The Siege of Petersburg (1864-65)

Throughout the summer of 1864, LTG Ulysses S. Grant, new to command of all Federal armies, located his headquarters with the Army of the Potomac and engaged GEN Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. Grant was different than previous commanders in the East. He understood and made his main objective the destruction of Lee’s army. Unlike his predecessors, Grant did not focus his army’s effort strictly on capturing the Confederate capital of Richmond and he did not retreat after defeats or being fought to a draw. Moreover, Grant coordinated the activities of all his armies toward a common objective, putting pressure on Confederate military forces in all theaters. Grant’s entire tenure of command in the East is an excellent example of conducting Unified Land Operations. Through constant maneuver during the Overland Campaign, Grant ensured that his forces seized, retained, and exploited the initiative to gain a position of relative advantage.

After engaging Lee’s army in the bloody battle of Cold Harbor, Grant again put his army in motion, sending a portion of it across the Appomattox River and advancing toward Petersburg. This move forced Lee’s much depleted Army of Northern Virginia to defend both Richmond and Petersburg. After a series of unsuccessful attacks to break through the Confederate defenses of Petersburg, Grant laid siege to the town. Although his army was no longer as mobile as it had been in previous months, Grant still took the opportunity to seize and maintain the initiative. He constantly shifted his forces farther to the west, forcing Lee’s Confederates to respond in kind, further stretching their already paper-thin lines. Moreover, Grant used his cavalry to ride around the Confederate flanks and destroy critical railroads into Petersburg. Although the cavalry raids were largely unsuccessful and did only minor damage to the railroads, they still taxed Confederate resources and forced the rebels to defend the railroads and pursue the federal cavalry.

On 1 April 1865, Grant gave command of a combined arms task force to MG Philip Sheridan. Sent west of the Confederate lines, Sheridan defeated the combined infantry-cavalry force of LTG George Pickett at Five Forks. To stem the tide, Lee once again weakened his already perilously thin defenses and dispatched reinforcements to Pickett. Capitalizing on Sheridan’s success at Five Forks and taking advantage of the weakened Confederate line, Grant ordered a general assault on Confederate lines at Petersburg on 2 April 1865. The attacks succeeded in breaking through the Confederate defenses and necessitated the evacuation of both Petersburg and Richmond. Grant’s execution of operations throughout the Overland and Petersburg Campaigns kept the initiative with his army. More importantly, however, Grant, as a commander, demonstrated the excellent use of maneuver, flexibility, and adaptability.

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