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June, 1864 - Siege of Petersburg

June, 1864 - Siege of Petersburg

Outer line of Confederate fortifications, in front of Petersburg, Va., captured by 18th Army Corps, June 15, 1864

In early-June 1864, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, commander of all United States armies fighting to defeat the Confederate rebellion during the Civil War, made his headquarters near Cold Harbor, Virginia. The Union Army of the Potomac's one hundred thousand troops, led by Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, had just battled sixty-six thousand rebels of General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia in a month-long campaign from the Rapidan River west of Fredericksburg to Cold Harbor in central Virginia, beginning on 4 May.

Grant tried to bring Lee's army to battle and destroy it with the Federals' superior numbers, but Lee thwarted Grant's flanking maneuvers in the battles of the Wilderness (5-6 May), Spotsylvania Court House (8-21 May), and the North Anna River (23-26 May). After each battle, Grant attempted to outflank Lee's entrenched position by moving to the Union left, to prevent the rebels from falling back to strong defenses and force them to fight in the open. The Confederate commander successfully parried each of Grant's thrusts and positioned his force between the Union army and Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital.

By 31 May, Federal troops had reached the crossroads hamlet of Cold Harbor, nine miles northeast of Richmond. Already entrenched and waiting for the Union troops nearby were Lee's veteran soldiers. After several ineffective Federal attacks on 1 and 2 June, Grant ordered Meade to launch a morning assault with all of his troops against the rebels' seven-mile line of earthworks on 3 June. The result was a disaster for the Northern soldiers. At a cost of roughly six thousand dead and wounded, the Federals could make no headway and ceased their attacks soon after they were launched. In contrast, Lee's army lost no more than fifteen hundred men that day and remained behind strong fieldworks, still blocking Grant's path to Richmond.

Grant's predicament remained unchanged since the campaign's commencement: how to annihilate Lee's army and capture Richmond with an army that had suffered about fifty-five thousand casualties since crossing the Rapidan River. Grant was also mindful of certain political factors. His continual hammering of Lee's army generated long Union casualty lists, which in turn demoralized the war-weary Northern populace. A month's fighting in Virginia under Grant's leadership seemed to have brought the Union no closer to victory, which might spell political trouble for President Lincoln in the upcoming presidential election.

Across the lines, Confederate soldiers and their leaders were optimistic about their situation. Lee's troops had inflicted massive casualties on the Federal invaders and had prevented them from taking Richmond, and most of Lee's soldiers were confident of defeating the Federals. Yet Lee's losses were difficult to replace given the South's worsening manpower shortage, and his army had lost many experienced officers due to wounds, illness, and death since the spring fighting had commenced.

Lee did not doubt his troops' ability to fight behind breastworks, but by mid-June, he concluded that "something more is necessary than adhering to lines and defensive positions." Having repulsed the bluecoats once again at Cold Harbor from behind strong defenses, Lee waited to see what the Federals' next move would be. He was anxious about the strength of Union forces, Grant's hammer blows, and their imminent threat to Richmond. "We must destroy this army of Grant's before he gets to James River," Lee observed, for "if he gets there it will become a siege, and then it will be a mere question of time."

Soon after the battle at Cold Harbor on 3 June, Grant decided to focus Union operations on disrupting the rebels' logistical network in Virginia, in order to force Lee to abandon Richmond's defenses due to a lack of supplies. Grant hoped this would allow Federal forces to bring Lee's troops to battle in the open, where superior numbers would give the Northern army a decided edge.

To begin his three-pronged movement to force the rebels to abandon their capital, Grant utilized a powerful Union cavalry force under Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan. On 7 June, Sheridan led two divisions on a raid to damage the Virginia Central Railroad, Richmond's main supply artery from Charlottesville, Virginia, and the bountiful Shenandoah Valley, but he was turned back at Trevilian Station on 11-12 June by Confederate cavalry forces twenty-five miles east of Charlottesville, and returned to the Army of the Potomac east of Richmond.

Grant's primary thrust was an effort to deceive Lee by holding him in place north of the James River, while the bulk of the Army of the Potomac crossed the river to Virginia's Southside, marching quickly on to Petersburg, twenty-four miles south of Richmond. This lightly defended city—the seventh largest in the South—was the major rail hub of the Southern supply system in Virginia. Grant surmised that the capture of Petersburg would cripple the Confederacy's ability to resist Union forces in Virginia, and ultimately lead to Lee's defeat.

Grant included a third advance in his May plans, to be conducted by the Federal Army of the James under Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, a politically appointed general with little military skill or initiative. Several weeks earlier, Butler's thirty-five thousand troops had landed at Bermuda Hundred, a peninsula situated between the James and Appomattox Rivers south of Richmond. Ordered to march on Richmond while the Army of the Potomac faced off against Lee's soldiers in the Wilderness, Butler instead sent almost twenty thousand troops against Petersburg. In a series of engagements with outnumbered rebel defenders under General P.G.T. Beauregard, Butler's force failed to take the town. He brought all of his men back to Bermuda Hundred by 22 May and had them dig a north/south defensive line across his entire front, after which they remained inactive.

