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Civil War Series

The Siege of Petersburg

   

Many of the wounded brought off the field came to one of the field hospitals that had been established at City Point. A once thriving river port that was well in decline when it was occupied by Federal troops in early May, City Point had become the logistical hub for all operations against Petersburg and Richmond. A Federal officer who viewed the busy scene described it: "Steamboats and sailing vessels, transports and lighters of all kinds, encumbered the river near the improvised wharves on which they were still working. . . . The river bank, rising up high, had been cleared and levelled, so as to make room for storehouses for supplies, and for a station for the railroad. All this had sprung out of the earth as if by magic, in less than a month." City Point itself soon became crowded with barracks, stables, repair shops, a huge bakery, numerous sutler's stores, and even a prison for Union troops known as the Bull Pen.

This activity made City Point a tempting target. A sortie by warships of the C.S. James River fleet was attempted on January 23, 1865, but the Rebel boats were unable to pass sunken obstructions and never made it within cannon shot of the place. A far more successful blow was delivered on August 9, 1864, when a Confederate operative named John Maxwell planted a time bomb (which he called a "horological torpedo") aboard a munitions barge docked near the shore. The resulting explosion destroyed several large buildings, 180 feet of wharf, two million dollars of munitions and supplies, and killed more than forty workers. The blast rained potentially lethal debris all across City Point, including U. S. Grant's headquarters. Grant was uninjured, but one staff officer was struck and an orderly killed.

Grant had just returned to City Point from a trip north, where he had organized the Union forces confronting the corps Lee had sent into the Shenandoah Valley in June. General Sheridan, a Grant favorite, had been placed in command there and was getting organized. To buy him some time, and to prevent Lee from sending more men against Sheridan, Grant ordered another expedition to Deep Bottom on August 14. Four days of fighting proved no more conclusive than the First Deep Bottom operation. But Lee had once again reacted by transferring troops from Petersburg to Richmond, so Grant believed that an opportunity now existed to wreck the Weldon Railroad. Early on the morning of August 18, he sent the Fifth Corps, commanded by Major General Gouveneur K. Warren, out to do the job.

COAL AND ORDNANCE WHARVES AT CITY POINT. (LC)

"The men give out fearfully in the sun," Warren reported, but his four divisions—nearly 20,000 men—reached the railroad near the Globe Tavern around 11:00 A.M. The Federal general detailed two divisions to move a short distance toward Petersburg along the Halifax Road for security, while other troops began to tear up the tracks.

With Lee gone to the north side, responsibility for defending Petersburg lay with General Beauregard. Confederate scouts delivered the faulty intelligence that only a small enemy force was involved, so Beauregard told Lieutenant General A. P. Hill to send two infantry brigades to evict the interlopers.

The two brigades, moving south along the Halifax Road, struck Warren's two security divisions at 3:00 P.M. A couple of Yankee brigades that had advanced ahead of the rest were caught off guard and routed, but the remaining units came up in good order, forcing the Rebels to pull back. Beauregard had scored a tactical success but had failed in his strategic objective to drive the enemy away. That he would make another attempt to do so was a foregone conclusion. In the prophetic words of a Massachusetts officer, "It is touching a tiger's cubs to get on that road!"

A distinct difference of attitude separated General Warren from General Grant. Warren thought only of defending his position. "I think ... it will be safe to trust me to hold on to the railroad," he assured army headquarters on the morning of August 19. Twelve hours earlier, Grant gave expression to his aggressive intent when he informed Meade, "Tell Warren if the enemy comes out and attacks him in the morning, not to hesitate... but to follow him up to the last."

WAUD'S ILLUSTRATION OF THE EXPLOSION AT CITY POINT ON AUGUST 9. (LC)

The fact was that on the morning of August 19 a gap of nearly a mile lay between Warren's men and the nearest friendly units of the Ninth Corps. Efforts were made throughout the morning to close the distance even as reinforcements marched toward Globe Tavern. Also by this time Warren's mission objective had been changed. No longer was he to wreck the tracks and return; instead, he was to maintain his position so that the siege lines might be extended to him.

