Prelude to the Battle
Grant in Charge
On March 10, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Ulysses S. Grant as General-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States. Grant brought with him, from his successes in the Western Theater of the war, a reputation for the doggedness that Lincoln was seeking in his generals. Unlike other Union generals, Grant was tenacious.
Grant Focuses on Lee
Upon his arrival in Washington, Grant drafted a plan to get the various Union armies in the field to act in concert. He also devised his Overland Campaign to invade east-central Virginia. Unlike previous campaigns into that area, Grant’s plan focused upon defeating General Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia rather than capturing or occupying geographic locations. Grant instructed General George Meade, who commanded the Army of the Potomac, “Wherever Lee goes, there you will go also.” Grant realized that, with the superior resources he had at his disposal, Lee would lose a war of attrition, as long as Northern troops persistently engaged the Confederates.
On May 4, 1864, Grant launched his Overland Campaign when the Army of the Potomac crossed the Rappahannock and Rapidan Rivers, occupying an area locally known as the Wilderness. For the next eight weeks, the two sides engaged in a series of horrific battles that produced unprecedented numbers of casualties. Following a bloody frontal assault at Cold Harbor that cost the Federals roughly 13,000 casualties, Grant abandoned his hope to defeat Lee’s army head-on. Instead, Grant aimed to isolate the Army of Northern Virginia at Richmond and slowly starve it into submission by cutting off its supply lines. The key to the plan was capturing Petersburg, Virginia.
Petersburg, Virginia, sits on the south bank of the Appomattox River, approximately twenty miles south of Richmond. During the Civil War, the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad was an important conduit for supplies to the Confederate capital. Besides the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad, two other rail lines converged at Petersburg. The Weldon Railroad (also called the Petersburg and Weldon Railroad) connected Petersburg to the Confederacy’s last linkage to overseas markets at Wilmington, North Carolina. Farther to the west, the South Side Railroad joined Petersburg to Lynchburg, Virginia, and points westward. If Grant could cut the rail lines, it would force Lee to abandon Richmond.
June 21 — Clash at Jerusalem Plank Road
A Gap in Federal Lines
On June 21, Meade ordered the 2nd and 6th Corps west across the Jerusalem Plank Road, which ran north and south between the Union lines and the Weldon Railroad. Their aim was to cross the road, swing north and cut the railroad, which connected Petersburg with the coastline of North Carolina. During the advance, the 2nd Corps encountered stiff resistance and began entrenching. As a result, a gap opened between the two corps.
Rebels Exploit the Gap
On June 22, Brigadier General William Mahone’s Confederate troops exploited the hole in the Union line. Mahone’s men moved through the divide undetected and attacked elements of the 2nd Corps from the rear. Panicked at first, the Yankees rallied around their entrenchments and stabilized their position by nightfall.
On the next day, the Confederates withdrew, and the 2nd Corps regained the ground that it had lost. At about 10 a.m., Meade ordered the 6th Corps to make a second assault on the Weldon Railroad. When a brigade of Federals began destroying the tracks, a larger Confederate force attacked.
Meade Calls Off the Offensive
When Major General Horatio Wright repeatedly ignored Meade’s orders to advance and to engage the enemy, Meade called off the offensive at approximately 7:30 p.m.
Aftermath of the Battle
The results of the Battle of Jerusalem Plank Road were inconclusive. Grant and Meade failed to cut the Weldon Railroad, but they forced Lee to extend his defensive lines. The Federals suffered nearly 3,000 casualties, compared with only 600 for the Rebels.