The Battle of Jerusalem Plank Road: June 21-24, 1864

   

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in Second Offensive

Name: The Battle of Jerusalem Plank Road

Other Names: First Battle of Weldon Railroad

Location: Dinwiddie County and Petersburg

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

Date(s): June 21-24, 1864

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

Forces Engaged: Corps

Estimated Casualties: 4,000 total

Description:On June 21, the Union II Corps, supported by the VI Corps, attempted to cut the Weldon Railroad, one of the major supply lines into Petersburg. The movement was preceded by Wilson’s cavalry division which began destroying tracks. On June 22, troops from Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill’s corps led by Brig. Gen. William Mahone counterattacked, forcing the II Corps away from the railroad to positions on the Jerusalem Plank Road. Although the Federals were driven from their advanced positions, they were able to extend their siege lines farther to the west.

Result(s): Union gained ground

Summary:

The Battle of Jerusalem Plank Road, Day 1: June 21, 1864

Note: Click to see maps of the Battle of Jerusalem Plank Road, which should help you follow along with the action.

Brief Summary: After the disappointing outcome for the Union Army at the Second Battle of Petersburg, Grant decided a siege was in order, and the Union army dug trenches to consolidate the ground they had gained from June 15-18, 1864.  On June 21, 1864, Grant’s Second Offensive against Petersburg got underway.  The Second Corps and Sixth Corps of the Army of the Potomac were quietly pulled out of the lines facing Petersburg from the east, and sent south and west.  Army of the Potomac commander George Meade ultimately hoped to completely circle the Confederates defending Petersburg by placing Union troops on the Appomattox River west of the city, a result which would prove elusive not only over the following few days, but over nine long months.

The Second Corps was to extend the former Union far left, manned by the Fifth Corps, and the Sixth would then latch on to the Second Corps and extend even further left.  The Second Corps, temporarily under division commander Birney because Winfield Scott Hancock had experienced a flair-up of his Gettysburg wound, slowly but surely moved into a position on the left of the Fifth Corps, but the going was difficult due to the (lack of a) road network.  Birney left the divisions of Mott and Gibbon along the Jerusalem Plank Road south of the Fifth Corps’ lines, and sent Barlow out with his division to reconnoiter the ground he wished to eventually place the entire Second Corps on.  Barlow skirmished with Confederate cavalry and infantry during the advance.  Birney eventually got cold feet when a Confederate force was reported to be moving across the front of the Second Corps and ordered Barlow back to the Jerusalem Plank Road.  The divisions of Gibbon, Mott, and Barlow, in that order from left to right, extended the Union line down the Jerusalem Plank Road from the Fifth Corps lines.  Barlow’s left rested near the road which led west from the Jerusalem Plank Road to Globe Tavern on the all-important Weldon Railroad, one of Lee’s supply lines.

Meanwhile, the Sixth Corps struggled to extricate itself from the Union fortifications east of Petersburg, coping with a Confederate artillery bombardment when the Rebels discovered the movement of so many men.  As a result, two of the Sixth Corps divisions under Wheaton and Russell never made it into position on the left of the Second Corps until the following day.  Only Ricketts and his division were able to entrench to the left of Barlow’s Second Corps division and extend the line even more down the Jerusalem Plank Road.

The stage was set for June 22, 1864, where the Federals hoped to move west and strike the Weldon Railroad.  Would they succeed?  Only time would tell…

The Battle of Jerusalem Plank Road, Day 2: June 22, 1864:

Mahone’s Devastating Attack Routs the Second Corps

Note: Click to see maps of the Battle of Jerusalem Plank Road, which should help you follow along with the action.

Brief Summary: After the maneuvering of June 21 by the Union Second and Sixth Corps, the actions of June 22 would become decidedly more deadly.  Wright’s Sixth Corps was assigned the task of advancing on the Weldon Railroad near Globe Tavern.  The Second Corps would act as the connector between the Fifth Corps lines and the Sixth Corps advance.  This proved to be not only troublesome, but resulted in a disaster.

As Wright moved west to the Weldon Railroad, the Second Corps was supposed to swing like a gate, keeping contact with the stationary Fifth Corps on its right and the advancing Sixth Corps on its left.  However, the Union commanders had poor maps and were advancing through heavily wooded terrain.  To make matters even worse, there were no really good roads other than the one which led west to Globe Tavern.  The Second Corps would be advancing cross country.  As the Sixth Corps advanced and the distance between the Sixth and Fifth Corps grew steadily wider, the Second Corps couldn’t stay connected to both.  Meade directed Francis Barlow, in charge of the leftmost Second Corps division, to keep connected to the rest of the Second Corps and refuse his left flank.  Wright’s Sixth Corps would be unsupported.

