Siege of Petersburg

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Siege of Petersburg - Richmond
Richmond-Petersburg Siege History

Siege of Petersburg

Other Names: Richmond-Petersburg Campaign (June 1864-March 1865); Assault(s) on Petersburg; Battle of Petersburg

Location: Vicinity of City of Petersburg, Virginia 

Date(s): June 9, 1864, to March 25, 1865*

Principal Commanders: Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Maj. Gen. George G. Meade [US]; Gen. Robert E. Lee and Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard [CS]

Forces Engaged: 177,000 total (US 125,000; CS 52,000)

Estimated Casualties: 70,000 total (US 42,000; CS 28,000)

Result: Union victory

Introduction: The Siege of Petersburg, the longest military event of the American Civil War (1861-1865), endured nine and a half months, and sustained 70,000 casualties. It experienced the suffering of civilians, thousands of U.S. Colored Troops fighting for the Union, and the decline of Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. The following history describes the Siege of Petersburg, because it was here, in the blood-soaked trenches, that Gen. Ulysses S. Grant cut off all of Petersburg's supply lines ensuring the fall of Richmond on April 3, 1865. Six days later, Lee surrendered.

Petersburg Siege
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Section of Union siege line around Petersburg.

Siege of Petersburg
Civil War Dictator.jpg
Civil War Siege of Petersburg, Virginia

(Left) "The Dictator" siege mortar at Petersburg. "The Dictator" was a 13-inch, 17,000-pound mortar which the Union Army used to shell Petersburg from a distance of two and one-half miles. While "The Dictator" was the only 13-inch Model 1861 seacoast mortar used during the nearly 10-month long siege, the behemoth would fire 218 times during its short tenure of nearly 3 months at Petersburg. In the foreground, the figure on the right is Brig. Gen. Henry J. Hunt, chief of artillery of the Army of the Potomac. While cannon and artillery guns could be employed to fire their low trajectory shot and shell against the walls of a fort or against massed infantry formations, mortars used high-angle trajectories to lob their shells into forts and trench lines. Trenches (right) were also designed in zig-zag patterns to avoid or diminish mass casualties from the incoming mortar round. "The Dictator" was manufactured during the Civil War (1861-1865) and quickly became the elite terror weapon at Petersburg. While the crew could safely discharge its single projectile toward a Confederate target that was more than two miles away, the Rebels would have to endure the high-pitched screams of the incoming 200-pound shell. The saying was, as it has been in the annals of warfare, if you could hear it, you were okay. The shells of this 13-in. Model 1861 mortar, however, would rarely detonate above Confederate trenches or cause casualties, but "The Dictator" remained a terror weapon for all those who were compelled to endure it at Petersburg. See also Civil War Artillery and Cannon: Field, Garrison and Siege, and Seacoast.

Summary: The Richmond–Petersburg Campaign was a series of battles around Petersburg, Virginia, fought from June 9, 1864, to March 25, 1865,* during the American Civil War. Although it is more popularly known as the Siege of Petersburg, it was not a classic military siege, in which a city is usually surrounded and all supply lines are cut off, nor was it strictly limited to actions against Petersburg. The campaign was more than nine months of trench warfare in which Union forces commanded by Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant assaulted Petersburg unsuccessfully and then constructed trench lines that eventually extended over 30 miles from the eastern outskirts of Richmond, Virginia, to around the eastern and southern outskirts of Petersburg. Petersburg was crucial to the supply of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's army and the Confederate capital of Richmond. Numerous raids were conducted and battles fought in attempts to cut off the railroad supply lines through Petersburg to Richmond, and many of these caused the lengthening of the trench lines, overloading dwindling Confederate resources.
 
Lee finally yielded to the overwhelming pressure—the point at which supply lines were finally cut and a true siege would have begun—and abandoned both cities in April 1865, leading to his retreat and surrender at Appomattox Court House. The Siege of Petersburg foreshadowed the trench warfare that was common in World War I, earning it a prominent position in military history. It also featured the war's largest concentration of African American troops, who suffered heavy casualties at such engagements as the Battle of the Crater and Chaffin's Farm.

