The Second Battle of Petersburg: June 15-18, 1864

   

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Name: The Battle of Petersburg

Other Names: The Second Battle of Petersburg, Assault on Petersburg

Location: City of Petersburg

Campaign: Richmond-Petersburg Campaign (June 1864-March 1865)

Date(s): June 15-18, 1864

Principal Commanders: Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Maj. Gen. George G. Meade [US]; Gen. Robert E. Lee and Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard [CS]

Forces Engaged: 104,000 total (US 62,000; CS 42,000)

Estimated Casualties: 11,386 total (US 8,150; CS 3,236)

Description: Marching from Cold Harbor, Meade’s Army of the Potomac crossed the James River on transports and a 2,200-foot long pontoon bridge at Windmill Point. Butler’s leading elements (XVIII Corps and Kautz’s cavalry) crossed the Appomattox River at Broadway Landing and attacked the Petersburg defenses on June 15. The 5,400 defenders of Petersburg under command of Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard were driven from their first line of entrenchments back to Harrison Creek. After dark the XVIII Corps was relieved by the II Corps. On June 16, the II Corps captured another section of the Confederate line; on the 17th, the IX Corps gained more ground. Beauregard stripped the Howlett Line (Bermuda Hundred) to defend the city, and Lee rushed reinforcements to Petersburg from the Army of Northern Virginia. The II, IX, and V Corps from right to left attacked on June 18 but was repulsed with heavy casualties. By now the Confederate works were heavily manned and the greatest opportunity to capture Petersburg without a siege was lost. The siege of Petersburg began. Union Gen. James St. Clair Morton, chief engineer of the IX Corps, was killed on June 17.

Result(s): Confederate victory

Summary:

The Second Battle of Petersburg occurred during a four day span from June 15-18, 1864, and it began 150 years ago today.  As most of Grant’s army moved from the Cold Harbor battlefield to Petersburg via the James River, William F. “Baldy” Smith’s Eighteenth Corps, took transports from West Point down the York River, and back up the James River to Bermuda Hundred, reuniting Butler’s Army of the James.  It would be a brief reunion.  On the night of June 14, Smith took two of his own divisions under Brooks and Martindale along with Hinks’ USCT division of the Tenth Corps, crossed the Appomattox River, and marched on Petersburg.

Click to see maps of the Second Battle of Petersburg, which should help you follow along with the action.

The Second Battle of Petersburg, Day 1: June 15, 1864

Smith’s force reached Petersburg late on the morning of June 15, 1864, and what followed was one of the biggest missed opportunities of the entire Civil War.  Smith had experienced the disastrous assault at Cold Harbor in early June, and he was determined not to repeat that debacle.  After a careful reconnaissance of the strong but thinly held Dimmock Line east of Petersburg which took up most of the afternoon, Smith finally decided on an assault from approximately batteries 4 through 8 on Jordan’s Hill with a reinforced skirmish line.  When it was determined to use the Eighteenth Corps artillery to support the assault, the guns were nowhere to be found.  The Corps artillery chief, Captain Frederick Follett, had sent the horses back to be watered, and it took time to round them up and get the guns into position.  By the time the artillery was ready. it was 7 pm and even more time had been wasted.  Henry Wise, former Governor of Virginia, his Virginia Brigade and some Confederate militia were all that stood between Smith’s Corps and Petersburg.

The assault moved forward that evening and succeeded in carrying batteries 3 through 12 of the Dimmock line, forcing Beauregard and his Confederate forces to retreat that evening and dig a new line behind Harrison Creek.  The scarcity of Confederate forces had made success inevitable, but Smith had no real way of knowing this until he attacked.  Hinks’ USCT division played a decisive role in the assaults, and several hundred men from Wise’s Brigade were captured.  As much success as Smith had, he could have achieved even greater results, but he failed to push forward in the darkness.  This despite having Winfield Scott Hancock’s Second Corps, Army of the Potomac available starting around 9 pm.  Hancock and his veterans would have been there sooner, but a series of delays and the failure of anyone to notify Hancock that he needed to march quickly retarded his appearance greatly.  Hancock and Smith conferred that night, but Hancock as the ranking officer deferred to Smith’s judgment as to the wisdom of a night attack.  Smith chose to wait, an amazed Beauregard and his Confederate forces breathed a sigh of relief and dug in behind Harrison’s Creek, and Grant would never have a better opportunity to take Petersburg until the day it fell nine and a half long, monotonous, and bloody months later.

More forces would arrive on both sides on June 16, 1864, day 2 of the Second Battle of Petersburg…

The Second Battle of Petersburg, Day 2: June 16, 1864

The first day of the Second Battle of Petersburg had seen the Confederate defenders driven back from the Dimmock Line to the western bank of Harrison Creek.  Beauregard had received reinforcements through the night, with Hoke’s division arriving first, and then Johnson’s division after Beauregard made the decision to strip the Bermuda Hundred lines to the north of all but skirmishers.  Lee would have to plug that hole with his Army of Northern Virginia.  Over on the Union side, Hancock’s Second Corps had joined Baldy Smith’s Eighteenth Corps late on the evening of June 15, and the Ninth Corps joined them late on the morning of the 16th. The Union corps kept expanding the line to the left from the anchor of the Appomattox River, the Eighteenth Corps on the left, the Second in the center, and the Ninth on the far right.  Three Union corps, around 50,000 men, confronted two Confederate divisions, around 14,000 or so.

