During the Civil War, Northern and Southern armies usually waited for the spring thaw before starting military operations. But in 1865, U.S. General Ulysses S. Grant didn’t wait for spring.
On February 6, 1865, William Poore and his comrades in Harris’ Brigade headed back to their camp after spending time at a forward position near Dabney’s Mills. They perhaps looked forward to a warm camp and relief from the ice and cold. Before they could reach the camp an order came to turn about and head toward the enemy.
William and his fellow graycoats ran for the next 4 miles down Boydton Plank Road. The road led from Petersburg to the southwest. Where it crossed Hatcher’s Run, the brigade moved 2 miles through a swamp and thick woods toward the sound of heavy firing.
The firing came from a Union cavalry division and most of two federal infantry corps. U.S. Brigadier General David Gregg’s cavalry division had galloped up on February 5 to destroy Confederate supply wagons they believed to be moving along Boydton Plank Road.
As it turned out, little traffic moved on the road, but the federals didn’t know that until Gregg’s troopers reached the road. Once over the plank road, the Northerners threatened to cut the Southside Railroad, Petersburg’s last rail link to the west and south.
To protect Gregg’s eastern flank, Major General Gouverneur K. Warren with the V Corps crossed Hatcher’s Run and dug in on Vaughan Road. To protect Gregg’s western flank, Major General Andrew A. Humphreys’ two divisions of II Corps dug in near Armstrong’s Mill. Confederate divisions under Major General Henry Heth and Brigadier General Clement A. Evans attacked the Yanks that afternoon. But the bluecoats beat them back.
Over the next 24 hours, more troops arrived for both sides.
William and his comrades in Major General William Mahone’s Division, under the command of Brigadier General Joseph Finegan, arrived on February 6. The other brigades in the division had already arrived and gone into action when William and his comrades got into the line on the left of General John B. Gordon’s Second Corps. This must have been about 5 p.m.
William and his fellow infantrymen charged the Yankees and drove the enemy nearly 2 miles. The federals fell back from Boydton Plank Road. That night snow, hail, and sleet fell as both sides dug in. The next day, the federals probed rebel defenses, but no major fighting took place.
The Confederates had succeeded in protecting Boydton Plank Road, but the federals had succeeded in extending their lines 3 miles closer to the Southside Railroad and further south of Petersburg. Petersburg’s thin line of de-fenders stretched thinner again.
The Army of Northern Virginia had a thirty-seven mile front to defend during the early months of 1865. Its commander wanted to guarantee the earthworks protecting Richmond and Petersburg were up to his standards.
“Opinions seem to differ as to Gen. Lee as a tactician or an invader,” commented a Union counterpart, “but all agree that when it comes to defensive operations, ‘Old Bob’ understands his business.”
Robert E. Lee took command of the principal Confederate army in the summer of 1862, when the Army of the Potomac had backed it against the capital’s defenses. Secure in the opinion that the massive fortifications whose construction he oversaw would provide a safe fallback point, Lee executed a series of vicious attacks that drove the cautious George B. McClellan’s army away.
Two years later the Union forces returned but this time they would not leave.
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