Grant and Lee
Siege of Petersburg.jpg
(L) General Ulysses S. Grant and (R) General Robert E. Lee

Opposing Commanding Generals:
 
Union Army: Ulysses S. Grant (born Hiram Ulysses Grant; April 27, 1822 – July 23, 1885) was promoted to Lieutenant General, Commanding General of the Union Army, on March 2, 1864. Following Grant's dominant role in the second half of the Civil War, the Union Army defeated the Confederate military and effectively ended the war with the surrender of Robert E. Lee's army at Appomattox. The famous Grant was elected the 18th President of the United States (1869–1877).
After the Civil War, President Andrew Johnson named Grant Secretary of War over the newly reunited nation. In 1868, running against Johnson, Ulysses S. Grant was elected eighteenth President of the United States. Unfortunately, though apparently innocent of graft himself, Grant’s administration was riddled with corruption, and scandal. For two years following his second term in office, Grant made a triumphal tour of the world. In 1884, he lost his entire savings to a corrupt bank. To recoup some of his losses, he wrote about his war experiences for Century Magazine. They proved so popular that he was inspired to write his excellent autobiography, Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, finishing the two-volume set only a few days before dying of cancer at the age of sixty-three. Ulysses S. Grant is buried in New York City in the largest mausoleum of its kind in the United States.

Confederate Army: Robert E. Lee (January 19, 1807 – October 12, 1870) was a career military officer who is best known for having commanded the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia during the American Civil War. Lee previously earned respect and national recognition as Superintendent, U.S. Military Academy. Because of his reputation as one of the finest officers in the United States Army, Abraham Lincoln offered Lee the command of the Federal forces in April 1861. Lee, however, rejected Lincoln's offer and remained loyal to his home state of Virginia.
Following the wounding of Gen. Joseph E. Johnston at the Battle of Seven Pines, on June 1, 1862, Lee assumed command of the Army of Northern Virginia, his first opportunity to lead an army in the field. On January 31, 1865, Lee was promoted to general-in-chief of Confederate forces. After the war, Lee became President of what is now Washington and Lee University and remained in this position until his death on October 12, 1870, in Lexington, Virginia. Lee also supported President Andrew Johnson's program of Reconstruction. On September 28, 1870, Lee suffered a stroke. He died two weeks later, shortly after 9 a.m. on October 12, 1870, in Lexington, Virginia from the effects of pneumonia. He was buried underneath Lee Chapel at Washington and Lee University, where his body remains.

Richmond-Petersburg Siege Map
Civil War Petersburg Siege Map.jpg
Civil War Petersburg Siege Map

(Right) Map of Virginia Civil War Battles in 1864. Map shows Grant's Overland Campaign, or Wilderness Campaign, the Virginia battles of the Shenandoah Valley Campaign in 1864, and the actions for the Siege of Petersburg during said year.
 
Setting the Stage: Between May and mid-June of 1864 the Union army, under General Ulysses S. Grant, and the Confederate army, under General Robert E. Lee, engaged in a series of hard-fought battles in what is now called the Overland Campaign. Cold Harbor was the last battle of this campaign and was a crushing Union loss. This forced Grant to abandoned his plan to capture Richmond by direct assault.
 
The Union devised a coordinated strategy that would strike at the heart of Confederacy from multiple directions: U. S. Grant, George Meade, and Benjamin Butler against Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia near Richmond; Franz Sigel to invade the Shenandoah Valley and destroy Lee's supply lines; Sherman to invade Georgia and capture Atlanta; Nathaniel Banks to capture Mobile, Alabama.
 
General Lee countered the Union threat to Richmond with the newly formed Army of the Valley (officially the Army of the Valley District), an independent command, assigned to Lt. Gen. Jubal Early. Early's objective was to pull, draw or lure Grant's army and resources away from Lee, who was pinned down in the Richmond-Petersburg Campaign. The Army of the Valley, as it was aptly named, fought in the Shenandoah Valley Campaigns in the summer and autumn of 1864, and was also the last Confederate unit to invade Northern territory, reaching the outskirts of Washington, D.C. The Army, however, became defunct after its decisive defeat by Sheridan at the Battle of Waynesboro, Virginia, on March 2, 1865.
 
The Key to Richmond: Only twenty-five miles south of Richmond, Petersburg was an important supply center to the Confederate capital. With it's five railroad lines and key roads, both Grant and Lee knew if these could be cut Petersburg could no longer supply Richmond with much needed supplies and subsistence. Without this Lee would be forced to leave both cities.

Siege of Petersburg Civil War Map
Siege of Petersburg Battlefield Map.jpg
Siege of Petersburg Battlefield Map

Richmond-Petersburg Campaign
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Confederate Civil War Hand Grenade

Battle of Petersburg and Union Hand Grenades
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Civil War Siege of Petersburg

The Siege: Grant pulls his army out of Cold Harbor and crosses the James River heading towards Petersburg. For several days Lee does not believe Grant's main target is Petersburg and so keeps most of his army around Richmond. Between June 15-18, 1864 Grant throws his forces against Petersburg and it may have fallen if it were not for the Federal commanders failing to press their advantage and the defense put up by the few Confederates holding the lines. Lee finally arrives on June 18 and after four days of combat with no success Grant begins siege operations.

