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The Siege of Petersburg begins

By Dr. Walter G. Howell

Ulysses Grant saw the Wilderness as a delay, not a defeat, in his Virginia campaign. He moved his army to the town of Spotsylvania, hoping to lure Lee into another battle under more favorable conditions. Lee’s army, however, reached the Spotsylvania courthouse crossroads ahead of Grant and dug into defensive positions.
Fighting started on May 8 and continued intermittently for eleven days. In an attempt to overrun a Confederate position at the “Mule Shoe,” Union soldiers fought hand-to-hand with Lee’s defenders for almost twenty-four hours before retreating. Unable to break through the Confederate line, Grant again disengaged on May 19 and moved southeast in another maneuver on Lee’s right flank. Grant’s casualties were heavy: 18,338 killed, wounded or captured. Lee had casualties of 13,421. One Rifle – Lucian Wells – was captured and sent to a Union prison camp.
Spotsylvania was another defeat for Grant, but he was undeterred. He moved again on Lee’s right flank, and Union cavalry seized the crossroads at Old Cold Harbor, about ten miles northeast of Richmond, on May 31. Lee’s army dug a defensive line seven miles long. Grant made three savage assaults against the strongly defended Confederate line; and, after the failure of the third charge, Yankees soldiers refused to advance again. Grant lost more than seven thousand men in eight minutes of fighting during the third charge. He later admitted he should not have attacked the Confederate line under the circumstances.
Casualty figures vary, but the consensus is that Grant lost 12,737 killed, wounded and missing in action. Lee’s losses were 4,595. The Rifles were down to twenty-eight men at Cold Harbor, still under the command of Captain William Lewis. All survived the battle.
Grant was stymied at Cold Harbor, with Lee still between him and Richmond. Grant had followed side-stepping flank maneuvers against Lee since the Wilderness, but he surprised Lee by marching his army east and south of Lee’s Confederates and had a day’s start in his march on Petersburg before Lee learned of his move. If Grant could take Petersburg, he would have an open door to Richmond.
Once alerted to Grant’s move, Lee responded by moving his army hurriedly to Petersburg. Confederate forces slowed Grant’s advance, allowing Lee to occupy the fortifications around the city. Lee was positioned to maintain open communication and supply lines to Richmond.
After reaching the perimeter of the well-defended city, Grant launched repeated attacks against the Confederate defenses with success. A massive assault on July 30 failed, and Grant realized he had another siege on his hands. The Union army was weary from four months of almost continuous fighting, and siege warfare appealed.
Lee’s army of 63,000 in April 1864 was reduced to 30,000 when the siege of Petersburg began. Grant’s army, with unlimited replacements, continued at full strength. For the Mississippi College Rifles, the dance of death that started in April at the Wilderness was coming to a close.


Editor’s note: 2011 marked the beginning of the sesquicentennial observation of the American Civil War. This is the twenty-second in a series of pieces by Dr. Walter Howell that will follow the movements of the Mississippi College Rifles, the fate of Clintonians involved in the fighting and other events on the home front.

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