Battle of Petersburg II (June 15 - 18, 1864)

Also Known As: Assault on Petersburg

Updated: September 28, 2016

Also known as the Assault on Petersburg, some historians consider the Battle of Petersburg II, fought between June 15 - 18, 1864, to be the first engagement of the Petersburg Campaign.

On March 10, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Ulysses S. Grant as General-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States. Grant brought with him, from his successes in the Western Theater of the war, a reputation for the doggedness that Lincoln was seeking in his generals. Unlike previous Union generals, whose leadership was marked by their own timidity, Grant was tenacious. Upon his arrival in Washington, Grant drafted a plan to get the various Union armies in the field to act in concert. He also devised his Overland Campaign to invade east-central Virginia. Unlike previous campaigns into that area, Grant's plan focused upon defeating General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, rather than capturing or occupying geographic locations. Grant instructed General George Meade, who commanded the Army of the Potomac, "Wherever Lee goes, there you will go also." Grant realized that, with the superior resources he had at his disposal, Lee was destined to lose a war of attrition, as long as Northern troops persistently engaged the Confederates.

On May 4, 1864, Grant launched his Overland Campaign when the Army of the Potomac crossed the Rappahannock and Rapidan Rivers, occupying an area locally known as the Wilderness. For the next eight weeks, the two sides engaged in a series of horrific battles that produced unprecedented numbers of casualties. Following a bloody frontal assault at Cold Harbor that cost the Federals an estimated thirteen thousand casualties, Grant abandoned his hope to defeat Lee's army head-on. Instead, Grant decided to isolate the Army of Northern Virginia at Richmond and, then, slowly to starve it into submission by cutting off its supply lines. The key to the plan was capturing Petersburg, Virginia.

Petersburg, Virginia, is located on the south bank of the Appomattox River, roughly twenty miles below Richmond. During the Civil War, the two cities were connected by the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad, which served as an important conduit for supplies to the Confederate capital. In addition to the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad, two other rail lines converged at Petersburg. The Weldon Railroad (also called the Petersburg and Weldon Railroad) connected Petersburg to the Confederacy's last linkage to overseas markets at Wilmington, North Carolina. Farther to the west, the South Side Railroad joined Petersburg to Lynchburg, Virginia and points westward. If Grant could cut these rail lines, Lee would be forced to abandon Richmond.

On June 12, 1864, Grant ordered his forces to leave Cold Harbor and to head southward. Headed for Petersburg, the Federals began crossing the James River over a 2,200-foot long pontoon bridge at Windmill Point on June 14. Unsure of Grant's intentions, Lee's Army of Northern Virginia remained at Richmond, as the Army of the Potomac and the Army of the James slipped past the Confederate right flank.

Grant ordered Major General Benjamin Butler's Army of the James to cross the Appomattox River to launch a second assault against Petersburg on June 15. The leading elements of the Union attack consisted of the 23rd Corps, commanded by Brigadier-General William F. "Baldy" Smith, and August Kautz's cavalry division. Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard's defenders (the Department of North Carolina and Southern Virginia) now totaled roughly 5,400, but they were greatly outnumbered by the sixteen thousand Northern men that Butler threw at them.

Butler's offensive was hampered by delays and marred by indecision. Smith's men did not engage until late afternoon. Reminiscent of the Battle of Petersburg I, Kautz, hearing no evidence of Smith's advance, withdrew after being bombarded by Rebel artillery. Despite their tardy beginning, Smith's men forced the Confederates to abandon their first line of entrenchments by evening, but, Butler decided to call off the offensive until the next morning, while the 2nd Corps relieved the 23rd Corps.

Overnight, both sides reinforced, and Grant arrived on the scene. Beauregard's nineteen thousand defenders now faced approximately fifty thousand Federal troops under the direct command of Major General Winfield Scott Hancock. Still, the Yankees did not renew their offensive until nearly 5:30 p.m. Two assaults forced the Confederates to give more ground, but the Southerners regained much of the territory during a fierce counterattack. As nightfall approached, both sides entrenched.

By June 18, Lee finally realized that Grant's target was Petersburg rather than Richmond. Consequently, he rushed troops from the Army of Northern Virginia south from Richmond to face a Federal force that now numbered approximately sixty-two thousand soldiers. Reinforcements swelled the number of Confederate defenders to nearly forty-two thousand men. From their well-fortified lines, the Rebels withstood several assaults across their front that day, inflicting heavy losses on the Yankees. By the end of three days of fighting, the Union lost over eleven thousand soldiers, including 1,688 killed. The smaller Confederate force suffered approximately four thousand casualties, including two hundred men killed. Recognizing that he had lost the opportunity to seize the city while it was lightly defended, Grant called off the frontal assault and decided to focus on cutting off the city's supply lines.

Ohio units that participated in the Battle of Petersburg II included:

Infantry units:

2nd Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry

4th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry

6th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry

8th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry

60th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry

110th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry

122nd Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry

126th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry

Cavalry units:

13th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Cavalry (fought dismounted with infantry forces)

Artillery units:

Battery H, 1st Regiment Ohio Light Artillery

Cite this Entry

MLA Style

"Battle of Petersburg II," Ohio Civil War Central, 2018, Ohio Civil War Central. 22 Jun 2018 <http://www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=1077>

APA Style

"Battle of Petersburg II." (2018) In Ohio Civil War Central, Retrieved June 22, 2018, from Ohio Civil War Central: http://www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=1077

Comments powered by Disqus

Help support the ongoing development of Ohio Civil War Central by clicking the banner and then purchasing products from Amazon.com.

Ohio Civil War Central: An Encyclopedia of the American Civil War