This, the longest siege in American warfare, unfolded in a methodical manner. For nearly every attack the Union made around Petersburg another was made at Richmond and this strained the Confederate's manpower and resources. Through this strategy Grant's army gradually and relentlessly encircled Petersburg and cut Lee's supply lines from the south. For the Confederates it was ten months of hanging on, hoping the people of the North would tire of the war. For soldiers of both armies it was ten months of rifle bullets, artillery, and mortar shells, relieved only by rear-area tedium, drill and more drill, salt pork and corn meal, burned beans and bad coffee.

By October 1864 Grant had cut off the Weldon Railroad and was west of it tightening the noose around Petersburg. The approach of winter brought a general halt to activities. Still there was the every day skirmishing, sniper fire, and mortar shelling.

In early February 1865 Lee had only 60,000 soldiers to oppose Grant's force of 110,000 men. Grant extended his lines westward to Hatcher's Run and forced Lee to lengthen his own thinly stretched defenses.

By mid-March it was apparent to Lee that Grant's superior force would either get around the Confederate right flank or pierce the line somewhere along it's 37-mile length. The Southern commanders hoped to break the Union stranglehold on Petersburg by a surprise attack on Grant. This resulted in the Confederate loss at Fort Stedman and would be Lee's last grand offensive of the war.

Siege of Petersburg Map
Siege of Petersburg Map.jpg
Civil War Siege of Petersburg Battlefield Maps

Petersburg Siege Map
Petersburg Siege Map.jpg
Civil War Battle of Petersburg Map

The Union Assaults: General Grant had launched nine distinct offensives at Petersburg, usually striking simultaneously north and south of the James River:

1st Offensive, June 15-18, 1864: Grant’s attacks on the eastern Petersburg defenses force Beauregard back toward the city.

2nd Offensive, June 22-24, 1864: Grant targets the Petersburg (Weldon) Railroad, but Confederate counterattacks limit his gain to the capture of the Jerusalem Plank Road.

3rd Offensive, July 26-30, 1864: Results in the operations at First Deep Bottom north of the James River and the Battle of the Crater on July 30 southeast of Petersburg. 

4th Offensive, August 12-21, 1864: Second Deep Bottom north of the James River and the Battle of Weldon Railroad south of Petersburg. 

5th Offensive, September 29-October 2, 1864: Union gains north of the James River at New Market Heights and Fort Harrison.  Southwest of Petersburg, the Union attackers extend their lines three miles westward but fail to capture Lee’s two remaining supply lines.

6th Offensive, October 27, 1864: Sharp but inconsequential fighting north of the James River.  Southwest of Petersburg, Northern troops briefly occupy the Boydton Plank Road near Burgess’s Mill, but Confederate counterattacks drive them back, ending active campaigning for the year.

7th Offensive, February 5-7, 1865: Grant exploits mild weather to target the Boydton Plank Road.  The Battle of Hatcher's Run ensues, and although the Confederates preserve their supply routes, both armies extend their fortifications several miles further west.

8th Offensive, March 27-April 1: Grant captures the Boydton Plank Road and opens a clear path to the South Side Railroad.  Battles at Lewis Farm, White Oak Road, Dinwiddie Court House, and Five Forks leave the Confederates on the brink of disaster.

9th Offensive, April 2: Results in his Sixth Corps breaking the Confederate line southwest of Petersburg at dawn.  Lee plans to evacuate Richmond and Petersburg that night, and desperate fighting at Fort Mahone, Fort Gregg, Edge Hill, and Sutherland Station buy him time to do so.

Confederate breakout attempt at Fort Stedman: During March 1865, Gen. Early's army was captured by Gen. Sheridan at Waynesboro, VA, thus eliminating the remaining threat in the valley. After nearly ten months of exhaustive siege warfare, Lee's army was weakened by desertion, disease, and shortage of supplies, and, while Grant commanded an army of 125,000 men, the Confederate general was in command of 50,000 troops. Lee, moreover, knew that an additional 50,000 men under Sheridan would be returning soon from the Shenandoah Valley and that Sherman (as of April 1, 1865) commanded a massive army of 88,948 troops and too was rapidly approaching Richmond. Lee, now pressed on every front, would surrender to Grant on April 9, 1865, and end the bloodiest conflict in the history of the nation.

