Skip to content

Petersburg 1864

Union reenactors assault a replica of Fort Harrison in Henroico, Va 2014

Union reenactors assault a replica of Fort Harrison in Henroico, Va 2014

In September 2014 I arrived outside Richmond Virginia to attend a reenactment commemorating some of the battles associated with the 1864 Siege of Petersburg. Reenactors camped on the old Malvern Hill Battlefield in Henrico County Virginia, dug entrenchments and prepared scenarios for the battles of Fort Harrison, New Market Heights and 2nd Deep Bottom. These three lesser known battles were fought during the Confederate defense of the City of Petersburg in 1864.

Row houses on New Market Street, Petersburg, Va 2014

Row houses, Petersburg, Va 2014

On this trip to Virginia I would also explore the remains of the myriad of battlefields in and around the southern cities of Petersburg and Richmond. By 1864 the Civil War had transformed into a war of attrition. The fighting now would be continuous, non-stop, until the end of the war.

This new type of sustained warfare would transform the armies and the battlefields themselves. Evidence of this physical change in the battlefield would take the form of defensive earthworks and traces of these battlements 150 years on can still be found all around these two southern cities.

Sharpened stakes protect an earthen fort on the Battlefield at Petersburg, Va 2014

Sharpened stakes protect an earthen fort on the Battlefield at Petersburg, Va 2014

The City of Petersburg and its Civil War battlefields in 2014 were quite unlike my experience so far in this project. It seems the normal roles of America’s still existing 19th century landscape, the battlefield as preserved untouched landscape and the neighboring city as modern encroachment, were reversed here in Petersburg,Virginia.

Many sections of the City of Petersburg today retain their 19th century character. Portions of Spielberg’s “Lincoln” were filmed here and its easy to see why. Old historic Petersburg, aside from a few utility poles, is a 19th century landscape in our midst.

Historic downtown Petersburg, Virginia 2014

Historic downtown Petersburg, Virginia 2014

On the other hand most of the National Battlefield at Petersburg looks nothing like it did in 1864.

"The Dictator" a giant Union mortar used during the Siege of Petersburg

“The Dictator” a giant Union siege mortar used to lob shells onto the Confederates and the City of Petersburg in 1864

As the Civil War entered it’s final year the battlefield landscape was changing. Defensive earthworks and a battlefield cleared for fields-of-fire would dominate this new wartime landscape. The two armies through the grim life lessons of the war were learning to protect themselves from the deadly consequence of the increasing effectiveness of modern weaponry.

This visually took the form of a battlefield at Petersburg that came to resemble the European battlefields of the First World War fifty years later.

The approaches to the City of Petersburg in 1864 were a devastated treeless moonscape dug up and torn by the entrenched armies. Mathew Brady’s period photographs of Petersburg during and after the siege depict this well.

Today the majority of these 35 miles of earthworks and trenches that surrounded the City in 1864 have been built over. Where they still exists, on National Park Service Battlefields, most snake through mature forests that have regrown since the war. In this respect most of the battlefield today looks completely different then it did during the Siege.

Remains of a Confederate trench has a clear view to the Union siege line of 1864

The remains of a Confederate trench at Elliott’s Salient on the National Battlefield still has an unobstructed view to the Union siege lines. Here the two armies were entrenched a mere hundred yards apart leading to the explosion of an underground mine and the Battle of the Crater in July 1864.

This “reversal of roles”, so to speak, in what remains of America’s Civil War landscape in the 21st century made the photographing and the visualizing of this epic battle and siege a challenge.

Old Petersburg, Virginia 2014

Old Petersburg, Virginia 2014

I found myself spending more time around the actual City of Petersburg in my attempt to tell this story…and rightly so as the citizens of Petersburg in 1864 and 1865 endured the deprivations of the siege and the frequent bombardments of Union shells raining down into the City.

On my first visit to the Petersburg Battlefield I was stunned to hear the echoing sounds of bugle calls through the forest. Fort Lee, an active military base, lies adjacent to the Petersburg Battlefield and supplies the sound track….while standing in the woods at Petersburg, hearing the mournful sounds of a distant bugle filter through the trees it’s as if the boys of 1864 never left this battlefield…..

