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NP: June 17, 1964 Petersburg Progress-Index: Siege Centennial, Part 11: The Fiercest Day Of All

The Fiercest Day Of All

(The following is the eleventh in a series of articles pertaining to the centennial of the 1864-65 campaign for Petersburg. Today is the anniversary of the third of the four days of fighting which opened the campaign, probably the most ferocious and the bloodiest of the prolonged and futile assault.)

Heavy fighting marked the third day—June 17, 1864—of the Battle for Petersburg. Attacks were the order of the day, from 3 o’clock in the morning until after 11 o’clock at night. Although the written record suggests that June 17 was the bloodiest of the four days, the results were hardly more conclusive than they had been on the two preceding days.

Slight gains were made by [Ambrose] Burnside’s IX Corps and [Winfield Scott] Hancock’s II Corps, but they were quickly wiped out by the Confederates. One of the points gained by the attackers was the Hare house hill, near the famous old Newmarket race course; in time Fort Stedman would be constructed there.

The most serious Union breakthrough was made about dusk. With Confederate history repeating itself, General Archibald Gracie’s Alabama brigade arrived in time to close the gap. Gracie, who was to be killed during the siege [on Dec. 3, 1864], was one of the Confederate figures who made a particular imprint upon local memory.

Most of Grant’s forces about 90,000 strong were on the scene on the 17th. It is customary to cite the 15th [of June 1864] as the day on which Petersburg should have fallen, in view of the relative strength of the opposing forces, but some students of warfare, notably Colonel Alfred H. Burne, have maintained that the 17th offered Grant the best odds, on the basis of troops present and participating.

Writing much later, General [P. G. T.] Beauregard speculated on what would have happened if [Gouverneur K.] Warren’s V Corps on the Union left had attacked the undefended Confederate right. It was his opinion that, if one Union corps had been placed on the Jerusalem Plank Road and had been told to proceed northward into Petersburg, he would have been unable to offer much resistance and the city necessarily would have been evacuated.

There was source for Confederate satisfaction in the fact that the line between Petersburg and Richmond, which Butler had broken the day before, was restored.

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But it was very plain to Beauregard and his Confederates that they could not very long withstand such pounding as they took on this day. A Hagood, a Hoke, or a Gracie could not be counted on to arrive every time the Petersburg line was broken. Therefore Beauregard’s messages to Lee became more frequent and more urgent. He began sending personal messengers to emphasize his critical situation.

When one of them, Major Giles B. Cooke, later to be a beloved Petersburg minister and teacher, told Lee that if he did not send reinforcements nothing but Almighty God could keep the enemy from taking Petersburg, Lee told the future minister, “I hope God Almighty will keep the enemy out of Petersburg.”

All doubt as to Grant’s whereabouts was removed from Lee’s mind, and soon the bulk of the Army of Northern Virginia would be coming into Petersburg, there to remain for the better part of a year.

*     *     *

In order to continue the defense from a more advantageous position, Beauregard and his chief engineer, Colonel D. B. Harris marked out a new line, the chord of the battered eastern arc of the Dimmock Line. It ran from the Appomattox River along the line of Taylor’s Creek, through the valley between the Hare house and Blandford Cemetery, and joined the older line in the vicinity of the Rives farm. Although later it was criticized as making Petersburg vulnerable to shelling, it is difficult to see how Beauregard could have accomplished his necessary purpose and still kept the front at a greater distance from the city.

The line, which came to be referred to as “the trenches” in Confederate accounts, was marked out with white stakes. Even while battle was going on, it was shown to adjutants, quartermasters, and other staff officers, and then shown by them to as many regimental adjutants as circumstances permitted.

About midnight Beauregard ordered campfires to be brilliantly lighted and sentinels to be thrown forward as near to the enemy as possible. Shortly after midnight the retrograde movement began. Soon bayonets, tin cans, knives, axes, split canteens, and bare hands were busily moving earth.

In Petersburg a woman wrote in her diary of shells beginning to fall as she listened to the strains of a band playing in the distance. With some bitterness she marked upon this treatment of a city of women, children, and wounded soldiers. The city was getting a taste of things to come, which in the months ahead would become commonplace.1

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


  1. “The Fiercest Day Of All.” Petersburg Progress-Index.  June 17, 1964, p. 4, col. 1-2
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