Grant on the Eastern Front

Soldiers at Petersburg National Battlefield's Eastern front.
Grant at Eastern Front

by Frank Kohl

Following his costly defeat at Cold Harbor, Ulysses S. Grant decided to capture the supply depot and railroad in Petersburg, Virginia which supplied the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. Grant knew cutting the supply line would prevent a Confederate attack and, most likely, Richmond would fall.His initial assault on Petersburg ended with heavy casualties without any significant breakthroughs. Additional attempts also ended in failure. Facing a reinforced and entrenched enemy, Grant settled in for a siege, setting the stage for the longest and final major engagement of the Civil War. While both sides skirmished and sniped, Grant sent cavalry to tear up Petersburg’s railroad lines.

Battle of the Crater

A month after the siege began, Union troops started digging a tunnel underneath the city’s defenses. The tunnel was both an attack strategy and morale boost which kept Grant’s soldiers busy and focused. In the early morning of July 30, 1864, the mine was detonated, sending men and earth flying. Although Grant wanted to send in specially trained African American soldiers, fears of a scandal led him to use an untrained white division, who charged into the crater and were unable to climb out. Many died as Confederate soldiers shot down at them from the crater’s edge. The Union public, already tired of war and heavy casualties, was shocked by the massacre at the Battle of the Crater. Grant was equally devastated and was noticeably withdrawn for weeks afterwards. President Lincoln’s 1864 re-election crushed Confederate hopes for a change of leadership and possible peace treaty. Lee contacted Grant to discuss prisoner transfers of only white soldiers, refusing to exchange formerly enslaved black soldiers. Grant denied his request, arguing all men would receive the rights afforded to soldiers, regardless of their skin color.

The Eastern Front Today

The Siege of Petersburg is preserved as part of the Petersburg National Battlefield. People can take a driving tour and walk the trails to explore the Eastern Front Unit, which includes the infamous crater. The Eastern Front Visitor Center has exhibits and a video about the daily lives of the soldiers and civilians who endured the siege.

The Odyssey of Ulysses explores the saga of U. S. Grant from his first battle to his final resting place. For information on this Article Series project, contact us.

Part of a series of articles titled The Odyssey of Ulysses.

Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park, Petersburg National Battlefield

Last updated: January 13, 2022