Following the Union repulse at Cold Harbor, both the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia continued to entrench as Grant weighed his options. Concluding that there was no opening on his immediate front that would permit him to move directly on Richmond, he decided to change his line of operation by shifting his forces to the south, crossing the James River, and seizing Petersburg, the critical railroad hub linking Richmond with the lower South.
The operation would be a difficult one. Grant and Meade would have to break contact with Lee, move south around the right flank of the Army of Northern Virginia, cross both the Chickahominy and James rivers, and take Petersburg before Lee could react.
On June 12, II and VI Corps occupied a shortened trench line while V Corps slid to the south to protect the Union approaches to the James. XVIII Corps marched east to White House on the York River, embarking on ships for transport to Bermuda Hundred, a peninsula formed by the confluence of the James and Appomattox rivers between Richmond and Petersburg. Once V Corps took up its covering position, the rest of the Army of the Potomac passed behind it toward the James.
On June 14, II Corps crossed the James from Wilcox’s Landing to Windmill Point by boat and XVIII reached Bermuda Hundred. On June 15, Yankee engineers completed a massive pontoon bridge across the James, permitting the rest of the army to cross by June 16. Meanwhile, diversionary actions, including a cavalry raid north of Richmond, kept Lee confused as to Grant’s intentions.
It was a bold plan, boldly executed. The Petersburg lines were only weakly defended by elements of a small force under Beauregard, who was also responsible for holding the line at Bermuda Hundred. Before Lee knew what was going on, elements of the Army of the Potomac were in position to seize the city.
The plan called for William Smith’s XVIII Corps to break through Beauregard’s lines at Bermuda Hundred and attack the Petersburg lines from the east, supported by II Corps. Smith delayed his attack, but when XVIII Corps finally attacked late on June 15, it easily carried the lines of the Confederates, who reformed behind Harrison’s Creek. Had Smith continued the attack, he would probably been able to occupy the city. But perhaps still stunned by the carnage at Cold Harbor, the Federals did not exploit their early success.
Beauregard abandoned his Bermuda Hundred position and rushed his troops south to man the Petersburg lines. The Federals resumed their assaults on June 17 and 18, but they were largely disorganized and uncoordinated. Lee’s troops poured into the Petersburg defense and by the evening of June 18, the Union assault had stalled, prompting Grant to call off further frontal attacks on the city.
The Siege Begins: Battle of the Crater
Since the Army of the Potomac could easily be resupplied through City Point on the James River , Grant and Meade now settled into a siege. For the most part, the Confederate defenses were too strong to be taken by storm. Indeed, photographs taken at the time eerily adumbrate the Western Front a half century later. Thus Grant’s overall plan was to extend his lines toward the west in order to achieve two goals: to cut the Weldon and Petersburg Railroad, the city’s main source of provisions from North Carolina, and to thin out Lee’s lines in the hopes that at some point the Rebel defenses would be so weakened that Union forces could achieve a breakthrough.
The first attempt to extend the lines was repulsed by A.P. Hill near the Jerusalem Plank Road on June 22-23. After this event, Meade and Grant tried a more direct approach. A unit within Ambrose Burnside’s IX made up of Pennsylvania coal miners had proposed digging a tunnel from Union lines to the Confederate position, filling it with explosives, and then detonating it to undermine the Rebel works. Grant approved the plan, but didn’t think it would bear fruit. He seems to have thought of it primarily as a way to keep the troops busy, akin to his approach during the winter of 1863 in the lead up to his brilliant Vicksburg campaign.
Nonetheless, Grant ordered II Corps to attack the Confederate defenses north of the James in an effort to weaken the part of the line where the mining effort was taking place. Although the attack at Deep Bottom failed, the Rebel lines were in fact weakened at the point of the mine as Lee had to send troops to meet the apparent threat to the Richmond defenses north of the James.
The mine itself was a remarkable engineering feat. The approach shaft was over 500 feet and the miners developed an ingenious way of ventilating the shaft. When completed, it was packed with about 8,000 pounds of gunpowder. The plan called for an immediate attack after the mine was detonated. Unfortunately, in an early case of political correctness, the African-American division that was to lead the assault was replaced at the last minute, due to Meade’s concern that if the attack failed, he would be accused of using black soldiers as cannon fodder. The new division was badly led and not up to the challenge.
On July 30, the mine was detonated, creating a huge crater 30 feet deep and 70 feet wide in the Confederate works. But rather than skirting the crater, the lead division attacked directly into it and stopped, where the Union soldiers became sitting ducks. As Grant drily noted in his memoirs, they “stopped there in the absence of any one to give them directions; their commander having found some safe retreat to get into before they started.” Actually he was drunk in his quarters.
