Use the Spade for Protection – The Siege of Petersburg Begins

June 18, 1864 (Saturday)

The siege of Petersburg. Drawn by Edwin Forbes on this date.
The siege of Petersburg. Drawn by Edwin Forbes on this date.

Through the grays of predawn there was silence and waiting, broken only by the curses of General Charles Griffin and the chiding of his commander, Gouverneur K. Warren. “Let us all try to keep our tempers more,” said Warren, “and not swear so much. I know I give way myself; but it is unworthy.”

There were scattered shots, but more than anything, there was a cutting silence. General Meade had ordered an assault upon the enemy’s works before Petersburg. Nothing had yet to materialize.

The Federal troops advanced, heads down and low, toward the Confederate works before them. The day previous, their comrades had met with death and severity, and were now strewn on the ground over which they strode. But as they drew closer, they could at least see that the enemy’s works were abandoned, held now only by bodies gazing hollow towards the heavens, covered in blood and some unrecognizable, even to glory.

Along the way, several groups of Rebels pickets were caught sleeping and sent to the rear. “I suppose you think you are going to have a great success,” said one who was captured while burying a comrade, “but I think you will be disappointed!”

The Federals were now clinging to the former enemy embattlements and waiting for the signal to advance. At 6:50am, Meade, more irascible then was normal, ordered them forward. Slowly they churched and bubbled out of the entrenchments and could discover nothing to their fronts.

But while the Confederates had abandoned their former entrenchments, they had not given over to a retreat. In fact, P.G.T. Beauregard’s troops, who had miraculously held the Petersburg defenses for three days, had fallen back to a more compact set of works, and General Lee was finally sending reinforcements. These, the first of two divisions offered, made their way through the town before 8am. After another two hours, the second division would arrive. And then came Lee.


Lee was now, as Beauregard put it after the war, “at last where I had, for the past three days, so anxiously hoped to see him – within the limits of Petersburg.” Together, the two generals rode the lines, and Beauregard nearly insisted that once the bulk of Lee’s army was within the present defenses, that a thrust at the enemy’s left and rear be made. Lee, however, disagreed. His troops were exhausted (as if Beauregard’s were not) and needed rest. Beauregard put forward that the Union troops were every bit as exhausted as their own. But Lee’s mind could not be changed. The defensive would now be continued indefinitely.

In the meanwhile, General Meade tried to coordinate another assault for noon. But it was not to be. He had four full corps, along with divisions from two others. As one body they were to advance, but only a division here and there stepped off. Some officers, like Warren and Ambrose Burnside, stalled until finally prodded into the attack.

As they advanced in piecemeal, so too were they defeated in piecemeal. Across the entirety of the afternoon, this was the story. Three entire corps had to be begged and threatened by Meade to advance. Some did, but only to their slaughter.

In this bloodletting was wounded Col. Joshua Chamberlain, the heralded “savior of Gettysburg,” leading a Fifth Corps division. His wound were, at first, believed mortal, and General Grant promoted him to a Brigadier-General on the field. Ultimately, Chamberlain would survive, living on to sing his own praises and merits for decades to come.

“It is a source of great regret that I am not able to report more success,” confessed Meade at the day’s end.

“I am perfectly satisfied that all has been done that could be done,” came Grant’s reply, “and that the assaults to-day were called for by all the appearances and information that could be obtained. Now we will rest the men and use the spade for their protection until a new vein can be struck.”1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 40, Part 1, p148; Part 2, p156-157; Meade’s Army by Theodore Lyman; Personal Memoirs by Ulysses Grant; The Military Operations of General Beauregard by Alfred Roman; The Last Citadel by Noah Andre Trudeau. []
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Use the Spade for Protection – The Siege of Petersburg Begins by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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3 thoughts on “Use the Spade for Protection – The Siege of Petersburg Begins

  1. “Let us all try to keep our tempers more,and not swear so much. I know I give way myself; but it is unworthy.”
    That is going up as my Facebook status.

  2. Why did generals constantly use massive frontal assaults? Why were the generals so rigid in their thinking? Did anyone in the Union command notice how successful the attack using massive brokenline skirmishers was, making use of Southern cannon fire ineffective? Keegan stated that the massive loss of life was because “firepower was advanced(rifled cannon, rifled muskets,repeating rifles,etc),but tactics were still European 18th century”.

    It is also so shocking to read how sloppy some of the generals were: “he neglected to notify the other general about the delay in attack”, “he neglected to send out scouts”, “they got lost”, “he didnt believe the message”,”ordered to attack at 6am, he wasnt ready until 11am”,”Davis never answered”. Most shocking of all was Lincoln’s micromanaging the war & sending out direct orders to Generals. The real outrage is saved for Davis, in his refusing to exchange POWS with conditions, causing thousands on both sides to die. One has to question his mental judgment.


    1. It is what they had learned at military school. Try one flank, the other and then frontal assaults in the center. The weapons in this war were far ahead of the tactics (as usual in wars those days).

      In the days of Napoleon, troops advancing over 500 or so yards would usually face just two volleys at most. But in Civil War time, with all those repeating rifles, they would often face at least six if indeed not far more. Plus the artillery was more deadly.

      In World War I many generals still hadn’t learned the lesson leading to ever greater casualties.

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