June 2014 marks the sesquicentennial of the beginning of the siege of Petersburg, which would culminate in Lee’s attempted breakout to the west in the hope of linking up with Joseph Johnston’s army in North Carolina. The attempt failed, and Lee would surrender at Appomattox in April of 1865, with Johnston capitulating later that month at Durham Station.
Determining the best time to remember a sesquicentennial event becomes more difficult after Gettysburg. While both sides conducted campaigns — the combination of movements and combats, supported by logistics — those campaigns usually featured a major battle that took place over a short period of time: First Manassas/Bull Run, the Peninsula, Shiloh, Corinth and Iuka, Second Manassas, Antietam/Sharpsburg, Fredericksburg, Murfreesboro/Stones River, Gettysburg, and Chickamauga. By 1864, it had become clear that the quest for a Napoleonic “battle of annihilation” was futile, and thus the conflict degenerated into a war of attrition, exemplified by the Virginia Overland Campaign. The period stretching from May of 1864 until April of 1865 — the siege of Petersburg — represents the epitome of a war of attrition.
GRANT CROSSES THE JAMES RIVER
Following the repulse of the Union’s attack on the fortified Confederate line at Cold Harbor on June 3, both the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia continued to entrench as Grant weighed his options. Concluding that there was no opening on his immediate front that would permit him to move directly on Richmond, he decided to change his line of operation by shifting his forces to the south, crossing the James River, and seizing Petersburg, the critical railroad hub linking Richmond with the lower South.
The operation would be a difficult one. Grant and Meade would have to break contact with Lee, move south around the right flank of the Army of Northern Virginia, cross both the Chickahominy and James Rivers, and take Petersburg before Lee could react.
On June 12, II and VI Corps occupied a shortened trench line while V Corps slid to the south to protect the Union approaches to the James. XVIII Corps marched east to White House on the York River, embarking on ships for transport to Bermuda Hundred, a peninsula formed by the confluence of the James and Appomattox Rivers between Richmond and Petersburg. Once V Corps took up its covering position, the rest of the Army of the Potomac passed behind it toward the James.
On June 14, II Corps crossed the James by boat from Wilcox’s Landing to Windmill Point, and XVIII Corps reached Bermuda Hundred. On June 15, Yankee engineers completed a massive pontoon bridge across the James, permitting the rest of the army to cross by June 16. Meanwhile, diversionary actions, including a cavalry raid north of Richmond, kept Lee confused as to Grant’s intentions.
It was a bold plan, boldly executed. The Petersburg lines were only weakly defended by elements of a small force under Beauregard, who was also responsible for holding the line at Bermuda Hundred. Before Lee knew what was going on, elements of the Army of the Potomac were in position to seize the city.
The plan called for William Smith’s XVIII Corps to break through Beauregard’s lines at Bermuda Hundred and attack the Petersburg lines from the east, supported by II Corps. Smith delayed, but when XVIII Corps finally did attack late on June 15, it easily carried the lines of the Confederates, who re-formed behind Harrison’s Creek. Had Smith continued the attack, he would probably have been able to occupy Petersburg. But, perhaps still stunned by the carnage at Cold Harbor, the Federals did not exploit their early success.
Beauregard abandoned his Bermuda Hundred position and rushed his troops south to man the Petersburg lines. The Federals resumed their assaults on June 17 and 18, but their attacks were largely disorganized and uncoordinated. Lee’s troops poured into the Petersburg defense, and by the evening of June 18, the Union assault had stalled, prompting Grant to call off further frontal attacks on the city.
THE SIEGE BEGINS: BATTLE OF THE CRATER
Since the Army of the Potomac could easily be resupplied through City Point on the James River, Grant and Meade now settled into a siege. For the most part, the Confederate defenses were too strong to be taken by storm. Indeed, photographs taken at the time eerily adumbrate the Western Front a half-century later. Thus, Grant’s overall plan was to extend his lines toward the west in order to achieve two goals: to cut the Weldon and Petersburg Railroad, the city’s main source of provisions from North Carolina, and to thin out Lee’s lines in the hopes that at some point the Rebel defenses would be so weakened that Union forces could achieve a breakthrough.
