2015 Civil War Institute Tour of Petersburg

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On Monday, June 22 I was part of Wil Greene’s tour of sites related to the Petersburg Campaign. He calls it a campaign and not a siege, because the Federals didn’t dig any regular approaches, except for a 6-day period, and because the confederates were never surrounded.

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He started with a brief recap of the 292-day campaign that encompassed nine Union offensives and three confederate offensives and cost about 70,000 casualties all told. He told us about the Dimmock Line, the defensive line around Petersburg laid out by confederate engineer Charles Dimmock, which held 55 artillery batteries connected by infantry curtains and anchored on both sides on the Appomattox River. D.H. Hill had pointed out Petersburg’s vulnerability and the line was built in 1862 and 1863. George B. McClellan had proposed crossing the James River and taking Petersburg, but Washington had disapproved that proposal.

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The  most powerful batteries in the Dimmock Line were located at the entry points to the city. Battery 5 originally had four guns, but a fifth gun was added. It was supported by the 26th Virginia Infantry, part of Henry Wise’s brigade.

P. G. T. Beauregard, in charge of defending Petersburg, had two divisions, that of Bushrod R. Johnson and Robert Hoke. The confederates had about 3800 troops south of the James River, but they were spread out. They opposed about 14,000 Federal troops of William F. Smith’s XVIII Corps, consisting of Martindale’s, Brooks’, and Hicks’ divisions and Kautz’s cavalry. The Federals originally intended to attack at dawn on June 15, 1864 but they couldn’t do it due to bad communications and Winfield Scott Hancock not being in position until almost dark. Smith arrived opposite the works at mid-morning and decided on an artillery bombardment followed by an attack with a reinforced skirmish line. He selected Brooks’ division for the assault, using about 700 troops from the 13th New Hampshire and 8th Connecticut. He also sent a brigade around to flank the rebel position. Delays in the artillery bombardment meant the attack didn’t start until about 7 P.M., but it was successful. They captured the five guns and the 26th Virginia surrendered. Martindale then captured Battery 4 and the confederates abandoned Battery 3. Black troops assault and capture Batteries 7, 8, and 9 while confederate troops abandoned Battery 10. The confederates now have to establish a new line of defense, the Hagood Line.

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One of the artillery pieces used in bombardment during the campaign was a siege mortar popularly known as “The Dictator.” The mortar on display at Petersburg is not the original Dictator, but it is the same type. It weighed 17,200 lbs. and fired a 218-lb. shell 4200 yards with a 20-lb. powder charge. It was brought in after the Federals took Battery 5, refaced the batteries, and closed the back of Battery 5’s redan. The Dictator actually fired relatively few shells during the campaign. Its primary target was not the city of Petersburg but rather it was aimed at confederate artillery on the other side of the Appomattox Railroad known as the Chesterfield Battery. It was also used against the bridges connecting Petersburg with the north side of the Appomattox River. It was removed early in September of 1864.

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We next went to the site of fighting at Prince George Court House Road. Otwey P. Hare owned a house and a hill in the vicinity of the Prince George Court House Road that was part of the Hagood Line. By 18 June the Federals have 90,000 men against Beauregard’s 14,000. The Union Army lunges at the confederates. The line bends but doesn’t break, but eventually Beauregard is forced to give up his line and falls back to the Harris Line, named for his chief engineer, David B. Harris.

Robert E. Lee had been fooled by the extent of Grant’s movement to Petersburg. Beauregard hadn’t been specific in his communications to Lee and thus Lee didn’t have the information he needed. By June 17 Lee decided to move his army to Petersburg. Meanwhile, the Army of the Potomac has lost its edge. David Birney is in temporary command of the II Corps due to Hancock being incapacitated by his Gettysburg wound. Meade just can’t get his troops to attack in concert. By the morning of 18 June the Army of Northern Virginia starts to arrive, and the Federals’ window of opportunity to capture Petersburg closes.

