June 16, 1864 (Thursday)
P.G.T. Beauregard had no choice but to gamble. Reinforcements from General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia were only a dream, and he had ten miles of earthworks to defend against the coming Federals. With his 14,000, there was no way he could hold them. And so he shifted everything to Petersburg. There came no orders for him to do so. It was not on the advice of Jefferson Davis or of Robert E. Lee. It was Beauregard, and this was his day.
“About four and a half miles of the fortified lines (extending from half a mile east of the Jerusalem plank-road westwardly to the Appomattox) were entirely unprotected,” wrote the General after the war, “except by a few pickets of cavalry stationed there to give me timely notice of any danger threatening in that direction.”
These four and a half miles did not include the Bermuda Hundred line, which he had abandoned late the previous night. This was also done on his own, as the Confederate War Department fell silent upon being asked which to sacrifice – Bermuda Hundred or Petersburg. Beauregard understood that it was Petersburg that was paramount. If it fell, Richmond would fall. By morning, Bermuda Hundred was in Federal hands, though Benjamin Butler, commanding the Federal forces between Richmond and Petersburg took no immediate advantage (though later, they would ravage the railroad).
Butler, however, had ordered Baldy Smith to attack before the dawn. Smith’s Corps, along with Winfield Scott Hancock’s, was before Petersburg, but the messenger could not find a sleeping Smith. Come the morning, Smith made a reconnaissance, but waited for General Grant to arrive.
In the mid-morning, Grant showed up with Ambrose Burnside’s Ninth Corps, and the Federals before Beauregard numbered nearly 50,000. Hours passed, and Grant remained undecided whether he should exploit the abandonment of Bermuda Hundred or attack Petersburg. Mostly, he wanted General George Meade to take over command at Petersburg, and sent a message telling him to hurry along the Fifth Corps.
Unable to wait, as he feared Lee would attack Butler’s position, filling the gaps Beauregard once held, Grant set off for City Point to direct matters on the front. Along the way, he met Meade.
“Smith has taken a line of works there, stronger than anything we have seen this campaign,” said Grant to Meade of the previous day’s successes. “If it is a possible thing, I want an assault made at 6 o’clock this evening.” As Meade arrived, Burnside’s parched corps was still coming up. Through much of the afternoon, Meade met with Hancock, planning the evening’s assault.
Finally, at 6pm, the Federal guns opened, and Meade rode to open ground to watch the attack unfold. As it happened, Baldy Smith’s Corps, holding the Federal right, feigned an assault, but the true stab came from Hancock’s men. Burnside’s corps, on the left, was mostly held as reserve.
The Rebel fire was thick. Beauregard had concentrated his men just so, and on they came into the slaughter. It was a long and gruesome affair, and though the cost was not so dear, little was gained.
“It is evident,” wrote Beauregard after the war, “that if the enemy had left one corps in my front and attacked with another corps by the Jerusalem plank-road or westwardly of it, I would have been compelled to evacuate Petersburg without much resistance. But they persisted in attacking on my front where I was strongest (excepting the gap from battery five to nine, which had been lost the evening before), and the result was that they were repulsed during the day with great loss, although their attacks were made with two gallant corps, numbering about 20,000 men each.”
While Beauregard saw this as a victory of sorts (or at least not a defeat), General Meade was also positive.
“I at once ordered an attack, which commenced at 6 P.M. and lasted pretty much continuously till 4 A.M. to-day — that is, ten hours — eight of which was by moonlight, another unparalleled feat in the annals of war,” wrote Meade to his wife the following day. “Our attack was quite successful, as we captured several of their works, four guns and five hundred prisoners.”
But perhaps this was a brighter picture painted for his family. About the same time, he wrote to General Grant: “Our men are tired and the attacks have not been made with the vigor and force which characterized our fighting in the Wilderness; if they had been I think we should have been more successful. I will continue to press.”
By the end of the day, the Fifth Corps had arrived and Meade vowed to feed them into the fray come dawn. Continuing to his wife, Meade’s exhaustion was plain. “We find the enemy, as usual, in a very strong position, defended by earthworks, and it looks very much as if we will have to go through a siege of Petersburg before entering on the siege of Richmond, and that Grant’s words of keeping at it all summer will prove to be quite prophetic. Well, it is all in the cruise, as the sailors say.”1
- Sources: Military Operations of General Beauregard by Alfred Roman; Fighting for the Confederacy by E. Porter Alexander; Personal Memoirs by Ulysses S. Grant; The Last Citadel by Noah Andre Trudeau; Life and Letters by George Meade. [↩]