History of the American Civil War: Petersburg
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History of the American Civil War: Petersburg


By Lincoln Mint

When he began The Wilderness Campaign in  early May 1864, Grant proposed to force Lee into open battle and destroy his army north of Richmond. Failing that, he would cross the James River south of the capital and strike for Petersburg, twenty-three miles south on the Appomattox River. By taking this rail center he would isolate the Confederate capital, and Lee would be compelled to fight to protect it. 

On June 3 Grant was bloodily repulsed at Cold Harbor. He had now run out of maneuvering room for executing his left flank "sidling movements" in trying to get between Lee and Richmond. On the night of June 12 he secretly moved in a wide curve to the south and crossed the James on a 2100-foot bridge, "the longest continuous pontoon bridge ever used in war." He had deceived Lee; the way lay clear to capture lightly defended Petersburg and, perhaps, to end the war. But the generals sent ahead to take the city delayed, fumbled timidly, and attacked feebly, and when Grant came up with the main army Lee had manned the defenses. 

So the 10-month siege began. Before it ended more than a hundred miles of trenches and earthen forts had made raw scars on the land, and the surrounding pine forests had vanished in firewood and lumber. A little town sprang up at City Point on the James, where supplies brought in on transports went to the siege lines on a railroad that ran grading. Grant gradually extended his lines westward in a series of moves that forced Lee to stretch his thin line to the breaking point. A Pennsylvania regiment dug a 510-foot shaft under a Confederate fort and exploded four tons of powder to gouge out a huge crater, but the defenders sealed off the break in bloody fighting, and nothing was gained. A 13 inch mortar, the "Dictator," lobbed 200-pound shells into Petersburg from a railroad car. 

Discouraged and half-starved Confederates crept into the Union lines by hundreds to surrender; a desperation assault on Federal Fort Stedman failed; then on April 1, 1865 Sheridan drove Picket from Five Forks, and next day a Union assault broke the Petersburg lines. Lee began the seven-day nightmare retreat that was to end at Appomattox. 


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