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NPS History E-Library

Civil War Series

The Siege of Petersburg


The officer commanding the Union force (which also included cavalry) was Major General William F. "Baldy" Smith, who was something of a martinet. Smith and some of his men had been temporarily transferred to the Army of the Potomac in early June and saw service at Cold Harbor. There, on June 3, he had seen firsthand the folly of attacking well-manned earthworks. Because of that experience, his march to Petersburg from Bermuda Hundred and City Point was very slow and very cautious. Ironically, his combined force of approximately 15,500 men faced only 2,200 Confederates defending Petersburg, but they were posted behind the forbidding Dimmock fortifications. This disparity of forces was a critical problem for Beauregard. So well had Grant masked the real objective of his march to the James that Robert E. Lee held off reinforcing Petersburg, fearing for Richmond's safety. Determined to defend the Cockade City, Beauregard made a courageous decision to abandon his Bermuda Hundred lines and hurried these troops south even as Smith's men approached.

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After a cautious approach that occupied most of the morning and a series of careful reconnaissances that lasted throughout the afternoon, Union Eighteenth Corps commander Maj. Gen. William F. "Baldy" Smith assaults the formidable Dimmock Line at 7 P.M. His widely dispersed attack formations overrun the thirty manned Confederate lines and enjoy great success until darkness and Smith's hesitation bring the operation to a close.

Smith's advance was stalled for several hours by stubborn Rebel opposition at an outlying post on Baylor's Farm. Once that was cleared, he spent more time scouting the enemy lines and refining his plans. When he informed his officers that he intended to attack at 4:00 P.M., he learned that his artillery chief, assuming there would be no further action this late in the day, had sent all of his horses to the rear to be watered. It wasn't until 7:00 P.M., thirteen hours after he first made contact at Baylor's Farm, that Smith's assault began. He had correctly divined Beauregard's critical lack of manpower, so, instead of attacking en masse, he chose a more dispersed skirmishing formation that provided few targets to the Rebel gunners.

White troops from Colonel Louis Bell's brigade overran Battery 5 on the Dimmock Line, while others surrounded neighboring Battery 6. "Here we had to fight hard," wrote a New York soldier. Some of the troops in Brigadier General Edward W. Hincks's all-black division assisted in capturing Battery 6, while others from that unit rolled the line up to the south, taking possession of Batteries 7, 8, 9, 10, and 11. Said one of the white officers in that brigade, "I am now prepared to say that I never. .. saw troops fight better, more bravely, and with more determination." On the other flank of this line, Rebel Batteries 3 and 4 also changed hands. In this brilliant assault, "Baldy" Smith's men had captured more than a mile of the Dimmock Line. As Beauregard later admitted, "Petersburg at that hour was clearly at the mercy of the Federal commander."



But Smith was feeling anything but sanguine. "I .. knew that [Confederate] reinforcements had been rushing in to Petersburg," he reported. "I knew nothing of the country in front. My white troops were exhausted.... My colored troops... could barely be kept in order." Smith decided to risk no more and ordered his men to hold their ground. For the soldiers who had seen the Rebels flee and who now stood within sight of Petersburg, it was an unbelievable decision. "I swore all night," one of them recalled. "I kicked and condemned every general there was in the army for the blunder I saw they were making."

Even the arrival at 9:00 P.M. of the lead elements of the Second Corps did not convince Smith to change his mind. No night attack was considered; instead the newly arriving units were sent to replace the black troops, and to prepare for an assault early the next day, June 16.

P.G.T. Beauregard was at his best when the outlook was hopeless. Using the troops that were arriving from Bermuda Hundred, he patched together a makeshift defensive position, anchored on still unoccupied sections of the original Dimmock fortifications, which were now connected by a line his men had feverishly scraped out behind Harrison's Creek. Beauregard was aided in his efforts by the continuing ineptitude of the Union high command. Smith relinquished responsibility to Major General Winfield S. Hancock of the Second Corps, who was suffering from an unhealed wound he had received at Gettysburg. Hancock and Smith failed to combine their forces and the Federals, on June 16, launched a succession of piecemeal attacks, all of which were repulsed.

