The Federal Forts at Petersburg


Mark R. Terry

Publisher's note: This article was solicited by me from the author and is based almost entirely on his research into and interest in the fortifications around Petersburg, an interest which began with his efforts to edit the diary of a soldier in the 50th New York Engineers, one of the principal engineering units in the Army of the Potomac. Much of what follows can be found in the Official Records, but not in compiled form. Ultimately I hope to add a good map detailing the several phases of construction, as well as some diagrams of the individual forts.


The purpose of this article is to trace the construction of the Federal forts as the Petersburg Campaign progressed. Sources on the campaign are few, but information on the forts is even harder to find. The trenches and forts at Petersburg are thought of as a prelude to the future --- the precursor to the static trench warfare of World War One. Ironically, however, the earthworks that were such an integral part of the campaign are barely covered in most histories. General maps of the works are plentiful, but too often show the entire completed line, not what the lines looked like at any particular time during the campaign. It is this lack of information that this article addresses. Included is a comprehensive list of all Union forts that faced Petersburg. It will not include the forts facing Richmond, the Bermuda Hundred lines or defending City Point, nor will it include information on the large number of batteries that were within the lines but not graced with a name.

The basis for this article is the "narrative collated from reports of Col. N. Michler", from the Official Records, Series III, Vol. 5, pages 173-182. Michler’s narrative of fort building seems to fit into four distinct phases. It is those phases that formed the basis for this article. Usually, dates for the end of a "phase" correspond with the date the last fort on that line was completed.

My hope is that the reader will come to a greater understanding of the progression of the Federal lines as the campaign wore on, and how the building of these fortifications influenced the course of the campaign.

Phase One: June 19 to August 20, 1864

General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was finally brought to bay in the trenches of Petersburg. But during the initial Petersburg assaults (June 15-18, 1864), the Army of the Potomac (Army of the Potomac), commanded by Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, could not effect a breakthrough. Immediately, Northern soldiers began to entrench (as they had done for the previous six weeks in the same circumstances). It was on this line where the Federals would be fixed until almost the end of the campaign. Realizing the futility of further direct assault, at 10 a.m. on June 19, 1864, Lieut. General Ulysses S. Grant wired Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck to "Please order Colonel Abbot's siege train forward." That simple command was to bring on nine months of some of the most sustained fighting and extensive building of fortifications yet seen in the War Between the States. It was also on the 19th of June that the 50th New York Volunteer Engineers parked their pontoons and began to focus on preparing materials for the siege. They put together gabions and fascines, both important materials in supporting the interior structures of forts. They also began clearing roads, building bridges, and making "covered ways", large ditches that could be used to move men and equipment with a small risk of becoming a casualty. However, Grant had not yet given up on movement to accomplish his aims. He ordered a movement by the Second and VI Corps to the left, hoping to cut the Weldon as well as the Southside Railroad and perhaps even reach the Appomattox River on the west side of Petersburg. The result was the Battle of Jerusalem Plank Road (June 21-23, 1864), in which they were repulsed. At this point, the right flank of the Army of the Potomac touched the Appomattox River, while its left rested at the Jerusalem Plank Road. It then was extended generally to the south along the road, and the soldiers entrenched the line. Along the entire line, battery emplacements were built, covered ways and trenches constructed and strong points made. Naturally, the Army of Northern Virginia was doing the same, and at some points the lines were very close. At the closest point, with about 133 yards between the lines, there happened to be a regiment of infantry (48th Pennsylvania, commanded by Lt. Col. Henry Pleasants) from the IX Corps who were miners prior to the war. With the permission of Maj. General Ambrose Burnside, commander of the IX Corps and the acquiescence of Meade, the regiment began digging a gallery under Confederate lines on June 25th. Besides the mine, there still had to be an overall strategy to the Federal effort. On July 3rd, General Meade wrote to Brig Gen. Henry J. Hunt, Chief of Artillery and Major James C. Duane, Chief Engineer, asking "whether any offensive operations from the lines now held by this army are practicable". Their reply, on July 6th, stated that since the Rebel works were strong, they would render "an assault impracticable; regular approaches must, therefore, be resorted to". On July 9th, orders went out to the effect, that "The operations of this army against the intrenched position of the enemy defending Petersburg will be by regular approaches on the fronts opposed to General Burnside's and General Warren's corps." Additionally, it was directed that the works would be planned by Major Duane, and any works relating to the artillery would be prepared jointly with Brig. Gen. Hunt. That same day, at midnight, the VI Corps was pulled out of the lines and sent to Washington to deal with the advance of the Army of Northern Virginia’s Second Corps, under the command of Lt. Gen. Jubal Early. On the 10th of July, Major Michler was ordered to trace a line of defense starting at the left of the existing Federal line at Fort Prescott (being built then), extending eastward to the Blackwater Swamp. It appears from the written record and from maps in the O.R. Atlas, that Fort Davis and Fort Prescott were the first Federal forts built as such from the ground up. Fort Bross followed soon after, anchoring the far left flank on the rear line, near the Blackwater Swamp. This rear (or return) line was considered defensible probably by about mid-July.

