The Siege of Petersburg: “Your Delay Has Been Fatal…”–The First Battle of Weldon Railroad

Map by Hal Jespersen

Map by Hal Jespersen

As the dust settled from Federal Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s opening assaults against Confederate Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard’s forces in Petersburg, he began to plan out his approach to reducing Petersburg by cutting off its supply routes. Grant had stolen a march on Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia, but Beauregard had defended Petersburg well and held off long enough for the lead elements of Lee’s army to arrive in Petersburg. Lee himself was seen by many of Petersburg’s residents on June 19th as he attended Sunday service. One Petersburg resident said he was a “grand looking man riding up the street, I knew by intuition that it was our great chief.”

Grant was not content with his gains along the eastern front of Petersburg; he sought a way to keep the initiative and to keep Lee on the defensive. Not wanting to attack more entrenchments, Grant wrote, “we proceeded to envelope Petersburg toward the South Side Railroad, as far as possible, without attacking fortifications.”

The next supply line that would be Grant’s objective would be that of the Petersburg and Weldon Railroad. This line connected Petersburg and Richmond to supply hubs in North Carolina and the port city of Wilmington, N.C. Near this rail line ran the Jerusalem Plank Road, which was an important land route for Petersburg commerce. Though Maj. Gen. George Meade was still the Army of the Potomac commander, by now Grant placed himself as the indirect commander of the Army and directed Meade to begin an operation to capture and cut the Petersburg and Weldon Railroad.

The plan was two pronged. First, Grant ordered a cavalry raid against the Southside Railroad and the Petersburg and Weldon Railroad. Known as the Wilson-Kautz Raid, the effort only temporarily destroyed part of the railroads and led to the Federal force losing all their artillery, supply trains and 1/3 of their total force before it returned to the Petersburg front.

A little-known portrait of Horatio Wright that appeared in Harper's

A little-known portrait of Horatio Wright that appeared in Harper’s

The second prong would be an infantry assault led by the Federal Second (Gen. David Birney) and Sixth Corps (Gen. Horatio Wright). The plan was to move against the Jerusalem Plank Road and then, once crossing the road, move northward to cut the railroad.

On June 22, the Federal infantry pushed aside Confederate cavalry scouting along the Jerusalem Plank Road and began getting bogged down by terrain. This would lead to confusion and slow down their advance.

Confronting this attack would be Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill’s infantry corps with the divisions of Brig. Gen. William Mahone and Maj. Gen. Cadmus Wilcox. Wilcox’s division, leaving from the area near Globe Tavern, struck the Federal Sixth Corps, stopping Wright in his tracks near the Jerusalem Plank Road. Instead of pushing forward, Wright decided to order his men to entrench.

While Wright was facing Wilcox’s division, the Federal Second Corps made the planned turn north toward the railroad. This would divide the two Federal corps and created an opportunity for Mahone’s Division to strike the left flank of the Second Corps. The left Federal division under Brig. Gen. Francis Barlow was crushed by Mahone’s attack, “shriveling up Barlow’s division as lightning shrivels the dead leaves of autumn,” one Confederate recalled.With Barlow’s men in full flight, Gibbon’s Division was surprised to see Confederates in their rear.

Mahone

Mahone

Mahone called for assistance from Wilcox, but Wilcox was busy keeping Wright’s Sixth corps occupied. Mahone believed a great opportunity to destroy the Federal Second corps was lost. By evening, the Second corps were back to their lines of June 21st and the Sixth corps withdrew, as well.

Birney and Meade were incensed with Wright for not pushing forward as ordered. Wright, worried about attacking entrenched positions, argued that he was facing a large infantry force in his front.

On June 23, Meade ordered Wright to move forward again and to probe towards the railroad. Wright cautiously moved forward and was able to destroy a small portion of the railroad before being pushed back. Despite several pleas from Meade to advance again, in Wright’s mind he did not want to face the same fate the Second Corps had the previous day and stayed put along the Jerusalem Plank Road. As the sun set, Meade told Wright, “Your delay has been fatal.” The important supply line of the Petersburg and Weldon Railroad remained in Confederate hands.

Grant’s first effort to cut two important supply lines to Petersburg ended in failure. The Wilson-Kautz Raid was unsuccessful, and the infantry’s attempt to capture the Petersburg and Weldon Railroad failed. The Federals suffered nearly 3,000 casualties while the Confederates suffered only 500. Two Confederate divisions of 8,000 men held off two Federal corps of 25,000 men.

Though the railroad was still in Confederate hands, the action was successful in extending the Federal siege lines to Jerusalem Plank Road and led the construction of Fort Davis. Also the limited success the Federals had here in June would lead to Grant ordering another attack along this line two months later at the Second Battle of Weldon Railroad or Globe’s Tavern. This more concerted attack would slowly cut Lee’s routes of supply.

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