Petersburg National Battlefield

Location: Petersburg, Virginia

Webpage: National Park

General Description: In March 1864, General Ulysses S. Grant was given command of the Union Army by President Lincoln.  Finally, President Lincoln had a General that would press General Robert E. Lee and the Confederate Army of Virginia.  His objective was to capture the Confederate Capital at Richmond, Virginia and then destroy Lee’s army.  On May 4, 1864 Grant moved the Army of the Potomac across the Rapidan River and entered the Wilderness of Spotsylvania.  After bloody but inconclusive Battle of the Wilderness (May 6-7) and Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse (May 8-12), Grant did not destroy Lee’s army.  However, instead of withdrawing as his predecessors would have done, he pressed on towards Richmond.  Grant spent the rest of May maneuvering his army to the south and east with a series of minor skirmishes with Lee until the Battle of Cold Harbor (May 31-June 12) near Mechanicsville where he ordered a frontal assault against the defensive positions on June 3.  Although Grant suffered heavy losses of over 50,000 soldiers (41%) and Lee over 36,000 (46%), he again did not withdraw but pressed on towards Richmond.  By this point in the war, the Union could muster many more soldiers and supplies then the Confederacy, so while the battle was technically a victory for the Confederates, it was much more costly to Lee than Grant. Lee retreated to defend Richmond, but Grant surprised him by moving the main body of his army south, crossing the James River, and attacked Petersburg instead.  At that time, Petersburg was the third largest city in Virginia and was the shipping and railroad terminus for soldiers and materiel from the south.  The naval blockade of Chesapeake Bay centered at Fort Monroe at the mouth of the James River had effectively stopped the shipping into Richmond.  By cutting the five railroad lines terminating in Petersburg, Grant reasoned that Richmond would fall.  In addition, General Lee had pulled most of the soldiers out of Petersburg to defend Richmond, leaving only 2,500 soldiers under General Beauregard.  The line of trenches, redoubts, and forts surrounding Petersburg was formidable, but the soldiers were stretched too thin.  On June 15, the Union force of 16,000 soldiers under Brig General William Smith hit the northeast section of the defenses.  Due to delays throughout the day, the attack did not begin until 7:00 pm and totally surprised the Confederates.  They quickly overran about 1.5 miles of the defenses and the surviving Confederates fled back to Petersburg.  Rather than pressing their advantage and likely taking Petersburg that evening, General Smith opted to wait until morning.  This gave General Beauregard sufficient time to bolster his defenses and send to Richmond for reinforcements.  The Union had lost their chance of a quick victory at Petersburg and Grant began a siege of the city that would last for the next 9 months.  Over the summer and fall, the Union continued to construct their own set of breastworks, redoubts, and forts along a line extending south and then west surrounding Petersburg with the objective of cutting the five railroad lines and roads leading into the city.  Over the next two days, uncoordinated attacks from the Union, new defenses closer to Petersburg by Beauregaud, and reinforcements from Richmond stopped the Union advance.  The Union objective then shifted to encircling Petersburg and severing the three remaining railroad lines and roads leading into the city.  For the next 4 months there were numerous clashes between the armies, but the Union managed to extend its lines around to the south of Petersburg.  At the same time, General Grant, created a staging area at City Point (present day Hopewell) where ships from the North could offload supplies and reinforcements to board trains to the battlefield along the U.S. Military Railroad also built by Union troops.  Consequently, at the same time that the Confederates were being squeezed for supplies, the Union was well supplied right to the battlefield.  The Union troops also greatly outnumbered the Confederates, growing to 70,000 soldiers against 36,000 around Petersburg and 40,000 against 21,000 at Richmond.  Grant held such a large advantage that he made several attempts to move on Richmond while General Lee had to move his troops back and forth.  Notable battles over the summer and fall included the taking of Jerusalem Plank Road on June 21-23 and the Weldon Railroad south of town at the Battle of Globe Tavern on August 18-21.  A notable engagement occurred on July 30 at the Battle of the Crater.  Beginning in late June, the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry under Lt. Col. Pleasants which included a number of experienced coal miners, dug a tunnel underneath the Confederate fort known as Elliott’s Salient.  The tunnel extended 511 feet into the hillside ending in a “T” shape with two 75 foot galleries.  They packed the galleries with 8,000 pounds of gunpowder and at 4:44 am on July 30 lit the fuses.  The resulting explosion created a massive shower of earth, men and cannon creating a crater 170 feet long, 70 feet wide, and 30 feet deep.  Never having seen such a spectacle, the Union troops wandered up to the crater in amazement and tried to cross through the crater.  Without ladders to exit the crater they became trapped when the Confederates counterattacked and the assault ended up as a dramatic failure.  With the coming of winter, the fighting decreased to scattered skirmishes.  However, with the coming of Spring, General Lee embarked on a daring plan to force General Grant to pull back to protect his railroad by attacking Fort Stedman on March 25, 1865.  The Confederates captured both Fort Stedman and Fort Haskell threatening the Union supply line.  However, after heavy casualties, the Confederates were driven back.  General Grant continued his efforts to capture the remaining road, the Boydton Plank Road to the southwest and South Side Railroad to the west of Petersburg.  Lee’s forces were so devasted by their attempt at Fort Stedman, that they were unable to stop the Union victory at Five Forks giving them access to the railroad on April 1.  Following this victory, Grant ordered a general assault on April 2, all along their lines resulting in a breakthrough in the south at Fort Fisher, taking the unfinished Confederate Fort Gregg.  An heroic stand by the Confederates at Fort Gregg and Fort Whitworth delayed the Union advance until nightfall.  Over night Lee abandoned Petersburg and Richmond leading to a series of minor battles over the next week before surrendering at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9.

