For four years in the 1980’s I lived within a few miles of the Petersburg National Battlefield Park in Petersburg, Virginia. Being a Civil War enthusiast, I naturally visited it many times during that period. Or so one would think.
Actually, I visited the battlefield only once during all that time, and even on that one occasion I visited only the visitor center.
I decided to remedy that deficiency in my Civil War touring this past February when I took a trip to Baltimore to help my mother celebrate her 90th birthday.
My first stop of the day after leaving Greenville was Bennett Place State Historic Site, which was the location of the largest troop surrender of the Civil War, much larger than the one that occurred at Appomattox.
Upon leaving Bennett Place and the living history reenactment that was taking place that particular Saturday, I headed further north on I-85 until I reached the terminus of that highway where it joins up with I-95, just as you reach Petersburg.
Touring the Battlefield
I drove onto the battlefield, paid my $5.00 at the entrance booth, and parked at the visitor center, where I watched an audio-visual presentation in the theater room.
I then walked a hundred yards or so to a nearby redoubt known as Battery Number 5. I continued past the battery down a path to a point near a modern railroad track.
I continued along the path until I reached a replica of The Dictator, one of the largest mortars produced during the war. Weighing over eight tons, the rail-mounted gun could shoot a 220-pound projectile about 2 1/2 miles.
I met another tourist who was also observing the gun. As we walked back up the hill and back toward the visitor center, he explained that he had recently moved to the area from a western state because of his job and he wanted to check out the history of the area. I believe he could check out the area for years and not exhaust the history in that region of the country.
Getting back in my car I began the long battlefield tour. It was about 4:00 in the afternoon and I had only a couple of hours before dusk, so I decided to get in what sight-seeing I could before the sun withdrew and the moon took over.
The grounds of the main section of the battlefield, the eastern front, cover quite a lot of territory. The entire extended battlefield tour, from the City Point Unit in Hopewell, about which I wrote in these pages a couple of years ago, to the Five Forks Unit west of the city, is 33 miles in length.
As I meandered along the main battlefield drive route I stopped at every pull-off along the way. A thorough tour would have taken a good half day to see everything and walk every trail, so I had to settle for getting the essence of the place.
The Siege of Petersburg
I suppose that the battlefield might be more accurately termed a ‘siegefield.’ The majority of battles during the four-year war took place over the course of a day or two over open field. The siege of Petersburg, however, took place over the course of nearly a year between miles and miles of earthworks, with shelling and skirmishes and occasional larger battles occuring throughout the course of the last ten months of the war.
The Confederates had anticipated the eventual Union onslaught on Petersburg and had been diligent in preparing the extensive earthworks to protect the city just 25 miles south of Richmond, the Confederate capital.
When May 1864 arrived and the weather allowed for renewed hostilities, Union General Ulysses S. Grant, who had taken personal command of the Army of the Potomac, began hammering Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia through a series of flanking movements that got him to within shouting distance of Petersburg in just over a month.
Why was Petersburg so important? Grant’s aim was to destroy rail communication between Richmond and the rest of the Confederacy, and Petersburg was the hub of several railroad lines that brought the reinforcements, food and supplies needed to keep the Confederate war effort going. To damage or destroy those railroads would be to render Lee’s army, which had by now occupied defensive trenches extending from Richmond to Petersburg, at Grant’s mercy.
Therefore, as far as the Confederacy was concerned, Petersburg must not be allowed to fall. General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia and a seasoned military professional, realized, however, that if Grant ever reached the outskirts of Petersburg, a siege would ensue and that it would then be but a matter of time before the inevitable happened.
The Battle of the Crater
As the siege wore on, Lieutenant Colonel Henry Pleasants, commander of the 48th Pennsylvania regiment and a mining engineer by trade, approached his superior, General Ambrose Burnside, with a novel idea. His plan was to tunnel under the Confederate entrenchments, which, at some points along the long siege line, were fairly close to the Union lines. A huge cache of gunpowder would then be stockpiled in a chamber underneath the Confederate lines and exploded, thus creating a breach in the enemy’s works through which Union soldiers could attack.
Burnside approved the plan and Pleasants and his fellow Pennsylvania miners went to work. After a month of digging the scheme was ready to be executed. At 4:44 on the morning of July 30, 1864, a tremendous explosion took place, killing perhaps as many as 350 Confederate soldiers outright.
Union colored troops had been trained for several days for just this moment. However, the day before the battle, Generals Grant and Meade decided to pull them from leading the charge. They feared a public backlash if colored troops were placed in the forefront of a battle and ended up being decimated by the enemy. At the last moment, white troops were designated to go in first, with the colored troops to join them afterward.
Due to the lack of training for this event, the white troops did not take good advantage of the early morning surprise explosion. After the blast, the Confederates eventually rallied and launched a counterattack. Over the next several hours the Confederates, under the command of Brigadier General William Mahone, fought back the Union forces, which eventually came to number as many 15,000 who had gathered around the vicinity of the crater. The last action of the day took place at around 1:00 p.m., eight hours after the initial explosion. Union casualties numbered around 4,000 while the Confederate losses were less than half that.
Burnside and Meade came under criticism for the conduct of the battle. Pleasants was commended for his ingenuity and resourcefulness and was brevetted to the rank of brigadier general. Mahone was promoted to major general and, by the end of the war almost a year later, had become one of Lee’s top generals.
After the battle of the crater the stalemate continued for another eight months of siege warfare until the Petersburg defenses were finally breached once and for all on April 1 during the Battle of Five Forks, in which Union forces under the command of General Phil Sheridan defeated Pickett’s Confederate division. Pickett was absent from his division at the time, attending a shad bake two miles away with a couple of other generals. He was thus not present to provide the guidance to his troops that was sorely needed.
After this debacle, Lee realized that his situation had become untenable and ordered a general retreat which led, in another week, to the surrender at Appomattox on April 9. The ten-month long siege of Petersburg was over.
As I finished touring the area around the Crater and started walking back to the small parking lot, I saw a couple of deer cavorting in the open meadow as they headed to a nearby wooded area. The guns had long since fallen silent on this once-contested parcel of land and the deer had no idea of the carnage that had taken place where they were now running. To them, these grounds were home. I managed to take a few photos of them before they disappeared amongst the trees.
It was early evening now and the sun, hanging low in the sky, caused me to cast a long shadow eastward. The Crater is pretty much the last point on this section of the battlefield tour and so I was soon back on the road. The sun would soon be setting and I still had more than three hours yet to go before reaching Baltimore that night.
Next Installment – I Should Have Ordered the Meatloaf