When the American Civil War (1861–1865) began, the gap in the rail connection between the terminus of the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad in Pocahontas and the other railroads in Petersburg greatly annoyed Confederate authorities. The gap was deliberate, intended by Petersburg’s merchants to ensure that passengers and freight would have to use local transportation and related services rather than simply slip through the city en route to other destinations. As far as the military authorities were concerned, however, the gap was intolerable. In May 1861, the Petersburg Common Council agreed to allow the construction of a rail link provided it was used only for military purposes and was dismantled after the war. On August 14, 1861, the new link opened, and it proved a boon to the rapid movement of troops and supplies between the two cities.
The railroad’s importance was proved in 1864 at the conclusion of the Overland Campaign and the ensuing Siege of Petersburg. In May, Union major general Benjamin F. Butler launched several attacks against the line as part of his Bermuda Hundred Campaign, but the Confederate forces under General Pierre G. T. Beauregard successfully defended the railroad. Subsequently, thanks to the construction of defensive works around Richmond and Petersburg, the line remained in Confederate control, enabling General Robert E. Lee to shift troops quickly between the two cities to counter Union threats. The Union commander, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, constantly tested Lee’s and the railroad’s endurance by launching attacks against first one city’s defensive lines and then the other between June 1864 and April 1865. Lee successfully parried these thrusts, although he could not prevent Grant from extending the Union lines south and west of Petersburg.
Grant also sought to cut the rail line from North Carolina—the Petersburg Railroad—that formed part of “Lee’s Lifeline” and helped supply the Army of Northern Virginia during the ten-month-long Siege of Petersburg. Eventually Grant succeeded, severing the rail communication at Globe Tavern south of the city on August 18, 1864. Lee countered, however, by unloading supplies from trains onto wagons farther south and then transporting them by road to the western end of Petersburg beyond Union-held territory. The tactic worked well until Grant broke Lee’s lines and compelled the Confederate evacuation of Petersburg and Richmond on April 2–3, 1865.
The Richmond and Petersburg Railroad had served its military purposes well. Within a short time after the war ended, Petersburg officials took up the tracks that formed the link with other lines. Eventually, a new railroad line and an improved road system provided continuous transportation between Petersburg and Richmond.