Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Petersburg, VA

Dates: 12-18 June, 1864


Union: Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, Commander-in-Chief of the Union Armies, and Major General George Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac.

Confederate: General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Army of Northern Virginia.

Prelude: Even as the Federals were recovering from the defeat at Cold Harbor, there were no plans to withdraw. As a matter of fact, Grant was still looking at splitting the Confederate line and resume the march on the Confederate capital of Richmond. Meanwhile, both sides were sitting in trenches and doing the occasional sniping as the stench from unburied corpses, made worse by the summer heat, cast a pall over everything.

It wasn’t as if everything was still; to the north, a Federal army under Major General David Hunter was poised to reenter the Shenandoah Valley and lay waste to the “Breadbasket of the Confederacy.” To the south, Major General William Sherman’s army was making progress into Georgia, hitting Confederate defenses north of Atlanta.

5 June, 1864: Major General John Breckenridge, a former vice-President of the United States and Democratic Party candidate for President in 1860, had been ordered to attach his troops to the Army of Northern Virginia, leaving a small force in the Shenandoah Valley. As Hunter’s troops enter the valley, a scratch force of 5000 is assembled under Major General William “Grumble” Jones, and engages Hunter at Piedmont, VA. The scratch force is destroyed and Junes is killed.

Seeing that there is still a threat to the north, Lee decides to detach his II Corps, under Lieutenant General Jubal Early, and send them north in order to keep Hunter occupied.

7 June, 1864: In order to assist Hunter, Grant orders two divisions of cavalry under Major General Philip Sheridan to the Shenandoah Valley.

Throughout all of this, Grant does not see a way through the Confederate lines, so he begins to plan a way around them. He will not, however, go to the north. Instead he will move once again to the south. He decides to seize the rail hub of Petersburg. This would hamper the already desperate supply situation the Lee’s army is enduring. To pull this off without alerting the Confederates, Grants orders several new roads made and a 700 foot pontoon bridge built across the James River.

9 June, 1864: Union troops under Major General Benjamin Butler attacks Petersburg and is repulsed by a smaller Confederate force led by General P.T.G. Beauregard.

When all is in readiness, Grant orders the redeployment to commence.

12 June, 1864: That morning, Early’s corps departs the Confederate trenches at Cold Harbor and begin moving north. At the same time, the Federals begin their move.

II Corps, under Major General Winfield Hancock, and VI Corps, under Major General Horatio Wright, hold their positions in order to keep the Confederates occupied.

V Corps, under Major General Gouverneur Warren, pulls out of their position near Malvern Hill, site of the 1 July, 1862 battle, and marches south to secure the approaches to the landing and bridge.

Lee receives reports of the Federal movements and believed that Grant will try to break through via Malvern Hill and White Oak Swamp and attack Richmond that way. He orders the remainder of his army to leave the Cold Harbor trenches and redeploy to block Grant.

13 June, 1864: XVIII Corps, under Major General William F. Smith, marches east to West Point, where they board boats for the trip down the York River, around Old Point Comfort and Fort Monroe, and finally up the James to Bermuda Hundred.

II Corps is pulled out of the trenches and is marched to Wilcox Landing, where the bridge was.

14 June, 1864: II Corps crosses the James in boats (the bridge was not ready). With XVIII Corps at Bermuda Hundred, they begin to march on Petersburg.

15 June, 1864: both Hancock and Smith have an opportunity to take Petersburg, but miscommunications, wrong maps, and other factors prevent the attack from launching until evening. Despite some progress, the attack stops when total darkness falls, despite a full moon. Smith orders his troops to entrench.

By this time, Beauregard has gathered 15,000 men and notifies Lee of the advancing Federals. This as the remainder of the Army of the Potomac, including IX Corps under Major General Ambrose Burnside and with the exception of VI Corps, arrives.

16 June, 1864: Lee still believes that Grant will try and break through his lines. Upon hearing of the Federal seizure of Bermuda Hundred, he sends two divisions under Major General George Pickett to take it back. By evening that is accomplished.

At Petersburg itself, Meade has arrived and ordered an assault with II, IX, and XVIII Corps. Despite cracking Beauregard’s line, a break through is not achieved.

17 June 1864: Beauregard launches a counterattack which fails to break the Federal line but provides the evidence that Grant and the Army of the Potomac are concentrating at Petersburg. That information is sent to Lee, who orders his army south to support Beauregard. That evening, Beauregard pulls his troops to the outskirts of Petersburg.

June 18, 1864: Dawn: 70,000 Federal troops launch an assault on Petersburg, but find empty trenches and a new Confederate line.

7:00 a.m.: Lee’s army begins to arrive at Petersburg, strengthening the Confederate line and closing the window of opportunity for Grant to take the town.

12:00: noon: Another Federal assault, this time led by the division of Major General David Birney, resulting in massive losses for the Union, including one of Barney’s regiments losing 632 out of 850 men who woke up that morning.

That evening, Grant arrived on the scene and after taking a look at the situation, decides to go back to the tactics that gave him victory at Vicksburg, MS the previous year. Grant orders trenches to be dug and preparations made for a siege.

Grant neither destroyed Lee nor seized Richmond. Instead he was forced into a siege situation that still favored the Federals. Grant can gather supplies and keep his troops fed while Lee was forced to rely on an endangered rail system to keep his men fed. Another effect of this siege was that the only Confederate army still able to conduct offensive operations was now pinned down on the James River. From this point onward, the countdown to the end of the Confederacy had begun.

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