Petersburg: First Battle of WWI

For something like 9 months in the Civil War, the Union and Confederate armies engaged in a stalemated trench warfare that was a preview of the western front in WWI (a preview that no one learned from).  Only Grant's ability to keep flanking the Confederate line and stretching it out until Lee faced thinning his troops too much eventually broke the stalemate.

One interesting parallel with WWI-- the Union in the Civil War had miners dig tunnels under the Confederate lines and packed them with explosives.  When they blew, it created a great gap in the line and an opportunity for the Union, an opportunity that was lost when Union soldiers went racing into the crater rather than around it.  Trapped in the crater, they were slaughtered by the Confederates.  The mistake was apparently the result of a last minute change of plans.  A group of black soldiers was supposed to lead the attack and had been trained to not go into the hole, but they were replaced at the last minute with white soldiers who had not been similarly briefed.

Anyway, it is odd how history repeats itself.   In WWI, the British tried the same trick, blowing a huge hole in German lines and eventually making a little headway against the German army, though the advantage was, as so many such things were on the Western front, short-lived.


  1. Anonymous Mike:

    An alternative take on the final days of Petersburg was not only Grant getting stronger as he was able to bring back Sheridan's forces and 6th Corps back from the Valley but Lee was getting weaker in men, martial, and morale due to defeat of the Northern peace party in the 1864 election and crushing of the Southern interior by Sherman and the operation against Fort Fisher.

    Here's a hypothetical for you. After Richmond fell in April 1865 it was Jefferson Davis' intention to keep fighting but Lee's army was in no shape for it. What would have happened if Petersburg and therefore Richmond fell in summer of 1864 while Lee's army was still a formidable filed force and high in morale? Would Lee have been so quick to give up , would he have chosen differently considering the guerrilla option? By April his army was a hollowed out wreck but not int he Summer 1864.

    The siege of Petersburg also served Grant's purpose quite well. Lee was famous for his mobility, launching strategic offensives in 1862 and 1863 (an an abortive one in October 1863) Keeping Lee penned up in siege trenches simply made his defeat a matter of time once Atlanta fell.

    The problem with any Western front offensive wasn't so much the tactical problems of overcoming machine guns and trench system but how to exploit any such breakthrough given the disparity in mobility - that is you had to maintain communications for reinforcements and supply across broken ground to your rear while the enemy could exploit much better road and rail networks. One of the advantages of mechanized warfare was the ability to exploit breakthroughs at speed and at much faster pace then the defense could respond (see OODA loop)

  2. IGotbupkis, Sailor on the Economic Seas Betwixt Scylla and Charybdis:

    >>> Only Grant’s ability to keep flanking the Confederate line and stretching it out until Lee faced thinning his troops too much eventually broke the stalemate.

    It was also a matter of throwing more bodies on the lines, something the South could ill-afford to match, along with the industrial capacity of the North to replace various war materiel.

  3. Mark:

    1. More bodies does not always win wars.

    2. The fact that Lee always had an open right flank makes the Petersburg campaign different than the trench warfare of WWI.

    3. The biggest difference between WWI and the American Civil War was automatic weapons and indirect fire from artillery firing much more deadly HE.

  4. doctorpat:

    More bodies does not always win wars. BUT if you can turn it into a slow, grinding, war of attrition, then more bodies plus more industry is probably going to win.

    In a war of maneuver, tactics and strategy, the weaker side can win.

  5. Mark:


    1. The South fought along interior lines for the entire war and on the defensive for much of it, reducing the effectiveness of attrition and manpower advantage. In fact, I would argue that the North struggled to keep the necessary ration of forces, 2-1 or at least 3-2, for most of the war. Grant had to cull every available soldier to build his forces to an effective offensive ratio.

    2. The strategic geography favored the South, particularly in the eastern theatre of operations (look how the rivers and mountains made it difficult for offensive operations from the north and easier from the south). IT essentially funneled the momentum of operations away from Richmond and toward Washington, while the Blue Ridge Mountains offered a shield for southern offensive operations aimed right into the heart of the North's eastern center of communications.

    3. A significant amount of arms and ammunition came from Europe, meaning that any differences in industrial output could be made up by imports. Since the south had, in many estimations, a superior ability to trade on the world market (King Cotton) in many ways this was considered to be an advantage for the South which they squandered. However, an ocean going ironclad vessel or two, bought by cotton exerts, could have changed the entire war.

