Suggested Trip

A Historian's Tour of Petersburg National Battlefield Park

 


American Civil War battlefields dot the landscape of the Chesapeake.  Petersburg National Battlefield Park located in Virginia, 30 miles south of the former Confederate Capitol in Richmond, is a top place to visit to explore Civil War history.  A nine-month siege lasting from June, 1864 to April, 1865, the battle of Petersburg pit the 122,000-man Union Army of the Potomac led by Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant against Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s 65,000-man Army of Northern Virginia.  One of the final battles of the war, Petersburg paved the way for Union victory and the Confederate surrender at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865.

A modern day visitor has many opportunities to experience the hallowed grounds. Stretching 33 miles, Petersburg National Battlefield includes the sites of Grant’s headquarters at City Point, the Eastern and Western Fronts, the Home Front in Old Town Petersburg, and Five Forks Battlefield.  For your initial experience, I recommended that you start at one of the visitor centers or contact stations operated by the National Park Service.  Numerous free brochures and maps are available that will enhance your understanding of the complex site and battle.  The Eastern Front Visitor Center, in particular, is a great place to begin, as it hosts an excellent 18-minute orientation film.  Produced in 2015, the film provides an overview of the entire battlefield while contextualizing the significance of the battle.  Exhibits that incorporate artifacts from the battlefield and historic photographs are also located within the visitor center.  

Adult and youth visitors alike will enjoy the impressive collection of artillery that line the visitor center’s front walkways. Before embarking on the driving tour, consider a short walk to see Confederate Battery 5 and a replica of the Union thirteen-inch mortar, known as the “Dictator” (pictured below), that was used to shell Confederate positions.  A clearly marked walking trail leads to both of these sites.

Beginning at the Eastern Front Visitor Center, the four-mile driving tour of this front incorporates audio stations and wayside exhibits. Several stops have modest, interpretive walking trails which are enjoyable and informative.  The driving tour meanders over rolling hills and through forests, providing opportunities for you to experience both the battlefield and nature.  Fort Stedman is a driving tour stop that you should not miss.  Here approximately 25,000 soldiers engaged in battle on March 25, 1865, and over 5,000 casualties were reported.  Exploring the small earthen fort and its surroundings on foot, amidst the backdrop of forest and fields of wildflowers, evokes astonishment, horror, and a strange sense of tragic beauty.  Take time to read the interpretive signage and scan the battlefield; try to imagine the scene that took place in 1865.

Continuing along the driving tour, also be sure to stop, get out, and explore The Crater. Union troops tunneled 500 feet underground and exploded a mine beneath a Confederate battery, attempting to create a breakthrough to the town of Petersburg.  When the charge exploded, hundreds of Confederates were killed instantly.  Once the dust settled, a crater over 170 feet long, 100 feet wide, and 30 feet deep had opened in the earth as a result of the explosion. Amidst the confusion, Union troops advanced into the newly-formed crater.  Confederate soldiers regrouped on the high ground and pinned down the disoriented Union troops. Confederate Brigadier General William Mahone described the horrific scene as a “turkey shoot.”  Union casualties exceeded 3,700, while the Confederates lost 1,500 men. Exploring the site, you can still see the entrance way to the underground tunnel, and this crater remains a distinct landscape feature.

The Crater is the final stop along the Eastern Front Driving Tour; however, eight miles to the northeast is Grant’s Headquarters at City Point, the main Union supply base throughout the siege. Located on a bluff overlooking the confluence of the Appomattox and James Rivers, the port of City Point enabled the Union to resupply its army during the battle. Today’s visitors may experience preserved viewsheds of the rivers, and with the help of interpretive signage, imagine how bustling the supply base would have been during 1864 and 1865. A visitor contact station located within the historic Appomattox Plantation home incorporates a few exhibits and an eight-minute orientation film.  A short walk from the plantation home is a small wooden cabin that served as Lieutenant General Grant’s headquarters.  Also, while walking the grounds, keep an eye to the sky for bald eagle, blue heron, and osprey, as numerous birds enjoy the habitat along the rivers.  

In total, at least three to four hours should be set aside to explore City Point and the Eastern Front. Located in the center of Petersburg National Battlefield, the Home Front in Old Town Petersburg is also worth visiting as revitalization efforts have transformed the town.  Many 19th century buildings have been adaptively reused for residential and retail purposes, and there are numerous options for dining.  

Half a day is recommended to experience other portions of Petersburg National Battlefield that include the Western Front and Five Forks Battlefield.  In addition to the National Park Service sites, Pamplin Historical Park is an opportunity for visitors to dig deeper into the Civil War history of the area.  Adjacent to Grant’s headquarters at City Point, is Hopewell City Park, where visitors may swim, launch kayaks or paddle boards, and enjoy the Appomattox and James Rivers.

Petersburg National Battlefield is well preserved, vast, and tells many important stories.  It is the type of historic destination that can be visited numerous times without experiencing the same thing twice.  Located just 75 miles from Norfolk, Virginia and 130 miles from Washington, DC, Petersburg is an ideal location for a daytrip and will prove to be an educational, inspiring, and rewarding experience. 

Petersburg National Battlefield

The Petersburg National Battlefield commemorates the nine and one-half month siege of this city from June 1864 - April 1865.

Robert Kelly

Robert serves as the Vice-President of the Fort Monroe Historical Society, is an American Association of Museums peer reviewer and is a life member of the American Friends of Lafayette. He is the author of many articles including General Lafayette’s Visit to Fort Monroe as Guest of the Nation and The Civil War at Freedom’s Fortress. Additionally, Robert regularly presents speaking programs across southeast Virginia about Fort Monroe related topics. Robert and his wife Katherine, an elementary school educator, reside “on post” at Fort Monroe in quarters originally built in 1875 for Army officers.

May 28, 2019

Main image: City Point. All photos by Robert Kelly
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