The Last Rebel Ground

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It’s hardly more than the size of your bedroom, half of it living quarters, the rest the office. “What about a bathroom?” I ask National Parks Ranger Tracy Chernault.

 

It’s hardly more than the size of your bedroom, half of it living quarters, the rest the office. “What about a bathroom?” I ask National Parks Ranger Tracy Chernault.

“See the sycamore tree?” He’s kidding, of course. The first thing both armies did when making camp was to dig long sinks—latrines. So the sycamore performed no real purpose when for a few cold-weather months this century and a third gone this hut stood by it. Then the tiny wooden structure was taken away and reassembled for display in Fairmount Park in Philadelphia. That was right after the war, in August of 1865.

Eleven years later, with the 1876 celebrations of America’s centennial, the little place was spruced up a bit, and an identifying plaque affixed. Then for one hundred years it was left entirely neglected and unattended. Philadelphia vagrants took up temporary residence; couples made use of it.

I left my car and blundered off into the trees, seeking the monument at the spot where A. P. Hill was shot dead.
 

Now it has been brought back to where it was built and put where long ago it stood. The sycamore was young while serving for background in the old photographs made when it and the hut were first together. Now the tree is old and not in very good health. The hut appears unchanged. Good money has been spent and much research done that this be so. Here is the last, the only one, of all the tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands perhaps, of similar huts thrown together by the Boys in Blue and the Boys in Gray when they went into winter quarters to await spring’s campaign, acres of green wood shanties burned or abandoned for locals’ use as fuel, barns, planking, fences.

This was once the residence of the lieutenant general commanding the armies of the United States during what is called the Siege of Petersburg, although technically a siege means that an objective is completely surrounded by an enemy force, which was not the case here, for the back entrances to Petersburg and Richmond were open. Grant never wanted to get involved in such a situation, and still less did Robert E. Lee. If it came to this, Lee knew all would be lost for the Confederacy. “It will be a mere question of time,” he told Gen. Jubal Early. But a siege it became. If today you drive down from Washington on I-95, you will see signs at intersecting highways with destination names invoking the battling South that led to the Siege of Petersburg: Spotsylvania, the North Anna. (You will also see signs bringing earlier Civil War encounters to mind: Rappahannock River, Fredericksburg, Manassas, Stonewall Jackson Shrine.) I am here to trace what happened when the Siege of Petersburg ended.

The armies, arrived at the area stretching from Richmond to Petersburg, had thinned themselves out into facing lines thirty-five miles long. It became Grant’s task to work his way around Lee’s westernmost fortifications and cut the Confederate railroad supply lines leading to North Carolina. By doing so, he would force the Rebels out of their defensive positions and into open country. He believed the job would take about a month. His troops would be supplied by ships coming down the James River and docking at City Point, some ten miles behind his lines.

So facilities to receive supplies, eight enormous jerrybuilt wharves reaching half a mile out into the water, were quickly flung up at City Point. Their remains poke up into sight at low tide now. On top of the bluffs, acres of hasty constructions appeared: a hospital, blacksmith shops, a bakery, an open-air military prison and execution site, and new railroad tracks, replacing those installed in the 183Os. These stayed in place until the 1920s, when the ones you see today were put in. Believing he’d soon be off in the field chasing Lee, Grant lived in a tent.

But the Rebel lines sprouted redoubts and strongpoints and forts connected by tunnels. Each hill or rise had an artillery piece or pieces. As with the Confederates, so the Yankees. Six summer weeks went by with no rain, soldiers of both sides falling in murderous humid heat into choking dust when they were hit. Cool nights came and then cold weather as the Rebels stayed in place, refusing to be pried loose, and huts, this hut, were put up. Grant’s wife, and a couple of their children, were with him in his tiny habitation on the bluffs looking down at the water. It was very much in the interests of the North that this be so, for when Julia was around, he did not touch liquor. In front of others she called him Mr. Grant, as she had when first they met, in the days when he was a lieutenant fresh from West Point.