Civil War Campaigns
The Petersburg Campaign was the longest sustained operation of the Civil War. For 10 months, the Union army of the Potomac beseiged the vital railroad center 20 miles south of Richmond. Trench warfare and maneuvers for limited objectives replaced the strategic and tactical mobility that had characterized 3 years of warfare in Virginia. Throughout the campaign, the Union army sidled toward the west to sever roads and railroads, the lifelines connecting the capital and its army to the southern heartland and the Atlantic coast. miles of elaborate trenches , forts , redans,and abitas scarred the countryside. The Federals finally fixed in place the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and eventually ground it down until the army broke.
The major Union offensive against Petersburg began in the darkness of June 12-13th when Maj. gen. George G. Meade's army, under the direction of Gen.-in-Chief Ulysses S. Grant, abandoned its trenches near Cold Harbor. The previous 40 days of bloody combat from the Rapidan River to the James River had resolved little except for appalling casualties and Union repulses. While Grant and Gen. Robert E. Lee dualed, Maj. gen. Benjamin F. Butler advanced from Bermuda Hundred against Petersburg, only to display a rematkable operational incompetence. With Butler effectively bottled up by Confederates on the Bermuda Hundred peninsula, Grant decided to maintain the initiative and shift the campaign south of the James River.
Grant's deep turning movement from Cold Harbor proceeded flawlessly. Screened by a cavalry division, the Federals secretly withdrew fromLee's front. After crossing the river on a specially constructed pontoon bridge, the Union troops marched on Petersburg, where only 2,500 defenders, under Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, manned the works. On June 15, grant ordered Maj. gen. William F. Smith's XVIII Corps and Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock's II Corps tp attack the Confederate lines. But the 2 corps commanders fumbled the opportunity. Smith advaanced overcatiously and Hancock, without adequate orders, did not support Smith's feeble efforts. By nightfall, Smith merely held a few outer lines. It was a bitter diappointment for Grant.
Other Union commanders repeated Smith and Hancock's failure over the next few 3 days. Petersburg remained vulnerable, but lack of coordination, contadictory orders, shoddy staff work, and poor leadership resulted in a series of costly Union repulses. Beauregard may have rendered the Confederacy his greatest service by skillfully shifting his thin ranks, thus preventing a Union breakthrough. Lee, who had been deceived by the scope of Grant's shift, finally responded to Beauregard's urgent requests for troops. By the 17th, the vanguard of Lee's army had reached Petersburg, assisting in the repulse of the Union charges. Lee had arrived by the next day, with most of his army close behind, and the works soon bristled with Confederate bayonets. In 4 dats of combat, Grant lost more than 11,000 men while only securing a few lines east of the city.
The antagonists then settled into a seige neither wanted. Grant had watched the army bungle an opportunity that might have ended the war. Within his grasp, victory seemingly exceeded the army's reach. Grant still held the initiative, yet a lengthy deadlock could sap his army's strength and adversely affect the forthcoming presidential election. For Lee, the seige meant a restriction in his renowned offensives and the burden of manning the works that stretched from Richmond to west of Petersburg. The Confederate chieftan had to defend tenuous, but critical supply lines while seeking an opportunity to attack a weakened section of the Union stranglehold. The conflict became an inexorable death struggle for the Confederates, who fought the enemy, disease, starvation, and desertion.
The pattern of the campaign soon emerged. The keys to Petersburg and ultimately Richmond were the roads and railroads supplying the 2 cities and their defenders. Grant moved against these lifelines within days after his initial failure. From June 22-24th, Union corps attempted to sever the Weldon Railroad connecting Petersburg with North Carolina and points south. Confederate counterattacks secured the tracks. Grant, however, relentlessly extended his entrenchments south and west, forcing Lee to stretch further his lines. Between August 18-21st, the Federals seized the Weldon Railroad, denying its use to the Confederates for the remainder of the campaign.
The Union commanderalso attempted a sudden breakthrough and simultaneous operations north and south of the James River. The army's greatest fiasco occured on July 30, when a regiment of Pennsylvania coal miners exploded a mine under a portion of the Confederate works. The ensuing Union attack into the huge crater resulted in a bloody disaster, illustrating the incompetency of Union officers and theill luck that plagued their army. Grant's offensives north of the river against Richmond's works were intended to make Lee shift troops, thus weakening a sector of his lines so that Union troops could penetrate it. Twice, when the mine exploded and in late September and early October, the Federals assaulted on the north side, but Lee brilliantly shuffled units to meet these threats, and, though he lost some works, his main lines held firm. by late fall, the union lines extendedwest of the Weldon railroad and opposite the capital.
The suffering in the trenches increased during the winter. Scores of Confederates, unable to endure the hunger and deprivation, nightly entered Union lines and surrendered. The Federals, morever, continued their leftward shift, increasing Lee's losses. Early in February, Union troops advanced against the Boydton Plank road. Lee counterattacked, sustaining heavy losses, but temporarily kept the road open. Then late in March, he attacked in a bold gamble to force grant to retract from his lines. Early on the 25th, Maj. Gen. John B. Gordon's Confederates seized Fort Stedman east of the city. The Federals counterattacked, wrenching the works from the Confederates, who lost 3,500 in the abortive attack.
The fall of Petersburg came a week after the engagement at Fort Stedman. On April 1, Union infantry and cavalry crushed and routed a Confederate force at Five Forks, a crossroads beyond Lee's western lines. The next day, at 4:30 A.M., Grant unleashed a massive assault on the Petersburg trenches. Lee's thinly held works dissolved under the onslaught. Lee extricated the remneant of his army but the fiercely defended city was in Union hands by nightfall. The next day, Confederate authorities evacuated Richmond. On the 9th, Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox.
The Petersburg Campaign exacted approximately 42,000 Union casualties and 28,000 Confederate. the seemingly invincible Army of Northern Virginia was bled to exhaustion by the seige. When the final Union attackcame, there were too few Confederates left to repel it. Grant's resources, manpower, and inexorable strategy overcame Lee's brilliant defense. Confined to trenches, the Confederates were doomed by attrition.