Early War Years
Originally established as Charles City Point byin 1613, the area known as City Point was home to Captain Francis Eppes, who in 1635 patented some 1,700 acres of land he was granted by Governor West. Eppes called his property Hopewell Farm after the ship on which he came to Virginia. Before the Civil War, City Point was a small riverside community with few businesses or homes. In 1860, the largest landowner was . (The Petersburg National Battlefield preserves the family’s eighteenth-century residence, with nineteenth- and early twentieth-century additions). Like Eppes, most antebellum residents of City Point were engaged in agricultural pursuits, and in 1861, most enlisted in the Confederate army. By the spring of 1862, the town was caught between battling Union and Confederate forces.
During the first part of the, Confederate troops led by John Bankhead Magruder began a retreat from the vicinity of Yorktown toward the Confederate capital at . A flotilla of gunboats, including the famed USS Monitor, thrust up the , prompting most white residents of City Point to to the Confederate interior. Most of Eppes’s slaves, meanwhile, fled in the opposite direction, toward Union lines. Other slaves in the community probably did the same.
On May 19, 1862, members of the 4th and 22nd Georgia Infantry regiments engaged in a skirmish with about twenty Union troops by the banks of the James River. The Union navy responded by opening fire on City Point, damaging several homes. Meanwhile, Confederates captured some Union troops and killed and wounded others while they assisted sick white women in the town, sparking outrage from Union navy captain William Smith. Confederate general Benjamin Huger responded by telling Smith that the Union soldiers were “enemies,” whose “very presence is an injury, inflicting loss of millions to our citizens. You must expect to be treated as enemies.” Union navy ships remained off City Point through most of the spring and summer of 1862.
Prisoners of war were exchanged at City Point late in 1862 and through much of 1863. Perhaps the most famous of them was the celebrated Confederate spy Rose O’Neal Greenhow. She left City Point for Petersburg, and from there took a train to Richmond. However, by early 1864, the prisoner-of-war exchange system was abandoned.
On May 5, 1864, the 1st and 22nd United States Colored Troop regiments arrived at City Point, and during the first weeks of occupation bolstered their ranks by recruiting runaway slaves. On June 15 Union general-in-chief Ulysses S. Grant set up his field headquarters at City Point, remaining there for the duration of the nearly ten-month-long Petersburg Campaign. Living in tents during the summer and a two-room log cabin during the winter, Grant directed most of the last months of the war from City Point.
In the meantime, City Point transformed from a tiny, bombarded, and mostly abandoned village into one of the largest ports in the world. Through the foresight of Union quartermaster Rufus Ingalls and the hard work of soldiers and civilians, including former slaves, twenty-one miles of military railroad were constructed by March 1865, linking City Point to the Union front lines around Petersburg and supplying more than 100,000 troops and 65,000 animals. It is said that a large bakery in the town produced as many as 100,000 loaves of bread a day.
In the summer of 1864, the Confederate Secret Service executed a plot to disrupt the port’s service. On July 26, Captain John Maxwell left Richmond, arriving in Isle of Wight County on August 2, where he was met by R. K. Dillard, who acted as his local guide. On August 9, the two talked their way past Union pickets and entered City Point. Under his arm, Maxwell carried a box with a “horological torpedo,” or time bomb, that consisted of a timer mechanism and twelve pounds of gunpowder. Upon approaching the wharf, he handed the package over to a man working on the General Meade, where it soon exploded, igniting nearby ammunition stores. A Union ordnance officer who witnessed the blast wrote, “From the top of the bluff there lay before me a staggering scene, a mass of overthrown buildings, their timbers tangled into almost impenetrable heaps. In the water there were wrecked and sunken barges, while out among the shipping—where [there were] many vessels of all sizes and kinds—there was hurrying back and forth on the decks to weigh anchor, for all seemed to think that something more would happen.”
Some 58 people were killed and 126 wounded, while the damage estimate reached four million dollars. Even from his relatively safe vantage point, Dillard was permanently deafened by the explosion. Grant noted that “every part of the yard used as my headquarters is filled with splinters and shells.” A Confederate prisoner awaiting exchange was killed, and a bayoneted musket was thrown a half-mile. Union officials had no idea what had caused the blast until after the war, and some had initially blamed careless black dockworkers.
During the occupation, City Point was also home to the Depot Field Hospital, actually a group of hospitals serving the Second, Fifth, Sixth, and Ninth corps of the Army of the Potomac; a separate, affiliated hospital served the cavalry. Black Union troops were cared for in a segregated hospital until allin the Army of the Potomac were transferred to the in December 1864. The sprawling hospital complex consisted of 1,200 tents in the summer of 1864, but these were soon replaced by 90 wooden buildings and 452 tents sufficient to house just more than 5,400 men. The hospital also had a water tower, kitchens, a dining hall, and an ice house. In 1865 alone, 29,000 patients were admitted, with 53 percent being transferred to hospitals farther north. Another 41 percent were returned to the front. Only 2 percent, or 572 patients, died while under care there.
Among the civilian agencies operating at City Point were the U.S. Sanitary Commission and the U.S. Christian Commission. The Sanitary Commission was chiefly concerned with the health and hygiene of Union soldiers and sailors and the Christian Commission with their spiritual welfare. About 600 people, mostly men, in the two commissions served along the Richmond-Petersburg front, often providing the soldiers with memorable delicacies. In June 1864 alone the Sanitary Commission shipped to the front canned tomatoes and sauerkraut, as well as pickled cucumbers, onions, and tomatoes. In his 1868 Annals of the United States Christian Commission, Reverend Lemuel Moss, the commission’s home secretary, noted that in 1865 the Commission employed teachers to instruct colored troops, supplying them with “tables, primers, spelling-books, writing-books, black-boards, slates, pens, and ink.”
For a few days in the summer of 1864 and for two weeks in the spring of 1865, U.S. president Abraham Lincoln visited City Point. On the second visit, his wife, Mary; his son Tad; and a host of others accompanied him. While at City Point, Lincoln discussed the future surrender of Confederate forces with generals Grant and William T. Sherman, and Admiral David Dixon Porter. After being startled awake on April 1 by a vivid dream of his own assassination, Lincoln went on to tour Union-controlled Richmond and Petersburg, leaving City Point on April 8 for Washington, D.C. Exactly one week later he was, in fact, assassinated.
In 1866, the United States government established the City Point National Cemetery, now the resting grounds of more than 6,900 mostly Union soldiers. Richard Eppes and other large property owners, meanwhile, returned to their City Points estates and hired freed people to work on their property. The buildings associated with the Union occupation were destroyed except for Grant’s cabin, which was later relocated to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Union troops finally left the town in 1867. The City of Hopewell incorporated in 1916, and in 1923 it annexed City Point, which then ceased to exist as a separate self-governing entity. In 1983, the National Park Service reconstructed General Grant’s cabin at its original site.