On May 5, 1864, Butler’slanded at Bermuda Hundred and on the James River, ten miles east of Petersburg. His charge was to disrupt rail lines and harass the Confederates south of Richmond while Grant and initiated the Overland Campaign by attacking ‘s army to the north. While the Union forces suffered horrific casualties at the , , , and, at the end of the month, Cold Harbor, Butler’s force was halted at Drewry’s Bluff.
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 runawayand suggested to Butler that Petersburg was not well defended. Confederate generals and 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.
Gillmore’s orders were to storm Petersburg, destroy its bridges, and return to Bermuda Hundred. Several miles from the city, tired from a night march and already behind schedule, his force split into three columns. Twoof infantry approached Petersburg from the east, while Kautz’s cavalry swung to the south. At about seven in the morning, the foot soldiers ran into Confederate pickets, who slowly withdrew to Petersburg’s main defenses a mile outside of the city. These fortifications, called the , ran in a ten-mile arc from the Appomattox River on the north all the way to the and the Appomattox River again west of the city. Laid out beginning in August 1862 by Confederate general D. H. Hill, they were guarded by some fifty-five artillery batteries that had fallen into disrepair. Nevertheless, Gillmore approached cautiously and failed to press hard, mistakenly assuming the works were heavily defended.
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‘s Battalion of Virginia Reserves. The unit of 125 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 Grantfinally 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, served as a precursor to Confederate Memorial Day.