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!"
(click on image for a PDF version)
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
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 infantryGeneral Warren's Fifth Corpsmoved
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
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.