The first attempt to extend the lines was repulsed by A. P. Hill near the Jerusalem Plank Road on June 22–23. After this event, Meade and Grant tried a more direct approach. A unit within Ambrose Burnside’s IX Corps made up of Pennsylvania coal miners had proposed digging a tunnel from Union lines to the Confederate position, filling it with explosives, and then detonating it to undermine the Rebel works. Grant approved the plan, though he didn’t really believe it would bear fruit. He seems to have thought of it primarily as a way to keep the troops busy, akin to his approach during the winter of 1862–63 in the leadup to his brilliant Vicksburg campaign.
Nonetheless, Grant ordered II Corps to attack the Confederate defenses north of the James in an effort to weaken the part of the line where the mining effort was taking place. Although the attack at Deep Bottom failed, the Rebel lines were in fact weakened at the point of the mine as Lee had to send troops to meet the apparent threat to the Richmond defenses north of the James. The mine itself was a remarkable engineering feat. The approach shaft was over 500 feet long, and the miners developed an ingenious way of ventilating the shaft. When completed, it was packed with about 8,000 pounds of gunpowder. The plan called for an attack immediately after the mine was detonated.
Unfortunately, in an early case of political correctness, the African-American division that was to lead the assault was replaced at the last minute, because of Meade’s concern that if the attack failed, he would be accused of using black soldiers as cannon fodder. As Grant testified later before the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War,
General Burnside wanted to put the colored division in front, and I still believe if he had done so it would have been a success. Still, I agreed with General Meade in his objection that if we put the colored troops in front (we had only that one division) and if it should prove a failure, it would then be said, and very properly, that we were shoving those people ahead to get them killed because we did not care anything about them. But that could not be said if we put white troops in front.
Unfortunately, the replacement division was badly led and not up to the challenge.
On July 30, the mine was detonated, creating a huge crater 30 feet deep and 70 feet wide in the Confederate works. But rather than skirting the crater, the Union’s lead division attacked directly into it and stopped, which made the soldiers sitting ducks. As Grant drily noted in his memoirs, they “stopped there in the absence of any one to give them directions; their commander having found some safe retreat to get into before they started.” Actually, he was drunk in his quarters.
The Battle of the Crater was a horrendous failure, costing IX Corps nearly 3,800 casualties. Grant now returned to his original approach of extending his lines to the west to get at the Weldon and Petersburg railroad. On August 18, V Corps seized part of the rail line near Globe Tavern. Although a sharp Rebel counterattack drove the Federals back some distance, they maintained their hold on the tracks. A Union push south of Globe Tavern by II Corps was defeated on August 25 at Reams Station.
These efforts — both the push to the west and the attacks north of the James — continued into October. On September 30, Union troops gained a salient at Poplar Springs Church, southwest of Petersburg, and captured Fort Harrison north of the James. In October, the Union line was further extended west near Hatcher’s Run.
The strain on Lee’s army was beginning to tell. While he was able to prevent a Union breakthrough, he was forced to constantly rush troops from one threatened sector to another. As winter set in, operations on the Richmond–Petersburg front came to a halt.
OPERATIONS IN THE SHENANDOAH VALLEY
While Meade and Grant were applying pressure against Lee, events of military importance were also taking place in the Shenandoah Valley. Grant’s strategic plan for ending the war called for a simultaneous advance by five Federal armies; the three main thrusts were to be made by Meade directly against Lee, Sherman against Atlanta, and Banks against Mobile, while two smaller offensives would support Meade in Virginia: Franz Sigel was to move up the Shenandoah Valley, and Benjamin Butler was to move against Richmond from the James River.
As it turned out, Butler was bottled up at Bermuda Hundred and remained inactive. In the Shenandoah, Sigel was beaten by Major General John C. Breckinridge at New Market in May, after which the latter joined Lee on the North Anna River. Grant replaced Sigel with David Hunter, who had defeated a Confederate force at Piedmont on June 5 and then marched on Lexington, where he burned the Virginia Military Institute before moving toward Lynchburg. Breckinridge hurried back to the Valley, followed by Jubal Early’s corps.
