Petersburg National Battlefield Petersburg, Va. Visited: October 11, 2005 NPS Site Visited: 256 of 353 NPS Website; Local Website
WHAT IS IT? Site of the prolonged 9½-month long, 1864-65 U.S. Grant-led campaign and siege against Robert E. Lee and the War’s last Confederate stronghold, Petersburg, Va. The April ’65 fall of Petersburg resulted in Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House and the Civil War’s end.
BEAUTY (3/10) Richmond’s sleek New South veneer did not travel the 25 miles down I-95 to Petersburg. At the Park’s most beautiful part, City Point, you can see bald eagles soaring over the confluence of the James and Appomattox Rivers and above heavy-duty industrial ships. This part of Virginia is not going to win any beauty contests.
HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (8/10) Grant’s long-drawn-out siege of Petersburg won the Civil War for the Union. Whether or not the War’s outcome had already been decided in late 1864 is, ostensibly, the topic for historical debate.
The Petersburg NB contains sites vital to the siege like City Point, whose deep water aided in its transformation from plantation manor to the Union Army’s headquarters and the site of a massive makeshift port. The supplies that allowed the lengthy siege to continue came through City Point.
The Crater is one of the Civil War’s most infamous battles. Halfway through the siege, a regiment of former Pennsylvania miners felt they could build a tunnel directly underneath a Confederate fort. From beneath the fort, they would detonate explosives and then charge and take the Rebel base. African American troops were trained to lead the initial charge but at the last moment, Union General Meade replaced the black regiment with untrained men. The detonation worked, but the untrained men failed to defeat the Rebels.
The Union success at the April 1st Battle of Five Forks precipitated the fall of Petersburg and the fall of the Confederacy. The only supply rail line into Petersburg came through Five Forks. When Lee lost Five Forks, he lost Petersburg and the War. Lee’s surrender would come eight days later at Appomattox.
CROWDS (6/10) We saw few other travelers at any of our Petersburg NB stops. One couple, clearly tuned in, made both vital stops along the auto tour: hiking to the intriguingly named Dictator Cannon and taking the Battle of the Crater self-guided walking tour. The Petersburg NB travels directly through the much-larger-than-we-thought city of Petersburg. Traffic tends to inch along her crowded streets. Budget twice as much travel time as your innocent map seems to indicate.
EASE OF USE/ACCESS (3/5) Over 30 miles separates Petersburg NB’s furthest points, City Point in the northeast and Five Forks Battlefield to the southwest. The Park’s Main VC lies about 8-miles southwest of City Point. It takes about 25 minutes to drive this traffic light infested road.
You can only enter the auto tour portion of the Park (includes The Crater) from North. Approach from Virginia Route 36 a/k/a Washington Street. You should see signs. From I-95 take Exit 52 and go east. From I-295 take Exit 9 and go west.
For your own sanity, pick up a Park map before you get here. If you are visiting Petersburg NB, chances are you are a Civil War buff. Not too many casual visitors come to this part of Virginia. Depending on the direction you are traveling, there are good odds that you’ve come from another Civil War site. Appomattox in the west, Richmond to the north, Yorktown to the east and, well, you are on your own from the South. Pick up the Petersburg brochure at one of these sites. You will be thankful.
CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (4/5) We did not have time to peruse the Petersburg NB Main VC bookstore because we arrived just before closing. The volunteer on duty would not even start up the electric map for us. It pays to be on time. A cursory glance revealed an entire shelf of the Pulitzer Prize winning fiction book turned Renee Zellweger movie, Cold Mountain. The book’s setting is a fictional Civil War battlefield, however, the movie moves the location to The Battle of the Crater, Petersburg, Va.
What Knee Deep in Hell: Trench Warfare in World War I is doing at a Civil War bookstore is anyone’s guess. Michael actually owns two copies of this book; an accidental double purchase during his freshman year at college.
We were impressed by the shimmery pages of the NPS publication, Battle of Five Forks. The large laminated papers show the intricate movements of troops on subsequent full color pages. The military strategy is so detailed that if you flip the book really fast it might resemble a animated cartoon. Cool stuff.
COSTS (3/5) Three of the Park’s four attractions are free: Five Forks, City Point and the Poplar Grove National Cemetery. Entry into the Park’s four-mile Battlefield driving tour costs $5 per car, free with the National Parks Pass.
RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (3/5) We got into wonderful history conversations with Rangers at both City Point and Five Forks. Our Five Forks talk revolved around what constitutes history, what matters for historical remembrance, Union cavalry General Sheridan, the Mexican War and the Indian Wars. Did we mention that Ranger discussions are infinitely better than any graduate level history seminar with which we have ever been involved?
Sadly, there were no Rangers at the Battlefield’s primary sector, the fee-based auto tour. We found the best educational rewards at Petersburg NB, like Richmond NBP and Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania NMP before it, off the beaten path and not at the main visitor centers.
TOURS/CLASSES (5/10) Great Ranger discussions but we did have electric map difficulties. The Five Forks Battlefield electric map is a hand-me-down from Appomattox and tells the same story as the updated version at the more visited Park Site. And we were too late to see the siege recap electric map found at the Visitor Center. Petersburg NB feels almost forgotten by the Park Service despite the excellent stopgap support offered by Rangers, mimeographed handouts and waysides.
FUN (5/10) The more you dive into Civil War sites, the more fun they get. Petersburg NB is a logical stop for the Civil War vacationer. First Fredericksburg, then south to Richmond, south to Petersburg and finally, west to Appomattox. The route even follows the chronological order of Grant’s 1864-65 campaign. Petersburg NB is a crucial piece in the Civil War puzzle and is much more fascinating when viewed as part of a whole rather than individually.
WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (4/10) For casual travelers, Petersburg, while vital historically, does not make for the best Civil War introduction. Stop at Richmond or Fredericksburg instead. Petersburg NB is an upper level graduate class; important but esoteric and boring to all but the most interested.
Everyone and their mother suggested that we go to the privately-owned Pamplin Historical Park, entry fee $13.50. We didn’t but that doesn’t mean we can’t pass everyone’s suggestion onto you.
USA-C2C.com is an independent website, not affiliated in any way with the National Park Service, the National Parks Foundation or any of their partners.