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NPS History E-Library

Civil War Series

The Siege of Petersburg


It was well before dawn, October 27, when the Union forces went into motion. The Ninth Corps developed the enemy line but was unable to find a weak point. This left the prime responsibility on the shoulders of Hancock and the Second Corps, which had a hard march along a single road that was barely passable in places. Despite stubborn delaying actions by Rebel outposts at several stream crossings, Hancock's men reached the Boydton Plank Road shortly after 10:30 A.M. They cut it near its intersection with the White Oak Road, a short distance below Burgess' Mill and its associated mill pond.

Up to this point Hancock's only opposition had come from Wade Hampton's cavalry, but confronting him at Burgess' Mill was a line of infantry and artillery posted across Hatcher's Run and covering the Boydton Plank Road bridge. Every passing second meant more defenders were on their way from Petersburg. According to the original plan, Warren was supposed to support Hancock, but his route led him into a nearly impenetrable underbrush. In a very short time his units became lost, confused, and unavailable to Hancock.

At about 1:30 P.M., while Hancock was preparing for the next phase of his advance, Grant, Meade, and their staffs arrived. Grant undertook a personal reconnaissance of the enemy's line behind Hatcher's Run and concluded that a break through would not be possible. Still hoping to punish the Rebels, Grant issued instructions for Hancock to hold his position until noon the next day "in hope of inviting an attack." Grant and Meade left Hancock about 4:00 P.M.

Thirty minutes later the Confederates did attack from three directions. Some of Hampton's cavalry pushed east along the White Oak Road while another portion of it came up the Boydton Plank Road from the south, pressing Hancock's rear guard. A force of Confederate infantry led by General Mahone swept down across Hatcher's Run and flanked one Union brigade. This time Hancock's men stood their ground and beat off each attack, though they paid a heavy price for doing so. When night fell, Hancock decided to withdraw along the miserable road his men had used coming out, but a lack of ambulances meant that many of the most seriously injured would be left behind. The morning of October 28 found the Confederates in possession of a battlefield littered with military debris and Yankee wounded. Private Bernard, whose regiment fought here, concluded that the "enemy must have suffered heavily, as they withdrew their troops from the Plank Road."

(click on image for a PDF version)
In an attempt to encircle Petersburg from the south, Grant orders three corps to cut the Boydton Plank Road and the South Side Railroad by pressing and outflanking Lee's extreme right. Efforts by the IX and V Corps fail. Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock's II Corps reaches the plank road but is caught in converging attacks by Confederate cavalry and infantry (shown here). Following an afternoon of fierce fighting, Hancock retreated after dark, leaving many of his wounded in Confederate hands.

This time there was no extension of the Union trenches to mitigate the loss of nearly 1,800 men. The Confederates could claim a victory, though their cost was also high, about 1,300 men. Among them were two of Wade Hampton's sons, one killed, the other seriously wounded. Never again would this grieving father allow any of his children to serve with him. This combat operation was also the last for Winfield S. Hancock in the Army of the Potomac. The much respected officer would step down on Thanksgiving Day to accept a reassignment.

Hardly had the soldiers returned to their camps when they all—Yank and Reb—became caught up in one of the most important events of the war, the 1864 presidential election. George B. McClellan, who once commanded the Army of the Potomac, headed the peace-oriented Democratic ticket that hoped to oust the Lincoln administration. For Southerners the outcome was seen as a barometer of their hopes for independence. "A great revolution of feeble sentiment is in rapid development in the North," George Bernard wrote in his diary, "looking to a suspension of hostilities. God grant the movement may result in peace." In a letter written on November 7, a soldier in a Pennsylvania regiment summarized the attitudes expressed by Confederate deserters. They say if Abe is re-elected they will soon give up, but if McClellan is elected they have the hopes of getting a convention of the states then they will get it fixed up some way that it will be honorable to them.