Outnumbered by Early, Hunter fell back to the Kanawha Valley, leaving the way open for Early to march down the Shenandoah Valley toward Maryland and Washington. The Great Valley of Virginia was one of the few remaining areas from which Lee’s army could draw provisions. More importantly, it was a strategic asset for the Confederacy, serving as an avenue of approach. Lee had used the Valley in both 1862 and 1863 for his thrusts northward. A Confederate army in the Shenandoah was always a threat to Washington, as Stonewall Jackson had shown during the spring of 1862.
Lee hoped that Early could reprise Jackson’s success. At the end of June 1864, Early marched down the Valley, crossed the Potomac, and headed north before turning toward the capital. (To avoid confusion, it is important to understand that “down” the Shenandoah Valley — the direction of the river’s flow — is actually “up” on a map of the region, since the river flows south to north into the Potomac.) On July 9, he engaged a Federal force under Major General Lew Wallace on Monocacy Creek near Frederick, forcing it back toward Washington. Early’s arrival created panic in the city, leading Grant to detach two corps to reinforce Washington’s defenses. After exchanging volleys with Union troops at Fort Stevens, Early retreated into the Valley.
Many historians have concluded that Early’s raid on Washington was a failure. But others disagree. For instance, a recent book on the battle of the Monocacy argues that had Lew Wallace not delayed Early, the Rebels could have seized Fort Stevens, which was only lightly defended by “cooks and clerks.” Another historian has argued that Early’s raid extended the war for nine months by diverting two corps from Meade’s army at the beginning of the Petersburg siege.
As Early withdrew, Federal forces pursued the Rebels to Snickers Gap, administering a defeat at Cool Spring on July 18. Thinking that Early would continue his retreat up the Valley, most of the Union forces returned to the Richmond-Petersburg lines.
But Early turned and attacked a Union force under George Crook, defeating it at the Second Battle of Kernstown on July 25, and then continued down the Valley to Martinsburg, where he destroyed the tracks of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. His cavalry then raided into Pennsylvania, burning Chambersburg in retaliation for Hunter’s earlier depredations in the Valley.
Grant had had enough of the Rebels in the Valley, and at the beginning of August, he sent Phil Sheridan, the commander of the Army of the Potomac’s cavalry, to deal with Early. Early had misinterpreted Sheridan’s previous refusal to give battle as a sign of timidity. As result, he became overconfident and divided his army, spreading it from Winchester to Martinsburg. When Sheridan discovered Early’s disposition, he attacked at Winchester. Although Early was able to reconcentrate his forces and repulse several of Sheridan’s assaults, on September 19 Union cavalry crushed the Confederate left flank and drove the Rebels from the field.
Early attempted to rally his troops at Fisher’s Hill near Strasburg, but, three days after his triumph at Winchester, Sheridan flanked this position as well, routing the Rebels. Sheridan pursued Early to Staunton but then turned back, systematically destroying the agricultural potential of the Valley as he went so as to deny provisions to the Confederacy. Sheridan later boasted that his goal was to make it so that a crow flying over the Valley would have to carry its own provender.
On October 9, Yankee cavalrymen routed their Rebel counterparts at Tom’s Brook, making it clear that the advantage the Confederacy once held in this arm was now a thing of the past. Nonetheless, Early still managed to surprise the Union army on October 19 at Cedar Creek, initially sending the Yankees reeling. Sheridan was not with his troops, but when he received word that the battle was underway, he quickly returned and organized a counterattack that routed the Confederates. His feat was immortalized in Thomas Buchanan Read’s poem “Sheridan’s Ride.” Following Cedar Creek, both sides went into winter quarters, but on March 3, 1865, Sheridan would destroy what was left of Early’s army at Waynesboro.
