Civil War history lesson Petersburg, Va., embraces and expands its past

Email|Print| Text size + By Kathy Shorr
Globe Correspondent / March 9, 2005

PETERSBURG, Va. -- This city's greatest claim to fame is somewhat dubious. It's where the South made its last stand in the Civil War.

The 10-month siege from June 1864 to early April 1865 was the longest in US history. Union and Confederate armies battled for control of the city, which Confederate General Robert E. Lee considered the ''key to Richmond" -- the capital of the Confederacy just 23 miles away.

Within a week of losing Petersburg, Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House.

Though Petersburg probably has as many significant Civil War sites as anywhere in the country, it has little of the name recognition of places like Gettysburg or Antietam. ''Southerners haven't focused on it, because it's where they went down," says Dulaney Ward, a Petersburg historian.

Despite this, Petersburg breathes Civil War history nearly everywhere you turn.

About 3 miles south of town is Pamplin Historical Park and the National Museum of the Civil War Soldier. The park is built on the site of the April 2, 1865, Breakthrough. In that battle, more than 14,000 Union troops attacked, broke the Confederate line, and ended the Petersburg campaign.

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Next month marks the 140th anniversary of the fall of Petersburg. Pamplin will host a number of special events, including a predawn lantern tour of the Breakthrough battlefield on April 2, and a weekend of events April 16-17.

The 422-acre grounds include two large museum buildings, several antebellum mansions, a re-creation of slaves' quarters , and costumed interpretive guides offering ''living history demonstrations."

In the ''Trial by Fire" gallery, you can choose among photos of actual soldiers, don headphones, and follow ''your" soldier's progress through the war, listening to excerpts from his diary or letters while viewing exhibits. In one section, you can select items you would want to carry in your pack. Press a button when you are finished, and out pops the total weight you'll be hauling.

But the museum's most moving aspects do not involve high-tech, multimedia presentations. They are remarkably simple, and silent.

A small display on Captain Charles G. Gould from Vermont shows his Bible, his uniform, and the medal he won for being the first Union soldier to cross the Confederate line during the Breakthrough. Alongside these artifacts is a black-and-white photo of Gould, clear-eyed and handsome, with a huge scar across his face from the battle.

Most silent of all are the stones that curve in a line around the entranceway to the main museum building. Each stone is carved with the name of a state, the number of men it sent to the war, and the number who died.

Just east of the city is the 2,659-acre Petersburg National Battlefield. This National Park Service property has a visitors center and several preserved fortifications and battlefields. The most significant is one re-created in the Charles Frazier novel (and later film) ''Cold Mountain," the July 30, 1864, Battle of The Crater. It was a longer, uglier scene in real life. The Union and Confederate soldiers tunneled toward each other's fortifications, and Union soldiers exploded a mine underneath the Confederate fort. Men from both sides ended up trapped in the vast crater left by the explosion -- 170 feet long, 60 to 80 feet wide, and 30 feet deep -- and fought in hand-to-hand combat while soldiers at the rim hurled down bayonets.

The Crater still exists, though it's reduced to a gentle indentation several feet deep and covered with grass.

Despite its plethora of Civil War sites, Petersburg's historical significance hardly begins and ends with the war. Some of Pocahontas's descendants are thought to have lived here. And Benedict Arnold fought here during the Revolutionary War.

The city also claims a number of milestones in African-American history. Its First Baptist Church is said to be home to the country's oldest African-American congregation. In the mid-19th century, Petersburg had the largest free black population of any city in the country. It's the home of the first African-American public college, now called Virginia State University. One of the early sit-ins of the civil rights movement took place here in 1960, involving 140 students. In 1965, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave one of his most significant speeches, the first in which he attacked the US role in Vietnam.

So why isn't Petersburg famous? According to Ward, one clue can be found in the statue of native son William Mahone, which stands not far from the Crater. Mahone fought valiantly at the Crater and after the war became a railroad magnate, was elected to the US Senate, dominated Republican politics in Virginia, and supported the formation of Virginia State.

The trouble? Mahone's support of the party of Lincoln and African-Americans didn't sit well with many in Petersburg. Ward says when the statue was erected about a century ago, town fatherswouldn't allow it downtown.

''There's been a failure over the years to embrace the importance of black history and the fall of the South here," says Ward. One step he has taken toward correcting that is to develop brochures for walking tours of the city, starting with one on the Underground Railroad. The Park Service recently announced it is expanding the social history aspects of the national battlefield, in part to include more material on African-Americans.

On May 25-28, Petersburg will be the site of a national conference, ''African-Americans and the Civil War" cohosted by the Park Service, Pamplin Historical Park, the city of Petersburg, and Virginia State.

''Now I think we're at a point where we can do these things, not without a struggle, but to tell the story," says Ward of the effort to expand the story of Petersburg. ''It's a complicated story, so it's hard to tell right."

Kathy Shorr is a freelance writer in Wellfleet. She can be reached at

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