NP: June 9, 1964 Petersburg Progress-Index: Siege Centennial, Part 7: Thermopylae At Petersburg

   

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Thermopylae At Petersburg

Today could be called the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the campaign for Petersburg [on June 9, 1864], which was to thrust it into the world’s military history in a tragic and unique role and to subject it to an ordeal which might have to consult Troy for a precedent.

Grant’s massive campaign to take Petersburg would not begin until almost a week later. However, its inhabitants for more than a month, owing to the presence of Butler’s Army of the James a few miles away and the several ominous, albeit bungling, moves made in the direction of Petersburg, had had a sense of being embattled if not besieged.

The battle of June 9, 1864 had special qualities to recommend it to local consciousness. None of the great battles—Confederate writers used to refer to the thirteen pitched battles before Petersburg—of the ensuing ten months or the evacuation itself would create comparable consternation or grief.

From the Union point of view, the attack made on Petersburg a century ago today was a diversionary offensive which is likely to be entered in official accounts with an erroneous date. Even so, if successful, the consequences could have been great. If the ordered destruction of public buildings, public stores, bridges across the river, depots and cars, had been carried out, Petersburg might have been put to the torch. The all but undefended city might have been taken and held in a way which would have changed the record of the last year of the Civil War. But none of that was to be. In any case, as General Beauregard perceived, the reconnaissance was a foreshadowing of future action.

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The attacking force included 4,500 infantry under Major General [Quincy A.] Gillmore and a party of cavalry about 1,300 strong under Brigadier General [August V.] Kautz. Gillmore crossed a pontoon bridge over the Appomattox River above City Point, while the cavalry approached by way of a wide sweep to the south and the Jerusalem Plank Road.

Gillmore checked his force out of the story at an early hour. He drove in pickets on the City Point and Prince George Courthouse Roads, heard no firing from Kautz, took a look at the fortifications, and went back to Bermuda Hundred. Gillmore subsequently defended his course on the grounds that the earthen defenses did not permit the “quick, decisive” push specified in his orders and that he thought Kautz might have gone off on a raid.

Kautz was taking his mission seriously enough. After he drove in pickets on the Jerusalem Plank Road, messages of his approach reached Petersburg. The courthouse bell and fire bells began to ring. Members of the second class militia plus persons with no defined relationship to organized local defense hurried to the point, near the Rives farm, where the Jerusalem Plank Road passed through the Dimmock line.

The defense line to the east was manned by perhaps 1,200 defenders, including regulars and militia. The old and the young, the occupants of the hospitals and the jail (the “patients and the penitents”) were preparing to defend the city. The total of those who went to Battery 27 was small; estimates have ranged from 50 to 170, but the figure usually accepted is 125—few enough to deal with a large and well armed body of cavalry.

It was General [Benjamin F.] Butler himself who wrote that Petersburg was defended by “old men and boys, the grave and the cradle being robbed in about equal proportions.”

Colonel Fletcher H. Archer, who had commanded one of the two Petersburg companies in the Mexican War, was in charge. His disposition of his little force, armed with inferior muskets and rifles, would be commended. He told them they must die rather than permit the Union cavalry to enter the city. A wagon was overturned in the spot where the road passed through the lines. Fence rails were converted into cheveaux-de-frise.

There are moving and picturesque accounts of the action, too long to be reviewed here, and there are some discrepancies of detail which give trouble. The main outline is clear. First, the Union cavalry, traveling on the road and in the woods beside it, made a feeling out attack at a gallop. Confederate fire toppled some of them from their horses. When Colonel Archer noticed that some of his men insisted upon looking up after firing, he warned them to be more careful.

In time the Union cavalry dismounted and formed a line about twice as long as that held by the old men and boys. Union sharpshooters occupied and fired from the roof of the farmhouse on the nearby Gregory property. The only assistance received by the defenders of the point consisted of six men and a sergeant and a gun from Sturdivant’s Batter [The Albemarle Virginia Artillery] brought by General R[aleigh]. E. Colston, who was on detached duty and in charge of the defense of Petersburg.

Whether the old men and boys held off two or three attacks, they had been almost surrounded when the order to retreat was given. Their camp in the rear and Battery 26 had been occupied by the enemy. But the time which they were buying was precious, for five minutes could have made a difference in the fate of the city.

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After overcoming resistance, the Union cavalry divided into two parties. One went north on what is now Crater Road into Blandford and was repulsed there by Sturdivant’s Battery. The other turned to the left on New Road (now Graham Road). As they crossed Lieutenant Run and were ascending Reservoir Hill, they met a warm welcome.

It was supplied by Graham’s battery [Petersburg Virginia Artilery] and Dearing’s cavalry. These reinforcements had been sent hurriedly from Beauregard’s force on the Howlett line, in Chesterfield County. To make the story more local, Captain Edward Graham was a Petersburg man and General James Dearing had a Prince George County bride.

The passage of Graham’s Battery through town at a gallop supplied a dramatic note. A properly Victorian account might say that the captain assured the ladies gathered on the sidewalks and even in the streets that they would be protected. But one witness was sure she heard him say: “Get out of the way! Damn the women! Run over them if they won’t get out of the way.”

According to an oral tradition preserved by the descendants of one of the captain’s relatives, he looked, with his strained figure and his flushed face, for all the world like the devil tearing up Sycamore Street.

Four guns hurriedly unlimbered began firing on the approaching cavalry. That began the climax of the story. Kautz had not counted on such fire, much less on being pursued down the New Road and Jerusalem Plank Road by Dearing’s yelling cavalry. Writers of Union reports did not choose to dwell long on the details. The Confederate cause may have been helped by the old reservoir at the head of Webster Street, which seems to have been mistaken for a massive earthen fort. If so, General Warren and others concerned with Union intelligence would make the same mistake. The defenders of Petersburg had the satisfaction not only of driving off Kautz but also of seizing some horses and a piece of artillery which would be an object of sentimental interest and would do duty in the September cattle raid.

The happy ending of what Douglas S. Freeman called “perhaps the unique battle of the entire war” had been bought at a price.

About half of the 125 old men and boys had been killed, wounded or captured. Among the prisoners was Timothy Rives, who had driven up in his buggy, and who had been perhaps the most anti-secessionist of the delegates who finally signed Virginia’s Ordinance of Secession.

Two days later there would be funerals in Petersburg all day, from residences or from Washington Street Methodist Church, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, or Second Presbyterian Church. The dead were buried in their family plots. Had they been buried in a common grave near the scene of their stand, an old epitaph might have been recalled as appropriate: Dic, hospes, Spartae te nos hic jacentes vidisse, patriae fideles.1

Article Image

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The Petersburg Progress-Index Siege of Petersburg Centennial Series, 1964-65:

Source:

  1. “Thermopylae At Petersburg.” Petersburg Progress-Index.  June 9, 1964, p. 4, col. 1-6

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