With the failure of Sheridan’s thrust toward Richmond from the Shenandoah Valley, a stark reality remained: If Lee was going to be skinned, Ulysses S. Grant was going to have to do the skinning. True to form, Grant was going to make one more end run. On the night of June 12-13, the same night Sheridan was headed back to the North Anna, Grant slipped silently out of his Cold Harbor trenches and swung around Lee’s right headed for the James River, one corps moving by water on transports, the other four marching overland, and all headed for Petersburg to topple Richmond from the south. In one of the swiftest and most skillful maneuvers of the war, Grant screened his advance with Sheridan’s remaining division of cavalry and feinted toward Richmond with one corps, Wright’s VIth, which moved on Riddell’s Shop just southeast of the capital. It was enough to fool the old fox himself, at least for a time, and presented Grant with one of the great opportunities of the war. For as Lee first held his Cold Harbor lines and then shifted his strength south opposite Drewry’s Bluff (still a difficult march north of Petersburg), Grant was getting the bulk of his army over the James River on a miracle of Yankee engineering–a 2,100-foot pontoon bridge rigged to stand the four-foot tidal rise of the river. Just to the south and west of the bridge was Petersburg, the vital railroad hub, now defended by barely 2,500 troops under Beauregard. With two Union corps approaching on June 14, the city was, as Beauregard later wrote, “clearly at the mercy of the Federal commander, who had all but captured it.” All but.
It may be that the salvation of Petersburg in the middle of June was one consequence of the slaughter at Cold Harbor. The first bluecoats to approach the city on June 15 were the men of William F. “Baldy” Smith’s XVIII Corps, one of the three Federal corps most severely punished on that terrible June third. Reasonably then, the formidable appearance of Petersburg’s defenses gave Smith pause, a long and thoughtful pause. There were ten miles of breastworks and trenches on the Dimmock Line, fronted by fifteen-foot ditches and supported by fifty-five artillery redans. What he did not know of course was that there were hardly any Confederates in the works. Smith went cautiously forward with his three divisions at dusk and captured quite easily a mile of trenches and sixteen guns. (One of the three divisions was a black outfit that did a crisply capable piece of work in their first action.) By the light of the rising moon, Smith might have pushed on and taken possession of Petersburg then and there. And if opportunity was knocking for Smith just now, it knocked louder and more insistently with the arrival of Winfield Scott Hancock and two divisions of the II Corps late in the day. Once the toughest in the Army of the Potomac, II corps had been mauled in more than a month of sustained fighting, and this day’s march had been a grunting, sweaty trial occasioned by inept staff work and a hopelessly inaccurate map. Hancock, too, was feeling the strain of this remorseless campaign and further weakened by the reopening of his Gettysburg wound. But when Smith sent the II Corps divisions in to replace his own in the captured works that night with directions to stand down for now, it was much against Hancock’s better judgment. And if, at this crucial juncture, Smith was going to listen to counsel, he might have given ear to one of his own division commanders, Edward Hinks, whose Colored Troops had scooped up several hundred prisoners and sixteen guns in the fight at dusk. In the process, Hinks had seen, as clearly as Beauregard himself, how vulnerable Petersburg was, and had said as much face to face with Baldy Smith, urging him to drive on by moonlight. Whatever other problems Smith wrestled with that night, lack of a clear appraisal of the strategic situation was not one of them. In fact, he had wired Ben Butler, still bottled up at Bermuda Hundred, earlier that day: “Unless I misapprehend the topography, I hold the key to Petersburg.” But holding the key and turning it decisively in the lock are of course not the same things. Perhaps he was considering the additional muscle of the two Federal corps still crossing the James River and in motion now toward Petersburg. In any case, William Farrar Smith waited.