For the first time, troops in the field would be voting and almost everyone had an opinion. "McClellan was our first commander, and, as such, he was worshipped by his soldiers," declared a Maine private. Countered a New Yorker, "As for McClellan I don't think I shall let my love for the soldier do injury to my principles as a man." The troopers in one cavalry regiment told of an incident at this time: "Two of our pickets were captured . . . and on being asked who they would vote for, replying that they were McClellan men, they were promptly released by the rebel scoundrels, and allowed to poll their votes at liberty."


At Grant's headquarters, staff officers and aides fidgeted uncomfortably on election night as Grant read the returns aloud as fast as they were telegraphed to him. Each time he solemnly announced that McClellan was leading. Only after midnight did he confess to his little joke; he had been reversing the count. The soldier vote was 4 to 1 for "Old Abe" and contributed to his popular plurality of 2,203,831 to McClellan's 1,797,019. Summing up the results to a friend, Grant said, "It will be worth more than a victory in the field both in its effect on the Rebels and in its influence abroad."


As the weather turned colder and the prospects of further campaigning began to diminish for the year, life on the Petersburg front took on a different rhythm. "Dull, duller, dullest; nothing can exceed the monotony of camp-life," complained a New York soldier. "We read, we look after the duties of our office; we walk, we ride, we gaze at the sky, the stars, the sun, the moon; yet we are compelled to return to the same surroundings, camps, arms, intrenchments, and lines of defense." As the season changed from fall to winter, sniping along the front seemed to die down. A Rhode Island man observed that it was not unusual for the pickets on both sides to amuse themselves "conversing across the lines, singing songs of the war, . . . and doing a little trading when unobserved by their superior officers."


At the beginning of the Civil War, Virginia had a slave population of about 491,000 and a free black population of almost 58,000. About half of Petersburg's 18,266 residents were black, of which 3,164 were free. Petersburg was considered to have the largest number of free blacks of any Southern city at that time. Many of the freedmen prospered here as barbers, blacksmiths, boatmen, draymen, livery stable keepers, and caterers. There were also those who owned considerable property, particularly in the communities of Blandford and Pocahontas.

Serving the Confederacy

When Petersburg became a major supply center for the newly formed Confederacy and its nearby capital in Richmond, both freedmen and slaves were employed in various war functions. More than 850 slaves and free blacks worked for the numerous railroad companies that operated in and out of the city. In the latter part of 1862, when a ten-mile-long defense line was begun around Petersburg, Captain Charles H. Dimmock used both freedmen and slave labor to construct the trenches and batteries. In the many hospitals that sprang up in the city, blacks served as nurses and servants.

Once the siege began in June 1864, African-Americans continued working for the Confederacy. In September 1864, General Lee asked for an additional 2,000 blacks to be added to his labor force. In March 1865, with the serious loss of white manpower in the army, the Southern army called for 40,000 slaves to become an armed force in the Confederacy. A notice in the April 1, 1865, Petersburg Daily Express called for black recruits with the statement, "To the slaves is offered freedom and undisturbed residence at their old homes in the Confederacy after the war. Not the freedom of sufferance, but honorable and selfwon by the gallantry and devotion which grateful countrymen will never cease to remember and reward." It is not known how many responded to this challenge. The war ended before any major contribution could be made.


Serving the Union: U.S. Colored Troops in the Siege of Petersburg

During the war, a total of 186,097 blacks served in the Union army, with the first regiments activated after September 1862. In front of Petersburg, two black divisions numbering about 7,800 men (nineteen regiments) saw action.

In the initial assault upon the city on June 15, 1864, a division of General Edward Hincks attacked the Confederate Dimmock Line. Comprising 3,500 men from the Eighteenth Corps of the Army of the James, which was commanded by General Benjamin F. Butler, Hincks's troops helped capture and secure a section of the Southern defenses from Batteries 7 through 11. In the initial stage of this action, located at Baylor's Farm on the City Point Road, the black troops also captured a gun from Captain Edward Graham's Petersburg Artillery. On the fifteenth, Hincks's Division lost 378 killed and wounded. They acted in a supporting role on the June 18 assault, suffering a loss of 36 men.

