William Sommer

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Petersburg, Siege of (1864).The Siege of Petersburg, Virginia, began in June 1864 when the Union Army of the Potomac, led by Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade but closely supervised by Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, crossed the James River after failing to destroy Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia during a series of battles from the Wilderness to Cold Harbor. From 15–18 June, the Federals made repeated efforts to seize Petersburg, an important railroad center twenty miles south of Richmond. When these failed, Grant initiated siege operations, which continued until 2 April 1865.

To some extent the term siege is a misnomer, since the Union forces neither surrounded the city nor made systematic attempts to breach its defenses by regular approach. Instead, Grant used the trench system to hold an extended line economically while he dispatched mobile forces to cut the three railroads that connected Petersburg with the rest of the Confederacy. Lee used the trenches in identical fashion to send mobile forces of his own to block these ventures. To keep Lee on his toes, however, Grant occasionally resorted to direct attacks on the Petersburg defenses.

The most famous of these attacks was the Battle of the Crater (30 July 1864), when Union forces exploded a huge mine beneath a Confederate earthwork called Elliott's Salient. The mine shaft, 511 feet long, ran to a point 20 feet under the enemy work, and when finished, was packed with 8,000 pounds of black powder that when detonated created an enormous crater 30 feet deep. But the subsequent Union infantry assault was wretchedly coordinated, and counterattacking Confederate troops quickly sealed the breach.

Other major actions during the siege included the Battles of Reams Station (25 August 1864) and New Market Heights (28–30 September). These and other engagements were costly but indecisive. By early 1865, however, their incremental effect was to stretch Lee's lines near the breaking point. Aware that a powerful additional Union army under Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman was thrusting northward through the Carolinas, Lee understood that when Sherman arrived, the situation would be hopeless. Therefore, on 25 March 1865, he attacked Fort Stedman, hoping to force Grant to contract his line enough so that Lee could slip away to the south, join a scratch Confederate force in eastern North Carolina, and stop or destroy Sherman's army. This desperate bid resulted only in the loss of 5,000 sorely needed infantry. On 1 April, Union forces finally crushed the extreme western end of Lee's line at the Battle of Five Forks. Lee then made preparations to evacuate Petersburg, but a general Union assault in the predawn hours of 2 April severely punished his army before he could get away. Richmond fell once Lee's army left Petersburg. Closely pursued by Grant, Lee surrendered a week later at Appomattox Courthouse. Casualties for the ten‐month siege totaled about 42,000 Union troops and 28,000 Confederates.
[See also Civil War: Military and Diplomatic Course; Confederate Army; Union Army; Wilderness to Petersburg Campaign.]


Richard J. Sommers , Richmond Redeemed, 1979.
Noah Andre Trudeau , The Last Citadel: Petersburg, Virginia, June 1864–April 1865, 1991.

Mark Grimsley

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PETERSBURG, SIEGE OF (1864–1865). Repulsed by the Confederate forces of Gen. Robert E. Lee at Cold Harbor (3 June 1864), Gen. Ulysses S. Grant decided to approach Richmond, Va., from the south, through Petersburg. Crossing the James River at Wyanoke Neck on 14 June, his leading corps attacked Petersburg on 15 June. After three days of fighting, the federal troops captured the eastern defenses. Lee's army then arrived, occupied a shorter line nearer the city, and turned away the last assaults.

While waging siege operations on the eastern front, Grant pushed his left flank southwestward to envelop Petersburg and cut the railways leading south. Defeated at the Battle of the Crater, 30 July, Union forces finally succeeded in cutting the Weldon Railroad in late August. In September Grant extended his right flank across the James and captured Fort Harrison, eight miles south of Richmond, compelling Lee to move much of his army north of the James. The Confederates retreated until Lee decisively halted Grant's advance on 27 October, and field operations virtually ceased during the winter.

Foreseeing that when spring came his attenuated line would be broken by superior numbers, Lee, on 25 March 1865, assaulted Fort Stedman. The attack failed and

Grant countered on 29 March by sending Gen. Philip Sheridan, with heavy cavalry and infantry forces, to Dinwiddie Courthouse to destroy the Southside Railroad. Initially defeated on 31 March by divisions led by Gen. George Edward Pickett, Sheridan received reinforcements and on 1 April routed Pickett at Five Forks, rendering the railroad indefensible. Lee evacuated Petersburg and Richmond on 2 April and retreated westward.


Davis, William C. Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg. Alexandria, Va.: Time-Life Books, 1986.

Linderman, Gerald F. Embattled Courage: The Experience of Combat in the American Civil War. New York: Free Press, 1987.

Sommers, Richard J. Richmond Redeemed: The Siege at Petersburg. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1981.

Joseph MillsHanson/a. r.

See alsoCivil War ; Cold Harbor, Battle of ; Richmond Campaigns .

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William Sommer, 1867–1949, American painter and lithographer, b. Detroit. He was apprenticed as a lithographer and studied drawing with Julius Melchers in Detroit and drawing and painting in Munich. He settled near Cleveland. After years of painting part-time in addition to his work in lithography, he developed in the 1920s a highly personal style, which fused fine line and sensitive color into intense, evocative visions of rural scenes, children, and still lifes. Working chiefly in watercolor, he made portraits of children that are remarkable and highly original. Among his many works in the Cleveland Museum of Art are The Pompous Boy,Pink Snow, and The Blue Vase.