The Petersburg campaign saw the final fighting in the Virginia theatre during the American Civil War. At the start of May, U.S. Grant, the new commanding general of Union forces, had launched his first campaign in the east, overland towards Richmond. His real target was Robert E. Lee's army. This campaign saw a new type of fighting. The previous pattern of short battles interspersed with periods of rest was reversed. For over a month the two armies had remained in almost constant contact, fighting all the time. The battles of The Wilderness (4-7 May), Spotsylvania (8-21 May), North Anna River (23-26 May) and Cold Harbor (31 May-3 June) had seen the two armies move from the area of the Rapidan River, north of Richmond, to the peninsula between the York and James rivers, east of the Confederate capitol.
There, Grant ran out of room. In a letter sent on 5 June to General Halleck he outlined his new plan. Originally he had hoped to beat Lee’s army north of the James River, and then besiege what remained of his army in Richmond. For this plan to work, Grant somehow had to force Lee to fight away from his fortifications. However, after the Battle of the Wilderness, Lee was able to block every move that might have forced such a battle. Grant now decided to cross over to the south bank of the James River, and attempt to cut off all of the remaining supply lines to Lee and Richmond.
Most of these supply lines passed through Petersburg, where three railroads met (The Norfolk & Petersburg, Petersburg & Weldon and South Side). If Grant could cut these railroads, then Lee would have to abandon Richmond.
One previous attempt had been made to cut the railroad between Richmond and Petersburg. Benjamin Butler, commanding the army of the James, had landed between the two cities at the start of May, briefly isolating Richmond. However, he had missed his great chance to capture the Confederate capitol. On 16 May 1864 he was defeated at Drewry’s Bluff, and forced back into a triangle of land between the Appomattox and James Rivers.
Despite the failure of this expedition, Butler’s army now played an important role in Grant’s new plan. Grant had borrowed one Corps from Butler to support him at Cold Harbor. That corps, under W.F. Smith, was now shipped back to Butler, in preparation for an attack on Petersburg. This was part of a much larger movement. On the night of 12-13 June, the Army of the Potomac withdrew from Cold Harbor, leaving one cavalry division to mask this movement. On 14 June it crossed over the James River on a pontoon bridge over 2,000 feet long, and began to move towards Petersburg.
Lee was utterly fooled by this move. It was Grant’s one great success in his repeated attempts to slip past Lee’s right flank. For several days, Lee and his army remained in their lines in front of Richmond. He did not move south until 18 June, and even then was not entirely convinced that Grant’s entire army had been moved south of the James. For a short period Petersburg was incredibly vulnerable. On 15 June there were probably only 2,500 men in the city.
Luckily for Lee, Grant’s army had also suffered badly during the fighting in May and early June. The army that arrived in front of Petersburg had lost over 50,000 men since entering the Wilderness. Even W.F. Smith’s men, who had not been present for most of that campaign, only joining at Cold Harbor, had lost 3,000 men.
Over the next four days (Battle of Petersburg, 15-18 June), both sides slowly increased the number of troops they had around Petersburg. On 15 June Smith lost a perfect chance to capture the city, and after that a series of disorganised, half-hearted Federal attacks failed to get into the city. Finally, Grant was forced to admit that his army was fought out, and called a halt to the fighting.
Grant now settled down to conduct a regular siege of Petersburg. This is the stage in the Civil War that most resembles the Western Front, still fifty years in the future. Both sides built elaborate trench systems along a twenty six mile front. The underground bunkers, communication trenches and the constant threat from snipers would have all be familiar to the soldier of 1914-18.
Grant now rearranged his armies. Butler and the Army of the James were now sent north, into the trenches opposite Richmond. Meade and the Army of the Potomac were placed opposite Petersburg. Grant’s main objective was to cut Lee’s railroad links from the south. This meant that much of the fighting to follow happened at the southern end of the lines, which slowly crept south and west. This was Lee’s greatest problem. Every Federal success forced him to extend his lines. Every time he had to extend his lines, those lines became thinner. It was only a matter of time before those lines were too thin to resist one of Grant’s attacks.
That time was still eight months distant. For the moment Lee’s men were able to resist all of Grant’s attacks, and extend their lines when needed. The most notable incident of this period was the Battle of the Crater (30 July). This was a result of one of the more imaginative attempts to break the deadlock. The commander of a regiment formed in a mining area, Lieutenant Colonel Henry Pleasants, suggesting tunneling under the Confederate lines and exploding a mine under them. This would involve a tunnel 500 feet long, longer than had ever been achieved in a military tunnel, but not so long for experienced miners. His corps commander, General Burnside, supported the plan, and managed to convince Grant that it was worth trying.
Things began well. The tunnel was built successfully. A division of fresh troops were found to lead the attack, and carefully trained in what to do after the explosion. All was ready for 30 July. At this point General Meade intervened fatally. The division that had been trained for the attack contained black troops. They were fresh, keen and prepared. Nevertheless, on 29 July Meade decided that they should not be used. He was motivated partly by a lack of confidence in the black soldiers, and partly by a concern that he would be blamed if they suffered heavily in the attack.
