Events Leading Up to the Petersburg Campaign
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 sought in a general. Unlike previous Union generals, Grant was tenacious. Upon his arrival in Washington, DC, Grant drafted a plan to have 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 Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia rather than capturing or occupying geographic locations. Grant instructed Major General George G. 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 the Northerners 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, Virginia, and then slowly to starve it into submission by cutting off its supply lines. The key to the plan was capturing Petersburg, Virginia.
Petersburg, Virginia, is located 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.
For the next nine months, Grant launched a series of offensives that included nineteen battles designed to create a stranglehold on Petersburg and to force Lee to abandon Richmond.
June 9, 1864 — First Battle of Petersburg
The Union envelopment of Petersburg began on June 9, 1864, when Major General Benjamin Butler dispatched nearly 4,500 soldiers from the Army of the James against Petersburg from the east. At that time, only 2,500 local militiamen (most of whom were old men and young boys) commanded by General P. G. T. Beauregard defended Petersburg.
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 and to attack from the rear. Despite his superior numbers, the Union infantry commander, Major General Quincy A. Gillmore, put off launching an assault until Kautz flanked the rebel lines.
When Confederate pickets delayed Kautz, he did not get into position until noon. By the time that Kautz launched his tardy assault up the Jerusalem Road, Beauregard mustered enough reinforcements to repulse the attack. Hearing no action from Gillmore’s infantry, Kautz decided not to press the matter and withdrew.
June 15–18, 1864 — Second Battle of Petersburg
Although Butler’s June 9 assault was a failure, it exposed the vulnerability of the Petersburg defenses. On June 12, 1864, Grant ordered his forces to leave Cold Harbor and to head southward. The Federals began crossing the James River over a 2,200-foot long pontoon bridge at Windmill Point on June 14, headed for Petersburg. Unsure of Grant’s intentions, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia remained at Richmond, as the Army of the Potomac and the Army of the James slipped past the Confederate right flank.
Grant ordered Butler’s Army of the James to cross the Appomattox River and to launch a second assault against Petersburg on June 15. The leading elements of the Union attack comprised the 23rd Corps, commanded by Brigadier General William F. “Baldy” Smith, and Kautz’s cavalry division. Beauregard’s defenders (the Department of North Carolina and Southern Virginia) now totaled about 5,400, but Butler’s 16,000 soldiers greatly outnumbered them.
Once again, delays and indecision hampered Butler’s offensive. Smith’s men did not engage the enemy until late in the afternoon. Reminiscent of the June 9 encounter, Kautz, hearing no evidence of Smith’s advance, withdrew after being bombarded by Rebel artillery. Despite their tardy beginning, Smith’s men forced the Confederates to abandon their first line of entrenchments by evening, but Butler called off the offensive until the next morning, while the 2nd Corps relieved the 23rd Corps.
Overnight, both sides reinforced, and Grant arrived on the scene. Beauregard’s 19,000 defenders now faced nearly 50,000 Federal troops. Still, the Yankees did not renew their offensive until 5:30 p.m. Two assaults forced the Confederates to give more ground, but the Southerners regained much of the territory during a fierce counterattack. As nightfall approached, both sides dug in.
By June 18, Lee finally realized that Grant’s target was Petersburg rather than Richmond. Consequently, he rushed troops from the Army of Northern Virginia south from Richmond to face a Federal force that now numbered almost 62,000 soldiers. Reinforcements swelled the number of Confederate defenders to nearly 42,000 men. From their well-fortified lines, the Rebels withstood several assaults across their front that day, inflicting heavy losses on the Yankees. By the end of three days of fighting, the Union lost over 11,000 soldiers, including 1,688 killed. The smaller Confederate force suffered just 4,000 casualties, including 200 killed. Recognizing that he had lost the opportunity to seize the city while it was lightly defended, Grant called off the frontal assault and focused on cutting off the city’s supply lines.
Following the Confederate victory at the Second Battle of Petersburg, Grant redeployed his forces. He sent Butler’s Army of the James back to the trenches outside of Richmond, forcing Lee to defend the capital city. Grant stationed Meade’s Army of the Potomac east of Petersburg. Three days after the Union defeat, Grant launched the first in a series of offensives against the railroads and highways that supplied both cities, forcing Lee to further extend his defensive lines.
June 21–23, 1864 — Battle of Jerusalem Plank Road
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 plan was to cross the road, swing north, and cut the railroad, which connected Petersburg with the east coast of North Carolina. During their advance, the 2nd Corps encountered stiff resistance and began entrenching. A gap opened between the two Union corps.
On June 22, Confederate Brigadier General William Mahone and his troops exploited the cleft 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.
The next day, the Confederates withdrew, and the 2nd Corps regained the ground it had lost. At 10 a.m., Meade dispatched the 6th Corps to make a second attempt on the Weldon Railroad. When a brigade of Federals began destroying the tracks, a larger Confederate force attacked and drove them off. When Major General Horatio Wright repeatedly ignored Meade’s orders to advance and to engage the enemy, Meade called off the offensive around 7:30 p.m.
The results of the Battle of Jerusalem Plank Road were inconclusive. Grant and Meade failed in their attempt 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.
June 25, 1864 — Battle of Staunton River Bridge
On June 22, one day after the beginning of the Battle of Jerusalem Road, Grant and Meade dispatched the cavalry divisions of Brigadier General James Wilson and August Kautz on a raid against Confederate railroads south of Petersburg. With a combined force of over 5,000 troopers and sixteen pieces of artillery under Wilson’s overall command, the Yankees destroyed two trains, several stations, and nearly sixty miles of track along the South Side Railroad, while also skirmishing with the Confederate cavalry of Major General W.H.F. “Rooney” Lee.
Among Wilson’s targets was the Staunton River Bridge, a long wooden structure that spanned the Staunton River near Roanoke Station (present-day Randolph, Virginia), approximately 100 miles west of Petersburg. The Richmond and Danville Railroad crossed the river over the bridge, which a battalion of just 296 well-entrenched Confederate reserves commanded by Captain Benjamin Farinholt defended. On June 23, Robert E. Lee informed Farinholt that Kautz intended to destroy the bridge. Lee urged Farinholt to “make every possible preparation immediately.”
After Farinholt issued a written request for aid from the local citizenry, 642 reinforcements arrived, only 150 of whom were members of the Confederate army. Many of them were old men and boys. When the 5,000 Federal cavalrymen approached the bridge on June 25, Farinholt had mustered a force of 938 men and sixteen pieces of artillery to defend the structure. However, he had cleverly run empty trains back and forth from nearby Clover Depot, fooling the Union commanders into believing that the Rebel force was larger than it really was. Farinholt had also used the previous two days to construct well-placed fortifications around the bridge.
When the Yankees approached the bridge on the afternoon of June 25, Farinholt began an artillery barrage. Kautz responded with his own artillery while his troopers dismounted and began advancing along both sides of the tracks. The Bluecoats halted upon reaching a drainage ditch approximately 150 yards from the bridge. From there, during the afternoon and evening, they mounted four frontal assaults, all of which the outnumbered but well-fortified Rebel defenders repulsed. During the fourth charge, elements of Rooney Lee’s cavalry began arriving at the Union rear. Wilson then determined that the Confederate position was “impregnable” and withdrew during the night and to return to Petersburg, leaving the bridge intact.
