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Chapter 37:

  • Unconquerable spirit of our troops around Petersburg.
  • -- tribute to the ladies of that city. -- Southern women. -- quietude of the Federal Army after June 18th. -- General Meade intrenches. -- what General Badeau says of the failure to capture Petersburg. -- his comments upon the late arrival of General Lee's Army. -- how General Beauregard saved the city. -- Inaction of General Meade's Army. -- erroneous explanation of it by General Badeau. -- General Beauregard's comprehension of the depression of the enemy. -- he proposes an immediate attack. -- General Grant's words. -- the siege of Petersburg. -- criticism of the Confederate line of intrenchments. -- denial that General Lee consulted General Mahone concerning the location of the line. -- details of General Beauregard's proposed attack upon the Federal Army. -- General Lee fears that the topography of the country will interfere with the movements of the troops. -- Consults General Mahone with reference to the position of ‘second Swamp’ and the railroad cuts. -- General Lee refuses to make the attack. -- reasons for holding to the Jerusalem plank road line. -- that line maintained until the close of the war. -- Untrustworthiness of Southern Historians on this Point.

Before entering upon the events which followed the arrival of General Lee's forces at Petersburg it is but fair to pay a passing tribute to the handful of heroes who unflinchingly bore ‘the heat and burden’ of the four days of unparalleled fighting which we have just described. The beautiful devotion and patriotism of the women of the beleaguered city, during the whole period of the siege, claim also an honored place in these pages. Equal praise should be meted out to those who never wavered before the overwhelming odds confronting them, and to those who nobly encouraged their valor and attended to their needs. It will also be our object, in this chapter, again to direct the reader's attention to the location of the new Confederate lines, so successfully occupied by our troops on the eventful night of the 17th of June.

Throughout the Confederate war no epoch was more trying to our troops in the field, or more clearly demonstrated their powers of endurance and their unconquerable spirit, than the Petersburg campaign. Reference is here made particularly to the struggle of the 15th, 16th, 17th, and 18th of June. The exhausting work [249] performed, the fatigue endured, night and day, by officers and men, and the knowledge that they were outnumbered seven to one, make the courage and stubborn resolution there displayed truly sublime. It was a great feat in military annals. On the 15th 2200 men defending Petersburg prevented 22,000 from effecting its capture. On the evening of the 16th 10,000 men stood a successful barrier to 66,000. The same 10,000 men, on the 17th, confronted 90,000, and were not defeated. On the 18th our troops, reinforced, first by Kershaw's, then by Field's division, of General Lee's army—making an aggregate of 15,000 in the forenoon, and about 20,000 in the afternoon—not only withstood, but bloodily repulsed, the combined attack of these 90,000 men. The loss of the enemy exceeded ours in more than the proportion of his strength to ours—it was nine times greater. Indeed, it amounted to more than the number of men we had in action.

In these preliminary operations against Petersburg, which may be brought together under the definition of “the period of assaults,” though no large action had taken place, the rolls of the army showed a loss of 15,000 men.1

If we cannot here inscribe the names of all those who figured in that bloody drama, we may at least make mention of their commanders and of those whose untiring efforts aided them successfully to maintain their ground. Hoke, Johnson, Wise, Hagood, Colquitt, Gracie, Martin, Dearing, are names that should be remembered. To the men who fought under them the highest praise is due; and whatever of glory belongs to the former belongs also to those whose strong arms and stout hearts so effectually carried out their orders. Nor should the name of Harris, the able Engineer and fearless officer, be omitted from that list of heroes.

When the war-cloud settled upon that part of Virginia, and the fate of Petersburg hung in the balance, the noble women of the besieged city and its environs could be seen, night and day, thronging forth, as far as they were permitted to go, rendering invaluable assistance to the wounded, and breathing words of solace and peace in the ears of the dying. The work performed by them was efficient and intelligent, and not the well-meant but fitful efforts of the favored daughters of fashion. Personal comfort was put aside by them; and many a Confederate soldier, now in [250] the enjoyment of full health and strength, may attribute his recovery from illness, from wounds, or from physical exhaustion, to the unremitting attention given him by these patriotic women. During the whole war, and in all parts of the Confederacy, the women of the South were up to this high standard. They never, to our knowledge, in any single instance failed. Their conviction of the justice of the cause was profound, and truly has it been said of them—‘their hearts were in the war.’

