Siege of Petersburg

Siege of Petersburg
Date June 9, 1864 – March 25, 1865
Location Petersburg, Virginia
Victor Union victory
Contenders
United States (Union) Confederate States
Military Leaders
Ulysses S. Grant Robert E. Lee
Unit Strength
67,000–125,000 about 52,000
Casualties and Deaths
approx. 42,000 approx. 28,000
Part of the American Civil War

The Siege of Petersburg, Virginia, was the beginning of the end for the Confederates in the American Civil War. Petersburg was a key city close to the Confederate Capital of Richmond. Taking Petersburg would clear the way for the Union North to assault Richmond, and also cut off critical key supply lines that fed the efforts of the South.

Most historians don’t separate the Siege of Petersburg from the drive toward Richmond, and so it is often referred to as the Siege of Richmond-Petersburg. Whatever the case, this was a long, complex, bloody and protracted effort that wore on from June, 1864 to the end of March, 1865. The ultimate result was a victory for the Union. It led directly to the surrender of General Robert E. Lee to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox and the end of the Civil War.

More Than a Siege

It is also important to note that the Siege of Petersburg was not a classic siege as defined by military historians. Siege warfare is one of the oldest strategies of warfare. For example, the Greeks laid siege to Troy in ancient times. But a siege generally amounts to the surrounding of a city, cutting off all supply lines, and conquering that city by a combination of starving it out, and attacking it with siege weapons, such as artillery fire and raids.

In the case of Petersburg, Union forces were unable to manage a complete blockade of the city, meaning supplies and troops could come and go, including by train, albeit with great danger.

The Beginning

The Siege of Petersburg, such as it was, began after General Grant attempted a frontal assault on the city but was repulsed by Confederate defenders. The Southern army was too entrenched within a defensive position in and around Petersburg, and so General Grant began digging a vast series of trenches which he hoped would eventually encroach upon the city close enough to deliver a direct military blow, while slowly cutting off all supply to the city.

The network of trenches dug by the Union army extended over a region of 30 miles and traversed and area between Richmond and Petersburg. It was this strategy that would influence the vast trench warfare in Europe during First World War.

While Grant’s army worked diligently to extend its trenched positions ever tighter and closer around Petersburg, a number of other battles and side-efforts took place which made the Siege of Petersburg-Richmond one of the most complex military actions of all time. It is also among the most studied in history by military strategists.

The Fight over Railroad Lines

One of the strategies was to cut off all railroads that led in and out of Petersburg. The battle for the Jerusalem Plank railroad was fought on June 21 to 23. It involved elements of Union and Confederate cavalry as well as various elements of infantry. After much fighting and loss of life, the Confederates managed to retain control of this rail line.

The Union next tried to destroy the rail line running between Lynchburg and Petersburg. This effort is known as the Wilson-Kautz Raid because it was led by Union commanders James Wilson and August Kautz. This time the Union was successful in destroying its objective – however, Union forces were eventually driven out of the region and the Confederates repaired the rails and reestablished this vital supply line in and out of Petersburg.

In short, the Union attempts to cut off supply lines via destroying railroad lines involved numerous battles and strategies on both sides in their efforts to prevail. The problem for the Southern Confederates was that time was against them in terms of keeping their army supplied. Their manpower was also dropping. As the South struggled to defend railroad lines, the Union forces worked like termites on their trenches, ever encroaching on Petersburg. Countering the trenching effort drained enormous resources from the Confederate side.

The Crater

One of the most astounding military strategies to come out of the Siege of Petersburg is what came to be known as “The Crater.” This was an ingenious plan by Union Colonel Henry Pleasants. Pleasants was a mining engineer by profession, and he suggested that a massive underground tunnel be dug underneath a key Confederate fort known as Elliott’s Salient.

Pleasants said a massive charge of explosions could be ignited underneath this fort, destroying the entire post and devastating all Confederate soldiers inside. This in turn would create an opening for a massive Union assault to pour across the lines and overrun the Confederate First Corps.

General Grant approved the plan. Union engineers dug a 511-foot tunnel and hollowed out a 75-foot area beneath Ellitot’s Salient. Some 8,000 pounds of gun powder were loaded into the cavity and detonated. The massive explosion had the effect the Union had hoped for – the eruption blew out a massive crater, killing some 300 Confederates, and destroying all structures within a vast area.

Unfortunately, the follow-up assault planned by the Union forces was bungled in the extreme. The original Union force – one of the regiments of black soldiers – had been trained to skirt the rim of the crater and attack Confederate positions. But at the last minute, this black regiment was switched with another fighting force of Union regulars who had not been clued in on the post crater strategy. The result was that hundreds of Union soldiers scaled down into the crater – but without having a way to climb back out. They were surrounded by Confederate riflemen, who stood on the rim of the crater and shot them all like fish in a barrel.

Many Battles, A Certain End

The battle over railroad positions, the trenching, and The Crater are just some examples of hundreds of individual battles that were fought in and around Petersburg during the Siege of Petersburg. The Confederates were worn down by the grinding relentlessness of the Union assault. Petersburg eventually fell on April 2 when the city was overrun by the Union Army. With Petersburg in ruins, the Confederate Capital of Richmond was all but defenseless – Union forces eventually reached Richmond and burned the city to the ground.

There was little left for the Confederates to do but admit defeat and surrender. When General Robert E. Lee handed over his sword to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, the American Civil War was over on April 9, 1865.

3 Responses to “Siege of Petersburg”

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  3. Stephan Cooper says:

    I have often wondered why we hear nothing about any rescue attempts by Confederate forces. The Commanding General of the entire Confederate Army is under siege for 10 months, in a southern city, and no officer ever even
    attempted a rescue? Is this likely? How can this be so? When I ask this question of folks who pretend to know things, they hem and haw and say that “well, the south was all but defeated by then”, but that’s just flustery guessing, since the south still had an active army and a fighting general in Petersburg. Does anyone out there actually know about this? And if so, can you tell me what book I might read to learn the truth? Thank you all for your consideration. Steve C

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