Generals Lee and Grant were two of the finest generals in American history. However, they both had off days, and few episodes in the Civil War cast both of these men in a poorer light than the failure of the Union attempt to seize Petersburg from June 15-18, 1864.
Grant inexplicably assigned to Butler’s Army of the James the task of spearheading the Union effort to take Petersburg. Considering the poor performance of this army during the Bermuda Hundred campaign and the assault on Petersburg on June 9, this was a poor choice. Smith’s corps and the cavalry of Kautz would attack over the same route followed on the June 9 attack. Hancock’s corps of the Army of the Potomac would follow up after the initial assault.
The attack didn’t get under way until 7:oo PM with Smith then taking 3.5 miles of entrenchments from the almost unmanned Confederate defenses. Smith then decided to wait until dawn before advancing further. Hancock, demonstrating yet again that he was no longer the aggressive battlefield commander he had been earlier in the War, agreed with Smith’s decision to wait until dawn.
Beauregard, commanding the defenses of Petersburg, having no other troops, stripped the fortified Howlett line that kept most of Butler’s army of Confederate troops bottled up at Bermuda Hundred. Butler could then have smashed through the Howlett line with ease, but he did nothing. Beauregard now had 14000 men to hold Petersburg while he awaited reinforcements from General Lee.
He now confronted three corps of 50,000 men, Burnside’s corps having come up to join Smith’s and Hancock’s. Hancock, in temporary command of the Army of the Potomac until Meade arrived, launched a three corps attack at 5:30 PM on June 16. Beauregard and his men hanging on just barely, constructing entrenchments behind their lines to contain Union breaches.
June 17 was a day of uncoordinated Union assaults which gave Beauregard the opportunity to construct a new defensive line around Petersburg to which he and his men withdrew on the evening of June 17-18.
Throughout the struggle for Petersburg Beauregard had frantically been asking Lee to send him reinforcements. Lee denied all such entreaties until his son General Fitzhugh Lee and his cavalry finally confirmed that the Army of the Potomac had crossed the James and was attacking Petersburg. At 3:00 AM on June 18, Lee dispatched two divisions to shore up the Petersburg defenses.
Beauregard now had 20,000 troops against 67,000 Federals. The Union attacks on June 18 were repulsed with heavy loss and the siege of Petersburg began. The Union had sustained 11000 casualties against 4000 Confederate casualties during the fighting of June 15-18, and the last opportunity to end the War quickly had vanished.
Here is an account of the fighting from June 15-18th by General Beauregard that he wrote for the North American Review in 1887:
From Swift Creek, early on June 14th, I telegraphed to General Bragg : ” Movement of Grant’s across Chickahominy and increase of Butler’s force render my position here critical. With my present forces I cannot answer for consequences. Cannot my troops sent to General Lee be returned at once ? . . .” No answer came. Late in tho evening of the same day, having further reason to believe that one corps at least of General Grant’s army was already within Butler’s lines, I telegraphed to General Lee : “ A deserter from the enemy reports that Butler has been re-enforced by the Eighteenth and a part of the Tenth Army Corps.” To this dispatch, likewise, there came no response. But, as prompt and energetic action became more and more imperative, and as I could no longer doubt the presence of Smith’s corps with Butler’s forces, I sent one of my aides, Colonel Samuel B. Paul, to General Lee with instructions to explain to him the exact situation. General Lee’s answer to Colonel Paul was not encouraging. He said that I must be in error in believing the enemy had thrown a large force on the south side of the James; that the troops referred to by me could be but a few of Smith’s corps going back to Butler’s lines. Strange to say, at the very time General Lee was thus expressing himself to Colonel Paul, the whole of Smith’s corps was actually assaulting the Petersburg lines. But General Lee finally said that he had already issued orders for the return of Hoke’s division ; that he would do all he could to aid me, and even come himself should the necessity arise.
The Confederate forces opposed to Smith’s corps on the 15th of June consisted of the 26th, 34th, and 46th Virginia regiments, the 64th Georgia, the 23d South Carolina, Archer’s militia, Battle’s and Wood’s battalions, Sturdivant’s battery, Dearing’s small command of cavalry, and some other transient forces, having a real effective for duty of 2200 only. These troops occupied the Petersburg line on the left from Battery No. 1 to what was called Butterworth’s Bridge, toward the right, and had to be so stationed as to allow but one man for every 4 % yards. From that bridge to the Appomattox-a distance of fully 4% miles-the line was defenseless.
