Petersburg to Appomattox
By June 1864, the Civil War had degenerated into a war of attrition.

Sketch of the Battle of the Crater by Alfred Waud (Library of Congress)


Mackubin Thomas Owens

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.

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.

The Siege of Petersburg
As the Civil War moved into its final year in the spring of 1864, the character of the fighting shifted from one of fast-moving campaigns and signature battles to a long war of attrition, exemplified by the carnage of the Virginia Overland Campaign and the siege at Petersburg. Here’s a look at landscape of battle at Petersburg, from the collection of the Library of Congress.
Union General Ulysses S. Grant’s plan that spring called for a simultaneous advance of five Union armies, with one of the main thrusts being General Meads directly against Confederate General Robert E. Lee. But after an early opening to take Petersburg was lost, Union forces settled in for a siege.
Entrenched Confederate forces and a large and well-supplied Union army surrounding them made for a long stand-off across some 30 miles of trenches and from dozens of individual fortifications. Pictured, Union lines near Fort Morton.
Union forces had a clear numerical and supply advantage, but victory would come only after a long and grinding siege. Pictured, a Union mortar known as “The Dictator" arrives on rails.
The fighting at Petersburg from June 1864 to March 1865 would prove a brutal preview of the trench warfare that would characterize the Western Front of World War I five decades later. Pictured, Union sharpshooter of the 18th Corps, from Harpers Weekly.
Artists for Harper's Weekly depicted the fighting around Petersburg during the long siege. Pictured, the Union 18th Army Corps storms a fortification during a early stage of the fighting.
Union forces assault Fort Harrison at the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm. (Harper’s Weekly).
Union soldiers capture Confederate guns at the First Battle of Deep Bottom. (Harper’s Weekly).
Confederate forces finally evacuated Petersburg on April 2, 1865, after a nearly ten months of fighting; the nearby Confederate capital at Richmond fell the same day. Pictured, a Union wagon train enters Petersburg after the fall of the city.
After the loss of Petersburg, Lee’s forces moved West in an attempt to hook up with General Joseph E. Johnston’s forces from North Carolina. But hoped-for supplies could not be found, and Union armies were closing in on three sides. With no resource remaining, Lee surrendered to General Grant at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9.
ON THE LINES: Views of the fortifications and entrenchment on both the Confederate and Union lines surrounding Petersburg, taken after the end of the siege. Pictured, Union soldiers at Confederate Fort Mahone, also known as "Fort Damnation."
Federal picket line in front of Fort Mahone
A rifle pit on a Confederate picket line.
Entrenchments at the Confederate Fort McGilvery.
Relaxing at Fort Sedgwick
Bomb-proof at Fort Sedgwick (also known as "Fort Hell")
A bomb-proof whimsically named “Fruit & Oyster House.”
Union soldiers with captured Confederate artillery.
More views of the long lines of trenches and earthworks that ringed the city.
Individual forts and fortifictions sat at key points around the city.
Heavy gun at a Confederate fortification.
A SOLDIER'S LIFE: Soldiers' quarters near the line.
Union soldiers pose during a boxing match.
Cockfighting at General Orlando B. Wilcox’s headquarters.
Ruins of the Richmond & Petersburg railroad depot
A destroyed Richmond & Petersburg locomotive
PORTRAITS OF WAR: The art of photography advanced rapidly during the Civil War, and the men who fought at Petersburg sat for many individual and group portraits. Pictured, General Orlando B. Wilcox, Third Division, Ninth Corps, and his staff.
General Edward Ferrero and staff
Officers of the 114th Pennsylvania infantry
Chaplains of the Ninth Corps
Captain John S. Crawford, 114th Pennsylvania infantry
An officer relaxes for the camera.
A tent in the camp of Second Division, Ninth Corps
Detachment of the Third Indiana Cavalry
Surgeons of the Second Division
Union telegraph operators
Company D of the Virginia Infantry
Engineer Battalion, Company D
Company H, 114th Pennsylvania infantry
Updated: Jun. 22, 2014