Battle of Petersburg

 

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The Battle of Petersburg

Petersburg. This city, on the south side of the Appomattox River, about 20 miles from Richmond, and 15 from City Point, was occupied, in the summer of 1864, by a large Confederate force, who cast up strong entrenchments upon its exposed sides. When the Army of the Potomac was led to the south side of the James River (June 14–16, 1864), it began immediate operations against Petersburg, which was then the strong defense of Richmond. Butler, at Bermuda Hundred, was very securely entrenched. Grant sent General Smith's troops quickly back to him after the battle at COLD HARBOR,

ATTACKING THE CONFEDERATE ENTRENCHMENTS AT THE BATTLE OF PETERSBURG

and directed him to cooperate with the Army of the Potomac in an attempt to capture Petersburg. On June 10 Butler sent 10,500 men, under Gilimore, and 1,500 cavalry, under Kautz, to attack the Confederates at Petersburg; at the same time two gunboats went up the Appomattox to bombard an earthwork a little below the city. The troops crossed the Appomattox 4 miles above City Point, and marched on Petersburg, while Kautz swept round to attack on the south. The enterprise was a failure, and the Nationals retired. Five days later there was another attempt to capture Petersburg. Smith arrived at Bermuda Hundred with his troops on June 14, and pushed on to the front of the defenses of Petersburg, northeastward of the city. These were found to be very formidable and, ignorant of what forces lay behind these works, he proceeded so cautiously that it was near sunset (June 15), before he was prepared for an assault. The Confederates were driven from their strong line of rifle-pits.

Pushing on, Smith captured a powerful salient, four redoubts, and a connecting line of entrenchments about 2 1/2 miles in extent, with 15 guns and 300 prisoners. Two divisions of Hancock's corps had come up, and rested upon their arms within the works just captured. While these troops were reposing, nearly the whole of Robert E. Lee's army were crossing the James River at Richmond, and troops were streaming down towards Petersburg to assist in its defense, and during the night (June 15–16) very strong works were thrown up. The coveted prize was lost. Twenty-four hours before, Petersburg might have been easily taken; now it defied the Nationals, and endured a most distressing siege for ten months longer. At the middle of June, a large portion of the Army of Northern Virginia was holding the city and the surrounding entrenchments, and a great part of the Army of the Potomac, with the command of Smith upon its right, confronted the Confederates. On the evening of the 16th a heavy bombardment was opened upon the Confederate works, and was kept up until 6 A.M. the next day Birney, of Hancock's corps, stormed and carried a redoubt on his front, but Burnside's corps could make no impression for a long time, in the face of a murderous fire. There was a general advance of the Nationals, but at a fearful cost of life. At dawn General Potter's division of Burnside's corps charged upon the works in their front, carried them, and captured four guns and 400 men. He was relieved by General Ledlie's column, which advanced to within half a mile of the city, and held a position from which shells might be cast into the town. They were driven back with great loss.

On the same day (June 16) General Butler sent out General Terry to force General Beauregard's lines, and destroy and hold, if possible, the railway in that vicinity. He had gained possession of the track, and was proceeding to destroy it, when he was attacked by a division of General James Longstreet's corps, on its way from Richmond to Petersburg. Terry was driven back to the entrenchments at Bermuda Hundred before aid could reach him. On the morning of the 17th the 7th and 9th Corps renewed the attack upon the works at Petersburg, when the hill upon which Fort Steadman was afterwards built was carried and held by the former. Another attack was made by the 9th Corps in the afternoon, and a severe battle began, and continued until night, with great slaughter. Desperate attempts had been made to recapture what the Confederates had lost, and that night a heavy Confederate force drove back the 9th (Burnside's) Corps. A general assault was made on the 18th, with disaster to the Nationals, who were repulsed at every point.

Then, after a loss of nearly 10,000 men, further attempts to take Petersburg by storm were abandoned for a while, and Grant prepared for a regular siege.

He at once began entrenching, and to extend his left in the direction of the Petersburg and Weldon Railway, which he desired to seize, and thus envelop Petersburg with his army. He moved the corps of Hancock and Wright stealthily to the left, to attempt to turn the Confederate right. The former was pushed back.

The Battle of Petersburg

TEARING UP THE RAILROAD AT THE BATTLE OF PETERSBURG.

