Sunday, April 3, 2016

April 2, 1865 - Lt. General Ulysses S. Grant shatters Gen. Robert E. Lee's rebel army at Petersburg, Virginia -- leading to the fall of the Confederate capital a day later, and Lee's surrender on April 9, ending the American Civil War.

Ulysses S. Grant was promoted to lieutenant general and given command of all Union armies in March 1864. He devised strategy whereby Major General George Meade (accompanied by Grant) would attack Lee from the north, while Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler drove toward Richmond up the James River from the southeast. Major General Franz Sigel would disrupt Confederate control the Shenandoah Valley, and Major General William Tecumseh Sherman would stab southeast into Georgia.

On May 4, Meade's Army of the Potomac crossed the Rapidan and entered the Wilderness of Spotsylvania, beginning a six-week period of small battles and skirmishes known as the Overland Campaign. General Robert E. and the Army of Virginia tried to stop Grant at the Battle of the Wilderness (May 5-7) and Spotsylvania (May 8-21), but failed. Each time, Grant moved his army to the southeast in lightning dashes to get around Lee and move ever closer to Richmond, the Confederate capital. Grant's lone mistake came at Cold Harbor (May 31-June 12) near Mechanicsville, where Grant ordered a frontal assault against Confederate fortified positions.

On the night of June 12, Grant again outmaneuvered Lee by marching southeast. Reaching the James River, Grant planned to cross it and seize the railroad junction of Petersburg south of Richmond. This would isolate the city and cut Lee's army off from its supplies.

Grant had consistently pursued two objectives: Wear Lee down (the North could afford a war of attrition that the South could not) or lure him into battle. By attacking Petersburg, Grant had selected a geographic and political target which Lee had to defend. It was a win-win-win for Grant: Lee could attack Grant and lose; Lee could defend Petersburg and lose in a long, bloody siege; Lee could let Grant take Petersburg and Lee's army would starve.

Lee chose to defend Petersburg. It was his best option: The Confederacy might, against all odds, win recognition from a European nation. Abraham Lincoln might lose the November 1864 election to Major General George McClellan (a peace candidate). Or Grant might make some horrible mistake and lose the siege. But the longer the siege lasted, the worse it would be for Lee.

The 292-day Siege of Petersburg began when the Union's Army of the James attacked but failed to secure Petersburg on June 15-18, 1864. Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler's troops discovered that Petersburg had heavily entrenched defenses, but twice his commanders failed to take advantage of Confederate weaknesses and Butler himself failed to take full advantage of his army's mobility to cut the city off.

Grant began the siege by disrupting rail traffic with two raids (Jerusalem Plank Road; June 21-23; Wilson-Kautz Raid, June 22-July 1), and then weakening Lee's defenses by drawing out a portion of his army into disastrous battle (First Battle of Deep Bottom, July 27-29). Major General Ambrose E. Burnside then convinced Grant that he could end the siege by tunneling under Lee's lines and blowing a gigantic hole in them. The explosion occurred on July 30, 1864. But the resulting crater was so deep and steep that Union forces could not climb out of it, and Confederates killed them like fish in a barrel. Grant returned to his basic siege strategy, and drew Lee out again and weakened his forces at the Second Battle of Deep Bottom (August 14-20).

Grant authorized two more railroad raids (Globe Tavern, August 18-21; Second Reams Station, August 25) which further disrupted Lee's supplies. Butler attacked New Market Heights north of Petersburg on September 29, and although he did not break through Lee permanently stationed troops there to prevent a reoccurrence – which weakened his Petersburg forces even more. Grant extended his lines left after a small battle at Peebles Farm (September 30-October 2), stretching Lee's forces out.

Lee counterattacked at Darbytown and New Market Roads on October 7, but did not break the siege. A Union counterattack at Darbytown (October 13) and at Fair Oaks and Darbytown Road (October 27-28) also failed. So did a Union attempt to stretch the lines southwest at Boydton Plank Road (October 27-28).

In the 1800s, armies simply did not do battle in the winter. Cold, rain, snow, and muddy roads made maneuverability all but impossible.

