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NP: June 18, 1964 Petersburg Progress-Index: Siege Centennial, Part 12: From Shooting to Digging

From Shooting to Digging

(The following is the twelfth in a series of articles pertaining to the centennial of the Petersburg campaign of 1864-65. Today is the hundredth anniversary of the last of four days of battle during which General Grant sought to take Petersburg by frontal attacks [on June 18, 1864]. During the day General Lee and the greater part of the Army of Northern Virginia arrived to assume the defense of the city.)


June 18 [1864] supplied the climax for the great Battle for Petersburg. During the night [George G.] Meade had ordered an attack to be made at dawn all along the line by 90,000 troops now available for the capture of Petersburg. During the same night the Confederate forces under [P. G. T.] Beauregard had been moving back to their new and more advantageous line.

The retrograde movement apparently escaped the attention of the enemy, and the fact made for surprise and confusion. As one Union writer put it, “we went up over abandoned works manned only by the dead of the night before.”

Lyman, of Meade’s staff, wrote that the men went in but not with spirit. [Bruce] Catton, a modern writer who is above any suspicion of being a Confederate propagandist, notes that some Union regiments lay down and refused to charge.

But, to prove that generalizations are unreliable, this was the day on which the First Maine Heavy Artillery, charging in the vicinity which became that of Fort Stedman, suffered a loss of more than 600 men out of 900 in a very few minutes. It is represented as the highest regimental loss in any single engagement of the Civil War. Although the claim has been made in other instances, that of the First Maine Heavy Artillery appears to enjoy the grim distinction.

In any case, there were charges, in the same somewhat confused pattern of the whole four days. Each time, as Swinton, an early historian of the Army of the Potomac, writes, there was the s[a]me mournful loss of life. The attacks died down toward the end of the day. With a loss for the four days of over 10,000 men, a comparison with Cold Harbor was inescapable.

*     *     *

On the Confederate side, the picture was changing radically. Once he was convinced that Grant was before Petersburg, Lee acted with dispatch. The vanguard of the Army of Northern Virginia, Kershaw’s division of Longstreet’s corps, reached the city about 7:30 in the morning [of June 18, 1864]. Then came Field’s division. Lee himself arrived in Petersburg shortly after 11 o’clock in the morning. With Beauregard he went to Reservoir Hill where, as the latter observed, the field was spread out before them like a map.

His mercurial spirits soaring, the man who had defended Petersburg so successfully proposed that, as soon as Hill’s corps and Anderson’s corps arrived, they should attack the Union flank, before the enemy had time to fortify. Feeling that his men were weary and needed rest, Lee rejected the proposal. It was a decision which Beauregard never endorsed. “But I was only second in command,” he later wrote, “and my views did not prevail.”

The arrival of A. P. Hill’s corps later in the day presented Petersburg with a peculiarly local angle. The Twelfth Virginia Regiment constituted the head of Hill’s column. As far as the writer can ascertain, they passed up Sycamore Street and out Halifax and Harding Streets to their place on the hitherto undefended Confederate right. At times the route was almost blocked by families and servants staging reunions with their own. Recognition sometimes was difficult. They did not look very much like the young men upon whom the rector of St. Paul’s Church had invoked the blessing of the God of Batles on April 20, 1861, at the station of the Norfolk and Petersburg Railroad.

*     *     *

A century later, historians and students of warfare hardly would agree on an explanation or even on a set of explanations. It has been suggested that Grant and the high command were so preoccupied with bridging the James River that they failed to make preparations for the attack on Petersburg. Meade’s critics said it was proof of his lack of generalship that his corps commanders made virtually disconnected attacks. General weariness of the men, often cited, was an explanation which could be matched on the Confederate side. Meade blamed the moral condition as a whole, and others blamed the generals as a whole. Whatever the explanation, the result spoke for itself.

One thing which the opposing armies had in common was that almost everybody was digging. Dating the beginning of the siege would have to take account of orders pertaining to that undertaking. Expecting quick capture of the place, Grant had not brought along his siege guns. But it was clear on April [sic, June] 18 [1864] that Petersburg was not to be taken by frontal attack.1

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


  1. “From Shooting to Digging.” Petersburg Progress-Index.  June 18, 1964, p. 4, col. 1-2
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