The siege and fall of Petersburg
Union picket near Fort Mahone, the Confederate stronghold|
The finished product: Union veterans of trench and field before Petersburg--1864.
It is winter-time before Petersburg.
Grant's army, after the assault of October 27th, has settled down to the waiting game that can have but one result.
Look at the veterans in this picture of 1864--not a haggard or hungry face in all this group of a hundred or more.
Warmly clad, well-fed, in the prime of manly vigor, smiling in confidence that the end is almost now in sight, these are the men who hold the thirty-odd miles of Federal trenches that hem in Lee's ragged army.
Outdoor life and constant “roughing it” affects men variously.
There was many a young clerk from the city, slender of limb, lacking in muscle, a man only in the embryo, who finished his three or five years term of service with a constitution of iron and sinews like whip-cords.
Strange to say, it was the regiments from up-country and the backwoods, lumbermen and farmers, who after a short time in Camp began to show most the effect of hardship and sickness.
They had been used to regular hours, meals at certain times, and always the same kind of food — their habits had been formed, their sleep had not been interfered with; their stomachs, by which they could tell the time of day, rebelled at being obliged to go empty, their systems had to learn new tricks.
But the city recruit, if possessed of no physical ailment or chronic trouble, seemed to thrive and expand in the open air — he was a healthy exotic that, when transplanted, adapted itself to the new soil with surprising vigor — being cheated of his sleep, and forced to put up with the irregularities of Camp life was not such a shock for him as for the “to bed with the chickens and up with the lark” countryman.
This is no assuming of facts — it is the result of experience and record.
But here are men of city, farm, and backwoods who have become case-hardened to the rugged life. |
Bolingbroke street — historic houses bombarded
In the houses down this quiet street, liable at any moment to be pierced by shot, as some of these have been, the women of Petersburg, with all the courage the daughters of the South invariably have shown, went bravely about their self-imposed tasks, denying themselves all luxuries and frequently almost the necessities of life, to help feed and take care of the men in the trenches that faced the Federal lines.
During the siege, from June, 1864, to April, 1865, led by the wives of some of the officers high in command, the Petersburg citizens, and the women especially, exhibited high heroism in nursing the wounded and aiding the army.
This street was named after a distinguished Revolutionary family, whose mansion during the Revolution had been seized and made the headquarters of Benedict Arnold.
Arnold, after his defection from the Continental cause, had been sent into Virginia to destroy the property of prominent Revolutionists. |
The demolished dining-room of a handsome mansion: havoc of bombardment in a Petersburg home
In this room, nearly a hundred years before, the red-coated officers of His Britannic Majesty's troops had gathered at the long mahogany table, which, with the glittering sideboards and the old portraits, had furnished the apartment.
They were unbidden guests and were invaders.
It was with enforced courtesy that the lady of the house, whose husband and two sons were wearing the blue and buff of the Continental Army, received them.
And now, in 1865, this lady's descendents, the heirs to the old mansion, have been forced to move by another invasion that brought home to them the stern decrees of war. The two maiden ladies of proud lineage had been forced in the early stages of the siege to move their belongings to a safer place.
The house had been stripped of furnishings; against the noble old walls the Federal guns had knocked for admittance, presenting no billet of lodgment with a sweeping bow, but rudely bursting in. After the war was over, its occupants came back; but still, if you should visit them, they could point out to you the traces of the siege. |
It is not improbable that Grant might have made more headway by leaving a sufficient part of his army in the trenches in front of Petersburg and by moving with a heavy force far to the west upon Lee's communications; or, if it were determined to capture the place à main forte, by making a massed attack upon some point in the center after suitable mining operations had weakened Lee's defenses and prepared for such an operation.
But the end was to come with opening spring.
To the farsighted, this was no longer doubtful.
The South must succumb to the greater material resources of the North, despite its courage and its sacrifices. --Colonel T. A. Dodge, U. S.A., in A Bird's-eye view of Our Civil war.
During the winter of 1864-65, General Lee
, fighting Grant
without, was fighting famine within.
The shivering, half-clad soldiers of the South
crouched over feeble fires in their entrenchments.
The men were exposed to the rain, snow, and sleet; sickness and disease soon added their horrors to the desolation.
The finances of the Government
were almost gone.
The life of the Confederacy
was ebbing fast.
Behind Union breastworks, early in 1865, General Grant
was making preparations for the opening of a determined campaign with the coming of spring.
Mile after mile had been added to his entrenchments, and they now extended to Hatcher's Run
on the left.
The Confederate lines had been stretched until they were so thin that there was constant danger of breaking.