Grant Steals a March on Lee

“If there was such a thing as a road to victory, it led around those trenches, not over them” *

Union reenactors line the parapet of a reconstructed Fort Harrison in Henrico, Virginia 2014

Union reenactors line the parapet of a reconstructed Fort Harrison in Henrico, Virginia 2014

US Grant at Cold Harbor Virginia was wise enough to see that Robert E. Lee had stymied him again. By June of 1864 the Army of Northern Virginia had become expert at erecting defensive earthworks and although hastily constructed the Confederate defensive lines around Cold Harbor were formidable. Grant’s Army of the Potomac had tested those entrenchments and had been severely bloodied for their efforts.

Ghostly mounds trace the remains of the Confederate trench line at Cold Harbor, Va 2014

Ghostly mounds trace the remains of the Confederate trench line at Cold Harbor, Va 2014

Grant was called “a butcher” for the assault he ordered at Cold Harbor on June 3rd 1864. Believing the Confederates to be weakened by the ongoing Overland Campaign Grant sent 50,000 men toward the Rebel earthworks – within ten minutes 8,000 of them were killed or wounded in one of the most lopsided battles of the Civil War.

“We felt it was murder, not war, or at best a very serious mistake had been made”. **

The Confederates safe within their trenches and on the defensive suffered relatively few casualties during the battle. Cold Harbor from the Rebel perspective was seen as “perhaps the easiest victory ever granted to Confederate arms by the folly of Federal commanders.” ***

Confederate reenactors fight from behind earthworks in Henrico, Va 2014

Confederate reenactors fight from behind earthworks in Henrico, Va 2014

After the morning assault entire Union regiments refused to renew the attack. After a month of solid combat, the seemingly useless slaughter at Cold Harbor severely effected the morale of the Army of the Potomac. To the soldiers it seemed that the end was no where in sight and the killing would go on and on….The average attrition rate for the Union Army by June 1864 had reached 2,000 men, killed or wounded every 24 hours. Combat on this scale and this duration was new in the Civil War. Where the armies in the past would bloody themselves and retire to refit, the fighting in the Overland Campaign was unending….

“Even Grant was infected by the gloom into which his troops were plunged by today’s addition to the list of headlong tactical failures. “I regret this assault more than any one I ever ordered,” he told his staff that evening.”

Reconstructed Civil War earthworks at Pamplin Historical Park on the western front battlefield at Petersburg, Va 2014

Looking into the moat of a reconstructed earthwork at Pamplin Historical Park on the Western Front Battlefield at Petersburg. The sharpened stakes arrayed in front together with the moat made earthworks like this, when well defended, nearly impenetrable and deadly to attacking Civil War soldiers.

Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia were also feeling the effects of the campaign. Out numbered by more than 2 to 1, when asked by some visiting local residents of Petersburg about his reserves in case Grant managed a breakthrough Lee tersely responded,

Confederate reenactors in their earthworks in Henrico, Va

Confederate reenactors in their earthworks and rifles at rest in Henrico, Va

“Not a regiment and that has been my condition ever since the fighting commenced on the Rappahannock. If I shorten my lines to provide a reserve, he will turn me. If I weaken my lines to provide a reserve, he will break them.” ***

Cold Harbor is just ten miles from the Richmond city limits but with the Army of Northern Virginia firmly entrenched around the rebel capitol Grant needed to find a new way. After the disaster at Cold Harbor the Union commander realized he could not go forward, he certainly would not retreat and so he would find a way around the rebels. With Lee’s forces concentrated around Richmond, Grant would move the Army of the Potomac south, cross the James River and attack the City of Petersburg.