The division chosen to replace them was one of Burnside’s worst, commanded by a probable alcoholic, James Ledlie. With his plans disrupted, Burnside appears to have lost all interest in the scheme. The new troops were unprepared for the attack, and would have to fight without any real leadership. On 30 July Ledlie chose to command the attack from the vicinity of a crate of rum.
The mine was exploded on the morning of 30 July. It did everything that had been claimed for it, blasting a massive hole in the Confederate lines. A well planned attack now could have broken through. Instead, the newly chosen troops went forward slowly. Many of them clambered down into the crater! The Confederates were given the time they needed to organise a counterattack. The Union attack, which had begun with such promise, ended with nothing achieved, and costing 4,000 losses.
Grant had also been weakened by another Union failure in the Shenandoah Valley. This time it was General David Hunter who had failed. After marching up the valley to Lynchburg, he found himself facing a larger than expected Confederate army under Jubal Early. In response he retreated west, across the valley and into West Virginia. This left the valley empty of Union troops. Early marched down the valley, crossed the Potomac and launched his own invasion of the north! His men actually reached the outer defences of Washington itself. Grant was forced to dispatch one of his best corps, the sixth, back to Washington to man the defences. Even after Early retreated, that corps did not return to the lines. Grant decided to send Sheridan to the Shenandoah Valley, with orders to devastate the valley. The sixth corps went with him.
Grant launched a series of attacks on the Confederates during the rest of 1864 and into early 1865. Slowly the Confederate lines were stretched out to thirty five miles. Lee was down to 2,000 men for each mile. The two armies had very different winters. Grant’s men benefited from a superb supply system. Supplies were shipped to City Point, in the middle of their lines, and distributed efficiently along specially built railroads behind the lines.
In contrast, Lee’s men were increasingly short of supplies. There were two reasons for this. First, Grant was slowly cutting their supply lines. Since late August they had only had one railroad into Petersburg – the Southside, running west from the city. In January 1865 their last source of supplies from overseas was lost when the capture of Fort Fisher shut the port of Wilmington. More serious for the Confederate cause were the successes being won by Grant’s other armies. Sherman’s advance on Atlanta succeeded at the start of September. From there he began his march to the sea, reaching Savannah by the end of the year. When he turned north in February 1865 and began to march through the Carolinas his men started to feature as one of Lee’s problems. The autumn of 1864 saw Union success in the Shenandoah Valley. Sheridan defeated Early in a series of battles, ending at Cedar’s Creek on 19 October 1864. Lee’s best source of supplies was gone.
It was becoming increasingly clear that when spring came Lee’s army would not be able to hold its thin lines. Lee came up with a plan that he hoped would retrieve the situation. Instead of waiting for Grant’s attack, he would launch one of his own, against the centre of Grant's lines. Lee hoped that this attack would force Grant to shorten his line, giving Lee a change to pull his army out of the trenches around Richmond and Petersburg. Once he was free of Grant’s men, Lee would head south to join with the forces gathering in North Carolina under Joseph Johnston to oppose Sherman. The combined army would beat Sherman, then turn back north to defeat Grant. Quite what the Army of the Potomac would be doing during this time is not clear.
Lee’s plan failed almost at the first hurdle. On 25 March the attack was launched, and succeeded in taking Fort Stedman, a Union position due east of Petersburg. However, a quick Union counterattack regained all the lost ground, as well as some of the Confederate front line. Lee lost 5,000 men, Grant only 2,000. Grant did not need to shorten his lines.
Worse was to come. The failure at Fort Stedman meant that Lee was now too weak to hold his lines. Accordingly, he continued with his plans to withdraw, still hoping to slip past Grant’s left wing and escape south. If they were to have any chance of success, then Lee’s men would need to have at least a week’s worth of food on hand, to allow them to move as quickly as possible. While Lee was attempting to gather these supplies, Grant struck.
He dispatched a force under Sheridan to swing around Lee’s right. Lee had to respond, sending 10,000 men under General Pickett to prevent this force from cutting the Southside Railroad, Lee’s planned escape route. On 1 April Sheridan’s men smashed through the Confederate lines at Five Forks. Pickett lost at least half of his men, and the railroad was cut. Lee’s chances of escaping to the south were decreasing all the time.
The long defence of Petersburg and Richmond was about to end. Early in the morning of 2 April Grant finally launched an attack along the entire front. Lee’s lines were too thin to stop it. In several places around Petersburg the Confederate line was broken. A few hours into the fighting, Lee was forced to telegraph Richmond with the news that he could no longer hold the city. Eleven months after Grant launched his campaign in the Wilderness, Richmond and Petersburg fell. Lee had finally been forced out into the open. The remnants of his army began the desperate march west that was to end at Appomattox Courthouse.