Volume XXX Issue #5 • An Excerpt From:

The Battle of the Crater

by Emmanuel Dabney

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Note: All Blue & Gray feature articles are annotated.

Charge of the 12th Virginia at the Crater. Painting by James Elder.

In March 1864, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Ulysses S. Grant to be the new general-in-chief of the Federal forces. The Civil War turned three years old in the spring of 1864, and for Lincoln and the War Department the conflict was no closer to victory than when it started. Despite assertions made in the years since the war that the South was doomed to defeat after the Battle of Gettysburg, the truth is that the Confederacy was still motivated to fight the war. Grant and Lincoln both recognized this and for Lincoln it was particularly important to end the war, as he faced an election in the fall of 1864. General Grant decided to accompany Maj. Gen. George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac for the spring campaign of 1864.

Gen. Robert E. Lee began the spring of 1864 reconstituting his army in north-central Virginia. The previous September, most of Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s First Corps had been sent south, where it participated in the Battle of Chickamauga, then spent the winter of 1863-1864 in East Tennessee. On April 7, 1864, Longstreet was ordered back to Virginia for the spring campaign.

Fighting erupted in early May (Map, Pg. 10). It stretched for a month at the Battles of the Wilderness (May 5-6), Spotsylvania Court House (May 8-20), North Anna River (May 23-26), and Totopotomoy Creek (May 28-30). Each time the Union troops were stopped, Grant maneuvered in a southerly direction around Lee’s right closer to Richmond until halted at Cold Harbor. After the costly fighting there on June 1-3, both sides entrenched and engaged in sharpshooting and artillery duels. On June 12, the Army of the Potomac and a portion of the Army of the James pulled away from the fortifications at Cold Harbor and began the movement toward Petersburg. Troops who had moved out earlier would be the lead attack force against Petersburg. They were ferried to Bermuda Hundred to launch their attack. The major obstacle for the Army of the Potomac was the James River. This was overcome as boats ferried troops across the river and Federal engineers constructed a pontoon bridge to allow about one-third of the infantry to cross.

Petersburg, Virginia in 1860, was the state’s second largest city with a population of 18,266 people. Since the War of 1812, it had been referred to as the “Cockade City” because volunteers from the city wore cockades on their hats. Four railroads radiated from the city—the Petersburg Railroad, which ran south to Weldon, North Carolina; the Richmond & Petersburg, which connected Virginia’s state capital with Petersburg; the Southside, which linked the city with City Point to the east (modern-day Hopewell) and Lynchburg to the west; and the Norfolk & Petersburg uniting those cities by rail. In addition to Petersburg’s railroads the city possessed four cotton factories, three flour mills, four iron foundries, and three planing mills. These operations were busy during the war years cranking out food and supplies for the Confederate and Virginia state governments.

In addition to the industrial activity mentioned, the Confederacy operated several wartime plants within or near the city that were still functioning in 1864. These included a naval rope works, a lead works and artificial niter beds (to get saltpeter for gunpowder), and a wagon works. The wagon works closed in June 1864, as the Federals bore down upon the city. The wartime blockade had created even greater importance for the Petersburg Railroad, because at Weldon a separate company, the Wilmington & Weldon, operated and linked to the port city of Wilmington, North Carolina. Running in and out of the port were numerous blockade runners taking away cotton to obtain cloth, shoes, blankets, buttons, iron, steel, food, cannon, muskets, gunpowder, percussion caps, and a host of other items needed by the Confederate government. Blockade runners also transported goods which people on the homefront needed for survival, and frivolous notions that were not important to the war effort but were critical for morale. Thus Petersburg was second only to Richmond of importance in Virginia by the spring and summer of 1864.

Grant wanted to cut off Richmond’s communications and transportation of goods from and through Petersburg to destroy Lee’s army. On June 15, Union troops assaulted the defenses of Petersburg, called the Dimmock Line. They broke through the initial Confederate earthworks in the evening. However, the assault stopped at 9:00 p.m., short of Petersburg. Confederate Gen. Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, the commander in charge in this district, rapidly moved soldiers to the city for its defense on the next day. From a hastily prepared line of field fortifications, Beauregard’s troops held back Union assaults on June 16-17, despite ever increasing numbers of Federal soldiers. However, on the night of the 17th his troops withdrew to a line of works located perilously close to the Cockade City.