Petersburg

Petersburg National Battlefield

The Siege of Petersburg, encompassing several battles and smaller actions, was fought between June 9, 1864 and March 25, 1865, around Petersburg, Virginia, between Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and Union Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Potomac in the American Civil War. The siege ended in a decisive Union victory and resulted in approximately 70,000 total casualties.

Today, only a small portion of the battlefield, mainly northeast of the city, has been preserved as Petersburg National Battlefield. It would be impossible to preserve all the extensive earthworks that ringed the city south of the Appomattox River, but many forts and landmarks have been turned into city parks. The battlefield has been divided into two fronts: Eastern and Western. The Eastern Front Driving Tour is four miles and the Western Front Driving Tour is 16 miles.

The Siege of Petersburg wasn’t technically a siege because the city wasn’t entirely surrounded, but it shared similar characteristics, including fortifications, mortar bombardments, and near-constant, low-intensity fighting. It lasted 9 months, 2 weeks, and 2 days. Over time, the battle lines crawled westward as Ulysses S. Grant tried to find a way to cut Lee’s main supply line to the west and south.

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Richmond Redeemed by Richard J. Sommers

richmond-redeemed-the-siege-at-petersburg-by-richard-j-sommersIn Richmond Redeemed: The Siege at Petersburg, Richard J. Sommers meticulously recounts Union General Ulysses S. Grant’s Fifth Offensive (September 29 – October 2, 1864), primarily the Battles of Chaffin’s Bluff (Fort Harrison) and Poplar Spring Church (Peebles’ Farm), against the Confederate defenses around Richmond and Petersburg, Virginia. Originally published in 1981, the sesquicentennial edition contains new research, new writing, and new thinking with perspectives and insights gathered from the author’s 33 years of teaching at the Army War College and conversations with fellow Civil War scholars and enthusiasts.

The Union attack north of the James River at Chaffin’s Bluff in the fall of 1864 broke through Richmond’s defenses and gave Federals their greatest opportunity to capture the Confederate capital. Meanwhile, fighting outside Petersburg at Poplar Spring Church so threatened Southern supply lines that Confederate General Robert E. Lee considered abandoning his Petersburg rail center six months before actually doing so. Yet hard fighting and skillful generalship saved both cities. Sommers painstakingly reconstructs these events with unrivaled detail.

I wouldn’t recommend trying to read Richmond Redeemed without a general understanding of the Siege of Petersburg or the military situation around Richmond in late 1864. Sommers quickly summarizes these events in the Eastern Theater before diving right into the minutia of Grant’s Fifth Offensive. A reader unfamiliar with Grant’s previous offensives around Petersburg is left scratching his or her head. It is difficult to fully grasp the details of these events without making the larger context perfectly clear. Complicating matters, Sommers switches back and forth between the attack against Richmond and the attacks southwest of Petersburg.

Sommers‘ thesis is that these separate attacks should be considered part of the same offensive, and part of a pattern in which Grant struck simultaneously at Lee’s southwestern supply lines and the defenses around Richmond. In theory, this would force Lee to commit valuable reserves to the defense of one or the other. He could afford to save one, but not both. If Sommers would have divided the attacks into two separate parts, it would have gone a long way toward reducing confusion without taking away from his overall thesis.

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The Last Citadel: Petersburg by Noah Andre Trudeau

the-last-citadel-petersburg-june-1864-to-april-1865-by-noah-andre-trudeauIn The Last Citadel: Petersburg, June 1864-April 1865, Noah Andre Trudeau charts Union General Ulysses S. Grant’s Petersburg Campaign, from June 9, 1864, when General Benjamin Butler first attacked defenses around the city, to  April 3, 1865, when Federal troops at last captured this vital Virginia railroad hub south of Richmond. The ten-month Siege of Petersburg was the longest and most costly to ever take place on North American soil.

Within this non-traditional history, Trudeau brings to life these dramatic events through the words of men and women who were there, including officers, common soldiers, and the residents of Petersburg. What emerges is an epic account rich in human incident and adventure, told through various chapters covering all aspects of the campaign. This revised Sesquicentennial edition includes updated text, redrawn maps, and new material.

The Last Citadel is divided into six parts, including a prologue and epilogue. The chapters are arranged into a rough chronology, but this is not strictly a chronological account of the siege. Each chapter uses a different subject to frame the narrative, from the effect of artillery bombardment on soldiers and civilians, the role of newspapers and the press, and even fraternization between opposing armies.

This is a unique and interesting way to look at the battle, drawing from a multitude of primary sources including military orders and dispatches, regimental histories, civilian diaries and letters, newspapers, and more. Trudeau organizes his book well, so that various perspectives never become jumbled or distracting. This keeps each chapter fresh and interesting, like reading a collection of articles rather than a weighty historical text.

