Petersburg Day Four: Saturday, June 18, 1864 

Having rested throughout June 17, George Meade’s energy returned. He made preparation for a full attack along the entire front on June 18. Yet, the attack would not be easy. II and IX Corps had already taken heavy losses. Ambrose Burnside advised against an attack while Winfield Hancock was too ill to continue and passed command of II Corps to David Birney. As such, Meade pinned his hopes on Gouverneur Kemble Warren’s V Corps turning Beauregard’s right flank.

David Birney

In the Confederate lines, P.G.T. Beauregard was gloomy. He had at most 11,000 men facing roughly 50,000 Federals. His men were exhausted, some having been in constant action since June 15. Beauregard took drastic measures. He sent three members of his staff to personally implore Robert E. Lee to hurry the army to Petersburg.

The first was Alexander Chisolm, who arrived at 1:00 a.m. He was told that Joseph Kershaw’s division was on the way, although Lee promised to come and inspect the situation in the morning. Lee went to sleep and his staff would not allow the second messenger, Alfred Roman, to awaken him. The last, Giles B. Cooke, was also told that Lee was asleep, but he refused to leave without first seeing Lee. Walter H. Taylor, Lee’s chief of staff and Cooke’s roommate at the Virginia Military Institute, finally allowed him to converse Lee. Cooke told Lee that “nothing but God Almighty can save Petersburg.”[1] With this plea, Lee sent nearly the entire Army of Northern Virginia in motion. Given the urgency of the situation, Lee had the men force march at a merciless pace. In total, Lee was coming to Petersburg with around 23,000 confidant veterans. Once they arrived, Meade’s chances of victory would be greatly diminished.

While Beauregard’s messengers pleaded with Lee, the Confederates at Petersburg took drastic action. Fearing his lines would be overwhelmed by a morning attack, Beauregard had his men fall back to the unfinished defensive line. The withdrawal was masterfully executed, in no small part because Harris had the new line staked out with white poles. So successful was the retreat, hardly any Federals noticed it. Yet there was no rest. As soon as the men reached the new lines they pitched in with slaves and militia to finish the defensive line.

At 4:00 a.m. a quick Union artillery barrage preceded a general advance. The men soon found the Rebel lines abandoned, with campfires still ablaze. At the site of Jacob Gould’s June 17 assault, the dead were found shot in the head and in places piled up. Confederate skirmishers withdrew quickly, warning the rest of their army of the enemy’s advance. Johnson Hagood, one of Beauregard’s most trusted brigade commanders, reported hearing “vociferous cheering” since Meade’s men thought Beauregard had abandoned the city.[2]

Any vague hopes that Beauregard had abandoned Petersburg faded when II Corps fought a sustained engagement with Rebel skirmishers at around 5:30 a.m. Meade was in a predicament. He did not know the terrain in front of him, and the broken ground had already separated the battle lines. Still, at 5:55 a.m. he ordered the advance to continue. Shortly after giving his new attack orders, William F. Smith left with part of XVIII Corps, but never bothered to tell Meade. The remaining elements of XVIII Corps and a division of VI Corps were given to John Martindale, who declared to Meade “I will take command, as I believe I am the oldest brigadier-general in the army.”[3] It was not encouraging as Martindale had not done particularly well in the battle and he mostly gave Meade cautious advice.

John Martindale

The initial Union advance was broken up by rough terrain and only V Corps came to grips with the Rebels. After covering the longest distance, and marching over the most difficult terrain, Warren’s men engaged the Rebel right at 7:30 a.m. just as Kershaw’s veterans were filing in. James Carson Elliott of the 56th North Carolina was at first dismayed because Kershaw’s regiments were depleted, but one hardened veteran proclaimed, “This is a good place; we would like for them to come on ten lines deep, so we won’t waste any lead.”[4]

Lee arrived at 11:00 a.m. and conferred with Beauregard at the Customs House. Lee commended Beauregard on his choice of defensive terrain. Beauregard then asked Lee if they should attack Meade’s left flank. Beauregard believed the Federals were demoralized while Confederate spirits were riding high. He also noted that they should strike before Meade could fortify. It was a bold proposition, but only two divisions were on hand and both were tired after a hard march. A.P. Hill’s Corps would not arrive until late afternoon. Lee decided not to strike.