Interestingly, it wasn’t Wright who ran into trouble on June 22.  Barlow and the rest of the Second Corps would pay the price for the hole which had opened.  Confederate Third Corps division commander William “Little Billy” Mahone was about to have the first of many good days at the Siege of Petersburg, in no small part due to the fact that he knew the terrain extremely well.  He had been chief civil engineer of the Norfolk and Petersburg Railroad.   Mahone put his knowledge of the terrain to good use, utilizing a ravine which ran due south of the Confederate fortifications to get into a position to attack Barlow’s left flank undetected (see both maps connected to this story to visualize Mahone’s initial attacking position).

Mahone’s men hit Barlow’s Division like a sledgehammer that afternoon, getting in behind the Second Corps men in wooded terrain and bagging thousands of prisoners.  Before the attack was complete, the Second Corps had been driven all the way back to their entrenchments along Jerusalem Plank Road, and four cannon had been captured.  This was a noteworthy event, because it was the first time ANY artillery piece belonging to the Second Corps had been taken forcefully from that organization in combat in the entire Civil War to that point.  The Second Corps held at Jerusalem Plank Road and even half-heartedly counterattacked locally, but the damage was done.  As the Second Corps strengthened their works that night, Mahone went back the way he had come, with many prisoners in tow.

Wilcox’s Third Corps division supported Mahone’s initial attack, but was not heavily engaged.  They were expected to keep an eye on the Sixth Corps and prevent any interference with Mahone’s advance.  They were successful in this and also prevented Wright from reaching the Weldon Railroad.  The Union forces had tried to reach one of Lee’s vital supply lines, and he had hit back hard.

The Battle of Jerusalem Plank Road was not finished, however.  The next day, Wright would again try to reach the Weldon Railroad…

The Battle of Jerusalem Plank Road, Day 3: June 23, 1864:

A Melancholy Affair for the Vermont Brigade

Note: Click to see maps of the Battle of Jerusalem Plank Road, which should help you follow along with the action.

Brief Summary: After the beating the Second Corps took on June 22, the Union mobile striking force consisting of the Second and Sixth Corps was clustered along the Jerusalem Plank Road.  They would try again on June 23 to reach the Weldon Railroad, the first of several vital supply lines stretching south and west of Petersburg.  As had happened the day before, Lee dispatched a mobile strike force of his own to deal with the Union advance.  Another fight would erupt, but would the outcome be any different than it had the day before?

The Second Corps again advanced out to the position they held on June 22 when Mahone had attacked.  This time, however, the left of the Second Corps successfully linked up with the right of the Sixth Corps.  With two potential flanks now protected and turned into a solid line, Wright’s Sixth Corps was free to slowly advance in a westward direction and attempt to get onto the Weldon Railroad, interrupting its operations.  Wright succeeded in getting small number of men I an advanced force onto the Weldon Railroad before noon on June 23, but his main force was still several miles away.  It was then that Wright noticed a strong Confederate column approaching on the Halifax Road, moving south to protect the Weldon Railroad .  It was Mahone’s Division reinforced, back for more action after the previous day’s fight.

Wright was essentially paralyzed by the enemy sighting and did nothing.  Mahone held the initiative, and as he did so often during the Siege of Petersburg, Mahone launched an attack.  In this case, faulty Federal positions caused another disaster, though of lesser magnitude than the previous day’s affair.  A good portion of the Vermont Brigade, mostly from the 4th Vermont and 11th Vermont regiments, was gobbled up by several of Mahone’s brigades.  The Vermonters had been left out front of the main Union position, and that forward position was separated from the main Union lines visually by a ridge.  Tragically, the Vermonters who were captured that day were almost all sent to Andersonville, and half of the 380 or so POWs captured at the Battle of Jerusalem Plank Road died there.  Author David F. Cross’s (see his book listed below) hypothesis is that the death rate at the notorious POW camp was due to a hookworm outbreak.

Needless to say, a second attempt to reach and hold the Weldon Railroad had failed.

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

Bibliography:

    First Person Accounts:

      Siege of Petersburg Documents Which Mention This Battle:

      Sources:

      1. CWSAC Battle Summary
      2. Petersburg National Battlefield

      ***



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