After the total repulse of the Federal army on the evening of the 18th no further effort was made by the enemy to renew the assault upon Petersburg. The musket was replaced by the spade ill the hands of the Union soldiers, and nothing of moment occurred between the two armies then confronting each other until the memorable event so appropriately termed by Mr. Swinton ‘the mine fiasco.’2 ‘Being satisfied,’ says General Meade, in his report, ‘that Lee's army was before me, and nothing further to be gained by direct attacks, offensive operations ceased, and the work of intrenching a line commenced, which line is part of that at present held.’3

In his ‘Military History of Ulysses S. Grant’ (vol. II., p. 372) General Badeau uses the following language:

The General-in-chief was greatly chagrined at the failure of Smith to capture Petersburg. The plan of the movement had been to take that place by surprise; and when, on the 15th, Grant ascertained that Lee was still on the northern side of the James, while Smith and Hancock were combined, with nearly forty thousand men, in front of Petersburg,4 he looked upon victory as assured. Even after the early success of Smith had been left unimproved, it was still possible, by further attacks, to secure the capture of the place before Lee's entire army could arrive. The assaults of the 16th, 17th, and 18th were all made with this idea; for if the rebels were not at once dislodged, it was apparent that a long and tedious siege must follow; in fact, a new series of combinations would become necessary, and a chilling disappointment fall upon the spirit of the North. Every effort was therefore made south of the Appomattox; and when an unexpected opportunity was offered in front of Bermuda Hundreds, Butler was urged again and again to hold what he had acquired, and even to retake the position, after it had slipped from his grasp. He seemed, indeed, to appreciate the importance of his prize, but did not succeed in retaining it, and, at the end of three days, the rebels again held the railway between Petersburg and Richmond, and all [251] the great avenues connecting the Confederacy and its capital were in their control.

‘But, if the well-laid plans of the National commander had thus been doubly and trebly foiled, Lee had by no means displayed consummate generalship. He made at the outset the grave mistake, which came so near being fatal, of remaining north of the James till Grant had arrived in front of Petersburg; and, even after starting from Cold Harbor, his alacrity was not conspicuous. It was not until the morning of the 18th that his principal columns again confronted the Army of the Potomac; and he himself only arrived in Petersburg on that day.5 It was Beauregard who saved the town. It was he who foresaw the intention of Grant, and brought the troops from Bermuda Hundreds without orders, neglecting or, rather, risking the lesser place, to secure that which was all-important; massing and strengthening the inner works on the night of the 15th, and, afterwards, holding Meade and Smith at bay, until Lee arrived in force. Then the combined rebel army, amounting to sixty thousand men, again on the defensive, and again behind earthworks, was able to withstand the attacks of the wearied veterans who were brought up, after their march of fifty miles, to still renewed assaults.’

While noticing the general correctness of this account, so strikingly in contrast with what is said upon this subject by many a Southern writer, including Mr. Davis himself, we deem it necessary to point out a palpable omission on the part of General Badeau.

On the 20th of June, after the arrival of General Lee's forces at Petersburg, the Confederate army was still inferior in number to the Federal army to the extent of 30,000 men; and the ‘wearied veterans’ alluded to by General Badeau had undergone no such fatigue as General Beauregard's troops had borne from the 15th to the 18th, inclusive; nor had they been subjected to more marching than General Lee's two army corps; nor were the breastworks they would have assaulted so ‘formidable’ as they are represented to be; for, though begun by General Beauregard during the night of the 17th, they were not completed until days and weeks after General Lee's arrival. Some other reason must be assigned for the inertness and comparative inactivity of the Federal army after the 18th of June, and that reason General Badeau himself finally gives in the following language: [252]

