American Civil War: Battle of Petersburg

A fight to the end

Union forces at the Battle of Petersburg, 1865

National Archives & Records Administration

The Battle of Petersburg was part of the American Civil War (1861-1865) and was fought between June 9, 1864 and April 2, 1865. In the wake of his defeat at the Battle of Cold Harbor in early June 1864, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant continued pressing south towards the Confederate capital at Richmond. Departing Cold Harbor on June 12, his men stole a march on General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia and crossed the James River on a large pontoon bridge.

This maneuver led Lee to become concerned that he might be forced into a siege at Richmond. This was not Grant's intention, as the Union leader sought to capture the vital city of Petersburg. Located south of Richmond, Petersburg was a strategic crossroads and railroad hub which supplied the capital and Lee's army. Its loss would make would Richmond indefensible (Map).

Armies & Commanders



Smith and Butler Move

Aware of Petersburg's importance, Major General Benjamin Butler, commanding Union forces at Bermuda Hundred, attempted an attack on the city on June 9. Crossing the Appomattox River, his men assault the city's outermost defenses known as the Dimmock Line. These attacks were halted by Confederate forces under General P.G.T. Beauregard and Butler withdrew. On June 14, with the Army of the Potomac nearing Petersburg, Grant instructed Butler to dispatch Major General William F. "Baldy" Smith's XVIII Corps to attack the city.

Crossing the river, Smith's advance was delayed through the day on the 15th, though he finally moved to attack the Dimmock Line that evening. Possessing 16,500 men, Smith was able to overwhelm Brigadier General Henry Wise's Confederates along the northeastern portion of the Dimmock Line. Falling back, Wise's men occupied a weaker line along Harrison's Creek. With night setting in, Smith halted with intention of resuming his attack at dawn.

First Assaults

That evening, Beauregard, whose call for reinforcements had been ignored by Lee, stripped his defenses at Bermuda Hundred to reinforce Petersburg, increasing his forces there to around 14,000. Unaware of this, Butler remained idle rather than threatening Richmond. Despite this, Beauregard remained badly outnumbered as Grant's columns began arriving on the field increasing Union strength to over 50,000. Attacking late in the day with the XVIII, II, and IX Corps, Grant's men slowly pushed the Confederates back.

Fighting continued on 17th with the Confederates defending tenaciously and preventing a Union breakthrough. As the fighting raged, Beauregard's engineers began building a new line of fortifications closer the city and Lee began marching to the fighting. Attacks on June 18 gained some ground but were halted at the new line with heavy losses. Unable to advance, the commander of the Army of the Potomac, Major General George G. Meade, ordered his troops to dig in opposite the Confederates. In four days of fighting, Union losses totaled 1,688 killed, 8,513 wounded, 1,185 missing or captured, while the Confederates lost around 200 killed, 2,900 wounded, 900 missing or captured

Moving Against the Railroads

Having been stopped by the Confederate defenses, Grant began making plans for severing the three open railroads leading into Petersburg. While one ran north to Richmond, the other two, the Weldon & Petersburg and Southside, were open to attack. The closest, the Weldon, ran south to North Carolina and provided a connection to the open port of Wilmington. As a first step, Grant planned a large cavalry raid to attack both railroads, while ordering the II and VI Corps to march on the Weldon.

Advancing with their men, Major Generals David Birney and Horatio Wright encountered Confederate troops on June 21. The next two days saw them fight the Battle of Jerusalem Plank Road which resulted in over 2,900 Union casualties and around 572 Confederate. An inconclusive engagement, it saw the Confederates retain possession of the railroad, but Union forces extend their siege lines. As Lee's army was significantly smaller, any need lengthen his lines correspondingly weakened the whole.

Wilson-Kautz Raid

As Union forces were failing in their efforts to seize the Weldon Railroad, a cavalry force led by Brigadier Generals James H. Wilson and August Kautz circled south of Petersburg to strike at the railroads. Burning stock and tearing up around 60 miles of track, the raiders fought battles at Staunton River Bridge, Sappony Church, and Reams Station. In the wake of this last fight, they found themselves unable to breakthrough to return to the Union lines. As a result, the Wilson-Kautz raiders were forced to burn their wagons and destroy their guns before fleeing north. Returning to the Union lines on July 1, the raiders lost 1,445 men (approx. 25% of the command).

A New Plan

As Union forces operated against the railroads, efforts of a different sort were underway to break the deadlock in front of Petersburg. Among the units in the Union trenches was the 48th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry of Major General Ambrose Burnside's IX Corps. Composed largely of former coal miners, the men of the 48th devised a plan for breaking through the Confederate lines. Observing that the closest Confederate fortification, Elliott's Salient, was a mere 400 feet from their position, the men of the 48th believed that a mine could be run from their lines under the enemy earthworks. Once complete, this mine could be packed with enough explosives to open a hole in the Confederate lines.

