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1864

General Lee strikes back at Petersburg

On this day in 1864, Union forces attempt to capture a railroad that had been supplying Petersburg, Virginia, from the south, and extend their lines to the Appomattox River. The Confederates thwarted the attempt, and the two sides settled into trenches for a nine-month siege.

The struggle for Petersburg began on June 15. Union General Ulysses S. Grant had spent six weeks fighting his way around Richmond, Virginia. His adversary, General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, had inflicted tremendous casualties on the Army of the Potomac. Most recently, at Cold Harbor, Grant ordered a disastrous attack on Rebel entrenchments and lost 7,000 men. Afterward, Grant swung south to capture the rail center of Petersburg, 23 miles from Richmond.

When the troops arrived, they found the Confederates already digging trenches. For four days, Grant tried to break through the lines. On June 18, Union losses were particularly heavy. After pausing to reconsider his tactics, Grant refrained from further frontal assaults.

Instead, Grant resumed the flanking movements he had followed throughout the campaign. He extended his left flank on June 21 to cut off the Weldon Railroad, which supplied Petersburg from the south. Part of the Union Second and Sixth Corps moved past the Jerusalem Plank Road, where they ran into Ambrose Powell Hill’s Confederates. Hill’s troops rolled up on the Union flank, inflicting nearly 3,000 casualties and capturing 1,700 prisoners. Hill provided breathing room for Lee’s army, and the armies settled in for a long siege.

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