The Battle of Staunton River Bridge was a Confederate victory because Kautz failed in his attempt to destroy the bridge. The Confederacy suffered thirty-four casualties (ten killed and twenty-four wounded) at the Battle of Staunton River Bridge. The Union lost 116 soldiers (forty-two killed, forty-four wounded, and thirty missing/captured) during the engagement.
June 28, 1864 — Battle of Sappony Church
Rooney Lee’s Cavalry continued to pursue Wilson and Kautz as they retreated toward Petersburg. By June 28, the Federal raiders had crossed the Nottoway River, when Major General Wade Hampton’s cavalry division intercepted the Northerners as the Unionists headed north to Stony Creek Depot on the Weldon Railroad. While the two sides were engaged, Lee’s troopers arrived during the afternoon and joined forces with Hampton. Now outnumbered, Wilson and Kautz withdrew after nightfall, attempting to reach Ream’s Railway Station to the north. As they fled, the Yankees left behind many slaves who were accompanying them in search of freedom.
The Rebel cavalry captured approximately 800 Union raiders during the Confederate victory at the Battle of Sappony Church. Other casualty totals for either side remain unknown.
June 29, 1864 — First Battle of Ream’s Station
Kautz approached Ream’s Station, approximately eight miles south of Petersburg on the Weldon Railroad, early on the morning of June 29, only to discover that William Mahone’s Confederate infantry division blocked his path. Wilson’s division joined Kautz later that morning. By the time that the Federals reunited, two Rebel cavalry brigades commanded by General Fitzhugh Lee (not to be confused with Rooney Lee) joined Mahone and had the Bluecoats nearly surrounded.
Around midday, Mahone’s infantry attacked from the front, while Lee’s cavalry threatened the Union left flank. During the ensuing chaos, the Yankees burned their supply wagons and abandoned their artillery. The Federal commands dissolved and nearly 1,000 of Kautz’s troopers joined Wilson’s men as they retreated south along the Weldon Railroad, before turning east on June 30, and reaching the safety of Meade’s Petersburg lines on July 1. Meanwhile, approximately 500 of Wilson’s men joined Kautz’s command as they fled through an opening on the Confederate right and escaped to Meade’s lines by June 30, taking a more direct line than Wilson.
The First Battle of Ream’s Station marked the conclusion of the Wilson-Kautz Raid. By the time that the raiders returned to Union lines on July 1, they had inflicted considerable damage to Confederate infrastructure in the area. However, the spoilage came at a considerable cost. Wilson and Kautz lost nearly 1,400 troopers, all of their artillery, and many horses during the raid.
July 27–29, 1864 — First Battle of Deep Bottom
After six weeks of engagements in the Richmond-Petersburg area, Grant ordered the 2nd Corps of the Army of the Potomac, along with two divisions of cavalry from Major General Philip Sheridan, under the overall command of Major General Winfield Scott Hancock, to cross to the north side of James River on the night of July 26-27, 1864. The site of their crossing was a horseshoe-shaped bend in the river, southeast of Richmond and northeast of Petersburg, known locally as Deep Bottom. Their objective was to draw Confederate troops away from Petersburg as Grant prepared for an assault on the city scheduled for July 30.
Grant ordered Hancock to occupy Confederate defenders at Chaffin’s Bluff, while Sheridan’s cavalry attacked Richmond. If Sheridan could not reach the Confederate capital, he was to ride around the city to the north and west and cut the Virginia Central Railroad, which brought supplies into Richmond from the fertile Shenandoah Valley.
The Bluecoats began their crossing at 3 a.m. on July 27. The 2nd Corps quickly broke through the initial line of Confederate rifle pits and advanced to the east bank of Bailey’s Creek. Seeing that the Rebels on the opposite bank were well-fortified, Hancock settled in and did not push forward. Meanwhile, Sheridan’s cavalry rode to the high ground on the Union right. After some initial Federal gains, Rebel infantry counterattacked and drove the Yankees back. Still, Lee reacted to the Federal diversion just as Grant had hoped. He dispatched 16,500 soldiers to reinforce Lieutenant General Richard Ewell and his 2nd Corps, which was guarding Richmond.
On the next day, Sheridan attempted to turn the Confederate left, but a Rebel attack pinned him down. After a counterattack drove the Greycoats back to their fortifications, Sheridan abandoned plans to cut the railroad. Satisfied that the mission had accomplished its primary goal, Grant ordered a withdrawal. The last of the invasion force re-crossed the James River during the night of July 29.
Union casualties at the First Battle of Deep Bottom were 488 (sixty-two killed, 340 wounded, eighty-six missing/captured). The Confederacy suffered 679 losses (eighty killed, 391 wounded, 208 missing/captured). Tactically, the engagement was a Confederate victory, because the Rebel defenders forced Hancock and Sheridan to withdraw without threatening Richmond. Strategically, however, Grant achieved his aim of forcing Lee to send large numbers of reinforcements to the Confederate capital.
July 30, 1864 — Battle of the Crater
The Federal entrenchments to the east of Petersburg roughly paralleled the Confederate defenses and were often very close. At a bulge in the Rebel fortifications, known as Elliott’s Salient, the lines were less than 400 feet apart.
The Union position opposite Elliott’s Salient was manned by Major General Ambrose Burnside’s 9th Corps, which included the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Henry C. Pleasants. Many members of the 48th Pennsylvania were coal miners from Schuylkill County. Pleasants reportedly overheard some of his men declare that,
We could blow that damned fort out of existence if we could run a mine shaft under it.
The colonel proposed the idea to his superiors. Army engineers ridiculed the idea because they believed that the length of the tunnel would be too long to supply oxygen to the miners as they dug. Despite the reservations of their engineers, Burnside and Grant approved the idea and work started.
The miners started digging on June 25, using improvised tools. Three weeks later, they had tunneled nearly 511 feet to a position directly beneath the Confederate battery manning Elliot’s Salient. On July 18, the miners began extending the main shaft to the left and to the right, creating branches that paralleled the Rebel lines above them. When they finished their work on July 23, the Pennsylvania miners had excavated a tunnel 586 feet long, twenty feet below the enemy fortifications. By July 27, they charged the mine with 8,000 pounds of black powder.
As the mining proceeded, the Rebels who manned the salient became suspicious when they detected what some believed were the sounds of the digging below them. Confederate engineers, however, shared the belief of their Union counterparts that it was not possible to excavate a mine shaft over 400 feet long without accompanying ventilation shafts. Despite reassurances from their engineers, the Rebel officers who commanded the salient, Stephen Elliott and Richard Pegram, ordered their men to dig vertical shafts armed with countermines, just in case the Yankees were down below. Fortunately for the Pennsylvanians, the enemy shafts missed their marks. When the Federals completed the tunnel on July 23, the Rebels also quit digging after hearing no more sounds below them.
Meanwhile, as the tunneling was proceeding, Burnside created a battle plan that featured a large-scale assault by the 9th Corps after the detonation of the explosives. Burnside ordered General Edward Ferrero commanding the 4th Division, which included 4,300 United States Colored Troops, to lead the attack. Although Burnside had ensured that the men of the 4th were well-trained to carry out their orders, Meade and Grant countermanded the assignment the day before the assault. They reasoned that if the attack failed, critics would condemn the Lincoln administration for sending large numbers of black soldiers to their deaths. Forced to comply with the orders of his superiors, Burnside had his three other divisional commanders draw straws to determine who would lead the assault, even though the white soldiers had not trained for the mission. Brigadier General James H. Ledlie drew the short straw, and the 1st Division led the assault.
