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THE U.S. MILITARY RAILROAD AND THE SIEGE OF PETERSBURG Robert Bruce Sylvester Grant was stopped at Petersburg. His massive offensive in the spring of 1864, intended to envelop Lee's Army of Northern Virginia and to sever his lines of supply, had ground to a halt. The Wilderness, Spotsylvania , North Anna, Cold Harbor—all had taken their toll. The incessant marching, digging, and fighting in the enervating heat of Virginia had reduced the troops of both sides to a state of exhaustion. "Now," wrote Grant, "we will rest the men and use the spade for their protection until a new vein can be struck. . . ."x The Union forces were not alone in their use of the spade. The desperate Southerners assembled before Petersburg to stave off the expected Federal thrust used any implement that came to hand. "Axes, as well as spades," Beauregard recalled, "bayonets and knives as well as axes,—in fact every utensil that could be found. . . ."2 It might have been different. Lee had been temporarily deceived by Grant's sudden shift of his forces to the south bank of the James, and the Confederate defenses of Petersburg had been too thin and weakly manned to withstand a determined thrust by the attacking forces. That determination was lacking. The flesh, given the spur of leadership, might have been willing, but the spirit was weak. General W. F. "Baldy" Smith's corps might have "walked into Petersburg with bands playing," as one historian noted.3 As it was, they held back at the critical moment and Beauregard gained priceless time in which to bolster his lines.4 From a war of movement the pattern shifted rapidly to a war of investment , of equally exhausting siege. Now the conflict would grind on in the monotony of the entrenchments before Petersburg, the inevitable result merely prolonged while the bloodletting continued. The initial entrenchments, bodi Federal and Confederate, were mere rude ditches hurriedly scratched into the protecting earth, but they 1 Horace Porter, Campaigning With Grant (New York, 1897), p. 210. 2 Robert U. Johnson and Clarence C. Buel ( eds.), Battles and Leaders of the Civil War (New York, 1887-1889), IV, 543. 3 Clifford Dowdey, Lee's Last Campaign (Boston, 1960), p. 332. 4 Johnson and Buel, Battles and Leaders, IV, 544. 309 310CIVIL WAR HISTORY soon assumed a complexity and sophistication hitherto unknown in the Western world. Before the siege would be lifted in the spring of 1865 the interconnected batteries and fortifications would extend for nearly fifty miles and would represent the finest examples of field fortifications at that time.5 Lincoln was correct when he observed that "when Grant gets possession of a place, he holds on to it as if he had inherited it."6 Such an enterprise entailed the use of men and material on a huge scale. Food and forage, guns and ammunition—all of the supplies and services necessary to conduct a prolonged siege—had to be brought by water to the Federal beachhead at City Point7 and distributed along the rapidly extending lines of the entrenchments. Grant, seasoned by his siege experience at Vicksburg, had foreseen the logistical problems involved and had ordered the construction of a railroad behind the lines to facilitate the movement of supplies and personnel.8 In anticipation of the need he had directed Mr. C. L. McAlpine, engineer of construction and repairs, to proceed to City Point with men and equipment to build wharves and to rebuild the destroyed City Point and Petersburg Railroad as soon as the area had been cleared of the enemy.9 McAlpine arrived on June 18, 1864, and commenced operations without delay.10 A survey of the old line that in happier times had served to connect City Point with Petersburg was disappointing. So thorough had been the demolition activities conducted by tJie Confederates that little more remained than the name and the right-of-way. For the first four miles the bridges had been burned and all track removed. The remainder, to a point within two and one-half miles from Petersburg, proved in such poor condition that even the rail-starved Southerners had considered it beyond salvage.11 McAlpine...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 309-316
Launched on MUSE
2013-01-02
Open Access
No
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