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.