For the men of II Corps in Beauregard’s captured trenches, however, this was one attack they wanted to make, and they wanted to make it right now. When they learned that Smith was going to stand pat, the “rage of the enlisted men was devilish,” one Federal officer remembered. “The most bloodcurdling blasphemy I ever listened to I heard that night.” It had been their relentless fighting, after all, that had seized the initiative from Robert E. Lee and their blood and sweat the purchase price of this opportunity. They felt just then a rich and righteous anger toward the high command that had led them to a useless slaughter at Cold Harbor but would not now lead them this last mile in the moonlight. For his part, Beauregard was taking such desperate measures as were within his power that night. The men who had been driven from their works in the twilight were now swinging picks and shovels in the construction of a new line of defense closer to Petersburg. It would not be anything like the massive works they had been forced to abandon, but by daylight there might at least be something like a sufficient force to man them. Robert Hoke’s division was coming in that night from north of the James where it had been detached to Lee, and Beauregard decided to abandon his own Bermuda Hundred lines and bring those men down likewise to make the fight for Petersburg. He would have to leave a screen of pickets opposite Ben Butler there and trust to that general’s famous indecision and inertia. Indeed, he would have to gamble that Butler would fail to push his pickets aside and drive with all deliberate speed westward across the Richmond Turnpike, on to the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad and perhaps to the end of the Confederacy. In this at least Beauregard had some grounds for hope, since exactly such an opportunity had been Butler’s to exploit in the first week of this campaign.
By the 16th, Beauregard would have some 10,000 fighting men in line to blunt the blue offensive he expected that day. But if, as the axiom goes, God is on the side of the heavier battalions, He would remain a Union man that morning. Burnside with the IX Corps was south of the James River now and marching for Petersburg with Warren and the V Corps following in their dust. Wright with the VIth was holding the pontoon bridge and, more critically, also holding the bulk of Lee’s army on a line between White Oak Swamp and Malvern Hill (ground much bloodied back in ’62). Whatever Lee divined about Grant’s intentions, all he knew for certain about the fate of Petersburg at this point was that Smith had driven Beauregard back toward the city with a single corps. Lee still had to defend against a Federal thrust toward Richmond up the north bank of the James, and since he had detached Early to the Shenandoah Valley with the whole of Ewell’s II Corps, he had substantially fewer troops with which to cover this rapidly expanding new front. This front of course now included the Bermuda Hundred line in his immediate right-rear, and before dawn Lee would have to send two more divisions of his diminished force to put the cork back in Ben Butler’s jug. Grant, for his part, was south of the James himself on the morning of June 16, satisfied with Smith’s initial progress and, even more so, with his own. He had at this point very smartly stolen a march on Robert E. Lee, crossed the greater part of his army over a river some half-mile wide and fifteen fathoms deep, and had, or very shortly would have, three corps in line east of Petersburg: Smith, Hancock, and Burnside, running north to south from the City Point Railroad nearly to the Norfolk line. “If it is a possible thing,” he told Meade that morning, “I want an assault made at six o’clock this evening.”
So, as the sun was slipping down the sky on June 16, Federal guns thundered away at Beauregard’s freshly dug and freshly reinforced trenches across the way. Then Hancock’s II Corps with Burnside’s IXth on its left stepped off across a shallow valley and into tearing volleys of musketry. If Grant’s handling of this wide swinging march to reach the gates of Petersburg had been skillful in the extreme, there was not much in the way of subtlety on this ground: the Yanks hammered away and the Rebels hammered back. At one point it looked as if high ground near the center of the Rebel line might give way, but Beauregard, without a rifle in reserve, struck back with determined and desperate counterattacks, and it was enough to keep the Federals at bay. In truth, as the firing sputtered out in the dark, both parties to this terrible contest were nearing the ill-defined limits of what bodies and souls can bear. But in this, the mutual bloodletting and exhaustion would seem to favor the Federal cause, for while Beauregard had been reinforced by two brigades from Richmond, bringing his total force to something less than 15,000, Warren was arriving that night with the V Corps, which, since it had been spared the worst at Cold Harbor two weeks ago now, was reckoned the fittest in the Army of the Potomac at this point. And whatever its fitness, there would still be 75,000 Yankess in front of Petersburg, and more on the way since the first of Wright’s VI Corps divisions were tramping in behind behind Warren. So immense a weight, it stood to reason, would be decisive when Grant renewed the offensive on the morning of the 17th.