The Battle of the Crater was a horrendous failure, costing IX Corps nearly 3800 casualties. Grant now returned to his original approach of extending his lines to the west to get at the Weldon and Petersburg railroad. On August 18, V Corps seized part of the rail line near Globe Tavern. Although a sharp Rebel counterattack drove the Federal back some distance, they maintained their hold on the tracks. A Union push south of Globe Tavern by II Corps was defeated on August 25 at Reams Station.
These efforts continued into October both to the west and north of the James. On September 30, Union troops gained a salient at Popular Springs Church southwest of Petersburg and captured Fort Harrison north of the James. In October, the Union line was further extended west near Hatcher’s Run.
The strain on Lee’s army was beginning to tell. While he was able to prevent a Union breakthrough, he was forced to constantly rush troops from one threatened sector to another. As winter set in, operations on the Richmond-Petersburg front came to a halt.
Operations in the Shenandoah Valley
While Meade and Grant were applying pressure against Lee, event of military importance were also transpiring in the Shenandoah Valley. Grant’s strategic plan for ending the war called for a simultaneous advance by five federal armies: the three main thrusts were to be made by Meade directly against Lee, Sherman against Atlanta, and Banks against Mobile. Two other smaller offensives would support Meade in Virginia: Franz Siegel was to move up the Shenandoah Valley, and Benjamin Butler was to move against Richmond from the James River.
Butler was bottled up at Bermuda Hundred and remained inactive. In the Shenandoah, Siegel was beaten by Maj. Gen. John C. Breckinridge at New Market in May, after which the latter joined Lee on the North Anna. Grant replaced Siegel with David Hunter, who defeated a Confederate force at Piedmont on June 5 and then marched on Lexington, where he burned the Virginia Military Institute before moving toward Lynchburg. Breckinridge hurried back to the Valley, followed by Jubal Early’s corps.
Outnumbered by Early, Hunter fell back to the Kanawha Valley, leaving the way open for Early to march down the Shenandoah Valley toward Maryland and Washington. The Great Valley of Virginia was one of the few remaining areas from which Lee’s army could draw provisions. More importantly, it was a strategic asset for the Confederacy, serving as an avenue of approach. Lee had used the Valley in both 1862 and 1863 for his thrusts northward. A Confederate army in the Shenandoah was always a threat to Washington, as Stonewall Jackson had shown during the spring of 1862.
Lee hoped that Early could reprise Jackson’s success. At the end of June, 1864, Early marched down the Valley, crossed the Potomac, and headed north before turning toward the capital. On July 9, he engaged a Federal force under Maj. Gen. Lew Wallace on Monocacy Creek near Frederick, forcing it back on Washington’s defenses. Early’s arrival set of panic in the city leading Grant to detach two corps to reinforce Washington’s defenses. After exchanging volleys with Union troops at Fort Stevens, Early retreated into the Valley.
Many historians have concluded that Early’s raid on Washington was a failure. But other disagree. For instance, a new book on the battle of the Monocacy argues that had Lew Wallace not delayed Early, the Rebels could have seized Fort Stevens, which was only lightly defended by “cooks and clerks.” As it was, another historian has argued that Early’s raid extended the war for nine months by diverting two corps from Meade’s army at the beginning of the Petersburg siege.
As Early withdrew, Federal forces pursued the Rebels to Snickers Gap, administering a defeat at Cool Springs on July 18. Thinking that Early would continue his retreat up the Valley, most of the Union forces returned to the Richmond-Petersburg lines.
But Early turned and attacked a Union force under George Crook, defeating it at Second Kernstown on July 25, and then continued down the Valley to Martinsburg where he destroyed the tracks of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. His cavalry then raided into Pennsylvania, burning Chambersburg in retaliation for Hunter’s earlier depredation in the Valley.
Grant had had enough of the Rebels in the Valley and at the beginning of August, he sent Phil Sheridan, the commander of the Army of the Potomac’s cavalry, to deal with Early. Early had misinterpreted Sheridan’s previous refusal to give battle as a sign of timidity. As result of his overconfidence, he then divided his army, spreading it from Winchester to Martinsburg. When Sheridan discovered Early’s disposition, he attacked at Winchester. Although Early was able to re-concentrate his forces and repulse several of Sheridan’s assaults on September 19, Union cavalry crushed the Confederate left flank and drove the Rebels from the field.
