The Battle of Petersburg Breakthrough
The Breakthrough, The Third Battle of Petersburg, Fall of Petersburg
Huddled behind their picket lines in the chilled night air of early spring, 14,000 Union soldiers waited impatiently for the signal gun that would launch their attack. Along a one-mile stretch of General A. P. Hill’s sector of the Petersburg defenses, some 2,800 Confederates, well supported by nearly two dozen cannon, also waited, suspecting but unsure that a climactic battle would begin at dawn.
General Ulysses S. Grant had ordered all his corps south of the Appomattox River to charge on the morning of April 2, 1865, hoping that General Robert E. Lee’s measures to restore the lost ground at Five Forks would render the southern breastworks vulnerable. It was here, however, on the front controlled by the Sixth Corps, that Grant’s plan achieved success.
General Horatio G. Wright, the Sixth Corps commander, delayed the assault until the first glimmer of daylight illuminated the naked ground between his men and the Confederates. The Federals quickly overran the enemy pickets, but for 10 or 15 minutes they endured a brutal fire of small arms and artillery in the open ground. Some 2,200 Northerners fell during this phase of the battle.
The survivors ripped apart multiple lines of abatis, continued forward, and scaled Hill’s breastworks. Hand-to-hand fighting broke out all along the line. But in the end, Wright’s superior numbers held sway. Most of the North Carolinians and Georgians surrendered, although hundreds fled to fight elsewhere throughout the day, leaving scores of comrades on the ground that would never see another sunrise.
The Sixth Corps Breakthrough proved to be the decisive battle of the Petersburg Campaign. General Lee immediately wired Richmond that he intended to evacuate Petersburg and Richmond that night. Appomattox was but a week away.