So opportunity was knocking once more for the Federals at the gates of Petersburg. And along the whole four-mile stretch of Beauregard’s beleaguered line running from the Appomattox River not quite to the Jerusalem Plank Road due south of the city, opportunity was richest for Gouvernor K. Warren and the V Corps. Now occupying the extreme left of the Army of the Potomac, Warren was supposed to reach around the Rebel right on the Jerusalem Road and press the city from the south. In fact, there was nothing much in that direction but a thin line of Rebel skirmishers, and Warren ran into them shortly after sunrise. They put up enough fight to stop Warren a mile short of his objective, however, and he never really got moving again. Much later Beauregard wrote that if Warren had made anything like a determined push up the Jerusalem Road that day, he “would have been compelled to evacuate Petersburg without much resistance.” But, as it happened, an entire Federal corps spent the day skirmishing to no particular effect. Meanwhile, some very determined if not very coordinated fighting was unfolding north of Warren. Burnside on his front got his lead division off crisply. They drove at first light over some broken ground and up a lightly held hill opposite and seized it, the thin edge, it would appear, of a wedge that might pry Beauregard loose from Petersburg once and for all. But Burnside, having for once made a good start of things, failed to drive his own second supporting division in behind the first. This belonged to James H. Ledlie, and though the foul-up resulted in part from bad staff work, Ledlie was a man whom failure had followed and would continue to follow in the months ahead.
There were to be many Federal command failures this day. The II Corps, which was to have attacked at dawn in concert with Burnside, never went forward at all. This directive may well have dropped through the cracks when Hancock, at last too weakened by his old wound to continue in command, turned the corps over to his senior division commander, David Bell Birney. In any case, one of Burnside’s divisions had punched a neat enough hole on high ground in Beauregard’s line, and neither Burnside nor Birney were doing anything purposeful just yet this morning to exploit it. Beauregard, however, was doing what he could to shore up his threatened center, patching a line rearward of the hill Burnside’s men were still wearily and rather forlornly holding. On Birney’s right just then, Baldy Smith, despite the addition of Wright’s first division, was doing every bit as much as Birney and Burnside, which is to say nothing much but holding his ground between the City Point line and the Appomattox River. And if there had been a moment’s quiet on the Petersburg front, the Federals might have learned from the rattle of rifle fire a dozen miles north that matters at Bermuda Hundred were going no better for their cause. Ben Butler, having pushed through Beauregard’s picket line, had been struck by the two divisions of Dick Anderson that Lee had dispatched in the night, and was even then being pushed back the way he came and calling on Meade for help.
Meanwhile, Birney finally got a clearer sense of what he was supposed to be doing with the II Corps and sent it forward. By noon his men overran a critical hill on their front, and for the second time on this June 17, Beauregard’s line was pierced. It took some time–several hours–but Burnside on his left got Ledlie’s men in motion at last in support of the II Corps success. These went up and over the hill their IX Corps comrades had seized in the first hour of battle and fell with a shock on Beauregard’s patched-up line beyond. Something like a mile of Confederate line between the two hills was buckling now, and a vast blue host across the way appeared ready to drive through it. It seemed to Beauregard that “the last hour of the Confederacy had arrived.” In desperation, he struck a series of fierce counterblows, head-on and hand-to-hand in places. As the afternoon wore savagely on toward dark, it was enough to stall the Federal breakthrough. Across the way, Meade, who had done little enough to direct the fighting, was willing to call it a day’s work. Beauregard, meanwhile, had begun to lay out yet another line nearly a mile in his rear, and his day’s work was far from finished. Of course it was not a line really, just a series of white stakes in the moonlight that indicated where the line should run. But somehow his men, fought-out and bone-weary at the close of their third day of battle, drew away from the popping of picket fire and began to dig in the dark. If Beauregard’s later remark about “the last hour of the Confederacy” was apocalyptic, the dispatch he sent to Lee in the first hour of June 18 was a little jewel of understatement. “All quiet at present,” he reported. “I expect renewal of attack in morning. My troops are becoming much exhausted. Without immediate and strong reinforcements results may be unfavorable. Prisoners report Grant on the field with his whole army.”