Grant, however, could sense Lee's weakness. A Union attack near Hatcher's Run (February 5-7, 1865) extended the Union lines by a whopping four miles to the southwest. Although Lee stopped Grant, Grant knew he'd won because Lee did not have the troops to completely defend the massively long siege and trench lines.

Spring came early in 1865. It was warm, and roads dried out quickly.

Lee knew he'd lost the siege. His men were hungry, and he was low on ammunition and other supplies. Fleeing was his only hope. He could try to race southwest to Danville on the Virginia-North Carolina border or due west to Lynchburg. Lynchburg was nearer, but Danville offered the hope of linking up with General Joseph E. Johnston's Confederate army.

But it meant abandoning Richmond.

To provide the opportunity for the breakout, Lee decided to attack on Fort Stedman on the Union lines east of Petersburg. Lee's surprise attack on March 25 captured the fort, but a ferocious counterattack by Union soldiers recaptured the fort. Lee lost 4,000 men. The same day, Grant hit Lee hard at Jones's Farm far out on Lee's right. This left Grant in a position to cut off the South Side Railroad and the Boydton Plank Road, and destroy the last of Lee's supply lines.

Grant's troops cut the Boydton Plank Road near Lewis' Farm and Dinwiddie Courthouse on March 29. When this opened a gap in Grant's lines, Lee attacked ferociously. But Grant counterattacked just as viciously, and broke the Confederates at White Oak Road. On April 1, Grant hit Five Forks, cutting the South Side Railroad and routing Confederate forces.

Realizing he had won the siege, Grant ordered Union skirmishers to probe the Confederate lines all night long, seeking for weakness. He reinforced his left, and Union artillery bombarded the rebel trenches for most of the night.

Before dawn on April 2, Grant hit Lee at Boydton Plank Road. Grant's scouts had identified not only a gap in Lee's line, but places where Lee's abatis and defense-workers were minimal or non-existent. They had even spotted a ravine that gave clear access to the Confederate rear, and an unguarded plank road the rebels were using to cross a creek. Although Lee knew an attack was coming, Grant threw all but his pickets into the battle, overwhelming Lee. A portion of Grant's attack force turned the Confederate right.

Grant's forces poured through the Confederate line.

The Grant hit Lee again. The dawn breakthrough had occurred near a swampy area, limiting the Union's ability to expand to Grant's left. So Grant ordered his reserves to shift west, and assist with the second attack. Grant's 15,000 men ran through the rebel line like a hot knife through butter. Bypassing the swamp to their right, they moved forward so fast that soon they linked up with the dawn attackers. Both units of the Army of the Potomac surged north and then northeast – cutting off a third of Lee's forces and slamming into Confederate Lt. General James Longstreet's defensive lines on the outskirts of Petersburg itself.

And then Grant hit Lee again. This time, the assault came near 11 PM on the far eastern side of the lines, where Lee had weakened his forces in the heavy entrenchments to shore up his right. In hand-to-hand fighting in the trenches, Grant enfiladed Lee's earthworks.

The Third Battle of Petersburg left Grant free to cross the Appomattox River and both hit Richmond as well as turn Lee's right. By 3 PM on April 2, Lee knew he'd lost and ordered the evacuation of the Confederate government from Richmond as well as the retreat of his Army of Northern Virginia west to Lynchburg.

At 8:00 PM on April 2, Lee fled from Petersburg. Union forces began bombarding the city that night, but at 3:00 AM discovered that Lee had retreated.

Both Petersburg and Richmond fell to Grant on April 3. President Abraham Lincoln, who had traveled by ship to Grant's headquarters at City Point (now the town of Hopewell), Virginia, on March 27, entered Petersburg with Grant on April 3.

On April 4, Lincoln walked through the streets of Richmond. He was swarmed by thousands of African Americans, who wept and prostrated themselves before him, kissing his feet and the hem of his jacket and his pants, calling him "Father Moses" and "Father Abraham". One African American woman, nearly 90, knelt before Lincoln and raise her gnarled, broken hands into the air. Lincoln gently raised her to her feet, and gently told her, "Don't kneel to me. That is not right. You must kneel to God only, and thank Him for the liberty you will afterward enjoy."

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