    4. Since much of the war was fought in the "south" its lack of industry, particularly its limited railroad lines, made offensive operations against it very difficult for the Union forces. The Union forces were forced to supply their troops over long lines of communication that were vulnerable to the superior mobile forces of the South.

  6. Joel:

    The Battle of Franklin (Nov. 30, 1864) seemed to presage the senseless slaughter of World War I.

  7. caseyboy:

    The civil war was lost for the south at Gettysburg. And that battle was lost when the Confederate's General J. Johnson Pettigrew failed to dislodge the Union Cavalry Division under General John Buford from favorable high ground Gettysburg. Once the Union regulars arrived and dug in, the dye was cast and General Picket's boys were destined for infamy. The glory and horror of war on display that day.

  8. Mark:

    "The civil war was lost for the south at Gettysburg. And that battle was lost when the Confederate’s General J. Johnson Pettigrew failed to dislodge the Union Cavalry Division under General John Buford from favorable high ground Gettysburg."

    This is your interpretation of the Civil War? J. Johnson Pettigrew? He was just a brigade commander. He did not dislodge the Union cavalry around Gettysburg because he was ordered not to bring about a general engagement. The next day, two other brigades of Heth's division were out in front and confronted Buford's cavalry division. By the time Pettigrew's brigade was deployed the Union I Corps had already arrived in the field. Pettigrew's brigade launched a frontal assault that drove the Union Iron Brigade back. During this assault General Heth was wounded and Pettigrew became the acting division commander, which he would command during the assault known as Pickett's Charge. Pettigrew was also the commander of the rear guard of the Army of Northern Virginia as it retreated across the Potomoc and was killed defending the crossing. Pettigrew was very inexperienced but had shown signs of leadership, and probably would have become a very good division commander once he gained more combat experience.

  9. IGotBupkis, Official Chaneller of the OWS Zeitgist:

    >>> Since much of the war was fought in the “south” its lack of industry, particularly its limited railroad lines, made offensive operations against it very difficult for the Union forces.

    Yes, but its inability to produce sufficient rifles, artillery, food, and clothing, and transport them to where they were needed, represents a substantial problem for The South throughout the war.

    As soon as it became a long-drawn out affair, The South had lost. Their only hope was a quick, decisive triumph that brought external powers in to support the South.

    It's drifting off the original topic, but in reality, the Civil War was lost not at Gettysburg, which just put the final nail in the South's coffin, but at Antietam/Sharpsburg, it gave Lincoln "confidence to announce his Emancipation Proclamation, which discouraged the British and French governments from potential plans for recognition of the Confederacy." If Britain and/or France had backed the South, it would have changed the complexion of the war drastically, as the US Navy's ability to blockade southern ports would have probably been reduced to zero, as well as supplying a great deal of needed funding for the South's coffers...

    And a key to this battle's "win" was the history of Special Order 191.

  10. Anonymous Mike:

    Gettysburg was the end of the South's ability to win the war on the battlefield, or as it were at their own initiative. However they still hadn't lost the war at that point. In August 1864, the Union armies were stalemated and Lincoln's re-election was not only in doubt but his loss was seen as a inevitable. There alot of discussion on whether a President McClellan would actually have made peace or granted an armistice but the election was seen as a referendum on continuing the war. Only Sherman's victory at Atlanta changed the electoral tide.

    Grant's strategy for 1864 was the correct one - seek decisive victory in an election year by being aggressive on multiple fronts while maintaining contact with Lee's army and seek to bring his superior force to bear. The problem was that it incurred terrific causalities.

    There was a great line at the end of a James Bond movie, I think the 'Living Daylights' where the villain stated that Meade should have taken another 20,000 causalities at Gettysburg and ended the Confederacy there. Except Meade didn't lost the initiative and consequently the war. Forstchen wrote an alt-history trilogy of Gettysburg starting the with notion of what would happened if Lee didn't attack on the 2nd day and ending with Grant pushing Lee to the Potomac.

  11. el coronado:

    So in other words, Lincoln turned Sherman loose on Georgia to win his re-election. Total war on noncombatant US civilians, decency and tradition be damned....because ol' Abe had himself a tough election coming up: ergo no cost too high to pay, no tactic too scummy to use.

    What IS it with grotesquely corrupt Illinois pols and utter amorality? History doesn't repeat, but it *does* rhyme...