THE RACE TO THE WEST
On February 6, 1865, an event occurred that was to have important consequences for ending the war. On that date, Lee was appointed general-in-chief of the Confederate Armies. General Order 3 of that date reads:
The Congress of the Confederate States of America do enact, That there shall be appointed by the President, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, an officer, who shall be known and designated as “General in Chief,” who shall be ranking officer of the army, and as such, shall have command of the military forces of the Confederate States. . . . General Robert E. Lee having been duly appointed General in Chief of the Armies of the Confederate States, will assume the duties thereof and will be obeyed and respected accordingly.
As the Richmond Dispatch of February 7 observed, “Providence raises up the man for the time, and a man for this occasion, we believe, has been raised up in Robert E. Lee, the Washington of the second American Revolution.”
The move by the Confederate Congress reflected the fact that by this time Jefferson Davis had lost support throughout the South. As the fortunes of the Confederacy waned, Southerners concluded that Davis lacked the political — and, in his capacity as commander-in-chief, the military — skills necessary to achieve independence.
Some of Davis’s critics were so keen to diminish the president’s role that they even considered the possibility of making Lee commander-in-chief and thus de facto leader of the Confederacy. This never came to pass, largely because Lee would have none of it. But the Confederate Congress’s action did raise Lee’s official status to the one demanded by the public. At Appomattox two months later, this congressional action would mean that Lee’s surrender would essentially end the war.
During the winter, things had remained quiet on the Richmond-Petersburg front. However, in February, Grant resumed his efforts to thin the Confederate defenses by extending the Union lines to the west. Lee knew he had to do something and thought that if he could achieve some success near City Point, Grant would have to contract his lines. If the contraction took place, Lee would then be able to move south toward North Carolina if Petersburg fell.
Lee’s attack at Fort Stedman on March 25 achieved initial success, but Union counterattacks restored the line. Recognizing that Lee had weakened his defenses in order to concentrate his forces on Fort Stedman, Grant now believed the time was ripe for a final push. Sheridan, having returned from his successful campaign against Early in the Valley, led his cavalry against Rebel forces near Dinwiddie Court House and then defeated Pickett’s command at Five Forks. The Confederate defenses began to collapse, and on April 2 Grant ordered a general assault across the entire front.
Lee advised Jefferson Davis that he could no longer hold his position, and on the night of April 2–3, the Confederates evacuated Richmond. Lee’s troops hurried west on multiple routes toward Amelia Court House on the Richmond and Danville Railroad, where he hoped to be resupplied before turning south to link up with Johnston’s forces now in North Carolina. But when he arrived at Amelia Court House, the supplies were not there. He also learned that Union forces were blocking his path to the west.
Conducting an exhausting night march that enabled him to circumvent the Federals, Lee led his tattered army to Farmville, again hoping to be resupplied. The rations were there, but, with sizable Federal forces to his south, he was unable to execute his plan to link up with Johnston. On April 6, as he crossed the Appomattox River, his rear guard was smashed at Sayler’s Creek, costing Lee 7,000 more casualties.
On April 8, Sheridan’s cavalry reached Appomattox Court House, blocking a further move by Lee to the west. Lee attempted to break through the Union position, but the diminished size of his army and the timely arrival of elements of the Army of the James ended any chance of success. Lee now had no choice but to surrender his army.
LEE AND THE END OF THE WAR
At Appomattox, Lee’s position as general-in-chief of the Confederate armies became an important aspect of the way the war ended. As one historian has observed, “Davis and many others initially refused to accept that Lee’s surrender brought the end of the Confederacy. . . . British journalists agreed that the war did not end with Lee. Instead, they expected guerrilla warfare. Lee’s refusal to participate made such a shift difficult, if not impossible.”
Lee had already made it clear that he did not support the idea of continuing the struggle by means of guerrilla warfare. His chief of artillery, E. Porter Alexander, had suggested this option before the surrender, but Lee rejected it in favor of unifying the country. As James I. Robertson observed in 2006, “Lee’s attitude was, we did what we could, we lost, let’s look to the future and rebuild. He knew that it would take the country years to recover from a guerrilla war.”