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We now come to the largest single regimental loss of any unit in the Civil War, that of the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery, part of Gersham Mott’s brigade. Earlier, at the Battle of Harris Farm, they had lost 500 of their 1800 men. On 18 June their commander, Daniel Chaplain, has 850 to 900 men. They lead the attack against Colquitt’s Salient, supported by Medill’s Brigade and two others.  Chaplain divides his force into three battalions. The first will remove the obstructions. The second battalion will fire at the defenders to keep their heads down and suppress defensive fire, while the third battalion will capture the salient. At 1630 they emerge from their position and move up the slope to their doom. The attack is over in only ten minutes, with the Maine men having 632 of their 850 men shot.

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Our next stop was Fort Stedman, an enclosed fort known as a redoubt and the location of the Union Battery X. In March of 1865 the Battle of Bentonville took place in North Carolina. Schofield is coming to link with Sherman, so Lee needs to try to break out to join Johnston in North Carolina. He has to assault now. The plan involves fourteen infantry brigades along with Pickett’s division, which didn’t arrive in time. Fort Stedman has four guns and is guarded by the 14th New York Heavy Artillery. Lee entrusts the operation to John Brown Gordon, commander of his Second Corps. Gordon will use three hundred men to capture the fort, then regular infantry to widen the breach and cavalry to move forward and suppress the Union artillery, maybe even break the Union Military Railroad Line. They’re successful in taking Fort Stedman, but the cavalry can’t find the other forts. Fort McGilvery and Fort Haskell restrict the confederates with canister fire and a division of Pennsylvania troops comes up under John Hartranft and counterattacks. By 0900 it’s clear the attack failed. The confederates sustained 3800 casualties while the Federals had about 1,000 casualties.

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Our next stop was the remnant of the infamous Crater. The mine entrance shown at the park is actually a reconstruction of the mine entrance. The actual mine entrance was another 75-80 feet further back from the confederate position. You can see a full discussion of the events surrounding the Crater here.

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We next visited White Oak Road. On 29 March the confederates had to give up the Boyden Plank Road to the Union V Corps. On 31 March at White Oak Road, Philip H. Sheridan was trying to cut the Southside Railroad. The Weldon/Petersburg Railroad had been captured by Warren’s V Corps earlier. The confederates have a 37-mile-long line, and this position is by the far right of the line. There are four brigades here, Samuel McGowan’s South Carolina brigade, Eppa Hunton’s brigade from Pickett’s division, Young W. Moody’s brigade which was formerly Archibald Gracy’s brigade and was under the command of Martin Stansel due to Moody being ill, and Henry Wise’s brigade. Warren’s orders were not to advance, but he saw what he thought was a vulnerable position and he ordered Ayres to adjust his position. Lee ordered an en echelon attack with McGowan, Hunton, Stansel, and then Wise attacking in that order. McGowan sees Ayres making his adjustment and believes it’s preparatory for a Union attack, so he attacks early. Ayres crumbles and Crawford moves up. The confederates drive his division from the battlefield across Gravelly Run. By the middle of the day, Warren is in deep trouble. He sends to Andrew A. Humphreys, in command of the II Corps, for help. Humphreys sends Nelson Miles’ division. At about 1300 Warren tells Griffin, his reserve, to counterattack. Griffin sends Gregory’s and Chamberlain’s brigades.  They drive the confederates back and by 1500 all the confederate gains are neutralized. Significantly, Bartlett’s brigade of Griffin’s division takes position across the White Oak Road between the right end of the confederate line and George E. Pickett’s position at Five Forks. Pickett had driven Sheridan, but now he has to fall back due to Bartlett. White Oak Road negates Pickett’s gains and forces him to fall back, setting things up for the attack on Five Forks.

The famous photograph of confederates captured at Five Forks shows the condition of the ANV at this time. They are well equipped, not at all like the stereotypical barefoot soldiers with uniforms falling apart.

Due to a lack of understanding of the geography, Grant and Sheridan expect Warren to do the impossible. they want him to arrive in position to attack by sundown, but he can’t get there until dawn the next day.

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Note the monument in the second photo. It’s the lost cause alive and well, inflating Union troop figures by more than double what they actually had at Five Forks.

