I’ve decided to do a short blog entry on each of Grant’s Nine Offensives during the Petersburg Campaign, covering the basics and giving interested readers links to books and web sites for further study. I started last week with my first post on the Battle of Petersburg. After the failed assaults of June 18, 1864, Grant decided on a Siege. He ordered his men to dig in east of Petersburg, freeing up men to constitute a mobile force. This initial force was composed of the II Corps, temporarily under the command of Birney, and the VI Corps, under Wright. These troops were to move south down the Jerusalem Plank Road, and then pivot to the north and west to extend the siege lines and cut the Weldon Railroad. Meade naively believed the Union force could extend all the way around Petersburg to cut the Southside Railroad as well. Many months and tens of thousands of casualties would be needed before that event came to pass. Birney and Wright slowly attempted to carry out their mission, but they found that it was difficult to keep their flanks in contact with each other, and soon a gap developed between Birney’s left and Wright’s…ahem…right. It just so happened that Confederate General William Mahone had been a railroad engineer in the area before the war, and unlike the Federals, he knew the ground intimately. Mahone was given a strike force consisting of his own division and that of Cadmus Wilcox for an attack. Mahone would take on Birney while Wilcox kept the VI Corps busy. On the afternoon of June 22, Mahone used a ravine to move into the gap between the two Union Corps. He managed to roll up the II Corps to the Jerusalem Plank Road, where they rallied on the breastworks that had been built there for just such an emergency. Some criticized Wilcox for not launching an attack on Wright’s equally exposed right flank, but he did prevent Wright from reaching the vulnerable Weldon Railroad. Mahone and Wilcox withdrew into the Confederate lines that night.
On June 23, the two Union Corps advanced again, wary of another devastating attack. Wright managed to get a small group of men onto the Weldon Railroad, but in an embarrassing incident chronicled in David F. Cross’ book A Melancholy Affair at the Weldon Railroad, several hundred men of the Vermont Brigade in Wright’s picket line were gobbled up and sent to Andersonville. Wright soon retreated that evening. On June 24, the two Corps were ordered forward again, but Grant rescinded this order after discovering the true extent of the disaster in the II Corps two days earlier. Grant and Meade both saw that Lee was not going to allow them to extend their siege lines without a fight.
For further reading, see the following:
–“The Battle of the Jerusalem Plank Road, June 21-23, 1864” from the Siege of Petersburg web site
This is an excellent overview of the fighting and movements of the Second Offensive. This same statement applies to the coverage of each battle of the campaign. I cannot recommend this site enough.
–Bearss, Edwin C. The Battle of the Jerusalem Plank Road June 21-24, 1864. Unpublished Manuscript, 1966. 81 pages + notes.
Bearss’ work is still unpublished, though Bryce Suderow has received permission to publish the entire set of these manuscripts for the entire campaign. As of this writing, I’m not sure what the status of that project is.
–Cross, David Faris. A Melancholy Affair at the Weldon Railroad: The Vermont Brigade, June 23, 1864. White Mane Publishing Company (May 15, 2005). 267 pages.
Guest blogger David Cross provides a detailed account of the experiences of the Vermont Brigade on June 23, and of the men who became prisoners at Andersonville in the aftermath.
I was going to add magazine and journal articles as well, but the USMAHI Bibliography does not show any for these actions. If you know of any articles that they have not yet listed, let me know, as I’d like to take a look.
Until and unless Bearss’ account (or someone else’s) gets published, there is not currently a book specifically dedicated to Grant’s Second Offensive in its entirety. This battle has not yet received the attention it deserves, along with several others throughout the Petersburg Campaign, as you will see in the coming months. There are rumors out that Gordon Rhea’s fifth (and last) book on the 1864 eastern campaigns will include Jerusalem Plank Road in addition to the June 15-18 attacks, but that remains to be seen. I haven’t been able to pin down from any of my sources the exact time frame Rhea’s book is going to cover. If anyone knows of other useful titles or articles, I’d love to hear from you.