Lee’s Last Stand

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After a tornado passed through Petersburg, Virginia, in 1993, relief-agency posters around the city read: “The tornado did to Petersburg in about 22 seconds what the Union Army couldn’t do in 10 months.” At first glance this slogan seems a puzzler: What did the tornado do—leave the place standing, perhaps? But the message is unmistakable. In most places, after the latest bit of bad news, local papers dutifully comb their archives for reassurance that things used to be worse. In Petersburg that’s not necessary, because its citizens live among constant reminders of the days when starving residents hunted rats for food as Robert E. Lee’s army made its last stand outside the city. Petersburg has stood up to much worse things in its history than a tornado.

That history predates the Civil War by a couple of centuries, though it’s sometimes hard for a visitor to tell. Petersburg was founded in 1646 as Fort Henry and soon began to thrive as a trading post. Its location on the Appomattox River made it a natural center for commerce, and it grew swiftly along with Virginia. By 1791 George Washington would write that Petersburg handled “nearly a third of the Tobacco exported from the whole State besides a considerable quantity of wheat and flour.”

A decade earlier, conditions had been much less calm and prosperous. In early 1781 the British launched a Virginia offensive, and on April 25 a force of twenty-five hundred marched on Petersburg. There had been no fighting in Virginia since the last royal governor fled in May 1776, and most of the state’s soldiers were serving in other parts of the country. The best Petersburg could muster for its defense was a group of one thousand militiamen led by John Muhlenberg.

The Virginians “made a brave resistance,” according to a plaque outside the 1735 Blandford Church, but eventually bowed to the British troops’ superior numbers and withdrew. (The plaque is one of very few reminders to be seen of Petersburg’s Revolutionary days—somewhat surprisingly, since there’s no question that the good guys won that war.) After pausing to burn four thousand hogsheads of tobacco (which was often used as currency) and a few ships, William Phillips and Benedict Arnold raided the surrounding country while Cornwallis, lately arrived from the Carolinas, chased Lafayette for several weeks in a fruitless campaign that would end with his surrender to Washington at Yorktown.

Following the war, Petersburg prospered, and as the nineteenth century wore on, two inventions combined to increase its importance. First the cotton gin made large-scale cotton farming economical in the Deep South. Petersburg saw its first cotton mills around 1815, and by 1842 it was turning out twenty thousand yards of coarse sheeting a day. Meanwhile the railroad was making Petersburg even more of a commercial hub; on the eve of the Civil War four separate lines crisscrossed there. A stroll through its streets today reveals many surviving buildings from this era, including, most eccentrically, the Trapezium House.

The Trapezium House was built in 1817 by an Irishman named Charles O’Hara, whose West Indian slave believed that evil spirits lived in right angles and recommended building a house without any. O’Hara followed his advice, and today’s visitor can see an entire three-story house with floorboards, stairs, walls, even windowsills all slightly askew. O’Hara tried renting out rooms, but his habit of keeping pet rats and his excessive drinking (perhaps in an attempt to make things seem perpendicular) were not good for business.

When war came, Petersburg was a major objective for Union forces; if it fell, so would Richmond, some twenty-two miles north. By late spring of 1864 the Confederacy was in tatters, but it still had legitimate hopes of salvation because many in the war-weary North seemed ready to call the conflict a draw and bring the boys home. After much bloodshed with little gain at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor, President Lincoln needed a victory fast—if not to hold on to his job, then at least to make sure that his successor would not give away the store. He hoped that a sharp blow at Petersburg would finish things in a hurry.

To properly reproduce siege conditions, you’d have to knock down 95 percent of the trees and cover everything with mud.

The Union’s first major attack, on June 15, might well have ended the war nine and a half months early, for William Farrar Smith’s sixteen thousand infantry and cavalry were opposed by only twenty-two hundred tired and surprised Rebels in trenches. Smith did not realize the enemy’s weakness, however, and waited for extensive reconnaissance reports before finally committing his men around 7:00 P.M. They smashed a hole a mile and a half wide in the Confederate line, but by the time Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps arrived to assist, darkness had fallen, and all they could do was relieve Smith’s troops. Lee rushed most of his army into the trenches that night, and after a series of futile attacks over the next three days (following which one Union officer wrote, “never has the Army of the Potomac been so demoralized”), both sides dug in for a prolonged siege.