Undeterred, Butler cast his eye on Petersburg. The city served as an important transportation hub, where four railroads converged into the main line of the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad; its capture would be a blow to Lee's ability to defend the capital and would deny him easy access to supplies and reinforcements. A captured Confederate map and intelligence provided by runaway slaves and deserters suggested to Butler that Petersburg was not well defended. Confederate generals P. G. T. Beauregard and Henry A. Wise commanded a mere 2,200 militiamen in Petersburg proper while the rest of their meager force blocked Butler's way at Bermuda Hundred. These 2,200 defenders, meanwhile, were not all Confederate regulars, but included a motley assortment of "greyhaired men, and beardless boys," as one Petersburg citizen described them. Some were veterans, but others were dentists and business owners and men who had been exempt from military service because of age or infirmity; some did not even have working rifles.
Butler was an ambitious Massachusetts politician who kept alert for opportunities at personal glory, and in Petersburg he spied a headline-worthy prize. When Grant stalled at Cold Harbor, there was talk that Union forces might shift south toward Petersburg. The time to act, in other words, was now, before he would be forced to share his glory. Butler planned the attack for June 9 and placed Quincy A. Gillmore in charge of the expedition. Gillmore, who the year before had overseen the 54th Massachusetts's famous but failed assault on Fort Wagner, South Carolina, was blamed by Butler for the setback at Drewry's Bluff. And as he set off for Petersburg with 3,400 infantrymen, including United States Colored Troops, and 1,300 cavalry under the German-born August V. Kautz, he did not enjoy his commanding general's full confidence.
By nine o'clock, the alarm had gone up in Petersburg—"all the available bell metal in the corporation broke into chorus with so vigorous a peal and clangor … as to suggest to the uninitiated a general conflagration," one of the city's residents recalled—and Wise immediately deployed the thousand or so men he had at hand while requesting reinforcements from Beauregard. After demonstrating in front of the fortifications for several hours, Gillmore pulled his troops back. To the south, meanwhile, in front of Batteries 27 and 28, Kautz encountered Fletcher H. Archer's Battalion of Virginia Reserves. The unit of 125 soldiers included a 59-year-old bank officer, three members of the city council, and a mill manager who had been up all night guarding prisoners. Archer, a veteran of the Mexican War (1846–1848), later described "heads silvered o'er with the frosts of advancing years," while noting that others of his men scarcely deserved to be called men at all, unable to "boast of the down upon the cheek."
Kautz improvised a charge at 11:30, but his Pennsylvania troopers were repelled. He then carefully deployed his full force, most of which had since dismounted, and attacked again, but Archer's men still managed to hold them off for nearly two hours. They were helped in their effort by local slaves who played music to simulate the arrival of Confederate reinforcements. By the time Union troops finally broke through, actual reinforcements had arrived. They met one column of Kautz's cavalry while a scratch force of what one witness described as "patients and penitents"—hospital patients and jail inmates—met the other. Kautz, hearing only silence from Gillmore's front, and facing the possibility of increased resistance, broke off the action and retreated to Bermuda Hundred.
The Petersburg militia paid a heavy price in slowing the Union raid: 15 dead (including the bank manager), 18 wounded, and 42 captured. Gillmore lost 46 killed and wounded, and 6 missing; more than that, though, he fumbled an unprecedented opportunity to capture the Cockade City. Grant shifted the Army of the Potomac south the following week, arriving at Petersburg on June 15. But the Confederates, alerted to the city's vulnerability, had by then begun to reinforce its defenses, although they were still unprepared for Grant's flank attack and surprise move on Petersburg. Still, it took Grant nearly ten months finally to crack the city open. Once he did, on April 2, 1865, the war was effectively over a week later.
On June 9, 1866, the city of Petersburg began an annual commemoration of the militia's victory. The ceremony, organized by a local Ladies' Memorial Association, served as a precursor to Confederate Memorial Day.
June 9, 1864, 5:00 a.m. - A Union raiding party led by Quincy A. Gillmore splits into three columns. Two brigades of infantry approach Petersburg from the east while the cavalry under August V. Kautz swings to the south.
June 9, 1864, 7:00 a.m.–8:30 a.m. - Two miles east of Petersburg, two brigades of Union infantry under Quincy A. Gillmore skirmish with Confederate pickets, slowing their advance on Petersburg. They misjudge the resistance as an indication that the city's fortifications, known as the Dimmock Line, are heavily manned. In fact, they are not.
June 9, 1864, 9:00 a.m. - Alarm bells sound in Petersburg, as a raiding party under Quincy A. Gillmore approaches the city from the east and south. Fletcher H. Archer's Battalion of Virginia Reserves—or about 125 old men and young boys—mans the city's defenses in the south while Confederate general Henry A. Wise requests reinforcements.
June 9, 1864, 9:00 a.m.–1:30 p.m. - The Union infantry under Quincy A. Gillmore demonstrates in front of the lightly defended Dimmock Line before Petersburg, but does not attack. After several hours, Gillmore withdraws to Bermuda Hundred.
June 9, 1864, 11:30 a.m.–1:15 p.m. - The Union cavalry under August V. Kautz attacks the Dimmock Line defenses south of Petersburg and is initially turned back by Fletcher H. Archer's Battalion of Virginia Reserves, or about 125 old men and young boys. Kautz's men, aided by the artillery, eventually breach the line.
June 9, 1864, 1:30–3:00 p.m. - Having been stalled by the Confederate militia, the Union cavalry under August V. Kautz advances to the outskirts of Petersburg only to meet Confederate reinforcements. Not hearing any firing from the east, where the Union infantry should be, Kautz's men retreat to Bermuda Hundred.
June 9, 1866 - The city of Petersburg has the first of what becomes an annual commemoration of the Petersburg militia's victory at the Battle of Old Men and Young Boys. The ceremony, organized by a local Ladies' Memorial Association, serves as a precursor to Confederate Memorial Day.
- Civil War, American (1861–1865)
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First published: August 12, 2010 | Last modified: April 12, 2011