Monday, January 16, 2017

Exploring Petersburg National Battlefield

Living in the Upstate puts us within easy driving distance of historic coastal cities such as Charleston and Savannah, but anything further (like Wilmington or Jacksonville) requires a bigger travel-time commitment. This time we had our sights set on Richmond, Virginia, to accompany the husband on his business trip, Richmond being ‘coastal’ in so far as its location on the James River and proximity to Chesapeake Bay. However, it took a long weekend to make the excursion a reality, as Richmond is a good six hours by car from our hometown of Greenville.

The drive to Richmond isn’t as exciting as recent visits into the mountains; the scenery was mostly flat as we drove north through Charlotte, then east to Greensboro and Durham before turning north again to cross into Virginia. Shortly before reaching the state capital we arrived in Petersburg, whose location on the fall line of the Appomattox River assured it a large role in commercial activities in Colonial times, as well as in the railroad business in the 1830s. Because of this rail network, Petersburg was key to Union plans to capture the Confederate capital (Richmond) during the Civil War.

Battlefield sites from the Siege of Petersburg (1864-1865) are located throughout the city and surrounding area. To better understand the chain of events that led to the end of the war at Appomattox Court House, we headed to Petersburg National Battlefield, where the longest military event of the Civil War unfolded over a period of 9½ months. The trench warfare resulted in 70,000 casualties, but on April 3, 1865, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant finally cut off the last of Petersburg’s supply lines (and subsequently those to the Confederate Capital). Only six days later Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered.

The 2,700 acre park contains a 16-stop driving tour which takes visitors through all four units of Petersburg National Battlefield from east to west, starting with General Grant's Headquarters at City Point on the James River, then to the Eastern Front (where the initial assaults and the Battles of the Crater and Fort Stedman occurred), on to the Western Front (and Poplar Grove National Cemetery, both currently CLOSED), and finally to the Five Forks Battlefield. We opted to start our explorations at the Eastern Front Visitor Center, first by watching a short video and taking a look at the displays and artifacts on display, then taking a hike from the Visitor Center to Confederate Battery 5. This was one of the strongest earthworks on the original Confederate defense line, and the trail led us to the “Dictator,” a mortar used to shell Confederate batteries north of the Appomattox once Federal troops captured the line on June 15, 1864.

Although an extensive trail system (10 miles of wooded nature trails that allow bicycles, horses and hikers) connects the various points of interest within the Eastern Front unit, we opted to drive the 4-mile Park Tour Road, stopping at several of the points of interest for a closer look. The Junior Ranger Booklets we picked up at the Visitor Center were an excellent addition to the educational experience, also providing a good idea of which stops would be more interesting to the boys. For example, stop #3 at Confederate Battery 9 features examples of siege fortifications and other structures which can be explored and viewed up close without compromising the integrity of the sensitive earthworks - which in most cases are all that remain from the lengthy battles that took place here more than 150 years ago.

Our last stop in the Eastern Front unit was stop #8, the Crater. On July 30, 1864, Union troops exploded a mine under the Confederate Battery in an attempt to break through Lee’s line. The follow-up attack failed miserably as the poorly-led Federal soldiers ended up heading into the crater created by the blast, instead of around it as had been planned. Confederate reinforcements arrived, closing the gap in the line and cutting off support to the Union forces still in the crater; 10 hours of fighting later the episode was over, ending in 5,500 casualties. The ½ mile hike leads around the crater, and features the tunnel entrance, the crater, and multiple monuments.

From the Eastern Front we chose to continue on our tour ‘backwards’ to Hopewell and the City Point Unit, as the Western Front Unit was closed and the Five Forks Battlefield a ½ hour journey out of our way to the southwest. In contrast Grant’s Headquarters at City Point was just 15 minutes to the east, and the promise of a walk on the James River finally clinched our decision. Appomattox Plantation at City Point served as offices for Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and his staff, the strategic location on the James River receiving over 100 ships a day at the height of the siege. The site was also the location of the largest field hospital of the war, with its own rail connection and pier. This riverside position was responsible for our very first impression of the City Point Unit, when soon after parking our car a bald eagle coasted by on the air currents overhead - leaving us all chins tilted back and mouths agape.

The Plantation House

The 100 year old, 2,300 acre Appomattox Plantation was the home of Dr. Richard Eppes and his family until 1862, when Union forces arrived via the James River. Used as the offices of U.S. Quartermaster Rufus Ingalls and his staff during the siege, it wasn’t until March of 1866 when the family was able to return to the property (which by then was in near ruin) to rebuild. We started our tour in the Plantation House, which also serves as Visitor Contact Station. The boys signed the visitor log, traded in their completed Junior Ranger booklets for badges, and after receiving a few recommendations from the ranger we headed out to tour the property.

Grant's cabin

The plantation grounds included a smokehouse, dairy shed, laundry, telegraph office, stable and other structures, but not all are still visible today. Visitors can view the cabin where General Ulysses S. Grant stayed during the siege (and where his wife and son joined him for the last three months of the siege).

We continued our exploration by descending to the James River waterfront area, which served as the location of supply wharves during the siege. Additional informational kiosks, viewing decks and a decent amount of shoreline to explore kept the boys occupied until the sun started sinking lower in the sky, at which point we knew it was time to head north across the Appomattox and into Richmond – something it took Union forces almost ten months (and 42,000 casualties) to accomplish. Our drive was only about 30 minutes, but it did take us past Fort Harrison, foreshadowing for the next day’s visit of Richmond National Battlefield Park

1 comment:

  1. George and I have been there. There is so much history in Virginia... SO interesting.... We also enjoyed seeing some of the plantations along the James River (Scenic Highway 5 (John Tyler Memorial Highway)...



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