9508-610; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 467-69; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 640-44; Lewis, Thomas A., The Shenandoah in Flames: The Valley Campaign of 1864 (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 84-90; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 536-38; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 756; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 312; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 233-34, 279, 504, 677-79

The Battle of the Weldon Railroad

June 23, 1864 – Fighting broke out clashed as the Federals sought to extend their left flank and cut the railroad south of Petersburg, Virginia.

As the Federal Armies of the Potomac and the James settled in to besiege Petersburg, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, called for infantry and cavalry detachments to attack two railroads supplying the Confederate troops defending the city:

  • The Weldon Railroad, which ran south to Weldon, North Carolina, and then to one of the Confederacy’s few remaining seaports, Wilmington, North Carolina;
  • The South Side Railroad, which ran west to Lynchburg in the Shenandoah Valley.

At this time, the Federal siege line stretched from northeast of Petersburg to the Jerusalem Plank Road, southeast of town. Grant assigned two cavalry divisions under Brigadier Generals James H. Wilson and August V. Kautz to ride beyond the Jerusalem Plank Road and raid both the Weldon to the west and the South Side farther northwest.

Grant also ordered a large Federal infantry force to extend the left flank beyond the Jerusalem Plank Road and support the cavalry attack on the Weldon. Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac, selected II and VI corps under Major Generals David B. Birney and Horatio G. Wright for this assignment. President Abraham Lincoln, who had come from Washington to meet with Grant, visited with some troops of VI Corps as they prepared.

Troops from Major General Benjamin F. Butler’s Army of the James on the Bermuda Hundred peninsula northeast of Petersburg would be brought down via water to replace Birney and Wright on the siege line. The plan called for II and VI corps to cross the Jerusalem Plank Road and turn northwest toward the Weldon Railroad, while the cavalry troopers attacked the railroad farther south. The Federals moved out on the 21st.

Lt Gen A.P. Hill | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Confederate scouts quickly reported that the Federals were trying to extend their lines toward the Weldon. General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia defending Petersburg, directed cavalry under Major General W.H.F. “Rooney” Lee to confront the Federal horsemen and Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s Third Corps to confront the infantry.

By noon on the 22nd, Federal cavalry had cut the Weldon Railroad at Reams’s Station, about seven miles south of Petersburg. However, the difficult terrain had slowed the infantry’s advance, and the two corps then became separated in the swamps and thickets south of Petersburg.

Hill deployed Major General Cadmus M. Wilcox’s division to keep VI Corps occupied on the right (south) while the divisions under Major Generals William Mahone and Bushrod R. Johnson attacked II Corps on the left. The Confederates furiously assaulted the exposed left flank and rear of II Corps. Brigadier General Francis C. Barlow’s Federal division quickly collapsed, and Brigadier General John Gibbon’s division fled for safety. A soldier wrote, “The attack was to the Union troops more than a surprise. It was an astonishment.”

Action of 22 June | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

The Confederates pushed the Federals back to the Jerusalem Plank Road, where they stabilized their lines as darkness ended the fighting. The next day, Meade ordered Wright to advance, but when Wright’s advance line suffered heavy losses, he refused to move the rest of his corps. At 7:35 p.m., Meade notified Wright, “Your delay has been fatal.”

The Confederates suffered 572 casualties in this battle, while the humiliated Federals lost 2,962, including some 1,700 captured. The Weldon Railroad remained firmly in Confederate hands. However, the Federals did wreck some of the track, and their left was slightly extended across the Jerusalem Plank Road. Grant would make many more attempts to extend his left in the coming months.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 22175; Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 53-63; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 429; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011-01-26), Loc 9231-94; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 459-60; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7763; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 526-28; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 577-79, 812-13

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: Wikispaces.org

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.”

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; 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

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: Wikipedia.org

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: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

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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References

Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 498-99; Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 175; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Crocker III, H.W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008), p. 87-91; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 22168; Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 48-53; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition), Loc 9137-219; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 457; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7636-48; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 200-02; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 524-25; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 469-70; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 740-41; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 394, 577-79, 812

The Second Battle of Petersburg: Day Three

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.

Maj Gen A.E. Burnside | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

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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References

Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 497-98; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 22168; Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 46-48; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 427; 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 9100-36; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 457; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7566-77; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 524; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 740; Sommers, Richard J., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 177; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 428, 577-79

The Second Battle of Petersburg: Day Two

June 16, 1864 – Federals launched renewed attacks on the vital railroad city of Petersburg, while Confederates scrambled to strengthen the defenses outside town.

