From Spotsylvania to Petersburg

Last updated June 18th, 2007 by Jenny
Jeb Stuart

The War was entering a new and final chapter. Whereas prior to 1864 fighting had come in fits and starts, now the War would become one almost continual action where the armies were in close contact with one another. Officers and men began to fall like the leaves from the trees. In the Army of Northern Virginia, the losses were particularly difficult to replace. There simply were no trained officers to replace those who were killed.

On May 9, popular Union General John Sedgwick, commanding the US VI Corps, was killed by a sharpshooter. Present at his death was Cpl. John Mauk of the 138th Pennsylvania who plays an important role in a later act of this tragedy. On May 11, the terrible word filtered through the Army of Northern Virginia that one of her favorite sons had also been mortally struck. While opposing Sheridan and preventing the capture of Richmond, Jeb Stuart (who Sedgwick had jokingly referred to as "the greatest cavalryman foaled in America") was mortally wounded in the side. After several hours of intense pain and agony, Stuart died on the 12th. Stuart and Hill had been good friends. Lee remarked simply "that I can scarcely think of Stuart without weeping." On top of this, Ewell suffered something of a breakdown. Lee's confidence in him was shaken; Ewell was sent off to Richmond never to again hold an important command in the Army of Northern Virginia. This left A.P. Hill as the only seasoned corps commander in Lee's Army.

While still ill and in his ambulance, Hill watched the repulse of Ambrose Wright's Georgia Brigade in a minor engagement. Hill was furious and demanded a court of inquiry to look at Wright's actions. Lee gave Hill some fatherly advice that reflected Lee's own style of command.

These men are not an army; they are citizens defending their country. General Wright is not a soldier; he's a lawyer. I cannot do many things that I could do with a trained army. The soldiers know their duties better than the general officers do, and they have fought magnificently. We must make do with what we have. You understand all of this, but if you humiliated General Wright, the people of Georgia would not understand. Besides, whom would you put in his place? You'll have to do what I do. When a man makes a mistake, I call him to my tent, talk to him, and use the authority of my position to make him do the right thing the next time.

Hill returned to command of his corps following Spotsylvania. Not since the nearly continuous fighting of the "Seven Days" had the Army of the Potomac and Army of Northern Virginia faced each other like this. The constant contact between the armies would prove too much for some. General G.K. Warren, commanding the Federal V Corps, cried out on the road side: "Every day for a month it has been a funeral past me, and it is too much, sir!" But Grant had proposed to fight it out if it took all summer, and he was determined and dogged. The fighting shifted away from Spotsylvania to the North Anna River line. Here, Hill twice disappointed Lee. First, at Jerchio Mills his performance left much to be desired. Then, Hill failed to spring Lee's trap along the North Anna River. Lee was ill himself at this time and frustrated. He gave Hill a rebuke that Douglas Freeman called the most severe he had ever given a general. "General Hill," Lee asked, "why did you let those people cross here? Why didn't you throw your whole force on them and drive them back as Jackson would have done?" Jed Hotchkiss, a former aide to Jackson who did not like Hill much, thought that Lee was of the opinion "that Hill had been caught napping" and noted that he addressed Hill "rather savagely."

The North Anna Battles

After the fighting at Spotsylvania Court House, Grant continued his Overland Offensive against Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. He was brought up short on the North Anna River by Lee’s widely studied “hog snout line,” which forced Grant to divide his army into three parts in order to attack. On May 23, 1864, one of A.P. Hill’s divisions assaulted the V Corps which had crossed the river at Jericho Mill, resulting in bloody see-saw fighting. On the 24th, Union infantry was repulsed at Ox Ford (the snout) but advanced to near the Doswell House on the Confederate right. Lee hoped to strike an offensive blow, but he was ill, and the opportunity for defeating an isolated part of the Federal army passed. Once the threat of Lee’s position was revealed, Grant withdrew both wings of the army back across the North Anna River. Grant outflanked the position by moving downstream and continued his advance on Richmond.

Hill, for once, held his tongue and accepted the rebuke even though this incident was probably more of an expression of Lee's own illness and the sorry state of the Army rather than what Hill had failed to do; weeks of constant battle had sapped the once might Army of Northern Virginia of it's offensive fighting strength.

