Virginia at War: Part III

In the Trenches
Roche Cannons Landscape
T.C. Roche made this haunting and well-composed panorama of captured Confederate guns at the wharf in Richmond.

On To Richmond (Again)

By early 1864, Lincoln recognized the need for an all-controlling hand to end the war.  His chances of remaining president were slim as long as Richmond remained in Confederate hands.  The war had to be won, or at least begun to be won, by November.  Thus, Lincoln, appointed Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant to command all the Union armies.  In May 1864, Grant launched the devastatingly bloody Overland Campaign.

Determined to seek out and destroy the Confederate army, Union forces crossed the Rapidan River into enemy territory on May 4, 1864.


The armies first met in the tangled Wilderness, where two days of fighting produced more than 25,000 casualties. Next, two weeks of swirling combat around the obscure crossroads of Spotsylvania Court House produced an additional 30,000 casualties, including these dead soldiers near the Alsop farm.


After the Union debacle at Cold Harbor in June, the armies were deadlocked. During the lull photographer Matthew Brady's crew snapped this famous image of a resolute-looking Grant, who was soon to break the stalemate.


Because of the rapid Union advance and dangerous conditions at the front, many battlefields could not be photographed until later. Here, black soldiers disinter hastily buried remains from mass graves on the Cold Harbor battlefield in April 1865

In the Trenches

After suffering nearly 50,000 casualties in May and early June, Grant found his army at the gates of Petersburg and his progress grinding to a halt.  Lee had once again arrived in time to blunt his enemy's attacks.  With his veteran army's terms of enlistment expiring, Grant knew he needed to change strategy.  New soldiers, unaccustomed to the horrors of combat, would soon flood the ranks and with the political stakes so high, Grant shifted from trying to punch Lee out to slowly strangling him.

For nine months, the two armies stood, locked in a sanguinary network of trenches.  Meanwhile, Grant stretched his lines ever farther, compelling Lee's already outnumbered men to eventually cover a nearly 75-mile front.  The endgame was on.

Despite the demoralizing reverse at Cold Harbor, Grant pushed on to Petersburg. His engineers built this pontoon bridge across the James River in roughly seven hours. This was the view south across the James River on June 15, 1864.


The Union troops reached Petersburg's outskirts in overwhelming numbers, but their advance was slow. Matthew Brady's photographer captured this image of Battery No. 5, soon after its capture by Northern forces.


Both sides dug extensive trench networks around Petersburg and settled in for a long siege. Even more miserable than they looked, life in the trenches took a heavy toll on both armies.


In Grant's most famous Petersburg attack, a tunnel was dug under the Confederate lines, packed with powder and exploded. The ensuing Battle of the Crater was a complete debacle for the Union. After the war, civilians lounged on the rim of the Crater, near the remains of the tunnel.

Politics of War

By 1864, the war between the political parties was almost as vicious as the War Between the States.  The Republican Party fought for victory over the Confederates, the restoration of the Union and the abolition of slavery.  Lincoln ran for re-election with Tennessee War Democrat Andrew Johnson as his Vice-President.

Democrats felt betrayed that Republicans were overstepping their Congressional bounds in making the war one for Republican ideals, namely emancipation.  Democrats took their opposition to Lincoln a step further, promoting opposition to the war in general.  Democrats nominated former commander George B. McClellan for President with George Pendleton as Vice-President.

Though produced by the same engravers, the slogans on the bottom of these two posters illustrate the deep divide between parties.


Hoping to shorten the war by leaving fewer Confederates in the field, General Grant halted all prisoner exchanges until the cessation of hostilities. It would be too long a wait for the thousands who died in captivity. Here, prisoners of war at Belle Plain, May 1864.


Opposition to Lincoln's war policy was strong. Peace Democrats, or 'Copperheads,' were led by Ohio congressman Clement Vallandigham, whose public denunciations led Lincoln to order his removal -- to the Confederacy. In 1864, Vallandigham attended the Democratic Convention and wrote the "peace plank" calling for an immediate end to the war.
The Emancipation Proclamation was not universally welcomed in the North. Many Democrats opposed the formation of regiments of United States Colored Troops (USCT) and supported restoration of the seceded states with slavery intact. Here, USCT's pose in a warlike stance for the camera near Chaffin's Bluff.

End in Sight

In the fall of 1864, Lincoln's re-election was still in doubt, and the outcome of the war was far from certain.  Grant stretched his lines north of the James River for operations that, though significant, are largely forgotten today.  He gave Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler permission to undertake some interesting operations that loomed large in popular imagination of the time.

Butler employed thousands of soldiers to dig a canal across Dutch Gap to bypass Confederate batteries. It was a boondoggle and the channel was not completed until after the war.


These two views, before and after the canal's completion, were made from nearly the same spot.


Union lines eventually stretched across the James River as part of the 75-mile Richmond-Petersburg front. Here, Fort Brady, the anchor of the new line north of the James River bristles with artillery. The gun emplacement in the foreground was once struck, injuring Captain Henry Pierce, who stands on the carriage.


One of the most remarkable photographs of the war was taken from Union-held Fort Burnham toward Confederate lines. Photographer T. C. Roche captured black Union pickets and, in this closeup, Confederate soldiers standing atop their distant fort. It is the only known photograph to depict black soldiers actually at war against Confederates.

Richmond is Taken

On April 2, 1865, Grant assaulted the Petersburg front.  Lee's thin line collapsed and the Confederates evacuated Petersburg and Richmond that night, retreating west.  The next day, this message from Maj. Gen. Godfrey Weitzel crackled across the telegraph wires: "We took Richmond at a quarter past eight this morning.  I captured many guns.  The enemy left in great haste."

Knowing the Northern public would be clamoring for views of the city that had resisted them for so long, photographers spent more than a month ranging over the streets of Richmond and the forts of Petersburg.

As the Confederates evacuated Richmond, they set fire to warehouses and other things of potential value, but the blaze grew out of control and burned much of the business district. Library of Congress


The photograph the North had been waiting for -- the U.S. flag flying once again over Richmond. Only one cameraman overcame the challenges of wind and exposure time to capture this iconic image. The dead horse in the right foreground illustrates the aftermath of the war.


For a brief period after Lee's surrender, Union and Confederate soldiers freely intermingled at Richmond's Capitol Square. The sentiment was short-lived and this image marked its last day -- April 14, 1865, the day Lincoln was assassinated. No longer would Confederate soldiers be viewed with such brotherly trust.


Libby Prison, the infamous depot for Union prisoners of war, survived the fire and became the most photographed building in Richmond. In April 1865, Union soldiers milled around while Confederate prisoners peered out from within.

Learn More About Virgina at War: Before the War | Confederates Ascendant | Panoramas of War