When the American Civil War (1861–1865) began, the gap in the rail
connection between the terminus of the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad in Pocahontas
and the other railroads in Petersburg greatly annoyed Confederate authorities. The
gap was deliberate, intended by Petersburg's merchants to ensure that passengers and
freight would have to use local transportation and related services rather than
simply slip through the city en route to other destinations. As far as the military
authorities were concerned, however, the gap was intolerable. In May 1861, the
Petersburg Common Council agreed to allow the construction of a rail link provided it
was used only for military purposes and was dismantled after the war. On August 14,
1861, the new link opened, and it proved a boon to the rapid movement of troops and
supplies between the two cities.
The railroad's importance was proved in 1864
at the conclusion of the Overland Campaign and the ensuing Siege of Petersburg. In May, Union major
general Benjamin F. Butler
launched several attacks against the line as part of his Bermuda Hundred Campaign,
but the Confederate forces under General Pierre G. T. Beauregard successfully defended the
railroad. Subsequently, thanks to the construction of defensive works around Richmond
and Petersburg, the line remained in Confederate control, enabling General Robert E. Lee to shift troops
quickly between the two cities to counter Union threats. The Union commander,
Lieutenant General Ulysses S.
Grant, constantly tested Lee's and the railroad's endurance by launching
attacks against first one city's defensive lines and then the other between June 1864
and April 1865. Lee successfully parried these thrusts, although he could not prevent
Grant from extending the Union lines south and west of Petersburg.
Grant also sought to cut the rail line from
North Carolina—the Petersburg Railroad—that formed part of "Lee's Lifeline" and
helped supply the Army of Northern Virginia during the ten-month-long Siege of
Petersburg. Eventually Grant succeeded, severing the rail communication at Globe
Tavern south of the city on August 18, 1864. Lee countered, however, by unloading
supplies from trains onto wagons farther south and then transporting them by road to
the western end of Petersburg beyond Union-held territory. The tactic worked well
until Grant broke Lee's lines and compelled the Confederate evacuation of Petersburg
and Richmond on April 2–3, 1865.
The Richmond and Petersburg Railroad had served its military purposes well. Within a
short time after the war ended, Petersburg officials took up the tracks that formed
the link with other lines. Eventually, a new railroad line and an improved road
system provided continuous transportation between Petersburg and Richmond.