The Petersburg Campaign, which lasted from June of 1864 until April of 1865, was the longest campaign of the American Civil War. The successful assault against the Confederate lines defending Petersburg on April 2, 1865 was the final battle of that campaign. In my opinion, it’s a grossly under-appreciated battle and worthy of much greater consideration.
A. Wilson Greene, author of Breaking the Backbone of the Rebellion – The Final Battles of The Petersburg Campaign, coined the term “Breakthrough” to describe this event. Will Greene is also the executive director of the National Museum of the Civil War Soldier and Pamplin Historical Park, location of the key Sixth Corps assault that initiated the Breakthrough and a place that has been described as “the new crown jewel of Civil War sites in America” by James M. McPherson, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian. The 422-acre park features several miles of trails along well-preserved Confederate fortifications and numerous outstanding exhibits in addition to the world-class museum.
Despite recognition of the Breakthrough by a handful of highly regarded historians and the investment of tens of millions of dollars to transform Pamplin Historical Park into a premier Civil War destination, the focus of a majority of historians, students, and assorted history buffs continues to transition from the Battle of Five Forks on April 1st directly to Lee’s surrender at Appomattox on April 9th. In their minds, the assault conducted on April 2nd was of minimal significance. I strongly disagree with that conclusion! The assault had great relevance to the outcome of the war, but its importance was lost amid the jubilation of victory and the misery of defeat. Please allow me the opportunity to explain my viewpoint. For more details, please visit these sites:- www.bunnydirectories.com
Grant’s Overland Campaign began in early May of 1864. After six weeks and a number of bloody battles, the Union Army of the Potomac was ensconced below Petersburg, the seventh largest city in the Confederacy and the second largest in Virginia in population and strategic significance. Petersburg, a major transportation center situated at the head of navigation of the Appomattox River, was the junction of five major railroads and several important wagon roads, including two all-weather plank roads. These were the critical links for Petersburg and nearby Richmond with the remainder of the Confederacy.
Union forces made repeated attempts over the following months to break the Confederate lines, including the fiasco at the Battle of the Crater. Having failed in numerous assaults, the Union Army’s mode of operation became the extension of its lines farther west in order to eventually cut the all-weather Boydton Plank Road and the South Side Railroad. A collateral goal was to further stretch the limited resources of the Confederates to match that extension. Nevertheless, General Ulysses S. Grant’s greatest fear when he awoke each morning was that he would learn that Robert E. Lee’s Army had vacated its lines overnight and was on the way to join forces with Joseph E. Johnston in North Carolina.
General Lee, well aware of the worsening situation in the lines at Petersburg, had to do something to extricate his army from a desperate situation. Staying in place would definitely bring destruction to his army. After considering several options, he ordered General John B. Gordon to plan an attack on the Union Army that would facilitate two alternatives, both of which would join Lee’s Army, or a potion of it, with Johnston’s.
To accomplish this goal, Gordon planned an attack on Fort Stedman near the City Point Railroad in order to sever the critical Federal supply line. It was anticipated that this maneuver would force Grant to shorten his front in order to protect the endangered supply route. In turn, this would permit Lee to shorten his lines and detach a portion of his army to go to the relief of Johnston. The audacious plan contemplated the defeat of Sherman by the combined army, which would then return to Petersburg to defeat Grant. If the attack failed to shorten the Union lines, then the entirety of the Army of Northern Virginia would abandon the Petersburg defenses and head for North Carolina.
The attack on Fort Stedman was launched before daylight on March 25th and met with initial success due to the complete surprise achieved. Fort Stedman was captured as were nearby batteries 10 and 11. However, the Union defenders at battery 9 and Fort Haskell refused to yield. Gordon’s forward momentum was checked and within two hours General Lee ordered General Gordon to withdraw his forces. Thereafter, during several days of heavy rain, Lee’s Army began to collect supplies and wait for the roads to improve to the point that its emaciated draft animals could pull wagons and artillery.
In the meanwhile, Grant sent Sheridan to once more extend the left of the Union lines. Lee dispatched George Pickett and Fitzhugh Lee to Five Forks with orders to hold that point at all hazards. Sheridan’s cavalry, supported by Fifth Corps, attacked the Confederate positions at Five Forks on April 1st with only two hours of daylight remaining. By nightfall, Union forces were in possession of the critical road junction, located just three miles from the South Side Railroad.