Early in the morning – at about 7 o’clock – General Dearing, on the Broadway and City Point roads, reported his regiment engaged with a large force of the enemy. The stand made by our handful of cavalry, near their breastworks, was most creditabe to themselves and to their gallant commander, and the enemy’s ranks, at that point, were much thinned by the accurate fiery under Graham. But the weight of numbers soon produced its almost inevitable result, and, in spite of the desperate efforts of our men, the cavalry breastworks were flanked and finally abandoned by us, with the loss of one howitzer. Still, Dearing’s encounter with the enemy, at that moment and on that part of the field, was of incalculable advantage to the defenders of our line, inasmuch as it afforded time for additional preparation and the distribution of new orders by Wise.
At 10 o’clock A. m. the skirmishing had assumed very alarming proportions. To the urgent demands of General Wise for reenforcements, I was enabled at last to answer that part of Hoke’s division was on the way from Drewry’s Bluff and would be in time to save the day, if our men could stand their ordeal, hard as it was, a little while longer. Then all along the line, from one end to the other, the order was given “to hold on at all hazards!” It was obeyed with the resolute fortitude of veterans, though many of the troops thus engaged, with such odds against them, had hardly been under fire before. At 12 M., and as late as 2 P. M., our center was vigorously pressed, as though the Norfolk and Petersburg Railroad were the immediate object of the onset. General Wise now closed the line from his right to strengthen Colonel J. T. Goode and, with him, the 34th Virginia ; while, at the same time and with equal perspicacity, he hurried Wood’s battalion toward the left in support of Colonel P. R. Page and his command.
The enemy, continuing to mass his columns toward the center of our line, pressed it more and more and concentrated his heaviest assaults upon Batteries Nos. 5, 6, and 7. Thinned out and exhausted as they were, General Wise’s heroic forces resisted still, with such unflinching stubbornness as to equal the veterans of the Army of Northern Virginia. I was then on the field and only left it when darkness set in. Shortly after 7 p. M. the enemy entered a ravine between Batteries 6 and 7, and succeeded in flanking Battery No. 5. (1) But just then very opportunely appeared, advancing at double-quick, Hagood’s gallant South Carolina brigade, followed soon afterward by Colquitt’s, Clingman’s, and, in fact, by the whole of Hoke’s division. They were shown their positions, on a new line selected at that very time by my orders, a short distance in the rear of the captured works, and were kept busy the greatest part of the night throwing up a small epaulement for their additional protection.
Strange to say, General Smith contented himself with breaking into our lines, and attempted nothing further that night. All the more strange was this inaction on his part, since General Hancock, with his strong and well-equipped Second Army Corps, had also been hurried to Petersburg and was actually there, or in the immediate vicinity of the town, on the evening of the 15th. He had informed General Smith of the arrival of his command and of the readiness of two of his divisions – Birney’s and Gibbon’s – to give him whatever assistance he might require. Petersburg at that hour was clearly at the mercy of the Federal commander, who had all but captured it, and only failed of final success because he could not realize the fact of the unparalleled disparity between the two contending forces. Although the result of the fighting of the 15th had demonstrated that 2200 Confederates successfully withheld nearly a whole day the repeated assaults of at least 18,000 Federals,(2) it followed, none the less, that Hancock’s corps, being now in our front, with fully 28,000 (3) men,- which raised the enemy’s force against Petersburg to a grand total of 46,000,(4) our chance of resistance, the next morning and in the course of the next day, even after the advent of Hoke’s division, was by far too uncertain to be counted on, unless strong additional reenforcements could reach us in time.