At 3:15 on the morning of July 30, Henry Pleasants lit the fuse to detonate the explosives. When the blast did not materialize after a long wait, two volunteers went into the shaft to discover that the flame had gone out. After relighting the fuse, the volunteers scrambled to safety before the detonation occurred at 4:44. Simultaneous to the explosion, 110 Union guns and fifty-four mortars began a barrage of the Rebel position.
On the Confederate side of the line, the blast created a gaping chasm over 170 feet long, sixty feet across, and thirty feet deep. It instantly killed at least 278 Rebel soldiers, blowing some of them as high as 100 feet in the air.
While Ledlie remained in the rear, allegedly drinking rum, his untrained troops poured into the breach, rushing into the crater rather than circumventing it. The Federals quickly discovered that their inability to scale the soft earth on the opposite wall had them trapped. The Confederate defenders who had escaped the blast gathered sharpshooters and artillery at the edge of the crater and began target practice on the unfortunate Yankees.
Burnside continued to thrust reinforcements into the gap, but many of them made the mistake of joining their comrades in the crater. By 8:30 a.m., over 15,000 Union troops were inside of the Confederate lines, but the Rebels had pinned down many of them in what had become an abyss of horror.
Meanwhile, when Robert E. Lee learned of the breach in the Confederate defenses, he quickly dispatched two infantry brigades commanded by William Mahone to fill the void. Mahone’s soldiers arrived at the scene and immediately began driving the few Yankees who had escaped the crater back into the chasm of death. Throughout the morning and midday, the Confederates rained a hail of lead on the living, wounded, and dead Federal soldiers baking under the blazing sun.
Shortly after 1 p.m., Mahone ordered a charge into the crater that resulted in a bloody struggle featuring fixed bayonets and rifle butts before the Bluecoats submitted. By the end of the battle, Burnside’s Corps suffered nearly 4,000 casualties (killed, wounded, and captured), compared with about 1,500 losses for the Confederates. The United States Colored Troops, who reinforced the initial wave, lost 1,327 soldiers. Rebels soldiers murdered some of them as they attempted to surrender or after they captured them.
Following the battle, Grant and Meade shifted the blame to Burnside and Ledlie. Grant relieved Burnside of his command and he would never lead troops in battle again. Meade, however, did not escape the wrath of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, which criticized Meade for his decision to replace Ferraro’s colored troops with the incompetent Ledlie’s white soldiers. In their 1865 report on the Battle of the Crater, the committee concluded that it could not “avoid the conclusion that the first and great cause of the disaster was the change made on the afternoon preceding the attack, in the arrangement of general Burnside to place the division of colored troops in the advance.”
The outcome of the Battle of the Crater was a tactical Confederate victory, but it did not reverse the eventual outcome of the Petersburg Campaign. Although the Yankees could not take advantage of their temporary breach of the Rebel fortifications, Grant’s forces remained poised to tighten his stranglehold on the vital Confederate supply center.
August 13–20, 1864 — Second Battle of Deep Bottom
At the same time that Grant was threatening Richmond and Petersburg, Lieutenant General Jubal Early launched a Confederate offensive in the Shenandoah Valley that eventually imperiled Washington, DC. Without opposition, his 14,000 soldiers marched north through the Valley, past the Federal garrison at Harpers Ferry, and crossed the Potomac River into Maryland at Shepherdstown on July 5 and 6. In early August, Grant placed Philip Sheridan in charge of the newly created Army of the Shenandoah and sent him to the Valley to deal with Early. Robert E. Lee responded by sending an infantry and cavalry division north to Culpepper, Virginia, where they could aid Early or be recalled to the Richmond or Petersburg if needed.
Lee’s deployment of troops to Culpepper prompted Grant to try a second advance on Richmond at Deep Bottom in mid-August. Grant had several good reasons for launching the new offensive:
- Although not likely, the Federal assault might accomplish a breakthrough at Richmond.
- An advance against Richmond would discourage Lee from using the troops at Culpepper to reinforce Early.
- A demonstration against Richmond might force Lee to send more troops away from Petersburg, where Grant was preparing an assault against the Weldon Railroad.
During the night of August 13-14, Winfield S. Hancock led the Union 2nd Corps, 10th Corps, and the cavalry divisions of Major General David M. Gregg across the James River at Deep Bottom. Upon completing the crossing, Hancock established his assault line with the 10th Corps on the left, the 3rd Division of the 2nd Corps in the center, and the 1st and 2nd Divisions of the 2nd Corps, on the right.
Hancock’s plan charged the 10th Corps with demonstrating against New Market Heights, while the 2nd Corps attempted to turn the Confederate left at Fussell’s Mill on the Darbytown Road. Hancock ordered Gregg’s cavalry to cover the Federal right flank and to look for an opportunity to enter Richmond.
Blistering heat that caused the debilitation and death of many soldiers slowed the Union’s advance. The delay enabled the Confederates to reinforce the area around Fussell’s Mill. By the time the Yankees attacked along the Darbytown Road in the afternoon, the reinforced Rebels repulsed their advances.
On August 15, Hancock increased his troop strength around Fussell’s Mill by shifting the 10th Corps to the Union right. On August 16, he renewed his assault against the Confederate line above Fussell’s Mill. An initial charge of 5,000 Bluecoats commanded by Brigadier General Alfred Terry forced the Rebels to abandon their trenches. Later in the afternoon, Major General Charles W. Field led a furious counterattack that recovered the lost entrenchments.
Meanwhile, Gregg’s horsemen encountered Major General William Henry Fitzhugh “Rooney” Lee’s cavalry division, as the Northerners attempted to flank the Confederate defenders and to sweep into Richmond. After a hard-fought cavalry engagement, the Confederates repulsed the Yankee horsemen. Confederate Brigadier General John R. Chambliss perished while leading his men during the engagement.
Leaders called a truce on August 17 to allow both sides to retrieve their dead and wounded. The next day, Lee ordered a general counterattack against Gregg’s cavalry and the Federal infantry near Fussell’s Mill. The poorly organized assault developed slowly and accomplished little. During the night, Hancock began withdrawing Federal troops to support Grant’s offensive against the Weldon Railroad south of Petersburg. By August 20, 1864, all the Union invasion forces had withdrawn.
The Union suffered nearly 3,000 casualties at the Second Battle of Deep Bottom (327 killed, 1,851 wounded, and 721 missing/captured) compared to Confederate losses of roughly 1,500 soldiers (200 killed, 900 wounded, and 400 missing/captured). Some fatalities were victims of heatstroke. As with the First Battle of Deep Bottom, the second conflict did not pose a threat to Richmond. Still, the encounter accomplished Grant’s objectives of preventing Lee from reinforcing Early’s army in the Shenandoah Valley and drawing Rebel troops away from Petersburg, as the Northerner prepared to move against the Weldon Railroad.
The Second Battle of Deep Bottom is also known as the Battle of New Market Road, the Battle of Fussell’s Mill, the Battle of Bailey’s Creek, the Battle of Charles City Road, and the Battle of White’s Tavern.
