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American Civil War: Battle of Petersburg

A Fight to the Death

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American Civil War: Battle of Petersburg

Union troops in the trenches at Petersburg, 1864-1865

Photograph Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration

Battle of Petersburg: Conflict & Dates

The Battle of Petersburg was part of the American Civil War (1861-1865). It began on June 9, 1864 and concluded on April 2, 1865, when Confederate forces abandoned the city.

Armies & Commanders

Union

Battle of Petersburg: Background

In the wake of his defeat at the Battle of Cold Harbor in early June 1864, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant continued pressing south towards the Confederate capital at Richmond. Departing Cold Harbor on June 12, his men stole a march on General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia and crossed the James River on a large pontoon bridge. This maneuver led Lee to become concerned that he might be forced into a siege at Richmond. This was not Grant's intention, as the Union leader sought to capture the vital city of Petersburg. Located south of Richmond, Petersburg was a strategic crossroads and railroad hub which supplied the capital and Lee's army. Its loss would make would Richmond indefensible (Map).

Battle of Petersburg: First Assaults

Aware of Petersburg's importance, Major General Benjamin Butler, commanding Union forces at Bermuda Hundred, attempted an attack on the city on June 9. Crossing the Appomattox River, his men assault the city's outermost defenses known as the Dimmock Line. These attacks were halted by Confederate forces under General P.G.T. Beauregard and Butler withdrew. On June 14, with the Army of the Potomac nearing Petersburg, Grant instructed Butler to dispatch Major General William F. "Baldy" Smith's XVIII Corps to attack the city. Crossing the river, Smith's advance was delayed through the day on the 15th, though he finally moved to attack the Dimmock Line that evening. Possessing 16,500 men, Smith was able to overwhelm Brigadier General Henry Wise's Confederates along the northeastern portion of the Dimmock Line. Falling back, Wise's men occupied a weaker line along Harrison's Creek. With night setting in, Smith halted with intention of resuming his attack at dawn.

That evening, Beauregard, whose call for reinforcements had been ignored by Lee, stripped his defenses at Bermuda Hundred to reinforce Petersburg, increasing his forces there to around 14,000. Unaware of this, Butler remained idle rather than threatening Richmond. Despite this, Beauregard remained badly outnumbered as Grant's columns began arriving on the field increasing Union strength to over 50,000. Attacking late in the day with the XVIII, II, and IX Corps, Grant's men slowly pushed the Confederates back. Fighting continued on 17th with the Confederates defending tenaciously and preventing a Union breakthrough. As the fighting raged, Beauregard's engineers began building a new line of fortifications closer the city and Lee began marching to the fighting. Attacks on June 18 gained some ground but were halted at the new line with heavy losses. Unable to advance, the commander of the Army of the Potomac, Major General George G. Meade, ordered his troops to dig in opposite the Confederates. In four days of fighting, Union losses totaled 1,688 killed, 8,513 wounded, 1,185 missing or captured, while the Confederates lost around 200 killed, 2,900 wounded, 900 missing or captured

Battle of Petersburg: Moving Against the Railroads

Having been stopped by the Confederate defenses, Grant began making plans for severing the three open railroads leading into Petersburg. While one ran north to Richmond, the other two, the Weldon & Petersburg and Southside, were open to attack. The closest, the Weldon, ran south to North Carolina and provided a connection to the open port of Wilmington. As a first step, Grant planned a large cavalry raid to attack both railroads, while ordering the II and VI Corps to march on the Weldon. Advancing with their men, Major Generals David Birney and Horatio Wright encountered Confederate troops on June 21. The next two days saw them fight the Battle of Jerusalem Plank Road which resulted in over 2,900 Union casualties and around 572 Confederate. An inconclusive engagement, it saw the Confederates retain possession of the railroad, but Union forces extend their siege lines. As Lee's army was significantly smaller, any need lengthen his lines correspondingly weakened the whole.

As Union forces were failing in their efforts to seize the Weldon Railroad, a cavalry force led by Brigadier Generals James H. Wilson and August Kautz circled south of Petersburg to strike at the railroads. Burning stock and tearing up around 60 miles of track, the raiders fought battles at Staunton River Bridge, Sappony Church, and Reams Station. In the wake of this last fight, they found themselves unable to breakthrough to return to the Union lines. As a result, the Wilson-Kautz raiders were forced to burn their wagons and destroy their guns before fleeing north. Returning to the Union lines on July 1, the raiders lost 1,445 men (approx. 25% of the command).

Battle of Petersburg: The Battle of the Crater

As Union forces operated against the railroads, efforts of a different sort were under way to break the deadlock in front of Petersburg. Among the units in the Union trenches was the 48th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry of Major General Ambrose Burnside's IX Corps. Composed largely of former coal miners, the men of the 48th devised a plan for breaking through the Confederate lines. Observing that the closest Confederate fortification, Elliott's Salient, was a mere 400 feet from their position, the men of the 48th believed that a mine could be run from their lines under the enemy earthworks. Once complete, this mine could be packed with enough explosives to open a hole in the Confederate lines. This idea was seized upon by their commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel Henry Pleasants. A mining engineer by trade, Pleasants approached Burnside with the plan arguing that the explosion would take the Confederates by surprise and would allow Union troops to rush in to take the city.

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