On the morning of June 17, Beauregard had in his trenches virtually all of the troops immediately available to him. His lines were struck at dawn in a series of well-planned attacks by the Federals, who had been steadily reinforced by more units from the Army of the Potomac. Two brigades from the Ninth Corps took advantage of a deep ravine and a gap in the Confederate lines to capture a section of Beauregard's position near the Shand house. Follow-up actions later in the day were less successful, but by nightfall it was clear that portions of the Petersburg line had been compromised by the Federal advances. June 18 promised to be a day of decision, with the overwhelming weight of the Union legions certain to swamp Beauregard's thinly spread units.


Beauregard once again rose to the moment. In the early morning hours of June 18, he ordered a secret withdrawal to a new defensive line much closer to town. When the confident Yankees sprang to the attack at dawn, they found empty trenches. There was confusion and hesitation while reports traveled up the chain of command and scouts pushed out to locate the new Rebel positions. Through this unexpected maneuver, Beauregard managed to throw the Federal military machine out of sync. Once more, brigades and regiments lunged forward in a haphazard fashion, allowing the outnumbered defenders to concentrate to meet each in turn successfully. Attempts to coordinate a united assault made by General Meade (who had been placed in overall command in the field on June 16) fell apart, and hundreds of Union soldiers paid the price.

In one action this day, nearly 900 men in the First Maine Heavy Artillery charged across an open field near the Hare house, right into the sights of Beauregard's waiting veterans. When the dazed survivors reeled back after ten minutes in the open killing ground, 632 of their comrades lay bleeding or dead on that field. "They were laid out in squads and companies," recollected one horrified onlooker. As the last column of Federals withdrew at the end of this day, the leading elements of the Army of Northern Virginia entered the town. Lee, who reached Petersburg at 11:00 A.M., now recognized that the focus of combat had shifted here.




Marching at the head of Lee's column was the Twelfth Virginia, which included the Petersburg Rifles. Private George Bernard savored the hometown welcome. "The great number of ladies that greeted us along the streets made us feel more as though we were going to participate in some festivity," he remembered.

Four days of desperate fighting had cost the Federal armies more than 10,000 casualties and the Confederates about 4,000. Grant had not taken Petersburg and now faced a military siege. Lee had been forced into a relatively static position where he had no choice but to stand and defend Petersburg and Richmond. Ironically, Beauregard's victory lost Lee any hope of regaining the tactical initiative.

Another result was that the Federals now had the second of five railroads supplying Petersburg. Before the battle lines could harden into formidable earthworks Grant moved to capture one more. On June 21, the Second Corps, under the still ailing Hancock (who would soon be temporarily replaced by Major General David Birney), supported by the Sixth, moved south along the Federal line and spread along the Jerusalem Plank Road. Scouting parties actually pushed west as far as the tracks of the Weldon Railroad, and orders were issued for a full-scale advance the next day.

This supply link was too important to surrender without a fight, so when three divisions from the Second Corps moved out from the Jerusalem Plank Road on June 22, two Confederate divisions were sent out from the Petersburg entrenchments to intercept them. These Yankee units were once considered the elite of the Army of the Potomac, but the fighting of May and June had fallen especially heavily on this corps, which had lost so many regimental officers and sergeants that its morale and efficiency were poor. So when Rebel troops came screaming out of the woods, the Second Corps, wrote Private Bernard in his diary, "were soon put on the run."


The Union troops finally rallied along the Jerusalem Plank Road, but 2,400 were now casualties, with 1,700 prisoners. Emboldened by this apparent weakness, Robert E. Lee planned a counterstroke to unhinge Grant's line from the Appomattox River and shove it away from Petersburg. Lee's army had also suffered appalling losses in the May campaign, however, and he was no more adept at melding units from separate armies (in this case, a division from Beauregard's command with one from his own) than was Grant. The unsuccessful attack that took place on June 24 merely added 300 names to Lee's casualty rolls. Reviewing this action, Lee commented that there seemed "to have been some misunderstanding as to the part each division was expected to have performed."

