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NP: June 16, 1964 Petersburg Progress-Index: Siege Centennial, Part 10: Setting A Stage At Petersburg

Setting A Stage At Petersburg

(The following is the tenth in a series of articles concerned with the centennial of the 1864-65 campaign for Petersburg. June 16, 1864, was the second day of the four days during which the city was the object of massive assaults intended to bring about its capture).

Bitter and indecisive warfare was raging yesterday [sic, today], a hundred years ago, east of Petersburg. June 16, 1864, was the second day of the great Battle for Petersburg. Except for Union capture of some additional points on the Petersburg defensive line, which had been pierced the evening before, the day turned in no marked results.

The important facts were that thousands of additional Union troops were arriving before Petersburg and that the Confederate force defending the city, strengthened but still greatly outnumbered, managed to do its job.

On the Union side, [Winfield Scott] Hancock, commanding the II Corps, was in command until the arrival of General George Gordon Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac. During the day General [Ambrose] Burnside’s IX Corps arrived. Late in the evening General [Gouvernuer K.] Warren’s V Corps came up. Thus the stage was being set for a campaign much longer than any of these participants must have supposed.

On the Confederate side, General [P. G. T.] Beauregard was present in person and directing the defense. Yesterday’s pitifully inadequate force had been strengthened by [Robert F.] Hoke’s division and three brigades of Bushrod Johnson’s division.

A Union attack made at about 6 o’clock in the evening was the major action of the day, but its results were not striking. While points on the Confederate line were taken, the system of defense did not crumble. There is much evidence that the attackers were impressed, as they were the day before, by the Petersburg line.1

Beauregard, a good engineer, pronounced the works weak, but to the attackers they appeared strong. Whether weak or strong in terms of mid-June, 1864, they were not to be compared with the many miles of frowning fortifications which rose around Petersburg after Grant dug in for a long campaign and after Lee sought to compensate for his lack of manpower by making maximum use of both earth and water, those ancient symbols of the Persians.

Beauregard’s generalship is one of the disputed subjects of the day. Among contemporaries and historians, the great Creole was capable of inspiring strong feelings. His critics have said that he did no more than any commander defending a position would have done, but such appraisal seems to be unjust.

[Confederate historian Douglas S.] Freeman, no Beauregard fan, wrote of his “almost flawless defense”. A more enthusiastic admirer could find his performance “bold and brilliant”, indeed his best battle of the war. Specifically, Beauregard ordered counter attacks which increased the caution of already cautious Union generals, who were still unaware that Petersburg was as thinly defended as it was.

In order to hold Petersburg, Beauregard withdrew troops from the line between Petersburg and Richmond, facing Butler’s Army o[f] the James, based at Bermuda Hundred. Butler saw and seized the opportunity thus created. In justice to Butler—who seldom has inspired admiring words from any source—it should be noted that he asked Grant for additional troops in order to drive a real wedge between the two cities. Grant was not disposed to accommodate him fully, perhaps because of lack of confidence in Butler’s generalship. In any case, Butler’s troops did reach the tracks of the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad, but within a matter of hours Confederate forces were able to restore the line.

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Beauregard was sending messages to [Robert E.] Lee. That brings up a whole field of controversy. As noted before, Lee had recognized the possibility of Grant moving south of the James River, but the defense of Richmond was uppermost in his mind. Beauregard is criticized for not supplying Lee with exact information—and defended on the ground he did not have exact information to supply. Lee moved his headquarters south of the James River but was not convinced that Grant and the greater part of the Army of the Potomac, as it continued to be called, had shifted to the Petersburg front.

Such considerations as these could be left to commanders justifying their course at a later time or to armchair strategists working with information which was not available to the participants. Alarmed as he was, Beauregard could view his day’s work with great satisfaction. Lee, if slow to recognize changes in the military picture which soon were to become so manifest, was alert to the needs of the long line he had to defend and was trying to appraise the situation on the basis of the information available to him. In Petersburg there was no doubt that war had come in all its terror.2

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


  1. SOPO Editor’s Note: Hancock’s II Corps, Army of the Potomac was responsible for this assault.
  2. “Setting A Stage At Petersburg.” Petersburg Progress-Index.  June 16, 1964, p. 4, col. 1-2
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