02
Apr
09

On This Day, April 2: Petersburg Line Broken

April 2, 1865

Union captures Petersburg line and General Hill is killed

After a ten-month siege, Union forces under Ulysses S. Grant capture the trenches around Petersburg, Virginia, and Confederate General Robert E. Lee leads his troops on a desperate retreat westward.

The ragged Confederate troops could no longer maintain the 40-mile network of defenses that ran from southwest of Petersburg to north of Richmond, the Rebel capital 25 miles north of Petersburg. Through the winter, desertion and attrition melted Lee’s army down to less than 60,000, while Grant’s army swelled to over 120,000. Grant attacked Five Forks southwest of Petersburg on April 1, scoring a huge victory that cut Lee’s supply line and inflicted 5,000 casualties. The next day, Lee wrote to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, “I think it absolutely necessary that we should abandon our position tonight…”

Grant’s men attacked all along the Petersburg front. In the predawn hours, hundreds of Federal cannon roared to life as the Yankees bombarded the Rebel fortifications. Said one soldier, “the shells screamed through the air in a semi-circle of flame.” At 5:00 in the morning, Union troops silently crawled toward the Confederates, shrouded in darkness. Confederate pickets alerted the troops, and the Yankees were raked by heavy fire, but the determined troops poured forth and began overrunning the trenches. Four thousand Union troops were killed or wounded, but a northern officer wrote, “It was a great relief, a positive lifting of a load of misery to be at last let at them.”

Confederate General Ambrose Powell Hill, a corps commander in the Army of Northern Virginia and one of Lee’s most trusted lieutenants, rode to the front to rally his men. As he approached some trees with his aide, two Union soldiers emerged and fired, killing Hill instantly. Hill had survived four years of war and dozens of battles only to die during the final days of the Confederacy. When Lee received the news, he quietly said “He is at rest now, and we who are left are the ones to suffer.”

By nightfall, President Davis and the Confederate government were in flight and Richmond was on fire. Retreating Rebel troops set ablaze several huge warehouses to prevent them from being captured by the Federals and the fires soon spread. With the army and government officials gone, bands of thugs roamed the streets looting what was left.

“Union captures Petersburg line and General Hill is killed.” 2009. The History Channel website. 2 Apr 2009, 11:12 http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history.do?action=Article&id=2155.

On This Day

1513 – Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon sighted Florida. The next day he went ashore.

1792 – The U.S. Congress passed the Coinage Act to regulate the coins of the United States. The act authorized $10 Eagle, $5 half-Eagle & 2.50 quarter-Eagle gold coins & silver dollar, dollar, quarter, dime & half-dime to be minted.

1801 – During the Napoleonic Wars, the Danish fleet was destroyed by the British at the Battle of Copenhagen.

1917 – U.S. President Woodrow Wilson presented a declaration of war against Germany to the U.S. Congress.

1958 – The National Advisory Council on Aeronautics was renamed NASA.

1982 – Argentina invaded the British-owned Falkland Islands. The following June Britain took the islands back.

1996 – Lech Walesa resumed his old job as an electrician at the Gdansk shipyard. He was the former Solidarity union leader who became Poland’s first post-war democratic president.

April 2, 1979

Anthrax poisoning kills 62 in Russia

The world’s first anthrax epidemic begins in Ekaterinburg, Russia (now Sverdlosk), on this day in 1979. By the time it ended six weeks later, 62 people were dead. Another 32 survived serious illness. Ekaterinburg, as the town was known in Soviet times, also suffered livestock losses from the epidemic.

As people in Ekaterinburg first began reporting their illnesses, the Soviet government announced that the cause was tainted meat that the victims had eaten. Since the town was known in intelligence circles for its biological-weapons plant, much of the rest of the world was immediately skeptical of the Soviet explanation.

It was not until 13 years later, in 1992, that the epidemic was finally explained: workers at the Ekaterinburg weapons plant failed to replace a crucial filter, causing a release of anthrax spores into the outside air. The wind carried the spores to a farming area and infected people and livestock in the area. Had the town been downwind from the plant at the time of the release, the death toll might have been considerably higher.

Anthrax is a bacterium that can enter the body through multiple routes. It is most deadly when it is inhaled. It prompts the production of toxic molecules that destroy essential proteins in the body’s cells, usually in the lymph nodes.

In 2001, anthrax spores were used as a weapon of terror in the United States. Spores were mailed to media organizations and members of the U.S. Senate. Five people died and another 13 were infected, but survived. The investigation into who was responsible is ongoing.

“Anthrax poisoning kills 62 in Russia.” 2009. The History Channel website. 2 Apr 2009, 11:15 http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history.do?action=Article&id=391.

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