In an operation that was part of Grant's larger plan, Major General James H. Wilson set out from Petersburg on June 22 with two cavalry divisions (about 5,000 troopers) with orders to wreck the railroad lines west of the city. Wilson accomplished most of his task but was met by a superior force on his return and defeated near Reams Station on June 29, losing most of his wagons and allowing many of the slaves who had escaped to join his column to be retaken.


The war against Petersburg's civilians began on June 16, when a Massachusetts battery set its guns at maximum elevation, "fired the first shells known to have been thrown into the city," and panicked some of the noncombatants. A Virginia artillery man noted on June 20 that it was "very distressing to see the poor women & children leaving." In late July, a correspondent observed that the "houses, and even the woods and fields, for miles around Petersburg are filled with women and children and old men who have fled from their homes." Added a surgeon, "What they live on their Heavenly father only knows."

Yet many others remained behind and learned to cope with the Union siege artillery of every type and caliber that ranged the town. (The most photogenic of them was a 13-inch mortar known as the "Dictator," which hurled its 200-pound shells up to two and a half miles.) A Confederate cavalryman remarked that "it was really refreshing to see ladies pass coolly along the streets as though nothing unusual was transpiring while the 160-pound shells were howling like hawks of perdition through the smoky air."

The spade now came into play as miles of entrenchments were dug. A Connecticut chaplain remembered the deadly routine, "lying in the trenches; eyeing the rebels; digging by moonlight; broiling in the sun; shooting through a slit, shot at if a head is lifted." An Alabama Rebel recalled that the "heat was excessive—there was no protection from the rays of the sun; the trench was so narrow that two men could scarcely pass abreast, and the fire of the enemy was without intermission." On top of this, the men were tormented by swarms of flies, lice, ticks, and chiggers and suffered from the lack of good water near the front. Death sought them out in innumerable ways; from sickness, accident, a sniper's bullet, or the burst of a mortar shell. "This life in the trenches was awful—beyond description," a Confederate officer declared.

The opposing trenches were especially close along the section of the lines near the Taylor farm, where a Confederate redoubt known as Elliott's Salient was just 400 feet from the Federal outposts. By coincidence, these Yankees belonged to a Pennsylvania regiment recruited in the Schuylkill County coal-mining district. The officer in command, Lieutenant Colonel Henry Pleasants, got the idea to tunnel under the enemy position and blast it with gunpowder. His immediate superior was thinking along the same lines, and on June 24 they submitted their idea to the man in charge of the Ninth Corps, Major General Ambrose Burnside.


Burnside had previously commanded the Army of the Potomac, and he was on less than friendly terms with General Meade, who had serious misgivings about the proposed operation. Nevertheless, not having any better ideas, Meade allowed the tunneling to go forward, though his headquarters staff provided no assistance and some obstruction to it. Despite lacking adequate tools and missing some key mining equipment, Pleasants and his men made remarkable progress. A way was found to dispose of the excavated dirt so as not to arouse suspicion, shoring timbers came from a nearby sawmill operated by the regiment, and tools were improvised from what was on hand. Perhaps the most vexing problem solved by Pleasants was the matter of ventilation. Fresh air was needed at the tunnel face so Pleasants created a circulating system by heating and expelling the bad air up a chimney shaft dug for that purpose and using an eight-inch-square wooden duct to bring good air in along the floor. The passageway the miners created had an average height of five feet, with a four-and-a-half-foot-wide floor that tapered to two feet at the top.


By July 17 the tunnel had reached a point directly beneath the salient—a distance of 511 feet. Work was briefly halted while examination was made to determine if there was any danger posed by Confederate countermines.