Early attempted to rally his troops at Fisher’s Hill near Strasburg but three days after his triumph at Winchester, Sheridan flanked this position as well, routing the Rebels.Sheridan pursued Early to Staunton then turned back, systematically destroying the agricultural potential of the Valley as he went. The goal was to deny provisions for the Confederacy. Sheridan later boasted that his goal was to make it so that a crow flying over the Valley would have to carry its own provisions.
On October 9, Yankee cavalrymen routed their Rebel counterparts at Tom’s Brook, making it clear that the advantage the Confederacy once held in this arm was now a thing of the past. Nonetheless, Early still managed to surprise the Union army on October 19 at Cedar Creek, initially sending the Yankees reeling. Sheridan was away but when he received word that the battle was underway, he quickly returned and organized a counterattack that routed the Confederates. His feat was immortalized in Thomas Buchanan Read’s poem “Sheridan’s Ride.” Following Cedar Creek, both sides went into winter quarters, but on March 3, 1865, Sheridan destroyed what was left of Early’s army at Waynesboro.
Union Breakthrough at Petersburg and the Race to the West
On February 6, 1865, an event occurred that was to have important consequences for war termination. On that date, Lee was appointed General-in-Chief of the Confederate Armies. General Order 3 of that date reads:
The Congress of the Confederate States of America do enact, That there shall be appointed by the President, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, an office, who shall be known and designated as ’General in Chief,’ who shall be ranking officer of the army, and as such, shall have command of the military forces of the Confederate States… General Robert E. Lee having been duly appointed General in Chief of the Armies of the Confederate States, will assume the duties thereof and will be obeyed and respected accordingly.
As the Richmond Dispatch of February 7 observed, “Providence raises up the man for the time, and a man for this occasion, we believe, has been raised up in Robert E. Lee, the Washington of the second American Revolution.”
The move by the Confederate Congress reflected the fact that by this time, Jefferson Davis had lost support throughout the South. As the fortunes of the Confederacy waned, Southerners concluded that Davis lacked the political—and, in his capacity as Commander-in-Chief, the military skills—necessary to achieve independence.
Some of Davis’ critics were so keen to diminish the president’s role that they even considered the possibility of making Lee Commander-in-Chief and thus de facto leader of the Confederacy. This never came to pass, largely because Lee would have none of it. But the Act did raise Lee’s official status to the one demanded by the public. At Appomattox two months later, this congressional action would mean that Lee’s surrender would essentially end the war. During the winter, things had remained quiet on the Richmond-Petersburg front. However, in February, Grant resumed his efforts to thin the Confederate defenses by extending the Union lines to the west. Lee knew he had to do something and thought that if he was able to achieve some success near City Point, Grant would have to contract his lines. If the contraction took place, Lee would then be able to move south toward North Carolina if Petersburg fell.
The Rebel attack at Fort Stedman on March 25 initially achieved success, but Union counterattacks restored the line. Recognizing that Lee had weakened his defenses in order to concentrate his forces on Fort Stedman, Grant now believed the time was ripe for a final push. Sheridan, having returned from his successful campaign against Early the Valley, led his cavalry against Rebel forces near Dinwiddie Court House and then defeated Pickett’s command at Five Forks. The Confederate defenses began to collapse and on April 2, Grant ordered a general assault across the entire front.
Lee advised Jefferson Davis that he could no longer hold his position and on the night of April 2-3, the Confederates evacuated Richmond. Lee hurried west on multiple routes toward Amelia Court House on the Richmond and Danville Railroad, where he hoped to be resupplied before turning south to link up with Joseph Johnston’s forces now in North Carolina. But when he arrived at Amelia Court House, the supplies were not there. He also learned that Union forces were blocking his path to the west.
Conducting an exhausting night march that enabled him to circumvent the Federals, Lee marched his tattered army to Farmville, again hoping to be resupplied. The rations were there but with sizeable Federal forces to his south, he was unable to execute his plan to link up with Johnston in North Carolina. On April 6 as he crossed the Appomattox River, his rear guard was smashed at Sayler’s Creek, costing Lee 7,000 more casualties.
On April 8, Sheridan’s cavalry reached Appomattox Court House, blocking a further move by Lee to the west. Lee attempted to break through the Union position, but the diminished size of his army and the timely arrival of elements of the Army of the James ended any chance of success. Lee now had no choice but to surrender his army.
Lee and War Termination
At Appomattox, Lee’s position as General-in-Chief of the Confederate armies became an important aspect of war termination. As on historian has observed, “Davis and many others initially refused to accept that Lee’s surrender brought the end of the Confederacy…. British journalists agreed that the war did not end with Lee. Instead, they expected guerilla warfare. Lee’s refusal to participate made such a shift difficult, if not impossible.”
