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NPS History E-Library

Civil War Series

The Siege of Petersburg


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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.


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.


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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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 Forks.

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.


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 Burgess' Mill.

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 regiments—the Twelfth and Sixteenth into Gregg, and the Nineteenth and Forty-eighth into Whitworth.



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.


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 next."


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 cheeks."

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 stormy period."

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 events elsewhere.


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.


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.
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