October 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 6
The Union Army’s siege ended in 1865, but it still has a grip on Petersburg, Virginia
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.
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.
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.