Lee had already made it clear that Lee did not support the idea of continuing the struggle by means of guerrilla warfare, an option that his chief of artillery, E. Porter Alexander, had suggested before the surrender. But Lee rejected the suggestion in favor of unifying the country. As James I. Robertson observed in 2006, “Lee’s attitude was, we did what we could, we lost, let’s look to the future and rebuild,” Mr. Robertson says. “He knew that it would take the country years to recover from a guerrilla war.”
On the other hand, Grant was disappointed that Lee did not exercise his position as General-in-Chief or the Confederate armies by encouraging other Rebel army commanders to surrender when he did. As Grant wrote in his Memoirs, he “suggested to General Lee that there was not a man in the Confederacy whose influence with the soldiery and the whole people was as great as his, and that if we would now advise the surrender of all the armies [he] had no doubt [Lee’s] advice would be followed with alacrity.”
Indeed, on April 10, 1865, just days after Lee’s surrender, Grant went so far as to suggest that Lee bypass Davis’s authority altogether and speak directly with Lincoln to negotiate terms of surrender for the whole Confederacy but Lee refused, holding firm to the position that only Davis, as president of the Confederacy, could negotiate with Lincoln toward a general surrender. But Grant maintained that the “Confederacy had gone a long way beyond the reach of President Davis, and that there was nothing that could be done except what Lee could do to benefit the Southern people.”
In retrospect, historians agree that after the fall of Atlanta in September of 1864, the Confederacy was doomed and wonder why the South did not recognize this reality. But this is an illustration of the fact that all hindsight is twenty-twenty. As Mark Grimsley and Brooks D. Simpson, the editors of The Collapse of the Confederacy wrote in 2001, “an air of inevitability has clung too long to the Confederacy’s final months.” Working backwards from the known outcomes at Appomattox and Durham Station, most historians argue that the Confederacy had no chance of gaining its independence after the fall of Atlanta and Lincoln’s reelection. But while the outcome may be certain to us, it was not at all certain to either Northerners or Southerners at the time.
While Southern morale had suffered as a result of battlefield setbacks through the end of 1864, many in the South saw the situation in the winter of 1865 as just one more period of grave peril—no different than that of spring 1862 or even the dark days of the American Revolution—that could be reversed by courage and perseverance. As the passage from the Richmond Dispatch cited above illustrates, white Southerners looked to Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia to vindicate the independence of the Confederacy just as Patriots during the American Revolution invested their hopes for independence in Washington’s Continental Line. As long as Lee was in the field, Southerners believed that there was still hope for their cause.
Of course, Lee has long been admired. He has been portrayed as outshining all others on both sides of the conflict not only in soldierly virtue but also in magnanimity and humanity. He has been described as the perfect soldier—a Christian and a gentleman as well as a peerless commander who led the Army of Northern Virginia to a spectacular series of victories against overwhelming odds.
This view of Lee has come under attack by some historians, most notably Thomas Connelly and Alan Nolan, although both reflect a view advanced by the British military writer J.F.C. Fuller in the 1930s. Historians of this school contend that Lee hurt the Southern cause with his single-minded offensive orientation that led to casualties the Confederacy could not afford. According to his detractors, Lee had no grand strategy, focused narrowly on defeating his adversary in Virginia, and was willing to pay any cost to prevail. Lee’s predilection for the offensive not only hastened the demise of the South but also was a major contributing cause of that defeat. In the words of Connelly, the Confederacy would “have fared better had it not possessed” a leader as aggressive as Robert E. Lee
Most importantly, these critics argue that Lee’s reputation as a gifted soldier was “manufactured history,” by such “Lost Cause” writers as Jubal Early, who “distorted the record by vastly inflating Lee’s abilities and wartime stature.” But the outstanding historian Gary Gallagher has argued persuasively that Lee’s high reputation was not a post-war creation of the Lost Cause school. Relying on wartime sources—”as distinct from postwar accounts informed by full knowledge of how the war unfolded,” he concluded that Southerners retained a remarkable faith in the qualities of Lee and the prowess of his army.
Thus, Southerners did not see the setbacks at Antietam or Gettysburg as disasters, and even as Lee clung to the trenches at Petersburg, believed that victory was ultimately possible.
Mackubin T. Owens is an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center, a professor of national security affairs at the US Naval War College in Newport, RI, and editor of Orbis, the national security journal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia. He is writing a history of US civil-military relations.