|Date(s):||June 15, 1864 to July 30, 1864|
|Tag(s):||Civil War, Petersburg|
|Course:||“American Civil War Era,” Furman University|
|Rating:||5 (1 votes)|
The battle of Petersburg is remembered as one of the most destructive of the war.
Petersburg can be considered the last stand of the Army of Northern Virginia. After months of maneuvering and fighting, Grant had finally forced Lee into defending Richmond itself. Before this the campaign had consisted of Lee moving to block Grant’s advances, trading ground for time. Now there was no more ground left. Lee and the Southerners would be forced to fight it out with Grant where his much more numerous and much better supplied army could only ultimately win.
The 29th Massachusetts was one of the units involved in the heavy fighting, especially early in the campaign. People often forget that the first couple of days of fighting consisted of a lot of movement and rapid advances as Beauregard scrambled to meet and check the Union advances. The 29th crossed the James late on the night of the June 15th. On the afternoon of the 17th they assaulted the Confederate works which they were able to take control of, however by 10 p.m. they were forced to retreat because of lack of ammunition. They were then put in the trenches until the 30th of July when they were involved in another assault against the Confederate works. They were able to capture a fort however they were forced to retreat this time as well. During this fighting their brigade suffered very heavy casualties. Just a week before the last attack their colonel was relieved of his duties. Then during the attack their commanding general was taken captive, this meant that in one week the command had been moved to 3rd in charge. Meanwhile another Massachusetts unit in their brigade, the 57th, was being commanded by a lieutenant and an enlisted man. In fact in his report, Lt. Colonel Barnes apoligizes for its tardiness due to the many different changes in brigade and regimental command. This helps to show some of the confusion that can occur when just a few people are wounded, go missing, or are killed. The death of one low ranking general could leave thousands of men ineffective and leaderless.
This pattern shows a lot about the battle of Petersburg. Initial Union assaults had the possibility of carrying the day, but the Union high command was loath to commit the numbers or power needed to complete victory. There have been several theories put forth for this lack of elan. One is that the Army of Northern Virginia and Robert E. Lee had achieved a near mythic status in the mind's of the Army of the Potomac. Some Union soldiers thought that no matter what they did, no matter how many they outnumbered them by the men in grey would find a way to win. While this may have been true earlier in the war I think that this had been dispeled by then. The Union armies had taken all that the Confederates could throw at them at Gettysburg and had held fast. However, the other theory holds more traction. This was the belief in the "Cold Harbor" syndrome. At Cold Harbor the North launched several massive assaults on prepared positions and had suffered horrendous casualties as a result. This it is thought made the Northern commanders scared to commit all of their reserves in an assault even if it had promise of succeeding, as did those of the early phases of the battle or even on the assault of the 29th.