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NP: March 24, 1965 Petersburg Progress-Index: Siege Centennial, Part 37: Toward the Denouement

Toward the Denouement

(The following is the thirty-seventh in a series of articles published in observance of the centennial of the 1864-65 campaign for Petersburg. At this stage of the proceedings the end of a long and tragic story was not far away. Grant was making plans and dispositions for an achievement which had been denied him since mid-June of the previous year. Lee was preparing a daring effort which he hoped would relieve a desperate situation.)

The most recent of these articles reviewed a move which Grant made on the left early in February, 1865. The effort accomplished little enough in terms of its purposes. The Confederate counter attack was as successful as it was vigorous, but not the least of the results was that Confederate poverty, in troops and supplies, was put on display more clearly than ever.

Yet the significance of events a century ago at this season was to be found not in military actions, which were few, but in the preparations being made for efforts which would be launched in a very few days, when weather permitted. As for weather, the winter of 1864-65, although marked by only one heavy snow, had been one of extraordinary cold.

It was also a time of digging, of constructing new works and strengthening old ones, especially in the Hatcher’s Run area of Dinwiddie County. Grant was strengthening the vast and sprawling fortress from which he would launch his final attacks before Petersburg, and Lee had no choice but to do likewise. On the Confederate side the endless digging imposed a tremendous burden upon men living on the edge of starvation.

The result of all of this activity was that the front stretched about 35 miles, from the Williamsburg Road, before Richmond, to an area southwest of Petersburg. While breech-loading repeating rifles conferred new advantages on the Union side, Lee was struggling with shortages of almost everything he needed and was issuing appeals for carbines, revolvers, pistols, and saddles.

The food situation was almost as acute as it could be, and the dependence upon railroads was complete. Some Confederate units before Petersburg sought to solve the problem of personal shortages in their own way, by attacking the enemy opposite them and bringing back what they could. The problem of fuel was hardly less acute. The burning of wooden obstructions in front of the earthworks may have been mildly helpful to the Union forces in breaking the line in April.

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Confederate gloom was intensified by a steady flow of bad news from other quarters. The area which the Army of Northern Virginia was defending was steadily contracting. Sherman was carving up the lower portion of the nation, and the Valley of Virginia at last was lost. The Union blockade of southern ports, which formally had been treated with an almost gay defiance, had become an oppressive reality.

Yet it should not be assumed that the Confederate dispositions matched the gloom of the situation. Life on the Petersburg front was enlivened by occasional military reviews, while in the city some persons pursued entertainment with an avidity which shocked more solemn souls who felt that death and dancing were ill matched. In the camps the normally religious zeal of the people of a largely evangelical society was more evident than ever.

Among some Confederate soldiers and units morale remained so high that in retrospect, in light of the facts, it must seem unrealistic. Many a Confederate soldier wrote home to tell his relatives and friends that their discouragement would vanish if they could come to Petersburg and sense the spirit of the army.

The other side of that coin was that desertion had become a serious problem, not merely in the sense of informal absence or going home and being moved by the tragic plight of families but in the sense of going over to the enemy. Desertion reached its largest proportions in February and March of 1865. The familiar flow of deserting Confederates to the lines opposite played some part in the initial success of the March 25 [1865] attack on Fort Stedman, which would be remembered as the last grand offensive of the Army of Northern Virginia.

Since the plight and pleas of families are cited in explanation of desertion, notice should be taken of a letter by a Union soldier found on the body of a 17-year-old Confederate who was killed in the Fort Stedman attack:

“My dear son: Your father was a soldier and he would turn over in his grave if he knew that you had left General Lee’s army. Your sisters are afraid to go out of the house for fear somebody may ask them where you are. As for myself, much as I love you, I am ashamed to think of you. Go back, my son, for God’s sake, go back. Take any punishment that may be imposed upon you and do your duty by your country and your devoted mother.”

On the statistical level, a century ago Lee had in his immediate command about 50,000 men, of whom possibly 35,000 were fit for duty. Grant had an army of 150,000 at his disposal.

Both sides were waiting for roads to become passable and for the land to become suitable for conversion into battlefields.

A Union picket might taunt his counterpart with a warning that his time was approaching.1

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


  1. “Toward the Denouement.” Petersburg Progress-Index.  March 24, 1965, p. 4, col. 1-2
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