The confluence of the James and Appomattox Rivers at City Point, Virginia site of Union supply base and Grant's HQ during the Siege of Petersburg

The confluence of the James and Appomattox Rivers at City Point, Virginia site of Union supply base and Grant’s HQ during the Siege of Petersburg

Petersburg 1864

The City of Petersburg Virginia was a vital industrial hub and rail center for the Confederacy in 1864. Five separate railroads pass through the “Cockade City” making Petersburg a major supply center for the Army of Northern Virginia as well as the rebel capitol twenty miles to the north.

Old merchant buildings in Petersburg, Virginia 2014

18th century merchant buildings in Petersburg,Va

Although surrounded by a complex series of earthworks and fortifications stretching some 35 miles around the City, Petersburg was nevertheless lightly defended in June of 1864. This due to the fact that reinforcements from the Richmond/Petersburg area were being continually sent to Robert E Lee as he battled Grant in the Overland Campaign.

Gen. PT Beauregard commanding the garrison at Petersburg warned Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee about the City’s vulnerability. Reduced to a militia force of “old men and young boys” Beauregard would need reinforcements himself if Grant decided to attack Petersburg.

Reenactors bivouac in their earthworks in Henrico, Va 2014

No tents required. Confederate campaigners stir after a night sleeping under the stars in Henrico,Va 2014

At the moment with the armies in a sort of death-embrace around Cold Harbor Robert E. Lee still wasn’t sure what Grant’s next move would be. With both armies battered the confederate commander was content to wait and see….unbeknownst to Lee the Army of the Potomac was already on the move and headed toward the James River and Petersburg.

Deep Bottom on the James River

Deep Bottom on the James River

On to Petersburg

“I should have to travel, with both James and Chickahominy unbridged to cross: and last, the Army of the Potomac had to be got out of a position but a few hundred yards from the enemy at the widest place – but the move had to be made, and I relied upon Lee’s not seeing my danger as I saw it” ****

In June of 1864 Grant would use his superiority in numbers to stretch the Confederates to the breaking point. While still at Cold harbor Grant ordered cavalry raids to break up the railroads in the Confederate rear as well as dispatching a force to the Shenandoah Valley in an attempt to shut down the rebel granary and force Lee to dispatch troops from the Richmond/Petersburg area in response.

Gun smoke shrouds reenactors on an old Civil War battlefield near Richmond Virginia in 2014

Gun smoke shrouds reenactors at dawn on the Malvern Hill battlefield near Richmond Virginia site of the 150th anniversary of the Battle of New Market Heights in 2014

In mid June as Grant begins to move the Army of the Potomac out of their entrenchments and towards the James River he calls on Gen. Butler and his 30,000 man army at Bermuda Hundred, already on the south side of the James and just 15 miles east of Petersburg, to breakthrough the Confederate cordon and seize Petersburg before Lee can react.

Union reenactors rest in the shade in Henrico, Va 2014

Union reenactors rest in the shade in Henrico, Va

Butler’s Army of the James had been corralled at Bermuda Hundred since the beginning of the Overland Campaign by the quick defensive action of the Confederates led by PT Beauregard. With the defenders of the City now thinned out Grant orders Gen. Bulter to seize Petersburg.

The First Battle of Petersburg

On June 9th 1864 Butler’s force breaks out and attacks Petersburg. His troops, led by General “Baldy” Smith make good progress forcing a Confederate retreat, seizing the rebel earthworks known as the Dimmock Line on the eastern approaches to the City. Beauregard’s troops fall back and dig a new line of entrenchments closer to Petersburg with the fighting ending with nightfall. The Union commanders are content with their gains for the day and wait for the morning to renew the attack.

Sun breaks through the tress at Colquitt's Salient the Confederate position opposite Fort Stedman on Eastern Front of the Petersburg Battlefield

Sun breaks through the tress at Colquitt’s Salient on the Eastern Front Battlefield at Petersburg. This Confederate defensive line was a mere two hundred yards from the Federals and Fort Stedman.

