Petersburg | Opening Assaults | June 16, 1864
Throughout early May of 1864, Gens. P. G. T. Beauregard and George Pickett worked feverously to prepare the city of Petersburg for an assault by Maj. Gen. Ben Butler’s Union Army of the James. Butler’s army crept along a peninsula of land called Bermuda Hundred, which lay between Richmond and Petersburg. Although outnumbered, the Confederates were able to “bottle up” Butler at a line of fortifications dubbed the Howlett Line, north of Petersburg. With Butler’s army sealed off on a peninsula, Richmond and Petersburg were safe—for the time being.
The defenders of Petersburg were not wholly unprepared for war. In the summer of 1862, a fortified defensive line 10 miles in length, with emplacements for 55 batteries, was laid out by Capt. Charles Dimmock. The “Dimmock Line,” as it became known, formed the backbone of the Confederate position at Petersburg that would eventually stretch for 35 miles.
Through stealth and deception, Gen. George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac withdrew from its Cold Harbor trenches and was marching once again to the southeast. By June 14, the Army of the Potomac began crossing the James River on transports and a 2,200-foot-long pontoon bridge at Windmill Point. The next day, Butler’s army, too, was on the move—crossing the Appomattox River and forming to attack the Petersburg defenses.
Union Gen. William F. “Baldy” Smith cautiously led his XVIII Corps—the vanguard of Grant’s legions—west from City Point on June 15, impressed by the intimidating works that confronted him here east of Petersburg. Expecting the momentary arrival of Gen. Winfield S. Hancock’s delayed II Corps, Smith deferred his assault until 7:00 p.m. With daylight waning, the best chance to capture Petersburg with relatively little fighting was gone.
Once finally underway, the Union attack proved anticlimactic. Federal troops utilized a ravine to gain the rear of Battery Five, throwing the defenders into a panic. Shortly thereafter, Batteries 3 through 8 also fell. The 5,400 Confederate defenders were driven from their first line of entrenchments back to Harrison Creek. By then, darkness had enveloped the battlefield, and Smith, joined at last by Hancock, decided to postpone further offensive action until dawn, thus rejecting the opportunity to capture Petersburg that night.
On June 16, the Union II Corps captured Redans No. 4, 12, 13 and 14, but these gains came at a frightful cost in casualties. Also on the 16th, Beauregard stripped the Howlett Line around Bermuda Hundred to defend the city. Lee subsequently rushed reinforcements from other elements of the Army of Northern Virginia to man the Howlett Line.
On June 18, the Federals made a strong effort to take Petersburg, but the time and opportunities wasted by the Yankees over the last few days finally caught up with them. Beauregard consolidated and strengthened his line. By 2 p.m., the Federals attacked in full force, but were unable to secure a major breakthrough, and the assault was repulsed with heavy casualties. At this point, the Confederate works were heavily manned, and the greatest opportunity to capture Petersburg without a siege was lost. Grant now settled in for the next phase of his campaign—tying Lee down in a prolonged siege.