I recent had occasion to visit Petersburg National Battlefield, the national park that commemorates the penultimate engagement of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, and therefore, of the Civil War itself. The siege here lasted for more than nine long months. When Lee was finally defeated on April 2, 1865, he would retreat west towards the small village of Appomattox Court House, the place where he would surrender to Union General Ulysses S. Grant, effectively ending the Civil War.
The City of Petersburg, located 26 miles to the south of the Confederate capitol of Richmond, was a strategic transportation hub, crucial for sustaining the Confederate defenses around their capitol. In many ways, Richmond was the great white whale of the Union war efforts. Early in the war, in 1862, Union General George McClellan had sailed his army down the Chesapeake Bay to the Virginia Tidewater area. From there, he marched inland to make a direct assault on Richmond, and hopefully bring an early end to the war in what has become known as the Peninsula Campaign. As it so happened, he was defeated in the Seven Day’s Battles on the outskirts of Richmond. This forced him to retreat back north to Washington, setting up the Second Battle of Manassas later that summer, which I covered in a previous Parkasaurus post. In December of 1862 and again in May of 1863, the Union Amry of the Potomac towards Richmond under the commands of General Ambrose Burnside and General Joseph Hooker, respectively. They would in turn both be defeated 60 miles of the north of Richmond, trying to cross the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville.
Finally, in 1864, Union General Ulysses S. Grant would again approach Richmond from the north, having succeeded in crossing the Rappahannock River by defeating Robert E. Lee in the Battle of the Wilderness (near Chancellorsville) and the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, to the south of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, in May 1865. (Today, all four battlefields, Fredericskburg, Chancellorsville, Wilderness, and Spotsylvania Court House are preservered as part of the cumbersomely named Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania County Battlefields Memorial National Military Park – the longest park name in the U.S. National Park System!) Even the great General Grant, however, would at first be defeated in his attempt to directly take Richmond. As he continued what is now known as the Overland Campaign south from Fredericksburg, he would commit the blunder of making a direct frontal assault on Robert E. Lee’s troops at Cold Harbor, just 12 miles outside of Richmond, which is now part of Richmond National Battlefield Park, along with several sites from McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign two years earlier..
Having failed to take Richmond by direct assault, Grant circled his troops around Richmond to the city of Petersburg to the south. Petersburg was a key transportation hub with five railroad lines meeting there, crucial for resupplying the Confederate forces in Richmond. If Grant could capture Petersburg, the Confederates would be unable to resupply Richmond, and thus would be forced to abandon their capitol. Grant’s forces arrived in the vicinity of Petersburg in June 1864, and began to settle in for a long siege.
Although the main visitor center for Petersburg is closer to town, the first stop on our visit was, appropriately enough, Grant’s Headqauraters at City Point. City Point was a small village located where the Appomattox River meets the James River, and is roughly where the James River becomes significantly wider as it flows towards the Atlantic Ocean. Richmond is located approximately 17 miles upstream on the James River to the northwest, and Petersburg is located approximately 8 miles upsteam on the Appomattox River to the southwest. This strategic location would be the base from which Grant would conduct the siege of Petersburg for the next nine months.
The most-imposing remaining historic structure here is an old plantation house, the ironically named Appomattox Plantation. Grant, however, opted not to use the large house for himself. Instead, he actually stayed in the same tents as his soldiers, at least until a primitive cabin was built for him several months later as winter was approaching. This left the Plantation House to be used by the quartermasters, who were responsible for coordinating the continual massive daily influx of all sorts of food and supplies to sustain the Union siege forces.
Today the Plantation House serves as a mini Visitor Center for the Park. There is a short movie about the Park and a few exhibits inside the building. There are also a handful of wayside exhibits scattered around the property, which attempt to give some perspective to the absolutely massive logistical operations that occurred here during the siege. In addition to serving as the Union’s logistics hub and the headquarters for its senior leadership, the City Point area also supported the primary hospital caring for the sick and wounded soldiers being brought in almost daily from the front lines of the siege.
