When Grant arrived in the East in March 1864 as general-in-chief of all Union armies, he hoped to destroy his Confederate opponents on the battlefield. His attempt to do so, a collection of engagements known as the Overland Campaign, resulted in unprecedented and continuous combat that swept the main armies in Virginia from the Rapidan River to the outskirts of Richmond. When the smoke cleared from the last clash at Cold Harbor (1864), the Army of Northern Virginia still blocked Grant’s access to Richmond and remained sufficiently viable to fight effectively on the defensive.
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.
Meanwhile, Grant adopted a bold plan. As Early’s men began their movement west, Grant’s forces disengaged from Lee’s front and marched east, while engineers constructed a 2,000-foot-long pontoon bridge across the James River. Grant shifted the bulk of his army to the south side of the James, leaving Lee uncertain of his whereabouts. Grant’s new target would be Petersburg, the logistical key to the survival of Richmond. On the morning of June 15, 1864, the lead elements of Grant’s legions began their approach toward Petersburg’s eastern defenses, manned by elements of a woefully outgunned Confederate army commanded by General Pierre G. T. Beauregard.
The campaign for Petersburg lasted 292 days and involved scores of military engagements both south of the Appomattox River and north of the James, resulting in an estimated 70,000 casualties. The Union army maintained the strategic initiative during the entire operation, launching eight distinct offensives, supported by several cavalry and infantry raids. Once Grant abandoned hope of taking Petersburg (or Richmond) by main attack, he focused his attention on strangling those cities and the Army of Northern Virginia by cutting each supply line leading from the south or west. Lee invariably responded to each Union assault with tactical counter-thrusts aimed at limiting Union progress.
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.
Grant’s initial advance against Petersburg promised success. A vastly superior body of Union troops moved west from the City Point area on June 15, 1864, confronted by a handful of Beauregard’s troops from the Confederate Department of North Carolina and Southern Virginia, headquartered in Petersburg. The local Union commander failed to appreciate the weakness of his opponents and saw only the frowning earth and log bastions of Petersburg’s permanent defense line, reminiscent of the powerful fortifications that had brought him to grief at Cold Harbor less than two weeks earlier.
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.
Within a few weeks, however, the Pennsylvanians had completed their mine and began packing the shaft with black powder. By then Grant and Meade had become believers. They sent an expedition across the James at Deep Bottom to draw Lee’s army away from the intended target above the mine, and made elaborate plans to exploit the explosion with a massive artillery bombardment followed by a dash to high ground. In Union hands, this terrain would render Petersburg defenseless.
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.
Between August 18 and August 21, Union forces captured the Petersburg (Weldon) Railroad and withstood two ambitious Confederate attempts to drive them from the tracks. Now Lee’s communications would rely on the South Side Railroad, running west from Petersburg toward Lynchburg and the Boydton Plank Road, which served as an alternate route from North Carolina now that the direct rail link to Wilmington had been severed. In an attempt to eliminate these supply routes, Union forces would launch their fifth and sixth offensives in late September and late October respectively. Neither operation would be successful, although the Northerners briefly occupied the Boydton Plank Road on October 27. Grant did manage to expand his siege lines several more miles to the west, as well as to capture Fort Harrison, a key Confederate bastion north of the James, in one of the companion operations that defined Grant’s strategy.
U.S. president Abraham Lincoln‘s re-election in November 1864 relieved the pressure on Grant to demonstrate tactical progress in Virginia and, except for a raid toward Hicksford in early December, the guns fell silent around Petersburg. Soon, winter’s freezing and thawing turned the region’s dirt roads into quagmires, and the armies settled into cheerless winter camps. The Army of the Potomac relied on the United States Military Railroad to deliver supplies to its Spartan shanties. This efficient example of Northern industrial and engineering prowess connected Grant’s huge supply base at City Point with the front, delivering bread still warm from the ovens. The Confederates had no such facilities. Shortages of firewood were endemic, and most units experienced prolonged periods where available rations and warm clothing failed to meet the army’s basic needs. Lee confronted a distressing and increasing volume of desertions as veteran soldiers succumbed to hunger, pessimism, and the repeated pleas of their suffering families.
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.
Utilizing Sheridan’s Army of the Shenandoah, Meade’s Army of the Potomac, and the Army of the James, now under Major General E. O. C. Ord, Grant unleashed his final Petersburg offensive on March 29. Union forces quickly captured the Boydton Plank Road and prepared to strike the South Side Railroad. Lee responded by summoning his only reserve division, the Virginians of Major General George E. Pickett, west to the critical intersection at Five Forks. This junction controlled Grant’s best access to the South Side Railroad.
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.
Grant ordered a massive assault at dawn on April 2, 1865, hoping to sustain Sheridan against a possible counterblow at Five Forks and exploit any weakness along the Confederate lines. By 5:15 a.m., The Union Sixth Corps managed to break through Lee’s lines about six miles southwest of Petersburg. As a result, Lee informed Confederate president Jefferson Davis that he would be compelled to evacuate both Petersburg and the capital that night. Union forces finally captured the South Side Railroad, while Lee fought determined rearguard actions west and south of Petersburg, allowing him to execute his retreat plans after dark. At 4:28 the next morning, a Michigan regiment entered Petersburg and raised the American flag above the courthouse and post office. For the first time in nearly four years, Petersburg belonged to the Union.
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.