The Virginia in the Civil War Message Board

Four Patterns of operations at Petersburg

If you read carefully the thumbnail sketch of each of the nine offensives against Petersburg in the book “in the trenches of Petersburg “ By Earl Hess, four patterns Emerge

First, there is an interval of one month separating each of the offensives. This one month delay occurred for two separate reasons. First, in each of the bloody Offensives, Grant had to replace and absorb into his ranks the casualties he had just lost. Second, even though his offensives northOf the James failed to capture Richmond, they did gain ground. Similarly, even though the offensIves at Petersburg did not seize the Southside Railroad, they captured Confederate territory. In both cases, the captured ground had to be fortified and connected with the main union line of earthworks.

A good example of the details of this pattern is the period after the seizure of the Weldon railroad on August 25. In September the federals built a 3 mile line of trenches connecting the Jerusalem plank Road with the Weldon railroad. These new trenches faced north. They built a second line of trenches facing south to protect the union rear and this was also 3 miles long.

Unfortunately, the new recruits were so busy digging earthworks during September that they never had a chance to attend drill instruction. Therefore, during the fifth offensive many of the soldiers had never fired a musket during target practice and could not perform the manual of arms necessary to load and fire a musket. Attacking Lee’s army with these troops was like attacking packs of wolves with herds of sheep.

These raw recruits needed inspired leadership at every level in order to make up for their deficiencies. The leadership was particularly needed from the army leader, George G Meade. And here is the second pattern of the siege: Though the troops assigned to each of the offensive came from as many as two or three separate army corps there’s not a single case where one of the corps commanders was put in charge of the operation. Instead, Meade was supposedly in charge. In these cases Meade’s presence was particularly necessary.

Unfortunately, a study of each of the offensives reveals that Meade was never Present at the front where he was needed to coordinate the fragments of the corps that made up the offensive army

The third pattern Is the faulty tactics employed by grant and Meade. The heavily wooded area outside of Petersburg has been compared to the tangled tickets of the wilderness. It is an appropriate comparison. Miles and miles of dreary woods were broken only occasionally by a farm clearing. The roads which were used by farmers to take their products to market were Narrow, uneven and rutted, completely unsuitable for movements of large numbers of men.

at the beginning of every offensive the federals seized terrain in the heavily wooded areas. Under orders from Meade they pressed up as closely to the confederate trenches as possible. Although they tried to maintain an unbroken trench line in the woods, this proved to be impossible. In case after case the Confederates found a vulnerable flank and routed the Yankees. on June 22 Gen. William Mahone descended a ravine and struck the left flank of the second army corps with three of his brigades. He routed the entire corps and captured 1700 prisoners. This blow put an end to the second offensive. Similarly, on August 19, Mahone again descended the ravine and struck the right flank of Crawford‘s division, Fifth Army corps. He captured 3000 prisoners. Warren maintained a hold on the railroad only because he disobeyed the orders to remain in the woods. Instead he fell back to hilltop which he fortified and from which he chopped down trees thus providing fields of fire for his infantry and his artillery. On August 21 from this strong position Warren repulsed a Confederate attack which would have destroyed his army corps if he had remained stationary in the woods.

Although Warren provided a perfect strategy, the solution was never pursued by grant or Meade in subsequent battles

The fourth pattern that emerges is that the offensives failed because there were never enough union troops assigned to the attacks. Prior to April 2 the largest number assembled was 45,000 for the sixth offensive. At the beginning of the siege the engineer of the army told Grant and Meade that no offensive could succeed with fewer than 60 or 70,000 men. The union earthworks were never strong enough to be held by a fraction of the army, say 20,000 or 30,000 men.

there were certainly alternatives to the way grant and Meade conducted the siege. By delaying the offenses they could’ve spent two or three months strengthening the trenches so that the trenches would’ve been so strong that they could’ve been held with with 20 or 30,000 men. This would’ve given Meade the manpower they needed to conduct successful operations. It would also have given the recruits time to learn how to become soldiers.

as I will show in my next communication, grant and Meade were handed in early July two detailed recommendations on how to conduct the siege operations. Yeah the high command had those recommendations the siege would’ve ended earlier with fewer casualties. We will study those in some detail