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Civil War Series

The Siege of Petersburg

   

This time two infantry corps moved west on parallel routes from the Globe Tavern area, with the cavalry riding to the south. The Second Corps (now under Major General Andrew A. Humphreys) marched along the north side of Hatcher's Ruin until it reached the Rebel earthworks that protected the Boydton Plank Road above Burgess' Mill. Anticipating that there would be a quick and aggressive Confederate response to this movement, Humphreys had his troops prepare defenses around a place known as Armstrong's Mill. As expected, a strong Confederate battle line emerged from the entrenchments shortly after 4:00 P.M., February 5, and struck at Humphreys's position.

The main Rebel thrust came against a gap in the Union line that had only been partially filled by New Jersey troops under Brevet Brigadier General Robert McAllister. "They stood nobly and fought splendidly," McAllister later reported. Three times the gray lines pressed through the thick underbrush, only to be hurled back at each try. Such was the confusion on the Confederate side that when General Lee himself tried to rally a panicked group, one of them yelled at him, "Great God, old man, get out of the way, you don't know nothing!"


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BOYDTON AGAIN
In support of a cavalry strike against the lower Boydton Plank Road, the Union Second Corps (now commanded by Maj. Gen. Andrew A. Humphreys) and Fifth Corps (still under Warren) challenge Lee's right flank with provocative moves designed to draw a response. On February 5 Humphreys chews up a series of Confederate attacks launched from Petersburg. However, the next day Warren is badly handled by C.S. infantry pushing from the upper Boydton Plank Road, an operation that costs Lee his newlywed brigadier John Pegram. By extending their lines after the fight, the Federals force Lee to stretch his for more than 35 miles.

Humphreys's role in this operation was akin to a lightning rod designed to absorb the strikes meant for the other units involved. The other infantry—General Warren's Fifth Corps—moved south of Humphreys to provide security for the cavalry, which was to ride to the Boydton Plank Road and burn every wagon in sight. The cavalry did reach the road but there discovered that Federal intelligence estimates had greatly overestimated the size of the prize. When the troopers finally pulled back after dark, their total haul was eighteen wagons and fifty prisoners.

UNION SHARPSHOOTERS TAKE AIM DURING BATTLE. (LC)

AN EXAMPLE OF REVETED BREASTWORKS. (LC)

Fearing another attack on Humphreys both Warren's men and the cavalry closed up on the Second Corps. But dawn, February 6, found each side waiting for the other to move first. When nothing had happened by midday, units were sent out to investigate. The largest collision of these probing forces took place along the south side of Hatcher's Run, near the sawdust pile that marked Dabney's Mill, once a steam-powered sawmill. There Confederate troops under Brigadier General John Pegram met Union infantry from Warren's corps.

The combat surged back and forth as each side fed more men into the fighting. In the midst of it, young Pegram, who had been married just three weeks earlier, was killed. By nightfall the Federals had been shoved back to the defensive position they had occupied at the start of the day. Tragically, many of the untended wounded on both sides suffered horribly during this encounter because of a freezing rain that began to fall during the latter stages of the battle.

This would be Private Bernard's last fight of the Petersburg campaign and nearly the last day of his life. "I myself received a slight scratch on the cheek," he recorded on February 9, "the position of my head only saving me from a dreadful wound or perhaps death." On March 22 he received a furlough and was at his father's home in Orange County when the end came.

There were some slight engagements on February 7 as the Confederates determined that there would be no further enemy advances. The Federals extended their trench lines out to this point, further stretching Lee's lines, which now ran for 35 miles. The cost to achieve this was about 1,500 Union casualties and 1,000 Confederates.

On March 15, 1865, a British M.P. named Thomas Conolly arrived in Petersburg on a tour of the Confederacy. Conolly described the town as a very considerable place with large Markets, Tobacco factories & handsome streets filled with large stores. He visited several dwellings in the city, all which "bore marks of the shelling." It had been a cold winter, one consequence of which added greatly to the challenge of moving about in the dark. In a special column, the editor of the Petersburg Express lamented that "nearly every little foot bridge about town has lost half of its timber, while some of them have entirely disappeared. They are stolen at night, and burned as fuel."


The stresses of the siege also played havoc on family relationships: children especially were affected by the general social breakdown.

The stresses of the siege also played havoc on family relationships; children especially were affected by the general social breakdown. In March 1865, the Express reported that "numerous complaints reach us daily of the . . . danger to which citizens are subjected by boys . . . who indulge in the practice of throwing stones about the city."

At Lee's orders, caches of government tobacco were stored in what one soldier described as "sheds & houses of but little value," making it easier to destroy these stocks when the time came for the army to retreat. It was a warning sign of things to come.

Ominous too was the steady hemorrhage of deserters from the Confederate ranks. As many as one hundred men left each night, some to go home, others to Yankee prison camps. According to official C.S.A. records, 2,934 soldiers deserted in the month following the fight in which John Pegram died. Southerners now had to shoot at their own in an attempt to frighten others from running. Private Bernard, on picket duty in late March, noted that the "firing at deserters [was now] a thing of nightly occurrence."

FAIRGROUNDS HOSPITAL USED BY CONFEDERATES AND THEN THE UNION AFTER THE SIEGE. (NA)

After attending a series of meetings in Richmond with Jefferson Davis, Lee came away convinced that there would be no political initiative to end the war, so his task was to preserve his army as long as possible.

Yet, to all outward appearances, Robert E. Lee remained firm in his resolve to continue Petersburg's defense. During his visit, Conolly dined with him. Also present was a young lady who begged Lee not to evacuate the city when spring arrived. Conolly never forgot Lee's response: "Oh Miss, have you no faith in our boys?"

Conolly's dinner took place on March 17. Six days later Lee listened in grim silence as one of his most trusted subordinates outlined a desperate scheme to break the Federal grip on Petersburg. Lee had asked Major General John B. Gordon to find a way to attack the Union entrenchments. After attending a series of meetings in Richmond with Jefferson Davis, Lee came away convinced that there would be no political initiative to end the war, so his task was to preserve his army as long as possible. That meant creating the condition for a breakout from Petersburg, an assignment Lee had handed to Gordon.

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