‘* * * Hancock and Burnside crossed the river, and then moved and manoeuvred with alacrity and skill; and the men themselves never flagged nor failed. Every one was earnest, every one did his best, till the fatal moment that lost the result which all had been striving for, which had, indeed, been absolutely attained, all but secured; when Smith, having won Petersburg, hesitated to grasp his prize. Then, indeed, when all their exertions had proved fruitless, when, having out-marched and out-manoeuvred Lee, the soldiers found themselves again obliged to assault intrenched positions—then they seemed in some degree to lose heart, and for the first time since the campaign began their attacks were lacking in vigor; when they found the Army of Northern Virginia again in their front, sheltered by formidable breastworks, their zeal was lessened, and their ardor cooled. Had the assaults in front of Petersburg been made with the same spirit as in the Wilderness, Petersburg would even then have fallen. But it was not in human endurance to hold out in this incessant effort, and the limit had for a time been reached.’

And Mr. Swinton says:

‘Indeed, the Union army, terribly shaken, as well in spirit as in material substance, by the repeated attacks on intrenched positions it had been called on to make, was in a very unfit moral condition to undertake any new enterprise of that character.’

Here is again illustrated General Beauregard's military foresight. When, about mid-day on the 18th, he took General Lee to the elevated site of the Petersburg Reservoir, and, showing him the field, urged upon him to order an attack on the next day by all the Confederate forces, he based his advice upon his intuitive apprehension of that wide-spread feeling among General Grant's forces. Weighing the discouragement of the Federals against the revived spirits of our troops, then united and reinforced, General Beauregard knew that the chances of victory, notwithstanding the exhausted condition of our men, would be all in our favor; and General Badeau's and Mr. Swinton's admissions now show the correctness of his judgment. Had General Lee attacked General Grant at that moment, the war would probably have had a different termination.

General Badeau reports General Grant as having said, at ten o'clock, on the evening of the 18th:

‘I am perfectly satisfied that all has been done that could be done, and that the assaults to-day were called for by all the appearance and information that could be obtained. Now we will rest the men, and use the spade for their protection till a new vein can be struck.’6


The regular siege of Petersburg had now begun; and the Confederate forces, including General Lee's army, occupied the new defensive lines to which General Beauregard had withdrawn his troops, during the night of the 17th, unobserved by his vigilant adversary. These lines were necessarily taken under the pressure of circumstances, as most lines are on the field of battle, but had, nevertheless, been selected after due reflection and with great care. General Beauregard's object—and he accomplished it—was to hold the overpowering forces of the enemy at bay until the arrival of the long-delayed reinforcements of General Lee.

The location and retention of these lines have met with more than passing criticism. It has even been asserted that—

General Lee's first expression on his arrival at the front was that of dissatisfaction touching the general features of the new line; and, with the view of rectifying this important element of his defence, he called to his assistance Major-General William Mahone, an officer in whom he reposed great confidence, and who, besides being an engineer by profession, was familiar with the topography of the country around Petersburg.’7

General Beauregard is clear and positive on this point. He says:

General Lee was too good a soldier and engineer, and had recently had too much practice in hastily selecting new positions to hold his enemy in check, to “express dissatisfaction” with the lines in rear of Taylor's Creek, which were just begun, when he first visited them, after his arrival at Petersburg. He was, on the contrary, thankful, and well might he be, for the shelter they then offered, and only feared that the remainder of his troops would not get up in time to save the town.’

