Victory at Five Forks on April 1, 1865 allowed Federal forces to sever the last major supply line – the South Side Railroad – into Petersburg from the west. With that, Lieutenant-General Ulysses S. Grant put in motion his plan to shatter the Petersburg defenses. Shortly after receiving news from Five Forks, Grant ordered a general bombardment of the Confederate lines. This preparatory artillery fire started the last massed bombardment of the war (saving, perhaps how you want to measure things, the siege operations at Fort Blakely in Alabama). And it was certainly one of the war’s largest.
For the final week of the Siege of Petersburg, Major-General Henry Hunt reported the Army of the Potomac had 202 cannon in the field batteries and 188 in the siege artillery. These ranged from 100-pdr Parrott Rifles down to 24-pdr Coehorn mortars. And that figure does not include the artillery supporting the Army of the James or the Cavalry Corps, which was operating detached. These weapons were spread out along the lines from Richmond, through Bermuda Hundred, all the way around Petersburg. A mass of firepower and a tool to pry open the lock at the doors of the Confederate capital.
Grant’s orders were to commence a general bombardment along all the lines at 10 p.m. on April 1. This was the spectacle observed by Colonel Charles Wainwright that night from Five Forks. The artillerist maintained that bombardment until around 1 a.m. on the 2nd. That was only the introductory verses to the main chorus to start later that morning. At 4 a.m. the Federal batteries resumed firing to cover an infantry assault. From that point on, the bombardment was general along all the lines.
Brigadier-General Henry Abbot, commanding the siege train, recorded:
My artillery was hotly engaged in the battles resulting in the capture of Petersburg, and in the demonstrations made to prevent General Mahone from leaving the Bermuda Hundred line, firing 5,560 rounds during April 1 and 2.
In perspective, this firing was more than on any three days during the Second Major Bombardment of Fort Sumter in the fall of 1863. It was more than during two weeks of firing during the height of the Third Major Bombardment of Fort Sumter in July 1864. And keep in mind that Abbot had a number of large caliber weapons in action – Parrotts and mortars in particular – as were used against Fort Sumter. But Abbot had a whole lot more field-caliber weapons in his batteries.
Brigadier-General John C. Tidball, commanding the Ninth Corps Artillery, noted:
At 4 a.m., the hour appointed for the assault upon the enemy’s works in front of Fort Sedgwick, the artillery upon the whole line promptly opened and was immediately replied to in the most vigorous manner by the enemy, and it is probable that never since the invention of gunpowder has such a cannonade taken place.
Tidball went on to say, “Fourteen thousand two hundred and fifty-one rounds is the amount of artillery ammunition expended during the engagement.” Think about that in terms of the logistical arrangements required just to get those projectiles and powder to City Point… and Tidball’s numbers are just for the Ninth Corps, and not covering that of the other three corps in the Army of the Potomac, or any of the Army of the James. (Though I would point out that Wainwright’s Fifth Corps guns were silent on April 2. They had fired their last shots in anger, and of the war, on March 31 at White Oak Road.)
In his report, Tidball highlighted the actions of the Seventh Maine Light Artillery, under Captain Adelbert B. Twitchell. With four 12-pdr Napoleons, Twitchell’s gunners manned Fort Sedgwick.
Twitchell’s battery contributed to the firing started during the night of April 1 by firing one round per gun every five minutes from 11 p.m. until midnight. The battery resumed firing at the time appointed for the larger April 2 bombardment:
At 4 a.m., April 2, at the signal from Fort Avery, all my guns opened, firing rapidly for fifteen minutes. Ceased firing for a time as the infantry was gathering for the charge in our front. The rebel line was carried just before the break of the day. The enemy threw shell and canister quite rapidly for a few moments, but gave too high elevations, as nearly all the missiles passed over our works.
Twitchell then sent some of his artillerymen forward to work cannons captured in the Confederate lines. The men, along with detachments from all along the Federal lines, serviced six Napoleons and two 3-inch rifles. But Twitchell’s work from Fort Sedgwick was not over that day:
From Fort Sedgwick we observed two or three charges by the rebels during the day, and my guns sent shell and case-shot into their ranks with effect. About 8 a.m. I ordered that one 3-inch Parrot gun of Battery D, Pennsylvania Artillery, be taken from Battery 21 and placed on the left flank of my guns in Sedgwick, which, in connection with the left gun of my battery, could cover the left flank of Curtin’s brigade, Potter’s division.
These guns were well served and did good service during the day in checking the rebels, constantly threatening the left flank. My men worked without intermission during the entire day of April 2 in serving their guns and in receiving and sending ammunition to the line occupied by our troops….
As near as I can judge I expended about 1,000 rounds of ammunition during the night of April 1 and the day of April 2….
Though Twichell’s tally of rounds fired likely included some of those sent forward to the captured guns, a thousand rounds is a large quantity by any measure. And those were fired over two periods, accounting for somewhere between 18 and 20 hours total.
We often rush past the last assaults on the Petersburg line in haste as we read through in our rush to Appomattox. But it must be remembered that the Confederates gave up the lines at Petersburg only after displaying the same stubbornness seen on so many battlefields earlier in the war. To overcome the Confederate lines, the Federals used artillery on a scale seldom seen up to that time in the history of warfare. If it was not, as Tidball seemed to think, the greatest cannonade ever, then it was high up on the list.
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 46, Part I, Serial 95, pages 659-661, 663, 1072-3, and 1076-7.)