August 18–21, 1864: Battle of Globe Tavern (also known as the Second Battle of Weldon Railroad, the Battle of Yellow Tavern, the Battle of Yellow House, and the Battle of Blick’s Station)
While Hancock was feinting an attack in front of Richmond, Major General Gouverneur K. Warren left the Union lines southeast of Petersburg and advanced his 5th Corps west through the rain toward the Weldon Railroad on August 18. Encountering only mild resistance, the Federals reached their destination near Globe Tavern by 9 a.m. Warren ordered Brigadier General Charles Griffin’s division to set about destroying tracks, while Brigadier General Romeyn Ayres’ division deployed to the north to block any Confederate resistance from the Petersburg lines.
When alerted of Warren’s advance, P. G. T. Beauregard, who was in charge of the Petersburg defenses, ordered Lieutenant A. P. Hill to dispatch two brigades, commanded by Major General Henry Heth, and one brigade, commanded by Brigadier General Robert F. Hoke, south to stop the Yankee destruction.
When Hill’s troops encountered Ayers’s division at 1 p.m., Warren deployed Brigadier General Samuel Crawford’s division to the right of Ayers, hoping to get around the Confederate left flank. At approximately 2:00 p.m., Hill’s soldiers attacked Ayres and Crawford, driving them back close to Globe Tavern. Warren counterattacked, halting the Rebel advance, and then, entrenched for the night.
During the night, the Union 9th Corps, commanded by Major General John G. Parke, reinforced Warren’s Corps. On the Confederate side, Major General W.H.F. “Rooney” Lee’s cavalry division, plus three infantry brigades, commanded by Major General William Mahone, reinforced Hill’s troops.
Heavy rains limited the fighting the next morning (August 19), but when the weather improved afternoon, Mahone attacked the Union right, while Heth struck the center of Warren’s lines. Heth could not budge his Yankee adversaries, but Mahone exploited a gap in Crawford’s lines, capturing nearly two brigades of Yankee prisoners. Warren ordered a desperate counterattack that plugged the gap by dusk when the fighting ended.
More rain on August 20 again limited the fighting and bought time for Warren to establish new lines south of Globe Tavern that connected east to the main Union lines at Jerusalem Plank Road.
When the weather cleared on August 21, Hill ordered an assault on the new Union defenses. The Rebel advance proved futile and Hill withdrew, leaving the Federals in control of the stretch of the Weldon Railroad around Globe Tavern.
The Union lost over 4,000 soldiers (251 killed, 1,148 wounded, and 2,897 missing/captured) during the Battle of Globe Tavern, compared to approximately 1,600 casualties for the Confederacy (211 killed, 990 wounded, and 419 missing/captured). Still, the engagement was a Union victory, because the Yankees captured and maintained control of the area near Globe Tavern. For the rest of the campaign, Confederates had to offload supplies coming into Petersburg over the Weldon Railroad south of Globe Tavern and then ship them north in wagons along the Boydton Plank Road.
August 25, 1864: Second Battle of Ream’s Station
After Warren’s victory at the Battle of Globe Tavern (August 18–21, 1864), Grant made preparations to destroy the Weldon Railroad south of Petersburg as far as practicable. Grant and Meade assigned the task to Winfield S. Hancock’s 2nd Corps. Hancock’s 8,500 men were already spent from taking part in the Second Battle of Deep Bottom (August 14–20, 1864). The two generals also ordered David M. Gregg’s cavalry division to support the operation. Gregg’s troopers began clearing Rebel pickets from the tracks south of Globe Tavern on August 22. Following a forced march, Hancock’s men reached the railroad and began destroying tracks.
Early on August 23, a division of Hancock’s men, commanded by Brigadier General John Gibbon, arrived at Reams Station, about six miles south of Globe Tavern. Upon their arrival, the Federals occupied earthworks that Union cavalrymen had constructed during the Wilson-Kautz Raid in June. Horseshoe-shaped, with the opening facing east, the temporary entrenchments were in disrepair, and Hancock’s men made little effort to improve them.
By August 24, the Yankees has destroyed three miles of track south of Ream’s Station, leaving just five miles remaining to reach their objective of disabling the railroad as far as Rowatny Creek. They planned to finish the job the next day, but Robert E. Lee had other ideas.
Facing the possibility of being further isolated at Petersburg, Lee ordered A. P. Hill to lead a force of 8,000 to 10,000 Confederate soldiers south to stop Hancock’s destruction of the Weldon Railroad south of Globe Tavern.
On the morning of August 25, Confederate Major General Wade Hampton’s cavalry challenged Gregg’s command south of Ream’s Station and drove them back to the perceived safety of their meager fortifications. Meanwhile, Hill’s main infantry force advanced down the Dinwiddie Stage Road and attacked the northern leg of the horseshoe at about 2 p.m. with little success. A second Rebel assault also failed to dislodge the Bluecoats.
As Confederate reinforcements from the divisions of Henry Heth and William Mahone arrived later in the day, the Rebels mounted a third assault at 5:30 p.m. This time the Greycoats broke through the northwest corner of the horseshoe after two Union regiments panicked and ran. Hancock personally rallied his forces enough to accomplish an organized retreat at approximately 8 p.m., but only after the Rebels had captured nearly 2,000 Yankees.
The Confederates scored a tactical victory at the Second Battle of Ream’s Station. They suffered only 814 reported losses, compared to about 2,747 Union losses (140 killed, 529 wounded, and 2,073 captured). Nonetheless, the triumph was shallow. It came too late to prevent significant destruction to the Weldon Railroad south of Globe Tavern. With his lines at Petersburg depleted by the deployment of Hill’s force, Lee could not hold the ground that the Rebels had won, nor could he repair the tracks. For the rest of the campaign, Confederates had to transfer supplies going to Petersburg into wagons and transport them up the Boydton Plank Road through Dinwiddie Court House. The destruction of the Weldon Railroad enabled Grant to turn his attention to the South Side Railroad, Lee’s last rail link to the rest of the Confederacy.
September 29-30, 1864 — Battle of Chaffin’s Farm and New Market Heights
In late September, Grant launched another strike at Richmond to serve as a diversion for his simultaneous movement to extend his lines south of Petersburg farther westward. He chose Major General Benjamin Butler’s Army of the James to lead the Richmond offensive.
The operation against Richmond began during the night of September 28-29. The 10th Corps of Major General David B. Birney crossed the James River at Deep Bottom. August Kautz’s cavalry division followed Birney’s infantry. Birney’s objectives were to overrun the 2,000 Confederate defenders entrenched on New Market Heights and then push on toward Richmond. Butler chose Brigadier General Charles Paine’s 3rd Division, detached from the 18th Corps, to spearhead the assault. Paine’s Division comprised three brigades of United States Colored Troops. After Birney secured the New Market Road, Kautz’s assignment was to race toward Richmond.
Farther upstream, the 18th Corps of Major General Edward O. C. Ord crossed the river at Aiken’s Landing over a newly constructed pontoon bridge. Ord’s orders were to capture Fort Harrison, to destroy the Confederate bridges near Chaffin’s Bluff, and then to assault Richmond from the southeast. By 5 a.m., September 29, all of Butler’s force was across the river and poised to attack.
Action at New Market Heights
The first of Birney’s 10,000 soldiers moved out at 5 a.m. on September 29. Facing them was a double line of abatis protecting approximately 2,000 entrenched Confederates commanded by Brigadier General John Gregg. The Rebels held their fire as the men of the 4th USCT advanced toward the breastworks. When the Bluecoats became entangled in the first line of abatis, the Confederates greeted with a hail of hot lead that ravaged their unit. As the Greycoats cut the first wave of Yankees to shreds, the men of the 6th USCT surged forward but fared no better. In less than forty minutes, the Rebels wiped out nearly an entire brigade.