Without awaiting an answer from the authorities at Richmond to my urgent representations, I ordered General Bushrod R. Johnson to evacuate the lines in front of Bermuda Hundred at the dawn of day on the 16th, leaving pickets and skirmishers to cover the movement until daylight, or later if necessary, and to march as rapidly as possible with his entire force to the assistance of Petersburg. The emergency justified this action. I had previously [1 :45 P. M.] communicated with General Bragg upon this point, and had asked the War Department to elect between the Bermuda Hundred line and Petersburg, as, under the present circumstances , I could no longer hold both. The War Department had given me no answer, clearly intending that I should assume the responsibility of the measure, which I did. Scarcely two hours after Johnson’s division had abandoned its position at Bermuda Hundred, Butler’s forces drove off the Confederate pickets left there, as already stated, and took full possession of the lines. (5) By the 16th of June three Federal corps; Smith’s, Hancock’s, and Burnside’s,-aggregation about 66,000 (6) men lines. Opposed to them I had, after the arrival of Johnson’s division, about 10 A. M., an effective of not more than 10,000 men of all arms.
Through a sense of duty I addressed the following telegram, June 16th, 7:45 A. M to General ., Lee : `” Prisoner captured this A. M. reports that he belongs to Hancock’s corps (Second), and that it crossed day before yesterday and last night from Harrison’s Landing. Could we not have more reenforcements here ?”
No direct answer was received to the above. But in reply to another dispatch of mine, June 16th, 4 P. M., relative to tugs and transports of the enemy reported to have been seen that day by Major Terrett, General Lee sent this message : ” The transports you mention have probably returned Butler’s troops. Has Grant been seen crossing James River ?” This shows that Lee was still uncertain as to his adversary’s movements , and, notwithstanding the information already furnished him, could not realize that the Federals had crossed the James, and that three of their corps were actually assaulting the Petersburg lines.
General Hancock, the ranking Federal officer present, had been instructed by General Meade not to begin operations before the arrival of Burnside’s command. Hence the tardiness of the enemy’s attack, which was not made till after 5 o’clock P. M., though Burnside had reached Petersburg according to his own report, at 10 o’clock A. M.
The engagement lasted fully three hours, much vigor being displayed by the Federals, while the Confederates confronted them with fortitude, knowing that they were fighting against overwhelming odds, constantly increasing. Birney’s division of Hancock’s corps finally broke into part of our line and effected a lodgment. The contest, with varying results, was carried on until after nightfall, with advantage to us on the left and some serious loss on the right. It then slackened and gradually came to an end. In the meantime Warren’s corps, the Fifth, had also come up, but too late to take a part in the action of the day. Its presence before our lines swelled the enemy’s aggregate to about 90,000,(1) against which stood a barrier of not even 10,000 exhausted, half-starved men, who had gone through two days of constant hard fighting and many sleepless nights in the trenches.
Hostilities began early on the 17th. I here quote from “Military Operations of General Beauregard,” Vol. II., p. 232 : “Three times were the Federals driven back, but they as often resumed the offensive and held their ground. About dusk a portion of the Confederate lines was wholly broken and the troops in that quarter were about to be thrown into a panic, which might have ended in irreparable disaster, when happily, as General Beauregard, with his staff, was endeavoring to rally and re-form the troops, Gracie’s brigade, of Johnson’s division, consisting of about twelve hundred men,-the return of which to his command General Beauregard had been urgently asking,- came up from Chaffin’s Bluff, whence, at last, the War Department had ordered it to move. It was promptly and opportunely thrown into the gap on the lines and drove back the Federals, capturing about two thousand prisoners. The conflict raged with great fury until after 11 o’clock at night.” Anticipating the inevitable result of such a pressure upon our weak defenses, and knowing that at any moment they might be irrevocably lost to us, I had- accompanied by Colonel D. B. Harris, of the Engineers – selected the site of another and shorter line, near Taylor’s Creek, at a convenient distance toward the rear. I caused it to be carefully staked out during the battle, and shown to the adjutanrs and other staff-officers of Hoke’s and Johnson’s divisions, and through them to all the available regimental adjutants on the field; so that each command, at the appointed hour, even at dead of night, might easily retire upon the new line with order and precision, and unperceived by the enemy. Meanwhile, the order to ” hold on at any cost” remained unchanged all down the line. There was no reason to hope for assistance of any kind. The Army of Northern Virginia was yet far distant, and I had failed to convince its distinguished commander of the fact that I was then fighting Grant’s w hole army with less than eleven thousand men. On the 17th, from Clay’s House, at 12 o’clock M., General Lee answered as follows one of my telegrams of that morning: ” Telegram of 9 A. M. received. Until I can get more definite information of Grant’s movements, I do not think it prudent to draw more troops to this side of the river.” And, acting on the desire for additional information, at 3 : 30 P. M., on the same day, he telegraphed W. H. F. Lee, then at Malvern Hill, as follows : “Push after the enemy, and endeavor to ascertain what has become of Grant’s army.” Later on – I. e., at 4 : 30 P. M., on the same day-he sent this message to A. P. Hill, at Riddle’s shop: “General Beauregard reports large numbers of Grant’s troops crossed James River, above Fort Powhatan, yesterday. If you have nothing contradictory of this, move to Chaffin’s Bluff.” Just at that time, however [5 P. M.], I sent another telegram to General Lee, reiterating my former assertions, with the addition of other particulars :
“Prisoners just taken represent themselves as belonging to Second, Ninth, ana Eighteenth corps. They state that Fifth and sixth corps are behind coming on. Those from Second and Eighteenth came here yesterday, and arrived first. Others marched night and day from Gaines’s Mill, and arrived yesterday evening. The Ninth crossed at Turkey Bend, where they have a pontoon-bridge. They say Grant commanded on the field yesterday. All are positive that they passed him on the road seven miles from here.”
