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WATERLOO OF THE CONFEDERACY|
Fearing that Lee will slip away to the south, Grant orders Maj. Gen.
Philip H. Sheridan and his cavalry corps to cut the South Side
Railroad. Sheridan is stopped on March 31 near Dinwiddie Court House by
a cavalry and infantry force under Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett. Sheridan
is reinforced by infantry (under Warren) and Pickett withdraws to Five
Forks where he entrenches. Sheridan attacks late on the afternoon of
April 1 (shown here) and routs Pickett's command.
Sheridan formulated a simple battle plan. He would mass all of
Warren's infantry against the enemy's left, and while his troopers
pressed all along the front, the foot soldiers would turn the flank. The
roads were muddy and the terrain a tangle of underbrush, so it took
Warren's men until almost 4:00 P.M. to form where Sheridan wanted them.
The restless, combative cavalryman attributed these delays to Warren's
lack of leadership. Finally, between 4:15 and 4:30, the attack commenced.
THE FIFTH CORPS' ATTACK AT FIVE FORKS ON APRIL 1.
ILLUSTRATION BY A. R. WAUD. (LC)|
Just about every element in Sheridan's plan failed to perform as
intended. His cavalrymen were unable to mount any serious advance
against the White Oak Road line and were, for the most part, spectators
to the combat that did take place. The infantry advance also faced serious
problems. As dictated by Sheridan, Warren's corps advanced in a
two-division front with the third following on the right as a reserve.
Sheridan intended for the right front division (Brevet Major General
Samuel W. Crawford commanding) to strike the angle of the enemy's works,
with the left front (under Brevet Major General
Romeyn B. Ayres) taking the line head-on. But the faulty cavalry
reconnaissance now bedeviled the execution of these instructions. The real flank was
well west of where Sheridan thought it to be, so much so that General
Crawford's division missed it completely as it moved forward, and
Ayres's men took fire from their left as they brushed past it.
Ayres needed about fifteen minutes to reorient his units and to
mount an attack toward the flank. This maneuver broke contact with
Crawford, who continued to advance as ordered and was soon lost to
sight in the heavy thickets. The reserve following Crawford, Brevet
Major General Charles Griffin's division, halted while its commander
sorted things out. Warren, trying to hold a central position, sent all
of his aides galloping off to reorient his errant divisions, and, when
that failed, he rode out to take command himself. Sheridan, riding with
Ayres's advance, led the charge that breasted and captured the left
flank of Pickett's White Oak Road line.
MAJOR GENERAL PHILIP SHERIDAN AT THE BATTLE OP FIVE FORKS. (LC)|
Helping the Federals immeasurably was a command paralysis on the
Confederate side. When most of the day had passed with no sign of an
attack, both Pickett and Fitzhugh Lee rode off to a shad bake with Major
General Thomas L. Rosser whose reserve cavalry was camped on the north
side of Hatcher's Run. The two officers neglected to notify their next
in command that they were absent, so there was a fatal break in the
Confederate chain of command. With no one in overall control, Southern soldiers fought the
blue waves in isolated pockets of resistance. In a crowning piece of
irony, atmospheric conditions so muffled the sound of battle that
neither Pickett nor Fitzhugh Lee knew that anything was happening until
it was far too late to reverse the situation.
After Ayres's men stormed and overran the return, dazed
Confederates tried to organize a new defensive line to face them, but
Griffin moved in on Ayres's right and beat them down. Then Crawford
appeared, coming down from the north, directed there by General
Warren. Now Sheridan's cavalry came alive and swept around the Confederate right,
only to be caught up in a wild melee that allowed many of the Rebel
infantrymen to escape.
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BEGINNING OF THE END|
Following Sheridan's victory at Five Forks, Grant orders an all-out effort against Lee's
Petersburg lines. An attack by the Ninth Corps along the Jerusalem Plank
Road fails to break through on the eastern side of town. Further
west (as shown here), a massive assault by Maj. Gen. Horatio Wright's
Sixth Corps rips a fatal hole in Lee's defenses and rolls up the line
all the way to Hatcher's Run. A follow-up attack on Petersburg by Maj.
Gen. John Gibbon's Twenty-fourth Corps is stopped by a last-ditch stand
made by Lee's troops in Forts Whitworth and Gregg. Not shown here is
the final combat action of this day which takes place at Sutherland
Station on the South Side Railroad. At midnight Lee begins his
evacuation of the Cockcade City.