At 7 a.m., Birney and Paine renewed the assault, ordering the 5th, 36th, and 38th USCT into the fray. Initially, the results were the same. Confederate sharpshooters mowed down the black soldiers for nearly thirty minutes, as the Northerners attempted to move through the maze of obstacles. When it seemed that the second wave had failed, the Rebel fire slackened. With renewed enthusiasm, the remnants of Paine’s division stormed the Confederate fortifications only to find them abandoned. Gregg had ordered his men to withdraw toward Fort Harrison to deal with the threat being posed by Ord’s assault.
After securing the captured breastworks, Birney’s Corps advanced up New Market Road before encountering a second line of Confederate fortifications. Attempts to dislodge the Rebel defenders proved fruitless, and Birney’s prong of the offensive stalled.
During the assault on New Market Heights, Paine’s division of USCT lost one of every three men engaged, leaving little doubt about the willingness of black soldiers to face grave danger in service to the Union. On April 6, 1865, the nation officially recognized their sacrifice by awarding the Congressional Medal of Honor on fourteen African-Americans who took part in the offensive.
Action at Chaffin’s Farm
At the same time Birney launched his initial attack at New Market Heights, the men of Ord’s 18th Corps began their assault on Fort Harrison. Led by Brigadier General George Stannard’s division, the Yankees rushed the lightly defended Confederate position, sending the 800 Rebel defenders scurrying for shelter behind a secondary line to their rear. The triumph, however, was costly; all three brigade commanders were killed or wounded during the action. When Ord personally took charge, he too received serious injuries. Devoid of leadership, the Federal assault soon bogged down.
Alarmed by the initial Yankee successes, Robert E. Lee redeployed 10,000 reinforcements to the Petersburg defenses overnight. On the next day, he ordered an unsuccessful counterattack to retake Fort Harrison. Reaching a clear stalemate, both sides re-entrenched in their new positions eight miles outside of Richmond, where they remained until Lee evacuated the Confederate capital in April 1865.
The Battle of Chaffin’s Farm and New Market Heights did not subdue Richmond as Butler had hoped. In addition, the Union suffered more casualties than the Confederacy. The Bluecoats lost 3,372 soldiers (391 killed, 2,317 wounded, and 649 missing/captured); the Greycoats lost about 2,000 men (250 killed, 1,250 wounded, and 500 missing/captured). Still, the battle was a strategic federal victory. Grant achieved his goal of drawing Rebel defenders away from the Petersburg area, as he simultaneously moved against the South Side Railroad.
September 30–October 2, 1864 — Battle of Peebles Farm
After Union victories at the Battle of Globe Tavern (August 18-21, 1864) and the Battle of Ream’s Station (August 25, 1864), the Confederacy lost control of a stretch of the Weldon Railroad approximately ten miles south of Petersburg. The Confederates had to offload supplies traveling up the railroad from the Carolinas and other parts of the Confederacy at Stony Creek Station and then ship the items north in wagons along the Boydton Plank Road. Attempting to protect his dwindling supply lines, General Lee ordered the construction of two new parallel lines of entrenchments between the Boydton Plank Road and the Weldon Railroad.
In late September, General Grant undertook a campaign to tighten his grip on supplies coming into Petersburg by extending his lines west from Globe Tavern to the Boydton Plank Road, and, perhaps, as far as the South Side Railroad. To enhance his opportunity for success, he ordered Major General Benjamin Butler to launch an offensive against Richmond on September 29. Grant hoped that Butler’s assaults against Fort Harrison and New Market Heights outside of the Confederate capital would force Lee to thin his lines south of Petersburg.
As Butler’s men were threatening Richmond, Grant ordered Meade to deploy a strong Federal force from Globe Tavern toward Lee’s lines protecting the Boydton Plank Road. Meade selected two divisions of the 5th Corps, commanded by Gouverneur K. Warren, two divisions of the 9th Corps, commanded by Major General John G. Parke, along with David M. Gregg’s cavalry division for the operation.
Lee’s outer line of entrenchments paralleled Squirrel Level Road, which ran north and south just west of the Weldon Railroad. At approximately 1:00 p.m. on September 30, Brigadier General Charles Griffin’s division of the 5th Corp easily overran the lightly manned outer defenses near Poplar Spring Church, sending the Rebels scurrying west toward the next line of entrenchments closer to the Boydton Plank Road.
With the Squirrel Level Road line broken and the Rebel defenders on the run, there was little to prevent Warren’s two divisions from surging on towards the inner line of Confederate defenses closer to the Boydton Plank Road. Warren, however, insisted on securing his newly won position before moving. Consequently, the Federal advance did not resume until after 3:00 p.m. The delay enabled Confederate Major General A. P. Hill to deploy reinforcements from Petersburg. By the time that the Federals were on the move once more Hill bolstered the Confederate defenses with Henry Heth’s division and Major General Cadmus M. Wilcox’s division.
When Parke and Warren’s soldiers finally advanced, they became isolated, and Parke’s men marched directly into a counterattack by Heth’s division. Heth’s soldiers struck between 4:30 and 5:00 p.m., scattering the Yankees in several directions. During the ensuing panic, the Rebels took many prisoners, including almost an entire brigade that fled west into the path of Major General W.H.F. Lee’s cavalry. Many of the Bluecoats fled back to the Squirrel Level Road line around Pegram’s Farm, where the day’s fighting ended.
On the next morning, Heth resumed his frontal attack against the Federals entrenched at Pegram’s Farm, as Lieutenant General Wade Hampton’s Cavalry Corps moved down Squirrel Level Road, hoping to hit the Yankees from the rear. David M. Gregg’s Cavalry Division repulsed Hampton’s troopers, however, and the Confederate offensive fizzled.
On October 2, using recently arrived reinforcements from Major General Gershom Mott’s division of the 2nd Corps, Meade made one more attempt to get to the Boydton Plank Road. As Mott’s men advanced, the Rebels withdrew and gathered their forces at their entrenchments near the Boydton Plank Road. Meade chose not to pursue. The Confederate withdrawal left the Federals in control of the area around Peebles Farm and Pegram’s Farm, including the entrenchments along Squirrel Level Road.
The futile attempt to capture the Boydton Plank Road (and possibly the South Side Railroad) cost the Union 2,800 soldiers (including nearly 1,300 captives) compared to 1,300 casualties for the Confederacy. Nonetheless, the Battle of Peebles Farm was a Union victory, because Grant tightened his stranglehold on Petersburg by extending his lines south of the city farther westward.
The Battle of Peebles Farm is also known as the Battle of Poplar Springs Church, the Battle of Wyatt’s Farm, the Battle of Chappell’s House, the Battle of Pegram’s Farm, the Battle of Vaughan Road, and the Battle of Harmon Road.
October 7, 1864 — Battle of Darbytown and New Market Roads
Darbytown and New Market Roads run roughly parallel to each other into Richmond from the southeast. Union leaders anchored the right flank of their lines outside of Richmond at Darbytown Road, several miles north of New Market Road. Attempting to regain the ground lost at the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm and New Market Road, Lee ordered an offensive against the newly extended Federal lines one week later.