On the following morning (June 22, 1864) the Nationals were attacked by divisions of the corps of A. P. Hill, driving back a portion of them with heavy loss. At sunset Meade came up and ordered both corps to advance and retake what had been lost. It was done, when Hill retired with 2,500 prisoners. The next morning Hancock and Wright advanced, and reached the Weldon road without much opposition, until they began to destroy it, when a part of Hill's corps drove off the destroyers. The National line had now been extended to the Weldon road. Meanwhile a cavalry expedition. 8,000 strong, under Kautz and Wilson, had been raiding upon the railways leading southward from Petersburg, the latter being in chief command. They destroyed the buildings at Reams's Station, 10 miles south of Petersburg, and the track for a long distance. They then struck the Southside Railway, and destroyed it over a space of 20 miles, fighting and defeating a cavalry force under Fitzhugh Lee. Kautz pushed on, and tore up the track of the Southside and Danville railways, at and near their junction. The united forces destroyed the Danville road to the Staunton River, where they were confronted by a large force of Confederates. They were compelled to fight their way back to Reams's Station, on the Weldon road, which they had left in the possession of the Nationals; but they found the cavalry of Wade Hampton there, and a considerable body of Confederate infantry.

In attempting to force their way through them, the Nationals were defeated, with heavy loss, and they made their way back to camp with their army of troopers. Their estimated loss during the raid was nearly 1,000 men.

Now, after a struggle for two months, both armies were willing to seek repose, and for some time there was a lull in the storm of strife. 

The Siege of Petersburg

SCENE AT THE SIEGE OF PETERSBURG.

The Union army lay in front of a formidable line of redans and redoubts, with lines of entrenchments and abatis, altogether 40 miles in length, extending from the left bank of the Appomattox around to the western side of Petersburg, and to and across the James to the northeastern side of Richmond. Within eight or nine weeks, the Union army, investing Petersburg, had lost, in killed, wounded, and prisoners, about 70,000 men. Reinforcements had kept up its numbers, but not the quality of its materials. Many veterans remained, but a vast number were raw troops. The Nationals continued building fortifications and preparing for an effective siege. Butler, by a quick movement, had thrown Foster's brigade across the James River at Deep Bottom, and formed an entrenched camp there, within 10 miles of Richmond, and connected with the army at Bermuda Hundred by a pontoon bridge. By this movement a way was provided to move heavy masses of troops to the north side of the James at a moment's warning, if desired. Robert E. Lee met this by laying a similar bridge at Drury's Bluff. By the close of July, 1864, Grant was in a position to choose his method of warfare—whether by a direct assault, by the slower process of a regular siege, or by heavy operations on the flanks of the Confederates.

The regular siege of Petersburg began in July. On June 25 operations were started for mining under the Confederate forts so as to blow them up. One of these was in charge of Lieutenant-Colonel Pleasants, who completed it on July 22. When the mine was ready Grant sent Hancock to assist Foster to flank the Confederates at Deep Bottom, and, pushing on to Chapin's Bluff, below Drury's Bluff, to menace Lee's line of communications across the river. It was done; and, to meet the seeming impending danger to Richmond, Robert E. Lee withdrew five of his eight remaining divisions on the south side of the James, between the 27th and the 29th. Grant's opportunity for a grand assault now offered. The mine under one of the principal forts was exploded early on the morning of July 30, with terrible effect. In the place of the fort was left a crater of loose earth, 200 feet in length, fully 50 feet in width, and from 20 to 30 feet in depth. The fort, its guns, and other munitions of war, with 300 men, were thrown high in air and annihilated. Then the great guns of the Nationals opened a heavy cannonade upon the remainder of the Confederate works, with precision and fatal effect, all along the line, but owing partly to the slowness of motion of a portion of the assaulting force, the result was a most disastrous failure on the part of the assailants.

A fortnight later General Grant sent another expedition to the north side of the James, at Deep Bottom, composed of the divisions of Birney and Hancock, with cavalry under Gregg. They had sharp engagements with the Confederates on Aug. 13, 16, and 18, in which the Nationals lost about 5,000 men without gaining any special advantage excepting the incidental one of giving assistance to troops sent to seize the Weldon Railway south of Petersburg. This General Warren effected on Aug. 18. Three days afterwards he repulsed a Confederate force which attempted to recapture the portion of the road held by the Unionists; and on the same day (Aug. 21) General Hancock, who had returned from the north side of the James, struck the Weldon road at Reams's Station and destroyed the track for some distance. The Nationals were finally driven from the road with considerable loss.