Nevertheless, it was a stunning victory. Of the 9,200 men under
Pickett and Lee, nearly a third were killed, captured, or wounded, at a
loss to Union arms of slightly more than 800. The way was now wide
open to the South Side Railroad, and
Robert E. Lee's best escape route was closed. When Warren reported to
Sheridan for new orders he was shocked to learn that he had been
relieved of his command. As Sheridan saw it, Warren had failed to handle
his corps effectively in the fight, and he felt that the infantry
officer was not the man to lead it in the critical days ahead. Warren
believed that he had contributed to Sheridan's victory and deeply
resented the action taken against him. He would spend the rest of his
life seeking vindication for what he accomplished on April 1 at Five
Grant now ordered an-all out assault on Petersburg for April 2. The
principal attacks were carried out by the Ninth Corps, which advanced
from Fort Sedgwick along the Jerusalem Plank Road, and the Sixth Corps,
which struck at the enemy lines opposite Forts Fisher and Welch. The
Ninth Corps troops became embroiled in a bitter trench fight that dissipated
the force of their attack and allowed the hard-pressed defenders,
commanded by General Gordon, to hold the line, though the fighting
lasted throughout the day.
LIEUTENANT GENERAL A. P. HILL (LC)|
The results were dramatically different on the Sixth Corps front.
The corps commander was able to mass his men in the no-man's land
during the night thanks to the strategic positions seized on March 25.
Almost the entire Sixth Corps surged forward at first light and rolled
over the heavily outnumbered defenders, tearing a huge hole in Lee's
line. While one portion of the Sixth Corps pushed ahead to the
long-coveted South Side Railroad, the bulk of it wheeled left and began
to roll up the Confederate line along the Boydton Plank Road as far as
Lee's only hope of preventing the capture of Petersburg and the
complete destruction of his army lay with the defensive line he was
knitting together along Indian Town Creek.
Robert E. Lee, whose headquarters was nearby at the Turnbull House,
now worked to patch together a defensive line much closer to the town.
A. P. Hill, whose corps had been shattered by the Sixth Corps attack,
rode into the maelstrom to rally his men and was killed by a pair of
Pennsylvania soldiers. Lee's only hope of preventing the capture of
Petersburg and the complete destruction of his army lay with the
defensive line he was knitting together along Indian Town Creek. Two
redoubts stood slightly advanced from that line, and it was critical
that they be held as long as possible. The two posts, named Fort Gregg
and Fort Whitworth, held a pair of cannon apiece. Into them Lee ordered
four Mississippi regimentsthe Twelfth
and Sixteenth into Gregg, and the Nineteenth and Forty-eighth into
THE STORMING OF FT. GREGG ON APRIL 2. ILLUSTRATION BY A. R. WAUD. (LC)|
A. R. WAUD'S ILLUSTRATION FROM HARPER'S WEEKLY OF THE CHARGE OF
THE NINTH ARMY CORPS ON FT. MAHONE.|
A fresh Federal corps, the Twenty-fourth, marched through the breach
and formed to assault the two redoubts. The first attack stepped off at
about 1:00 P.M. The badly outnumbered defenders stopped this initial
effort and a second one that soon followed. Even though Federal soldiers
now swarmed all around Fort Gregg, its garrison was able to keep them at
bay. Not until the units manning Fort Whitworth withdrew under orders
and uncovered Gregg's flank were the Yankees able to overrun the
garrison by sheer weight of numbers. To one Rebel observer, it seemed as
if "the battle flags of the enemy made almost a solid line of bunting
around the fort." Inside Fort Gregg, the fight was short and brutal.
"The rebels had recklessly fought to the last," declared a Federal. Of
the 300 who defended Fort Gregg, 56 were killed and 200 wounded. The
price paid by the attackers was 714. The break-through by the Sixth
Corps was achieved at a cost of 1,081, while the best estimates put the
Confederate losses this day at more than 5,000.
DRAWING FROM HARPER'S WEEKLY OF THE CONFEDERATE EVACUATION OF
The defense of Forts Gregg and Whitworth had bought Lee time and
weakened the force of the Union attack. When the battered survivors of
the assault moved forward to the Indian Town Creek line they found it
manned by reinforcements that had just arrived from Richmond. The final
engagement of this bloody day was fought to the west at Sutherland
Station between the Union Second Corps and the troops that had abandoned
the White Oak Road line near Burgess' Mill. In the evening Lee issued
general withdrawal orders. Warned during the day by Lee that this was
going to happen, Jefferson Davis and the Confederate government fled the
capital on the evening of April 2.
