On the morning of June 17, Beauregard had in his trenches virtually all the troops immediately available to him. His lines were struck at dawn in a series of well planned attacks by the Federals, who had been steadily reinforced by more units from the Army of the Potomac. Two brigades from the Ninth Corps took advantage of a deep ravine and a gap in the Confederate lines to capture a section of Beauregard's position near the Shand house. Follow-up actions later in the day were less successful, but by nightfall it was clear that portions of the Petersburg line had been compromised by the Federal advances.
June 18th promised to be a day of decision, with the overwhelming weight of the Union Legions certain to swamp Beauregard's thinly spread units.
Rise to the Moment
Beauregard once again rose to the moment. In the early morning hours of June 18, he ordered a secret withdrawal to a new defensive line much closer to town. When the confident Yankees sprang to the attack at dawn, they found empty trenches. There was confusion and the hesitation while reports traveled up the chain of command and scouts pushed out to locate the new Rebel positions. Through his unexpected maneuver, Beauregard managed to throw the Federal military machine out of sync.
Once more, brigades and regiments lunged forward in a haphazard fashion, allowing the out numbered defenders to concentrate to meet each in turn successfully. Attempts to coordinate a united assault made by Gen. Meade (who had been placed in overall command in the field on June 16) fell apart, and hundreds of Union soldiers paid the price.
In one action this day, nearly 900 men in the First Maine Heavy Artillery charged across an open field near the Hare house, right into the sights of Beauregard's waiting veterans. When the dazed survivors reeled back after ten minutes in the open killing ground, 632 of their comrades lay bleeding or dead on that field. "They were laid out in squads and companies," recollected one horrified onlooker. As the last column of the Federals withdrew at the end of this day, the leading elements of the Army of Northern Virginia entered the town. Lee who reached Petersburg at 11:00 a.m., now recognized that the focus of combat had shifted here.
Marching at the head of Lee's column was the Twelfth Virginia, which included the Petersburg Rifles. Private George Bernard savored the hometown welcome. "The great number of ladies that greeted us along the streets made us feel more as through we were going to participate in some festivity," he remembered.
Four days of desperate fighting had cost the Federal armies more than 10,000 casualties and the Confederates about 4,000. Grant had not taken Petersburg and now faced a military siege. Lee had been forced into a relatively static position where he had no choice but to stand and defend Petersburg and Richmond.
Monument to the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery at Petersburg Battlefield Park