Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Lie Down, You damned fools, you'll never take them forts

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the end of the first stage of the battle of Petersburg, in the Civil War. It is also the day my great-great grandfather was wounded, part of the attack by the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery, the most severe of a number of similar one sided fights on this day.

The battle of Petersburg was the last of Grant's attempts to get around Lee in Virginia in 1864. It was his most successful as well - but like the others, ended in stalemate. He had tried again and again - but various factors, from Lee's ability to react to the Army of the Potomac's bad habits, to the messy command relationship between Grant and Meade and their underlings, every attempt had been thwarted. But they got closer every time - the Yankees had chances at Cold Harbor that they missed, but things were closer. After that - Grant planned this stage more closely. He got his men out of their lines at Cold Harbor, and stole a march on Lee - getting a good chunk of his army over the James river into position to attack Petersburg before Lee could react. They had chances - the city was held by a scratch force, and it took a took a couple days for serious reinforcements to reach the confederate lines - but once again, the union army failed to take advantage of their chances. Baldy Smith arrived, almost took the city, but paused; other men came up - and a number of attacks were attempted - but nothing broke through, though the rebels were forced to pull back to a series of defensive lines. It was only on the 18th that the Union mounted a serious attack - and by then, the confederates were dug in deep, and had started to get Lee's men into lines - and the results were the same as at all the other battles in the spring of 1864. No one was going to break a well entrenched line - and they didn't.

After this, Grant stopped trying to get around Lee. He dug in and held the rebels in place, and stayed for the rest of the war. There would be a couple more attacks - there would be one big attack, at the Crater, in July - but from this point on, Grant wa]as willing to stay where he was and keep Lee there as well. Strategically, the idea was a good one - Lee had nowhere to go - no option but to defend Petersburg and Richmond at all costs. So Grant kept him there - let the rest of the armies settle the issue. Things settled down into trench warfare - another hint of things to come, that no one quite paid attention to, with disastrous results 40 years later.

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