The firing lasted, on the 17th, until a little after 11 o’clock P. M. Just before that time I had ordered all the camp-fires to be brightly lighted, with sentinels well thrown forward and as near as possible to the enemy’s. Then, at about 12:30 A. M., on the 18th, began the retrograde movement, which, notwithstanding the exhaustion of our troops and their sore disappointment at receiving no further reenforcements, was safely and silently executed, with uncommonly good order and precision, though the greatest caution had to be used in order to retire unnoticed from so close a contact with so strong an adversary.
The digging of trenches was begun by the men as soon as they reached their new position. Axes, as well as spades; bayonets and knives, as well as axes,-in fact, every utensil that could be found, were used. And when all was over, or nearly so, with much anxiety still, but with comparative relief, nevertheless, I hurried off this telegram to General Lee [18th, 12: 40 A. :M.] : “All quiet at present. I expect renewal of attack in morning.
My troops are becoming much exhausted. Without immediate and strong reenforcements, results may be unfavorable. Prisoners report Grant on the field with his whole army.” But General Lee, although not wholly convinced even at that hour that the Army of the Potomac was already on the south side of the James, long before the dawn of day, on the 18th, and immediately after his conference with Major Cooke, sent me this message: “Am not yet satisfied as to General Grant’s movements; but upon your representations will move at once to Petersburg.” And, in fact, even previous to that hour, on the same night, he hadnd Kershaw’s division to my assistance. The next step taken by General Lee was to endeavor to procure sufficient means for the immediate transportation of his troops.
The same morning he communicated with General Early [at Lynchburg], who had not yet returned from his Shenandoah campaign: “Strike as quick as you can, and, if circumstances authorize, carry out the original plan, or move upon Petersburg without delay.” Late as had been the credence given by General Lee to my representations of Grant’s movements, it was, fortunately, not yet too late, by prompt and energetic action, to save Petersburg-and, therefore, Richmond.
General Kershaw’s division, which proved to be the vanguard of General Lee’s army, reached Petersburg early Saturday morning, June 18th; it numbered about 5000 men, and, by my orders, was placed on the newline already occupied by our forces with its right on or near the Jerusalem plank-road, extending across the open field and bending back toward the front of the cemetery. Field’s division, of about equal strength, came in some two hours after Kershaw’s. It had not yet been assigned to its place on the line when Lee in person arrived at 11 : 30 o’clock A. M. on that day.
When, early in the morning, the enemy was pushed forward to make the “grand attack ordered for 4 A. M. on the 18th,” (1) the retirement of our forces on the previous night from their first positions to the new line of defenses selected by me, as already explained, had so much surprised the assaulting columns as to induce their immediate commanders to additional prudence in their advance and to a complete halt in their operations.
