Siege of Petersburg


The Dictator
The Dictator

I remember in college writing a paper on one of Hemingway’s war novels, remarking that trench warfare in the First World War brought a new and modern level of technological horror to warfare – muddy trenches, random bombardment, snipers, machine guns and barbed wire. My literature professor’s red inked comments left me red-faced. He pointed out somewhat sarcastically that none of this was new in 1914 – it had all been done at Petersburg fifty years before.

He was right. While we think of the siege of Petersburg as being “at” Petersburg, hostilities actually extended along a 30 mile entrenched front stretching from the Cold Harbor line all the way west of Petersburg. This trench line was not too different from the Western Front in World War One. While barbed wire had yet to be invented, abatis and chevaux de frise served the same purpose. An abatis (pronounced “abatee” and derived from the French word for slaughter) was an obstacle consisting of a wall of felled trees or tree branches with sharpened points facing the enemy. Chevaux de frise (literally Frisian cavalry) was an obstacle formed of logs ten or twelve feet long and pierced with sharpened stakes extending three feet on each side; these would be chained together to form a fence of sorts. At Petersburg they had to be replaced from time to time, as they were chewed to pieces by lead and iron. The effect was to halt attacking infantry within easy rifle range of the defender’s trench line; in most cases the line was flanked by batteries and redoubts which enfiladed the attackers with canister shot, the Civil War equivalent of a machine gun burst. The Yankees at Petersburg actually did use machine guns for the first time – Gatling guns bought by General Butler at his own expense.

Needless to say, the space in front of the trenches was cleared of cover. In the Civil War and World War One the effect was the same – an attack on an entrenched line usually guaranteed heavy casualties for the attackers. Hence seven thousand Yankee casualties in twenty minutes in the June 1864 assault on Lee’s Cold Harbor line. This also accounts for the battle of the Crater later that June, which featured a large mine detonating under a Confederate fort to pierce the line at a strategic point and open a gap through which the Yankees could surge without mass casualties. The Crater did not work out that way, of course, but had the Yankees stuck with the original plan, it probably would have worked and wrecked Lee’s army that same day. The British had a similar strategy in mind when they detonated two mines during their Somme offensive; later in the war they would simultaneously set off twenty mines under enemy lines, killing perhaps 10,000 Germans in an instant. Attached is a photo of the aftermath of a mine explosion from the First World War – the vicinity of the Crater doubtless looked much the same.

Both wars featured an abundance of artillery to make trench life miserable. By 1865, both sides had artillerists that were skilled enough to pick off a color-bearer or officer at long range. One recalls Confederate General Polk, observed in the open and instantly cut in half by a rifled shell on Sherman’s personal order. At Petersburg, these artillerists knew the distances to specific targets and were thus able to time their fuses to burst a shell right in front of the target. The Yankees anticipated the mass bombardments of the First World War at the Crater; when the mine went up, every Federal battery on the line simultaneously opened up on the Confederate trenches, disorienting their opponents for almost half an hour. This opportunity was squandered, but it ought to have worked had the general advance planned on top of the breakthrough actually happened.

WWI Aftermath of Mine
WWI Aftermath of Mine

Trench warfare favors mortars and both sides employed these in abundance at Petersburg. Portable Coehorn mortars were especially effective, lobbing a 12 or 24 pound shell 50 to 1000 yards depending upon the powder charge chosen. Their short range made them especially useful where the trench lines were less than 100 yards apart. Confederate troops improvised Coehorns by hollowing out short logs strengthened with iron hoops. Confederate W.W. Blackford writes in his autobiography of the terrible effect of these mortars at the Crater: “When the attack was repulsed, many hundred negroes took refuge in this vast conical hole [the Crater] in preference to running back to their lines across the field swept by our fire. Here they were secure for a time until our mortar batteries got their range, and then they were slaughtered almost to a man by thousands of these deadly missiles dropping in among them.”

Blackford is almost poetic when he describes “flocks” of six or eight mortar shells crossing other shells like meteors at night, while down below muzzle flashes from rifles twinkled along the lines, like “brilliants surrounding the brighter gems of the cannon flashes.” But the nighttime battlefield Blackford describes is also surreal, like a scene out of Apocalypse Now. “Smoke spread a lurid tint over the scene, sometimes obstructing the view of the flashes of the guns, but lighting up beautifully from them. The scene had its effect intensely heightened by the mingled sound of the night air. The crackle of the musketry in all degrees of intensity, from the clear sharp reports near at hand to the distant, scarcely audible shots, made almost a continuous sound, so rapidly did they reach the ear; while the booming of the cannon closely followed by the screaming and bursting of the shells came in irregular burst, sometimes drowning all other sounds and then dropping off for a moment almost entirely. In between these bursts of sound and mingled with the rattle of the musketry the shouting of the men could be heard like voices of demons in the infernal regions.” Given that the smoke Blackford describes would have smelled of brimstone, the picture he paints is one of Hell on earth, even if it possessed an unearthly beauty of sorts.

Blackford emphasizes what a constant terror the mortars were as they rolled inside the trenches, men flattening themselves against the wall or throwing themselves flat to avoid “the nasty, hissing, sputtering thing.” Then there would be an explosion and “two or three dead bodies would be carried by and all go on as before. Very frequently men would pick up these shells and pitch them out of the trench, for which they would receive unbounded applause from their comrades.” On the upper end of the scale was the Federal “Dictator”, a 9 ½ ton 13 inch mortar capable of throwing a 220 pound bomb over 4000 yards, ordnance so unwieldy it had to operate from a reinforced railway flatbed car. The Dictator is credited with suppressing Confederate efforts to enfilade part of the Union trenches with artillery batteries. It is a safe bet no one was tossing these monster shells out of the trenches.

Professional snipers and garden-variety pot-shots were a daily hazard as well. It is not well known that telescopic scopes were present on the Civil War battlefield. While the accuracy of rifled muskets is often underrated 150 years later, competent sharpshooters with specialized rifles could hit a man out to 1000 yards. Even the open-sighted Enfield or Springfield could make a headshot at a couple of hundred yards in competent hands – and by 1865 there were lots of competent hands.

The armies coped by digging deep trenches, with traverses to stop blast and shrapnel, and by burrowing underground in bombproof shelters, a “bomb” being the ubiquitous mortar shell. One was well-advised not to peek over the rim of the trench, so head-logs on skids provided additional protection for riflemen.

The true “siege” of Petersburg did not begin until late March of 1865, when Grant finally severed Lee’s supply lines and Lee attempted to break out by assaulting Fort Stedman. Lee’s attempt to resume the offensive lasted mere hours before being thrown back. The trenches were a double-edged sword. They permitted Lee’s smaller force to survive in the face of Grant’s larger force aggressively pursuing a strategy of close and constant contact. But they ultimately benefitted Grant to a greater degree – once Grant threw up trenches, he was going to keep what he had won. Lee was never able to regain the offensive and the Confederacy collapsed within a month of Lee’s last try. Grant lost about 40,000 men in this campaign, Lee perhaps 30,000. As in France and Belgium, unexploded ordnance from our war is still taking lives; it likely the last casualty of the Civil War has not yet been born.

Written by: Doug Coleman
Doug Coleman is an attorney and amateur historian in Alexandria; comments and corrections are welcome at dcoleman@coleman-lawyers.com.   

Sources: Harper’s History of the Great Rebellion; W.W. Blackford, War Years with Jeb Stuart

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