Petersburg, a prosperous city of 18,000, was a supply center for the Confederate capital of Richmond, given its strategic location just south of the city, its site on the Appomattox River that provided navigable access to the James River, and its role as a major crossroads and junction for five railroads. The taking of Petersburg by Union forces would make it impossible for Robert E. Lee to continue defending Richmond.
The Richmond-Petersburg Campaign, popularly known as the Siege of Petersburg, was a series of battles around Petersburg, Virginia, fought from June 9, 1864, to March 25, 1865, during the American Civil War. During these nine months Union forces commanded by Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant assaulted Petersburg repeatedly while simultaneously constructing trench lines that eventually extended over 30 miles around the eastern and southern outskirts of the city.
By April 1st, Grant had almost encircled Petersburg and Lee’s army was down by 25% from casualties. Grant sensed an opportunity and ordered a frontal assault that opened just after midnight. The artillery began shelling, and the infantry followed at 4:45 a.m., attacking all along the Petersburg lines.
At approximately 7:00 a.m. on Sunday, April 2, 1865, Ulysses S. Grant’s army broke through Confederate lines and Lee decided to retreat. Lee sent a telegram to the Secretary of War: “I advise that all preparation be made for leaving Richmond tonight.”
Thus, the Petersburg Campaign, the longest of the Civil War, came to an end. The casualties for the entire period of the siege are estimated to be 42,000 for the Union, and 28,000 for the Confederates.
By mid-afternoon on April 2, Confederate troops began to evacuate the town. Lee’s initial plan was to march to North Carolina, consolidate his army with Gen. Joseph E. Johnston’s, defeat Gen. William T. Sherman’s army, and then turn on Grant. The wings of his army were to rendezvous at Amelia Court House, resupply, and march to Danville along the Richmond and Danville Railroad.
But little went as anticipated. Crossing the Appomattox River was difficult because of high water, and the rendezvous was delayed. The necessary supplies did not make it on schedule to the Amelia Court House. Lee had to wait, and lost his day’s lead over the pursuing Grant, a delay which allowed Federal cavalry and infantry to block his path further down at Jetersville.
Improvising, Lee turned west and began a series of three consecutive night marches. Grant’s strategy – to press Lee from the rear while preventing his from turning south, get the cavalry in front of him, and then surround and compel him to fight or surrender – began to take effect.
Fighting by day and marching by night, the army of Lee’s exhausted and hungry men began to dissolve. A week later, they surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House.
Fletcher Pratt, in A Short History of the Civil War: Ordeal by Fire, describes the reaction of Confederate President Jefferson Davis:
“April 2 was a Sunday. President Davis went to St. Paul’s [Episcopal] Church as usual. … An air of elation possessed Richmond; the day before a wonderful rumor had come through that Lee had crushed Grant’s whole front in a surprise night attack… Halfway through the service a man entered the church, stood a moment irresolute, oblivious to the stares he attracted, then stepped down the aisle and pressed a note into the President’s hand. Those in the adjoining pews saw Mr. Davis flush; he got to his feet and left the church, followed by his wife.”
The word quickly spread to other churches. Stacks of government documents were piled up on the sidewalks by government offices and set on fire. Wagons filled the streets. The evacuation of Richmond had begun.
On April 5, President Lincoln himself went to Richmond, and sat in Jefferson Davis’s chair. Two weeks later, Lincoln would be dead.