The Confederates under Beauregard were not idle this morning either. Another sortie was necessary, so a five-brigade attack force was organized. Two of the brigades would again move down the Halifax Road, while the remaining three would hit the right flank of Warren's line. It took all morning and most of the afternoon to get these troops into position, but when the flanking force, commanded by Brigadier General William Mahone, struck at Warren's right flank at about 5:00 P.M., it overran a portion of the Federal line in a sharp little fight. Private Bernard remembered it as "the warmest place [we] were ever in, being subjected to fire from the front, right flank, & rear all at the same time." It was far worse for the Yankees. Two veteran Pennsylvania regiments were scooped up early in the fight, and when the two Southern brigades coming along the Halifax Road joined in, Warren's entire position seemed in jeopardy.

THE GLOBE TAVERN ON THE WELDON RAILROAD, WITH THE MILITARY RAILROAD IN THE FOREGROUND. (LC)

GENERAL WARREN'S MEN FORTIFY THE LINES ON THE WELDON RAILROAD. (NA)

Once more, however, the Confederates attacked too late in the day with too little. And as the Rebel operation began to lose momentum, Union reinforcements appeared on the scene. Beauregard's men again retired into Petersburg after dark. They had whipped the enemy, but the Union flag still flew over Globe Tavern.

Both sides scrambled to secure the advantage on August 20. Warren now had two Ninth Corps divisions to augment his battered corps. He was a genius at defensive fighting and kept his men busy throughout the day improving their position and tightening his defensive perimeter. He was able to accomplish these tasks because no attack came from Petersburg. It took longer than Beauregard had imagined possible to put together a corps-sized battle group, and it was dark before everything was ready.

MAJOR GENERAL WILLIAM MAHONE (NPS)

Beauregard's attack on August 21 was a reverse image of the August 19 action. Another force pushed down along the Halifax Road, while this time the second group wheeled around seeking Warren's left flank. Unlike August 19, however, the Federal general and his men were prepared for the Rebel battle lines. "Fire low!" Warren urged his troops. "Low! Low!" The Confederates attacked fiercely but were repulsed at every point. Robert E. Lee appeared on the field as the last attacking wave ebbed back, too late to affect the outcome.

The Federal lodgment on the Weldon Railroad was quickly made part of the larger trench system. Union casualties were about 4,300 to 2,300 Confederates. Lee had lost one of his few remaining supply lines and now had only a single rail route and a roundabout road system to keep his men fed. It was a serious strategic setback. Petersburg was becoming far more difficult to defend, but its fate was linked to Richmond's, and the Confederate capital had to be held.

SOLDIERS DIGGING EARTHWORKS NEAR WARREN STATION ON THE U.S. MILITARY ROAD. (NA)

Now that he controlled the Weldon Railroad near Petersburg, Grant was determined, as he said, "to thoroughly destroy it as far south as possible. With both the Fifth and Ninth Corps busy fortifying around Globe Tavern, Grant looked for troops to do the wrecking job. He settled on Hancock's Second Corps, just returned from the second Deep Bottom expedition. It was an opportunistic selection that would have tragic consequences. The Second Corps was seriously worn out by its recent fighting north of the James. Nevertheless, by midday, August 22, the first of Hancock's units were moving southward along the tracks, tearing them up as they went.

At first Robert E. Lee thought it was possible only to harass this force with his cavalry, but a report from the able Major General Wade Hampton suggested that the Federal raiders were isolated and vulnerable to attack. Lee pondered the risks and finally agreed. Late in the afternoon of August 24, eight infantry brigades moved out of town on a southwest course. Once clear of the Globe Tavern lines, these soldiers pressed east to link up with Hampton's two cavalry divisions. The combined force was commanded by A. P. Hill.


(click on image for a PDF version)
SUPPLY LINE FIGHT
On August 18, Union Maj. Gen. Gouveneur K. Warren and his Fifth Corps move out from entrenched lines east of Petersburg to strike at one of the two still operating rail systems bringing supplies into the city. Warren holds his position in the face of sharp counterattacks on August 18 and 19. Reinforced by elements of the Ninth Corps, he turns back the major Confederate effort to dislodge him on August 21. The Federal entrenched line is now extended to this point.