The Battle of the Crater

This idea was seized upon by their commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel Henry Pleasants. A mining engineer by trade, Pleasants approached Burnside with the plan arguing that the explosion would take the Confederates by surprise and would allow Union troops to rush in to take the city. Approved by Grant and Burnside, planning moved forward and construction of the mine began. Anticipating the attack to occur on July 30, Grant ordered Major General Winfield S. Hancock's II Corps and two divisions of Major General Philip Sheridan's Cavalry Corps north across the James to the Union position at Deep Bottom.

From this position, they were to advance against Richmond with the goal of drawing Confederate troops away from Petersburg. If this was not practicable, then Hancock was to pin the Confederates while Sheridan raided around the city. Attacking on July 27 and 28, Hancock and Sheridan fought an inconclusive action but one which succeeded in pulling Confederate troops from Petersburg. Having achieved his objective, Grant suspended operations on the evening of July 28.

At 4:45 AM on July 30, the charge in the mine was detonated killing at least 278 Confederate soldiers and creating a crater 170 feet long, 60-80 feet wide, and 30 feet deep. Advancing, the Union attack soon bogged down as last-minute changes to the plan and a rapid Confederate response doomed it to failure. By 1:00 PM the fighting in the area ended and Union forces suffered 3,793 killed, wounded, and captured, while the Confederates incurred around 1,500. For his part in the attack's failure, Burnside was sacked by Grant and command of IX Corps passed to Major General John G. Parke.

The Fighting Continues

While the two sides were fighting in the vicinity of Petersburg, Confederate forces under Lieutenant General Jubal A. Early were successfully campaigning in the Shenandoah Valley. Advancing from the valley, he won the Battle of Monocacy on July 9 and menaced Washington on July 11-12. Retreating, he burned Chambersburg, PA on July 30. Early's actions forced Grant to send VI Corps to Washington to bolster its defenses.

Concerned that Grant might move to crush Early, Lee shifted two divisions to Culpeper, VA where they would be in position to support either front. Mistakenly believing that this movement had greatly weakened the Richmond defenses, Grant ordered II and X Corps to attack again at Deep Bottom on August 14. In six days of fighting, little was achieved other than forcing Lee to further strengthen the Richmond defenses. To end the threat posed by Early, Sheridan was dispatched to the valley to head up Union operations.

Closing the Weldon Railroad

While the fighting was raging at Deep Bottom, Grant ordered Major General Gouverneur K. Warren's V Corps to advance against the Weldon Railroad. Moving out on August 18, they reached the railroad at Globe Tavern around 9:00 AM. Attacked by Confederate forces, Warren's men fought a back and forth battle for three days. When it ended, Warren had succeeded in holding a position astride the railroad and had linked his fortifications with the main Union line near the Jerusalem Plank Road. The Union victory forced Lee's men to offload supplies from the railroad at Stony Creek and bring them to Petersburg by wagon via the Boydton Plank Road.

Wishing to permanently damage the Weldon Railroad, Grant ordered Hancock's tired II Corps to Reams Station to destroy the tracks. Arriving on August 22 and 23, they effectively destroyed the railroad to within two miles of Reams Station. Seeing the Union presence as a threat to his line of retreat, Lee ordered Major General A.P. Hill south to defeat Hancock. Attacking on August 25, Hill's men succeeded in forcing Hancock to retreat after a protracted fight. Through a tactical reverse, Grant was pleased with the operation as the railroad had been put out of commission leaving the Southside as the only track running into Petersburg. (Map).

Fighting in the Fall

On September 16, while Grant was absent meeting with Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley, Major General Wade Hampton led the Confederate cavalry on a successful raid against the Union rear. Dubbed the "Beefsteak Raid," his men escaped with 2,486 head of cattle. Returning, Grant mounted another operation in later September intending to strike at both ends of Lee's position. The first part saw Butler's Army of the James attack north of the James at Chaffin's Farm on September 29-30. Though he had some initial success, he was soon contained by the Confederates. South of Petersburg, elements of V and IX Corps, supported by cavalry, successfully extended the Union line to the area of Peebles' and Pegram's Farms by October 2.