On that morning the troops arrayed against us consisted of Hancock’s, Burnside’s, and Warren’s corps, with the larger portion of Smith’s under General Martindale, and finally Neill’s division from Wright’s corps (the Sixth), strengthened by its whole artillery. This gave the enemy an aggregate of over 90,000 effective. We had on our side, after Kershaw’s arrival, but 15,000 men, no deduction being made for the casualties of the three preceding days. It was only later on, somewhere between 12 M. and 1 P. M., that Field’s command was put in position on the line, and from that moment to the end of the day our grand total amounted to about 20,000 men. At noon or thereabout – the predetermined ” grand attack” was renewed, although partial disconnected assaults had been made before that hour on several parts of our line, but with no tangible result of any kind. This renewed attack was mainly led by Gibbon’s division of Hancock’s corps. It proved to be entirely ineffectual. And still another grand attempt was made at 4 P. M., with at least three full Federal corps cooperating : Hancock’s on the right, Burnside’s in the center, and Warren’s on the left. General Meade, in his report, says it was “without success.” And he adds these. words : ” Later in the day attacks were made by the Fifth and Ninth corps with no better results.” The truth is that, despite the overwhelming odds against us, every Federal assault, on the 18th, was met with most signal defeat, “attended,” says Mr. Swinton, the Federal historian, “with another mournful loss of life.” This was, in fact, very heavy, and exceeded ours in the proportion of nine to one. (1)
My welcome to General Lee. He was at last where I had, for the past three days, so anxiously hoped to see him-within the limits of Petersburg. Two of his divisions had preceded him there, and his whole army would be in by evening of the next day, namely, the 19th of June. I felt sure, therefore, that, for the present at least, Petersburg and Richmond were safe. Not that our forces would be numerically equal to those of the enemy, even after the arrival of the last regiment of the Army of Northern Virginia; but I was aware that our defensive line would now count more than one man per every four and a half yards of its length ; and I felt relieved to know that, at last, the whole of our line -not portions of it only, as heretofore – would be guarded by veteran troops, alike, if not superior, in mettle to the veteran troops opposing them.
Scarcely two hours after General Lee’s arrival I rode with him to what was known as the City Reservoir, on a commanding elevation, toward the right of our line. A good view of the surrounding country could be had from this point, and the whole field was there spread out before us like a map. I explained to General Lee and showed him the relative positions of our troops and of those of the enemy. I also pointed out to him the new and shorter line then occupied by us, and gave my reasons for its location there. They were these :
“First. ,That it kept the enemy’s batteries at a greater distance from the besieged town.
“Second. That it would act as a covered way (as the phrase is in the regular fortifications) should we deem it advisable to construct better works on the higher ground in the rear. In the meantime we could construct a series of batteries to protect our front line by flanking and over-shooting fires ; and we could throw up infantry parapets for our reserves, whenever we should have additional troops.
“Third. That the new line gave a close infantry and artillery fire on the reverse slope of Taylor’s Creek and ravine, which would prevent the construction of boyaux of approaches and parallels for a regular attack.”
General Lee, whose capacity as a military engineer was universally acknowledged,-and none appreciated it more than I did,-was entirely of my opinion. Thus the new defensive line selected by me, which my own troops had been holding for twelve hours before the arrival of General Lee at Petersburg, and which his troops occupied as they came in, was maintained unchanged as to location-though much strengthened and improved thereafter-until the end of the war.
After those explanations to General Lee, and while still examining the field, I proposed to him that, as soon as Hill’s and Anderson’s corps should arrive, our entire disposable force be thrown upon the left and rear of the Federal army before it began to fortify its position. General Lee, after some hesitation, pronounced himself against this plan. He thought it was wiser, under the circumstances, to allow some rest to his troops (those present as well as those still coming up) after the long march all would have gone through with; and he stated as a further reason for his objection, that our best policy – one, he said, which had thus far proved successful to him-would be to maintain the defensive as heretofore. I urged that the Federal troops were at least as much exhausted as ours, and that their ignorance of the locality would give us a marked advantage over them; that their spirits were jaded, and ours brightened just then by the fact of the junction of his army with my forces ; and that the enemy was not yet intrenched. But I was then only second in command, and my views did not prevail.
The evening of the 18th was quiet. There was no further attempt on the part of General Meade to assault our lines. He was ” satisfied,” as he said in his report, that there was ” nothing more to be gained by direct attacks.” The spade musket, and the regular siege was begun. It was only raised April 2, 1865.
No event of our war was more remarkable than the almost incredible resistance of the men who served under me at Petersburg, on the lath, 1 6th, 17th, and 18th of June, before the arrival of Lee