On August 25 this battle group caught Hancock's two divisions curled up in a kidney-shaped earthwork near Reams Station, about five miles below Globe Tavern. The Unionists beat back the first Confederate assaults, but then a panic took hold of several of Hancock's regiments due to the Confederate's attack, and the position began to collapse. Private Bernard never forgot the sight as he approached the enemy earthworks of seeing "hundreds of Yankees, most of whom were coming in as prisoners, whilst the remainder were moving up the ditch & getting away." For a while everything was chaos, until finally the battered Federals regrouped long enough to retreat. The day ended in a complete Southern victory, with Union losses of about 2,600 to Hill's 720. Hancock, who felt that his men had received inadequate support from the rest of the army, was bitter. "We ought to have whipped them," he said. Confederate morale received a big boost. "I never saw men so much elated by any fight," declared a North Carolina man.

WAUD'S SKETCH OF THE FIFTH CORPS IN RIFLE PITS. (LC)

WINSLOW HOMER PAINTING TITLED DEFIANCE: INVITING A SHOT BEFORE PETERSBURG, VA, 1864. A CONFEDERATE SOLDIER DARES THE FEDERAL SHARPSHOOTERS. (COURTESY OF THE DETROIT INSTITUTE OF THE ARTS)

The dull but deadly rhythm of trench warfare picked up again as both sides adjusted to the Federal gains. Beyond the flanks of these entrenchments, scouting parties prowled and clashed in a small but sometimes brutal series of mostly unrecorded engagements. One by-product of this activity was military intelligence regarding the enemy's dispositions. On September 5, a Confederate scout named George D. Shadburne reported that the Federals had gathered a herd of 3,000 cattle at Coggins' Point, a few miles east of City Point. Just two days earlier, Robert E. Lee had suggested to Wade Hampton that the enemy's rear was "open to attack." Prodded by Lee's hint, and armed with Shadburne's report, Hampton now suggested a deep penetration cavalry raid to rustle the Yankee beef.

Lee approved and on the morning of September 14, the cavalryman led four brigades plus detachments from two more (about 4,000 men) out from Petersburg on a looping course that brought them in behind the Federal trenches. Hampton's move caught the Union security forces too dispersed to meet such a concentrated strike. So, when the Rebels burst out of the morning gloom on September 16, they were able to corral the cattle and hustle them back the way they had come. The return trip wasn't without some excitement as elements of the poorly organized Federal pursuit did make contact, but on September 17 Hampton proudly reported his achievement to Lee. A total of 2,486 cattle and 300 prisoners had been taken at a cost of 10 men killed, 47 wounded, and 4 missing. The animals soon disappeared into the maw of the Confederate commissary, and for the next few weeks Federal pickets had to endure a new taunt: "Hello! Yanks! Want any fresh beef?"

None of these setbacks long deterred Grant from pursuing his larger strategic goals. In the Deep South, Sherman occupied Atlanta on September 2, while in the Shenandoah Valley, Sheridan won victories at Opequon Creek (September 19) and Fisher's Hill (September 22). Determined to keep pressing Lee, Grant planned a new Federal movement at Petersburg to cut the Boydton Plank Road and the South Side Railroad. General Butler argued for a cooperative strike north of the James against Richmond's defenses along New Market Heights and near Chaffin's Bluff. Grant approved this amplification of his Petersburg operation and, on September 29, Butler's soldiers began crossing near Deep Bottom and at Aiken's Landing.

HAMPTON'S CATTLE RAID, SEPTEMBER 16, 1864. DRAWING BY A. R. WAUD. (LC)

SKETCH BY C. H. CHAPIN OF COLONEL WELCH LEAPING INTO THE REBEL WORKS, SEPTEMBER 30, 1864. (LC)

Moving along a more westerly axis than that taken by the two Deep Bottom expeditions, Butler's men stormed and captured the Confederate bastion of Fort Harrison. Unfortunately, some key officers fell in that assault, and Butler's men were not able to exploit their partial break through. A Confederate counterattack, personally organized by Robert E. Lee the following day, failed to dislodge the invaders, who had now established a direct threat to the C.S. capital.

On the very day that Lee attempted to retake Fort Harrison, a Federal force consisting of the Fifth Corps and two divisions from the Ninth (all under General Warren) was moving south of Petersburg. Its goal was to push west from around Globe Tavern to reach the Boydton Plank Road. Just one serviceable trail led in that direction, and the long Federal column was slow in its passage. When the leading elements emerged into the open near Poplar Spring Church, only a small detachment of Rebel cavalry faced them in slight earthworks thrown up at Peebles farm. It took cautious General Warren some time to set up his attack which, when it went forward at about 1:00 P.M., swept everything before it. Warren then halted to regroup his units and consolidate his newly won position.

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