On 9 June, Butler again tried to capture Petersburg, this time with a column of sixty-five hundred men under Maj. Gen. Quincy A. Gillmore. An assorted force of one thousand Confederate soldiers, town militia, and civilian volunteers led by Brig. Gen. Henry A. Wise, a former Virginia governor, managed to turn back the bluecoats by the afternoon. The Union attacks were poorly coordinated, and Butler missed an opportunity to capture the enemy communications center before Confederate authorities could reinforce Petersburg's few defenders. Butler relieved Gillmore of his command once his dispirited men had returned to Union lines.

Hoping to avoid detection, the Army of the Potomac withdrew from its long line of fieldworks at Cold Harbor, and moved south toward the James beginning on 12 June. Maj. Gen. William F. "Baldy" Smith's XVIII Corps, part of Butler's army but then serving with Meade, marched to White House on the Pamunkey River, where the men destroyed the large Union supply depot and rail line before boarding transport ships for a water passage to Bermuda Hundred, to reunite with the Army of the James. The V Corps under Maj. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren marched south, crossed the Chickahominy River, and turned west to make a feint toward Richmond—and to block rebel attempts to strike the Federals en route to the James River.

After nightfall on the twelfth, Maj. Gen. Horatio G. Wright's VI Corps and Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock's II Corps withdrew to a shorter line of fieldworks recently erected in Meade's rear before their march south. Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside took his IX Corps on a longer route to the James to avoid congestion on the roads, followed by a cavalry rear guard. By 14 June, all of the Union corps—numbering about one- hundred fifteen thousand men—had reached the James River. Hancock's men and the V Corps crossed by boat at Wilcox's Landing. Three miles downstream, the rest of the army—including its wagons and artillery—began crossing on 15 June, on a twenty-one-hundred-foot pontoon bridge constructed at Wyanoke Neck the previous day by the army's engineers. All but a few Federal units had reached the south bank of the James by midnight of 16 June.

General Lee learned at dawn on 13 June that the Federals at Cold Harbor had left his immediate front, but he was uncertain where the bluecoats had gone. He began shifting his men south of the Chickahominy River to cover Richmond's southeast approaches against the prospect of another of Grant's flanking maneuvers. He surmised that Grant was headed for the James River, but could not be sure.

Grant's well-executed maneuver to bring the Army of the Potomac across the James River while keeping Lee unsure of the Federals' movements gave him the initiative, but Union forces still had to exploit the enemy's confusion. Grant envisioned a quick strike to seize Petersburg before the rebels could react and shift troops south from Richmond's defenses. Grant ordered Butler to have General Smith cross the Appomattox River and move south on 15 June with the XVIII Corps (reinforced by Federal cavalry and a division of U.S. Colored Troops) to attack weakly defended Petersburg, supported by Hancock's II Corps, which had already crossed the James River. Early on the fifteenth, Smith advanced toward Petersburg with fifteen thousand men and began his attack by 0700 on the city's poorly prepared eastern fortifications, manned by just four thousand rebels.

The operation soon succumbed to a series of delays, as Smith, hesitant about charging rebel earthworks, made a lengthy reconnaissance of the enemy's lines. Smith's concern proved unfounded, for when he finally launched his assault at 1900, his men overran much of the inadequate Confederate defenses. U.S. Colored Troops under Brig. Gen. Edward W. Hinks captured several rebel batteries that evening. Petersburg was now open to capture. Smith, however, halted on the outskirts, wary of rumored rebel reinforcements nearby. Due to uncertainty over his orders and costly delays in resupplying his men, Hancock was late in coming to Smith's support and did not press the latter for a renewed advance.

In the meantime, Lee now recognized the imminent threat to the city and began to shift more troops there. By the morning of 16 June, Beauregard's defenders numbered about fourteen thousand men behind earthworks east of the city, facing the Union II and XVIII Corps, as well as Burnside's newly arrived IX Corps. Meade and Grant were both on the scene, but the Federals could not manage to launch an attack until late that afternoon, without substantial success. Repeated attacks by Union forces on 17 June—augmented by Warren's V Corps—pushed back Beauregard's defensive lines, but the Federals suffered heavy casualties.

On the next day, a frustrated Meade ordered a general assault on the city but by dusk, the uncoordinated attacks made by the exhausted Union soldiers had failed. For the Federals, the opportunity to seize Petersburg and deal a crippling blow to the enemy's logistical center was lost, along with over ten thousand casualties since 15 June. General Smith should have advanced into the city on the night of the fifteenth, but he had allowed darkness and limited rebel opposition to stall his attack. "I believed then," Grant later recalled, "and still believe, that Petersburg could have been easily captured at that time." Instead, Meade ordered his Federals to dig earthworks after the failed 18 June attacks, beginning a grinding campaign that ultimately lasted ten months. The Confederates lost four thousand men in successfully defending Petersburg, yet Lee had larger concerns. He had failed to strike a blow against the Federals on their march to the James, and now his army faced the prospect of defending Petersburg and Richmond against a superior foe.

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