A. P. Hill
was posted on the right; Gordon
held the center, and Longstreet
was on the left.
Union troops were mobilizing in front of Petersburg
By February 1st, Sherman
was fairly off from Savannah
on his northward march to join Grant
He was weak in cavalry and
determined to bring Sheridan
from the Shenandoah
, whence the bulk of Early
's forces had been withdrawn, and send him to assist Sherman
February 27th, wreaking much destruction as he advanced, but circumstances compelled him to seek a new base at White House
On March 27th he formed a junction with the armies of the Potomac
and the James
Such were the happenings that prompted Lee
to prepare for the evacuation of Petersburg
And he might be able, in his rapid marches, to outdistance Grant
, join his forces with those of Johnston
, fall on Sherman
, destroy one wing of the Union
army and arouse the hopes of his soldiers, and prolong the life of his Government.
knew the condition of Lee
's army and, with the unerring instinct of a military leader, surmised what the plan of the Southern
general must be. He decided to move on the left, destroy both the Danville
and South Side
railroads, and put his army in better condition to pursue.
The move was ordered for March 29th.
, in order to get Grant
to look another way for a while, decided to attack Grant
's line on the right, and gain some of the works.
This would compel Grant
to draw some of his force from his left and secure a way of escape to the west.
This bold plan was left for execution to the gallant Georgian
, General John B. Gordon
, who had successfully led the reverse attack at Cedar Creek
, in the Shenandoah
, in October, 1864.
Near the crater stood Fort Stedman
Between it and the Confederate
front, a distance of about one hundred and fifty yards, was a strip of firm earth, in full view of both picket lines.
Across this space some deserters had passed to the Union
took advantage of this fact and accordingly selected his men, who, at the sound of the signal gun, should disarm the Federal
pickets, while fifty more men were to cross the open space quickly with axes and cut away the abatis, and three hundred others were to rush through the opening, and capture the Fort
At four o'clock on the morning of March 25, 1865, Gordon
had everything in readiness.
His chosen band wore white strips of cloth across the breast, that they might distinguish each other in the hand-to-hand fight that would doubtless ensue.
Behind these men half of Lee
's army was massed to support the attack.
In the silence of the early morning, a gunshot rang out from the Confederate
Not a Federal picket-shot was heard.
The axemen rushed across the open and soon the thuds of their axes told of the cutting away of the abatis.
The three hundred surged through the entrance, overpowered the gunners, captured batteries to the right and to the left, and were in control of the situation.
's corps of about five thousand was on hand to sustain the attack but the remaining reserves, through failure of the guides, did not come, and the general found himself cut off with a rapidly increasing army surrounding him.
, on the left, began to throw its shells.
Under its cover, heavy columns of Federals sent by General Parke
, now commanding the Ninth Corps, pressed forward.
The Confederates resisted the charge, and from the captured Fort Stedman
and the adjoining batteries poured volley after volley on Willcox
's advancing lines of blue.
The Northerners fell back, only to re-form and renew the attack.
This time they secured a footing, and for twenty minutes the fighting was terrific.
Again they were repulsed.
Then across the brow of the hill swept the command of Hartranft
The blue masses literally poured onto the field.
The furious musketry, and artillery directed by General Tidball
, shrivelled up the ranks of Gordon
until they fled from the Fort
and its neighboring batteries in the midst of withering fire, and those who did not were captured.
This was the last aggressive effort of the expiring Confederacy in front of Petersburg
, and it cost three thousand men. The Federal loss was not half that number.
The affair at Fort Stedman
did not turn Grant
from his plans against the Confederate
With the railroads here
would be completely cut off. On the morning of the 29th, as previously arranged, the movement began.
swept to the south with his cavalry, as if he were to fall upon the railroads.
, with fifteen thousand men, was working his way through the tangled woods and low swamps in the direction of Lee
At the same time, Lee
stripped his entrenchments at Petersburg
as much as he dared and hurried General Anderson
, with infantry, and Fitzhugh Lee
, with cavalry, forward to hold the roads over which he hoped to escape.
On Friday morning, March 31st, the opposing forces, the Confederates
much reenforced, found themselves at Dinwiddie Court House.
The woods and swamps prevented the formation of a regular line of battle.
made his accustomed flank movement, with heavy loss to the Federals
as they tried to move in the swampy forests.
The Northerners finally were ready to advance when it was found that Lee
had fallen back.
During the day and night, reenforcements were coming in from all sides.
The Confederates had taken their position at Five Forks
Early the next afternoon, the 1st of April, Sheridan
, reenforced by Warren
, was arranging his troops for battle.
