Petersburg on the Eve of War
Petersburg's 18,266 residents in 1860 were divided almost equally between blacks and whites. No Southern city on the eve of the Civil War (Petersburg would be the seventh-largest municipality in the Confederacy) boasted a higher percentage of African Americans among its free population. Voters in Petersburg cast their ballots for the Constitutional Union candidate in the 1860 presidential election, John Bell of Tennessee, and sent a conditional Unionist to the Virginia Convention in February 1861, demonstrating its conservative character.
The War Years, 1861–1863
Petersburg's key location compelled a reluctant common council in 1861 to allow the various rail lines to be connected in town, and thereafter a steady stream of troops and supplies passed through the city. The first military hospitals appeared in July 1861, and within a year seven hospitals, most established in abandoned tobacco factories, treated thousands of wounded and ill soldiers. The Confederate government would also locate a powder mill, leadworks, a ropewalk, and a wagon repair shop in Petersburg, as well as a camp for paroled prisoners.
Crime increased dramatically and gangs of boys sometimes engaged in deadly street fights. In March 1862 Petersburg came under martial law in response to the social disruption caused by hundreds of refugees from Norfolk. Visiting soldiers filled the romantic void for Petersburg's young women, whose natural partners were absent in the army. Somehow, a few of Petersburg's socially elite families managed to host elaborate soirees, but by 1864 the typical party became a "starvation ball," where river water provided the only refreshment.
Petersburg saw no combat during the war's first three years, although from the spring of 1862 onward, the city hosted the headquarters for a number of Confederate military departments. The jurisdiction of these departments usually included eastern North Carolina. Protecting the rail lines leading from Wilmington, North Carolina, to Petersburg, as well as the Blackwater River military frontier in southeastern Virginia, occupied Petersburg's commanding officers. Confederate generals such as Daniel Harvey Hill, James Longstreet, and George E. Pickett led these Petersburg-based departments.
The Bermuda Hundred Campaign
Butler planned several forays against Petersburg late in May and early in June, but not until June 9, 1864, did he launch an attack. A combined force of infantry and cavalry approached the city from the east and south, intent on destroying everything of military value, especially the railroad bridge over the Appomattox River. Butler's infantry commander timidly withdrew without a fight, but his cavalry tested the city's defenses along the Jerusalem Plank Road, south of the city. With the regular Confederate troops posted to the east, some 125 old men, young boys, and convalescents answered the tocsin and took position in the fortifications. This makeshift and grossly outnumbered force bravely turned away two Union assaults before succumbing to superior firepower, leaving more than half of their number as casualties. They purchased enough time, however, for regular soldiers to arrive and repulse the attackers closer to town.
The Petersburg Campaign
Almost as an afterthought, Grant placed artillery in the captured works east of the city and began a desultory bombardment aimed ostensibly at Petersburg's military assets. In reality, the shelling assumed a more random nature. More than six hundred structures would be hit during the campaign, and by early July, the eastern half of Petersburg had been depopulated. In addition to enduring chronic shortages of life's necessities, many citizens now became refugees, some reduced to scavenging for berries and living under blanket shelters in the countryside.
The End of the War and Its Legacy
The United States Army occupied Petersburg through August 3, 1865. The local commander, Major General George Hartsuff, balanced his responsibility to protect freedmen with a sensitivity to traditional racial hierarchies, thus earning him the grudging respect of the city's white population.
1643 - The first English settlement is established at the falls of the Appomattox River on the future site of Petersburg, Virginia.
1784 - The town of Petersburg, Virginia, is chartered.
1850 - The city of Petersburg, Virginia, is chartered.
1860 - The federal census counts 18,266 residents in Petersburg, making it the second-largest city in Virginia.
November 11, 1861 - The first Confederate troops are stationed in Petersburg.
October 5, 1862 - The 55th North Carolina is posted in Petersburg as the city's first permanent provost guard.
September 15, 1863 - George E. Pickett and LaSalle Corbell marry at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Petersburg.
July 30, 1864 - The Battle of the Crater causes 4,000 Union casualties and, though a technical success, is a tactical catastrophe for Ulysses S. Grant.
August 3, 1865 - Union troops leave Petersburg.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Greene, A. W. Petersburg During the Civil War. (2013, August 13). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Petersburg_During_the_Civil_War.
- MLA Citation:
Greene, A. Wilson. "Petersburg During the Civil War." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 13 Aug. 2013. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: April 8, 2009 | Last modified: August 13, 2013
Contributed by A. Wilson Greene, the president of Pamplin Historical Park & The National Museum of the Civil War Soldier near Petersburg, Virginia. He is the author of Civil War Petersburg: Confederate City in the Crucible of War (2006) and The Final Battles of the Petersburg Campaign: Breaking the Backbone of the Rebellion (2008).