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NP: June 19, 1964 Petersburg Progress-Index: Siege Centennial, Part 13: Not As Bright As It Appeared

Not As Bright As It Appeared

(The following is the thirteenth in a series of articles having to do with the 1864-65 campaign for Petersburg. These grim and hoary details are resurrected and committed to print because the present happens to be the centennial of the transactions.)


This week we have published in this space accounts of the first efforts by General U. S. Grant to take Petersburg, a century ago [June 15-18, 1864].

No doubt we have devoted an inordinate amount of attention to the subject. We are aware that some people view all such matters with a boredom so massive and profound that it commands respect and admiration. But we are aware also that this is the thing about Petersburg which has made an impression upon world history and upon the world’s consciousness.

Whether you are dealing with an encyclopedia or a chance acquaintance at a distance, this is what the word “Petersburg” evokes. They may not know much about our past glories and our spectacular present achievements, but they do know about Grant’s long campaign to take Petersburg and about Lee’s defense of it.

Therefore it seems to us entirely proper that in Petersburg, during the Civil War centennial, some notice should be taken of the subject.

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We left the story yesterday with both armies digging, and digging would be a major occupation for months. Two years earlier Lee had been contemptuously called “the King of Spades”, as if digging were beneath the dignity of a fighting man. That prejudice was dissipated as events demonstrated that a little dirt could make the difference between life and death. At Petersburg this new phase of the science of fortification was developed so elaborately that the city’s environs became a very laboratory of the kind of warfare which would prevail well into modern times.

It is customary to say that the siege of Petersburg commenced after the four days of battle. Because a siege had not been anticipated, that is not precisely true, but relative inaction followed action in the sense of making costly, futile attacks against entrenched positions. Northern revulsion to Grant’s losses could not be wholly ignored. However, some days would pass before siege plans and preparations were completed formally.

In the strict sense of the word, the campaign was not a siege, as Jefferson Davis and others liked to point out in their writings. The same could be said of most of the famous sieges of world history, for use of siege tactics does not depend upon total investment. In the case of Petersburg, a mixed type of warfare was waged. Until the end there was an open flank where non-siege warfare obtained, and the nature of the campaign has tended to blur awareness of great engagements which otherwise might have commanded more interest in their own right.

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For Grant the past week had combined success and failure, and in striking contrast. His crossing of James River always is rated as a major achievement, but no such construction could be put upon the June 15-18 [1864] attacks against Petersburg. The railroads leading out of the city across which his army was spread long since had lost their military importance. He could claim a physical asset in the superb base at City Point with the deep water lanes leading to sources of Union supply. But his great achievement was that he had placed Lee upon the defensive.

High as Confederate morale was, the Confederate outlook was not bright. The view that the story inevitably would be downhill all the way may overlook the following summer’s opportunity for a negotiated peace, but, if so, the opportunity was not exploited.

Lee would be able for a long time to deal successfully with every effort to break his lines, but he had been deprived of the weapon of maneuver. To General Early he had written: “We must destroy this army of Grant’s before he gets to James River. If he gets there, it will become a siege, and then it will be a mere question of time.”

To President Davis, on June 21 [1864], he gave a clear and cheerless account of his situation: “The enemy has a strong position, and is able to deal us more injury than from any other point he has ever taken. Still we must try & defeat him. I fear he will not at[ack] us but advance by regular approaches. He is so situated that I cannot attack him.”1

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


  1. “Not As Bright As It Appeared.” Petersburg Progress-Index.  June 19, 1964, p. 4, col. 1-2
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