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.