The Third Battle of Petersburg

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

Ulysses Grant and the Federal Army were now ready to end the siege. The stage was set for the Third Battle of Petersburg. This climactic battle is sometimes referred to as the Fall of Petersburg or more simply “The Breakthrough”.

Grant had begun to reposition his forces on March 25th by ordering General Edward Ord to move his three divisions from the Peninsula, across the The BreakthroughJames and down to Southside. Philip Sheridan had arrived with two cavalry divisions on March 27th and Grant sent him to join a third cavalry division at the extreme left of the Federal line.

Grant had concentrated a larger force than he had ever had for any of his other offensives. Starting from the right were Parke’s Corps, Wright’s Corps and Ord’s Corp. These three corps’ went from the lower Appomattox River to Hatcher’s Run. They would act as the pivot for the Federal left.

Next to Ord was Humphreys’ Corps which would cross Hatcher’s Run on the Vaughan Road and move up to the Confederate line at Burgess Mill. Warren’s Corps would cross Rowanty Creek at Monk’s Neck Bridge and guard Humphreys left by taking position at the junction of Vaughan and Quaker Roads. At the extreme left were Sheridan’s three cavalry divisions. Their orders were to move up to Dinwiddie Court House and impede Lee’s communications.

Meanwhile, General Lee was also moving his forces, responding to Grant. On March 28th Lee ordered his cavalry to concentrate at Five Forks. Fitzhugh Lee’s Division began to move there from their position at Nine Mile Road east of Richmond. Rooney Lee’s and Thomas Rosser’s Divisions began their move the next day, riding from Stony Creek and the Nottaway River.

Three brigades of Pickett’s Division were moved by rail to Sutherland Station, ten miles west of Petersburg. The fourth brigade was moved to Manchester as a reserve. William Pegram’s Battalion of artillery was moved to Burgess Mill.

The Federal offensive began on March 29th and went relatively well. Humphrey’s Corps met with no resistance. One of Warren’s Divisions had aGeneral Philip Sheridan skirmish near the junction of the Quaker and Boydton Plank Road. Sheridan’s cavalry skirmished with nothing more than Southern vedettes and arrived at Dinwiddie Court House at about 5:00 PM. At this point the three Confederate cavalry divisions were still in route.

Grant decided not to have Sheridan raid the railroads, instead ordering him to advance into the right rear of the enemy. Sheridan ordered Thomas Devin’s Division to Five Forks. Meade instructed Humphreys and Warren to extend their lines so that they would form a continuous front and link up with Sheridan’s forces.

On the morning of March 30th Fitzhugh Lee arrived at Five Forks and was able to keep Thomas Devin’s Division from taking this vital crossroads. Lee continued to move Pickett’s Division west to Five Forks, reinforcing him with an additional two brigades from Johnson’s Division. This thinned the Confederate lines with the result that Cadmus Willcox’s Division and John Gordon’s Corps was forced to move more troops to the right to replace them. This constant thinning of their lines was to be the Confederate’s downfall.

The Federal attacks in the Southside front and Five Forks took place simultaneously. In order to better understand them we will take the general infantry assaults first with the decisive Battle of Five Forks being treated separately.

Dead Confederate Soldier at Fort MahoneOn April 1st General John Parke attacked the Confederate position at Fort Mahone. Fort Mahone was the key fortification on this part of the Confederate line. This four-mile stretch of trenches was held by about 3,600 men of John B. Gordon’s Corps. Fort Mahone was a three-sided fortification that was slightly forward of the main line. Parke’s attack was to begin in the dark so he ordered his men to strike slightly to the east of Fort Mahone.

Parke attacked with two full divisions and a brigade from his third division. Meanwhile, the rest of that division staged a diversionary attack further to the east. The initial attack was successful, taking Batteries 25, 27, 28 and part of Fort Mahone by 7:00 AM. When the attack bogged down at 12:25 PM Parke called for reinforcements in order to hold the captured positions. Gordon counterattacked by the arrival of two Federal brigades buttressed the Federal line. By the afternoon, Lee ordered Gordon to pull back. The breakthrough further to the west had endangered the entire Confederate position and forced the withdrawal from Petersburg.

Parke had a total of 1,700 killed or wounded while Gordon’s losses were never reported.

Further west Horatio Wright’s Corps staged a massive assault against the Boydton Line. The Confederates were led by Lt. Gen A.P. Hill. Wright attacked with three divisions at 4:40 AM. The Vermont Brigade of Brig. Gen. Lewis A. Grant spearheaded the assault. Within 20 minutes they hadThe Breakthrough CWPT Map April 2, 1865 broken through the Confederate lines and the issue Wright turned his corps to the left while the John Gibbon’s XXIV Corps exploited the breakthrough.

It was at this point that General A.P. Hill rode to rally his troops. He confronted two Union soldiers, demanding their surrender. Instead of surrendering they shot him in the chest and killed him instantly. Hill had vowed never to leave the Petersburg defenses. He had kept his vow.

General John Gibbon’s Corps moved to the north against Forts Gregg and Whitworth. He immediately ordered an assault on Fort Gregg which was overrun after a hard fight. Cannon fire from nearby Fort Whitworth was relentless but Fort Whitworth was overrun soon after. By that point Lt. Gen. James Longstreet who had been holding the Peninsula front had moved his corps into a blocking position.

Once Wright had achieved his breakthrough, Maj. Gen. Andrew Humphreys was ordered to attack along his front. He was facing Henry Heth’s Corps. Heth was already withdrawing his men from the main line when Humphrey’s attack began. He started with one division but they were soon joined by a second division. Meade stopped Humphreys’ attack and ordered all of the Federal infantry units to turn and face Petersburg. Humphreys left Nelson Miles’ Division to deal with Heth.

Miles struck Heth at Sutherland Station. Heth had succeeded to the command of the II Corps with Hill’s death. His men held of two of Miles’ assaults but after sending for reinforcements he was able to break Heth’s lines. Only the heroic defense by Brig. Gen. John Cooke’s Brigade allowed the rest of Heth’s Corps to escape to the west.

The Federal army suffered a total of 3,500 casualties; the Confederates had somewhat higher losses of 4,250 men.

With the conclusion of the Third Battle of Petersburg the long sieges of Petersburg and Richmond came to an end. On April 3rd Federal troops finally took Richmond, four long years after the initial calls of “On to Richmond”.

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