“A lot would go wrong for the Union during the next three days, but it was a mistake in the first place that Grant chose Baldy Smith and some of Butler’s men to try capturing Petersburg. Smith had lost some of his best men at Cold Harbor, and he was so outraged by the futile charge on June 3 that he explicitly threatened to disobey orders if his men were ordered to charge again.” *****

Reenactors representing the United States Colored Troops engage Confederates in Henrico, Va

Reenactors representing the United States Colored Troops engage Confederates in Henrico, Va

According to PT Beauregard the City of Petersburg was all but captured on this date. Unfortunately for Grant and the Union campaign his soldiers held their ground instead of pushing on.

Known as the “battle of old men and young boys”, referring to Beauregard’s makeshift militia, the Confederates obstinately defend Petersburg on June 9th and miraculously keep the Union at bay until Confederate reinforcements arrive from Richmond overnight.

The Crossing of the James

A pier reaches into the Appomattox River at the Weston Plantation near Bermuda Hundred and the site of Butler's pontoon bridge in 1864

A pier reaches into the Appomattox River at the Weston Plantation near Bermuda Hundred and the site of Butler’s crossing on June 9th 1864

Meanwhile on June 14th 1864 in one of the most masterful logistical maneuvers in the Civil War Grant directs a force of 450 engineers to erect a pontoon bridge across the James River at Weyanoke Point, thirty miles east of Cold Harbor.

Erected in just 8 hours and supported by ships anchored in the river the 2200 foot span is the longest floating bridge in military history.

Grant secretly moves troops out of their entrenchments at Cold Harbor and by June 17th more than 100,000 men, 5,000 wagons and 2,800 head of cattle have crossed the pontoon bridge. Before the Confederate commander even realized it Union troops were across the James and moving toward Petersburg…..Grant had truly stolen a march on Lee.

US Grant's modest Head Quarters at City Point. It was from here in 1864 and 1865 that Grant would issue the orders the would end the Civil War.

US Grant’s modest Head Quarters at City Point. It was from this small cabin that Grant would issue the orders in 1864 and 1865 that would end the Civil War.

The Battles for Petersburg June 15th-18th

Confederate reenactors defend earthworks in Henrico, Va 2014

Confederate reenactors defend earthworks commemorating the Battles for Petersburg in 1864

Now across the James River and a new base of supply established at City Point, Virginia Grant pushes his army toward what he knows is still a lightly defended City of Petersburg. Attacks on June 15th -18th are indecisive with the effects of the ongoing campaign effecting the willingness of the Union soldiers to assault entrenched positions.

The Confederates are pushed back beyond Harrison Creek nearly to the City limits but manage to dig a new line of entrenchments. Finally awakened to Grant’s intentions Lee quickly moves the Army of Northern Virginia to the Petersburg defenses.

Harrison Creek served as a natural defensive line during the first battles for Petersburg

Harrison Creek served as a natural defensive line during the first battle of Petersburg

On June 18th elements of four Union corps attack a new Confederate line including the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery regiment. This 900 strong unit would form up on the Prince George Courthouse Road and attack the Confederate line opposite Fort Stedman receiving some of the highest casualties of any one unit during the war. In less than a half hour the 1st Maine left 241 dead and 371 wounded on the field of battle.

Morning fog at Fort Stedman on the Petersburg Battlefield, Va 2014

Morning fog at Fort Stedman on the Petersburg Battlefield, Va 2014

“Once again, fighting ended with the coming of darkness. The Federal attempt to capture Petersburg had failed, with a loss of about 10,000 men, compared with an estimated 4,000 Confederate casualties. The lines of battle before Petersburg were clearly drawn, and both armies now settled down for a long siege . On July 19, 1864, Grant telegraphed General Henry Halleck to “Please order Colonel Abbot’s siege train forward.” ******

Camp tents in Henrico, Va

Camp tents in Henrico, Va

The Siege of Petersburg had begun…

The Siege of Petersburg

Although Grant’s forays to capture Petersburg were unsuccessful in June 1864 his troops had pushed the Confederates right up against the City. In some places on the battlefield the opposing lines were only a 100 feet apart. The closeness of the combatants made life in the trenches miserable and deadly with incessant sniping. The proximity of the combatants would also lead to what would become one of the biggest debacles of the war…the Battle of the Crater.