On October 7, 1864, two Confederate divisions commanded by Major General Charles Field and Major General Robert Hoke advanced down the Darbytown Road. Supported by cavalry, Field’s infantry turned the Union right flank and attacked 1,700 Northern cavalrymen, commanded by August Kautz, from the rear. Caught by surprise, the Federal troopers quickly retreated, leaving the Rebels in possession of the road and eight Union cannons.
Following up on his initial success, Field turned south to attack Alfred Terry’s infantry division along New Market Road. Armed with Spencer repeating rifles, Terry’s well-entrenched soldiers presented a formidable obstacle. When Hoke failed to support Field’s assault, the Yankees easily repulsed the out-manned Rebels. The battle ended before noon when the Confederates withdrew to the Richmond defenses.
Despite the promising beginning for the Rebels, the Battle of Darbytown and New Market Roads was a resounding Union victory. The Confederacy lost about 700 soldiers, including Brigadier General John Gregg, who was killed during the fighting. The Union suffered only 458 casualties (forty-nine killed, 253 wounded, and 156 captured or missing). Beyond the uneven differences in casualty totals, Lee failed in his attempt to regain the ground he lost at the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm and New Market Road. The unsuccessful Rebel assault proved to be Lee’s last offensive north of the James River during the Civil War.
October 13, 1864 — Battle of Darbytown Road
Determined to re-secure the area that the Southern military had abandoned outside of the Confederate capital during the Battle of Darbytown and New Market Roads, Lee ordered Field and Hoke to have their men build a new line between the Federals and Richmond’s inner defenses. The work began on October 11. The next morning, Union pickets observed the construction activity and reported it up the line through Kautz to Butler to Grant.
Upon learning of Lee’s efforts to create new breastworks outside of Richmond, that afternoon, Grant ordered Butler to drive the Rebels away from the new works. Butler selected the 1st and 3rd Divisions of Alfred Terry’s 10th Corps for the mission. Terry learned that he could expect to encounter up to 6,000 Confederates and that he would receive support from Kautz’s cavalry. Concerned that his infantry totaled only 4,700 soldiers, Terry requested more men, but Butler refused.
Terry’s soldiers moved forward at 4 a.m. on October 13, for an attack on the enemy lines scheduled for dawn. Kautz’s late arrival, however, delayed the assault. The Federals spent the next few hours completing reconnaissance and organizing battle lines.
While Terry was conducting his surveillance, Lee strengthened his left upon learning that the Yankees were attempting to flank him.
At 10:30, Terry advised Butler, “As at present advised, I think we cannot pierce their works except by massing on some point and attacking in column. I hesitate to do this without further instructions from you after our conversation of last night. Please direct me in regard to it.”
At 12:10 Butler directed Terry to remain in position until the commanding general could consult with Grant. Upon being apprised of the situation, Grant cautioned Butler that “I would not attack the enemy in his intrenchments.” Before Grant’s recommendation reached the field, however, Kautz reported to Terry that he had found an opening in the Confederate line that he believed he could exploit. Thus, Terry ordered his men to move against the Rebels despite his commanding officers’ misgivings.
Shortly before 2 p.m., the Bluecoats attacked approximately one-half mile south of Charles City Road, where the Confederate infantry caught them in a crossfire, while Southern artillery raked the Northerners. Some of the strike force, which included men from the 10th Connecticut, 62nd Ohio, 39th Illinois, and 67th Ohio, reached the Rebel breastworks before being repulsed. By 3 p.m., the assault was clearly a disaster, so Terry ordered a retreat. The Confederates attempted to pursue, but Federal artillery drove them back. By 6 p.m., the battle was over, and Terry’s men had returned to their lines.
Although the Rebels lost about 513 soldiers, compared to 437 Union casualties (thirty-six killed, 358 wounded, and forty-three captured), the Battle of Darbytown Road was a Confederate victory. The Federals failed in their attempt to prevent Lee from constructing new defenses east of Richmond.
October 27–28, 1864 — Battle of Fair Oaks and Darbytown Road
On October 27, 1864, Grant launched another two-pronged offensive against Petersburg and Richmond. While Winfield S. Hancock’s Federal forces south of Petersburg attempted to secure the Boydton Plank Road, Major General Benjamin Butler’s Army of the James once again attacked the Richmond defenses around Darbytown Road. Grant intended Butler’s assault to serve as a diversion for Hancock’s offensive, but Butler had aspirations of capturing the Confederate capital.
Butler’s plan called for Alfred Terry’s 10th Corps to demonstrate as far north as the Charles City Road. Meanwhile, Major General Godfrey Weitzel’s 18th Corps would follow August Kautz’s cavalry division around Terry’s right and then move west over the Williamsburg Road to attack the left flank of the Confederate defenses near Fair Oaks. If the Federals could turn the Rebel line, Butler believed that Kautz’s cavalry, followed by Weitzel’s infantry, could proceed west on the Williamsburg Road and storm the Confederate capital.
The mission began at approximately 4:30 a.m. on October 27, when Terry’s soldiers left their entrenchments near New Market Road and moved north over the same ground that they had covered during the Battle of Darbytown Road two weeks earlier. As planned, Terry advanced to the Charles City Road (which runs roughly parallel to the Darbytown and New Market Roads) and halted.
Confusion between Kautz and Weitzel delayed the arrival of the 18th Corps at the Williamsburg Road until 1 p.m. Weitzel then spent the next two hours performing reconnaissance and positioning his troops. By that time, General James Longstreet, who had recently assumed command of the Confederate defenses at Richmond, surmised Weitzel’s intentions and shifted Major General Charles W. Field’s division to reinforce the Southerners’ left flank.
At approximately 3:30 p.m., Weitzel finally launched his assault by sending only two of his seven brigades forward across 300 yards of open ground. The Confederate defenders greeted the Yankees with a hail of musket and artillery fire that sent their adversaries fleeing. Weitzel quickly decided that he had experienced enough and withdrew. Later, under the cover of darkness, his and Terry’s commands returned to the main Union lines at New Market Road.
In his after-action summary, Longstreet reported that “The fruits of these successes, so creditable to the officers and men engaged, and resulting in the complete defeat of a most determined effort to take Richmond on the north side, amounted to (11) eleven stands of colors, captured in the assault of Field’s position, and about (600) 600 prisoners.”
The Battle of Fair Oaks and Darbytown Road was the last failed Union attempt to threaten Richmond during 1864. The Rebel victory cost the Union over 1,700 casualties compared with only 100 for the Confederacy.
October 27–28, 1864 — Battle of Boydton Plank Road
While the Army of the James was threatening Richmond on October 27, 1864, a large Federal force commanded by Winfield S. Hancock moved to sever the Boydton Plank Road and the South Side Railroad south of Petersburg. Hancock’s legion of over 30,000 soldiers comprised two divisions from his own 2nd Corps (13,000 men), Gouverneur K. Warren’s 5th Corps (11,000 men), Major General John G. Parke’s 9th Corps (11,000 men), and David M. Gregg’s cavalry division (2,000 to 3,000 mounted troopers).
The invasion plan was complicated:
- Parke would march directly west from Peebles Farm and strike the Confederate line east of the Boydton Plank Road. If he breached the Rebel lines, Parke would turn north and assault Petersburg’s inner defenses. If he failed, his corps would continue to pressure the Rebel defenders, serving as a distraction for operations to his south.
- Warren was to march west and support Parke by securing his left flank. If Parke could not crack the Confederate defenses, Warren would move west, attempting to flank the Rebel line and then attack from behind the Confederate defenses.
