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Civil War Trust

A Second Line

Petersburg - June 16-17, 1864
A. Wilson Greene

P.G.T. Beauregard
Once hailed as the hero of Fort Sumter, P. G. T. Beauregard commanded the troops defending Petersburg in June 1864. (National Archives)

Union General William F. "Baldy" Smith's decision not to press forward after dark on June 15 provided General P.G.T. Beauregard a chance to redeem the military situation. A fresh Confederate division under General Robert F. Hoke arrived too late to oppose Smith's attack but pushed out along the Prince George Court House Road from Petersburg looking for a place to deploy. Beauregard decided to fortify the western bank of a little stream, Harrison's Creek, and placed Hoke's brigades in positions extending from Battery 2 on the Confederate left to Battery 15, drawing a tighter arc behind the lost fortifications. By the morning of June 16, Beauregard had crafted a strong line of defense bolstered by the arrival of Major General Bushrod Johnson's division. The Confederates now numbered 14,000 men. The Union army also grew with the addition of the Ninth, Fifth, and Sixth Corps from north of the James River, raising Federal strength opposite Petersburg to some 50,000 by day's end. 

On the evening of June 16, a division of Gen. Winfield S. Hancock's Second Corps charged down the Prince George Court House Road while other units assaulted to the left and right. The Confederates withstood the attacks, and when the guns fell silent, some 2,500 Federals lay dead or wounded. 

Nevertheless, Beauregard realized that his defenses were vulnerable. He ordered his chief engineer, Colonel David B. Harris, to devise a third line even closer to Petersburg while his outnumbered troops attempted to hold out another day. The odds against Beauregard lengthened even more on June 17 as Grant accumulated 13 infantry divisions—more than 80,000 men—opposite Beauregard's works. 

Harrison's Creek
The shallow Harrison Creek became of vital importance to the defense of Petersburg on June 16 and 17, 1864. (Douglas Ullman, Jr. )

The Federals launched a new series of attacks on June 17, but once again Beauregard's men stood firm. After dark, the Confederates quietly slipped away and assumed their new positions, spending the pre-dan hours of June 18 digging furiously with any implement at hand to create earthen barriers. 

Meanwhile, Robert E Lee, now fully aware of Grant's whereabouts, began to shuffle units from the Army of Northern Virginia toward Petersburg, setting the stage for further combat on June 18. 

 

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