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 12, 1864 — Grant Heads for Petersburg
On June 12, 1864, Grant ordered his forces to leave Cold Harbor and to head southward. Headed for Petersburg, the Federals began crossing the James River over a 2,200-foot long pontoon bridge at Windmill Point on June 14. 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.
Second Assault Against Petersburg
June 15, 1864 — Butler Crosses the Appomattox River
Grant ordered Major General Benjamin Butler and the Army of the James to cross the Appomattox River 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 August Kautz’s cavalry division. Confederate General P. G. T. Beauregard’s defenders (the Department of North Carolina and Southern Virginia) now totaled roughly 5,400. Still, Butler’s 16,000 Yankees vastly outnumbered the Rebels.
Delays and indecision hampered Butler’s offensive. Smith’s men did not engage until late afternoon. Reminiscent of the First Battle of Petersburg, Kautz, heard no evidence of Smith’s advance and 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 halted the offensive until the next morning, while the 2nd Corps relieved the 23rd Corps.
June 16, 1864 — Both Sides Entrench After Fierce Fighting
Overnight, both sides reinforced, and Grant arrived on the scene. Beauregard’s 19,000 defenders now faced approximately 50,000 federal troops commanded by Major General Winfield Scott Hancock. The Yankees did not renew their offensive until nearly 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 entrenched.
June 18, 1864 — Confederate Reinforcements Hold
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 approximately 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.
Aftermath of the Battle
The Confederate victory at the Second Battle of Petersburg spanned three days. By the end of the fighting, the Union lost over 11,000 soldiers, including 1,688 killed. The smaller Confederate force suffered approximately 4,000 casualties, including 200 men 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.