  12. Mark:

    " but its inability to produce sufficient rifles, artillery, food, and clothing, and transport them to where they were needed, represents a substantial problem for The South throughout the war"

    The Southern armies had sufficient rifles and artillery. ANd, although they were not as well supplied as northern troops, they had sufficient ammunition too (although they had technical problems with their artillery fuses which made their shells less effective). The armies also were sufficiently supplied with food even though their logistical service was not well organized or efficient. A lot of army supplies sat in warehouses wasting away. The southern armies never lost a battle because of logistics. They lost the war because of Union strategic operational thought. One aspect of this was that the industrial might of the north was fully utilized in the operation/strategic concepts of Lincoln, Grant, and Sherman. Before this, the advantages the North had were constantly squandered.

    "As soon as it became a long-drawn out affair, The South had lost. Their only hope was a quick, decisive triumph that brought external powers in to support the South."

    Absolutely, positively false. For most of 1964, it looked like Abraham Lincoln was going to lose re-election (in fact, it appeared that Lincoln would not even be renominated). The South, by transferring Longstreet's corps to Georgia created the possibility of defeating a major Union army at Chickamauga/Chattanooga late in 1863. This could have been the strategic victory similar to Saratoga or even Yorktown of the Revolutionary War that the South needed to win independence. ANd they missed it by just a fraction. After this disaster, Lincoln moved Grant to this theatre and he won the operational victory at Missionary Ridge, and from then on the North had the proper strategic framework to win the war, the generals with the ability and tenacity to carry the operations out, and the political support of LIncoln.

    "an alt-history trilogy"

    Most alt-history/Civil War fiction is based on flawed understanding of history and military operations. For example, the "Killer Angel" theory that Lee was some sort of dumba** that attacked recklessly at Gettysburg on the 2nd day also makes a hero out of Joshua Chamberlain for "saving the Union Left." Which one is it? If the Union flank on Little Round Top was in such danger it needed saving then the ultimate defeat of the Union Army, and perhaps its complete destruction, rested on a very slim ribbon represented by Strong VIncent's Union brigade (of which Chamberlain's regiment was just a part). With any luck except for bad luck the Confederates would have completely rolled up the flank and at least won this battle.

    "Lincoln turned Sherman loose on Georgia to win his re-election"

    Nice try, EXCEPT THAT, Sherman did not move out from Atlanta until AFTER Lincoln's reelection. Both Lincoln and Grant were not very supportive of the concept of the March. Again, nice try at revisionistic history.

  13. Anonymous Mike:


    The alt-history trilogy is interesting in a H. Turtledove sort of way but let's not dissect Lee's performance at Gettysburg based on a bunch of novels (Scharra and otherwise) However they do bring up some points that need to be fleshed out in regard to Lee's record:

    1) Lee seemed to have a miserable time marching through enemy territory. The previous year he had his army split and nearly rolled up prior to Antietam - in fact if McClellan had with any degree of urgency both prior to and at Antietam, Lee's army would have have either been destroyed in detail or pushed against the Potomac and wiped out. During his invasion of Pennsylvania he had his army strung out over many miles in road column without knowing where the enemy was. Now we can blame Stuart for not proving cavalry screen/recon but then again Jeb was Lee's subordinate and Lee was the one who deployed his army in an exposed way deep in enemy country.

    2) Gettysburg should be seen with the eye of a meeting engagement - that's easier to see on the first day but should have affected planning for the 2nd. Meade had the stronger tactical position both with the heights and interior lines - Lee was still marshaling forces and when he decided to attack the Union left he would have to deploy his troops to the furthermost part of the battlefield which limited the time on which to conduct his offensive. Forget Chamberlain and all for the Confederates to exploit any turning of that flank they would have to send reinforcements from the furtherest part of the battlefield while the Union forces could draw on interior lines - the Confederates might have been able to turn the flank but I doubt they could have held it or even if they did adequately exploit it given the extreme position and amount of daylight left

    3) Lee's actions on the 2nd day should be contrasted with the opening weeks of Sherman's in Georgia where the latter was faced with much tougher fortifications deep in enemy country with extremely rough terrain and he flanked the enemy out of position several times. I think Lee's decision to attack on the 2nd day was based on 2 conceits - 1) an extreme lack of respect for the enemy's competence based on a year of victories and 2) belief that the morale of his men was more important than a better tactical decision (flanking vs. attacking) In other words a Chancellorsville disease - what somebody like myself could look at Lee's decision-making matrix and see multiple options, for Lee on the ground there was really only one

