NP: September 30, 1964 Petersburg Progress-Index: Siege Centennial, Part 30: Inching Toward Victory

   

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Inching Toward Victory

(The following article is the thirtieth in a series of articles published in observance of the centennial of the 1864-65 campaign for Petersburg. This time of the year, a century ago, was not a season for great pitched battles but rather of businesslike Union extensions on the left which ultimately would bring success.)

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At the end of September, 1864, General Grant launched one of the highly businesslike extensions which would place him a little nearer to the Boydton Plank Road and, more important, to the South Side Railroad.

In August [1864] he had succeeded in getting astride and west of the Petersburg [and Weldon] Railroad and the Halifax Road. Then he had secured his position strongly with fortifications before preparing to move again. The battles of September 2[9] and 30 and October 1 [1864] would further increase his holdings in Dinwiddie County real estate.

The nature of this and subsequent extensions on the left was well summarized by Colonel Lyman, of Meade’s staff, one of the most observant and articulate of contemporary Union writers: “They (the Confederates) perfectly hate what we are doing now, going a couple of miles and fortifying, then going two more and fortifying again; then making a sudden rush, taking a position and a lot of cannon, and then fortifying that. All of these moves being a part of what we may call a throttling plan. Their struggles, though often apparently successful, do them thus far no good. They flank us on the Weldon Railroad and brush off 2,000 prisoners: no use! we hold the road. They flank us again at the Pegram house, and capture 1,000 more: no use; we hold the Pegram position and add it to our former acquisitions.”

On the Confederate side, John Esten Cooke said the same thing in different words: “These varying successes did not, however, materially affect the general results. The Federal left gradually reached farther and farther westward, until finally it had passed the Vaughan, Squirrel Level, and other roads, running southward from Petersburg, and in October [1864] was established on the left bank of Hatcher’s Run, which unites with Gravelly Run to form the Rowanty.”

However, the quality of Confederate resistance hardly could have asked for higher praise than that accorded by William Swinton, historian of the Army of the Potomac: “The success of the Confederate tactics was wonderful; each movement, save that of the Weldon railroad…ended in a check, generally accompanied by one or more thousand prisoners. The aggregate of captures made by the enemy in these successive swoops is astonishing.”

The quotations are justified by the fact the general nature of the moves is more significant than the specific engagements. That which began on September 29 [1864] was part of one of Grant’s double offensives against the long Petersburg-Richmond line. In the first phase two corps were sent north of James River to capture and hold Fort Harrison, but Grant’s double tactic, already given two major applications, was too familiar to Lee for him to risk stripping the Petersburg defenses, nor was he able to recover Fort Harrison at the northern end of the front.

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The engagement before Petersburg is often called the Battle of Poplar Spring Church in Union accounts. More variously it is referred to in reports as the battle of Wyatt’s farm, Jones’s farm, Pegram’s farm, and Peebles’s farm—leading at least one commentator to quip that it was somewhat doubtful the visitors knew where they were—not that it mat[t]ered much for the purpose at hand. As the scene of the heaviest fighting, the Peebles farm and Poplar Spring Church would seem to share honors for the name.

The movement began when Gregg’s division moved out from Wyatt’s and was forced to its entrenchments there by Confederate cavalry. Greater force was employed when Warren’s V Corps supported Parke’s [I]X Corps pushed toward the Squirrel Level Road with a view to getting on the Confederate right and making a lodgment on the Boydton Plank Road, not far from the vital South Side Railroad itself.

A clash on the Jones farm resulted in the attacker being forced back to the Pegram farm. When the battle was resumed on the 30th [of September 1864], [A. P.] Hill’s corps forced back four Union divisions and inflicted a loss of more than 2,000 men.  It was indicative of the material poverty of the Confederacy that its reports saw fit to mention the capture of oil cloths, blankets, and knapsacks along with prisoners.

October 1 [1864] witnessed another determined Union advance. It failed to achieve its full purpose, and it might have been still less successful if General Wade Hampton, the Confederate cavalry chief, had not been informed that the enemy was in his rear. The net Union gain was a matter of about three miles.

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Grant marked his extension by throwing up another great cordon of forts. He had manpower to spare, and there was no reason for him to take chances. Lee had no choice but to do likewise, and the result was his Hatcher’s run line. For the Confederates the work was so demanding that some of the underfed soldiers came to dread digging more than fighting. By the end of October, 1864, fortification had been applied so lavishly on both sides that attempts to give the total in terms of miles amount to guesswork of a very inexact kind. Among the results was Union Fort Fisher, the largest fort near Petersburg and one of the largest earthen works ever constructed.

A crystal ball might have shown that the booming of a gun there on an April morning [April 2, 1865] would be the signal for the final assault on Petersburg.1

Article Image

19640930PetersburgProgressIndexP4C1to2PetersburgNo30

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

Source:

  1. “Inching Toward Victory.” Petersburg Progress-Index.  September 30, 1964, p. 4, col. 1-2

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