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The Siege of Petersburg 

(Reprint from News: July 18, 2001)

July 17, 2001

 

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 Petersburg National 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.

 

Here's the Civil War tune, The Battle Cry Of Freedom.

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Petersburg 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. 

 

Mimicking what 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!"

 

Grant 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. 

 

 

After the 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. 

 

For the 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:

 

June 23, 1864

 

Dear Mother,
. . .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...

I'd 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.

 

The Siege 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. 

 

       

Above left:  The Visitor Center at Petersburg National Battlefield near Richmond, Virginia.

Above center:  Here's the 17,000-pound Union seacoast mortar called "The Dictator," the largest weapon used during the war.  

Above 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.

 

       

Above 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.

Above center:  The very lively Ranger Joyce describing the debacle at the Battle of the Crater.

Above 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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