By the second week of June 1864, the armies of Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee had deadlocked one another in their Cold Harbor fortifications on the outskirts of Richmond. Close as he was to the Confederate capital–closer indeed than any Union army since George B. McClellan two years previous–the endless stream to the north of long casualty lists dampened enthusiasm for a prolongation of the campaign. Despite success at repelling Federal assaults against his fortifications, Lee could not look to the future with great expectations either. “We must destroy this army of Grant’s before he gets to the James River,” he had previously written to Jubal Early. “If he gets there, it will become a siege, and then it will be a mere question of time.”
At the current rate of events, however, Grant could not use his time and manpower indefinitely. The 1864 presidential election loomed over his shoulder as did Abraham Lincoln and his advisers who knew the northern population demanded signs of victory to guarantee reelection. Lee’s army had been the focal point of the Army of the Potomac since Grant joined it in the field. By the middle of the month, the bluecoat soldiers would turn their backs to the symbolic prize of Richmond and redetermine their efforts against the critical railroad hub to the south of the capital on which the Confederacy depended…the “Cockade City” of Petersburg. A vital city who had been unchallenged until 150 years ago today.
Recognizing the strategic importance of the city of Petersburg, Grant assigned the Army of the James under Major General Benjamin Butler to threaten the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad in May 1864 while the Army of the Potomac simultaneously grappled with Lee’s forces north of the city. Four other railroads fed into Petersburg from all directions before converging on the twenty-two mile single track line to the capital: the City Point Railroad, Norfolk and Petersburg Railroad, Weldon Railroad, and South Side Railroad. These iron umbilical cords brought sustained the Confederate army and their capture would severely hamper Lee’s ability to fight. Butler’s campaign stalled, however, and his army bottled up on the Bermuda Hundred peninsula.
Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard commanded the Department of North Carolina and Southern Virginia, whose forces successfully repulsed the Army of the James, maintaining communications and the supply line between the two largest cities in Virginia. Dug in around Cold Harbor and Bermuda Hundred, the Confederate armies relied upon imposing fortifications and hasty transportation of their reduced forces around the Richmond and Petersburg front to stave off Union attacks. Hesitation to witness a repeat of the futile assaults of June 3, 1864 doomed the Union expedition directly against Petersburg nearly one week later… a battle remembered by the identity of a small portion of the Confederates engaged: the old men and young boys.
On the night of June 8, 1864, 3,400 Union infantrymen under command of Major General Quincy A. Gillmore and 1,300 cavalry led by Brigadier General August V. Kautz crossed the Appomattox River near City Point on a course for Petersburg. Gillmore aimed for the eastern defenses of the town while Kautz’s troopers swept towards the southeast approach along the Jerusalem Plank Road. Should either column encounter obstinate resistance, the other could appear on the flank or rear to assist. Just over 1,000 Confederates ensconced behind the protective Dimmock Line of fortifications awaited the Union infantry. Apprehensive of direct assault and unsure of the enemy’s numbers, Gillmore determined to await Kautz’s movement to the south of town before attempting to overpower the earthworks in his front.
The federal cavalry’s ride brought them into contact with the 125 man battalion of Virginia Reserves under command of Major Fletcher H. Archer. This motley unit consisted of the old, invalid, young, and a general without a command, Raleigh Colston, who poorly led one of Stonewall Jackson’s divisions at Chancellorsville. At Battery 27 of the Dimmock Line, these militia delayed Kautz long enough for Beauregard to siphon reinforcements from elsewhere to man Petersburg’s inner defenses. Graham’s Battery and the 4th North Carolina Cavalry drove the 11th Pennsylvania Cavalry away and not hearing any action from Gillmore, Kautz abandoned his expedition.
It is unlikely that Gillmore’s expeditionary force could have held Petersburg for long had they gained the city, but they certainly would have damaged as much of the military infrastructure of the town as they could while awaiting Butler or Grant’s arrival. Gillmore himself is probably more responsible for the campaign’s failure than Archer’s militia had for Confederate success. But the defense of their city cost Archer’s militia dearly. On June 11, 1864, residents of Petersburg held funerals for 15 of their own. Another 18 were wounded and 45 captured in the fighting.
This sacrifice was remembered for helping spare the Cockade City from Union occupation for nearly 10 more months. After the war a local group of the Ladies’ Memorial Association began an annual tradition of laying flowers at the graves of the militiamen who died. Northern and southern communities adopted these traditions as a precursor to formal Memorial Day commemorations.