Between May and mid-June of 1864, the United States army, under General Ulysses S. Grant, and the Confederate army, under General Robert E. Lee, engaged in a series of hard-fought battles in what is now called the Overland Campaign. Cold Harbor was the last battle of this campaign and was a crushing Federal loss. This forced Grant to abandon his plan to capture Richmond by direct assault.
Only twenty-five miles south of Richmond, Petersburg was an important supply center to the Confederate capital. With its five railroad lines and critical roads, Grant and Lee knew that if these were cut, Petersburg could no longer supply Richmond with much-needed supplies and subsistence. Without this, Lee would be forced to leave both cities.
Grant pulls his army out of Cold Harbor and crosses the James River towards Petersburg. For several days Lee does not believe Grant's main target is Petersburg and so keeps most of his army around Richmond. Between June 15-18, 1864, Grant threw his forces against Petersburg, and it may have fallen if it were not for the Federal commanders failing to press their advantage and the defense put up by the few Confederates holding the lines. Lee finally arrives on June 18, and after four days of combat with no success, Grant begins siege operations.
The longest siege in American warfare unfolded methodically. For nearly every attack the Federals made around Petersburg, another was made at Richmond, which strained the Confederate's manpower and resources. Through this strategy, Grant's army gradually and relentlessly worked to encircle Petersburg and cut Lee's supply lines from the south. For the Confederates, it was ten months of hanging on, hoping the people of the North would tire of the war. For soldiers of both armies, it was ten months of rifle bullets, artillery, and mortar shells, relieved only by rear-area tedium, drill and more drill, salt pork and corn meal, burned beans, and bad coffee.
By October 1864, Grant had cut off the Weldon Railroad and continued west to further tighten the noose around Petersburg. The approach of winter brought a general halt to activities. Still, there was everyday skirmishing, sniper fire, and mortar shelling.
In early February 1865, Lee had only 45,000 soldiers to oppose Grant's force of 110,000 men. Grant extended his lines southwesterly to Hatcher's Run, forcing Lee to lengthen his thinly stretched defenses.
By mid-March, it was apparent to Lee that Grant's superior force would either get around the Confederate right flank or pierce the line somewhere along its 37-mile length. The Confederate commanders hoped to break the Federal stranglehold on Petersburg by a surprise attack on Grant. The result was a Confederate loss at Fort Stedman, which would be Lee's last grand offensive of the war.
With victory near, Grant unleashed General Phillip Sheridan at Five Forks on April 1, 1865. His objective was the South Side Railroad, the last rail line into Petersburg. With the V Corps, Sheridan smashed the Confederate forces under General George Pickett and opened access to the tracks beyond. On April 2, Grant ordered an all-out assault, and Lee's right flank crumbled. A Homeric defense at Confederate Fort Gregg saved Lee from possible street fighting in Petersburg. On the night of April 2, Lee evacuated Petersburg. The final surrender at Appomattox Court House was but a week away.
Last updated: July 8, 2023