Battle of Petersburg: Grant Fails to End the War

Stalemate in the East

After the slaughter at Cold Harbor, neither the Army of the Potomac nor the Army of Northern Virginia wanted to launch an attack.  The two armies sat in their trenches, warily watching each other.  General Ulysses S. Grant had wasted his troops in an assault based on his belief that the Confederate army had lost its will to fight.  Now it was Grant’s army that had lost its will.  The Army of the Potomac had suffered more than 50,000 casualties in thirty days.  The Union commanders were reluctant to make further frontal assaults on entrenched Confederates.

Grant was also faced with a tactical dilemma.  He was too close to Richmond to continue his strategy of sidestepping the Army of Northern Virginia and placing the Army of the Potomac between General Robert E. Lee’s army and the Confederate capital.  General Benjamin Butler, still bottled up at Bermuda Hundred, gave Grant inspiration for his next move.  Butler had launched an assault toward Petersburg on the 9th of June.  Although the assault accomplished little, it did expose the weakness of the Petersburg defenses.  Grant decided to cross the James River south of the Confederate capital and cut Richmond’s supply lines by capturing Petersburg.

Grant Makes His Move

On the night of June 12, Grant began moving his army to the east of Richmond.  General William F. “Baldy” Smith marched the XVIII Corps back to White House Landing and boarded transports for the return to Bermuda Hundred.  The rest of the Union army marched to the north bank of the James River, southeast of Richmond.  They began crossing the river on the 15th of June.

Now General Lee had a dilemma.  Was Grant heading for Richmond or Petersburg?  General P. G. T. Beauregard, in front of Petersburg, was screaming for reinforcements.  He was convinced that Grant’s army was landing in force near Petersburg.  Lee, who could not get any reliable intelligence on Grant’s whereabouts, hesitated to abandon Richmond.  He began slowly shifting troops to Beauregard while maintaining sufficient forces north of the James to counter a Union thrust at the Confederate capital.

Day 1: Smith Hesitates

On the morning of June 15, Baldy Smith’s corps of three infantry divisions, a cavalry division, and supporting artillery, crossed the Appomattox River from Bermuda Hundred to a spot near City Point.  The boats carrying the Union troops across the river landed men randomly on the opposite bank.  Divisions and brigades were mixed willy-nilly in the chaotic crossing.  Smith was delayed while he got his corps organized and then moved his troops to their jumping off points.

Smith’s advance proceeded slowly, skirmishing occasionally with a small detachment of Confederate cavalry.  Beauregard consolidated his 2,200-man defense force in a section of the Petersburg breastworks immediately facing the Federal approach.1 There, they waited patiently for Smith’s 16,000 men to arrive.  Smith, gun-shy from Cold Harbor, nervously surveyed the Confederate defenses while he waited for his artillery.

The corps’ chief of artillery had decided to water all his horses at the same time.  Fearful of attacking a fortified position without artillery support, Smith waited until the horses were finished drinking, and the guns were bought up in support.  The Union troops finally advanced late in the evening.  They quickly overran the Confederate line, forcing the defenders to retreat.  Smith, satisfied with his success and unwilling to push his attack farther, stopped. Baldy Smith decided he would resume the attack in the morning.2

Day 2: The Confederates Hang On

On June 14, Lee had ordered Robert Hoke’s division to the north bank of the James River.  The next day, while Baldy Smith advanced timidly toward Beauregard’s works, Hoke crossed the river to help defend Petersburg. Johnson Hagood’s brigade boarded trains at Chester Station and arrived in Petersburg around midnight. Hagood was followed by Colquitt’s Georgians. Limited rail transport forced Martin’s brigade to march straight to Petersburg.

Clingman’s brigade reinforced Bushrod Johnson’s position near Bermuda Hundred. The Tar Heels manned the trenches on the far left of Johnson’s line, next to the James River.  That night, Beauregard ordered Johnson to abandon the Bermuda Hundred line and move his division to the Petersburg defenses.

At dawn on June 16, General Clingman’s brigade began moving to Petersburg.  The brigade left a picket line in front of the Union trenches to mask the withdrawal.  The unit to Clingman’s right withdrew its pickets earlier than expected, and a sudden advance by Union infantry cut off and captured some of the Tar Heel skirmishers.