Gen P.G.T. Beauregard | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

By the morning of the 16th, about 14,000 Confederates from General P.G.T. Beauregard’s army from south of the James River and General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia had assembled in the defenses east of Petersburg. Their left flank was anchored on the Petersburg & City Point Railroad northeast of town, and their right flank was near the Jerusalem Plank Road to the southeast. Only small cavalry patrols held the fortifications from the Jerusalem Plank Road to the Appomattox River west of Petersburg.

To the east of Petersburg were about 50,000 Federals in three corps:

  • Major General William F. “Baldy” Smith’s XVIII Corps/Army of the James on the right (northeast).
  • Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps/Army of the Potomac in the center (east).
  • Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s IX Corps/Army of the Potomac on the left (southeast).

Lee was awakened at 2 a.m. with a message from Beauregard: “I have abandoned my lines of Bermuda Neck to concentrate all my force here: skirmishers and pickets will leave there at daylight.” This enabled the remainder of Major General Benjamin F. Butler’s Army of the James to threaten the Richmond & Petersburg Railroad. Beauregard asked, “Cannot these lines be occupied by your troops? The safety of our communications requires it. Five thousand or 6,000 men may do.”

Lee still had most of his army north of the James River and was unaware that Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, had moved the Army of the Potomac south of the river. Nevertheless, he ordered Major General George Pickett’s division to defend Bermuda Hundred and put the rest of his army in motion to reinforce Beauregard. Lee crossed the James around 9:30 a.m., just as Butler was breaking out of Bermuda Hundred and advancing southwest toward Petersburg.

Beauregard notified Lee, “We may have force sufficient to hold Petersburg. Pickett will probably need re-enforcements on the lines of Bermuda Hundred Neck. At Drewry’s Bluff at 9 a.m. or later no news of Pickett’s division.” Lee responded, “Am glad to hear you can hold Petersburg. Hope you will drive the enemy. Have you heard of Grant’s crossing James River?” Lee sent another message an hour later: “Has Grant been seen crossing James River?” Beauregard could only state that signalmen had counted 42 transports moving up the James recently.

Grant directed the Federals to probe the Confederate defenses. Hancock was in overall command until Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac, could arrive. Grant returned to his new headquarters at City Point and notified Meade, “Smith has taken a line of works there, stronger than anything we have seen this campaign. If it is a possible thing, I want an assault made at 6 o’clock this evening.”

Meade soon reached the Federal lines and consulted with Hancock. An artillery barrage would precede the advance of all three corps on the Petersburg defenses. Smith and Hancock would comprise the attack force, with Burnside’s men feinting to the southeast. The Federals launched two fierce assaults, but they failed to achieve any significant breakthroughs. Beauregard quickly filled any gaps caused by the attacks, and the Confederates regained three redans that they initially lost.

Fighting and entrenching continued through the night. Beauregard later wrote:

“It is evident that if the enemy had left one corps in my front and attacked with another corps by the Jerusalem plank-road or westwardly of it, I would have been compelled to evacuate Petersburg without much resistance. But they persisted in attacking on my front where I was strongest (excepting the gap from battery five to nine, which had been lost the evening before), and the result was that they were repulsed during the day with great loss, although their attacks were made with two gallant corps, numbering about 20,000 men each.”

Lee wrote President Jefferson Davis at 7 p.m., “I have not learned from General Beauregard what force is opposed to him. Nor have I been able to learn whether any portion of Grant’s army is opposed to him.” Lee did not know until late on the 16th that the entire Army of the Potomac was indeed across the James. From City Point, Grant said, “I think it is pretty well, to get across a great river and come up here and attack Lee in the rear before he is ready for us.”

On the 17th, Meade wrote his wife about the fighting at Petersburg:

“I at once ordered an attack, which commenced at 6 p.m. and lasted pretty much continuously till 4 a.m. to-day–that is, 10 hours–eight of which was by moonlight, another unparalleled feat in the annals of war. Our attack was quite successful, as we captured several of their works, four guns and 500 prisoners. We find the enemy, as usual, in a very strong position, defended by earthworks, and it looks very much as if we will have to go through a siege of Petersburg before entering on the siege of Richmond, and that Grant’s words of keeping at it all summer will prove to be quite prophetic. Well, it is all in the cruise, as the sailors say.”

As more Federals assembled west of Petersburg, they planned to renew their assault the next day.

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References

Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 496-97; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 22160-68; Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 44-45; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 427; 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 9057-110; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 456; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7519-66; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 523-24; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 740