The other division of United States Colored Troops to serve at Petersburg was the Fourth Division, Ninth Corps, under General Ambrose E. Burnside and the Army of the Potomac. Four thousand, three hundred strong, these men were involved in one of the most well-known events of the Siege, the Battle of the Crater, fought on July 30, 1864.

For three weeks as a Pennsylvania Regiment dug a tunnel under a Confederate fort to blow it up, the black troops were being trained to lead the assault once the battle commenced. The black troops were chosen because they were numerically superior, and having been mainly wagon guards up to this point, they had seen little action. With the white troops showing exhaustion after the severe fighting of the campaign from the Wilderness to Petersburg, it was believed the blacks would have a better chance at being successful.

Unfortunately for the black soldiers, the commander of the Army of the Potomac, General George G. Meade, would change Burnside's plan twenty-four hours before the battle. Instead of leading the assault, their division, led by General Edward Ferrero, would now be the last to go in.

Once the explosion took place on the morning of July 30, the three white divisions tried to reach their objective, Cemetery Hill. Stiff Confederate resistance along with a lack of leadership on the Union side, bogged down the Union assault in the area of the Crater. When Ferrero's troops attempted their attack, they ran into a Confederate counterattack led by General William Mahone. As the blacks were forced back into the Crater with Burnside's other troops, stiff hand-to-hand combat now began and the face of battle changed. Some claimed the black troops went into the battle yelling "Remember Fort Pillow," the site of an earlier massacre of black prisoners in Tennessee, while others said "no quarter" was shouted by the blacks. Many of the Confederates were enraged that black troops were being deployed against them, and the fighting became vicious. As a result, many blacks who surrendered were not taken prisoner; the division suffered 209 killed, 697 wounded, and 421 missing or captured, a total of 1,327 or 38 percent of the Ninth Corps loss.

Following the battle, Sergeant Decatur Dorsey of the 39th U.S.C.T. received the Medal of Honor for "rushing forward in advance of his regiment and placing his colors on the Confederate trenches." Three white officers who commanded black troops at the Crater also received medals.

The division captured approximately 300 prisoners and one battle flag during the engagement. In December 1864, all the United States Colored Troops around Petersburg were incorporated into three divisions and became the Twenty-Fifth Corps of the Army of the James. Commanded by General Godfrey Weitzel, it was the largest black force assembled during the war and varied in numbers from 9,000 to 16,000 men.

When Petersburg fell to the Union army on April 3, 1865, some of the Twenty-Fifth Corps marched through the city on their way to Appomattox. A newspaper reporter wrote "A negro regiment passing seems to take special pride and pleasure in maintaining the dignity becoming soldiers, and are neither boisterous nor noisy." These men continued to march with Grant's army and were present at Lee's surrender on April 9, 1865.


African-Americans at City Point

With General Grant's logistical supply base located at City Point (now Hopewell) on the James River, African-Americans served in varying capacities for the Union army. The soldiers acted as sentries, guarding the numerous ships that were docked at the wharves. Some employees of the U.S. Military Railroad Construction Corps were Northern blacks and worked as laborers in building the needed facilities. An observer wrote "legions of negroes were discharging the ships, wheeling dirt, sawing the timber, and driving piles." Many also worked at the Depot Field Hospital, with the women serving as laundresses and in the diet kitchen, the men as cooks. About 160 blacks assisted there.

—Chris Calkins

"The winter of 1864-65 was one of unusual severity, making the picket duty in front of the intrenchments very severe," a Federal officer recollected. A soldier in a North Carolina regiment later summed up his unit's term at Petersburg this way: "It lived in the ground, walked in wet ditches, ate its cold rations in ditches, slept in dirt-covered pits."


Helping alleviate conditions on the Union side was the U.S. Military Railroad that ran from City Point behind the trench lines just past Globe Tavern. Knowing that this railroad would not have to last a long time, Federal engineers simply laid the tracks on the ground with minimal grading. Watching one supply train undulate its way across the landscape, a staff officer likened it to a "fly crawling on a corrugated washboard."