Confederate trenches at Elliott's Salient site of the Crater explosion in 1864

Confederate trenches at Elliott’s Salient site of the Crater explosion in 1864

A sector of the battlefield held by troops of Union General Ambrose Burnside was particularly close to the Confederate lines. Amongst Burnside’s troops was a regiment of former Pennsylvania coal miners who came up with an idea. The coal miners wanted to dig a tunnel, straight across the battlefield beneath the Confederate lines and blow a mine, destroying the Rebel position, leading to a breakthrough at Petersburg.

The idea was put to Meade and Grant and ascended to. Grant wasn’t convinced of the mines’ effectiveness but at least the soldiers would be kept busy. To anticipate the coming assault in Burnside’s front Grant would launch attacks around Richmond to aid in stripping defenders from the Petersburg lines. The 1st Battle of Deep Bottom was launched in July 1864 to help draw the Confederates out of Petersburg for the planned mine explosion and assault.

The Battle of the Crater

The tunnel built by Union coal miners that led to the Battle of the Crater at Petersburg in 1864

The tunnel built by Union coal miners that led to the Battle of the Crater at Petersburg in 1864

On July 30th 1864 the mine was readied, packed with 8,000 lbs of gunpowder and the fuse set. The mine and tunnel were an engineering marvel. Stretching 511 feet the mine’s engineer, Lt. Col. Henry Pleasants, devised an ingenious way of getting air to his men digging the long tunnel. Sinking a hole along the mine, Pleasants constructed a chimney to the surface and built a fire at its base. The fire would draw clean air into the tunnel and allow the miners to continue digging forward. The Confederates sensing that something was up opposite their lines began to dig counter mines but were ultimately unsuccessful.

Reenactors in Henrico Virginia commemorate the role of the United States Colored Troops in the battles for Petersburg

Reenactors in Henrico Virginia commemorate the role of the United States Colored Troops in the Battles for Petersburg and Richmond in 1864

Elements of Burnside’s soldiers chosen for the assault had practiced and reviewed the attack plan. United States Colored Troops were selected to lead the assault and planned on surging forward once the mine was detonated, move around the hole created in the Confederate lines and seize the Rebel entrenchments. Follow up troops were then to move beyond the Confederate lines and take the City.

At the last minute, when hearing that USCT troops would lead the assault General Meade changed the plan. Meade and Grant both felt that if the attack was unsuccessful and the colored troops slaughtered they would be accused of sacrificing the black troops needlessly. Burnside at the last minute was asked to select different troops for the assault.

Union troops attacked across this ground in the Battle of the Crater.

Union troops attacked across this ground in the Battle of the Crater.

This General Burnside did by asking his commanders to draw straws. Selected for the attack was Gen. James Ledlie, a confirmed drunkard and the beginning of the debacle. Ledlie’s troops were not trained on how the attack should play out and this would have dire consequences for the coming assault.

At dawn on July 30th the fuse was lit…suddenly an enormous explosion was heard in the City of Petersburg. In an instant nearly 300 South Carolinian soldiers manning the Confederate trenches were blown to bits and the Union troops surged forward…

The mine explosion crated a hole in the Confederate lines, 170 long, 60 feet wide and 30 feet deep. As the Union attackers approached the crater many of them stopped in their tracks. Inside the enormous crater,

The remains of the Crater explosion at Elliott's Salient at Petersburg National Battlefield.

The remains of the Crater explosion at Elliott’s Salient at Petersburg National Battlefield.

“..was filled with dust , chunks of clay, gun tubes, broken carriages, projecting timbers and men buried in various ways – some up to their necks, others to their waists, and some with only their feet and legs protruding from the earth. Half the Confederate salient had been destroyed.” ******

Union troops were shocked by the devastation and amazingly their first instincts were to help the buried Confederates. Union troops instinctively poured into the crater.

Remains of the Taylor House between the lines at the Crater battlefield and was destroyed during the Siege of Petersburg in 1864

An out-building of the Taylor Plantation destroyed during the Siege of Petersburg in 1864

Confederates meanwhile recovering from the shock of the blast begin to surge toward the crater to staunch the attack. The Union troops inside the crater became pinned down. What followed was some of the most gruesome fighting of the Civil War.