- Hancock was to move southwest across a small stream named Hatcher’s Run and secure a position on the Boydton Plank Road. Hancock’s men would then push up the road toward Petersburg as far as White Oak Road, where they would swing west to strike the South Side Railroad.
- Gregg was to protect Hancock’s left flank.
A light drizzle was falling as the Union soldiers moved out at 3 a.m. on October 27. As the morning progressed, the rain increased in intensity, turning the roads to mud that bogged down the operation. By the time that Parke reached his objective at approximately 9 a.m., he had lost the element of surprise. Parke discovered that the Confederate line was stouter than expected. Unable to dislodge his adversaries, Parke ordered his men to entrench.
The inclement weather and rougher-than-expected terrain also delayed Warren’s progress. Like Parke, Warren encountered stiff resistance that stymied his movement. When Grant and Meade visited the scene at 9 a.m., they determined that neither Parke nor Warren could breach the Confederate line. Thus, Meade ordered Warren to send a division commanded by Brigadier General Samuel W. Crawford across Hatcher’s Run to support Hancock’s right flank.
Meanwhile, Hancock forded Hatcher’s Run, easily brushing aside Confederate pickets, and secured a portion of the Boydton Plank Road near Burgess Mill, approximately twelve miles south of Petersburg. Gregg’s cavalry crossed Hatcher’s Run farther downstream only to discover that the Northerners were riding into a potential trap. Major General Wade Hampton had deployed two Confederate cavalry divisions south of Burgess Mill, hoping to isolate Gregg. However, upon Hancock’s approach, Hampton ordered most of his cavalry north to secure the intersection of the Boydton Plank Road and White Oak Road. Gregg then moved north along Quaker Road, burning the bridge at Gravelly Run, thwarting any attempt by Confederate Major General William H.F. “Rooney” Lee’s cavalry division to strike the Union horsemen from behind.
Confederate General A. P. Hill was quick to respond to the threat posed by Hancock’s advancing divisions. He ordered Hampton’s cavalry, along with two divisions commanded by Henry Heth and William Mahone to advance and halt Hancock and Gregg’s combined forces. Hill became ill soon thereafter and turned over field command to Heth.
Just as Hancock was ready to start north, he received a message from Meade instructing him to remain in position, because Meade had concerns about Hancock’s exposed right flank. Meade visited Hancock at approximately 1 p.m. and instructed him to extend his lines east to meet with Crawford’s division from Warren’s 5th Corps before proceeding. As Hancock carried out Meade’s orders, Grant visited the scene and determined that the Confederate defenses were too strong and called off the entire operation.
Following Grant’s orders, Hancock began to withdraw only to find his crossing at Hatcher’s Run blocked by Hampton’s cavalry. Having failed to make contact with Crawford’s division, Heth and Mahone isolated Hancock. Hancock tried to escape over the Dabney Mill Road, which intersected the Boydton Plank Road south of White Oak Road, but Mahone beat him to the spot. Meanwhile, “Rooney” Lee’s cavalry division, which Gregg had impeded earlier in the day, had worked its way north and was now threatening Hancock from the rear. With Heth to his north, Lee to his south, and Mahone to his east, the Rebels had Hancock surrounded on three sides with no clear escape route.
At approximately 4:30 p.m. the Confederates attacked. Gregg held off Lee’s cavalry. Mahone’s success proved too easy. He quickly sliced through the Union line, but when the Federals rallied, Mahone found that they surrounded him on three sides. The Yankees counterattacked, driving Mahone’s men back and opening an avenue for the Northerners’ escape. Hancock’s divisions avoided disaster, but the Northerners’ position was highly untenable. Running low on ammunition, Hancock withdrew during the night, leaving behind nearly 250 wounded Federals.
Hancock and Grant later referred to the Battle of Boydton Plank Road as a Union success. The results, however, indicate otherwise. Despite putting nearly three times more men in the field than the Rebels (approximately 30,000 to 11,600), the conflict cost the Army of the Potomac over 1,750 soldiers, compared to 1,300 casualties for the Confederacy. More significantly from a strategic view, Grant failed in his quest to seize the Boydton Plank Road and the South Side Railroad. The successful Confederate defense of those two vital transportation routes ensured a continued flow of supplies into Petersburg and Richmond during the upcoming winter.
Winter of 1864–1865
Following the dual Union failures at the Battle of Fair Oaks and Darbytown Road and the Battle of Boydton Plank Road, Grant gave up trying to break the Confederate lines in 1864. Both sides hunkered down in their entrenchments for the approaching cold season. The two sides experienced much-different winters. Although Grant had failed to capture Richmond or Petersburg, he restricted the flow of supplies coming into the two cities. Thus, the Rebel defenders suffered greatly. Desertion, disease, and shortage of supplies weakened the Army of Northern Virginia. The Federals enjoyed abundant supplies stockpiled at Grant’s headquarters at City Point, Virginia. The Northerners distributed the supplies to the front over a network of short-line railroads constructed behind Union lines. Grant’s well-fed and warmly clothed soldiers remained as comfortable as could be expected while occupying their trenches.
February 5–7, 1865 — Second Battle of Hatcher’s Run
A mild stretch of mild weather at the beginning of February 1865 prompted Grant and Meade to launch an early offensive against the Boydton Plank Road and the South Side Railroad. On the morning of February 5, three Federal forces left the Union works near Globe Tavern headed toward the Confederate lines guarding the Boydton Plank Road.
- David M. Gregg’s cavalry division rode southwest toward Dinwiddie Court House, with orders to intercept a large Confederate supply train moving up the Boydton Plank Road to Petersburg.
- Gouverneur K. Warren’s 5th Corps marched west to support Gregg’s right flank by blocking Vaughn Road.
- Major General Andrew A. Humphreys’ 2nd Corps moved along the north side of Hatcher’s Run to a position above Burgess’s Mill near the Confederate lines.
By 9:30 a.m., the 2nd Corps reached their destination opposite the Confederate defenses and dug in near Armstrong’s Mill. Humphreys deployed Brigadier General Thomas A. Smyth’s brigade on his left and Brigadier General Gershom Mott’s division on his right.
Opposing Humphreys on the Confederate side were Major General John Gordon’s Second Corps and Henry Heth’s division. By 4 p.m., Gordon concluded that Humphreys did not intend to attack and ordered Heth to assault the freshly constructed Union works. The focus of Heth’s advance was a gap in the Federal lines defended by Brevet Brigadier-General Robert McAllister’s 3rd Brigade. McAllister’s Yankees repulsed three Rebel assaults during a one-and-a-half-hour period. At dusk, the Greycoats gave up and retreated.
To the south, Gregg reached the Boydton Plank Road, only to discover that estimates regarding the size of the Rebel supply train that he was to attack were highly exaggerated. Although his raid was successful, he captured only eighteen wagons and fifty prisoners.
Expecting another Confederate attack against Humphreys’ position the next day, Meade ordered Gregg and Warren to move northeast during the night of February 5-6 to support the 2nd Corps. Grant also sent Union reinforcements from the 6th and 9th Corps.
The morning of February 6 passed with little activity beyond reconnaissance. That afternoon, Gordon, ordered Brigadier General John Pegram’s division and William Mahone’s division, supported by Major General W. H. F. “Rooney” Lee’s cavalry, to attack Warren’s 5th Corps near Dabney’s Mill, southwest of Humphreys’ line. The Yankees repulsed the Rebel onslaught and drove the Greycoats back, but a Confederate counterattack halted the Federal momentum. A second Rebel attack sent the Bluecoats back to a position along Hatcher’s Run. Pegram was killed during the fighting. During the latter stages of the conflict, freezing rain began to fall, adding to the suffering of the wounded left on the battlefield.
