The Siege of Petersburg: Summary, Timeline & Significance

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  • 0:01 A New Direction
  • 1:34 The Battle of the Crater
  • 3:10 A Long Stalemate
  • 3:38 One More Try
  • 4:12 The End of a Siege
  • 4:55 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will explore the Siege of Petersburg, which lasted 10 months. Union troops under General Grant set up fortifications outside Petersburg, Virginia, while Confederate troops, commanded by General Lee, holed up inside the town.

A New Direction

After the Confederate victory at the Battle of Cold Harbor, which ended on June 12, 1864, Union Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant found himself blocked in his quest to capture the Confederate capitol of Richmond. He decided to take a new direction and aim for Petersburg, Virginia, which was about twenty miles south of Richmond. Petersburg was a major railroad hub for the Confederacy and a source of supplies for the Confederate army commanded by General Robert E. Lee. Grant figured that if he could cut the railroad, he could sharply curtail his enemies' resources and starve them into surrender.

The Union army started toward Petersburg almost as soon as the Battle of Cold Harbor ended. Grant's forces swelled as he was joined by thousands of Union soldiers marching up the south. His army, which soon numbered over 100,000 men, dwarfed that of Confederate General P.T. Beauregard, who was guarding Petersburg with only about 2,200 Confederates.

The city should have been easy for the Union army to capture. Grant put Major General William F. Smith in charge of the mission. Smith, although he had 10,000 men in his command, was nervous about Petersburg's defenses, which amounted to 10 miles of artillery, trenches, and earthworks. After a long delay, he cautiously attacked on June 15 and managed to overrun part of the Confederate line. Then he paused. By the next day, it was too late to continue the fight, for there were now over 14,000 Confederates in Petersburg. Lee arrived with even more men on June 18. The Union had missed a prime opportunity to take the city.

The Battle of the Crater

Over the next three weeks, both sides dug in for a siege while clashing sporadically up and down the defense line. One group of soldiers, the 48th Pennsylvania under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Henry Pleasants, had an idea. These Pennsylvania coal miners were only 130 yards from the Confederate line. They would dig a tunnel under the enemy position, fill it with black powder, and blow the enemy to smithereens. Grant wasn't thrilled about the idea, but he allowed the Pennsylvanians to try.

Over the next month, the miners dug their tunnel, working quietly and hiding their activities from the Confederates as much as they could. By July 23, the tunnel was ready for its load of powder, which the Pennsylvanians carefully tucked in, leaving a fuse winding out into open air. On July 30, the Union commander gave the order to light the fuse.

A massive explosion tore through the Confederate line. A Union officer described the scene: '... a vast cloud of earth is born upward, one hundred feet in the air, presenting the appearance of an outspread umbrella, descending in the twinkling of an eye with a heavy thud!' The result was a humungous crater, 25 to 30 feet deep, 200 feet long, and 50 feet wide.

With all the confusion, the Union had a prime opportunity to rush the Confederate lines, but the Union troops were just as shaken by the blast as the Confederates. What resulted was a hesitant, confused attack, poorly led and poorly supported. The Confederates soon sorted themselves out and fought back, forming new lines in front of the crater. The Union ended up suffering approximately 3,500 casualties to the Confederates' 1,500. The North had missed another opportunity to take Petersburg.

A Long Stalemate

For the rest of the summer and fall, the Union and Confederacy attacked each other on and off. Grant tightened his siege, and Lee began to worry. Winter was fast approaching, and the Confederates lacked food, ammunition, and horses. One Confederate general described the situation as the winter progressed, 'Some of the men have been without meat for three days, and all are suffering from reduced rations and scant clothing, exposed to battle, cold, hail, and sleet.' Both sides remained entrenched.

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