Warren was ordered to attack the confederate left at the intersection of White Oak Road and Gravelly Run Church Road with Ayres in reserve. The plan is for him to hit the refused confederate left flank at this intersection and roll it up. Devin attacked the center and Custer mounted an attack on the right flank. Warren deployed in line of battle but sees no confederates. Ayres discovered the real confederate left flank, turns, and attacks them. The confederates are rolled up. They put their backs to the Courthouse Road and face east to try to deal with the V Corps attackers. Custer tries to get around Rooney Lee’s flank, but Lee holds him off. Grant sends a II Corps division to reinforce Griffin. Sheridan routs Pickett’s men. Grant knows Lee is weakened, so he orders a dawn assault all along the line, knowing he’ll be successful somewhere, and the VI Corps’ assault is successful. Sheridan fails to follow up on his victory, though, which allows Pickett’s survivors to escape unpursued. The Union VI Corps success eliminates 600 yards of ground the Union will have to cross to attack the confederates.

We next went to Pamplin Park, where we saw a mock-up of a defensive line:

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They also have a mock-up of confederate winter quarters:

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The park grounds contains the positions broken by the VI Corps in their attack:

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We next discussed the VI Corps’ breakthrough.

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Lewis Grant’s Vermont brigade led the attack. Because the attack was going forward in the predawn hours, they needed a way to keep aligned and on track in the darkness. They used Arthur’s Swamp. The Vermonters put their left on Arthur’s Swamp and the other brigades aligned on them. During this attack, 14,000 Federals had the same frontage as the confederates had during the Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble Charge on July 3, 1863 at Gettysburg. The VI Corps broke the confederate line, pivoted 90 degrees and rolled it up, then reversed and rolled up the rest of the line.

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Our next stop was the place where A. P. Hill was killed. Wil told us the story of how Hill demanded the surrender of some VI Corps soldiers, but instead they decided to fire, and he was dead when he hit the ground, the bullet going through his thumb and deflecting up into his heart.

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Gibbon’s corps of the Army of the James attacked toward Fort Gregg and Fort Whitworth. These forts were built in October of 1864 and were fallback positions in case the main line was breached. Lee called on Mahone to come to the rescue. Harris leaves 200 men in the Howlett Line and takes the remainder across the Appomattox River. They encounter Foster’s division of Gibbon’s corps. They fall back and two regiments enter Fort Gregg while two regiments enter Fort Whitworth. Fort Whitworth has four pieces of artillery while Fort Gregg has two pieces of artillery from the Washington Artillery. Here it’s 8,000 Union troops vs. 500 confederate troops. Word comes to pull out the guns. The four at Fort Whitworth are successfully withdrawn, but word doesn’t come to Fort Gregg until the assault had begun. The attack started at 1300 after a half-hour artillery bombardment. At 1330 the second wave attacks and at 1400 the third wave attacks. Meanwhile Thomas Harris’ Ohio Brigade attacks Whitworth. Every confederate defender at Fort Gregg is a casualty–most are captured, but many are killed or wounded. This breakthrough led to the abandonment of Petersburg, which also made Richmond untenable and thus Lee began his retreat that would end at Appomattox.

This was an outstanding tour. Wil Greene is one of the most knowledgeable people around regarding the Petersburg battles and breakthrough, and he’s an excellent presenter. We all thoroughly enjoyed this tour. The day ended with a barbecue dinner at Pamplin Park, followed by an open house at the Park, and later that night the weary, footsore attendees made their way back to the hotel for a much-needed night of rest.

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3 comments

  1. That is a full day’s tour! Were you exhausted at the end? (Color me jealous.)

    1. Weary and footsore, but very happy at the end. 🙂

  2. One quibble: Mac gave up his scheme to cross the James, according to Heintzleman’s diary, because he was concerned about Confederates from the west appearing on his left flank. IIRC, Mac had talked about this idea to Halleck, and Halleck was not enthusiastic (he wasn’t any more so in 1864), but I am not sure “Washington” (Lincoln & Stanton) rendered an opinion.

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