The day was nearly spent when all was in readiness.
The sun was not more than two hours high when the Northern
army moved toward that of the South
, defended by a breastwork behind a dense undergrowth of pines.
Through this mass of timber the Federals
crept with bayonets fixed.
They charged upon the Confederates
, but, at the same time, a galling fire poured into them from the left, spreading dismay and destruction in their midst.
The intrepid Sheridan
urged his black battle-charger, the famous Rienzi
, now known as Winchester
, up and down the lines, cheering his men on in the fight.
He seemed to be everywhere at once.
The Confederate left was streaming down the White Oak Road
But General Crawford
had reached a cross-road, by taking a circuitous route, and the Southern
army was thus shut off from retreat.
Prisoners to Phil Sheridan: full rations at last.
This group of the five thousand Confederate prisoners captured March 31st is eloquent of the tragedy in progress.
Dire was the extremity of the Confederate cause in March, 1865.
The words of the gallant leader in the last desperate and forlorn hope that charged Fort Stedman, General Gordon, give a pen-picture of the condition of the Southern fighting men: “Starvation, literal starvation, was doing its deadly work.
So depleted and poisoned was the blood of many of Lee's men from insufficient and unsound food that a slight wound, which would probably not have been reported at the beginning of the war, would often cause blood-poison, gangrene and death, yet the spirits of these brave men seemed to rise as their condition grew more desperate.”
But not only was it physical ailments and consequent inability to fight their best which brought about the downfall, it was numbers, the overwhelming numbers that were opposed against them.
In an interview with General Gordon, Lee laid before him his reports, which showed how completely he understood the situation.
Of his own fifty thousand men but thirty-five thousand were fit for duty.
Lee's estimate of the forces of Grant was between one hundred and forty thousand and one hundred and fifty thousand.
Coming up from Knoxville was Schofield with an estimated force of thirty thousand superb troops.
From the valley Grant was bringing up nearly twenty thousand more, against whom, as Lee expressed it, he “could oppose scarcely a vidette.”
Sherman was approaching from North Carolina, and his force when united with Scofield's would reach eighty thousand.
It was impossible, and yet it was after this, that Gordon made his charge.
South of Hatcher's Run, at the very westernmost part of the Confederate entrenchments, Sheridan fell upon the Confederate flank.
It was a complete victory.
With General Merritt and General Griffin sweeping in, the cavalry charged the works and five thousand Confederates were taken prisoners, besides those killed and wounded.
The Federal loss was less than seven hundred.
This was the last day of March.
Lined up here we see some of these captured thousands about to receive their first square meal in many months. |
April second--where Lee watched
From this mound General Lee watched the final Federal attack begin near Hatcher's Run on the morning of April 2, 1865.
It was a serious party of officers that gathered in this battery on the inner line of Confederate fortifications before Petersburg.
On the preceding days at Hatcher's Run, and again at Five Forks, Lee had attempted to break through the besiegers, but the efforts were futile, and no sooner had they ceased than the Federal army began to gather itself for the last grapple.
All night of April 1st, till four in the morning, the Federal artillery had kept up a terrific bombardment along the whole line, and at daybreak Lee saw the Sixth Corps advancing to the assault.
As they broke through the Confederate lines and wheeled to attack Fort Gregg, Lee called his staff about him, telling them to witness a most gallant defense.
A moment later they saw the Stars and Stripes unfurled over the parapet.
The depleted and worn-out Confederates had spent themselves to the last gasp.
Not even Lee's veterans could fight starvation and overwhelming numbers at once.
“This is a sad business!”
were Lee's words as he turned to his staff.
Couriers were bringing in reports of disasters all along his lines, and he gave the orders necessary for the holding of such of the interior defenses as would enable the Army of Northern Virginia to abandon Petersburg and Richmond. |
April second--“this is a sad business”
As his general watched, this boy fought to stem the Federal rush — but fell, his breast pierced by a bayonet, in the trenches of Fort Mahone.
It is heart-rending to look at a picture such as this; it is sad to think of it and to write about it. Here is a boy of only fourteen years, his face innocent of a razor, his feet unshod and stockingless in the bitter April weather.
It is to be hoped that the man who slew him has forgotten it, for this face would haunt him surely.
Many who fought in the blue ranks were young, but in the South there were whole companies made up of such boys as this.
At the battle of Newmarket the scholars of the Virgina Military Institute, the eldest seventeen and the youngest twelve, marched from the classrooms under arms, joined the forces of General Breckinridge, and aided by their historic charge to gain a brilliant victory over the Federal General Sigel.