Whatever Lee thought just then about the possible unfavorable results of the struggle unfolding to his south, it was a crisis he had anticipated almost from the first hours of Grant’s withdrawal from the Cold Harbor front in the darkness of June 13. He had written as much to Jefferson Davis by noon the very next day: “I apprehend that [Grant] may be sending troops up the James River with the view of getting possession of Petersburg before we can reinforce it.” Now, three days of maneuver and battle later, came Beauregard’s midnight dispatch confirming that apprehension. And so, while Beauregard’s men were digging away at their new line in the dark, Lee sent Anderson’s third division to hurry south to Petersburg. Of the other two still opposite Butler, one would have to remain to hold Bermuda Neck, and the other, closest now to Petersburg, would have to march south at the swiftest route step they could manage. A. P. Hill with the entire II Corps would follow. With dawn only a few hours away now, Rebel reinforcements were in a race against time. Meade, frustrated by three days of disjointed fighting, had called for a sunrise attack all along the line. At this point, the two armies looked to be in a dead heat.
Meade’s orders were to attack and seize the Confederate works “at all costs,” and, as per instructions, off the bluecoats went before the sun had quite risen on June 18. Taking the first line of works was not at all difficult, its defenders having departed in the night. It was merely a matter of driving in Rebel skirmishers to take the line that had buckled but not altogether broken at dusk the day before. Finding the Rebels’ new line, now on a low ridge nearly a mile to the west, was not difficult either. But surveying the new ground over which the Yankees would have to attack would take time, and it would prove profoundly difficult and finally impossible to get four exhausted Federal corps in motion again to exert anything like concerted strength. About noon, Birney did attack on his front with one division of the II Corps, which was swiftly and surely repulsed. Burnside on his left got some of his units forward of the ground they had fought over yesterday, but no farther. Smith and Warren at opposite ends of the lines probed forward likewise but made no determined push. There was a perfectly good reason for the sudden paralysis of the Federal effort, and Birney’s unlucky men were the first to know: Lee’s I Corps veterans from north of the James were in the works now. The first division had filed into the trenches about 7:30 that morning while Federal officers were still trying to sort out the confusion created by their easy advance. Two hours later Hill’s corps came up, and the moment of crisis for the possession of Petersburg had passed, for this day anyway. Meade, however, was not convinced that this was so. He sent order after order that afternoon to resume a concerted offensive, but he might as well have been talking to his horse for all the purposeful action these produced. At last, in impotent anger, he sent this testy directive: “Finding it impossible to effect co-operation by appointing an hour for attack, I have sent an order to each corps commander to attack at all hazards and without reference to each other.” By any measure, it was a good deal less than the intelligent direction of a great army, and for the fighting men of that great army, the problem was all too familiar. As at Cold Harbor, the attacks came to a halt by the more or less common consent of the attackers, who knew a losing proposition when they saw it. As long as Lee’s veterans were well entrenched on good killing ground, they were not going to force their way into Petersburg today. By sunset, even Meade agreed and told Grant as much. Grant, with no backward look at lost opportunity, said he was satisfied just then that “all has been done that could be done… Now we will rest the men and use the spade for their protection until a new vein can be struck.”
