Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Siege of Petersburg Begins

When Grant's men renewed their attack on Petersburg on June 18th, 150 years ago today, at first they made quickly progress. This was only because Beauregard had fallen back to a new line during the night. When the hit this second line they were stopped by heavy Confederate fire, and could make no more progress. More troops were brought up throughout the day, but they too were pinned down under murderous fire. Meade grew frustrated as his corps commanders yet again failed to cooperate. “I find it useless to appoint an hour to effect co-operation,” he complained, “and I am therefore compelled to give you the same order. You have a large corps, powerful and numerous, and I beg you will at once, as soon as possible, assault in a strong column. The day is fast going, and I wish the practicability of carrying the enemy's line settled before dark."

The troops went forward, but the men did not have their heart in the assault. They had made these attacks before, all over Virginia in the past weeks, and they were always bloody. “We are not going to charge,” said one solder as he went forward. “We are going to run toward the Confederate earthworks and then we are going to run back. We have had enough of assaulting earthworks."

The Union attacks were unsuccessful, as the reluctant veterans had foreseen. All, however, were not experienced in this type of attack. One regiments especially made a gallant and costly attack on the Confederate works, 1st Maine. It was a heavy artillery regiments that had been converted into infantry and sent to Grant. Inexperienced with combat, they didn't know what was in store for them. Stepping over the prone veterans, they boldly charged at the entrenchments. The rebels works exploded in flame, and the men fell down in rows. Not a man made it to their target. Of the 850 green soldiers who charged, 632 fell. Its 74% casualties were the most severe loss from any Union regiment in the war.

As the sun set on the bloody field, it was apparent that frontal attacks had proved useless. Over 11,000 men were lost by the army of the Potomac in this advance on Petersburg, compared to about 4,000 Confederates. Grant had a chance at a quick success by cutting Lee's supply line at Petersburg, but uncoordinated assaults and firm fighting by Beauregard's men deprived him of that victory. It was apparent as the rest of Lee's army moved into Petersburg that the active maneuvering in the field had given way, for a time, to a siege. Both armies were not the same as had began the Overland Campaign. Both sides had lost their aggressive edge, and the war in the east had turned into a siege, with the both soldiers reluctant to assault the enemy works.


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