From City Point, the next stop was the Eastern Front Visitor Center, which is really the main visitor center for the Park, and is located seven miles to the southwest on the outskirts of town. This Visitor Center has the main Park movie, as well as some more extensive exhibits. From here, a short loop trail of less than a mile takes you to a replica of the cannon known as “The Dictator.” The Dictator was a 13-inch mortar that was used by the Union in the siege of Petersburg, and was one of the largest of its kind. Its not known what happened to the original, but it may not have survived. Contemporary accounts indicate that The Dictator was a truly terrifying and powerful weapon. The unusual profile of this cannon has since become one of the iconic images of Petersburg, and appears frequently in Petersburg National Battlefield’s promotional materials and merchandise.
From the Eastern Front Visitor Center a short driving tour takes you through seven additional stops in the main section of the Park. The stops variously take you to the locations of additional preserved earthworks from the siege lines, and the sites of various engagements that occurred as part of the siege. This area contains several miles of hiking trails, which connect to each of the stops, but these trails seem to primarily cater to locals from the city of Petersburg and from the nearby Fort Lee U.S. Army Base, rather than to national tourists.
In any event, the moral of the story from this driving tour is that from his headquarters and supply depot at City Point to the northwest, Grant was seeking to use his army to extend his siege lines and surround Petersburg to the south, and ultimately to the west. By surrounding Petersburg to the south and west, Grant hoped to sever the railroads that were supplying Petersburg, and ultimately Richmond. This would be a long, methodical effort, which would consume the more than nine months that the siege lasted.
Proceeding through Eastern Front Driving Tour, its worth making particular note of Stop #5, Fort Stedman. While much of the action on the Eastern Front takes place in June and July of 1864 while the siege is just beginning, Fort Stedman would rise to prominence in late March of 1865 as the siege was nearing its conclusion. Here is the place where Lee would make one last attempt to break the Union’s siege lines, and in so doing, set into motion the closing act of the Civil War – but more on that at the end of this post.
The last stop of the Eastern Front driving tour takes you to the place for which the siege of Petersburg is the most famous – the site of the Battle of the Crater. On July 30, 1864 the Union hatched a creative plan for breaking through the Confederate siegeworks, and hopefully bringing an early end to the siege. In the early morning hours before dawn on July 30, 1864 a massive mine was detonated below the Confederate earthworks, instantly killing nearly 300 Confederates. Left behind was a massive crater measuring nearly 170 feet long by 80 feet wide, and at least 30 feet deep. Two Confederate cannons, each weighing more than 1,700 pounds, had been hurled completely into the air and out of the earthworks.
Despite that early success, and the sheer ingenuity of the plan, almost everything after that moment was a disaster for the Union Army. The force of the explosion was so massive, and so unprecedented, that forces on both sides were slow to react. Contemporary accounts indicate that it took nearly 15 minutes both for the Confederates to return fire and for the Union forces to press their advantage. At that point, whether due to poor planning by the immediate commanding Generals, or poor training, or both, thousands of Union forces rushed into the resulting crater. However, instead of the crater being a defensive position from which to press their advantage against the Confederate forces on the surrounding remaining earthworks, the crater instead became a death trap. Confederate Brigadier General William Mahone would call it a “turkey shoot,” and Grant would later write that “it was the saddest affair that I have witnessed in this war.” At the end of the day, nearly 4,000 Union soldiers had been killed, wounded or captured against fewer than 1,500 Confederates.
After the war, the site of The Crater was naturally one of the first tourist attractions at the Petersburg Battlefield. After 150 years of erosion, weathering, visitation, and growth in vegetation, it is admittedly no longer the site that left soldiers on both sides gawking in amazement. Visiting the site today, however, one can still capture the sense of what truly close quarters these Civil War engagements were fought in. In an era before aircraft, and before mechanized warfare, battles were truly intimate affairs, with soldiers in close quarters seeing those who would kill and be killed. 80 feet wide was surely a significant crater for those soldiers fighting on foot, but with thousands of Union soldiers pouring into that space, only to meet whithering Confederate fire from above the rim, it must have felt like very tight quarters indeed.