In truth, seven weeks of continuous struggle had beaten the offensive spirit out of the Army of the Potomac. In a II Corps brigade at Petersburg, the men went forward in platoons and squads, seeking whatever cover the ground offered and absolutely unwilling to walk into the open. On their flank, one of the converted Washington “heavies” was advancing in stand-up style. “Lie down, you damn fools,” veterans counseled. “You can’t take them forts.” It was the last counsel many of the men of the 1st Maine were ever to hear. They took 850 men into the open and left 632 of them there. From the bottom up and the top down, the Army of the Potomac was worn to its marrowbones. Asked about the condition of his corps, Winfield Scott Hancock had replied grimly, “dead between the Rapidan and the James,” an utterance equally true throughout the army. Since that mild May morning on the Rapidan, some 65,000 Union men had been killed, crippled, or captured. Moreover, war typically works a grisly reversal of natural selection. In nature, the fittest survive. In war, the ablest and most aggressive go first to field hospitals and shallow graves.
This is not to say that the long bloodletting had been without the most profound consequences. Robert E. Lee’s army had been bled white in the process, sustaining 35,000 casualties, virtually impossible to replace. The North was now putting under arms thousands of black men eager to fight and proving to skeptical white men that they were capable combat soldiers. Not so long before, that tough-fighting, tough-talking Confederate, Pat Cleburne, had argued the unthinkable: put slaves under arms in exchange for their freedom. But in a South committed to a struggle to maintain its semi-feudal society, such a notion was utterly revolutionary and reprehensible. In any case, it was by now too late in the game to put so radical a measure into effect. Grant had at last backed Lee into a corner and committed him to a static defense of Petersburg and Richmond. The struggle in the East had come to a siege that neither commander had wanted, but the stranglehold was Grant’s. Perhaps no one remembered Lee’s prophetic words to Jubal Early as well as Lee himself: “We must destroy this army of Grant’s before it gets to James River. If he gets there it will become a siege, and then it will be a mere question of time.” Indeed, the next time Lee would fight outside of the trenches of the Petersburg-Richmond line, it would be on his last desperate march to Appomattox Courthouse.
A mere question of time. Indeed, it was a matter of mere logistics now. Pressed by Federal armies and strangled by a blockade that grew increasingly effective, the Confederacy was diminishing daily, in territory, manpower, and resources. The Union conversely grew daily stronger in every measure. Grant’s base of supplies at City Point was the palpable sign of the abundance and super-abundance of the Union’s material strength. Two hundred ships and more a day steamed and sailed up the James with supplies, making City Point one the world’s busiest ports. It boasted acres of warehouses, repair shops, smithies, a vast hospital, barracks. Its bakeries turned out thousands of loaves of fresh bread, and its own railroad carried them very nearly to the firing lines themselves. Billy Yank might be shot in the trenches, but he wouldn’t go without bread or blankets or boots. Across the way, Johnny Reb made do or went without while his chances of being shot were every bit as good. As Robert E. Lee had told Powell Hill, the Army of Northern Virginia could not, as a purely military matter, stand a siege. Grant would inevitably reach around to his left to cut Petersburg’s last two iron arteries, the Weldon and the Southside railroads. Sooner or later, Lee’s lines would be stretched until they snapped.
If it were later, however, the Confederacy might yet live. The Union had men enough and wealth to spare, it was true, but whether it had the will to continue so destructive a conflict was another question. One Federal general home on leave was struck by the “great discouragement, great reluctance to recruiting, strong disposition for peace.” The Federal Union, as Grant continued his hammering at the Petersburg stronghold, was looking ahead to a most daring experiment: a republic in the midst of a civil war in which its very life was at stake was going to hold free elections, in effect, a referendum on the war. If, by November, the North was convinced that the South could not be conquered at any cost or by a cost too great to bear, the Potomac River might at last become an international boundary. Lincoln himself believed that possibility was not far from becoming a reality. “I am going to be beaten,” he said in August, “and unless some great change takes place, badly beaten.” With Grant stalemated before the labyrinthine works on the Petersburg-Richmond line, the great change would have to be wrought in the West by William Tecumseh Sherman. “War is the remedy our enemies have chosen,” Sherman insisted, “and I say let us give them all they want.”