The wheels of military justice took no respite, however, and there was no slacking in the punishment of those found guilty of desertion, rape, or murder. A veteran Confederate officer remembered during this winter that the "scarcity of supplies in the army and still more the suffering of the men's families at home produced a great deal of desertion. . . . Executions were frequent." "It has a gruesome sound," avowed a Union soldier, "but the chief diversion of the latter part of 1864 was the attending of hangings in the vicinity." An area near Fort Stevenson even became known as "Hangman's Ground" because, recalled one onlooker, "there deserters were hanged or shot, usually on Fridays." Recalled another Federal, "We lose all human feelings toward such dastards and traitors."

While the enlisted men on both sides were prepared to call it quits for the year, Grant was not. The failure of his August operation against the Weldon Railroad meant that Lee continued to use it. The portion of the line coming up from North Carolina was intact as far as Stony Creek Depot, about 16 miles below Petersburg. This made it possible for Lee to ship supplies to that point by rail, then transfer them to wagons for transport via the Boydton Plank Road into Petersburg. It was a slow, cumbersome route, but it worked, and Grant was determined to disrupt it. On December 5 he instructed Meade to organize a large-scale expedition to rip up the tracks between the depot and Weldon, North Carolina.

The force Meade put together and placed under the command of General Warren consisted of three divisions from the Fifth Corps, one from the Second, and the Army of the Potomac's sole cavalry division. In all about 22,000 infantry with 4,200 cavalry would take part.

With the mounted units leading, the long column began its march southeast early on the morning of December 7. Warren chose not to follow the rail line but moved along the Jerusalem Plank Road, which diverged slightly to the east. Once his men reached Hawkinsville, Warren turned south, crossed the Nottoway River, and passed through Sussex Court House. From there he could strike west to the railroad and spread along it to the north and south to carry out his mission objective.

Warren's cavalry reached the tracks around 9:00 A.M. on December 8. The first units on the scene veered north, quickly reaching and destroying the Nottoway River Bridge. By noon Federal infantry had come up to the railroad line and the pace of destruction accelerated. A Pennsylvania soldier who was there recalled, "As far as the eye could reach were seen innumerable glowing fires, and thousands of busy blue-coats tearing up the rails and piling the ties. It was at once a wild, animated scene."

Back in Petersburg, Robert E. Lee could not let this threat to his supply line go unchallenged. Wade Hampton, whose cavalry had been skirmishing with Warren's column since it set out, was busy organizing his troopers and local defense forces to protect Weldon. To assist Hampton, Lee ordered A. P. Hill to take a hastily organized force down to confront the Yankees.

Hampton's command took up a blocking position along the south bank of the Meherrin River at Hicksford (modern Emporia), Virginia. The Yankee cavalry that was still screening Warren's advance tested Hampton's line on December 9. The vigorous response that met these probes, and the threat of an impending winter storm, convinced Warren not to attack. That night, a deluge of sleet and rain spread over the men of both sides, leaving the landscape coated with a glaze of ice and making road movement difficult. Warren withdrew his long column the way it had come in, while squadrons of Hampton's men pressed the rear guard hoping to delay the Yankees long enough for Hill's men to arrive.


The Federal withdrawal now became ugly. At some places, the Union soldiers discovered caches of a local brew of apple jack, and drunken men threatened military discipline. Elsewhere, stragglers from the Union column were waylaid and brutally murdered. Angry Yankee boys turned on the local populace, setting fire to houses, barns, and even slave quarters. "Is this what you call subjugating the South?" one anguished woman screamed at her tormentors.


By December 11 Warren's men had safely retired. Despite forcing the pace of his march in the teeth of the bone-chilling storm, A. P. Hill was unable to close the distance in time to intercept. In his report, General Warren boasted "the complete destruction of sixteen miles of the railroad" at a cost of about 314 casualties. Yet, while the six-day operation severely shook Lee's fragile supply line, it did not break it.