Meade ordered a renewed set of attacks at noon. II Corps suffered greatly and made no gains. The attacks of V and IX Corps were preceded by a grand barrage of some fifty cannon. IX Corps struck at Poor Creek. The men made it to a nearby railroad cut but no further. V Corps had two divisions enter the railroad cut, while the other two failed to make contact on Beauregard’s right. In general, many units were refusing to go forward and most officers had little faith that Petersburg could be stormed on June 18.

The failure of each corps to make a full effort frustrated Meade. Only Birney seemed optimistic about penetrating the Confederate lines. When Warren indicated that he feared his flank might come under attack, Meade shot back “I am greatly astonished at your dispatch… My orders have been explicit and are now repeated, that you will immediately assault the enemy with all your force.”[5] Meade gave out new orders. Each corps would attack, with no provision given for coordination.

Martindale gained a bit of land at the cost of over 400 losses. Warren and Burnside made more full blooded attacks and suffered accordingly. J. William Hofmann’s brigade lost 300 men, and all seven of the unit’s regimental commanders were killed or wounded. Rufus Dawes, who led the 6th Wisconsin, wrote “The suicidal manner in which we are sent against the enemy’s entrenchments is discouraging. Our brigade was simply food for powder.”[6] Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, one of the most lionized officers in the Union army, found himself leading a brigade for the first time. He suffered a wound so terrible he was believed to be dead. Grant promoted Chamberlain on the spot to Brigadier General in honor of his gallantry at both Gettysburg and Petersburg. Chamberlain though miraculously survived.

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, c. 1864

IX Corps suffered just as much, if not worse than V Corps. Burnside’s soldiers came within some 125 yards of the Confederate lines, before halting and entrenching. Orlando Willcox, whose division had started the battle with about 3,000 men now counted fewer than 1,500 men in the ranks, one of the highest division loss ratios in the entire war. For their efforts, IX Corps held the most forward position in the army, but it was a dangerous spot. Amos Buffum of the 36th Massachusetts told his men that he was the last officer in the regiment to avoid death or wounding and noted, “It is the rule for all to be struck; but every rule has an exception.”[7] Buffum was then shot dead.

Birney faced something of a near mutiny in II Corps. The men would not attack. Frank Wilkeson of the 11th New York Artillery concluded the soldiers “were supremely disgusted with the display of military stupidity by our generals.”[8] The only regiment that seemed willing to go in was the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery. Robert McAllister, a veteran brigade commander, thought “It is a death trap, a brigade can’t live in there for five Minutes.”[9] McAllister though could not get the attack halted.

The 1st Maine Heavy Artillery struck so swiftly they overran the Confederate skirmish line. They were then met with a murderous fire. They got within fifty yards of the Rebel lines when they finally withdrew, having lost 632 out of 900 men, the worst raw losses any regiment suffered during the Civil War. A nearby supporting attack lost 200 men.

Charge of the 1st Main Heavy Artillery

Meade, after hearing of the fate of the 1st Maine, ordered the attacks to stop at 6:30 p.m. Oddly enough, Warren then recommended that a night attack be made, but Meade ignored this suggestion. He then informed Grant that Petersburg was in Confederate hands. Grant replied “We will rest the men and use the spade for their protection until a new vein has been struck.”[10]

The losses at Petersburg were appalling, coming between 11-12,000 for the Union army, with II and IX Corps suffering the most. While no division or corps commanders had been lost, twelve brigade commanders had been wounded with two other brigade commanders being killed, making Petersburg one of the worst battles for brigade commanders in the Union army. The Philadelphia and Irish Brigades were so depleted both were being considered for consolidation. Andrew Humphreys, Meade’s chief of staff, wrote that “The incessant movements, day and night…the constant close contact with the enemy during all that time, the almost daily assaults upon entrenchments having entanglements in front, and defended by artillery and musketry in front and flank, exhausted officers and men.”[11] The once mighty Army of the Potomac was now incapable of sustained hard combat.

