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NP: June 24, 1964 Petersburg Progress-Index: Siege Centennial, Part 16: For Variety—A Defeat

For Variety—A Defeat

(The following is the sixteenth in a series of articles published in observance of the centennial of the 1864-65 campaign for Petersburg. Today is the anniversary of the first Confederate defeat which occurred during those proceedings.)


There are old jokes about the Confederate States of America winning most of its battles and losing a war.  In modern warfare—and the Civil War was the first modern war in many respects—the paradox may not be as great a[s] it appears. In any case, today is the hundredth anniversary of a clearcut Confederate defeat before Petersburg and deserves to be recalled if only for that reason.

The engagement was not a great one and is seldom mentioned in even the fairly full general treatments of the Petersburg campaign. Accounts in both official and unofficial sources leave information to be desired. If the Confederates naturally made no great thing of it, neither did Union sources turn it into a cause for rejoicing, as an offset to their general disappointment at the time.

Lee reported the events in these words to Secretary of War James A. Seddon: “This morning the enemy was felt on both flanks, and a part of one of General Hoke’s brigades entered his works. Not being supported they were unable to hold the position and retired with few casualties, but losing the advance line which had succeeded in entering the enemy’s entrenchments. A small number of prisoners was taken, but the enemy’s loss is supposed to have been slight.”

The scene of the action was the far Union right, between the Appomattox River and the City Point Road. Batteries on the north side of the river opened early in the morning and, all in all, there was a great deal of cannonading and noise, so much so that writers in Petersburg were much impressed even though some of them never ascertained just what was going on. The attack was made half an hour later.

As related by a Union officer, a body of Confederates came out of their line and assaulted the works held by the 58th Pennsylvania and 96th New York, seasoned troops who repulsed the attackers with a galling fire. The action had been ordered by Lee and directed by Beauregard, who was in command of the Confederate left. Most of the participating troops were South Carolinians of Hagood’s brigade of Hoke’s division, and there was some hope that the effort would roll up the Union right flank and drive the enemy back beyond Hare’s hill.

Some of the attacking force gained the Union rifle pits and a portion of the first line of entrenchments. At that stage supporting troops failed to arrive, apparently because of misunderstanding regarding the plan, and the force withdrew with considerable loss. Some of them found safety against fire by lying flat in a field of oats between the opposing lines.

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Confederate accounts put the June 24 [1864] action down as a fiasco and a failure. The result was attributed to lack of understanding and coordination among the Confederate units and to a more spirited opposition from the enemy than generally had been encountered at Petersburg. Overconfidence may have played its part.

There is speculation that the attack was made to gratify Beauregard, who had wanted so much to take the offensive upon Lee’s arrival in Petersburg on June 18 [1864]. Beauregard’s part in the proceedings was criticized, indeed almost automatically by those who were ready to condemn him even when he was performing brilliantly. Lee assigned no such blame, either because he saw no basis for it or was mindful of the delicacy of the position of the man who now was operating as his subordinate.

In addition to being a Confederate defeat, the battle, if it ever reached the proportions of a battle, has two other aspects of interest. It was one of the several exceptions to the generally clockwise direction of the engagements of the campaign for Petersburg. Also, it is a reminder of the numerous small engagements which find little or no place in history, even in so copious a review as ours. Indeed in the winter of 1864-65 there would be some small sorties made by Confederate “have-nots” to get blankets and other creature comforts from the “haves” not far away.1

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


  1. “For Variety—A Defeat.” Petersburg Progress-Index.  June 24, 1964, p. 4, col. 1-2
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