“Here, in the crater, was a confused mob of men continually increasing by fresh arrivals. Of course, nothing could be seen from this crater of the situation of affairs around us. Any attempt to move forward from this crater was absolutely hopeless.” ******

Union reenactors at right assault a reconstructed Fort harrison in Henrico, Va 2014

Union reenactors at right assault a reconstructed Fort Harrison in Henrico, Va 2014

A Confederate recorded, “we pushed to the front, and reaching the ditch, in we went with empty muskets, depending on the bayonet and breach of the gun, and a regular hand to hand encounter took place. The scene that follows beggars description: our men would drive the bayonet into one man, pull it out, turn and butt and knock the brains out of another, and so on until the ditch ran with blood of the dead and dying.” ******

The Norfolk and Petersburg Railroad that bisects the Crater battlefield at Petersburg 2014

The Norfolk and Petersburg Railroad that bisects the Crater battlefield at Petersburg 2014

The Union troops were like ducks in a barrel – the Confederates from above firing directly into the crater. Some Rebels began to fix bayonets and hurl their rifles like javelins into the now swirling caldera. Confederate troops brought forward mortars and began to lob exploding shells into the masses of men now stuck in the crater. The fighting went on for hours with the Confederates showing no quarter to the trapped Union troops.

“In later stages of the battle, many Union casualties were black soldiers killed by Confederate bayonets and musket fire even after surrendering..At the same time, black soldiers were also bayoneted by white Union soldiers who feared reprisal from victorious CSA troops”

In his after battle report to Washington Grant wrote, “It was the saddest affair I have witnessed in the war.” ****

Petersburg August to October 1864

Union reenactors scale the parapet of Fort Harrsion in commemoration of a battle fought during the Siege of Petersburg in 1864-1865

Union reenactors scale the parapet of a replica of Fort Harrsion in commemoration of a battle fought during the Siege of Petersburg in 1864-1865

As the siege continued the battles of 2nd Deep Bottom & New Market Height’s were fought outside of Richmond to draw troops from Petersburg for Grant’s offensives to gain control of the Welton Railroad, one of the three remaining rail lines supplying Petersburg.

Deep Bottom on the James River

Deep Bottom on the James River

Grant’s plan now was to continue to extend the Union lines to the left gaining control of the additional three-rail lines that entered the City. By increasingly extending their lines Grant also hoped to thin Lee’s forces and provide a weak point in the City’s defenses.

Multiple battles were fought on what is now considered the western front of the Petersburg battlefield to gain control of the Confederate supply routes into the City.

Battles at Globe Tavern and Ream’s Station for control of the Welton Railroad, the Battle for Peebles Farm and the Boydton Plank Road were fought between August and October 1864.

Unknown Civil War soldiers' grave at Poplar Grove National Cemetery near Petersburg, Va 2014

Unknown Civil War soldiers’ grave at Poplar Grove National Cemetery near Petersburg, Va 2014

These battles were hard-fought as the Confederates continued to tenaciously defend the City but were ultimately a Union success as Grant’s army continued to envelop Petersburg. As the winter approached the two armies would settle in for a long cold winter in the trenches.

The Union armies were continually extending their lines around the City and methodically cutting off the supply routes to Petersburg. The Siege of Petersburg would last until April 1865. By the time the Union armies finally broke through the City’s defenses the end of the war would only be a week away…..

Reenactors stir with the rising sun in Henrico, Virginia 2014

Reenactors stir with the rising sun in Henrico, Virginia 2014

Home

Petersburg Slideshow

Shenandoah Valley 1864

Notes:

* Bruce Catton – A Stillness at Appomattox

** Charles River Editors – The Overland Campaign

*** Shelby Foote – The Civil War: A Narrative Vol. 3

**** Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant

***** Charles River Editors – The Battle of the Crater

****** Ron Field – Petersburg 1864-1865: The Longest Siege

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: