Historians designate nine different offensive operations by the Union during the siege of Petersburg. Although the battles involved in these offensives are unknown except to careful students of the Civil War, they were instrumental cumulatively in making Lee’s position untenable by March 1865 leading to the final military operations of the long struggle between the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia.
Grant began his Fifth Offensive largely to make certain that Lee did not send reinforcements to Early in his struggle against Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley. Here is Grant’s account of the beginning of the Fifth Offensive:
Sheridan, in his pursuit, got beyond where could hear from him in Washington, and the President became very much frightened about him. He was afraid that the hot pursuit had been a little like that of General Cass was said to have been, in one of our Indian wars, when he was an officer of army. Cass was pursuing the Indians so closely that the first thing he knew he found himself in front, and the Indians pursuing him. The President was afraid that Sheridan had got on the other side of Early and that Early was in behind him. He was afraid that Sheridan was getting so far away that reinforcements would be sent out from Richmond to enable Early to beat him. I replied to the President that I had taken steps to prevent Lee from sending reinforcements to Early, by attacking the former where he was.
On the 28th of September, to retain Lee in his position, I sent Ord with the 18th corps and Birney with the 10th corps to make an advance on Richmond, to threaten it. Ord moved with the left wing up to Chaffin’s Bluff; Birney with the 10th corps took a road farther north; while Kautz with the cavalry took the Darby road, still farther to the north. They got across the river by the next morning, and made an effort to surprise the enemy. In that, however, they were unsuccessful.
The enemy’s lines were very strong and very intricate. Stannard’s division of the 18th corps with General Burnham’s brigade leading, tried an assault against Fort Harrison and captured it with sixteen guns and a good many prisoners. Burnham was killed in the assault. Colonel Stevens who succeeded him was badly wounded; and his successor also fell in the same way. Some works to the right and left were also carried with the guns in them—six in number—and a few more prisoners. Birney’s troops to the right captured the enemy’s intrenched picket-lines, but were unsuccessful in their efforts upon the main line.
Our troops fortified their new position, bringing Fort Harrison into the new line and extending it to the river. This brought us pretty close to the enemy on the north side of the James, and the two opposing lines maintained their relative positions to the close of the siege.
In the afternoon a further attempt was made to advance, but it failed. Ord fell badly wounded, and had to be relieved ; the command devolved upon General Heckman, and later General Weitzel was assigned to the command of the 18th corps. During the night Lee reinforced his troops about Fort Gilmer, which was at the right of Fort Harrison, by eight additional brigades from Petersburg, and attempted to retake the works which we had captured by concentrating ten brigades against them. All their efforts failed, their attacks being all repulsed with very heavy loss. In one of these assaults upon us General Stannard, a gallant officer who was defending Fort Harrison, lost an arm. Our casualties during these operations amounted to 394 killed, 1,554 wounded and 324 missing.
Whilst this was going on General Meade was instructed to keep up an appearance of moving troops to our extreme left. Parke and Warren were kept with two divisions, each under arms, ready to move leaving their enclosed batteries manned, with a scattering line on the other intrenchments. The object of this was to prevent reinforcements from going to the north side of the river. Meade was instructed to watch the enemy closely and, if Lee weakened his lines, to make an attack.
On the 30th these troops moved out, under Warren, and captured an advanced intrenched camp at Peeble’s farm, driving the enemy back to the main line. Our troops followed and made an attack in the hope of carrying the enemy’s main line; but in this they were unsuccessful and lost a large number of men, mostly captured. The number of killed and wounded was not large. The next day our troops advanced again and established themselves, intrenching a new line about a mile in front of the enemy. This advanced Warren’s position on the Weldon Railroad very considerably. (more…)