The Siege of Petersburg
I packed up my truck that morning,
then left the state park and headed east towards Richmond.
Around 10 a.m., I pulled into the mostly-empty parking lot of
Battlefield. It was pretty hot and humid, but the Visitor Center was
nicely air-conditioned, so I lingered there a while then walked around the
grounds and drove along the park's tour road, stopping at most of the sites
along the way.
Civil War tune, The Battle Cry Of Freedom.
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isn't as famous as some other Civil War battlefields, like Gettysburg,
Antietam, or Shiloh, but it's an interesting place, nonetheless. In the
spring of 1864, after three bloody years of Civil War, General Grant's Union Army
pushed Robert E. Lee and the weary Confederate troops southward towards the Confederate
capital of Richmond in a series of relentless battles.
would later become known as the "Energizer Bunny," the Union Army took
a beating but kept on pushing, much to the relief of President Lincoln, who had
suffered through the pusillanimous and incompetent efforts of a long
string of previous Union Army commanders, including generals McClellan, Burnside, Pope,
and Hooker. When one of Lincoln's advisors suggested demoting the
hard-drinking, cigar-chomping Grant, Lincoln retorted, "I can't get rid of
Grant. He fights!"
suffered a major setback in June, 1864, however, at Cold Harbor, north of
Richmond, when his troops repeatedly attacked well-entrenched Confederate forces
but were thrown back with 12,000 Union troops killed. Years later, Grant
would admit that, "My greatest regret was issuing that last charge at Cold
Harbor." These days, Americans
get upset when a few dozen American troops get killed in action, so it's pretty hard to
imagine how people would react today if 12,000 soldiers died in a single battle. That
number is nearly incomprehensible even to this history buff.
debacle at Cold Harbor, though, the steadfast Grant continued pushing south. Abandoning
his plan for a frontal assault on Richmond, Grant stopped outside the key
Confederate city of Petersburg, where three Confederate railroad lines merged and
supplied Richmond to the north. Grant's troops began digging in here and the Confederates did likewise.
next ten months, Grant continued to entrench around Petersburg knowing that the smaller Confederate army would eventually be
stretched too thin to withstand an attack. For the troops on both sides,
the siege meant an endless supply of mud, cannon fire, and whizzing bullets, and
during the 10-month siege, over 16,000 men died here. On April 2, 1865,
the beleaguered Lee abandoned his fortifications and fled west towards Appomattox
where he surrendered to Grant one week later, thus ending the Civil War.
A Letter from the Petersburg Trenches:
. . .We remained on the skirmish line all the next day in the broiling sun
without anything to shelter us from the sun, in little pits about the size of a
common grave, though not half so well furnished. There we lay, and every time a
man show his head, 'zip' would come a minnie [a bullet]. The bullets would just skin the top
of the pit that I occupied, warning me to keep close to my mother earth...
been to the Petersburg Battlefield once before. That visit, about
15 years earlier, was all too brief so this time I spent
about three hours walking around the battlefield.
One of the highlights was seeing a
replica of "The Dictator," a massive 17,000-pound Union mortar that
once heaved 225-pound balls into the Confederate lines (and you thought that
barking dog next door was a noisy pain in the butt). It was fired only 218 times during the
10-month siege, though, so its effect on the Confederate troops
was mostly psychological (but then, so is the neighbor's barking dog).
The other highlight was a 45-minute tour led by
the very animated Ranger Joyce, in which she described the Battle of the Crater. To break the siege at Petersburg, Union troops dug
a 400-foot long tunnel
under the Confederate lines and packed it with gunpowder.
When the charge blew, it created a huge crater which Union troops rushed
into. They faltered, though, due to poor planning and leadership --
generally the Union story of the entire war -- and they were pushed back by the
Confederates. In only a few hours, about 4,000 Union soldiers were
slaughtered in the
crater. Great idea, poor execution.
of Petersburg was partly a testament to the change in tactics required by rapidly-improving
weapons, and the battlefield offered a glimpse into the trench-warfare strategy that would become
prevalent 50 years later during World War I in Europe. The siege was also a testament to
the unyielding fortitude exhibited by soldiers on both sides of the line.
left: The Visitor Center at Petersburg National Battlefield near Richmond, Virginia.
center: Here's the 17,000-pound Union seacoast mortar called "The Dictator," the
largest weapon used during the war.
right: Replica of The Dictator in the same location. It heaved 225-pound balls
2.5 miles into Petersburg
during the siege but didn't do very much damage.
left: This is the entrance to the tunnel, built by the Union forces at
the beginning of the siege. It extended under the Confederate lines and
was packed with explosives, then detonated.
center: The very lively Ranger Joyce describing the debacle at the Battle of the Crater.
right: A view of the Crater today. Robert E. Lee abandoned
Petersburg in the spring of 1865 after 10 months of trench warfare and surrendered at Appomattox a week later, thus
ending the Civil War.
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