Clingman’s brigade boarded trains at Port Walthall Junction and arrived in Petersburg around six o’clock in the morning.  General Hoke had established a defensive line a few miles east of Petersburg, just south of the Appomattox River, and he sent Clingman’s regiments to the far right of the line. The 51st North Carolina held the left of Clingman’s sector.  To the right of the Fifty-First were the 8th, 31st, and 61st Regiments, in that order.3

Brigadier General Henry Wise’s Virginia brigade manned the trenches to the right of the 61st North Carolina.  Not long after Clingman’s troops had taken their positions, Bushrod Johnson’s division arrived and extended the Confederate lines to Wise’s right.  Beauregard now had 15,000 men facing an enemy army of 75,000 Union troops.4

Late that afternoon, three corps of Federal troops assaulted the Confederate defenses in a series of uncoordinated attacks.  The Yankee infantry advanced slowly and showed little enthusiasm for the business at hand.  They managed to overrun some sections of the trenches, but they were slow to follow up and gained little for their effort.  Federal troops tried several times to charge the 51st Regiment’s works, but a clear field of fire allowed Clingman’s North Carolinians to scatter the attackers with a few well-aimed volleys before the Yankee infantry could organize an assault.5

During the day, Private John Bain of Company K was hit in the chest by a spent cannonball.  Unlike Corporal Blake, who had been hit in the chest by a ball at Cold Harbor, Private Bain did not have any broken bones.  But the next day, he began running a high fever and was admitted to the hospital.  He did not return to duty until the end of September.  On his pension application, filed in 1902, Bain stated that the ball caused a “shock to his entire system” that he never fully recovered from.

Day 3: Union Breakthrough

At dawn the next day, the Union army resumed its assault on the Confederate lines.  The Yankees in General Clingman’s sector made several dispirited attacks during the day.  Then around 6:30 in the afternoon, Union troops massed for a major assault on Clingman’s front.  The advancing ranks of infantry moved toward the section of breastworks where Clingman’s Tar Heels abutted Wise’s Virginians.

When the enemy force came within range, General Clingman’s regiments opened fire.  As the brigade prepared to deliver another volley, Wise’s men abandoned their trenches.  One of Wise’s regiments, rallied and moved back toward its position, but fled again when the Union troops charged.  The Federals occupied the empty lines and pushed a short distance beyond the trenches.

General Clingman feared the enemy would hit his flank and rear.  He ordered the 61st North Carolina to extend to the right, and four companies of that regiment moved to the right rear of the brigade to reinforce the flank and guard against enemy troops trying to get behind the Confederate lines.  Colonel McKethan led five companies of the 51st Regiment, on the far left of the brigade, to the rear.  The companies formed in line of battle perpendicular to the Confederate works and marched to the aid of the 61st Regiment.

When McKethan’s men reached the far right of the line, the 61st Regiment’s four companies that were guarding the flank joined the formation.  This combined force faced to the left and charged the Yankee infantry.  The two sides engaged in fierce fighting with bayonets and rifle butts.  There was no time to reload and fire.6

After several minutes of desperate fighting, McKethan’s men pushed the Union infantry back and reoccupied part of the trenches that Wise’s brigade had abandoned.  Colonel McKethan was wounded in the face during the struggle.  Captain Lippitt, commander of Company G, assumed command of the Fifty-First Regiment’s five companies.

The Yankees regrouped and attempted to overrun Lippitt’s position “perhaps a dozen times in succession.”  Moonlight illuminated the approaching Federals, and Clingman’s entire brigade fired multiple volleys into each of the advancing ranks of enemy soldiers.  The Union troops were not able to reach the Confederate line, never getting within twenty yards of Lippitt’s men.  By ten o’clock things quieted down in front of the brigade.7

A short while later, a portion of the 34th Virginia came up the trenches through Clingman’s sector.  These were some of the men who had routed earlier.  Clingman directed them to move to the right, where portions of the trenches were still empty.  The officer leading the Virginians refused to move, even though the men with him were urging him to do so.  General Clingman, hearing of the officer’s refusal, pronounced, “If he does not move on as his men desire, I will have him bayoneted in the trenches.”8 Clingman’s threat had no effect.  The Virginia infantrymen stayed put.

Farther down the line to the right of Clingman, the Federals still occupied a redoubt, Battery 14.  Ransom’s brigade launched a fierce counterattack against the salient and drove the Yankees out. Afterwards, Ransom’s men reoccupied all the trenches to Clingman’s right.  Once the defensive line was reestablished, the Virginians moved from Clingman’s sector and occupied their former positions in the trenches.

Day 4: Last Attempt at a Union Victory

Early in the morning of June 18, Beauregard withdrew his forces to a line 800 yards to the rear.  The Confederates began entrenching immediately and worked on fortifying their new position throughout the night.  At dawn, veteran troops of the Army of Northern Virginia began arriving to reinforce Beauregard.  By midday, Lee had transferred roughly half his army to the Petersburg defenses.9

General Meade was encouraged by the progress his infantry had made on the 17th of June.  That night, he ordered an all-out attack at daybreak.  The Union infantry advanced quickly and overran the abandoned Confederate trenches.  Overjoyed by the easy progress, the Yankees cheered and rushed forward.  As the waves of Union infantry approached the new Confederate lines, they were met by a tremendous volley of musket fire from Lee’s veterans.  The Union advance abruptly halted.

