Monday, May 21, 2007
The Siege of Petersburg
After ten days at Cold Harbor, Grant tried a new stratagem. He broke contact with Lee's forces and, behind a cavalry screen, marched across the Peninsula east of Richmond and crossed the James River. His goal was Petersburg, twenty miles south of Richmond. Petersburg was important as all but one rail line to the Confederate capital passed through Petersburg. If Petersburg could be taken and the other rail line cut, then both Richmond and General Lee's army would be without food or supplies.
The initial vanguard of Union troops reached Petersburg on June 15, which was fortified by only 2,200 men. The Union forces failed to attack, awaiting additional reinforcements. Even though reinforcements arrived, the attack was delayed. This gave the Confederates time to reinforce the garrison and Lee's army arrived on the scene before a Union attack was launched. An opportunity lost and nothing left to do but lay siege to Petersburg.
The Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac were of vastly different composition now. More than a third of Lee's general officers had been lost to him since the beginning of the campaign and several of his most important units had been devastated. In Grant's force a staggering 60 percent of the men who had crossed the Rapidan were casualties. He had virtually a new army.
Soldiers settled into a routine; trenches were deepened and strengthened. Ditches and other obstacles were placed between the lines as insurance against surprise attacks. Most of the time the men performed their duties in a kind of stupor. A steady stream of casualties sapped each army--men who were killed and maimed to no particular purpose or advantage. Sickness, desertion, and battle fatigue took their toll.
The 48th Pennsylvania held a section of the line just 130 yards from the Confederate trenches. The 48th, from the coal regions, contained many men who had been coal miners. The Colonel in charge, Henry Pleasants, was a mining engineer. He persuaded high command to let him try to place a mine under the Confederate lines.
Within a month a tunnel had been dug. They then laid in four tons of powder at the end of the tunnel. A Union attack was feinted toward Richmond which drew most of the Rebels away from the mined section. The explosion went off at 4:45 a.m. and a 500 yard gap opened in the center of the Confederate lines. But the Union soldiers were not prepared to take advantage of the breach. They trickled into the gap to gawk at the carnage and the Rebels seized the opportunity to counter attack and to zero in the artillery on the crater. It became a cauldron of hell. The line was repaired by 1 p.m. that very afternoon. And the routine of trench warfare resumed.
As Autumn approached, the armies prepared for the ordeal of winter in the trenches, the Confederates with increasing concern, the Federals with confidence born of their obvious strength. Grant had an immense supply depot at City Point. Supplies poured ashore from transports and barges. In Lee's trenches an officer wrote home, "It is hard to maintain patriotism on ashcake and water."
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