Hancock had instructed Second Corps division commanders Gibbon and Birney to scout the positions in front of them for a dawn attack, but delays prevented this from occurring until 6 am, well after dawn.  Gibbon was on the right, Birney in the center, and as Barlow’s division of the Second Corps showed up after a frustrating march in which they lost their way, they formed the left of the corps.  Grant conferred with Meade, asked him to take charge of the assaults, and asked for an attack by 6 pm on the evening of the 16th.

Despite three full corps being present, Hancock’s Second Corps was the only one which made any attacks greater than a demonstration.  Batteries 3, 13, and 14 fell after the 6 pm attacks commenced.  However, Beauregard’s lines had held, and he even made a few local counterattacks that evening to try to regain some ground.  These failed, but kept the tired Union soldiers from getting much needed sleep. The odds were not going to get better than this for the Union forces.  Again, more men would arrive on each side on the night of the 16th into the 17th.  The third day of the Second Battle of Petersburg would see more attacks…

The Second Battle of Petersburg, Day 3: June 17, 1864

Just as June 16 featured mostly attacks by one Union corps, the Second, so June 17 would move the focus to yet another Union corps, the Ninth.  Burnside’s Ninth Corps started early, with Potter’s Division attacking near the Shand House at dawn and scoring a major breakthrough against Johnson’s Tennessee Brigade.  Bushrod Johnson, the division commander, ordered Elliott’s South Carolinians to form a new line to the rear, to which the Confederates retired.  Bryce Suderow believes that Potter’s assault might have taken Petersburg had Ledlie’s Division and a Second Corps division properly supported Potter.

Meanwhile, Warren’s Fifth Corps of the Army of the Potomac arrived in the morning and was in place on Burnside’s left before noon.  This meant the Union now had four corps, the Eighteenth, Second, Ninth, and Fifth, in order from left to right, to face the divisions of Hoke and Johnson on the Confederate side.  The Sixth Corps, however, was landed at Bermuda Hundred and would not factor in the fighting on June 17-18 at Petersburg, where they might have made a difference.

Willcox’s Division of the Ninth Corps made the second attack of the day at 2 pm, also at the Shand House, but the typically tepid support provided by Warren’s Fifth Corps on Willcox’s left helped to guarantee this effort went nowhere.  The last assault of the day was made by the last White division of the Ninth Corps, Ledlie’s.  Ledlie also assaulted near the Shand House at 6 pm, and this effort proved more successful.  A brigade of Willcox and Barlow’s division of the Second Corps provided added support.  In back and forth fighting, Beauregard ordered the brigades of Ransom, Colquitt, Clingman, and Wise to counterattack, which they did successfully.  By 10 pm on the 17th, the fighting was over and the Confederates had regained the lines they had held since after Potter’s dawn attack.  During the night he fell back another 500-800 yards to what would become the “final” Confederate lines east of Petersburg during the Siege.  These new lines tied into the Dimmock line southeast of Petersburg at Battery 25.

Beauregard still held Petersburg, and now Lee’s veterans from the Army of Northern Virginia would begin to arrive in force…

The Second Battle of Petersburg, Day 4: June 18, 1864

The previous two days of battle had seen uncoordinated Union attacks made by the Second Corps (June 16) and the Ninth Corps (June 17), and Beauregard’s Confederates from the Department of North Carolina and Southern Virginia had just been able to fend them off.  Meade attempted to stage a more coordinated assault on June 18, 1864, the fourth day of the Second Battle of Petersburg.    Between dawn and 2 pm, all four Federal corps along the lines facing Petersburg cautiously moved forward to establish Beauregard’s new line.  During that time, the First Corps divisions of Kershaw and Field had arrived, the first veterans of the Army of Northern Virginia to make their appearance in front of Petersburg.  Beauregard stationed them to the right, extending his line in a similar manner to the Union commanders when they had received reinforcements.

Once the new Confederate line had been found and scouted, Meade ordered an attack around 3 pm.  Three disjointed attacks occurred over the next three hours or so.  Warren’s Fifth Corps started things off, and Gettysburg hero Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was severely wounded, thought at the time to be mortally so. See the book focusing on this charge below for further reading.  The next attack, by the Second Corps, featured the doomed famous charge by the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery.  This massive regiment, now serving as infantry, charged unsupported, and lost over 600 out of over 900 men, the largest single day’s loss by one regiment in the entire Civil War.  See the two newspaper articles below from the Charleston News and Courier for further details.  Ninth Corps attacks by Willcox ended the day’s fighting, and the battle.

Grant would make the decision to initiate the Siege of Petersburg on June 19, 1864.  The First Offensive against Petersburg had ended.  More violence would break out again in a few days during Grant’s Second Offensive.  A hitherto average Confederate division commander, William “Little Billy” Mahone, would make the first of many devastating attacks during the Siege of Petersburg at the Battle of Jerusalem Plank Road on June 22, 1864…

Note: Please see the sites listed below for more information.

Bibliography:

First Person Accounts:

Siege of Petersburg Documents Which Mention This Battle:

Source: CWSAC Battle Summary


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