- Historic Sites
Lee’s Last Stand
The Union Army’s siege ended in 1865, but it still has a grip on Petersburg, Virginia
October 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 6
The site of all this has been preserved as Petersburg National Battlefield, which is something of a misnomer. It’s not so much a field as a wooded area with clearings and trails carved out, and although there were fierce spurts of fighting at Petersburg, the dominant activity was not battle but siege. The main portion sprawls irregularly over 2,460 acres and even so covers only about a quarter of the opposing lines. Here and there vague swellings in the turf are labeled as Union or Confederate earthworks; some artillery pieces have been preserved, and examples of the wide variety of defensive measures (bombproofs, chevaux-de-frise, abatis, gabions) have been rebuilt, along with a few structures such as a soldier’s hut and a sutler’s store. The site exhibits all the solemn beauty of any bucolic patch that has witnessed the horrors of war, but after a century and a quarter of exposure to the elements, it’s hard to get much of a sense of how the land once lay.
Much of this is unavoidable, of course. To properly reproduce conditions from the time of the siege, you would have to knock down 95 percent of the trees and cover the whole place in mud. Still, the pervasive tranquillity can be disconcerting, with singing birds and chirping crickets and (on a beautiful early-fall day) only a few other tourists. You’ll wish your golf course were this uncrowded.
For example, consider the campaign’s bloodiest engagement, the Battle of the Crater, in which a regiment of Pennsylvania coal miners dug a tunnel under Confederate lines and exploded four tons of powder on the morning of July 30, 1864. Union troops rushed into the tangled heap of bodies, dirt, and guns and tried to storm the Rebel defenses, but once inside the crater, they found that they could not get out. Reinforcements kept pouring in behind them, making retreat impossible, and before Union commanders could put a stop to the maneuver, they had sustained almost four thousand casualties. Today all that remains of the crater is a gentle dip in the earth that would not draw a second glance from someone who didn’t know what it was.
The ill-fated crater put an end to direct assaults until the following spring. Inside the city limits residents endured daily shelling, made do with whatever food could filter in, and knitted socks for the soldiers. The Siege Museum, a small but affecting collection, contains artifacts from those months of privation: a Confederate soldier’s prayer book; a bullet with teeth marks, used in place of an anesthetic; fine china that sat empty on Petersburg’s elegant tables at the “starvation balls” of Christmas 1864.
As summer turned to fall and fall to winter, Union troops stretched out to the west, thinning even further the ranks of the outmanned Rebels. They methodically cut off access routes to Petersburg until finally only the Southside Railroad remained. On March 25, 1865, Lee’s starving, unwashed, ill-clad army made a desperate attempt to break through the Union lines—its last offensive action of the war—but was quickly suppressed. A week later the Confederates lost control of the Southside at the Battle of Five Forks; the next day Petersburg and Richmond fell. Lee and his army evacuated to Appomattox.
That was it for the Confederacy, but not for Petersburg, which abandoned its Jeffersonian reliance on agriculture, threw itself wholeheartedly into manufacturing, and soon was a major industrial center. Yet while Petersburg was building a future, it did not forget its past. Blandford Cemetery, a burial ground since the start of the eighteenth century, became a focus for commemorations of the Lost Cause. The Petersburg Ladies Memorial Association collected the remains of thirty thousand soldiers who had died defending Petersburg and reburied them at Blandford. In 1901 they began restoring the adjoining church, which had been unused (except as a hospital during the siege) for a century, as a nonsectarian Confederate memorial chapel.
By the time of its completion in 1912, the church had been furnished with Louis Comfort Tiffany stained-glass windows for all the Confederate and border states. Each window (except smaller ones for Maryland and Arkansas, which responded late to an appeal for funds) contains an inscription commemorating the state’s fallen soldiers along with a depiction of one of Christ’s apostles. To a lifelong Northerner the effect is incongruous at first: the Prince of Peace’s devoted followers invoked in the name of a war to protect slavery. Yet the men and boys who died at Petersburg did not start that war; most, like General Lee, trooped to the Stars and Bars out of simple, unquestioning loyalty to their states. With Petersburg’s fall the question of who can properly claim an American’s allegiance was finally settled. Blandford Church stands as a memorial to the loyalty of the men and boys who were sacrificed for an exercise in political science—and to that of their daughters, sisters, widows, and mothers in the decades that followed.
Over the entrance to the church is a stained-glass rendering of a Confederate battle flag. On the opposite wall the seal of Missouri—a battleground for slavery even before it was a state—contains an eagle and the words United We Stand, Divided We Fall . These two images neatly sum up what the chapel, and the city itself, are about. Petersburg remembers the past but does not cling to it; its history shows what people can endure even as it reminds us that such a test must never happen again.