Although the Union commanders tried to resume the advance, the Union soldiers lacked enthusiasm for further fighting.  They were reluctant to assault entrenched Rebel infantry.  Men who had thus far survived the Overland Campaign had seen too many of their fellow soldiers slaughtered in frontal assaults against dug-in Confederates.

For the rest of the day, the Union army launched a series of weak, uncoordinated attacks up and down the Confederate line.  None of the attacks hit the section of the Confederate defenses where the 51st North Carolina was posted.  The regiment only reported one soldier killed that day, probably by artillery fire.

By nightfall, the Union assault had accomplished little.  Meade, after consulting with General Grant, ordered his troops to remain in place and begin fortifying their positions.  The Siege of Petersburg had begun.

Losses in the 51st North Carolina

The 51st and 61st Regiments suffered roughly 90% of the brigade’s casualties during the first three days in the Petersburg trenches.10 The 51st North Carolina lost eight men killed or died from their wounds, thirty-one wounded and twenty-seven captured.  One of the wounded men was among those taken prisoner.

The regiment’s commander, Colonel McKethan, was wounded in the face.  The colonel’s two younger brothers, Augustus and Edwin, were also wounded.  Augustus, a private in Company K, was not seriously wounded.  Edwin, the first lieutenant of Company K, was shot through the thigh.  He and Hector went home to Fayetteville to recover from their wounds.  Edwin would eventually be retired to the Invalid Corps.  Hector returned to the regiment after a couple of months recuperating from his wound.

Lieutenant McKethan’s departure left Company K with no officers on duty.  Sergeant Eli Dudley, as senior NCO, was in command of the company.  Dudley would be promoted to Third Lieutenant a month later.

Three soldiers were wounded for the second time in thirty days:  Privates William Adams and Hugh Bain of Company I and Private William Humphrey of D Company.  Adams returned to duty and was paroled with the regiment at the end of the war.  Bain returned to duty after several months and was captured within weeks of his return.  Humphrey was blinded by a head wound; he was retired to the Invalid Corps.

Private Jarmon Phillips of Company I was knocked down by an exploding shell and “hauled off the field for dead.”  Phillips returned to the regiment two months later.  He survived the war.

Private Thomas Dail, Company C, was “severely wounded” by an exploding shell.  The shell injured his shoulder, broke both his jaws, broke his left arm near the wrist, and broke his left leg below the knee.  He would be retired to the Invalid Corps before the end of the year.

Finally, Private William Jordan, Company K, was captured for the second time during the Battle of Petersburg.  He had previously been captured and paroled at Goldsboro.  Jordan survived the war after spending a year in Union prison camps.

A week after the battle at Petersburg, one Raleigh newspaper published a summary of the fighting done by Clingman’s brigade over the previous two months.  The article specifically mentioned the outstanding performance of the 51st North Carolina, “composed entirely of companies from this section of the State.  Twenty-two of its officers have been killed, wounded, or captured.  Of the enlisted men 60 have been killed, 225 wounded, and 148 captured.”11

The 51st North Carolina fought in three major battles in thirty-three days.  The regiment had about 870 officers and men present when it arrived at Drewry’s Bluff.  After the fights at Drewry’s Bluff, Cold Harbor and Petersburg, only 340 of the rank and file were available for duty.  Half of the regiment’s officers, including six of the ten company commanders, had been killed, captured, or wounded so badly they would not return to duty.

Unfortunately, more bloodshed lay ahead.

1Douglas Southall Freeman, Lee’s Lieutenants 3 vols. (New York:  C. Scribner’s sons, 1944) 3: 529.

2“Second Battle of Petersburg,” 4 Oct. 2009.  Retrieved from “Civil War Battles” blog

3“Gen. Clingman’s Report of the Battles in Front of Petersburg on the 16th, 17th and 18th of June,” Our Living and Our Dead 18 Mar. 1874.

4North Carolina Troops, 12:  270.

5“Gen. Clingman’s Report.”

6Walter Clark, ed., Histories of the Several Regiments and Battalions from North Carolina in the Great War 1861-’65, 5 vols. (Goldsboro: Nash Bros., 1901) 3:  212; “Gen. Clingman’s Report.”

7Daily Confederate 18 Jul. 1864 and “Gen. Clingman’s Report.”

8Daily Confederate 18 Jul. 1864.

9Freeman, 3:  535-537.

10“Gen. Clingman’s Report.”

11Daily Confederate 27 Jun. 1864.

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