For a little more than a month after this there was comparative quiet in the vicinity of Petersburg and Richmond. The National troops were moved simultaneously towards each city. General Butler, with the corps of Birney and Ord, moved upon and captured Fort Harrison on Sept. 29. These troops charged upon another fort near by, but were repulsed with heavy loss. Among the slain was General Burnham, and Ord was severely wounded. In honor of the slain general the captured works were named Fort Burnham. In these assaults the gallantry of the colored troops was conspicuous. Meanwhile, Meade had sent Generals Warren and Parke, with two divisions of troops each, to attempt the extension of the National left to the Weldon road and beyond. It was a feint in favor of Butler's movement on the north side of the James, but it resulted in severe fighting on Oct. 1 and 2, with varying fortunes for both parties. Then there was another pause, but not a settied rest, for about two months, when the greater portion of the Army of the Potomac was massed on the Confederate right, south of the James.

On Oct. 27 they assailed Robert E. Lee's works on Hatcher's Run, westward of the Weldon road, where a severe struggle ensued. The Nationals were repulsed, and, on the 29th, they withdrew to their entrenchments in front of Petersburg. Very little was done by the Army of the Potomac until the opening of the spring campaign of 1865. The losses of that army had been fearful during six months, from the beginning of May until November, 1864. The aggregate number in killed, wounded, missing, and prisoners was over 80,000 men, of whom nearly 10,000 were killed in battle.

Cavalry at Peterbaurg

THE RETURN OF THE CAVALRY.

Add to these the losses of the Army of the James during the same period, and the sum would be fully 100,000 men. The Army of the Potomac had captured 15,378 prisoners, sixty-seven colors, and thirty-two guns. They had lost twenty-five guns. The Confederates had lost, including 15,000 prisoners, about 40,000 men.

The Army of the Potomac had its winter quarters in front of the Army of Northern Virginia in 1864-65. The left of the former held a tight grasp upon the Weldon road, while the Army of the James, on the north side of that river, and forming the right of the besiegers of Petersburg and Richmond, had its pickets within a few miles of the latter city. Sheridan, at the same time, was at Kernstown, near Winchester, full master of the Shenandoah Valley from Harper's Ferry to Staunton. Grant's chief business during the winter was to hold Robert E. Lee tightly while Sherman, Thomas, and Canby were making their important conquests, in accordance with the comprehensive plan of the lieutenant-general. The leaders in the Confederate government at Richmond contemplated the abandonment of Virginia and the concentration of the troops of Lee and Johnston south of the Roanoke. The politicians of Virginia would not allow such a movement, nor would Lee have led the Army of Northern Virginia out of that State; so, President Davis and his advisers had to abandon their project. Besides, Grant held Lee so firmly that he had no free choice- in the matter.

It was near the close of March, 1865, before Grant was ready for a general movement against Lee. Early in December Warren had seized the Weldon road farther south than had yet been done. He destroyed it (Dec. 7) all the way to the Meherin River, meeting with little opposition. A few weeks later there was some sharp skirmishing between Confederate gunboats and National batteries near Dutch Gap Canal. A little later a movement was made on the extreme left of the Nationals to seize the Southside Railway and to develop the strength of Lee's right. The entire army in front of Petersburg received marching orders, and, on Feb. 6, the flanking movement began. After a sharp fight near Hatcher's Run, the Nationals permanently extended their left to that stream. Grant now determined to cut off all communication with Richmond north of that city. The opportunity offered towards the middle of February. Lee had drawn the greater portion of his forces from the Shenandoah Valley, and Sheridan, under instructions, made a grand cavalry raid against the northern communications with the Confederate capital, and especially for the seizure of Lynchburg. It was a most destructive march, and very bewildering to the Confederates.

