150 Years Ago This Week: Siege at Petersburg begins

June 1864

As the second week of June, 1864 closed, Maj. Gen. Nathan Forrest and his Confederate cavalry were located at Brice’s Crossroads, south of Corinth, when they attacked Union infantry commanded by Maj. Gen. Samuel Sturgis, on their way from Memphis.

Abandoning his plan to move on Maj. Gen. William Sherman’s lines of communications, on June 10 Gen. Forrest’s troops vigorously attacked the Union troops exhausted by a long march and extremely hot weather. The Union lines fell back from the crossroads and withdrew over Tishomingo Creek. The bridge was clogged and the retreat became a rout of panic-stricken Federal troops.

Gen. Forrest and his men captured most of the Union artillery, 176 wagons and supplies, and more than 1,500 prisoners. Of some 8,000 men, Gen. Sturgis counted 223 killed, 394 wounded and 1,623 missing or captured. Gen. Forrest’s casualties numbered 96 killed and 396 wounded out of a force of only 1,500 troopers. It was one of Gen. Forrest’s finest engagements, and a classic battle between cavalry and infantry.

On June 11, Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan’s Union cavalry, trying to support Maj. Gen. David Hunter’s command near Charlottesville, clashed with Confederate cavalry under Maj. Gen. Wade Hampton. Gen. Sheridan found cavalry under Maj. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee in front of him, and there were charges and countercharges most of the day near the railroad depot at Trevilian’s Station on the Virginia Central Railroad. The fighting was bitter and hard, and by nightfall, Gen. Sheridan gave up the idea of trying to reinforce Gen. Hunter.

Over the Blue Ridge in Lexington, Gen. Hunter’s men entered the town and lay waste to the Virginia Military Institute. To combat Gen. Hunter, Gen. Lee at Cold Harbor detached the troops under Maj. Gen. Jubal Early and sent them to the Shenandoah Valley. In France, the Confederate commerce raider CSS Alabama arrived at Cherbourg, badly in need of work and refitting.

The Union Army of the Potomac, over 100,000 strong, began one of the great army movements in military history on June 12, when Lt. Gen. Ulysses Grant ordered the army to cross the James River south of Richmond. The army began crossing on pontoon boats on June 14, the same day that Maj. Gen. William Sherman sent skirmish lines forward toward well-entrenched Confederate troops north of Atlanta, Ga.

Watching this movement from atop nearby Pine Mountain, Gen. Joseph Johnston was discussing battle tactics and strategy with his corps commander, Lt. Gen. William Hardee and Lt. Gen. Leonidas Polk. Aware of approaching Union artillery shells, Gen. Johnston had just broken up the conference when a Federal shell struck Gen. Polk, killing him instantly. Gen. Polk, a bishop in the Episcopal Church, had exerted a great personal influence among the Confederate ranks, and his death was a serious loss to Gen. Johnston.

The USS Kearsarge arrived off Cherbourg in France to block any appearance of the CSS Alabama. Gen. Lee reassigned the ailing Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell to command the Confederate Department of Richmond, replacing Maj. Gen. Robert Ransom Jr., who was assigned to the Department of Western Virginia.

The Congress of the Confederate States authorized military service for men between 17 and 18 years of age, and those between 45 and 50. Replying to complaints of neglect from Gen. E. Kirby Smith, commander of the Trans-Mississippi, President Jefferson Davis wrote: “My ability to sustain you will be the measure of the assistance rendered to you.” Mr. Davis, now more than ever, could only equivocate when called upon for help.

The first of several unsuccessful Union assaults against the city of Petersburg, an important Virginia railroad center located some 25 miles to the south of Richmond, began on June 15 and lasted through June 18. Once Gen. Lee realized that the Union army was now south of the James River, he quickly moved his troops to protect Richmond and Petersburg.

By June 18, Gen. Grant realized that the assaults against Petersburg were accomplishing very little besides losing large numbers of soldiers. He came to a decision: Petersburg could not be taken by assault; it would have to be invested, and the railroads cut off. The siege of Petersburg was on, and was to last until April 1865. The Federals controlled two of the five railroads into Petersburg, and now Gen. Lee had some 50,000 Confederate troops facing some 110,000 Union troops. A new style of warfare had been undertaken.

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Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 193 Articles
A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at AC9725@cs.com.