Defense of Richmond Civil War – 1864-1865

Intro – Defense of Richmond

The defense of Richmond in the Civil War was crucial to the Confederacy. With Grant’s crossing of the James in August 1864 during the fourth year of the Civil War, Lee was forced to defend Richmond, the CSA capital city. Richmond in the Civil War was vulnerable from the east, where Lee (General of the Army of Northern Virginia) set his defenses, but not from the north or west. Grant was therefore obliged to try to capture Richmond from the south, where the town of Petersburg was located.

Richmond – The Capital City

Richmond was a crucial city of the South during the Civil War for several reasons other than being the seat of the CSA government. One of these was that it was the terminus of 5 railroads, all of which were used for supply and troop transportation.

Richmond was not approachable from the north or northwest As the map shows, an intricate network of forts was built to cover the north and northwest of the city early in the war. One of  his first acts after Lee’s selection as Major General of Virginia Forces on April 23, 1861, was to appoint Colonel Andrew Talcott, Engineer of Virginia Forces, to the job of setting up a system of defensive fortifications around the Confederate capital.

On May 9, a “Committee on Defense” was selected amongst the City Council to assist in providing a work force and materials.  Problems arose in construction due to tardiness in selecting a sufficient number of experienced military engineers within the Provisional Confederate Army to supervise the works. Despite various efforts to throw up redoubts and entrenchments using both slave and free black laborers during the summer of 1861, satisfactory defenses were incomplete by the end of the year. These remained incompletely manned through most of the war.

Major Railroad Hub

Richmond was the terminus of five railroads: the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad; the Virginia Central Railroad; the Richmond and York River Railroad; the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad; and the Richmond and Danville Railroad. In addition, the James River and Kanawha Canal ran through it with access to the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. At the fall of Richmond in April 1865, all but the Richmond and Danville Railroad and the canal had effectively been cut off by Union forces. This fact was critical in Lee’s Appomattox Campaign.

The railroads converging at Richmond and their connections were critical to Grant’s thinking about military strategy. Once Grant determined that a siege was the necessary strategy, it was critical to cut these lines.  The York River RR had been destroyed in the Peninsula Campaign of 1862,; The Fredericksburg RR went north and was in Union control; the Petersburg RR was the least important if he could capture or isolate that town. The Virginia Central RR had been the main connection with the Shenandoah, and came under Union control during Sheridan’s campaign in 1864. 

But Lee had another means of supply.

Petersburg Railroads

Petersburg was not a very big place but its centrality was apparent to Grant from the start, as it had not been to McClellan. Its primary importance was that it was also the convergence of 5 railroad lines.

James River

Grant couldn’t just send his navy up the James River and capture the city by sea because of the fort at Drewry’s Bluff. The generally west-to-east course of the James River turns almost due south for a distance of about 7 miles before turning eastward again towards the Chesapeake Bay. At this sharp bend, Drewry’s Bluff on the west side of the James River rose 90 feet above the water, commanding a view of several miles’ distance downstream. 

Petersburg had 5 lines: 1 north (Richmond & Petersburg RR), 2 east or southeast( Norfolk & Petersburg RR & City Point & Petersburg), 1 south (Weldon) and 1 west (South Side). Norfolk fell to the Union in May 1864, rendering that line obsolete. The South Side line connected to Lynchburg and the Shenandoah. The Weldon RR to Wilmington, NC and points south. The particular importance of these latter 2 railroad lines will be a focus of later challenges this week.

Union Forces Focus on the Railroads

The railroads converging at Petersburg and their connections therefore were critical to Grant’s thinking about military strategy. Once the southern connection is severed, the 1864-5 siege will cause these 2 cities to fall. General Grant figured that out immediately. The only way Lee could escape was to go west, that is where he might be supplied.  Lee followed the Danville train line from Richmond once Sheridan had captured the South Side RR, to the Shenandoah.

From August 19 -21, 1864, Union and Confederate forces fought over control of the Weldon RR as part of the Petersburg Campaign. This Union victory resulted in the capture of one of Lee‘s most important supply lines. On August 18, the Union Fifth Corps of the Army of the Potomac seized a portion of the vital railroad that connected Petersburg with Wilmington, North Carolina, at a point three miles south of Petersburg. A determined Confederate counterattack the following day battered but did not break the Union troops’ hold on the tracks, and a second Confederate assault on August 21 failed as well.

PGT Beauregard was commander of the forces south of the James, including those in Petersburg. The map shows that the division leaders of the Confederate defense were Heth and Mahone. AP Hill was their corps commander.

General Grant believed that an offensive south of Petersburg would impact Lee’s defense of Richmond After the failure of the Battle of the Crater and the Early offensive in the Valley, Grant believed that a southern attack would cause Lee to send forces there, weakening his own defenses. 

On August 18, General Warren, the Union V Corps commander, attacked the railroad and began tearing up track. He was met by 3 Confederate brigades. The next day, Warren made an error in his deployments., resulting in a temporary tactical defeat On August 19, Warren left a gap between his right flank and the Union IX Corps. That gap was filled by Mahone’s division, taking 2500 prisoners. Reinforcements saved the day. 

Two days later, Mahone attacked Warren resulting in a defeat (See map). Mahone’s intelligence was that Warren was facing north, not west. He had intended a flank attack. August 20 was a rainy day, which saw Beauregard and Hill planning to re-take the railroad. In the interim, Warren, whose HQ was at Globe Tavern, had built a formidable defense of the railroad centered on his location.