This raid, the junction of the National armies in North Carolina, and the operations at Mobile and in Central Alabama satisfied Lee that he could no longer maintain his position, unless, by some means, his army might be vastly increased and new and ample resources for its supply obtained. He had recommended the emancipation of the slaves and making soldiers of them, but the slave interest was too powerful in the civil councils of the Confederacy to obtain a law to that effect. Viewing the situation calmly, he saw no hope for the preservation of his army from starvation or capture, nor for the existence of the Confederacy, except in breaking through Grant's lines and forming a junction with Johnston in North Carolina. He knew such a movement would be perilous, but he resolved to attempt it; and he prepared for a retreat from the Appomattox to the Roanoke. Grant saw symptoms of such a movement, and, on March 24, 1865, issued an order for a general forward movement on the 29th. On the 25th Lee's army attempted to break the National line at the strong point of Fort Steadman, in front of the 9th Corps. They also assailed Fort Haskell, on the left of Fort Steadman, but were repulsed. These were sharp but fruitless struggles by the Confederates to break the line. The grand movement of the whole National army on the 29th was begun by the left, for the purpose of turning Lee's right, with an overwhelming force. At the same time Sheridan was approaching the Southside Railway to destroy it. Lee's right entrenched lines extended beyond Hatcher's Run, and against these and the men who held them the turning column marched. General Ord, with three divisions of the Army of the James, had been drawn from the north side of that river and transferred to the left of the National lines before Petersburg. The remainder of Ord's command was left in charge of General Weitzel, to hold the extended lines of the Nationals, fully 35 miles in length.

Sheridan reached Dinwiddie Courthouse towards the evening of March 29. Early that morning the corps of Warren (5th) and Humphreys (2nd) moved on parallel roads against the flank of the Confederates, and, when within 2 miles of their works, encountered a line of battle. A sharp fight occurred, and the Confederates were repulsed, with a loss of many killed and wounded and 100 made prisoners. Warren lost 370 men. Lee now fully comprehended the perils that menaced him. The only line of communication with the rest of the Confederacy might be cut at any hour. He also perceived the necessity of strengthening his right to avert the impending shock of battle; likewise of maintaining his extended line of works covering Petersburg and Richmond. Not aware of the withdrawal of troops from the north side of the James, he left James Longstreet's corps, 8,000 strong, to defend Richmond. Robert E. Lee had massed a great body of his troops—some 15,000-at a point in front of the corps of Warren and Humphreys, the former on the extreme right of the Confederates. There Lee attempted (March 30) to break through the National lines, and for a moment his success seemed assured. A part of the line was pushed back, but Griffin's division stood firm and stemmed the fierce torrent, while Ayres and Crawford reformed the broken column.

Warren soon assumed the offensive, made a countercharge, and, by the aid of a part of Hancock's corps, drove back the Confederates. Lee then struck another blow at a supposed weak point on the extreme left of the Nationals, held by Sheridan. A severe battle ensued. Both parties lost heavily.On the evening of the same day all the National guns in front of Petersburg opened on the Confederate lines from Appomattox to Hatcher's Run.

The Evacuatoin of Petersburg

EVACUATION OF PETERSBURG.

Wright, Parke, and Ord, holding the entrenchments at Petersburg, were ordered to follow up the bombardment with an assault. The bombardment was kept up until 4 A.M. (April 2), and the assault began at daybreak. Parke carried the outer line of the Confederate works in his front, but was checked at an inner line. Wright drove everything before him to the Boydton plank road, where he turned to the left towards Hatcher's Run, and, pressing along the rear of the Confederate entrenchments, captured several thousand men and many guns. Ord's division broke the Confederate division on Hatcher's Run, when the combined forces swung round to the right and pushed towards Petersburg from the southwest. On the same day the Southside Railway was first struck at three points by the Nationals, who had driven the Confederates from their entrenchments and captured many. This achievement effectually cut off one of Lee's most important communications. Gibbon's division of Ord's command captured two strong redoubts south of Petersburg. In this assault Gibbon lost about 500 men. The Confederates were now confined to an inner line of works close around Petersburg. James Longstreet went to the help of Lee, and the latter ordered a charge to be made to recover some of the lost entrenchments. It failed; and so ended the really last blow struck for the defense of Richmond by Lee's army. General A. P. Hill, one of Lee's best officers, was shot dead while reconnoitering. Lee now perceived that he could no longer hold Petersburg or the capital with safety to his army. At 10.30 on Sunday morning (April 2) he telegraphed to the government at Richmond: "My lines are broken in three places; Richmond must be evacuated this evening." Then Lee's troops withdrew from Petersburg, and the struggle there ended.

 

 

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