On the other hand, Grant was disappointed that Lee did not exercise his position as general-in-chief of the Confederate Armies to encourage other Rebel commanders to surrender when he did. As Grant wrote in his Memoirs, he “suggested to General Lee that there was not a man in the Confederacy whose influence with the soldiery and the whole people was as great as his, and that if he would now advise the surrender of all the armies I had no doubt [Lee’s] advice would be followed with alacrity.”
Indeed, on April 10, 1865, the day after Lee’s surrender, Grant went so far as to suggest that Lee bypass Davis’s authority altogether and speak directly with Lincoln to negotiate terms of surrender for the whole Confederacy. Lee refused, holding firm to the position that only Davis, as president of the Confederacy, could negotiate with Lincoln toward a general surrender. But Grant maintained that the “Confederacy had gone a long way beyond the reach of President Davis, and that there was nothing that could be done except what Lee could do to benefit the Southern people.”
In retrospect, historians agree that after the fall of Atlanta in September of 1864, the Confederacy was doomed, and many of them wonder why the South did not recognize this reality. But this is an illustration of the fact that hindsight is always 20/20. As Mark Grimsley and Brooks D. Simpson, the editors of The Collapse of the Confederacy, wrote in 2001, “an air of inevitability has clung too long to the Confederacy’s final months.” Working backwards from the known outcomes at Appomattox and Durham Station, most historians argue that the Confederacy had no chance of gaining its independence after the fall of Atlanta and Lincoln’s reelection. But while the outcome may be certain to us, it was not at all certain to either Northerners or Southerners at the time.
Southern morale had certainly suffered as a result of battlefield setbacks through the end of 1864, but many in the South saw the situation in the winter of 1865 as just one more period of grave peril — no different from that of spring 1862 or even the dark days of the American Revolution — which could be reversed by courage and perseverance. As the passage from the Richmond Dispatch cited above illustrates, white Southerners were like patriots during the American Revolution who had invested their hopes for independence in Washington’s Continental Army. The Southerners looked to Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia to bring about the independence of the Confederacy. As long as Lee was in the field, Southerners believed there was still hope for their cause.
Of course, Lee has long been admired. He has been portrayed as outshining all others on both sides of the conflict not only in soldierly virtue but also in magnanimity and humanity. He has been described as the perfect soldier — a Christian and a gentleman as well as a peerless commander, who led the Army of Northern Virginia to a spectacular series of victories against overwhelming odds.
This view of Lee has come under attack by some historians, most notably Thomas Connelly and Alan Nolan, although both reflect a view advanced by the British military writer J. F. C. Fuller in the 1930s. Historians of this school contend that Lee hurt the Southern cause with his single-minded offensive orientation, which led to casualties the Confederacy could not afford. According to his detractors, Lee had no grand strategy; he focused narrowly on defeating his adversary in Virginia and was willing to pay any cost to prevail. Lee’s predilection for the offensive not only hastened the demise of the South but also was a major contributing cause of that defeat. In the words of Connelly, the Confederacy would “have fared better had it not possessed” a leader as aggressive as Robert E. Lee.
Most important, these critics argue that Lee’s reputation as a gifted soldier was “manufactured history” by such “Lost Cause” writers as Jubal Early, who “distorted the record by vastly inflating Lee’s abilities and wartime stature.” But the outstanding historian Gary Gallagher has argued persuasively that Lee’s high reputation was not a postwar creation of the Lost Cause school. Relying on wartime sources — “as distinct from postwar accounts informed by full knowledge of how the war unfolded,” he concluded that Southerners retained a remarkable faith in the qualities of Lee and the prowess of his army.
Thus, Southerners did not see the setbacks at Antietam or Gettysburg as disasters. Even as Lee clung to the trenches at Petersburg, they believed that victory was ultimately possible.
— Mackubin Thomas Owens is a professor of national-security affairs at the Naval War College. He also teaches in the Master of Arts in American History and Government (MAHG) program at Ashland University in Ohio. He wrote this campaign description, among others, for his MAHG course on the Civil War and Reconstruction.