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 9, 1864 — Clash at Petersburg
The Union envelopment of Petersburg began on June 9, 1864, when Major General Benjamin Butler dispatched approximately 4,500 soldiers from the Army of the James against Petersburg from the east. Butler faced only about 2,500 local militiamen commanded by General P. G. T. Beauregard. Many of the defenders were old men and boys.
Rebels Repulse Union Attacks and Federals Withdraw
While Butler’s infantry assaulted the city’s outer entrenchments, known as the Dimmock Line, Butler sent 1,300 cavalrymen commanded by Brigadier General August Kautz, to ride around the Rebels to attack from the rear. Despite his superior numbers, the Union infantry commander, Major General Quincy A. Gillmore, postponed launching an assault until Kautz’s troopers arrived behind the Rebel lines. Meanwhile, Confederate pickets delayed Kautz, and he did not get his men into position until noon. By the time Kautz launched his tardy strike up the Jerusalem Road, Beauregard mustered enough reinforcements to repulse the attack. Hearing no action from Gillmore’s infantry, Kautz did not press the assault and withdrew.
Aftermath of the Battle
The Confederate victory at the First Battle of Petersburg was the first of three battles fought around Petersburg during the final stages of the Civil War in the East.
Casualties were light for both sides. The Union lost forty soldiers (killed, wounded, missing/captured) and the Confederacy suffered eighty losses (killed, wounded, missing/captured).