The never-give — in spirit was implanted in the youth of the Confederacy, as well as in the hearts of the grizzled veterans.
Lee had inspired them, but in addition to this inspiration, as General Gordon writes, “every man of them was supported by their extraordinary consecration, resulting from the conviction that he was fighting in the defense of home and the rights of his State.
Hence their unfaltering faith in the justice of the cause, their fortitude in the extremest privations, their readiness to stand shoeless and shivering in the trenches at night and to face any danger at their leader's call.”
At Fort Mahone--the first to meet the onslaught
The tall young Southerner stretched here was outside the walls of Fort Mahone, and with scores of comrades met the first shock when the onsweep of the massed lines in blue came roaring down like a torrent upon the outer works.
His musket, with the ramrod out, lies beside him, showing that he has even stayed to load; the ground is strewn with cartridges frantically torn open; his hands are grasped tightly over the gaping wound through his body; he will be laid away to rest on the very spot he has so splendidly defended. |
“You will see a brave defense” : three soldiers who bore out Lee's prophecy
When Lee, looking toward Fort Gregg as the Federals attacked on April 2d, said, “You will see a brave defense,” he spoke from intimate knowledge of his men. But even if they had been twice the number, they could not have done more than they did. If they had had three lives apiece they might have laid them down no more bravely nor uselessly.
God was on the side of the bigger army.
But in the outflanking trenches filled with mud, in the covers of the abatis, in the angles of the walls, and in the very last ditch, groups of men in gray fought with the desperation almost of wild animals with retreat cut off. The bayonet and clubbed musket did bloody work here; men rolled and grappled with each other in the half darkness of the early dawn, rising to their knees to fight again.
It was relentless, terrible, and from the romantic point of view magnificent.
Yet as we look at these poor heaps of day, the magnificence has vanished; horror and sorrow are the sensations that are aroused.
Dead “Reb” or fallen “Yank,” these men who fell, though their voices are stilled, cry from their gory beds that such things may come to pass no more — their faces and forms, twisted as they fell, speak more eloquently than any words could, for peace. |
Fresh ammunition in the path of the charge
A veritable battle-photograph, in the fresh path of the charge within the Confederate works that had so long held the Federals back.
This picture was taken very shortly after the rattle of their muskets had rung the knell of Petersburg.
Beyond the parapet are the Federal lines and the intervening plain over which the men came at the double-quick that morning.
Some regiment has halted here to replenish its ammunition.
Boxes of cartridges have been hurried up and impatiently broken open.
There was no time for the eager men to fill pouches and belts.
Grabbing handfuls of the cartridges, they have thrust them into their pockets or the breasts of their jackets.
Then, leaving many of the boxes but half emptied, they pressed on, loading as they ran. The picture is an eloquent bit of still life; even the belts and cartridge-pouches cast away in impatience tell of the hurry and heat of battle. |
cavalry had dismounted and was doing its full share of work.
The Confederates soon found themselves trapped, and the part of their army in action that day was nearly annihilated.
About five thousand prisoners were taken.
With night came the news of the crushing blow to Lee
. General Grant
was seated by his camp-fire surrounded by his staff, when a courier dashed into his presence with the message of victory.
Soon from every great gun along the Union
line belched forth the sheets of flame.
The earth shook with the awful cannonade.
Mortar shells made huge parabolas through the air. The Union batteries crept closer and closer to the Confederate
lines and the balls crashed into the streets of the doomed city.
The bombardment of Petersburg
At dawn of the 2nd of April the grand assault began.
The Federal troops sprang forward with a rush.
Despite the storms of grape and canister, the Sixth Corps plunged through the battery smoke, and across the walls, pushing the brave defenders to the inner works.
The whole corps penetrated the lines and swept everything before it toward Hatcher's Run
Some of the troops even reached the South Side Railroad, where the brave General A. P. Hill
fell mortally wounded.
Everywhere, the blue masses poured into the works.
, on the right of the Sixth Corps, helped to shut the Confederate
right into the city.
, with the Ninth Corps, carried the main line.
The thin gray line could no longer stem the tide that was engulfing it. The Confederate troops south of Hatcher's Run
fled to the west, and fought General Miles
until General Sheridan
and a division from Meade
appeared on the scene.
By noon the Federals
held the line of the outer works from Fort Gregg to the Appomattox
The last stronghold carried was Fort Gregg, at which the men of Gibbon
's corps had one of the most desperate struggles of the war. The Confederates now fell back to the inner fortifications and the siege of Petersburg
came to an end.