Brochure

Impressions:

1) Since the siege of Petersburg lasted for 9 months with earthworks and forts created by both sides, there are an enormous number of historical locations surrounding Petersburg to the east, south, and southeast.  It took us the better part of three days to see all the sites that are part of the National Battlefield and a few that are either owned by the city, state, or Civil War Trust.  I was disappointed that the National Battlefield consists primarily of the Union siege line.  I understood from a local that much of the Confederate earthworks and forts still exist, but are not part of the National Battlefield.  Many are in private ownership, although the main ones are administered by the city.  The Civil War Trust is continuing to purchase additional sites  all around the city.

2) We were disappointed that there were no Ranger programs at the main Visitor Center for the National Battlefield.  We were there on April 1, which was the 150 anniversary of the Battle of Five Forks.  However, this battlefield is over 20 miles from the rest of the battlefield.  Even though they were going to have a Ranger program at 1:00 that afternoon, we decided to stay on the main battlefield.  We did purchase the Auto Tour CD, which gave more information about each of the stops which added a lot to our understanding and was well worth the expense.

EasternFrontVC

3) The driving tour begins at the Visitor Center with the Eastern Front, which then follows in roughly chronological order as the Union continues to advance around the city.  At the Visitor Center you can see the remains of Battery 5, which was the first battery captured by the Union on June 15, 1861.  There is also a reproduction of the “Dictator”, a massive mortar used to drop shells into the city of Petersburg.

Battery5

4) The next stop is the Confederate Battery 8 captured by Black Union troops, was renamed Fort Friend for the Friend House nearby.  It also played a major role in retaking Fort Stedman in March of 1865.

5) Confederate Battery 9, also captured by Black Union troops during the first day’s fighting has been reconstructed so visitors can see the construction techniques and rough log houses built over the winter of 1864-65.  We really enjoyed this stop as you can actually see what the forts would have looked like new along with a brochure that provided details.  There is also a 10 minute walk to Meade Station along the Union built Military Railroad.

AttackersViewDefendersViewWinterHut

6) The fourth stop is along Harrison Creek which is where the Confederates dug in after being driven from their earthworks on June 18 and also marks the furthest point of advance of the Confederates when they took Fort Stedman in the spring.

HarrisonCreek

7) Fort Stedman is the fifth stop on the driving tour.  This is the location of Lee’s attack on the Union lines on March 25, 1865 to try and relieve the pressure on the west of the city to protect the South Side Railroad.  It also is the location of a monument to the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery who, as green troops, tried to take Colquitt’s Salient on June 18 suffering the greatest regimental loss in a single action of the Civil War losing over 60% of the soldiers in the single assault.  This demonstrated the extreme difficulty the Union (or Confederates) faced in frontal assaults of entrenched positions.

