Petersburg – The End and the Beginning

150 years ago today marked the final of a series of attacks against Petersburg that both ended the Overland Campaign and commenced the 9-month Siege of Petersburg. Several posts over the next few days will recapitulate various aspects of the action, but this post will give an overview of the operation.

First, why Petersburg? The answer is simple, and still true today: to access the Confederacy from Richmond, the most direct way (and only one still open in 1864, since East Tennessee’s fall in 1863) is south via Petersburg. All main southbound turnpikes and railroads ran from the Confederate capital 25 miles to Petersburg, where they then fanned out, much like US 460, I-85, and I-95 today. Possession of Petersburg and cutting its transportation tentacles dominated Federal strategy from mid-June 1864 until early April 1865.

Moving south from Cold Harbor, U.S. Grant stole a march on Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. But the forces Grant took to Petersburg were shadows of what they had been 30 days before – exhaustion, casualties, and illness (especially in the swampy areas east of Richmond) took their toll. As an example, Winfield S. Hancock’s elite U.S. II Corps numbered 27,000 men before the Battle of the Wilderness; six weeks later, 15,000 men deployed before Petersburg. It had lost a division consolidated, and dozens of brigade and regimental commanders; many units now went into action commanded by captains instead of field-grade officers. Many men had not changed their clothes in over a month, and the hot Virginia summer further sapped their energy. Lastly, repeated bloody attacks against Confederate works had made many Federals (especially those who were about to go home at the end of their enlistments) gun-shy. Grant’s sword had gotten dull.

Petersburg boasted a small garrison and formidable defenses under General P.G.T. Beauregard. He skillfully managed his men, while outnumbered Federals of the XVIII Corps deployed opposite them on June 15. The plan was for a succession of mass attacks by several Union corps on the 15th-18th, but confusion, leader illnesses on the part of two corps commanders, and poor communications repeatedly frustrated Federal efforts, while Lee’s army soon began to reinforce Beauregard’s men. The Federals penetrated to the final defense line, but Petersburg remained just out of reach (an eerie parallel to the Germans at First Ypres fifty years later).

On June 22, Grant sent the II Corps on a flanking move to attack the Weldon Railroad, which ran south from the city. A.P. Hill’s Confederate corps moved to block the advance. While one division under Cadmus Wilcox stopped the entire Federal corps, Hill launched a successful flank attack that drove the II Corps back in considerable confusion. The Weldon Railroad stayed open.

Both sides now settled into a siege. It was time to regroup for the next move.

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