Confederate losses are harder to place, being anywhere from 2,900 to 4,700. However, nearly all were suffered by the divisions led by Robert Hoke and Bushrod Johnson, and as such each  suffered a high percentage of losses, with a few brigades being particularly eviscerated. Regardless of the figures used, Petersburg was the thirteenth bloodiest engagement of the war and no battle fought after June 18, 1864 surpassed it in combined losses.

The fall of Petersburg would have meant the fall of Richmond and Abraham Lincoln’s reelection. Instead, Union morale fell, the price of gold shot up, and Lincoln’s political rivals, both in the Democratic and Republican parties, were hopeful that he would not be president for much longer. Grant and Meade knew this, and they tried to break the deadlock at Petersburg. Only a few days after the battle, II Corps (despite its appalling losses) was sent on a wide flank movement that ended in an embarrassing defeat at Jerusalem Plank Road. After the disaster at the Crater, Grant and Meade all but gave up on storming Petersburg, instead extending siege lines and working to cut off the railroads that fed Lee’s army. By contrast, when William Tecumseh Sherman reached Atlanta he did so with an intact army in high spirits, bloodied but still capable of quick offensive action. Theodore Lyman of Meade’s observed after the defeat, “You cannot strike a full blow with a wounded hand.”[12] Sherman did not arrive at Atlanta with a wounded hand. Grant and Meade did at Petersburg.

There were many reasons for the defeat. Beauregard was the Confederacy’s second best army commander. Only Beauregard and Lee won more battles than they lost. He was a skilled defensive tactician and engineer. Outside of his confusing messages to Lee on June 16 and 17, he made no errors. By contrast, every Union commander, from Grant, Meade, and Benjamin Butler to their corps commanders made grievous errors. There were however, deeper factors. In the west, Ulysses Grant had used maneuver to achieve major victories, going after strategic points. He was given a lot of latitude by Lincoln, who was focused on affairs in Virginia. When Grant came east he had similar ideas, but it was soon made plain to him that Lincoln wanted him to destroy Lee’s army. Lincoln did not consider that, lacking massed cavalry trained for pursuit, it was impossible to destroy an army unless it was tied to a strategic point such as Vicksburg. In the aftermath of the defeat at Fredericksburg, Lincoln said “if the same battle were to be fought over again, every day, through a week or days, with the same relative results, the army under Lee would be wiped out to its last man, the Army of the Potomac would still be a mighty host, the war would be over, the Confederacy gone…no General yet found can face the arithmetic, but the end of the war will be at hand when he shall be discovered.”[13] War though is not a matter of mere numbers and men who face defeat on the scale of Fredericksburg will not be willing to constantly wage such a battle. Grant though bowed to Lincoln’s wishes and waged just such an aggressive campaign, and one that highlighted Grant’s penchant for frontal assaults and his overall detachment from the battlefield. The ultimate repudiation of Lincoln’s ideas on the Virginia war was made by Abner R. Small of the 16th Maine: “We couldn’t help thinking how McClellan had got the army almost to Richmond with hardly the loss of a man, while Grant had lost already thousands more than we cared to guess.”[14]

Despite the scale, drama, and strategic importance of the battle of Petersburg, it is mostly forgotten. The reasons are many. Battles fought after 1863 tend to get less coverage, both in contemporary histories but even by the veterans themselves. The battle, while a major Confederate victory, only put off defeat and it is wrongly considered the first act of the siege of Petersburg, when really it was the last battle of the Overland Campaign. Yet, there is a more personal reason. Outside of Beauregard, no major figure in the battle looks good. Lee was indecisive, slow to react, and did not perceive the threat to Petersburg until the 11th hour. Grant was distracted throughout the fighting. Meade was erratic and ordered a round of attacks on June 18 that were hopeless. Hancock was arguably at his career nadir, not counting Ream’s Station. For anyone hoping to redeem the careers of Butler, Smith, Burnside, and Warren, Petersburg would not aid their case. Only Beauregard comes out ahead, but for many he is a flamboyant Creole given to gaudy proclamations and strategic plans hashed out in an opium den. Any victory that he won might come across as a mere accident or stroke of luck. A deeper look at Beauregard though shows him to be a shrewd tactician, a capable although not a brilliant strategist, and a leader with an uncanny ability to win the trust of his men and subordinates. At Petersburg he won his best battle.

