The Last Rebel Ground

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City Point, now a part of Hopewell, Virginia, was in those 1864-65 days almost entirely emptied of its three hundred inhabitants, who had fled when the Yankees came. It had declined from the better days of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, before ever-expanding railroad networks made it largely obsolete. Now the occupying forces turned it into the world’s busiest harbor as it took in endless supplies for Grant’s hundred thousand men up the line. Today a portion of that line is found in the National Park Service’s Petersburg National Battlefield, some twenty-five hundred acres gashed and left uneven from the shells crashing down. At the visitors’ center there are displays and old photographs, and walking and driving trails go by artillery pieces and exotically and archaically named devices to stop troops or charging cavalry: chevaux-de-frise, gabions, abatis. The Crater, formed when the Yankees exploded four tons of gunpowder in a tunnel under the Rebel line, remains a great depressed scar in the earth.

Everything in the park is well marked, and you will leave the visitors’ center with a handful of pamphlets and maps. One cast iron marker popped my mouth open. It stands by the Eppes family mansion, which is about a football field’s length from Grant’s hut, and its nonoccupancy by the general tells us something about him. He stayed in his tiny place, letting his quartermaster, Rufus Ingalls, occupy the Eppes home. He was quite content to receive Lincoln, and Sherman, and Sheridan in the hut. Lincoln came down twice to City Point, his only vacation time from Washington during his entire Presidency. The astounding sign mentions this. “Good God!” I cried to National Park Service Ranger James Blankenship. The sign says Lincoln spent three weeks here in April of 1865. “He was shot on April fourteenth!” I said.

“Yes, of course,” Blankenship said, and began a tangled explanation of why the National Park Service wasn’t responsible for the sign.

I interrupted after a moment. “Wait a second. How do you spell siege ?”

“Not that way,” Blankenship said. I forget the rule about—what is it?— i follows e except when … but I know the sign’s wrong when it speaks of the Seige of Petersburg. “Good catch,” Blankenship said. “Not everybody notices that.” Blankenship’s family has lived in these parts since many long years and once owned much of what is now the Army’s Fort Lee, adjoining the national battlefield. As with Ranger Tracy Chernault, he can name the Virginia regiments in which his people served.

I drove off past a rather modestlooking place that during the siege was run as a boardinghouse-inn by a man who used the money he garnered to build a hotel, which decades and decades later became unhappily famous as the place where Legionnaires’ disease originated. Crossing in a few minutes the lines held for 292 days, the longest siege in American history, I took a motel room a couple of miles south of Petersburg and asked the young lady at the desk where I should eat. She recommended Annabelle’s, on the front of whose menu I found discussion of the long-gone woman for whom the place was named. Reference was made to her doings during the struggle that, the menu pointed out, “folks hereabouts call the War of Northern Aggression.” But then, 95 percent of the local population, Blankenship and Chernault estimated, come from families that have been here for hundreds of years and with inevitable Confederate affiliations. Very few outsiders. Some Mexican migrant labor during the summers, yes, but they don’t settle in.

After the meal I chatted with Annabelle’s hostess about the building housing the restaurant. “It used to be a cow barn,” she said, pointing to old photographs on the wall. They were taken in 1919, when the barn was erected. It had replaced an earlier one whose demolition, she’d heard, had disclosed reams of Civil War artifacts: buckles, buttons, broken muskets. That wasn’t surprising. All of this area was fought over as the lines swayed back and forth, and nobody since 1865 has been able to put a wing on a house or more latterly dig for a swimming pool without turning things up, some today to command a price in the wide-open mementos market that equals the lifetime earnings of the original owner. Discovery of bodily remains, bones, presents a problem. By law the finding must be reported to the authorities—a homicide might have occurred—but that can mean police inquiries and forensic studies. Construction on a project could be delayed for weeks. And let’s face it, thousands of dead were hastily buried in 1864-65. What are the chances there’s been a recent murder? A filled plastic bag deposited in a Dumpster is the preferred solution. It’s different when bones turn up on National Park Service land. They are carefully examined for clues to what killed the soldier and then formally interred. On occasion people seeking not bones but valuables come onto government holdings. Two dead-of-night metal-detector prospectors were apprehended on the battlefield shortly before my visit last year. They got no salable trophies, but instead six months.