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In the Trenches at Petersburg

Field Fortifications and Confederate Defeat

Earl J. Hess

Publication Year: 2009

This book, the third volume in Earl Hess’s trilogy on the war in the eastern theater, recounts the strategic and tactical operations in Virginia during the last ten months of the Civil War, when field fortifications dominated military planning and the landscape of battle. The book covers all aspects of the campaign, especially military engineering, including mining and countermining, the fashioning of wire entanglements, the laying of torpedo fields, and the construction of underground shelters to protect the men who manned the works. It also humanizes the experience of the soldiers working in the fortifications, revealing their attitudes toward attacking and defending earthworks and the human cost of trench warfare in the waning days of the war.

Published by: The University of North Carolina Press

Series: Civil War America

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. vii-xi

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pp. xiii-xxi

Petersburg was the longest, the most complex, and perhaps the most important campaign of the Civil War. Gen. Robert E. Lee staked the fate of his Army of Northern Virginia on the outcome of this campaign, which lasted from June 15, 1864,...

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CHAPTER ONE: Engineers and War

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pp. 1-8

The engineering resources of both Union and Confederates armies were vital to operations in the Petersburg campaign. Engineer officers and troops provided technical expertise in the design and construction of the complex aspects of fortifications, such as embrasures and platforms in artillery emplacements, the...

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CHAPTER TWO: Crossing the James River

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pp. 9-20

Grant’s crossing of the James River in mid-June 1864 was a complex operation. It involved disengaging the Army of the Potomac and the Eighteenth Corps from the tangled system of trenches at Cold Harbor, moving them southward more than twenty miles, and building the longest pontoon bridge ever used in...

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CHAPTER THREE: Three Days in June

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pp. 21-37

Even after June 15, the Federals maintained the advantage of momentum—they continued to move troops south of the Appomattox faster than the Confederates. But whether they could overcome the problems of troop exhaustion,...

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CHAPTER FOUR: Searching for a Solution

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pp. 38-49

Despite the failure of June 15–18, Grant quickly organized an effort to rest his left wing on the Appomattox upstream from Petersburg. This would enable the Federals to invest the city south of the river. In addition, Grant authorized the Army of the James to create a bridgehead on the north side of the James...

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pp. 50-64

While Grant and his subordinates debated grand tactics, their men secured the Union position from the Appomattox to Jerusalem Plank Road with heavy earthworks. Despite fatigue and worsening heat, the Federals dug steadily. One Ninth Corps soldier marveled as the fortifications “sprung into existence as if...

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CHAPTER SIX: Soldiering in the Trenches

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pp. 65-77

As the earthworks rose outside Petersburg, they made victims of nearly all trees and bushes in the immediate vicinity. The wood was useful for revetting and obstructions, and clear fields of fire were necessary for defense. Moreover, thousands of soldiers needed wood for cooking their meals. The...

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CHAPTER SEVEN: The Third Offensive

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pp. 78-89

By about July 10, Early’s raid into Maryland compelled Grant to send the Sixth Corps and eventually plan to divert the Nineteenth Corps to protect Washington, D.C. He also worried that Early’s rapid movements might compel him to send even more troops from Petersburg. This led Grant to abandon all...

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pp. 90-106

The most extensive preparation for any Union offensive at Petersburg was finally over as dawn approached on Saturday, July 30. Pleasants entered the gallery, lit the fuse at 3:15 a.m., and calmly walked out. He kept an eye on his watch, but 3:30 came and went with no explosion. Lt. Col. Byron M. Cutcheon...

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pp. 107-123

The trenches at Petersburg became filthy by August. Officers tried to enforce cleanliness, but the men always dropped bits of food on the floor. “Vermin abounded,” recalled the inspector of Hagood’s staff, “and diseases of various...

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CHAPTER TEN: The Fourth Offensive

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pp. 124-141

By August 12, after nearly two weeks of idleness following the Crater battle, Grant was ready to begin another offensive. He hoped that Lee had diverted enough troops to the Shenandoah Valley to give a Federal strike some hope of success. Initially, Grant thought of holding the lines only with black troops,...