FortStedman

8) The sixth stop is Fort Haskell where Union artillery fire stopped the Confederate advance at Fort Stedman.

FortHaskell

9) There is nothing left of Fort Morton at stop eight as it was leveled for farming after the Civil War, however, you can see across the ravine to Elliott’s Salient where the Battle of the Crater was fought on July 30.

FortMorton

10) The final stop on the Eastern Front is Elliott’s Salient, the location of the Battle of the Crater.  A short hike takes you around to the entrance of the mine tunnel dug by the Union coal miners from Pennsylvania.  They used an ingenious system to provide fresh air to the diggers along the 500 foot tunnel which is diagrammed on one of the interpretive signs.  Located just inside the entrance they dug a vertical air shaft.  At the base of the air shaft was a fire that was kept burning, with an air tight door to the outside to keep the fire from drawing air from the entrance.  They then constructed a wooden box that would be added to the end of the tunnel.  The fire would then draw stale air from the tunnel that in turn would draw fresh air up to the end of the tunnel through the wooden boxes.  Ingenious!!  You can also see the remains of the crater created when they exploded 8000 pounds of gunpowder 20 feet below the fort.  It is still a VERY impressive hole.  Numerous interpretive signs provide all the details of the battles.  Even though the explosion was a great success and opened up the lines, the Union soldiers became trapped in the crater themselves as they, for some reason, tried to go through instead of around the crater.

TheCraterTunnelEntrance

11) The Western Front driving tour is mostly outside the National Battlefield except for the actual stops on the tour.  The stops are located south and southwest of town and highlight the Union’s advances on the Weldon Railroad, the Boydton Plank Road, and the South Side Railroad.  The first stop is Fort Wadsworth, which was the strategic position created by the Union to hold the Weldon railroad following August 18-21.

FortWadsworth

12) The next stop is the Poplar Grove National Cemetery where the Union soldiers are buried.  I will give my impressions of the cemetery on a separate page.

13) The third stop on the Western Front is Fort Fisher, which is the largest fort constructed by the Union.  Unlike the other forts on the Battlefield, Fort Fisher is in remarkable condition.  It is easily more than twice the size of the other fortifications and is the largest earthen fort I have seen.  You can still see the bastions with ramps for the cannon, the platforms used by soldiers to shoot over the walls, bombproofs or ammunition bunkers that have caved in, and an impressive dry ditch all the was around.

FortFisherDitch FortFisherInterior

14) We also took a short walk to visit Fort Welch which is part of the Pamplin Historical Park.  While not as impressive as Fort Fisher, it was unique in that you could still see the line of breastwork and trenches that connected the two forts.  From here and Fort Fisher, the Unions achieved their major breakthrough on April 2, that ended the siege with General Lee abandoning Petersburg and Richmond that night.

FortWelch

15) The final stop on the Western Front is Fort Gregg and nearby Fort Whitworth, from which the Confederates were able to stall the Union breakthrough long enough to allow nightfall to give General Lee that time to retreat.

FortGregg

16) About 20 miles southwest of Petersburg along the Boydton Plank Road is the location of Five Forks.  They have a very nice Visitor Center near this critical intersection with a short movie about the Battle of Five Forks.  This battle on April 1, 1865 was the successful attempt of the Union army commanded by General Sheridan to obtained access to the South Side Railroad, thus sealing the doom of Petersburg.  The battle occurred at Five Forks for two reasons.  First, there was a road from the intersection to a depot on the South Side Railroad to the north.  Second, it was far enough south of Petersburg that it was beyond the fortifications extending from the city.  It also means there is not much to see since there were no permanent earthworks constructed.  There are 5 stops in the driving tour with interpretive signs that provide good information about the battle between General Sheridan calvary (including George Custer) and those Confederate calvary under General W.H.F. Lee, the son of Robert E. Lee.

FiveForksVC FiveForksIntersection

17) City Point, which today is part of Hopewell, Virgina, was created by General Grant as the staging areas for the massive supplies and reinforcements of the Union Army.  From here ships coming up the James River from Fort Monroe in the Chesapeake Bay, would unload into warehouses.  From there they were put on railcars to be taken to the battlefront along the U.S. Military Railroad, constructed for this purpose.

CityPointHouse CityPointHeadquarters

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