'On to Richmond': Revisiting historic battlegrounds

Published 12:00 am Friday, July 27, 2012

By Buddy Gettys
It was Saturday, late afternoon, the day before Easter. I stood in front of the Marriott Courtyard in Petersburg, Va., 12 miles south of Richmond, a place where Martha and I decided to spend the next two or three nights. The sun was sinking fast in the western sky … a slight breeze with a bite of winter blew in from the historic James River. The roar of heavy trucks reverberated from tires on the concrete pavement of nearby I-95. It was here 150 years ago that trenches were filled with young soldiers, across the countryside, a countryside that crumbled from massive bombardment, clouded with smoke that smelled like gunpowder and turned day into night.
We are here to roam over old battlefields for the next few days and to wander through museums we had visited before. This is a place that took the full force of the Civil War over and over again. A war that never should have been, but a place I wanted to see … and a story I wanted to write.
The story begins 426 miles south.
Friday, April 13, 1861 dawns a crimson sky over the waters separating the Charleston coastline and Fort Sumter. Confederate Gen. Pierre Beauregard had ordered at midnight 4,000 rounds of cannon fire aimed at convincing Union Major George Anderson to “evacuate the fort or be destroyed.” South Carolinians lined the cobblestone streets and rooftops, shaking a collectable fist at the defiant Yankees who had worn out their welcome in “cotton country.” The Civil War had begun.
At the White House in Washington, President Abraham Lincoln’s pulse pounded, as he was already aware that Confederate President Jefferson Davis had readily agreed that if Virginia seceded, the Confederate Capital would be moved from Montgomery, Ala., and located just 100 miles south of Lincoln’s doorstep in the heart of Richmond. On Sunday, Lincoln framed a proclamation calling on the states to provide 75,000 troops in 90 days, technically a declaration of war. These efforts only served to rally the South further.
Folks in Dixie and surrounding states were hearing speeches that fired their blood. John Ellis, governor of North Carolina and a Salisbury attorney, declared “his state would not be a party to this wicked violation of the laws of this country and a war upon the liberties of free people.” “Tennessee would not provide a single man for the purpose of coercion,” Governor Harris told Lincoln, “but fifty thousand to fight for of our states’ rights.” Governor Letcher of Virginia replied that since “Lincoln had chosen to inaugurate a civil war he would send no troops.” Virginia seceded from the union within two days, followed by Arkansas, Tennessee and North Carolina. Other slave states, Missouri, Maryland and Delaware, in addition to Lincoln’s home state of Kentucky, dangled in the balance.
Immediately, Maryland surfaced as a problem for the president as it wrapped three sides around the capitol, and across the Potomac River was hostile Virginia, Confederate campfires gleaming on the southern banks. Gen. Robert E. Lee was moving down from the Shenandoah Valley with plans to take over the Federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry. Government employees, many loyal to the Southern cause, had walked. The president waited on troops from New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and other Northern states. Washington was defenseless.
On April 18, 500 Pennsylvanians showed up to fight. But in Baltimore, Southern sympathizers and definitely friends of Virginia threw bricks and stones and fired into the ranks as the Yankees changed trains. Telegraph lines were cut off from the outside world, railroad tracks ripped up and bridges smashed with sledgehammers and axes.
But on the night that followed, the Yankees kept coming. Volunteers arrived from Massachusetts, New York and Ohio. The battle cry “On to Richmond” was born. By July 21, 1861, the military news was mostly good for the North. Lincoln could take pride in the fact that so much had been done so quickly. The armies had strengthened and trained and permanent gains had been made. Union troops outnumbered the South by 30 percent. Against the advice of his aging general-in-chief, Winfield Scott, Lincoln orders troops onward to Richmond. This meant that largely untrained Union troops under Gen. Irvin McDowell and Major Gen. George McClellan, commander of the Ohio Volunteers, would tangle with Pierre Beauregard, the hero of Fort Sumter, and Joe Johnson, beginning in Manassas, Va., south of Harper’s Ferry.
The Yankees had approximately 50,000 troops as opposed to the Rebels 33,000, including those of Gen. Stonewall Jackson.
On the following Sunday, Lincoln went out for a walk in the capitol city, believing the battle to be a Union victory. He returned about sundown to find that the secretary of atate had come looking for him, white and shaky, and had left a message that the Union army had been whipped and was falling back. It was happy days in Richmond, and the good news traveled fast throughout the South. Stonewall Jackson had emerged as a folk hero. Beauregard was again credited with “Napoleonic military planning.” Lincoln was devastated by the performance of his army. His high expectation of destroying the Rebels quickly turned to total disappointment.
Sunday night, as Union soldiers limped across Long Bridge north of Manassas and slept in the rain, Lincoln summoned General McClellan to the White House. “Come hither without delay,” said the wire from the White House. Days following this meeting, McClellan implemented rigid discipline in the Potomac Army, “whipping a mob into a hot-blooded army.”
Following 1861, the war spread fast through Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and into Georgia, South and North Carolina. By March 1862, the Confederate fortunes in Virginia looked grim. Federal troops occupied the northern tier of the state, inching toward Fredericksburg, only 50 miles north of Richmond. But when the end appeared inevitable, the Union offensive unraveled. Gen. Stonewall Jackson’s troops threw a scare into Washington, stopping Union troops in their tracks and winning four straight battles that had earlier been considered easy Union victories — victories that would set a final push to bring down Richmond and end the war by summer. The Yankees had failed again in taking the Confederate capital.
In 1862, Captain Charles Dimmock arrived in Richmond, charged with building a defensive ring of earthworks around the city. Using slave labor he installed 10 miles of fortifications and 55 battery positions. The Northern Virginia Army under Lee’s command was ready for any attack the Yankees could throw at them. Beginning in June 1864 with nine months of fierce fighting, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant decided the only way to get to Richmond was through Petersburg. Petersburg was a rail hub and a route for supplies for the Confederate army. However, around Petersburg were 30 miles of trenches filled with the soldiers who constantly turned back Grant’s army. The effort became known as the “Siege of Petersburg.”
In one of the most remarkable military engineering feats of the Civil War, Union troops (mostly Pennsylvania coal miners) dug a 500-foot tunnel and exploded four tons of gunpowder under Confederate lines. More than 300 Confederate troops were killed by the blast at 4:44 a.m. on July 30, 1864. The explosion created a hole, named “the Crater,” 30 feet deep, 60 feet wide and 175 feet long. But the Confederate troops in other trenches responded with overwhelming intensity and the crater became a scene of bitter hand-to-hand combat. The remarkable achievement failed. The Rebels pulled out another victory.
In March 1864, Ulysses Grant was promoted to lieutenant general and given full command of the Union Army. He had a strategy for defeating Richmond. It included ripping up rails in Petersburg to cut off Lee’s supplies for his Northern Virginia Army. This, combined with the continuous pounding of Petersburg and Richmond with powerful cannons, took its toll on the Confederate capitol. The incredible battles between two armies would continue on into 1865. But by April, Lee finally yielded to the overwhelming pressure — and abandoned both Richmond and Petersburg, leading to his retreat and surrender at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1965.
The “On to Richmond” campaign cost the North 42,000 men and the South 28,000. It was the longest military investment of a city in the United States. The battle left many trenches, strong points and battlefields that still stand today as a silent tribute to the courage, valor, and fortitude of Billy Yanks and Johnny Rebs who long battled for the city of Richmond.
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Buddy Gettys is a former mayor of Spencer and writes occasionally for the Salisbury Post.