Prelude to the Third Battle of Petersburg
Grant’s Umbrella Strategy
On March 12, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Ulysses S. Grant as General-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States. Upon his arrival in Washington, Grant drafted a plan to get the various Union armies in the field to act in concert and strike the Confederacy from several directions: Grant would travel with Major General George Meade and the Army of the Potomac in pursuit of General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia in the Richmond area; Major General William T. Sherman would march three federal armies south from Chattanooga to capture Atlanta, and Major General Franz Sigel would invade Western Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley to cut off supplies to Lee’s army and to prevent any Confederate attempts to attack Meade’s flank.
Stalemate at Petersburg
The Union Army of the Potomac relentlessly engaged the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia throughout the spring of 1864. By June, Grant forced Lee to retreat to the Richmond-Petersburg area. Thereafter, both armies were entrenched, and a stalemate ensued for the next ten months. During that period, Grant probed Lee’s defenses to no avail. Despite being well-entrenched, the Confederate situation grew progressively worse as their supplies dwindled.
Union prospects, on the other hand, improved over the winter. Major General Philip Sheridan Sheridan completed his task of sweeping the Confederates from the Shenandoah Valley, and his well-rested troops rejoined Grant in the spring. Determined to break the stalemate at Petersburg, Grant ordered Sheridan to turn Lee’s right flank with the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps along with the 2nd and 5th Infantry Corps, and force Lee out of Petersburg.
Battle of Fort Stedman — Failed Rebel Breakout
On March 25, 1865, Lee made one final attempt to break the Siege of Petersburg by ordering forces commanded by Major General John B. Gordon to attack Fort Stedman, a Union fortification in the siege lines surrounding Petersburg. Gordon’s pre-dawn attack succeeded initially, but blistering Union counterattacks forced the Rebels back inside their lines, ending the Battle of Fort Stedman.
Many historians consider March 29, 1865, as the beginning of the Appomattox Campaign. On that date, Grant opened his spring offensive against Lee’s army by ordering Major General Philip Sheridan’s cavalry (freshly returned from the Shenandoah Valley) and Major General G. K. Warren’s 5th Corps to 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 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’s forces at the Battle of Five Forks.
Federals Turn Up the Heat
On March 29, Major General G.K. Warren’s 5th Corps defeated several Confederate brigades commanded by Major General Bushrod Johnson at the Battle of Lewis’s Farm. Two days later, the action resumed at the Battles of White Oak Road and Dinwiddie Court House, as Lee shored up his right-wing to halt the federal flanking maneuver. On April 1, Philip Sheridan and Warren continued their offensive, with a major victory over Major General George Pickett’s forces at the Battle of Five Forks. Sensing the urgency of Lee’s situation, Grant ordered a general assault on the Confederate defenses at Petersburg on April 2, which resulted in the fall of the Confederate capital at Richmond.
April 2, 1865 — Federal Assault on Petersburg
Encouraged by the Federal victory at Five Forks, Grant ordered a general assault on the Confederate entrenchments around Petersburg on April 2. From midnight until 2 a.m., the federal artillery rained a massive bombardment upon the Confederate lines. At 4 a.m., the Union 6th Corps, commanded by Major General Horatio Wright, left its entrenchments and smashed into the Rebels on the Boydton Line south of the city. By 4:40, the Federals had breached the Rebel defenses and began wreaking havoc. Shortly before 7 a.m., Union Corporal William Mauk shot and killed Major General A. P. Hill as the Confederate officer was riding to meet his soldiers in the confusion.
To the west, Major General Andrew Humphreys’s 2nd Corps broke the Hatcher Run Line and drove the Confederate defenders back into the city’s inner defenses by late afternoon.
To the east, Major General John G. Parke’s 9th Corps struck Fort Mahone and the Jerusalem Plank Road line. After forcing the Rebels from their entrenchments, the Federals withstood a fierce counterattack by elements of Major General John B. Gordon’s 2nd Confederate Division during the afternoon.
Rebels Abandon Richmond and Petersburg
By 10 a.m., Lee realized he could no longer hold the Yankees back. He advised President Jefferson Davis to prepare to leave the Confederate capital at Richmond. By late afternoon, as the Union offensive slowed, Grant let his men rest as he planned a final assault for the next day. Lee spent the afternoon preparing to retreat. As darkness fell, the Army of Northern Virginia began evacuating Petersburg and Richmond, moving west in a desperate attempt to join forces with Major General Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of North Carolina.
Significance of the Third Battle of Petersburg
The Third Battle of Petersburg was costly to both sides in terms of casualties. The Confederacy lost approximately 4,250 soldiers (killed, wounded, and captured/missing), compared with 3,500 men lost for the Union.
The battle was also a death knell for the Army of Northern Virginia. Retreating from its entrenchments around Petersburg doomed the tired and hungry Confederate army to fall to the overwhelming federal forces it faced the next week.