[1]           Thomas J. Howe,  The Petersburg Campaign: Wasted Valor, June 15-18, 1864 (Richmond: H. E. Howard, 1988), 109.

[2]           Johnson Hagood, “General P. G. T. Beauregard. His Comprehensive and Aggressive Strategy—Drewry’s Bluff and Petersburg,” in Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. XIV, (Richmond: Southern Historical Society, 1900), 335.

[3]           Thomas L. Livermore, Days and Events (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1920), 364.

[4]           James Carson Elliott, The Southern Soldier Boy: A Thousand Shots for the Confederacy (Raleigh: Edwards & Broughton Printing Company, 1907), 24.

[5]           Official Records, XL, Pt. 2, 179.

[6]           Rufus R. Dawes, Service with the Sixth Wisconsin Volunteers (Marietta: E. R. Alderman & Sons, 1890), 291.

[7]           Edwin Bearss, and Bryce Suderow. The Petersburg Campaign: Volume 1: The Eastern Front Battles, June – August 1864. (El Dorado Hills, CA: Savas Beatie, 2012), 125.

[8]           Frank Wilkeson, Recollections of a Private Soldier in the Army of the Potomac (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1887), 173.

[9]           Andrew J. MacIsaac, “Here the Reaper was the Angel of Death: The First Maine Heavy Artillery During the Overland Campaign,” 95.

[10]         Howe, 135.

[11]        Andrew A. Humphreys, The Virginia Campaign of ’64 and ’65 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1883), 225.

[12]        Theodore Lyman, Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865 (Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1922), 170.

[13]        Donald Stoker, The Grand Design: Strategy and the U.S. Civil War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 218.

[14]        Abner R. Small, The Road to Richmond (New York: Fordham University Press, 2000), 146-47.

7 Responses to Petersburg Day Four: Saturday, June 18, 1864 

  1. Very good article. I would only add that in addition to Lee and Beauregard, Stonewall Jackson also won more battles than he lost. He only lost at First Kernstown and that was a strategic victory.

  2. A Confederate tactical victory, yes. Strategically, it did not change a thing. I might argue that Beauregard had few chances to prove his capabilities while on the attack. He was a decent general that proved capable on the battlefield; however, I would be hesitant to call him a great general. With that said, maybe it makes this situation looks worse. Then again, the fog of war blinds all even the great captains in history. Nonetheless, great research.

  3. Very helpful, thanks. I plead guilty to giving less attention to those battles occurring late in 1864. After Spottsylvania, I get lazy.

  4. I concur about Beauregard. After Lee, he was probably the next best army commander the Confederacy ultimately had. We’ll never know if he could have been considered “great” (he probably wasn’t), but like Lee, he understood the importance of concentrating forces and that they had to be used offensively at the right time and place. If he wasn’t a genius logistician, he wasn’t ignorant of logistics. Also like Lee, probably even more so, Beauregard was able to get along with anybody (although definitely politically naïve in his letters with Jefferson Davis). He was popular with the soldiers, but he was especially popular with people at the personal level. And like Lee, Beauregard had the right level of self confidence and battlefield composure to calmly direct in army in the face of the enemy.

    Of course Beauregard and Lee, had been Engineers in the U.S. Army, finishing high in their respective class ranks at West Point, and both served as staff engineers to Winfield Scott in the Mexican War and did a lot of good work for him. One thing Jefferson Davis did get right was picking his four full field generals ( A. Johnston, J. Johnston, Lee, and Beauregard). However, Davis let politics get the best of him and blundered in not better using Beauregard in late 1862 and throughout 1863.

  5. To be clear, the Union losses of 11-12,000 were combined losses for June 15-18, not for June 18th. High casualties considering Meade lost the same number during two weeks at Cold Harbor.

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