‘Carry Out What You Propose’ – Federals Halted South of Petersburg

October 2, 1864 (Sunday)

New Jersey's own Greshom Mott!
New Jersey’s own Greshom Mott!

“Mott is now moving to take position on my left,” wrote General John Parke, commanding the Union Ninth Corps south of Petersburg. “As soon as he is in position I will advance the whole line.” The “whole line” was both the Ninth and Fifth Corps, with the addition of Gershom Mott’s Division from the Second. This was the fourth day of fighting near the Peebles Farm. Despite gaining the first line of Confederate works, the Federals had been unable to punch through to reach the Boydton Plank Road, cutting off one of General Lee’s major supply lines.

The day previous, the Rebels had attacked, but it was brushed aside with hardly a mention. And with General Grant wishing for George Meade to make a thrust toward Petersburg, on this morning, it would be the Federals stabbing forward.

Through the morning fog, the Fifth Corps’ signal station could see the ground before them was mostly vacant of enemy troops. “They have removed all the guns and most of the force from about the W. Davis house,” came the report. “There they only show a thin skirmish line.” The Rebel trenches, however, seemed “unusually full of men, or, rather, they show themselves more freely.”

And with that, the men stepped off, greeted at once by Confederate artillery. Both Parke’s Ninth Corps and Gouverneur K. Warren’s Fifth met with little resistance. There were bands of Rebel pickets, skirmishers and dismounted cavalry here and there, but precious little more.

“Parke and Warren report the enemy having withdrawn from some of the positions occupied yesterday,” wrote General Meade to General Grant. After noting that the Rebels had fallen back to their entrenchments, he concluded that “the inference is the enemy refuse battle outside their works, to which they have retired awaiting attack.”

This gave Meade pause. Attacking even a weaker enemy occupying an embattled position held no guarantee of success. “Without your orders,” he continued, “I shall not attack their intrenchments, but on being satisfied they are not outside of them I will take up the best position I can, connecting with the Weldon railroad and extending as far to the left as practicable, having in view the protection of my left flank, and then intrench.”

If Meade could not attack, he would dig in. “Carry out what you propose,” came the response from Grant. His recent offensive – which history would remember as his fifth – was going nowhere. Even the day previous, he had believed that the enemy could be pushed out of Petersburg, but now it seemed as if it would never end.

In a subsequent communication, Grant seemed unsure about holding such an extended line, and warned Meade that he should be ready to abandon the new line “whenever the forces holding it are necessary to defend any other part of the line.”

Around 1pm, with the day seemingly at an end, as far as the fighting was concerned, Meade called a meeting with a few of his staff near the Peeble house. Meade’s staff officer, Theodore Lyman, described the story in his journal:

“While there they had a wonder escape from a shell, which came into the staff when crowded together, took a bit out of Gen. Humphreys’ horse’s tail, scraped the leg of Gen. Meade’s boot and buried itself between Gens. Griffin and Barlett who were talking together. It was one of those rebel Parrott’s, with raised rings. It came butt-end foremost and did not explode. They seem a poor shell, which fails often to take the grooves, and often does not explode.”

Map drawn by Theodore Lyman showing positions as they would be for a while.
Map drawn by Theodore Lyman showing positions as they would be for a while.

Through the occasional stray shell, Meade’s men continued to entrench, while the bullets of Rebel sharpshooters sang through the air. This work continued through to nightfall.

The next day, Meade explained his position to Grant, who was leaving for Washington for a few days. “We now hold securely to the Pegram house, with our left refused and the cavalry to the rear on the Vaugh and Duncan Roads. The left is a little over a mile from the Boydton plank road, and believed to be not over two miles from the South Side Railroad. Generals Parke and Warren are busily occupied intrenching in his position, and rendering it such that should the enemy turn the left they will have an available force to meet the movement.”

In the end, Grant’s fifth offensive before Petersburg was hardly remembered. In his own memoirs, Grant said of the results only: “This advanced Warren’s position on the Weldon Railroad very considerably.”

More than anything, it was a stalemate, though one which gave the Federals five additional miles of trenches to man. This they would do with 3,000 less men. The Rebels, suffered the loss of around 2,000. There would be a sixth offensive, but it would be weeks in the planning.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 42, Part 3, p36, 41, 44, 50-51; Personal Memoirs by Ulysses S. Grant; Meade’s Army by Theodore Lyman; The Last Citadel by Noah Andre Trudeau; The Petersburg Campaign, Vol. 2 by Edwin Bearss. []
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‘Carry Out What You Propose’ – Federals Halted South of Petersburg by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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