"Peace on earth," a North Carolina soldier wrote in his diary on Christmas Day, adding the pointed question, "good will to men?" Another diarist, this one a Virginian, wrote, "Christmas once again; but oh! how changed from that of former times, when our beloved land was not draped in mourning." A Tarheel officer who was able to ride into Petersburg to attend Christmas services at St. Paul's Church remembered the scene: "Five festoons of cedar hung from the five ornaments in the center of the church to the bannisters of the gallery on each side. . . . The church was crowded and many were outside and could not get seats at all."

Out along the trench lines, both sides enjoyed an impromptu and unauthorized truce. According to a Georgian, "The men had suspended their work without being so ordered and in a few minutes they were passing in full sight of each other, shouting the compliments of the season, giving invitations to cross over and take a drink, to come to dinner, to come back into the Union, . . . and other amenities, which were a singular contrast to the asperities of war."

Many of the Union troops enjoyed what a New Hampshire soldier noted in his diary as a "fine Christmas dinner for all." On the Confederate side there was a concerted effort to see that the men at the front got something special this day. "The newspapers urged the movement forward, committees were appointed to collect and forward the good things to the soldiers," wrote a Virginian in gray. The effort paid off for some. "We had . . . a big Christmas dinner and . . . our Christmas passed off very pleasantly," reported a North Carolina infantryman. In another company the men eagerly waited for the Christmas bounty to arrive. When it did finally show up (two weeks late) it consisted of "one drumstick of a turkey, one rib of mutton, one slice of roast beef, two biscuits, and a slice of lightbread." It was the thought that counted for most, and, recalled a young Rebel, "we thanked our benefactors and took courage."



Yet even amid these holiday reflections, signs of the end were apparent. A New York boy, writing home December 25, observed, "We have cheering news every day—it is evident the confederacy is rapidly falling to pieces."

Surprisingly, even at this point in the war, with his reelection secure and the end of the fighting in sight, Abraham Lincoln was still prepared to negotiate an end to the conflict. While it would have been political suicide for him actively to promote such talks, it was not impossible for him to use intermediaries to accomplish the same goal. So when a veteran Washington politician named Francis P. Blair, Sr., came to him with a fantastic scheme to unite North and South in a common war against Mexico, Lincoln gave him a pass to travel to Richmond to present his plan to Jefferson Davis in the hope it would lead to broader talks.

Through Blair the groundwork was laid for such a discussion, though it was Davis who sought to use the occasion to political advantage. If he could force Lincoln to declare a posture of unconditional surrender toward the Confederacy, it might stiffen sagging Southern morale enough to extend the fighting through the summer when, perhaps, the Northern electorate would finally grow weary of the bloodshed. To this end Davis appointed three men who favored a negotiated settlement to a peace commission, but he fatally limited their authority by refusing to let them even discuss the issue of Confederate independence. Lincoln arrived at the conference—which took place on February 3 on board the steamer River Queen anchored off Fortress Monroe, Virginia—equally determined to reunite the fractured United States. He was prepared to offer Southern slaveholders financial recompense for the "property" they would lose because of the abolition of slavery, but the discussions never got that far.



The three commissioners returned to Richmond, where two of them appeared at a mass meeting to denounce Lincoln's demand for "unconditional surrender." A Union soldier before Petersburg, after reading accounts in Northern and Southern newspapers, reflected, "Poor deluded wretches these Confederates, they will never unite with us again until every hope of success is lost!"

Grant, who had personally intervened to facilitate the talks, moved with equal purpose to show that there was no lack of will to win. On February 4 he ordered an expedition to the Boydton Plank Road with instructions to interdict the enemy's wagons that were still bringing supplies up from Stony Creek Depot. General Meade futilely protested the operation, certain that there would be no dramatic victory to satisfy the press, which would then lambast him for ordering such a purposeless undertaking.

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