In an effort to relieve pressure north of the James, Lee attacked the Union positions there on October 7. The resulting Battle of Darbytown and New Market Roads saw his men repulsed forcing him to fall back. Continuing his trend of striking both flanks simultaneously, Grant sent Butler forward again on October 27-28. Fighting the Battle of Fair Oaks and Darbytown Road, Butler faired no better than Lee earlier in the month. At the other end of the line, Hancock moved west with a mixed force in an attempt to cut the Boydton Plank Road. Though his men gained the road on October 27, subsequent Confederate counterattacks forced him to fall back. As a result, the road remained open for Lee throughout the winter (Map).

The End Nears

With the setback at Boydton Plank Road, fighting began to quiet as winter approached. The re-election of President Abraham Lincoln in November ensured that the war would be prosecuted to the end. On February 5, 1865, offensive operations resumed with Brigadier General David Gregg's cavalry division moving out to strike Confederate supply trains on the Boydton Plank Road. To protect the raid, Warren's corps crossed Hatcher's Run and established a blocking position on the Vaughan Road with elements of II Corps in support. Here they repulsed a Confederate attack late in the day. Following Gregg's return the following day, Warren pushed up the road and was assaulted near Dabney's Mill. Though his advance was halted, Warren succeeded in further extending the Union line to Hatcher's Run.

Lee's Last Gamble

By early March 1865, over eight months in the trenches around Petersburg had begun to wreck Lee's army. Plagued by disease, desertion, and a chronic lack of supplies, his force had dropped to around 50,000. Already outnumbered 2.5-to-1, he faced the daunting prospect of another 50,000 Union troops arriving as Sheridan concluded operations in the valley. Desperately needing to change the equation before Grant assaulted his lines, Lee asked Major General John B. Gordon to plan an attack on the Union lines with the goal of reaching Grant's headquarters area at City Point. Gordon began preparations and at 4:15 AM on March 25, the lead elements began moving against Fort Stedman in the northern part of the Union line.

Striking hard, they overwhelmed the defenders and soon had taken Fort Stedman as well as several nearby batteries opening a 1000-foot breach in the Union position. Responding to the crisis, Parke ordered Brigadier General John F. Hartranft's division to seal the gap. In tight fighting, Hartranft's men succeeded in isolating Gordon's attack by 7:30 AM. Supported by a vast number of Union guns, they counterattacked and drove the Confederates back to their own lines. Suffering around 4,000 casualties, the failure of the Confederate effort at Fort Stedman effectively doomed Lee's ability to hold the city.

Five Forks

Sensing Lee was weak, Grant ordered the newly returned Sheridan to attempt a move around the Confederate right flank to the west of Petersburg. To counter this move, Lee dispatched 9,200 men under Major General George Pickett to defend the vital crossroads of Five Forks and the Southside Railroad, with orders to hold them "at all hazards." On March 31, Sheridan's force encountered Pickett's lines and moved to attack. After some initial confusion, Sheridan's men routed the Confederates at the Battle of Five Forks, inflicting 2,950 casualties. Pickett, who was away at a shad bake when the fighting started, was relieved of his command by Lee. With the Southside Railroad cut, Lee lost his best line of retreat. The following morning, seeing no other options, Lee informed President Jefferson Davis that both Petersburg and Richmond must be evacuated (Map).

The Fall of Petersburg

This coincided with Grant ordering a massive offensive against the majority of the Confederate lines. Moving forward early on April 2, Parke's IX Corps struck Fort Mahone and the lines around the Jerusalem Plank Road. In bitter fighting, they overwhelmed the defenders and held on against strong counterattacks by Gordon's men. To the south, Wright's VI Corps shattered the Boydton Line allowing Major General John Gibbon's XXIV Corps to exploit the breach. Advancing, Gibbon's men fought a protracted battle for Forts Gregg and Whitworth. Though they captured both, the delay allowed Lieutenant General James Longstreet to bring troops down from Richmond.

To the west, Major General Andrew Humphreys, now commanding II Corps, broke through the Hatcher's Run Line and pushed back Confederate forces under Major General Henry Heth. Though he was having success, he was ordered to advance on the city by Meade. Doing so, he left a division to deal with Heth. By late afternoon, Union forces had forced the Confederates into Petersburg's inner defenses but had worn themselves out in the process. That evening, as Grant planned a final assault for the following day, Lee began evacuating the city (Map).


Retreating west, Lee hoped to resupply and join with General Joseph Johnston's forces in North Carolina. As Confederate forces departed, Union troops entered both Petersburg and Richmond on April 3. Closely pursued by Grant's forces, Lee's army began to disintegrate. After a week of retreating, Lee finally met with Grant at Appomattox Court House and surrendered his army on April 9, 1865. Lee's surrender effectively ended the Civil War in the East.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Battle of Petersburg." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, August 26). American Civil War: Battle of Petersburg. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Battle of Petersburg." ThoughtCo. (accessed February 1, 2023).