The fighting continued. Grant moved again to try and flank Lee, just as he had at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and on the North Anna. The armies now moved onto a place called Cold Harbor. Here, Grant foolishly threw his men at Lee's entrenched soldiers. In an attack even worse than the frontal assaults at Fredericksburg or Gettysburg or Malvern Hill, 7,000 soldiers fell in just 20 minutes. It was a lop sided Southern victory, the type that usually sent lesser commanders back with their tails between their legs. Yet Grant again disengaged and moved on again, this time towards Petersburg, south of Richmond.

The last (and longest) major campaign of the Civil War -- and the final act of A.P. Hill's life -- was about to commence at the Cockade City.

About this time, Lee wrote Hill a letter explaining his views on trying to bring the Army of the Potomac to battle and his fears about being caught and tied down in a siege that would not allow his Army free movement:

I am glad that you are able to make the disposition of the troops you propose, as it meets my views, as expressed in a former note to you. Now that you have your troops in a line, I hope you will strengthen it as much as possible and hold it. I have little fear of your ability to maintain your position if our men do as they generally do. The time has arrived, in my opinion, when something more is necessary than adhering to lines and defensive positions. We shall be obliged to go out and prevent the enemy from selecting such positions as he chooses. If he is allowed to continue that course we shall at last be obliged to take refuge behind the works of Richmond and stand a siege, which would be but a work of time. You must be prepared to fight him in the field, to prevent him taking positions such as he desires, and I expect the co-operation of all the corps commanders in the course which necessity now will oblige us to pursue. It is for this purpose that I desire the corps to be kept together and as strong as possible, and that our absentees will be brought forward and every attention given to refreshing and preparing the men for battle. Their arms and ammunition should be looked to and cooked provisions provided ahead. R. E. LEE, General. P. S.--I am anxious to get recommendations to fill the vacancies in the different commands in your corps. R. E. L.

Like it or not, Lee was about to be caught in a siege to protect Richmond. The lead elements of the Army of the Potomac crossed a 2,200-foot long pontoon bridge over the James River on June 15. But rather than moving on Richmond, Grant turned his attention to Petersburg, about thirty miles south. P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding the defenses, was ready. Lee, realizing Grant's intentions, rushed reinforcements to Petersburg from the Army of Northern Virginia. These forces beat back Grant and Meade. Ironically, these successes ended up locking Lee into defending Petersburg and Richmond; he was caught in a dreaded siege.

Hill and his corps got into the fighting at Petersburg on June 22d. The Weldon Railroad was one of the major supply lines into Petersburg and Grant sent the Second Corps to try and cut it. Hill's troops counterattacked and drove the Union troops back. An officer would call this "the most humiliating episode in the experience of the Second Corps." The two armies settled in for a siege.

The Weldon Railroad

A description of the battle:

On June 21, the Union II Corps, supported by the VI Corps, attempted to cut the Weldon Railroad, one of the major supply lines into Petersburg. The movement was preceded by Wilson’s cavalry division which began destroying tracks. On June 22, troops from Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill’s corps led by Brig. Gen. William Mahone counterattacked, forcing the II Corps away from the railroad to positions on the Jerusalem Plank Road. Although the Federals were driven from their advanced positions, they were able to extend their siege lines farther to the west.

The siege itself was a hellish existence, a dress rehearsal, as it would turn out, for World War I. The men lived, suffered, and died in a series of earthen trenches, forts, and redoubts under constant tension of firing from sharpshooters. As time went on, the suffering would only escalate.

There was a new and unlikely star in the Third Corps at Petersburg -- William Mahone. Commander of what had been R.H. Anderson's division, a soldier noted of Mahone: "He was every inch a soldier, though there were not many inches of him." When he was badly wounded in the chest at Second Manassas, he wrote his wife that it was only a flesh wound ... to which she replied that she was now very concerned "as William has no flesh whatsoever." About five feet tall, dyspepetic (he kept a cow and turkeys), he was a sharp disciplinarian and had a mighty temper. While Mahone, a native of Petersburg, had not distinguished himself as a brigade commander, he turned out to be an excellent division commander.

The troops settled in for what would be a very long siege. This would be A.P. Hill's final campaign -- and also his longest.

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