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Civil War Series

The Siege of Petersburg

   

These delays allowed A.P. Hill, commanding in Petersburg while Lee was on the north side (Beauregard had left for Charleston on September 20 and would not return), to dispatch a division-sized counterforce that marched down the Boydton Plank Road and took up a blocking position along some trenches that had been dug parallel to it. By the time Warren finally ordered a continuation of his advance toward the plank road, there were veteran Southern infantry in position. The fighting that followed swirled across the fields of nearby Jones's farm in a tumble of disconnected actions that finally stopped the Federals short of their goals.


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PUSHING THE EDGES
While the Army of the James strikes General Robert E. Lee's defenses near Richmond, V and IX Corps troops under Gen. Warren (operating from the extreme Union left flank along the Weldon Railroad) move toward the Boydton Plank Road. After overcoming a thin defensive screen near Peebles Farm (action shown here), Warren's men are stopped before reaching the road by C.S. reserves coming out of Petersburg. The end result is another extension of the Union entrenchments to that point, increasing the stranglehold on the Cockcade City.


Both sides paused. In a pattern familiar from the fight along the Weldon Railroad, Warren labored to erect strong defensive works, while the Confederates planned an attack. The battle that took place on October 1 was as brutal and as fiercely contested as any in the Petersburg campaign, with mixed results. The Union forces (which suffered nearly 3,000 casualties) had cut neither the Boydton Plank Road nor the South Side Railroad but had secured another sector in the growing encirclement of Petersburg, stretching Lee's lines a distance of 30 miles. The Confederates (whose losses in these actions were about 1,300) had prevented a major Yankee breakthrough, but they had relinquished some important secondary road junctions around Peebles farm. Probing attacks in the week that followed merely affirmed the new situation.


Among the most remarkable aspects of the growing Union siege lines were the quantity and diversity of the forts constructed along there.

Among the most remarkable aspects of the growing Union siege lines were the quantity and diversity of the forts constructed along them. By the spring of 1865 Federal engineers had built thirty-one at Petersburg, with ten more at City Point. Most were named for officers killed in action. Radiating out from the forts, in a seemingly aimless pattern, were the breastworks. Protecting both was an inventory of exotically named military implements, including chevaux-de-frise, gabions, and abatis. (There were actually two Union siege lines: the "front" line faced Petersburg; the other, the "reverse" line, was a short distance behind the first and pointed in the opposite direction. Its function was to protect the rear of the front line.)

A DEAD CONFEDERATE SOLDIER LIES IN A TRENCH SURROUNDED BY CHEVAUX-DE-FRISE. (LC)

A BOMBPROOF SHELTER PARTIALLY MADE FROM GABIONS. (LC)

There was no standard fort blueprint; indeed, it seemed that the construction teams were determined that no two would look alike. The largest (finished in March 1865) was Fort Fisher, which covered an area of five acres; certainly one of the most interesting was Fort Stevenson, which was built on the reverse line in a distinctive "inverse W" shape. Some forts became better known than others. Fort Sedgwick, located where the front siege line met the Jerusalem Plank Road, was the one perhaps most remembered by the Union veterans. Its close proximity to the Confederate batteries made it a prominent target. According to a New York soldier, Fort Sedgwick became known as Fort Hell because "it was nearer the rebel lines, and therefore was subjected to the hottest fire." A gunner who served there wrote, "I expend about 100 rounds of ammunition every day, and the pickets and sharpshooters pour in such a continuous storm of bullets that the said fort is anything but an agreeable place..."

One hard-to-miss target for the Union gunners in the forts and in the forty-two battery positions located in between them was Petersburg itself. The city's eastern district suffered the worst damage, and many of the more than 500 buildings hit by Yankee shells were located east of Sycamore Street. The threat of fire was constant. Soon after the siege began, Petersburg's Common Council organized an auxiliary fire brigade to assist the overburdened regular units. Adding to the danger was the habit of Federal cannoneers to concentrate their aim on burning structures so that attempts to put out the blaze would be met with what one firefighter described as a "perfect storm of shot and shell."

UNION FT. MORTON OPPOSITE THE CRATER. (LC)

There were ominous portents that the winter of 1864 would be a harsh one for Petersbuurg's residents. Heating fuel was in short supply, food prices were going up, and the crime rate was increasing.

There were ominous portents that the winter of 1864 would be a harsh one for Petersburg's residents. Heating fuel was in short supply, food prices were going up, and the crime rate was increasing. "Never were robberies so frequent in this community and suburbs," declared the Petersburg Express. Adding to the distress was the presence of refugee families, many with no local ties. The city did what it could, but too often need surpassed resources. One visitor never forgot the sight of "poor women and children compelled to go among the soldiers and beg for bread to eat."

Before the winter weather shut down active operations for the season, however, there was another Union effort to cut the remaining road and rail supply routes. "I think it cannot be long now before the tug will come which, if it does not secure the prize, will put us where the end will be in sight," Grant told his wife, Julia, in mid-October. This plan came from General Meade, who was anxious to silence several Northern newspapers critical of his leadership.

The movement (to be complemented by a diversionary attack north of the James), involved the Second, Fifth, and Ninth Corps and a cavalry division in a broad-front sweep around Lee's right flank. The Ninth would press the Confederate lines opposite Peebles farm and, it was hoped, force a breakthrough. Moving to the left of them was the Fifth Corps, which was to support the Ninth if it was successful and lend assistance to the Second if it was not. The hardest task in the entire operation had been given once more to Hancock's men. They were to march well to the south before turning west, and after crossing a lower section of Hatcher's Run (well beyond Lee's flank), they would move on to the Boydton Plank Road, and from there strike for the South Side Railroad. The cavalry was to screen Hancock's advance and protect his left flank. On October 26, Grant wrote to Julia, "To-morrow a great battle will probably be fought."

AN INTERIOR VIEW OF "FORT HELL," FT. SEDGWICK. (LC)

HOSPITAL ATTENDENTS HELP THE WOUNDED NEAR HATCHER'S RUN. (LC)

PETERSBURG WAS PERIODICALLY BOMBARDED BY FEDERAL ARTILLERY. (SCW)
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