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NPS History E-Library
 
 

Civil War Series

The Siege of Petersburg

   

THE SIEGE OF PETERSBURG

When twenty-three-year-old George S. Bernard marched off to war in April 1861 as a member of the Petersburg Rifles, he left behind a city of no small accomplishments. Much of its importance derived from its location, just below the falls of the Appomattox River, where planters transferred their goods to ships for passage to the James River and beyond.

Formally organized by the Virginia General Assembly in 1784, Petersburg was not long in acquiring many of the visible signs of civilization. Paved streets began to appear in 1813, soon followed by a canal bypassing the Appomattox falls; railroad lines linking it to all points of the compass came next, gaslights were introduced in 1851, and a new municipal water system was installed by 1857. All these civic improvements helped attract and hold a substantial business community, based on tobacco manufacture, but also including cotton and flour mills and banking.

MAY 1865 VIEW OF PETERSBURG, VIRGINIA. (LC)

Its 1860 population was 18,266, half of which were black, and nearly a third of them were free. Ninety percent of the white half were native Virginians, whose devotion to the cause in 1812 inspired the nickname "Cockade City" in honor of the rosette they wore on their caps. When Civil War came in 1861, Petersburg's men again responded, and they provided the South several infantry companies and artillery units, as well as three troops of cavalry.

All these young men left to fight elsewhere, and for a short while the war was something known only through newspapers. But it all came home when a Union naval blockade established in Hampton Roads, at the mouth of the James, closed down the port of Petersburg. There was some compensatory prosperity as the town's industries expanded to meet the new demands for military materiel. This led Confederate leaders to worry about its security. In 1862 Captain Charles H. Dimmock arrived from Richmond to remedy that situation. Employing a large slave labor force, he built a ring of earthworks stretching fully ten miles around the city, a line of fortifications and 55 battery positions that lacked only the troops to man them.

CAPTAIN CHARLES H. DIMMOCK WAS THE DESIGNER OF THE TRENCH SYSTEM LAID OUT TO PROTECT PETERSBURG. (NPS)

On May 4, 1864, Union forces across the country began a coordinated military advance aimed at the pressure points of the Confederacy, with the primary actions taking place in northern Georgia and northern Virginia.

On May 4, 1864, Union forces across the country began a coordinated military advance aimed at the pressure points of the Confederacy, with the primary actions taking place in northern Georgia and northern Virginia. Of immediate significance for Petersburg was one of the secondary operations. That evening, a Federal army of 35,000 under the command of Major General Benjamin F. Butler began landing about eight miles away on the eastern shore of Bermuda Hundred—a thirty-square-mile peninsula formed by the confluence of the James and Appomattox Rivers. On May 5 a unit of black troops occupied City Point, a small village at the mouth of the Appomattox River. A Confederate hero of Fort Sumter and First Manassas, General P.G.T. Beauregard, was given the job of rallying the region's scattered defenders.

The designated object of Butler's operation was Richmond, but he first tried a little obfuscation. On May 9, a force of about 18,000 that he sent toward Petersburg was met and stopped at Swift Creek by a hastily assembled command not one-third its size. Although usually enjoying numerical superiority, Butler's operations were fatally hampered by his own lack of field experience and squabbling with his two corps commanders over strategy and tactics. What became known as the Bermuda Hundred Campaign unfolded in a series of limited tactical victories for the Federals, which often left the strategic advantage with the Confederates. In fighting at Port Walthall Junction (May 6-7), Chester Station (May 9-10), and Drewry's Bluff (May 16), Butler failed decisively to defeat the forces thrown against him and ran out of momentum. The result was that by May 22, his army had pulled back into Bermuda Hundred, where it began to dig a defensive line across the peninsula's relatively narrow neck. Butler may have been bottled up, but he was far from beaten.

Many of Beauregard's troops had passed through Petersburg on their journey north, but few had been retained to protect it. Recognizing this, Butler sent a mixed cavalry-infantry expedition of 6,500 men to capture the Cockade City on June 9. The horsemen (numbering 1,500) were sent on a wide swing to enter the city from the south, while two columns of foot soldiers marched in from the northeast and east.

WAUD ILLUSTRATION OF HANCOCK'S CORPS CROSSING THE JAMES RIVER. (LC)

June 9 became a memorable day in Petersburg history. The tocsin began to sound in the morning, summoning the town's militia—mostly men either too old or too young for regular service. "This is no time for any one to stand back," declared one. "The enemy are now right upon us."

June 9 became a memorable day in Petersburg history. The tocsin began to sound in the morning, summoning the town's militia—mostly men either too old or too young for regular service. "This is no time for any one to stand back," declared one. "The enemy are now right upon us." While the few veteran troops manned the northeastern ramparts, the militia took up a line across the Jerusalem Plank Road facing south. The Yankee infantry probed the Dimmock Line and decided not to attack. On the southern front, however, the poorly armed civilians were scattered by the experienced Union troopers, who then pushed a small force toward the center of town. It took a desperate stand near the city reservoir by Graham's Virginia Battery, hastily summoned from across the river, aided by some of the veteran infantry, to turn back the Federals.

Fifteen of the civilians who had rushed to arms were killed, eighteen were wounded, and another forty-five captured. Petersburg had been saved, but, in the words of one survivor, its defense had demanded "an extraordinary sacrifice of life and blood."

North of the James, the period from May to early June had witnessed a hard-fought campaign, costing the Federal forces under Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant and Major General George G. Meade 54,000 casualties, while the loss to General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia was almost 32,000. Blocked east of Richmond after a bloody repulse at Cold Harbor, and unable to bring Lee to bay, Grant decided on a fresh line of advance. On June 5 he began to make plans with Petersburg the new objective, fully recognizing its strategic importance as a transportation hub for Richmond-bound supplies. He deftly disengaged his army from its Cold Harbor trenches on the night of June 12 and, after a series of hard marches, he began to cross the James River on June 14. Most of the infantrymen were ferried over on transports; but one corps and one division, along with all the wagons, artillery, and animals, crossed on an engineering marvel—a 2,100-foot pontoon bridge built from Wyanoke Neck to the base of Windmill Point.

PONTOON BRIDGE OVER THE JAMES RIVER TO WINDMILL POINT. (NA)

EDWIN FORBES ILLUSTRATION OF THE EIGHTEENTH CORPS STORMING DIMMOCK LINE ON JUNE 15. (LC)

Grant's intention was to attack Petersburg using the Eighteenth Corps from the Army of the James and the Second Corps from the Army of the Potomac, but he failed to coordinate the units involved effectively. Smith's men were marching down from Bermuda Hundred via a pontoon bridge at Point of Rocks, five miles from Petersburg. Hancock's troops had crossed the James at Windmill Point and were nearly fifteen miles distant. It was many hours after the Eighteenth Corps had actually engaged Petersburg's defenders before the Second Corps commander was even told of his part in the operation. As a result, the Eighteenth Corps attacked alone.

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