Richmond-Petersburg Campaign Map
Siege of Petersburg in 1865.jpg
Siege of Petersburg in 1865

Siege of Petersburg Map
Siege of Petersburg Map.jpg
Battle of Fort Stedman, Union Counterattack Map

Petersburg Siege Map
Battle of Fort Stedman Map.jpg
Battle of Fort Stedman, Confederate Attack Map

On March 25, 1865, General Lee launched a massive attack against Union Fort Stedman, east of Petersburg hoping to draw Federal troops away from the western extension of their lines.  The attack fails and Lee returns to his fortifications, badly bloodied.
 
Foreseeing that he could not withstand General Grant's much larger army, Confederate General Robert E. Lee attacked east of Petersburg at Fort Stedman in the early morning hours of March 25, 1865. This was a desperate attempt to cut Grant's military railroad which supplied his extended lines. The attack, led by General John B. Gordon, went well at first. Lee's army easily captured Fort Stedman and moved on. However, they didn't make it far. The Confederate army was stopped at Harrison's Creek, a quarter of mile beyond Fort Stedman.
 
At daybreak, the Union artillery opened with a terrific bombardment. Lee, seeing the attack had failed, ordered a withdrawal. By 7:45 a.m., the Union line was completely restored and the battle was over. More than 4,000 Confederate soldiers were killed, wounded, and captured. Union casualties were less than 1,500.
 
Conclusion: With victory near, Grant unleashed General Philip Sheridan at Five Forks on April 1, 1865. His objective was the South Side Railroad, the last rail line into Petersburg. Sheridan, with the V Corps, smashed the Confederate forces under General George Pickett and opening access to the tracks beyond. On April 2, Grant ordered an all-out assault, and Lee's right flank crumbled. A Homeric defense at Confederate Fort Gregg saved Lee from possible street fighting in Petersburg. On the night of April 2, Lee evacuated Petersburg. The final surrender at Appomattox Court House was but a week away.

Siege of Petersburg Breakthrough Map
Richmond-Petersburg Campaign Map.jpg
Richmond-Petersburg Campaign Map

Four days after the attack on Fort Stedman, General Phil Sheridan's cavalry and Warren's V Corps were sent southwest to Dinwiddie Court House to cut the South Side Railroad and reach the Appomattox River west of Petersburg. Confederate troops under Generals George E. Pickett and Fitzhugh Lee scored a minor victory on March 31 near Dinwiddie Court House, when they turned back the advance elements of Sheridan's command. But as they were outnumbered, Pickett sent word that the V Corps was coming in behind them, and the Confederates withdrew and entrenched at Five Forks, three miles south of the South Side Railroad.

Sheridan's Calvary and Warren's Corps attacked Five Forks at 4 p.m. the next day, April 1, and by nightfall the Confederates had been routed. The success at Five Forks enabled the Union forces to reach the South Side Railroad and the river at the Battle of Sutherland Station. The South Side Railroad was the last supply route leading into Petersburg, and capturing it was a key win for the Union Army. On the next day, April 2, about 7:00 a.m., Grant's army attacked the defense line at Petersburg, and by 9:30 a.m., the line which led to Hatcher's Run had been captured. The Union troops now returned in full force to attack the defenses west of Petersburg, which included Fort Gregg on the Boydton Plank Road south of the river.
 
Taking advantage of the time gained by the heroic defense at Fort Gregg, the Confederates fell back to a new line east of Old Indian Town Creek. Bonfires dotted the Confederate lines around Petersburg that night, and at about 8:00 p.m., the Army of Northern Virginia began leaving the city. Richmond was evacuated the same night.
By 4:30 a.m., April 3, Michigan troops had placed their flags on the Petersburg courthouse and Post Office. The siege of Petersburg was over, with a cost of more than 28,000 casualties for Lee's army and at least 42,000 for Grant's.
 
A week after Grant's soldiers stormed into Petersburg, Grant accepted General Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox Court House, nearly 100 miles west of Petersburg. Lee's surrender heralded the coming end of the war, and Grant immediately proceeded to Washington, D.C., to begin disbanding the army, although the fighting continued until the end of May. On the way, he stopped at City Point to pick up his wife and son. Mrs. Grant and her son had earlier left City Point for Norfolk when the fighting intensified, but then returned there at Grant's cabin following the siege of Petersburg.
 
With the war finally drawing to an end, President Lincoln knew that there would be significant struggles ahead in the reconstruction of the South.

1865 Virginia Civil War Map
Richmond-Petersburg Campaign Map.gif
Richmond-Petersburg Campaign Map

1864 Virginia Civil War Map
Richmond-Petersburg Siege Map.gif
Richmond-Petersburg Siege Map

Analysis: After nearly ten months of siege, the loss at Fort Stedman was a devastating blow for Lee's army, setting up the Confederate defeat at Five Forks on April 1, the Union breakthrough at Petersburg on April 2, the surrender of the city of Petersburg at dawn on April 3, and Richmond that same evening.
 
