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Petersburg in The Civil War

Jun 15, 1864 - Apr 2, 1865

For man than a month, Grant and Lee had fought almost daily battles.  Grant used his 100,000 man army to pound the Confederate lines, but Lee’s undersized army had not broken.  Both armies had suffered extraordinary casualties.  Grant had lost 60,000 men, Lee about half that. But Grant could afford the greater casualties; the North’s superior human and material resources could more easily refill the holes left by the month’s brutal fighting.

Therefore, Grant resolved to continue the campaign that had been waged through the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor. But in June he tried a slightly different strategy. Rather than just pound Lee’s lines, he would cut the supply lines to Richmond and force the capital to be abandoned.

On 12 June Grant began to move his army to Petersburg.  The railroads that fed the Confederate capital ran through the town located about 20 miles south of Richmond.  Grant knew that the town’s defenses had been drained in order to re-enforce Lee’s shrinking army. Therefore, he sent Benjamin Butler’s Army of the James ahead to scope the Petersburg defenses and launch an initial attack.  

Butler sent General William “Baldy” Smith to attack the northeastern end of the Southern lines. And Smith actually made real headway against this part of the city defenses.  But he also met considerable resistance— enough that he overestimated the force in front of him.  In reality, his 16,000 men were facing a defensive force of less than 2500—many of them members of the Home Guard—old men and young boys.  Had Smith pressed the attack the city would almost certainly have fallen.  Instead, over the night while Smith delayed, Lee was able to fast march re-enforcements to the city.  Grant also reached Petersburg during this period.  But now rather than find the city occupied by Butler’s army, as it easily could have been, he found a well fortified string of Confederate lines manned by more than 50,000 soldiers.  

On 16 June, Grant tried to break through these strengthened Confederate lines—but his men received a ferocious shelling that left 8000 killed or wounded. He therefore called off the attack and deployed his huge 90,000-man army along a 40 mile line that reached the edges of Richmond.  He then hunkered down for a long siege.   

After a month, Grant half-heartedly approved a novel but risky plan proposed by Lt. Col. Henry Pleasants, a mining engineer in civilian life.  Pleasants suggested that a mine shaft, dug underneath Confederate lines, and then filled with explosives, could deliver a devastating shock to the enemy troops and create a gap through which Union forces could breach Confederate lines.  By late July, the 500’ tunnel had been completed; on 30 July, just before dawn, 8000 lbs of gunpowder were detonated.

Ambrose Burnside, who had taken charge of the project in an attempt to redeem his reputation after the fiasco at Fredericksburg, had trained a division of African American troops for the assault.  But at the last minute, his use of black troops was questioned by General Meade who worried about the political fallout should the assault fail. The white troops plugged into their place were woefully unprepared—and consequently, when the gunpowder exploded, opening a huge crater in the middle of the Confederate lines, they rushed into it for cover, rather than around it as the black troops had been trained. 

“Like a turkey shoot,” one Southern soldier described the carnage that ensued.  As Union troops scrambled down into the crater, Confederate troops rushed to its edge and fired mercilessly at the men packed in the bottom of the pit.  Never a quick learner, Burnside sent in a second division.  By the time it was over, almost 4000 Union soldiers had been killed or wounded.

Following this disaster, Grant resolved to be patient.  He approved minor actions aimed at extending his lines, but Christmas and New Year’s passed with conditions largely unchanged. Finally, in March 1865, with both Petersburg and Richmond desperately low on supplies, Lee tried to break through Grant’s lines at Fort Stedman.  If successful, he might not only have broken the siege, he might have been able to link up with Joe Johnston, engaged in an equally desperate fight against Union General William Tecumseh Sherman in North Carolina.  But the last ditch effort failed. 

At the end of the month, Grant’s already much-larger army (now 100,000 men) was further strengthened by the arrival of 12,000 cavalrymen.  Part of General Phillip Sheridan’s army that had recently swept through the Shenandoah Valley, Grant sent them immediately against the forces guarding Lee’s right flank. At Five Forks, Sheridan’s men took the crossroads on 1 April (no fooling) allowing Grant to sweep behind Lee’s defensive perimeter.  The next day, Grant launched a massive attack at the center of Lee’s lines quickly overwhelming the badly outmanned and overstretched defenses.  Within hours the battle was lost.  

Lee and a portion of his army escaped.  But his position was truly desperate.  With about 30,000 men, he attempted to skip past the Union lines and flee south where he might rendezvous with Joe Johnston in North Carolina.  But with Generals Grant and Sheridan pressing him from behind and along his left flank, Lee could only move westward.  By 7 April, Sheridan had managed to cut off this westward flight and Grant asked Lee to surrender.  

On 9 April, Generals Grant and Lee met at Appomattox Courthouse.  Grant reminded Lee that they had earlier met, during the War with Mexico.  Then they quickly agreed to terms.  No prisoners would be taken; Lee’s men would be allowed to return home.  Confederate officers could keep their side arms; common soldiers could keep their horses.   Then the two men shook hands and moved outside.  For a few moments Lee seemed to lose himself in quiet thought.  Then he climbed on his horse, tipped his hat to Grant and the Union officers who had removed theirs out of respect for the Virginian, and rode off to join his men. 

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