Petersburg on the Eve of War
Petersburg lies at the head of navigation on the Appomattox River, twenty-three miles south of the Confederate capital at. Its role as a port contributed to its growth in the eighteenth and early in the nineteenth centuries. Railroads arrived in Petersburg in the 1830s, and by 1860 five lines converged in the city, making it one of the South’s leading transportation hubs. Petersburg also developed a vibrant manufacturing economy, with twenty tobacco factories, four cotton mills, and a number of iron foundries and flour mills.
Petersburg’s 18,266 residents in 1860 were divided almost equally between blacks and whites. No Southern city on the eve of the Civil War (Petersburg would be the seventh-largest municipality in the Confederacy) boasted a higher percentage of African Americans among its free population. Voters in Petersburg cast their ballots for the Constitutional Union candidate in the 1860 presidential election, John Bell of Tennessee, and sent a conditional Unionist to thein February 1861, demonstrating its conservative character.
The War Years, 1861–1863
Events on the national stage gradually pushed Petersburg toward a pro-secession stance, and when Virginia’s secession convention voted to leave the Union on April 17, 1861, local citizens celebrated. Six of Petersburg’s militia companies immediately volunteered for active service. Petersburg would eventually provide ten infantry companies, three artillery batteries, and two cavalry companies to the Confederate army, although enthusiasm for volunteering waned after the war’s first summer. Several hundred free blacks also volunteered for military service in April 1861, although their motives for doing so remain obscure. The governor, predictably, declined to accept these men as soldiers, but did allow them to provide military labor.
Petersburg’s key location compelled a reluctant common council in 1861 to allow the various rail lines to be connected in town, and thereafter a steady stream of troops and supplies passed through the city. The first military hospitals appeared in July 1861, and within a year seven hospitals, most established in abandoned tobacco factories, treated thousands of wounded and ill soldiers. The Confederate government would also locate a powder mill, leadworks, a ropewalk, and a wagon repair shop in Petersburg, as well as a camp for paroled prisoners.
The war had an immediate impact on Petersburg’s industries. Those businesses that did not broker government contracts soon went out of business, hampered by a lack of markets, labor, and transportation. With the majority of Petersburg’s white males of military age in the army, dependent, children, and the elderly turned to charity. Private philanthropy, such as benefit concerts held at Petersburg’s opulent Phoenix Hall, addressed some of the need, but the municipal government quickly became a massive dispenser of public welfare. The skyrocketing rate of inflation and the chronic shortage of consumer goods that plagued most Confederate cities hit Petersburg severely. Petersburg’s poor and middle classes faced daily hardship for most of the war.
Crime increased dramatically and gangs of boys sometimes engaged in deadly street fights. In March 1862 Petersburg came under martial law in response to the social disruption caused by hundreds of refugees from Norfolk. Visiting soldiers filled the romantic void for Petersburg’s young women, whose natural partners were absent in the army. Somehow, a few of Petersburg’s socially elite families managed to host elaborate soirees, but by 1864 the typical party became a “starvation ball,” where river water provided the only refreshment.
By the summer of 1863, a series of fortifications, called the Dimmock Line, ringed Petersburg to the east, south, and west. These powerful defenses featured fifty-five artillery batteries, numbered sequentially east to west, connected by infantry trenches. If manned by the huge army required to occupy them, Petersburg would be practically unassailable.
Petersburg saw no combat during the war’s first three years, although from the spring of 1862 onward, the city hosted the headquarters for a number of Confederate military departments. The jurisdiction of these departments usually included eastern North Carolina. Protecting the rail lines leading from Wilmington, North Carolina, to Petersburg, as well as the Blackwater River military frontier in southeastern Virginia, occupied Petersburg’s commanding officers. Confederate generals such as Daniel Harvey Hill,, and led these Petersburg-based departments.
