On the morning of June 13, when the Rebs were still entrenched at Cold Harbor, their commanders realized that Grant’s army had largely disappeared from their front. The Yankees were once again moving south in an attempt to get around Lee and assault Richmond.
“Although Lee did not ascertain Grant’s ultimate goal for some time,” wrote historian Robert K. Krick in his history of Parker’s Virginia Battery, “he was quick to start his army in motion across the Chickahominy River…The march commenced by 8 a.m.”
It was hot and dry and the marching men and horses and rolling artillery stirred up fine dust that hung in the air, choking men and animals alike.
Eventually “the army was spread along a line,” Krick continued, “from White Oak Swamp to Malvern Hill….”
The First Corps [then numbering about 12,000, according to its artillery chief E.P. Alexander] camped for the rest of the day. They were ready to march the next morning, Wednesday, June 15.
But conflicting orders left them standing about “for most of the day before the orders were canceled entirely,” Krick wrote. “Grant had stolen a march on Lee and was nearing Petersburg,” south of Richmond.
By 3 a.m. on June 16, Kershaw’s Division, including the 13th Regiment, was marching rapidly for the pontoon bridge over the James River at Drewry’s Bluff. Federal gunboats on the river took the crossing troops under fire but did little damage. Some men, waiting to cross the narrow bridge, went to sleep despite the bombardment.
The 13th crossed the river on the pontoons on Friday, June 17, and “[e]arly on the morning of June 18 [Kershaw’s Division of scarcely 5,000 men according to Alexander]…marched away for Petersburg,” Krick wrote.
The town was a critical railroad junction for provisioning trains bringing food and ammunition from the deep South and it was now thought to be in danger of capture. Indeed, Petersburg had been under Union guns and periodic assaults since June 15.
“It was on that day, I believe,” historian Edwin Bearss said in a recent interview with publisher Ted Savas at Amazon, “that the losses suffered by the Union make it a darker day for the North than the battle of Pearl Harbor was for America. The casualties exceeded even the casualties at Cold Harbor on June 3.”
At the time Petersburg was defended by entrenched scratch troops, including home guard and militia composed of teenage boys and elderly men, under General P.G.T. Beauregard. They were now reinforced by the First Corps veterans of the actual Cold Harbor.
“As fast as the lean, dusty marchers came up,” wrote independent historian Shelby Foote in his trilogy of the war, “they were put into line alongside the nearly fought-out defenders, some of whom tried to raise a feeble cheer of welcome, while others wept from exhaustion at the sudden release from tension.”
“So,” Alexander later recalled, “by Sunday morning, Jun. 19th, Gen. Lee’s army was again fully established in its trenches in front of Grant and a new chapter of the campaign was now about to begin.”
Indeed, the federals also were entrenching. “Remembering one Cold Harbor,” Foote wrote, “they saw here the makings of another, and they wanted no part of it.”
The Siege of Petersburg had begun, a 292-day near-encirclement, the longest-enduring one ever mounted against an American city.