After his victory at Five Forks, Grant ordered an assault along the entire Confederate line beginning at dawn on April 2. Parke's IX Corps overran the eastern trenches but were met with stiff resistance. At 5:30 a.m. on April 2, Wright's VI Corps made a decisive breakthrough along the Boydton Plank Road line. Wright's initial breakthrough was halted mid-day at Fort Gregg. Gibbon's XXIV Corps overran Fort Gregg after a heroic Confederate defense. This halt in the advance into the city of Petersburg allowed Lee to pull his forces out of Petersburg and Richmond on the night of April 2, and head for the west in an attempt to meet up with forces under the command of General Joseph E. Johnston in North Carolina. The resulting Appomattox Campaign led to Lee's surrender on April 9 at Appomattox Court House.

Richmond–Petersburg was a costly campaign for both sides. The initial assaults on Petersburg in June 1864 cost the Union 11,386 casualties, to approximately 4,000 for the Confederate defenders. The casualties for the siege warfare that concluded with the assault on Fort Stedman are estimated to be 42,000 for the Union, and 28,000 for the Confederates.

*Military historians do not agree on precise boundaries between the campaigns of this era. This article uses the classification maintained by the National Park Service. An alternative classification is maintained by West Point; in their Atlas of American Wars (Esposito, 1959), the Siege of Petersburg ends with the Union assault and breakthrough of April 2. The remainder of the war in Virginia is classified as "Grant's Pursuit of Lee to Appomattox Court House (3–9 April 1865)". Trudeau's Last Citadel conforms to this classification.

(Sources and related reading below.)

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Sources: Petersburg National Battlefield Park; Richmond National Battlefield Park; National Park Service; Library of Congress; Civil War Trust; PBS; Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies; National Archives; Texas Civil War Museum; Bonekemper, Edward H., III. A Victor, Not a Butcher: Ulysses S. Grant's Overlooked Military Genius. Washington, DC: Regnery, 2004. ISBN 0-89526-062-X; Davis, William C., and the Editors of Time-Life Books. Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1986. ISBN 0-8094-4776-2; Eicher, David J. The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001. ISBN 0-684-84944-5; Esposito, Vincent J. West Point Atlas of American Wars. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1959. OCLC 5890637; Frassanito, William A. Grant and Lee: The Virginia Campaigns 1864–1865. New York: Scribner, 1983. ISBN 0-684-17873-7; Fuller, Maj. Gen. J. F. C. Grant and Lee, A Study in Personality and Generalship. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1957. ISBN 0-253-13400-5; Greene, A. Wilson. The Final Battles of the Petersburg Campaign: Breaking the Backbone of the Rebellion. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2008. ISBN 978-1-57233-610-0; Hattaway, Herman, and Archer Jones. How the North Won: A Military History of the Civil War. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983. ISBN 0-252-00918-5; Horn, John. The Petersburg Campaign: June 1864 – April 1865. Conshohocken, PA: Combined Publishing, 1999. ISBN 978-1-58097-024-2; Kennedy, Frances H., ed. The Civil War Battlefield Guide. 2nd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1998. ISBN 0-395-74012-6; Lankford, Nelson. Richmond Burning: The Last Days of the Confederate Capital. New York: Viking, 2002. ISBN 0-670-03117-8; Longacre, Edward G. Lincoln's Cavalrymen: A History of the Mounted Forces of the Army of the Potomac. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2000. ISBN 0-8117-1049-1; Miller, Francis Trevelyan, Robert S. Lanier, and James Verner Scaife, eds. The Photographic History of the Civil War. 10 vols. New York: Review of Reviews Co., 1911. ISBN 0-7835-5726-4; Salmon, John S. The Official Virginia Civil War Battlefield Guide. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2001. ISBN 0-8117-2868-4; Sommers, Richard J. Richmond Redeemed: The Siege at Petersburg. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1981. ISBN 0-385-15626-X; Starr, Stephen Z. The Union Cavalry in the Civil War. Vol. 2, The War in the East from Gettysburg to Appomattox 1863–1865. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981. ISBN 978-0-8071-3292-0; Trudeau, Noah Andre. The Last Citadel: Petersburg, Virginia, June 1864 – April 1865. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1991. ISBN 0-8071-1861-3; Welcher, Frank J. The Union Army, 1861–1865 Organization and Operations. Vol. 1, The Eastern Theater. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989. ISBN 0-253-36453-1; Welsh, Douglas. The Civil War: A Complete Military History. Greenwich, CT: Brompton Books Corporation, 1981. ISBN 1-890221-01-5.

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