The Bermuda Hundred Campaign
In the spring of 1864, the Union’s new general-in-chief,, began a series of offensives designed to crush Confederate opposition. One of them, led by the political general , brought the newly formed , a force of nearly 40,000 men, up the to City Point and , less than ten miles from Petersburg. The Dimmock Line, as usual, lay practically devoid of troops, and Butler could have waltzed into Petersburg had he chosen to do so. Instead, he turned north toward Richmond, where on May 16 at the Battle of Drewry’s Bluff, he met defeat and retreated into his fortified enclave at Bermuda Hundred.
Butler planned several forays against Petersburg late in May and early in June, but not until June 9, 1864, did he launch an attack. A combined force of infantry and cavalry approached the city from the east and south, intent on destroying everything of military value, especially the railroad bridge over the Appomattox River. Butler’s infantry commander timidly withdrew without a fight, but his cavalry tested the city’s defenses along the Jerusalem Plank Road, south of the city. With the regular Confederate troops posted to the east, some 125 old men, young boys, and convalescents answered the tocsin and took position in the fortifications. This makeshift and grossly outnumbered force bravely turned away two Union assaults before succumbing to superior firepower, leaving more than half of their number as casualties. They purchased enough time, however, for regular soldiers to arrive and repulse the attackers closer to town.
The Petersburg Campaign
The events of June 9, 1864, would soon pale in scale to the operations that commenced on June 15. The vanguard of Grant’s entire army captured more than a mile of the Dimmock Line that evening, but hesitated to push into the city. Confederate generalcrafted a masterful defense for the next two days until General Robert E. Lee arrived with the Army of Northern Virginia on June 18. Grant now determined to capture Petersburg, the key to Richmond’s viability, by cutting the city’s supply lines. For the next nine months Union forces gradually fought their way west, eliminating Petersburg’s transportation routes one by one.
Almost as an afterthought, Grant placed artillery in the captured works east of the city and began a desultory bombardment aimed ostensibly at Petersburg’s military assets. In reality, the shelling assumed a more random nature. More than six hundred structures would be hit during the campaign, and by early July, the eastern half of Petersburg had been depopulated. In addition to enduring chronic shortages of life’s necessities, many citizens now became refugees, some reduced to scavenging for berries and living under blanket shelters in the countryside.
The Petersburg Campaign ground on for 292 days and the siege of Petersburg, which lasted about nine months, was the longest yet on U.S. soil. On April 2, 1865, Grant at last punctured Lee’s defenses southwest of the city, and the Confederate commander ordered an evacuation that night. Amid moderate amounts of arson and looting (although nothing on the scale of what happened that night in Richmond), Petersburg’s citizens watched in horror as their defenders marched across the Appomattox River bridges before burning the spans near dawn.
The End of the War and Its LegacyAt 4:28 a.m. on April 3, a Michigan regiment entered the city and raised the United States flag above the courthouse. Soon thousands of other Union soldiers converged on Petersburg from the east, south, and west, much to the delight of the African American population. The Unionists quickly extinguished the fires and established order in the streets. Later that morning, U.S. president Abraham Lincoln arrived in town from City Point and met with Grant on the porch of the Thomas Wallace house on South Market Street. The two men discussed contingencies for ninety minutes, and then Grant left to orchestrate his pursuit of Lee. Grant would corner Lee on April 9 at Appomattox Court House, and the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia marked the practical end of the Civil War in Virginia.
The United States Army occupied Petersburg through August 3, 1865. The local commander, Major General George Hartsuff, balanced his responsibility to protect freedmen with a sensitivity to traditional racial hierarchies, thus earning him the grudging respect of the city’s white population.
Today, Petersburg’s Civil War legacy remains quite tangible. Several historic sites, including Hartsuff’s headquarters at Centre Hill Mansion, the Siege Museum in the magnificent antebellum Exchange Building, and Blandford Church, a Confederate memorial, tell the story of Petersburg’s role in the Civil War. Blandford Cemetery guards the remains of some thirty thousand Confederate soldiers. A ceremony marking the heroism of the “old men and young boys” who saved the city on June 9, 1864, occurs on the anniversary of the event each year.