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NP: June 22, 1964 Petersburg Progress-Index: Siege Centennial, Part 14: An Extension On The Left

An Extension On The Left

(The following is the fourteenth in a series of articles published because of the centennial of the 1864-65 campaign for Petersburg. Today is the hundredth anniversary of the repulse of Grant’s first offensive following four days of battle which opened the campaign [on June 22, 1864].)


The largely recreational and residential area between Petersburg and Richard Bland College, between the Jerusalem Plank Road (Route 301) on the east and Johnson Road on the west, were the scene of a different type of activity a hundred years ago today. If a century of time could be rolled back, swimmers, golfers, and people mowing their yards would have something to watch.

For here was the locale of the first of Grant’s leftward extensions. The goal was the Petersburg Railroad, more commonly referred to as the Petersburg and Weldon Railroad and now a part of the Atlantic Coast Line, of which it is the oldest portion. It was a major link in the transportation system over which supplies from the lower South were brought into Virginia and to the armies defending it.

It is a mistake to think of the siege of Petersburg as a sedentary affair. Nor was it the nature of Grant to sit for very long even after an experience so frustrating and disappointing as the June 15-18 Battle for Petersburg. As always, he moved on the left.

Yet there was a difference between the movements on the left between the Rapidan and the James and those made after crossing the James. The former were intended to put Grant on a road leading into Richmond, but always he found Lee across the road. Those at Petersburg were designed to envelop the city and to cut the all-important railroads leading into it. Also, there really was nowhere else to go.

The left flank moves were several in number, they were all costly, but eventually they would take Grant’s army to such places as Five Forks, Sutherland Station, and the banks of the Appomattox River west of Petersburg.

*     *     *

At the end of the first four days of battle, the Union had sealed the eastern side of Petersburg. The next effort was a two-pronged venture to the south. One was a far-ranging cavalry raid, which will be noticed later. The other was an infantry movement which began yesterday, so to speak [June 21, 1864], and which reached its climax today [June 22, 1864].

Yesterday morning [June 21, 1864] Confederate outposts reported that enemy forces were in motion. The Union II and VI Corps had taken position to the left of the V Corps, then constituting the Union left. The purpose was to flank the Confederate defense line, to force the Confederates to stay within their defenses, and to destroy the Petersburg Railroad for some miles south of Petersburg. The II Corps was moving a few miles south of the city, the VI Corps farther south of it and headed directly toward the railroad.

On the 22nd [of June 1864] the two became widely separated. Three brigades from Hill’s corps moved into the gap. Through a ravine in what is now the Lee Park area, William Mahone led his troops out on the Johnson Road and formed them near the road. They attacked the Union force on the flank and within about an hour and a half drove it back to a position near the Jerusalem Plank Road. Whole Union regiments are said to have surrendered without firing a shot. The performance was due in part to the presence of many raw recruits in the ranks. They had the memorable experience of hearing the Rebel yell for the first time.

*     *     *

This was an engagement over which Confederate veterans in after years would enjoy lingering. Union writers, even after making allowance for inexperienced soldiers and dense pines and undergrowth, put it down as a disgraceful affair. On the Confederate side, along with rejoicing, there was criticism to the effect that the results might have been larger if there had been proper coordination between Generals Mahone and Wilcox.

Writers on both sides were inspired to dramatic figures of speech. Confederates spoke of the enemy being rolled up like a scroll or melting like snow. A Union officer confirmed such comments with one of his own: “The line of the Second Corps was eaten up like a flame travels up a slip of paper, until they reached the Twentieth Massachusetts.”

A member of Meade’s staff [Theodore Lyman] who was always ready with a cool appraisal wrote: “I look upon June 22nd and 23rd [1864] as the two most discreditable days to this army I ever saw. There was everywhere, high and low, feebleness, confusion, poor judgment.”

Mahone captured more than 1,700 prisoners, four guns, and several colors. The total Union loss usually is fixed at 2,300. On the 23rd [of June 1864] Union cavalry hurried to the railroad and began tearing up tracks but were driven off by Perry’s Florida brigade.

Undoubtedly there was too much Confederate delight over comparative losses, as there would be throughout the campaign. Grant could replace his losses, but the time was approaching when Lee was unable to do so.

*     *     *

The outcome of the first anti-railroad excursion applied a fillip to Confederate morale, and a Richmond diarist could report that it put Richmond in a better humor. But there is reason to wonder whether the shift of hostilities from the Richmond front to the Petersburg front did not contribute to an unrealistic attitude in the capital and in the civil government of the Confederate States of America. Lee himself did not share the illusion that he could do anything. He had no expectation of being able to keep the Petersburg [and Weldon] Railroad operating indefinitely two or three miles west of Grant’s left flank, but he did purpose to enable its trains to run until the southern crops were harvested.

The June 21-23 [1864] affair put the Union forces across the Jerusalem Plank Road, in the vicinity of the present Fort Davis. It pointed the direction which Grant’s future activities would take.1

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


  1. “An Extension On The Left.” Petersburg Progress-Index.  June 22, 1964, p. 4, col. 1-2
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