Drewry’s Bluff

Drewry’s Bluff obviously was a formidable defensive position, but if it could be taken, Grant would have clear sailing to Richmond. As the map shows, its location was near the Richmond & Petersburg RR and wasn’t far from Bermuda 100. The fort there, Fort Darling, faced the river but not the land west of it.

Grant attacked the bluff using tactics similar to what had succeeded at Vicksburg. On May 5, 1864, Union Major General Benjamin F. Butler and his Army of the James landed at Bermuda Hundred, a neck of land north of City Point at the confluence of the James and Appomattox Rivers, only 15 miles south of Richmond. Marching overland, they advanced within three miles of Drewry’s Bluff by May 9. While several Union regiments did manage to capture Fort Darling’s outer defenses, delays by Union generals spoiled the success. Confederate infantry under General P. G. T. Beauregard seized the initiative and successfully counterattacked on May 16. 

Battle of Dinwoodie Courthouse

The Battle of Five was the final decisive battle of the war in the east. When Sheridan’s troops overran Confederate defenses at Five Forks on Saturday April 1, 1865, Lee made the decision to abandon the Petersburg defenses and, in doing so, to vacate Richmond. Once this decision was made, the war was essentially over. 

The prelude to Five Forks was the day before, March 31. Recognizing that Five Forks was the key to control of the Southside RR, Union forces moved around the Confederate left flank. Two simultaneous battles movements, resulting in two separate actions, resulted. At the Battle of Dinwoodie Courthouse, Sheridan attempted a flanking maneuver. At the same time, Warren moved west on White Oak Road, where a battle ensued.

Lee understood the situation well, and anticipated these movements perfectly. He sent Pickett and cavalry under Fitz Hugh Lee to meet Sheridan. Although surprised, both Union attacks prevailed and the Confederate forces suffered 1500 casualties, a huge loss considering their dwindling numbers. They retreated to Five Forks, and the rest is history.

Lee anticipated that Grant would make a move at this date, in this location. The failure of the attack by John B Gordon at Ft Stedman, Lee’s final last ditch attempt to break the siege, meant that he lacked the resources to hold much longer.  The failure also invited Grant to make a counterattack. Lee knew Grant wouldn’t make a frontal assault, and deduced his opponent’s best option. 

On March 30, Warren had occupied a crucial cross-roads where Boydton Plank Road crossed Quaker Road.  That is where he was the morning of March 31. Sheridan’s cavalry meanwhile was throwing a left hook aimed at Five Forks. But Lee was too smart for that. Lee ordered Pickett’s infantry to attack Warren and Fitzhugh Lee to attack Sheridan. These attacks came as a surprise, as the Union did not see these responses. 

Although Dinwiddie was a tactical victory for Fitzhugh Lee, by that evening, Sheridan and Warren had merged after having caused over 1500 casualties.  The next day was the battle at Five Forks.

Five Forks

Lee’s army took the route of the Danville & Richmond RR out of Richmond. Their theoretical objective at that point was to find a way to meet up with Johnston in North Carolina. The question was always a matter of time and supplies, so staying close to a rail line was essential. Lee remained a wily old fox to the bitter end. Grant says in his autobiography that had Lee had another 24 hours, he might have gotten away.

With Union troops threatening his main line of supply and retreat, Lee had no choice but to abandon Petersburg and race west, away from the capital. When the Union Army took Five Forks, they would be able to reach the South Side Railroad and the Richmond and Danville Railroad, cutting the major supply routes to and retreat routes from Petersburg and Richmond, cut the wagon roads to the west and circle around Hatcher’s Run and attack the Confederate right flank.

Major General Philip Sheridan had defeated a Confederate force from the Army of Northern Virginia commanded by Major General George Pickett. The Union force inflicted over 1,000 casualties on the Confederates and took up to 4,000 prisoners while seizing Five Forks, a vital supply line and evacuation route.

After the Battle of Dinwiddie Court House in the Civil War (March 31) at about 10:00 pm, V Corps infantry began to arrive near the battlefield to reinforce Sheridan’s cavalry. Pickett’s orders from Lee were to defend Five Forks “at all hazards” because of its strategic importance.

At about 1:00 pm, Sheridan pinned At Five Forks, while Sheridan pinned the right flank and front, of the Confederate line, the massed V Corps of infantry, commanded by Major General Gouverneur K. Warren, attacked the left flank.

Owing to an ‘acoustic shadow’ in the woods, Pickett and cavalry commander Major General Fitzhugh Lee did not hear the opening stage of the battle, and their subordinates could not find them. Although Union infantry could not exploit the enemy’s confusion, owing to lack of reconnaissance, they were able to roll up the Confederate line by chance.

After the battle, Sheridan controversially relieved Warren of command of V Corps.


3 thoughts on “Defense of Richmond Civil War – 1864-1865

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  1. The East was the key Theater of Operations in the CW/WBTS. Other Theaters and objectives were important, but the East, alone, would determine the winner. The most formidable armed forces that either side could field were allotted there. The intertwined military and political significance of this area was what would prompt Britain and Europe to recognise/intervene, or abstain from either of these.

    If one side was able to capture and hold the other’s political capital, (Richmond/Washington), it would have meant that the defending side was unable to field a successful resistance to the other, (in other words, the victor would have destroyed any effective means to resist them).

    A good overall summary.

  2. I guess I’d point out that the war was really won in the western theater. And also that Richmond fell only after Grant had conducted a war of attrition against Lee’s army.

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