    4) This just occurred to me but compare Lee's offensives over similar terrain north of the Rappanhannock in August 1862 and October 1863 - the former was a masterstroke while the latter was disaster. I think the difference lay in the quality of generalship among Lee's subordinates, specifically the presence/absence of Jackson. There was a high rate of attrition among division/corps commanders in the Amy of NOVA throughout the war so that by April 1865 you had men like Pickett leading a corps. Gettysburg was the first campaign where Lee didn't have Jackson, would the 2nd day have turned out differently - I'm not sure especially since what would have been Stonewall's corps was on the far left of the line. However Lee's plans for the 2nd day, with all the difficulty of both concentrating and deploying his army after the meeting engagement of the previous position combined with the tactical advantages of the Union position leads me to believe that the plans were developed for a general of the spirit and caliber of Jackson and not the men Lee actually had.

    Lee was a brilliant general but he was after all, only human

  14. Billford:

    The movie Cold Mountain has a good dramatic scene of this battle. In the end, I really do think the South's cause is what beat them. There was simply no desire to keep fighting if it meant resorting to guerilla warfare and depriving your family of much needed agricultural labor, especially after you proved yourself a man in battle after battle. The alternative, surrender to a gracious victor and go about your life pretty much exactly as you did before, was not something people felt like dying to avoid at all costs.

  15. Mark:

    1. The Antietam issue was an outlier due to the fact that McClellen found Lee's operational order for the campaign. This order gave the Union commander proof that Lee's army was spread out over Maryland. Without this exceptional piece of good luck, I doubt that McClellen even comes close to Lee's army north of the Potomac, much less spread out in detail.

    2. You are correct in some sense that Gettysburg was somewhat of a meeting engagement. However, what you essentially ignore is that the outcome of the meeting engagement was a decisive Confederate victory, and any succesful commander would have followed up this success with additional offensive thrusts against a demoralized and battered opponent.

    3. You are not correct about your claims about "sending reinforcements" from a long distance. Lee's offensive tactic used on the 2nd day was an attack in echelon. Attacking in echelon was a standard offensive tactic that meant that you began your advance when the unit to the right of you (in this case) began your advance. The basic concept of such an attack is that the initial attacks draw the enemies reinforcements, and/or the threat of continued attacks down the line fixes the enemy to their positions. Unfortunately for Lee and the Confederatates, the attack in echelon sputtered and there wasn't anyone that took the tactical control to keep it going.

    4. Your claim about Lee "flanking" the enemy at Gettysburg is a complete myth, again, taken from the Killer Angel scenario which lionized James Longstreet. A simple look at a map of the road networks as they existed in 1863 dispels any concept of Lee's army moving around the enemy's left. And, in fact, that is why the armies met at Gettysburg. The only real way for the Confederate army to march around the left of the Union forces would have been to turn around and go back behind the mountains. The Union army controilled the road networks in that direction. Except in the fantasy myths of revisionistic historians, it was impossible to move the armies trains and the army for that matter, across the front of the Union army.

    5. And, I agree with you that the biggest problem that Lee's army faced was the attrition of leadership. Losing Jackson was a big blow because he was the only subordinate the Lee had that could be trusted to conduct offensive operations outside of Lee's direct control (Longstreet never did, not once). Hill and Ewell were new to corps command and the Gettysburg battle demonstrated their weaknesses at this command level. Several of the division commanders not only were new to commanding a division, but were new to their troops and the army in general. Obviously, the brigade and regimental leadsership had similar problems. And, this was telling as the collapse of the in echelon attack failed once it met AP Hills part of the line, and what should have been a general advance by Anderson and Pender's division was just a spattering of brigades advancing and falling back.

    6. And, returning to the in echelon attack, that is another reason why he chose that method. It is very easy to conduct. You see the troops to your right move out, then you move out. It requires limited communication and even inexperienced commanders can understand it.

    7. Lee's second day attack most likely would have been succesful but for two factors: a) Longstreet's delay in positioning his troops for attack. b. The wounding of John Hood before his division's attack really began. The Rebel forces could have easily been in assault positions at least two hours before the were which would have limited the ability of Meade to brign up reinforcements because they simply were not there. And, Hood was perhaps the Confederates best tactical commander on the divisional level. Once he was wounded, his divisions attack became disjointed and ineffective. Hood would have manuevered his brigades properly and maximized their striking power, most likley sweeping the Union III Corps from the field.