The Crater marks the end of the Eastern Front driving tour. From there, a tour of the park takes you to the four-stop Western Front Driving Tour. Unlike the Eastern Front, where the National Park Service manages a large contiguous parcel of land, the National Park Service only manages a few, small, disconnected parcels on the Western Front. Nevertheless, the story here remains largely the same. Grant is continuing to extend his siege lines around Petersburg to the south and to the west to encricle Petersburg and cut the supply routes into the city. The Western Front driving tour takes you to several areas of preserved historic earthworks from the siege, and the sites of engagements that occurred during the siege. These range from engagements fought in August 1864 in the aftermath of the Crater to the final push that occurred on April 2, 1865 which finally broke the siege – but again, more on that in a moment.
The Western Front Driving Tour also includes Poplar Grove National Cemetery. Poplar Grove was established in 1866 to provide a final resting place for around 5,000 of the Union soldiers that had been buried around Petersburg during the siege. The National Park Service operates a small Visitor Contact Station here during the summer. The grave stones here are all flat to the ground, but are clearly marked.
The National Park Service also encourages travelers to visit historic downtown Petersburg. Although none of the historic properties in downtown Petersburg are actually managed as part of the national battlefield, there is apparently a whopping 64-stop auto tour available. We were only making a day trip to the park so did not have time for this particular side-trip, but it is good to know that it is available.
Our visit to the National Park Service areas at Petersburg National Battlefield, however, concluded with a visit to the FIve Forks Unit, which is located approximately 15 miles to the west of Petersburg. After Lee’s failed assault on Fort Stedman (back in the main portion of the Park) on March 25, 1865, Grant knew that he now had an opportunity to press his advantage. He dispatched a mobile force under Major General Philip Sheriden out to the west to try and cut the last remaining railway line into Petersburg. Lee dispatched General George Pickett (he of the famous Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg) to try and hold the lines. The two forces met on March 31st in the vicinity of Five Forks, an area where five roads come together just two miles south of the railroad line. By the evening of April 1st, the Union forces had won the battlefield. The next day, Sunday April 2nd, Grant ordered a number of assaults on the entrenched Confederate lines around Petersburg, and the nine month siege was over. Lee’s forces were retreteating to the north and to the west towards Appomattox Court House, where the Civil War would effectively end one week later on April 9th.
As it so happens, April 9th was Palm Sunday that year, the day on which Christians all over the world simultaneously mark both the triumphant entrance of Jesus of Nazareth into Jersualem and his subsequent crucifxtion at the hands of the Romans, an act that Christians believe was in atonement for the sins of the world. Just five days after that, Abraham Lincoln would be shot in Ford’s Theatre on Good Friday. Thus, the two climactic events of a war that Lincoln was already growing to understand in increasingly religious terms, as he had articulated just one month earlier, would occur on two massively symbolic religious anniversaries.
On a personal note, this visit to Petersburg National Battlefield also had symbolic importance to me. This visit marked the 300th Unit of the U.S. National Park System that I have visited at least once. It was also the last of the National Park Service Units primarily dedicated to the Civil War that I had not yet visited, and also the last National Park Service Unit in the Mid-Atlantic Region that I had not yet visited. So this visit carried a sense of accomplishment in my personal travels as well.
Our visit also included all five of the Passport Cancellations currently available at Petersburg National Battlefield:
- Grant’s Headquarters at City Point (in the Appomattox Plantation House)
- Petersburg, VA (at the Easter Front (Main) Visitor Center)
- Siege of Petersburg | 150th Anniversary of the Civil War (also at the Eastern Front (Main) Visitor Center)
- Poplar Grove National Cemetery (at the Eastern Front Visitor Center in the winter when the Poplar Grove Contact Station is closed)
- Five Forks, VA (at the Five Forks Contact Station)