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pp. 142-159

As early as August 22, the day after Mahone’s last attack, Warren felt that the ground his men occupied at Globe Tavern was as good as any for a permanent line. He proposed the construction of a large fort and a strong curtain connecting it to Jerusalem Plank Road. If Grant wanted further offensive operations...

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CHAPTER TWELVE: The Fifth Offensive

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pp. 160-181

Grant began to plan his next move as early as September 12, envisioning a strike for the South Side Railroad with another to seal off Wilmington, North Carolina, as a blockade-running port. He was ready to order an offensive by September...

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CHAPTER THIRTEEN: October and the Sixth Offensive

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pp. 182-198

Both armies pushed forward with a variety of construction projects along the length of their respective lines in October as the rank and file bundled up to endure colder weather while holding the trenches. The campaign lengthened with no end in sight, but Grant launched one more offensive before...

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CHAPTER FOURTEEN: November, December, and January

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pp. 199-214

By the time fall arrived, the earthworks on the Richmond-Petersburg lines had been exposed to rain, heat, and cold for five months. Wooden revetments rotted and parapets eroded. The wooden obstructions in front of the line became...

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pp. 215-228

Fred Fleet of the 26th Virginia predicted as early as September 8 that his comrades would suffer shortages of wood and disagreeable living conditions in their underground shelters as cold weather set in. Yet Fleet noted that the French and English endured a winter in the siege lines at Sebastopol ten years...

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CHAPTER SIXTEEN: The Seventh Offensive, February, and March

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pp. 229-244

A spell of good weather inspired Grant to mount another raid against Lee’s supply line along the Weldon and Petersburg Railroad. Gregg’s cavalry division would strike out across country to Dinwiddie Court House, a stopover point...

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CHAPTER SEVENTEEN: Fort Stedman and the Eighth Offensive

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pp. 245-263

Soon after the battle of Hatcher’s Run, Grant once again contemplated cavalry raids against Lee’s supply lines. John Irvin Gregg’s division of Meade’s army could tear up the South Side Railroad west of Petersburg and Sheridan could destroy the rails and the canal leading out of the Shenandoah Valley....

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CHAPTER EIGHTEEN: The Ninth Offensive, April 2

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pp. 264-279

The Eighth Offensive ended with the battle of Five Forks as the scene shifted to the front lines south and west of Petersburg. Grant decided on the night of April 1 to launch two major attacks against the trenches, one of them supported by Gibbon, and with cooperative movements by Sheridan, Griffin, and Humphreys...

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pp. 280-285

No one on the Federal side knew for certain what to expect at dawn on April 3. North of the James River, Weitzel’s troops carefully moved past the torpedo belt the Confederates had laid down the previous October; numerous red cloths...

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APPENDIX ONE: Artifacts of War

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pp. 287-294

Nowhere else during the Civil War were there so many trenches, forts, magazines, bombproofs, covered ways, abatis, slashings, fraises, palisades, and chevaux-de-frise as along the Richmond-Petersburg Line. Orange Judd, editor...

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APPENDIX TWO: The Richmond-Petersburg Line

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pp. 295-316

The Union and Confederate armies at Petersburg utilized the most complex assortment of field fortifications employed in any campaign of the Civil War. The original Dimmock Line proved inadequate for defending the town, prompting...


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pp. 317-375


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pp. 377-397


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pp. 399-403

E-ISBN-13: 9781469603261
E-ISBN-10: 1469603268
Print-ISBN-13: 9780807832820
Print-ISBN-10: 0807832820

Page Count: 432
Illustrations: 2 line drawings, 1 map
Publication Year: 2009

Series Title: Civil War America
The Civil War America series interprets the field broadly to include biography, military and nonmilitary history, works that explore the immediate background of the conflict, and studies of postbellum topics related to the war. A few diaries, sets of letters, and memoirs that make exceptional contributions to our understanding of the era also will appear as volumes in the series.

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Subject Headings

  • Petersburg (Va.) -- History -- Siege, 1864-1865.
  • Virginia -- History -- Civil War, 1861-1865 -- Trench warfare.
  • United States -- History -- Civil War, 1861-1865 -- Trench warfare.
  • Fortification -- Virginia -- Petersburg -- History.
  • Fortification, Field -- History -- 19th century.
  • United States -- Defenses -- History -- 19th century.
  • Confederate States of America -- Defenses -- History.
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