Meanwhile, in preparation for the IX Corps assault, work continued on the front line. Brig. Gen. Hunt directed the building of artillery emplacements, with good lines of fire to Confederate artillery positions. Details of men from the V and IX Corps, supervised by engineer officers, built up the entrenchments, while the miners continued to dig until they completed their mine on July 23, 1864. With the mine full of black powder and ready to be touched off, July 30 was set as the date for the assault. For further details on this action, and the one concurrent with it, see First Deep Bottom and the Crater (July 26-30, 1864). The very next day, following the disaster of the Crater, Federal strategy changed somewhat. Regular approaches were abandoned and orders went forth that "Corps commanders will see that the intrenchments are strengthened wherever it is necessary to enable the number of men holding them to be reduced to the lowest number". In other words, instead of finding a way of getting close and storming the enemy line, the strategy evolved into making the defensive line so strong that it could be held by a minimum number of men, thus allowing large portions of the Army of the Potomac to be mobile and attack Lee’s flanks. Thus, strong points and redoubts on the original line began to take shape as enclosed forts. From right to left, construction began on Forts McGilvery, Stedman, Haskell, Morton, Meikel, Rice and Sedgwick. In mid to late August, it was felt that the defensive line was strong enough to permit another offensive.

Phase Two (a): August 20 to September 7, 1864

On August 14, II Corps moved north of the James once again in an attempt to draw men away from the Petersburg front. The V Corps quietly pulled out of their lines, while the IX Corps stretched out to cover the entire front line. The V Corps moved westward towards Globe Tavern on the Weldon Railroad to cut Lee’s supply line, with the IX attempting to maintain contact with its right flank. The several engagements stemming from these movements would collectively become known as Second Deep Bottom, Globe Tavern, and Reams Station (August 13-25, 1864). The capture of the railroad on August 18-19 was followed by orders on the 26th to extend the fortified lines to encompass this newly won territory. As before, the soldiers dug in and the line was now extended westward from Fort Davis, near the Jerusalem Plank Road, to an area south of Globe Tavern, thereby "refusing" the flank. From right to left, the forts that were constructed were Forts Alexander Hays, Howard, Wadsworth (where the line turned south) and Dushane, which became the new anchor to the flank. These works and intervening entrenchments were made defensible by September 7, 1864.

Phase Two (b): September 8 to October/November, 1864

Michler’s report states (on page 174) that "During the first few days of September he…traced a line from the bastion works (Fort Dushane) on the Weldon railroad to the rear of the camps of the armies operating against Petersburg, its left resting…near Fort Bross". This phase of fort building logically followed the initial part of this phase. As stated above, the new defensive line began at Fort Dushane and generally ran east, with the facing of the forts towards the south, the obvious purpose being to protect the Army of the Potomac from attack from the rear. Starting with Dushane and running east, the following forts began construction: Forts Davison, McMahon, Stevenson, Blaisdell and Kelly. Unlike previous phases, the main work of fort building seemed to be taken over by the 50th N.Y.V.E. The likely reason is that there was little chance of enemy activity in this quarter. Engineer troops were too valuable to be exposed to enemy fire unnecessarily. When they were placed on the front lines to work, the work was usually performed at night. Even this did not eliminate casualties. In their company Record of Events summary, Company M reported, "On the night of the 24th [September, 1864] Lt. Waldo and 25 men were engaged in building abattis in front of Fort Sedgewick. On account of the Picket firing screens of timber were put up to protect the men, but in spite of this precaution Private Peter L. Houck, Jr. was struck by a minnie ball and mortally wounded". The final finishing touches on this line were completed in late October/November of 1864, connecting with the Phase One entrenchments just west of Fort Bross. Now, the Federal line was 25 miles in length, from the Appomattox River on the right, to the left firmly anchored on the Blackwater Swamp.