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The Deterioration of Lee’s Army

Confederate General Robert E. Lee

As I’ve been visiting battlefields and researching the American Civil War in Virginia, and reconciling that information with my own experiences in the military, it hit me what a massive and difficult endeavor fighting the Civil War actually was. At the height of the war in the Gettysburg Campaign, General Robert E. Lee commanded roughly 75,000 men in the Army of Northern Virginia. To put that into perspective, in 1860 Richmond, Virginia had a population of 37,910. How difficult is it to sustain an army the size of a city?

To sustain any army, it needs food, uniforms (shoes especially), guns and ammunition, access to clean water, sanitation, shelter from bad weather, and some kind of medical care. It’s estimated dysentery alone, brought on by poor sanitation, caused over 95,000 deaths in the Union and Confederate armies. 415,000 soldiers died from disease, accidents, drowning, heat stroke, suicide, murder, and execution, far exceeding battlefield deaths. Those are the soldiers that died–far more were simply incapacitated, bedridden, or unable to fight.

It’s incredible how long these large armies continued to fight without just completely deteriorating from attrition alone.

Beyond basics like food, clothing, shelter, and weapons, soldiers need to have a reason to continue fighting–they must believe in a cause, in eventual victory, and be willing to endure hardship and work together, especially in an army where regular pay is virtually nonexistent. This psychological measure of a soldier’s willingness to fight is called morale. Even the best fed and well-equipped army in the world will disintegrate if its morale is low enough.

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Shades of Gray: Widjigo

The following is an excerpt of a short story from my book Shades of Gray: Strange Tales from the Old Dominion, now available exclusively on Amazon Kindle. Order it today for only $2.99.

It was dusk on the night of April 2, 1865 on the banks of Hatchet’s Run a few miles southwest of Petersburg. Major General Andrew Humphreys of the Army of the Potomac had hurled his II Corps at the remnants of Major General Henry Heth’s once feared Confederate division throughout the day. The Confederates, grimly determined in the midst of the smoke and thunder of battle, fought for every inch of ground. The smoldering orange embers of scattered fires crackled deep inside the breastworks and the timber. Blackened, barren trees sprawled over the land like a sea of twisted thorns, and small shapes scrambled under the cover of sulfuric smoke like mealworms. 10-inch siege mortars thundered in the distance and lit up the horizon with a sickening yellow glow.

In a nearby root cellar, a family whispered around dim candlelight and listened to the sounds of battle crawl near. A goat bellowed in the distance. Its cries were heard between the loud crashes of thunder, and then it was gone. William Gilmore heard it too, and he prayed for the souls of the men and boys who had spewed hot iron and lead at each other in the trenches around nearby Petersburg for almost a year. William had once felt the sting of battle, but now his hair was nearly white, arthritis crippled his hands, and wrinkles cut deep into his skin. Still, he clutched tenaciously to his grandson—as well as to his ancient Springfield flintlock musket—waiting until it was safe to go out.

* * *

The remnants of a battered Confederate infantry company hid in the forest above the farm where they waited for the enemy to come. They had been ordered to cover the retreat of Heth’s Division, and to protect the wagon train from attack, but their dirty and hollowed faces knew it was a useless gesture. The chain of command had disintegrated, and their once formidable force was reduced to fighting in lone pockets with a trickle of supplies and no hope of victory. They faced an ocean of enemies that threatened to wash over them at any moment.

A little more than two dozen of these men, Private Nathaniel Beverley among them, crouched behind makeshift piles of dirt and wood they had hastily thrown up that evening. At any moment, the Army of the Potomac’s II Corps was going to close in on their position, and it was their duty to delay it as long as possible. The group’s self-appointed commander, a middle-aged, grizzled veteran named Dixon, had put Nathaniel on watch that night, so Nathaniel’s eyes were trained on the creek in the valley below. He detected no movement in the growing darkness, but the smoke hovering over the valley did much to obscure his line of sight.

Nathaniel hadn’t slept in days. He was at the point of exhaustion and starving from a sparse diet of hardtack, horsemeat, and rotten potatoes that his unit had taken from the local farmers. They had no fire with which to cook, because the flames would give away their position. Already, the 88-pound mortar shells slammed into the riverbed below. Their report had lost their effect on Nathaniel long ago, and now the strangely rhythmic explosions seduced him to sleep. He struggled to keep his eyes open. It became hard to focus, and his cloudy breath warmed his face just enough to make the soft cradle of his arm inviting.

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