Petersburg Siege

Photo above: Soldiers behind defenses at the siege of Petersburg, courtesy Library of Congress. Right: Reenactors at Petersburg National Battlefield, courtesy National Park Service.

Reenactor in Union garb at Petersburg


It was the longest siege of the Civil War, taking over nine months to complete, beginning when General Ulysses S. Grant would push south after his defeat at the Battle of Cold Harbor, reaching Petersburg on June 15, 1864. General Robert E. Lee would actually show up three days later and begin to defend the city and its supply lines to Richmond. Battles would continue until the final breakthrough of those defenses on April 2, 1865.

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  • It's a siege with plenty of battles within it as Grant tried to cut off supply lines and Lee tried to prevent that. Some of those battles have reached the stage of lore, i.e. the Battle of the Crater, as well as the final Battle of Five Forks. Others were important pieces of the puzzle, all fitting in a tightening of the noose that Grant was trying to achieve and eventually did. It's hard to keep it all in context and somewhat hard to visit as the park is spread out around the city all the way to the James River. And the final piece, the actual Petersburg Breakthrough, is not within the Petersburg National Battlefield itself, but in the private Pamplin Historical Park. That might have something to do with why the Petersburg Battlefield does not get as much credit, visitation, or love as some of the others in the war, but that does not diminish its importance. It would lead to the end of the war. Throughout the timeline of the battles here, on or near their actual dates, the 150th Anniversary events will be ongoing. This might be a good time to visit and help those attendance numbers.

    Petersburg Timeline
    Grant is defeated at Cold Harbor - June 12, 1864
    Union Army arrives at Petersburg - June 15, 1864
    Robert E. Lee arrives at Petersburg to combat Grant's attack and begins to expand its defenses - June 18, 1864
    Ulysses S. Grant begins the siege - June 22, 1864
    Lee evacuates Petersburg - April 2, 1865

    Engagements within the Petersburg Siege
    Opening Assaults - June 15-18, 1864
    Jerusalem Plank Road - June 21-22, 1864
    The Crater - July 30, 1864
    Weldon Railroad - August 18-21, 1864
    Reams Station - August 25, 1864
    Peebles Farm - September 30-October 1, 1864
    Burgess Mill - October 27, 1864

    Hatcher's Run - February 5-7, 1865
    Fort Stedman - March 25, 1865
    Lewis Farm - March 29, 1865
    White Oak Road - March 31, 1865
    Battle of Five Forks - April 1, 1865

  • Petersburg Then

    There are so many stories and battles surrounding the siege of Petersburg and those nine plus months that it is hard to focus on a few, but we'll pick two, and probably the two most well known; the Crater and the Battle of Five Forks. Photo above, of the Confederate defenses along the line, courtesy Library of Congress.

    The Battle of the Crater - If it were in the context of a made up movie, you wouldn't believe it. How soldiers who were miners turn into miners again, dig a tunnel, plant explosives, then blow up their enemy above. And, in the end, the ones who blew up their enemies, lost the battle. Go figure. It started in late-June when the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry with a miner at its head, Lt. Colonel Henry Pleasants, took an idea to his Corp commander Burnside, then dug under the Confederate First Corps. On July 30, the mine was exploded, but the subsequent attack failed as Union troops, included USCT troops, dipped into the crater. Union losses were two and one half times greater than the Confederates.

    The Battle of Five Forks - Now this action should really get more credit in the annals of Civil War history, but it gets lost in the shuffle of Lee and Grant at Appomattox, which it directly led to. On the southern end of the Petersburg lines, General Sheridan and his soldiers fresh from their days in the Shenandoah Valley, plus the Union 5th Corops under General Warren, would fight against General Pickett of Gettysburg fame in a showdown of forces to take the crossroads there and the Southside Railroad on April 1, 1865.

    Petersburg Now

    Petersburg National Battlefield - As noted above, the Petersburg battlefield is spread out over three counties and thirty-three miles, but a good place to start in the Eastern Front Visitor Center. From there, you can find out about Battle Walks at all locations, or head out with a tour map on that thirty-three miles journey of thirteen sites and three visitor centers in all. This will take you to City Point where Grant was headquartered and down to the Five Forks Battlefield where the final great assaut would lead to Lee abandoning the city.

    Pamplin Historical Park - Pamplin is a private historical park founded in 1993 by Portland businessman Robert B. Pamplin, Jr. It is not associated with the National Park, but does include the preservation of the historic district of the Petersburg Breakthrough Battlefield, where the final Union breeching of the Confederate fortifications and trenches on April 2, 1865 led to the abandonment of Petersburg. The Park also has a National Museum of the Civil War Soldier, established 1999 as well as three historic homes and three other museums. A visit here takes two to four hours to see it all.

  • Petersburg

    1. Grant's Headquarters at City Point. This is the north and east location of the park and if you go here first, will not have gone to the main visitor center of the Eastern front that has the movie and better orientation, but ... don't miss this part. No, it's not about the battle per se, but it is on the James River, includes a plantation, now a lot smaller than during the 1860s, as well as the history of Grant, Lincoln, and the end of the war.

    2. Tour stop #3 Eastern Front. Now this is what Petersburg is all about. Steep walls, pointy sticks, and an real understanding of how difficult it would be to overrun. Outside all the walks and talks, this is likely the location where you'll understand just what went on here.

    3. After getting that plan and if a tour is within your timeframe and held on the day of your visit, take any available Crater Battle Walk. It's at Tour Stop 8 and such a fabulous story. Don't miss it if it's available.

    4. Visit the Five Forks Visitor Center. It may be as important as at any national battlefield to get the lay of the land around Petersburg due to its dispersed nature. Take an hour or so to see the exhibits there plus the short film, find out if there are any upcoming battle walks and talks. Even though the area of interpretation where the self-guided tour isn't too large, it's a ping pong approach between the markers and a bit confusing, probabloy like the battle. Five Forks is at the end of the auto tour and thirty-three miles is a lot of area to cover. Good to have a plan.

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