150th Civil War & Emancipation Special Events
For 292 days in 1864 and 1865 some 125,000 visitors descended on the Petersburg region.
These guests arrived on foot and horseback, in wagons, and onboard steamers, dressed in military uniforms of blue, gray, and butternut. They came from Texas and Maine; from Illinois and Florida; and they made a mess.
One hundred and fifty years later, the impact of their visit still resonates throughout the Petersburg region both physically and psychologically. The Civil War is inescapable in our corner of Virginia and today’s travelers are invited to share with us a heritage that helps define us all as Americans today.
In 1861, Petersburg was the second largest city in Virginia and the seventh largest in the entire Confederacy (Hopewell and Colonial Heights are products of the 20th century and were a part of Prince George and Chesterfield counties, respectively). The “Cockade City’s” industrial prowess, its location at the head of navigation on the Appomattox River, and, most importantly, its five railroads that radiated in all directions of the compass made it a point of enormous military significance during the Civil War.
Petersburg’s citizens lived on the uneasy margins of the shooting war between 1861 and the spring of 1864, suffering with runaway inflation and a crippling shortage of the necessities of life. But in May of that year, a Union army landed at City Point (now a part of Hopewell) and Bermuda Hundred (in Chesterfield County), triggering a series of battles known as the Bermuda Hundred campaign. A month later the largest armies in Virginia, commanded by Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant, began a contest for control of Petersburg that would extend from mid-June 1864 through April 2, 1865. When Petersburg surrendered to Union forces the following day, war’s end at Appomattox Court House was but six days away.
The legacy of that tragic chapter of American history—events that cost more than 70,000 casualties and untold misery for soldiers and civilians alike—lives today in the Petersburg region’s battlefields, museums, and historic homes. Contemporary visitors can explore the scenes of Petersburg’s most important battles, such as the Crater, Fort Stedman, and Five Forks, at Petersburg National Battlefield. This sprawling unit of the National Park system includes Grant’s Headquarters at City Point where travelers can learn the fascinating back story of the remarkable logistical effort required to sustain military operations. Pamplin Historical Park and the National Museum of the Civil War Soldier preserves the site of the campaign’s climactic engagement, known as The Breakthrough, that forced General Lee to evacuate Richmond and Petersburg on April 2. Much of the rest of the military story at Petersburg can be found by exploring the landscape in Dinwiddie County, where a self-guided driving tour leads motorists to pristine scenes of heroism, courage, and carnage.
In addition to the museums and visitor centers at Petersburg National Battlefield and Pamplin Historical Park, today’s guests to the Petersburg region can learn about the hardships endured by Petersburg’s citizens, black and white, at the Siege Museum in Old Town Petersburg. Walking tours of this historic city lead past a remarkable collection of commercial and residential buildings that played crucial roles in the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln visited City Point twice during the Petersburg Campaign and walked the streets of Petersburg in early April, passing buildings that still stand witness to the president’s presence. Across the Appomattox River, General Lee’s headquarters at Violet Bank in Colonial Heights offers insights into the Confederate commander’s life on the front lines.
There is no better place to experience how Petersburg citizens of the post Civil War generation remembered the conflict than at Blandford Church. Sitting atop strategic Cemetery Hill, Blandford Church is perhaps the most beautiful memorial to the Confederacy anywhere in the world with its Tiffany stained glass windows overlooking a landscaped graveyard filled with the Confederate dead. In a quieter corner of the region, Poplar Grove National Cemetery in Dinwiddie County provides the final resting place for thousands of Northern soldiers who gave their lives for the cause of freedom and liberty.
Visitors are fond of joking that we in the South are still fighting the Civil War! Of course, such observations are more apparent than real but we DO deeply remember that conflict of 150 years ago that so defined our corner of Virginia and the nation. We treasure our Civil War past and have lovingly preserved large portions of it to share with guests from around the world. When you visit our historic sites you, too, will understand why in the Petersburg region, the Civil War is “felt history.”
Wilson Greene Bio
A. Wilson Greene has worked in the field of Southern and Civil War history for 41 years. He is a graduate of Florida State University and did his graduate work in history at Louisiana State University under the direction of the legendary T. Harry Williams.
Greene worked at National Park Service Civil War history sites for sixteen years, was the first executive director of what is now the Civil War Trust, and is the founding director of Pamplin Historical Park and the National Museum of the Civil War Soldier.
The author of six books and more than thirty published articles and essays on Civil War and Southern history, Greene has been awarded the Laney Prize for the best book on the Civil War (2006), The Shelby Foote Legacy Award for battlefield preservation by the Civil War Trust (2012), and was named a Distinguished Southerner by Southern Living Magazine. President George W. Bush named him to two terms on the Board of the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the federal agency that oversees best practices in museums and libraries.
Greene is currently under contract to the University of North Carolina Press to write a three-volume history of the Petersburg Campaign, due to be published in 2016.