By Sherman Fleek
The siege of Petersburg, Virginia was a foreshadowing of the Great War in Europe 50 years later. There have always been trenches, barriers and sieges of castles, fortresses or cities in history, but the use of modern heavy artillery and explosives and many miles of entrenchments was new and different. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant decided to out flank the Confederates by making a risky river crossing of the James River in mid-June 1864.
Of course, Gen. George Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac, executed it. Grant wanted to push on and capture Petersburg, a railroad hub city a few miles south of Richmond. Gen. Robert Lee was caught unaware at Cold Harbor waiting for the Federals’ next move. The Federals rapid movement and bridging of the James River was totally unexpected. Having interior lines, though, Lee was able to send some forces quickly to defend the southern approaches of Richmond.
Grant nearly took Petersburg and would have, if a subordinate commander had not been sluggish and had entered the town, which was lightly defended, the entire situation would have changed.
The opportunity to take Petersburg was gone, which would have probably caused the fall and abandonment of the Rebel capital, Richmond. Thus, the two armies entered into a stalemate of trench warfare that lasted nine months and cost tens of thousands of lives. As on the Western Front later in France, the campaign became a war of attrition, where yards cost hundreds of lives on both sides.
For the common soldiers, the fighting became a contest with no hope of victory or end in sight. Yet, there was little doubt that Lee’s weak and starving army could sustain this type of warfare very long. To Grant it was only a matter of time; he knew the end was in sight.
At 5:30 a.m. July 30, a huge explosion ripped through the Confederate lines at Petersburg, now famously called “the battle of the Crater.” Union soldiers who were coal miners dug a mine shaft several hundred feet long under the enemy lines, and then denoted tons of explosives.
Though two divisions of Federal troops had trained for two weeks concerning how to enter the crater and what to do—they faltered. Then a division of U.S. Colored Troops (African-American) also entered the fray and took heavy casualties.
The Union troops during the fight, both white and black regiments, gave no quarter to many Rebels who tried to surrender. The Crater was a disaster with some 4,000 Union casualties and only 1,500 Southern men.
The mastermind behind the operation, Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnsides, commander of the IX Corps, was relieved. The gloom of trench warfare continued. Though Grant knew of the concept and tacitly approved it, the failure was haunting.
Through the winter the lines expanded more and more to the west, until in March 1865, Lee and his forces had reached its end of endurance and men. Dozens of soldiers were deserting every day and the remaining troops were starving and disease was killing many daily.
Lee finally determined to save his army by breaking out. He planned a diversion attack at Fort Stedman while the rest of the army moved west out of the trenches. Seeing the feint, Meade counterattacked along the entire Confederate line in early April rupturing it in several places.
Lee had no choice but to abandon his earthworks and try to escape to the west. Grant had anticipated this, and the cavalry corps under Gen. Phil Sheridan was ready and defeated a force led by Gen. George Pickett at Five Forks on April 1, 1865.
Now the classic military tacit of a pursuit developed as the Federals quickly responded. Lee pushed his army west and the Federals pursued in a parallel column south of the Rebels. Other Union forces broke through the defenses at Petersburg, took the city on April 3, and then marched on Richmond and captured the capital of the Confederacy as President Jefferson Davis and his government fled.
After a week of fighting and pursuit, Lee realized that he could not out run and escape Grant’s closing column. On April 8, Grant dispatched a courier to offer surrender terms to Lee but was refused.
The next day, April 9, Lee finally succumbed to the obvious and said, “Then there is nothing left for me to do but to go and see Gen. Grant and I would rather die a thousand deaths.”
At about 3 p.m., Grant and Lee met at the McLean House at Appomattox Station and a short time later, Lee surrendered his exhausted and starving army of some 50,000 men to Grant. The first thing Grant did was issue rations and medical attention to the surrendered host.
The now famous image of Grant with muddy boots and informally dressed in a field uniform accepting the surrender from Lee in dress uniform with sword and sash, lives on in American memory.
This was not the end of the Civil War. Other field armies and cities were yet to cease fighting or surrender, but it was the most symbolic defeat of the war.
Little had he realized as a cadet or young lieutenant in the Mexican War, that someday three separate field armies or forces would surrender to Gen. Ulysses Simpson Grant.
(Editor’s note: This is the ninth article in a series on Ulysses Grant until his statue dedication at West Point on April 25.)
DISCLAIMER: This article was originally published at the Defense Video Imagery Distribution System Hub (www.didvshub.net). The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.
Share your thoughts in the comments area below!