History: March 25, 1865: Lee Defeated at the Siege of Petersburg

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A Brief History

On March 25, 1865, the long drawn out series of battles known to us as The Siege of Petersburg ended in Union victory by the forces under the command of Lt. General US Grant.  General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia could no longer withstand the pressure of almost 10 months of trench and raid warfare by superior Union forces, and the under-supplied Confederates had to abandon Richmond, the Capital City of the Confederate States of America, and Petersburg, a nearby city vital to the supply lines into Richmond.

Digging Deeper

Starting on June 9, 1864, a mighty effort by Grant and the Union Army to capture Richmond, and capture or destroy Lee’s forces was mounted in a bid to put down the rebellion and end the American Civil War.  Union forces numbering between 67,000 and 125,000 well supplied and equipped men (Union numbers generally grew during the campaign) were pitted against about 52,000 Rebels who were less fresh and less well equipped.  Initial Union failure to win a decisive victory resulted in the long series of battles and the construction of at least 30 miles of trench lines, a harbinger of how warfare was developing and would be fought in the future.

Not content to wait out a siege, the so called Siege of Petersburg was actually a series of battles precipitated by Union attacks in an effort to cut Confederate supply lines, divide Confederate forces, or defeat the Rebels in decisive battle, all while keeping a long cordon around Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.  Lee was forced to dig extensive trench lines and fortifications over an enormous area between Richmond and Petersburg, giving him an almost impossible task to defend such a perimeter with so few troops.  Apparently Lee must have made a fine job of his task, for the stalemate and actions continued for over 9 months of combat.  Of course, Lee also tried raids and counter-attacks, and was likewise unable to break Yankee lines.  (So many attacks, raids, and minor campaigns were fought during this period listing or describing them all here is precluded by space limitations.)

Notable in this campaign was the contribution of African-American troops employed by the Union Army, participation more extensive than at any other point in the war.  Engagements noted for involvement of African-Americans include the Battle of The Crater on July 30, 1864 (in which the Union Army tunneled under the Confederate lines and blew up an enormous amount of black powder, creating a huge crater on the battlefield under Confederate lines) and the battle of Chaffin’s Farm on September 29-30, 1864 (an attack on a heavily fortified bluff).

Neither of these attacks resulted in Union victory, with the Crater being a slaughter of Union troops and Chaffin’s Farm resulting in forcing Lee to re-deploy more of his forces to that area, one of the aims of the Union attack.

The long battles around Richmond and Petersburg resulted in a staggering 42,000 Union casualties and a proportionately more damaging 28,000 casualties to the Confederates.  Knowing the huge Union force opposing him was soon to be reinforced by another 50,000 troops, Lee had to do something, and a breakout at Fr. Stedman was attempted.  Despite early success, the Confederate attack failed and Lee was forced to lead his exhausted troops out of the cordon toward North Carolina where he hoped to join other Confederate forces.  A minor campaign was fought near Appomattox Courthouse where battles were fought on from March 29, 1865 to April 9, 1865, when Lee finally surrendered his command to Grant, effectively ending major combat in the American Civil War, with minor battles resulting in a series of surrenders by various Confederate units over the next few months.

The Siege of Petersburg and the ensuing Appomattox Campaign was the decisive campaign of the American Civil War and effectively ended the bid for independence by the Confederate States of America.

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Historical Evidence

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.