The First and Second Battles of Petersburg

This entry is part 5 of 21 in the series Petersburg Campaign

The First Battle of Petersburg took place on June 9, 1864. It was followed shortly thereafter by the Second Battle of Petersburg.

Richmond & Petersburg Defenses, Fall 1864As Confederate forces moved north to reinforce Lee’s forces around Cold Harbor, Ben Butler sensed an opportunity to rush the city. He had suffered a blow to his military reputation because of the Bermuda Hundred stalemate and he was looking for a chance for vindication.

At this point Petersburg was fortified with multiple lines of fortifications that stretched for 10 mile east of the city. The defense had 55 redoubts but only about 2,500 defenders which averaged only 250 men per mile. The defense was commanded by former governor, Brig. Gen. Henry Wise. The terrain was a series of hills and valleys where cavalry could easily infiltrate to the inner defenses of the city.

Butler organized a force of 4,500 with a mix of infantry and cavalry. The infantry were to attack the outer defensive line, known as the Dimmock Line after the engineer who supervised its construction. The cavalry under Brig. Gen. August Kautz was to swing around the city and attack from the southeast. Their objectives were to dash inside the city and burn the Appomattox River bridges and the public buildings.

The infantry, which was under the command of Maj. Gen. Quincy A. Gillmore, made slow progress and upon meeting the enemy on the morning of June 9th stopped advancing.

Meanwhile the cavalry attempted to attack at a point where the Dimmock Line intersected the Jerusalem Pike Road. Kautz sent forward probing attacks against Battery 27, which was manned by 150 men of the Home Guard commanded by Maj. Fletcher H. Archer, a Petersburg native. After a series of attacks the Home Guards retreated into the city with heavy casualties. By then General Beauregard, realizing the danger, reinforced the position and forced the Federal cavalry to withdraw.

Butler was so incensed at the timidity of the infantry commander, Maj. Gen. Quincy A. Gillmore, he had him arrested. Gillmore demanded a court of inquiry. Grant reassigned him to Washington and the incident was dropped.

Petersburg had been saved by a force of old men, boys and invalids. The initial attempt to capture Petersburg had been a humiliating failure.

The Second Battle of Petersburg

Grant designated Butler to carry out another assault on June 14th. He ordered Butler to reinforce William “Baldy” Smith’s XVIII Corps so that it numbered 16,000 men, including Kautz’s Cavalry Division. They were use the same route as before using basically the same plan.

The Confederate forces were still outnumbered by a wide margin. General Beauregard had Brig. General Henry Wise concentrate his force of 2,200Petersburg, June 15-16, 1864 in the area that was threatened. Beauregard placed his remaining 3,200 men opposite Butler on the Bermuda Hundred defensive line.

Shortly after dawn on June 15th Smith’s troops commenced the attack. The cavalry force was in the front but almost immediately they ran into opposition. The infantry finally cleared the way but the Federal force was delayed until early afternoon. Smith commenced the main attack until 7:00 PM. Sweeping forward in a strong skirmish line the Federals captured the first defensive line. The Confederates retreated to the next, weaker position.

At this point Smith, rather than pressing the attack, halted for the day. Beauregard, realizing the seriousness of the situation, stripped defenders from Richmond in order to reinforce his line. Butler, meanwhile, rather than pushing forward, hesitated.

By the following morning, the situation was totally different. Beauregard had 14,000 on the line but he was totally outnumbered by the 50,000 Federal soldiers now on the scene. Grant had ordered Burnside’s Corps to the area. Winfield Hancock who was in temporary command of the Army of the Potomac in Meade’s absence planned a broad attack. He placed Smith’s Corps on the right, his own corps in the center and Burnside’s Corps on the left.

Hancock ordered the attack to commence at 5:30 PM. The Confederates put up a fierce resistance, building new defensive fortifications behind the original line as the Federals broke through. When Meade arrived on the scene, he ordered a second attack which was carried out by Francis Barlow’s Division. Although they reached their objectives, a Confederate counterattack drove them back at the cost of many prisoners.

The 17th saw a number of uncoordinated Federal attacks that were initially successful. Eventually, the Federal forces were pushed back. Meanwhile Lee had moved two additional divisions to Petersburg, bringing Beauregard’s overall strength to 20,000. The Federal force had also been augmented with the arrival of Warren’s Corps, bringing the total Federal army to 67,000.

On the 18th Meade ordered an all-out assault on the Confederate defensive lines. The first attack began at dawn and made good progress until they reached the main Confederate line where the attack ground to a halt. At noon a second series of attacks were tried but at this point Robert E. Lee had taken overall command.

A third series of assaults was equally as unsuccessful and finally Meade called off further attacks. During these four days of intense combat the Federal army suffered over 11,000 casualties and the Confederacy about 4,000.

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