Digging soon resumed, and a pair of lateral galleries were run parallel to the enemy line. On July 27, the Pennsylvanians began to pack the galleries with four tons of gunpowder.

Events elsewhere now influenced this operation. In mid-June Lee had sent one of his army corps to the Shenandoah Valley hoping it could distract and otherwise disrupt Federal plans. In a move partially designed to prevent Lee from reinforcing this army, Grant, on July 26, ordered the Second Corps of infantry and cavalry to the north side of the James, crossing it near Deep Bottom. Lee responded by shifting significant numbers of troops from Petersburg to that sector. The Federal commanders on the north side (Hancock and Major General Philip H. Sheridan) failed to break through, so by July 29 Grant looked for an effort on Burnside's front.

While Pleasants's men had been digging, Burnside had been planning. He had selected his yet untested all-black division to lead the assault, and these men spent the hot weeks of July undergoing special training. Burnside's design was for the troops to advance in three waves; the first and second were to secure the trenches on either side of the exploded mine, while the third would charge directly through the gap to capture the high ground beyond. Then, in a July 28 meeting with Meade, Burnside learned that the date for exploding his mine had been set for July 30 and that he could not use his black troops as intended. Meade did not believe that the untried units were up to the task, and he worried about the political fallout should these regiments take heavy losses. Deeply unsettled by Meade's decision, Burnside called in the commanders of his three white divisions and had them draw lots. The short straw went to his least capable division commander, Brigadier General James H. Ledlie.


At 4:44 A.M. the four tons gunpowder went off in a cataclysmic eruption. "The earth seemed to tremble," said an Alabama officer, "and the next instant there was a report that seemed to deafen all nature."

At 3:00 A.M., July 30, Lieutenant Colonel Pleasants entered the mine and lit the fuse, which he estimated would burn thirty minutes. Everyone waited in acute anticipation as the time passed with no explosion. Finally, about 4:15 A.M., he sent two men into the tunnel to investigate. They discovered that the fuse had failed at a splice; they relit it and hurried back out to daylight. At 4:44 A.M., the four tons of gunpowder went off in a cataclysmic eruption. "The earth seemed to tremble," said an Alabama officer, "and the next instant there was a report that seemed to deafen all nature." Where the redoubt had been was now a steaming hole about 170 feet long, 60 feet wide, and 30 feet deep.

The white troops, who had not been prepared to lead the assault, were stunned and slow to recover. By the time the first waves were entering the smoking crater, the equally shaken Confederate defenders were beginning to react. Lacking a coherent plan, Ledlie's division failed to secure its flanks and was unable to mount a drive to the crest. A second white division went in on the heels of the first but was also unable to generate enough momentum to break through. Rebel fire from the flanks grew in intensity, even as the first of several counterattacks struck the head of the Federal column. By the time the black troops were committed it was too late. The white units had lost all cohesion; the Confederates had sealed the penetration and were actively reducing the pocket. The Crater became the scene of bitter hand-to-hand fighting, and many of the black troops met a horrible fate. "But little quarter was shown them," Private Bernard recalled. "My heart sickened at deeds I saw done."


(click on image for a PDF version)
In one of the most remarkable military engineering feats of the Civil War, Union troops (mostly Pennsylvania coal miners) dig a 500-foot tunnel and explode four tons of gunpowder under the Confederate line. The ensuing assault by Union Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside's Ninth Corps is a bloody fiasco. Black troops trained for the operation are replaced at the last minute by untested white troops who do not know the plan. Their failure to break the line and secure the high ground beyond, coupled with fierce Confederate counterattacks, spells the doom of this ambitious attempt to capture Petersburg.

Orders to withdraw were issued by midday, but for many it was too late. Nearly 4,000 Federals were lost in the operation, while the Confederates paid with 1,600 of their own to regain the position. In the recriminations that followed, Burnside and Ledlie (who was likely drunk throughout the action) were relieved of their commands, and three other officers were censured. Of this operation U. S. Grant later reflected, "It was the saddest affair I have witnessed in the war."


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