General Lee did not at any time consult General Mahone with reference to the Taylor's Creek and Jerusalem plank road lines. He knew that he himself, and General Beauregard, and their two able Engineers, Colonels Harris and Stevens, were fully competent to select between those two defensive lines, when their sites were so plainly visible. General Mahone may have been a good and experienced civil engineer, but no one then knew that he laid claim to skill as a military engineer. Civil and [254] military engineering are as distinct from each other as geometry and algebra. Both require special studies; but efficiency as a military engineer demands above all things great practice in the field under trying circumstances. Where had General Mahone acquired skill by such practice

General Lee consulted him concerning the topographical features of the country outside of the Dimmock lines,8 but for another purpose, and not with reference to the location of our defensive works, as will now be explained. General Beauregard, on the day of General Lee's arrival—the 18th of June—at about 1 P. M., urged upon him, as has been stated, the advantage of taking the offensive before the enemy could have time to know the country and protect himself by abatis, rifle-pits, or trenches. He proposed an attack upon General Grant's left flank, so as to double him up on his right and centre, while his rear should be assailed by all the cavalry that could be massed against it. General Lee at first appeared to favor the idea, but expressed some fear that the Norfolk Railroad cuts and the ‘Second Swamp’ would prove too great obstacles in our way for the offensive. It was upon this point that he consulted General Mahone, who had been the civil engineer and builder of the Norfolk road, and was necessarily familiar with the country over which our forces would have to operate. General Mahone was of General Lee's opinion, and the suggested plan was not carried out. Meanwhile, and after a thorough examination of the new lines—of the Jerusalem plank road and of the Blandford ridgeGeneral Beauregard expressed the opinion that we had better hold on, for the time being, to the line we then occupied, for the following reasons:

1st. That it kept the enemy's batteries at a greater distance from the besieged town.

2d. That it would act as a covered way (as the phrase is, in regular fortification), should we deem it advisable to construct better works on the higher ground in the rear. In the mean time we could construct a series of batteries to protect our front line by flanking and over-shooting fires; and we could throw up infantry parapets for our reserves, whenever we should have additional troops. [255]

3d. That the new line gave a close infantry and artillery fire on the reverse slope of Taylor's Creek and ravine, which would prevent the construction of boyaus of approaches and parallels for a regular attack.

General Lee concurred in General Beauregard's opinion, and approved his selection. The mine explosion, which occurred a few weeks later, showed how judicious this opinion had been; for it was the terrible fire of infantry and artillery on that reverse slope which prevented reinforcements being sent forward rapidly and continuously to the Federal columns which had already gained a footing in the Confederate works. Thus, it became possible to bring our troops from the extreme right for the recovery of our lines. If the movements of the enemy could not be distinctly seen from these lines, they could be readily observed from the batteries referred to, giving ample time to us for offensive operations.

The best proof that General Beauregard's new lines were properly located is, that they were held till the end of the war, at times by mere handfuls of jaded troops against vastly superior numbers, and without the necessity of building a second system of works on the more elevated grounds in the rear.

If, on the 17th of June, as Mr. Davis has it, ‘Lee had constructed a line in rear of the one first occupied, having such advantages as gave to our army much greater power to resist,’9 it is evident that he never ‘expressed dissatisfaction’ as to a position he had himself selected. If, on the other hand, he did condemn the location of that new line (for which we have only the unsupported testimony of Captain Young), then Mr. Davis, who, in that respect, disagreed with General Lee, unconsciously lauds General Beauregard for the skill he there displayed; and Messrs. McCabe and Cooke lead their readers into error when they assert that the line spoken of was the selection of General Lee, and not of General Beauregard.

The inconsistencies of the authors of these fugitive histories and essays are so evidently self-destroying that no further effort is required to show how untrustworthy they are, and how unfair in their estimates of the events connected with this period of the war.

1 Swinton, ‘Army of the Potomac,’ p. 515.

2 ‘Army of the Potomac,’ p. 518.

3 General Meade's report bears date November 1st, 1864.

4 A fact which even President Davis appears not to have known.

5 General Badeau quotes General Beauregard's telegram to General Bragg, dated June 18th, wherein it appears that General Lee, in person, reached Petersburg on that day, at 11.30 A. M.

6 ‘Military History of Ulysses S. Grant,’ vol. II., p. 374.

7 See criticism by Captain John D. Young, late a commander of sharpshooters, 3d Corps, Army of Northern Virginia, as published, June 22d, 1878, in the Philadelphia Weekly Times.

8 The name given to the original defensive lines of Petersburg.

9 ‘Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government,’ vol. II., p. 638.

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