Generals Lee and Grant were two of the finest generals in American history. However, they both had off days, and few episodes in the Civil War cast both of these men in a poorer light than the failure of the Union attempt to seize Petersburg from June 15-18, 1864.
Grant inexplicably assigned to Butler’s Army of the James the task of spearheading the Union effort to take Petersburg. Considering the poor performance of this army during the Bermuda Hundred campaign and the assault on Petersburg on June 9, this was a poor choice. Smith’s corps and the cavalry of Kautz would attack over the same route followed on the June 9 attack. Hancock’s corps of the Army of the Potomac would follow up after the initial assault.
The attack didn’t get under way until 7:oo PM with Smith then taking 3.5 miles of entrenchments from the almost unmanned Confederate defenses. Smith then decided to wait until dawn before advancing further. Hancock, demonstrating yet again that he was no longer the aggressive battlefield commander he had been earlier in the War, agreed with Smith’s decision to wait until dawn.
Beauregard, commanding the defenses of Petersburg, having no other troops, stripped the fortified Howlett line that kept most of Butler’s army of Confederate troops bottled up at Bermuda Hundred. Butler could then have smashed through the Howlett line with ease, but he did nothing. Beauregard now had 14000 men to hold Petersburg while he awaited reinforcements from General Lee.
He now confronted three corps of 50,000 men, Burnside’s corps having come up to join Smith’s and Hancock’s. Hancock, in temporary command of the Army of the Potomac until Meade arrived, launched a three corps attack at 5:30 PM on June 16. Beauregard and his men hanging on just barely, constructing entrenchments behind their lines to contain Union breaches.
June 17 was a day of uncoordinated Union assaults which gave Beauregard the opportunity to construct a new defensive line around Petersburg to which he and his men withdrew on the evening of June 17-18.
Throughout the struggle for Petersburg Beauregard had frantically been asking Lee to send him reinforcements. Lee denied all such entreaties until his son General Fitzhugh Lee and his cavalry finally confirmed that the Army of the Potomac had crossed the James and was attacking Petersburg. At 3:00 AM on June 18, Lee dispatched two divisions to shore up the Petersburg defenses.
Beauregard now had 20,000 troops against 67,000 Federals. The Union attacks on June 18 were repulsed with heavy loss and the siege of Petersburg began. The Union had sustained 11000 casualties against 4000 Confederate casualties during the fighting of June 15-18, and the last opportunity to end the War quickly had vanished.