On June 12, 1864, Lee hoped to relieve pressure on Richmond by ordering about one-third of his army, under Lieutenant General Jubal A. Early, to repulse a Union force moving east from the Shenandoah Valley and, eventually, to threaten the U.S. capital at Washington, in the 1862 footsteps of Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson. Early's offensive and Grant's reaction to it would influence affairs around Petersburg through the winter of 1865.
This military rhythm defined a pattern of short, brutal battles followed by a period of construction and consolidation that expanded both armies' defense lines. In fact, the Petersburg Campaign witnessed the peak of field fortifications during the Civil War. Each side built elaborate and all-but-impregnable earthworks, compelling Grant to find ways to flank the Confederate defenses and allowing Lee to remain defiant despite fighting the campaign at a two-to-one numerical disadvantage. Along portions of the lines east and directly south of Petersburg, the opposing armies occupied trenches less than four hundred yards apart, leading to a vicious brand of warfare where sharpshooters exacted a deadly toll from enemies who dared expose their heads above the works.
The Union army also waged limited and random war against the citizens of Petersburg. Capture of the original Confederate works east of the city allowed Union artillery to deploy within range of Petersburg's factories, public buildings, and dwellings. More than 600 structures in Petersburg sustained shell damage. Most of the eastern half of the town was rendered uninhabitable, creating a pathetic community of civilian refugees driven from their homes by the prospect of sudden death.
Union forces delayed their attacks until seven o'clock in the evening, but once under way they rolled over and around the outmanned Confederates. Some voices counseled a night advance into the city, but conservative Union commanders seemed satisfied with capturing more than a mile of the Confederate lines. During the next three days, the entire Army of the Potomac, along with much of Major General Benjamin F. Butler's Army of the James, appeared in front of Beauregard's lines and lunged forward in a series of bloody, uncoordinated assaults. Beauregard fended off these attacks on the one hand while writing urgent messages to Lee on the other, imploring the Army of Northern Virginia to send help to Petersburg. Lee gradually responded, and by June 18 his entire force had taken position behind the second makeshift line Beauregard had erected during the previous seventy-two hours. The presence of Lee's army ended Grant's prospects for quickly capturing Petersburg.
Grant now looked west, hoping to seize the Jerusalem Plank Road, running south out of Petersburg, and the Petersburg (Weldon) Railroad that connected Richmond and Petersburg with Wilmington, North Carolina, the Confederacy's primary Atlantic port. Between June 22 and June 24, Union forces gained control of the wagon road, but in what would become typical during the campaign, a sharp Confederate counterattack drove the Northerners off the railroad and halted Union territorial gains.
While Grant prepared his next attempt to capture the railroad, officers in the Union Ninth Corps hatched an unorthodox plan. The opposing trench lines ran in close proximity a mile southeast of town, and here the 48th Pennsylvania regiment, commanded by Union colonel Henry C. Pleasants, a mining engineer, began excavating a tunnel aimed at a Confederate strongpoint. Grant and the commander of the Army of the Potomac, Major General George G. Meade, tolerated this scheme but put little faith in its practicality.
A division of United States Colored Troops bore responsibility for this key tactical maneuver, but Meade ordered them replaced at the eleventh hour. The general was unsure of their combat prowess and worried about political repercussions should the attack fail and the black division suffer.
At 4:44 a.m. on July 30 the mine exploded, leaving a huge crater in the earth and killing 278 Confederates instantly. The subsequent infantry attacks did not go as well, and under Lee's direct supervision a series of counterassaults regained the lost ground. Grant would call the Battle of the Crater "the saddest affair I have witnessed in the war" and returned to his strategy of targeting the Confederate supply lines.
A brief break in the weather early in February 1865 allowed Union forces to lunge at the Boydton Plank Road, but Lee repulsed them at the Battle of Hatcher's Run, both armies extending their lines after the fight. The Confederates faced a more severe crisis in late March. The spring sun began to dry the roads in Dinwiddie County, promising renewed military action. Even more ominously, Major General Philip H. Sheridan, Grant's commander in the Shenandoah Valley, had dispatched the remnants of Early's army and was riding toward Petersburg with some ten thousand well-armed cavalry.
Pickett, supported by Confederate cavalry under Lee's nephew, Major General Fitzhugh Lee, defeated Sheridan on March 31 near Dinwiddie Court House, while an ad hoc force of Confederate infantry fought a see-saw battle at White Oak Road. The next day, Sheridan and the Union Fifth Corps counterattacked and scattered Pickett's troops at Five Forks, setting the stage for the campaign's climactic day.
Unlike the chaos that prevailed in Richmond, Petersburg surrendered amid only moderate degrees of arson and pillage. On the morning of April 3, Lincoln journeyed from City Point and met with Grant for ninety minutes on the porch of Thomas Wallace's South Market Street mansion. The Union leaders discussed postwar policy until Grant departed to execute the campaign that would eventually corral Lee.
One division of Union troops remained in Petersburg, while the bulk of Grant's forces dashed west, preventing Lee from turning south to join Confederate general Joseph E. Johnston's forces in North Carolina. Finally, on April 9, 1865, Grant cornered his enemy at Appomattox Court House and met with Lee that afternoon to effect the surrender of the Confederacy's principal army. Events at Appomattox hastened the surrender of other Confederate forces, placing the Petersburg Campaign as the proximate cause of the end of the war.
December 8–11, 1864 - The Hicksford or "Apple-Jack" Raid by Union infantry and cavalry damages the Petersburg (Weldon) Railroad well south of Petersburg, but does little permanent harm.
April 9, 1865 - Confederate general Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia surrender to Union general Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House.
- Civil War, American (1861–1865)
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Greene, A. W. Petersburg Campaign. (2013, July 9). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Petersburg_Campaign.
- MLA Citation:
Greene, A. Wilson. "Petersburg Campaign." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 9 Jul. 2013. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: February 19, 2009 | Last modified: July 9, 2013
Contributed by A. Wilson Greene, the president of Pamplin Historical Park & The National Museum of the Civil War Soldier near Petersburg, Virginia. He is the author of Civil War Petersburg: Confederate City in the Crucible of War (2006) and The Final Battles of the Petersburg Campaign: Breaking the Backbone of the Rebellion (2008).