Visiting Petersburg National Battlefield

In May of 1864, the Army of the Potomac embarked on yet another campaign to destroy Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army in Virginia and capture the Confederate capitol of Richmond. This time, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant was directing all Union operations, and he was not about to turn back. The two armies slugged it out at the Battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, the North Anna River, and Cold Harbor, with appalling casualty totals. But Grant continued south, and on June 14th, the Union Army began crossing the James River and closed in on Petersburg, an important transportation center south of Richmond. On June 15th, the advanced elements of Union army attacked the city from the east.

At the time of the initial attacks, Petersburg was lightly defended. But Federal commanders were hesitant to press the attack, despite some early success. The Union delays allowed the Confederates to reinforce their defensive lines at Petersburg, and while Union attacks continued through June 18th, the now strengthened Rebel lines hurled back the assaults. The Union command decided to entrench and begin a siege.

Artillery at Fort Stedman, Petersburg National Battlefield

But while both sides built extensive lines of trenches and fortified defenses, the Union army also remained on the offensive. The Federals slowly extended their lines around the southern end of Petersburg and to the west, cutting rail lines and roads, and fighting several battles as they did so. The smaller Confederate army was forced to spread itself thinner and thinner.

Battery XI Petersburg National Battlefield

On April 1st, 1865, Union forces were victorious in the Battle of Five Forks, a key road intersection southwest of Petersburg. With that victory, the Federals threatened the last rail line into Petersburg. On April 2nd, Grant ordered a general assault , which resulted in a breakthrough of the Confederate lines. The Confederate forces abandoned both Richmond and Petersburg on April 2nd and 3rd, and headed west. The Union armies were in full pursuit, ending the Petersburg siege and campaign, and beginning the Appomattox Campaign, which resulted in Lee’s surrender of his army at Appomattox Court House on April 9th.

Petersburg National Battlefield

Since the campaign and siege of Petersburg covered a lot of territory, the Petersburg National Battlefield is also spread out over an approximately 33 mile driving tour. The first stop is the location of Grant’s Headquarters at City Point, now Hopewell, Virginia. This location at the confluence of the Appomattox and James Rivers turned into a very busy port for supplying the Union army with food, ammunition, reinforcements, and anything else needed to conduct the siege. Grant also utilized the railroads in town, and built additional lines to transport supplies up to the Union lines. Grant had accepted the post of General in Chief with the condition that his headquarters would be in the field, not in Washington, so he essentially ran all the campaigns of the war from City Point from mid June 1864 until April 1865. President Lincoln, among others, visited Grant here. Grant’s Headquarters was located on Appomattox Plantation, but the high command did not live in the large house on the property. A series of 22 cabins was constructed for Grant and his staff to live in on the plantation grounds. Grant’s cabin is the only one that survives (with about 10% of it being original).  It was moved to Philadelphia in 1865 where it remained until it was acquired by the National Park Service in 1983, and returned to Appomattox Plantation.

Grant’s Cabin, Petersburg National Battlefield

Driving southwest on the tour route brings the visitor to the Eastern Front Visitor Center in Petersburg itself. The Visitor Center is a good place to get background information on the campaign and pick up a brochure with a map. There is a introductory video as well as museum exhibits at the Visitor Center. A trail from the Visitor Center leads to Confederate Battery 5, part of Petersburg’s original line of defense built in 1862. From Battery 5, the trail leads to the location of The Dictator, a much photographed (for its time) 13 inch seacoast mortar that was fired from a railroad flatcar. The mortar on display is a one of the same type and not the actual Dictator.

The Dictator Petersburg National Battlefield

Continuing on the park tour road a short distance brings the visitor to several points of significance, including the preserved earthworks of several batteries and forts that were along the siege line. One can get a sense of just how close the two sides’ trenches were to each other in this immediate area. There are not a lot of monuments to individual fighting units at Petersburg, but one on the battlefield here is dedicated to the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery. On June 18th, 1864, in one of the last Federal attacks before establishing the siege, the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery was ordered to make a frontal assault across open ground against the Confederate line at Colquitt’s Salient. Out of approximately 900 engaged, 632 were casualties, including 210 killed or mortally wounded, all within the space of 10 to 15 minutes. It was the largest number of casualties by a Union regiment in a single action in the entire war.

Fort Stedman, Petersburg National Battlefield

Colquitt’s Salient played an important role in the last offensive operation undertaken by the Confederates during the siege. On March 25th, 1865, Confederates from Colquitt’s Salient  launched a predawn attack on Union Fort Stedman and Batteries X and XI on either side of Stedman, all of which were only a couple hundred yards away. The Union troops were initially driven out, but counterattacked and retook the positions.

Colquitt’s Salient Petersburg National Battlefield

A little farther along the road is the location of perhaps the most famous battle of the siege. On July 30th, 1864, after several weeks of tunneling under the Confederate lines, the Federals packed 8000 pounds of black powder into the tunnel underneath the Confederates and detonated a massive explosion. The plan was to rush troops around the resulting enormous bomb crater and on into Petersburg, taking the city before Rebel reinforcements could be sent to the location. But the attack was poorly executed, including troops running into the crater, not around it, and getting trapped. The result, called the Battle of the Crater, was a horrible failure, at a cost of 3800 casualties, including 500 dead. The earth still bears the scars of the explosion.

Part of The Crater at Petersburg National Battlefield

Continuing southwest on the tour road takes the visitor along the lines established to the west as the siege wore on, passing several fortifications from both sides, as well as the locations of some significant actions that occurred as the Federals extended their lines and cut Confederate supply lines. The tour road eventually reaches the Five Forks Battlefield, named for the five roads that converge at the intersection there. There is a newer Visitor Contact Station near the intersection, which features a film, exhibits, and hiking trails that fan out from it. The locations of significant events of the battle are marked with signs. The roads are still in use and can be quite busy with highway speed traffic at certain times, so exercise caution when viewing the battlefield.

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