The Siege of Petersburg – Impressions from a Civil War Battlefield Park
“Hold on with a bull-dog whip and chew and choke as much as possible.” – US President Abraham Lincoln to Union General Ulysses S. Grant during the Siege of Petersburg
June 1864. The American Civil War is now in its fourth year. General Ulysses S. Grant, commanding the Union’s Armies of the United States, has a strategic opportunity to hasten the end to the war if his forces can seize the Confederate logistics hub at Petersburg, Virginia. If successful, Grant’s seizure of Petersburg could have two immediate effects. First, it might open the road to the rebel capital of Richmond. Second, it may greatly hamper General Robert E. Lee’s ability to supply his forces in the field. Confederate military leaders, cognizant of the danger, previously ordered their soldiers to construct defensive belts around Petersburg. Unable to conquer Richmond from the north, Grant changes direction and orders his army to take Petersburg, resulting in a prolonged near-siege of the “Cockade City.” (Petersburg was not completely surrounded and continued to receive supplies by rail; however, this near-siege is known as the Siege of Petersburg.) Nine months and 70,000 casualties later, Confederate soldiers still hold the city—a situation that remained unchanged until nearly the end of the war. The city fell just one week before the Confederate surrender at Appomattox Court House.
Petersburg is best known for the Union attempt to force a breakout during the iconic Battle of the Crater, depicted in the 2003 drama Cold Mountain. While the Crater is an impressive engineering and mining feat, it is but one aspect of the overall Petersburg campaign. The scale of the siege is almost unsurpassed in the Civil War, at its peak involving over 160,000 men fighting along a 37-mile front for nearly 10 months. By comparison, the Siege of Vicksburg lasted less than 3 months and the Battle of Gettysburg a mere 3 days. The scale of command and control is equally impressive, with General Grant actively overseeing operations from the Shenandoah Valley campaign to Sherman’s March to the Sea through Atlanta. Although not unique to Petersburg, the battle’s evolution from movement and maneuver to aspects of sustained trench warfare meant long-term, daily exposure to inclement weather as well as enemy rifle and artillery fire. Indeed, surviving veterans of Petersburg likely found common ground with their descendants who served in World War I.
Petersburg National Battlefield officially opened on July 3rd, 1926, and now draws an estimated 400,000 visitors per year. The battlefield is preserved in three major sections dubbed the Eastern Front, Western Front and Five Forks Battlefield. I recommend you begin your trip at the Eastern Front Battlefield visitor center located near the park entrance. The visitor center functions as a small museum, movie theater, gift shop and learning center. You may wish to view the center’s film on the siege. From here, sightseers may take the self-guided Park Road Tour that is a one-way paved route of the major points of interest including numerous earthen forts, batteries and the Crater. Visitors may stop along the road to further explore the battlefield or take advantage of the extensive trail network crisscrossing the park. Upon exiting the Eastern Front, visitors may continue the extended 33-mile route through the Western Front and conclude their tour at Five Forks Battlefield. The park is conveniently located near several other points of interest in three general areas. Petersburg’s historic downtown features the Siege Museum, Blandford Church and Cemetery, numerous antique shops and quaint local restaurants. The nearby town of Hopewell includes Grant’s siege headquarters located in the former Appomattox Manor plantation as well as the City Point National Cemetery. The battlefield abuts Fort Lee Army Post, home to the US Army Quartermaster Museum and the US Army Women’s Museum. Non-military personnel may visit these two museums, but will have to enter the base via controlled access gates.
Today, the battlefield bears little resemblance to its Civil War-era appearance. During the war, the approaches to Petersburg were covered by crop fields offering little cover and concealment to Union or Confederate soldiers—hence their extensive employment of defensive works. Civil War buffs anticipating the sweeping vistas of Gettysburg may be surprised at the surrounding forest more akin to the Wilderness or Shiloh. Similarly, Petersburg is unusual in the small number of battlefield monuments commemorating particular leaders or units who served during the siege. Park rangers attribute their absence to the fact that so few soldiers returned to Petersburg after the war as evidenced in surviving diaries and letters from the era. Regardless, Petersburg Battlefield is now a popular location for outdoors enthusiasts who enjoy hiking, bicycling, horseback riding or running. Visitors, especially those who venture into the surrounding forest, should expect to encounter local wildlife including deer, woodchucks and snakes. Word to the wise, I strongly encourage trail users to stop at the Visitor Center for a map. Paths are clear and well marked, but extensive with miles of paved roads and hiking trails.
Although Petersburg may not enjoy the celebrity of more famous battlefield parks, it is definitely worth touring. Its proximity to Washington D.C., Richmond and the I-95 interstate corridor make it a well-situated stop for those traveling along the East Coast. Park admissions are very reasonable, just $3 per person or $5 per vehicle. Frequent visitors may wish to opt for the $15 annual fee. The park is open daily from 9am to 5pm and closed just three times per year, on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. Petersburg Battlefield hosts numerous events throughout the year including displays, reenactments, period music, lectures and even artillery demonstrations. For more information, please visit the Petersburg National Battlefield official website at http://www.nps.gov/pete/index.htm
Major Christopher J. Heatherly enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1994 and earned his commission via Officer Candidate School in 1997. He has held a variety of assignments in special operations, Special Forces, armored, and cavalry units. His operational experience includes deployments to Afghanistan, Iraq, South Korea, Kuwait, Mali, and Nigeria. He holds master’s degrees from the University of Oklahoma and the School of Advanced Military Studies.
The opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not reflect those of the United States Government, the Department of Defense, or the United States Army.