Those of Lee's men who remained in Petersburg that night had to cross
to the north side of the Appomattox and follow routes leading to their
designated point of concentration, Amelia Court House. "Silently and
gloomily the army in long columns marched out from the breastworks and
marched through the desolate streets of Petersburg," remembered one
veteran. "We had little to say, . . . and we all wondered, what
FEDERAL TROOPS PASS THE BURNED BRIDGE TO THE SOUTH SIDE
RAILROAD SHOPS IN PETERSBURG. A.R. WAUD ILLUSTRATION. (LC)|
It was shortly after 1:00 A.M., April 3, when the first reports came
in from Union pickets that the enemy was abandoning the town. Flames
were visible from the burning tobacco warehouses that had been set on
fire. All along the perimeter Union pickets filtered into the empty
enemy trenches and confirmed that the Rebels had indeed gone. A little
after 3:00 A.M. a flying squad of Michigan soldiers, moving along the
City Point Road, entered Petersburg from the east and raised a United
States flag over the courthouse. "Our hearts were too full for
utterance, so we clasped hands and shed tears of joy, for we knew that
the beginning of the end had come," recollected one of them. Troops from
the Sixth Corps met the city's mayor west of the town at dawn to accept
Petersburg's formal capitulation.
Meade, Grant, and Lincoln all visited Petersburg on April 3. At
midday Meade and Grant rode off to the west to organize the pursuit of
Lee's retreating army, while Lincoln toured the town before returning to
City Point. On his way into Petersburg his party had passed near the
site of the Ninth Corps fight on April 2, and Lincoln saw the bodies of
some of the Yankee soldiers who had fallen in that struggle. According
to one of those with Lincoln, "big tears ran down the President's
By April 4 Petersburg had become a rear echelon, as the focus of
operations moved westward with Lee's disintegrating army and toward the
final showdown at Appomattox Court House on April 9. But the triumph of
having at last occupied the city that had so long defied them was felt
throughout the Union ranks. One young soldier ended his diary entry for
April 3, "My heart overflows with happiness too deep for words."
Years afterward, a Confederate who survived the rigors of the
campaign for the Cockade City cautioned future historians: "The story of
Petersburg will never be written; volumes would be required to contain
it, and even those who went through the trying ordeal, can not recall a
satisfactory outline of the weird and graphic occurrences of that
The many military actions that took place here were a testament to
Grant's firm resolve and his willingness to learn from experience.
"Grant is a man of such infinite resource and ceaseless activity," an
officer stationed at City Point marveled, "scarcely does one scheme fail
before he has another on foot; baffled in one direction he immediately
gropes round for a vulnerable point elsewhere." For Lee, the siege
represented possibly the lowest period of his professional career.
Denied any freedom of movement, he could only wait to react to the
enemy's actions. And penned up at Petersburg, he was unable to influence
UNION ARMY WAGON TRAIN LEAVES PETERSBURG ON WASHINGTON STREET (LC)|
The Petersburg Campaign cost the North about 42,000 men and the South
about 28,000. In the cold calculations and neutral nomenclature of the
army statisticians, these men fell in 6 major battles, 11 engagements,
44 skirmishes, 6 assaults, 9 actions, 3 expeditions, and 1 affair.
Although no comprehensive count was made of the civilian casualties
during the period, it seems that less than half a dozen citizens died as
a direct result of the siege.
THE CRATER AFTER THE FALL OF PETERSBURG. (LC)|
It was the longest military investment of a city in United States
history. The nine and a half months of operations left its mark in the
form of miles of trenches and strongpoints, many which remain today to
remind us of the events which took place here from mid-June 1864 to
early April 1865. These rounded yet still impressive mounds offer silent
tribute to the courage, valor, and fortitude of the Billy Yanks and
Johnny Rebs who so long battled for the city. If duration and endurance
are the prime measurements of sacrifice, then Petersburg is indeed the
most hallowed of ground.
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Petersburg National Battlefield|
Back cover: The Forlorn Hope by Don Troiani. Photograph courtesy
of Historical Art Prints, Southbury, Connecticut.|