NP: June 15, 1964 Petersburg Progress-Index: Siege Centennial, Part 9: Not “Like A Rotten Branch”

   

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Not “Like A Rotten Branch”

If Hancock had attacked on June 15, 1864, wrote Colonel Lyman of Meade’s staff, “Petersburg would have gone like a rotten branch.”

Hancock did not attack—indeed had not been informed that he was supposed to attack—and Petersburg did not go “like a rotten branch.” But this was only one “if” in a battle which was better supplied with that commodity than any Civil War engagement save Gettysburg itself.

The Battle for Petersburg lasted from June 15 well into June 18, 1864. The result was an abysmal failure for the attacker, and the cost was as great as that of Cold Harbor. From papers published in the Official Records and a multitude of unofficial writings, it is possible to reconstruct, arrange, and map the events with reasonable accuracy. Yet the story is always confusing and the picture lacking in pattern.

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Early in the morning [of June 15, 1864], W. F. Smith’s XVIII Corps crossed the pontoon bridge over the Appomattox and was joined by [August V.] Kautz’s cavalry (which had made the raid of June 9) and Hin[c]k’s Negro troops. The first resistance which they encountered was presented by Graham’s battery and Dearing’s cavalry, the same units which had driven off Kautz on June 9. Now, on the City Point and Broadway Roads, they were playing the delaying role of the old men and boys six days earlier.

The Union advance on Petersburg was delayed by resistance at Baylor’s field and Perkinson’s sawmill, but one of Dearing’s prisoners told the Confederates this was an “on to Petersburg” and that more troops were coming. Some time would pass before the Confederate high command itself was certain of that fact.

The head of the column reached the earthworks protecting Petersburg before noon. Early in the afternoon the Union force pressed the Confederate center, but memories of attacking an entrenched foe at Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor were working for Petersburg. Then, too, the Confederates kept up what Union reports called an accurate, unrelenting, and severe fire.

The Union attitude must have been different if it had been known that Petersburg was defended by 2,200 men, extended from Battery 1 on the [Appomattox] river to Butterworth’s Bridge, a rather scratch force of regulars, transients, and militia, with an average of one infantrym[a]n to every four and a half yards.

About 4 o’clock Smith completed his reconnaissance and ordered an attack. Then it was discovered that the chief of artillery had sent all the horses to water—another “if” or another blunder for a very iffy and blundering undertaking.

A real assault on the Confederate works was made about 7 o’clock [p.m.]. Smith sent his troops forward in a formation described as clouds of skirmishers. The attack lasted about two hours. The Union force succeeded in breaking the line in a ravine near Battery Five and in flanking the latter.

The defense was directed by General Henry A. Wise, a former governor of Virginia and important political figure. He had not won great military glory, but the defense of Petersburg on June 15 may be his brightest star in that field. One of the Wises remarked years later that, if Petersburg ever felt a monument-erecting mood, it should put up one to his old bald-eagle daddy.

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As the eastern batteries were failing, when it appeared that Petersburg itself must surely fall, General Johnson Hagood’s brigade of South Carolinians arrived. Hagood later recalled that some of the routed troops were pouring back into town as his men were getting out of cars of the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad and being formed in the streets, to be sent to the scene at the double quick. Then came the whole of Hoke’s division, which Lee had order[ed] to [P. G. T.] Beauregard’s assistance.

Thus ended the day’s attempt to take the city. With a portion of the Confederate line in possession, Smith was happy with his achievement. He notified Butler that, unless he misapprehended the topography, he held the key.

Soon other Union forces arrived. Never properly notified or instructed concerning the purpose, General Winfield S. Hancock’s II Corps had made a late start for Petersburg that morning. Grant had not instructed Meade, and Meade had not instructed Hancock. To make matters worse, Hancock spent the best hours of the day traveling, as he said, by an incorrect map toward a destination which was not where it was supposed to be.

Had Smith been disposed to take further action, the II Corps could have assisted. Instead, feeling that his lines were too extended, Smith asked Hancock to relieve his men in the captured works. Some of the men of Hancock’s corps were described as furious over the opportunity which they felt was being denied them.

Slightly nearer Petersburg, the Confederates were uninterrupted as they dug in on a temporary line. It was a bright moonlight night. Union leaders were congratulating themselves on having arrived at Petersburg so expeditiously. With somewhat greater reason, the defenders of the city were rejoicing in the fact of having saved it against overwhelming odds.

Military historians have debated the day and the hour when Petersburg should have fallen, depending upon the ratio of strength and other factors. Certainly many of the participants thought this was the time.1

Article Image

19640615PetersburgProgressIndexP4C1to2PetersburgNo09

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

Source:

  1. “Not ‘Like A Rotten Branch’.” Petersburg Progress-Index.  June 15, 1964, p. 4, col. 1-2

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