Phase Three: September 29 to November 6, 1864

In late September, Grant again decided to attack both flanks of the Army of Northern Virginia at once, in an attempt to outflank Lee, or at least stretch the Confederate line a little further. The Army of the James attacked toward Richmond, forcing Lee to shift troops to reinforce that sector. In the meantime, V and IX Corps marched westward toward the Peebles Farm area, where the unfinished Confederate defensive line was thinly held. These actions, known as Fort Harrison, Peebles Farm, and Darbytown Road (Sept. 30-Oct. 7, 1864), resulted in taking more ground from Rebel forces. And although the pontoon trains of the engineers were not put to use (since there was no decisive breakthrough), several companies of the 50th N.Y.V.E. were sent forward immediately to begin fortifying the new line. In just a few days, several of the new forts were already in a defensible condition. This latest defensive line connected with Fort Wadsworth on its right. Moving to the left, circling up towards Rebel lines, and then back around to the rear, this new defensive line came to be known as "The Fishhook". Going in the same counter-clockwise direction, the earthworks under construction were Forts Keene, Urmston, Conahey, Fisher, Welch, Gregg, Sampson, Cummings, Emery, Siebert and Clarke. Fort Clarke nearly connected back with Fort Dushane on the Weldon R.R., thus enclosing the left flank of the Union line. In the middle of the "hook" was Fort Wheaton, previously Confederate Fort Archer, that the engineers "reversed". It was appropriate that all except one of these forts was named after officers who lost their lives during the attack in the Peeble’s Farm offensive. Once the area was secure, the 50th Engineers moved into the area, establishing their camp and subsequent winter quarters to the rear of Fort Urmston. But it wasn’t time for the engineers to go into hibernation just yet. Concerned for the security of their right flank, several companies of the 50th were ordered to construct two forts on the ridge immediately behind the original defensive lines on the far right. Consequently, Fort Avery and the innocuous-sounding Fort Friend were completed. An interesting fact about these two forts is that they were the only forts in the Petersburg area named for geographical locations, after the houses near where they were constructed. This was to be the last new fort building of 1864, since the offensive of late October, First Hatcher's Run (Oct. 27, 1864), failed to win any more new ground to build upon. Even so, with the Federal line now 32 miles in length, including 36 forts and 50 batteries, Confederate lines were stretched almost to the maximum.

Phase Four: January-February, 1865

With the new year, came new considerations by the Army of the Potomac high command for the security of its defensive lines. Fort Fisher, the closest Federal fort to Confederate lines in the "Fishhook", and thus the most exposed, was a relatively small, seven-gun fort. Therefore, orders were cut to enlarge and strengthen it. The 50th N.Y.V.E. went to work, and before long, the "new" Fort Fisher, boasting nineteen gun positions was put into a defensible condition, although not completely finished before Petersburg was captured. In late January, to strengthen a weak point in the lines, an existing battery between Forts Keene and Urmston was strengthened and added to the list of forts, this one named Fort Tracy. This would be the final fort built during the war in the Petersburg area. About that time, Grant ordered another sweep to the left, resulting in the battle of Second Hatcher's Run (Feb. 5-7, 1865). Enough ground was gained that enabled a defensive line to be dug from the environs of Fort Sampson on the southwest edge of the "Fishhook" four miles southwest to the Vaughan Road where it crossed Hatcher’s Run. This nicely secured the flank from a Confederate attack and correspondingly provided a staging area for the Army of the Potomac. The quality of the Federal military engineering is made evident by the failure of Lee's desperate attempt to break the Union lines at Fort Stedman (March 26, 1865). With the advent of spring, Grant and Meade pushed a strong force towards the left, in a final effort to extenuate Lee’s lines. The result was the Five Forks Campaign (March 29-April 1, 1865), the offensive which led up to the Final Assaults (April 2, 1865). At last, Grant and Meade achieved the breakthrough they had so long sought. Meanwhile, Lee’s prediction of his army’s retreat as being a "matter of time" became fulfilled.

The Final March…

The last few days of the Petersburg siege were spent by most of the 50th N.Y.V.E. in the area of the Old Stage Road & Vaughan Roads, "corduroying" them for the passage of the supply trains trying to keep up with their respective corps. At 5 p.m. on April 2, they received orders to march northwards to General Headquarters on the Boydton Plank Road, near Petersburg, which they did. Ironically, their most direct route lay right through the area they had worked so hard to build and maintain. Lt. Col. Ira Spaulding’s report simply mentions their route as being "via Fort Fisher". How many men, upon marching past that fort realized it would be the last time they would see it? After nine months of arduous work in constructing some of the most elaborate fortifications of the war, in a single day they left it all behind in pursuit of Lee.


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