On February 7, light skirmishing enabled the Federals to regain the ground that they lost the previous day near Dabney’s Mill. Those gains allowed Grant and Meade to extend the Union entrenchments to the Vaughan Road Crossing of Hatcher’s Run.
Results of the Battle of Hatcher’s Run were inconclusive. The Union suffered over 1,600 casualties, compared to over 1,100 for the Confederacy. Despite engaging over two and one-half times as many combatants as the Rebels (34,517 to 13,835), the Federals failed once more to sever Petersburg’s last remaining supply routes. Still, the operation enabled Grant and Meade to extend the Union entrenchments three miles closer to the Boydton Plank Road and the South Side Railroad.
The Second Battle of Hatcher’s Run is also known as the Battle of Dabney’s Mill, the Battle of Rowanty Creek, the Battle of Armstrong’s Mill, and the Battle of Vaughan Road.
March 25, 1865 — Battle of Fort Stedman
Desperate to find a way out of Petersburg before Grant cut off all supply routes and starved the Confederate army into submission, Lee met with John B. Gordon in early March to consider his options. Lee and Gordon decided that their best course was to go on the offensive. Together, they planned a surprise attack on the Union lines east of Petersburg and on Grant’s headquarters and supply base at City Point, Virginia. If the assault succeeded, Grant would have to weaken his lines south of Petersburg, enabling Lee’s army to break out and to join General Joseph E. Johnston’s army in North Carolina.
The focal point of the attack was Fort Stedman, an earthen fortification only 150 yards from the Confederate lines east of Petersburg–-the narrowest divide separating the two armies. The Rebel assault force comprised three divisions from Gordon’s 2nd Corps, two brigades from Major General Bushrod R. Johnson’s 4th Corps, and two brigades from Major General Cadmus M. Wilcox’s 3rd Corps in reserve. The combined total of these units represented nearly one-half of the Army of Northern Virginia’s infantry.
Soldiers of Major General John G. Parke’s Union 9th Corps occupied Fort Stedman. They also manned Batteries 9 and 10 north of the fort and Batteries 11 and 12 south of the fort. Parke’s 3rd division was in reserve behind the main line.
The Confederate plan called for the Rebels to overwhelm quickly Fort Stedman and then move north and south to capture the adjacent Union batteries. The rest of the strike force would then exploit the gap in the Federal lines and make a rapid assault against City Point, ten miles to the northeast.
The operation began at 4:15 a.m. on March 25. Rebel sharpshooters, masquerading as deserters approached the Union lines and surprised the unsuspecting Federal pickets. Confederate engineers then removed defensive obstructions, making a path for the advancing infantry. All went according to plan and the Greycoats quickly seized Fort Stedman, along with Batteries 10, 11, and 12, creating an opening nearly 1,000 feet long in the Union line.
Once the Confederates created the gap, however, confusion soon followed. Hungry Confederate infantry troops stopped to forage captured Yankee rations. The Rebels also became disoriented as they searched for a second line of expected fortifications that did not exist. The delay provided time for the startled Union officers to mobilize their troops and to organize a counterattack.
Federal artillerists took up positions on a ridge east of Fort Stedman and began shelling the invaders. Parke promptly threw in his reserve division commanded by Major General John F. Hartranft. When Hartranft arrived at the front, he convinced Major General Orlando B. Willcox to yield command of his 1st Infantry Division. Hartranft then deployed the combined forces at his disposal in a semicircle around the bulging Confederate advance. Caught in the crosshairs of a blistering Yankee crossfire, nearly 2,000 Greycoats threw down their weapons and surrendered. By 7:30 a.m., the Confederate advance ended.
When the Rebels began streaming back to Fort Stedman, Gordon realized that the game was up. With Lee’s approval, he ordered a withdrawal to the original Confederate lines. Still weathering the Union artillery shelling and crossfire, the Greycoats suffered heavy casualties as they retreated.
The Battle of Fort Stedman was an unequivocal Union victory. The Rebels suffered approximately 4,000 casualties (600 killed, 2,400 wounded, and 1,000 missing or captured), compared to only 1,000 losses for the Union (seventy-two killed, 450 wounded, and 522 missing or captured). The assault had no effect on the Union lines east of Petersburg, and by redeploying troops from his entrenchments southwest of Petersburg, Lee opened the door for Grant to seize the Boydton Plank Road and the South Side Railroad—prizes that the Northerner had coveted since the autumn of 1864. After the Confederate loss of these transportation lines, the fall of Petersburg and Richmond was inevitable.
Outcome of the Petersburg Campaign
The outcome of the Petersburg Campaign was a costly but successful federal offensive. The Union suffered about 42,000 casualties, compared with 28,000 Confederate losses. Despite the heavy casualties, however, Grant achieved his primary objective of destroying the Army of Northern Virginia. His ever-tightening stranglehold on supplies going into Petersburg and Richmond gradually starved and demoralized Lee’s soldiers. Fueled by deprivation, as well as news of Major General William T. Sherman’s devastating march through Georgia and the Carolinas, desertions escalated at an alarming rate.
Following the failed Rebel offensive at Fort Stedman, Grant escalated his assault.
On March 29, Philip Sheridan’s cavalry and Gouverneur K. Warren’s 5th Corps attempted to turn Lee’s right flank at the Battle of Lewis’s Farm. Two days later, the action resumed at the Battle of White Oak Road and the Battle of Dinwiddie Court House, as Lee shored up his right-wing to halt the Federal flanking maneuver. On April 1, Sheridan and Warren continued their offensive, with a major victory over Major General George Pickett and his forces at the Battle of Five Forks. Losing this strategic crossroads further threatened Lee’s already limited supply line. Encouraged by the Federal victory at Five Forks, Grant ordered a general assault on the Confederate entrenchments at Petersburg the next day. The Union onslaught at the Third Battle of Petersburg forced Lee to abandon his entrenchments around Petersburg and to make an eleventh-hour effort to escape before his army disintegrated.
Three minor engagements took place during the next three days: Sutherland’s Station, Namozine Church, and Amelia Springs. On April 6, the Federals scored a major victory at the Battle of Sailor’s Creek. There, Sheridan cut off Lee’s retreat, forcing the surrender of nearly one-fourth of the Confederate army. Minor engagements continued for the next three days at Rice’s Station (April 6), High Bridge (April 6-7), and Cumberland Church (April 7), as Grant continued his dogged pursuit.
On April 7, Major General George Custer’s cavalry seized a Rebel supply train at Appomattox Station, denying Lee’s army of vital provisions. Custer also captured Lee’s lead artillery unit and secured the high ground west of Appomattox Court House, directly in Lee’s line of retreat. On April 9, Lee made a last failed attempt to escape Grant’s enclosing forces at the Battle of Appomattox Court House. Realizing that Grant had trapped his army, Lee contacted his rival to arrange a meeting “with reference to the surrender of this army.” The meeting took place that afternoon at the home of Wilmer McLean at Appomattox Court House. By 4 o’clock that afternoon, Grant and Lee had negotiated the terms of surrender, and the war ended for the Army of Northern Virginia.