The Siege of Petersburg, encompassing several battles and smaller actions, was fought between June 9, 1864 and March 25, 1865, around Petersburg, Virginia, between Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and Union Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Potomac in the American Civil War. The siege ended in a decisive Union victory and resulted in approximately 70,000 total casualties.
Today, only a small portion of the battlefield, mainly northeast of the city, has been preserved as Petersburg National Battlefield. It would be impossible to preserve all the extensive earthworks that ringed the city south of the Appomattox River, but many forts and landmarks have been turned into city parks. The battlefield has been divided into two fronts: Eastern and Western. The Eastern Front Driving Tour is four miles and the Western Front Driving Tour is 16 miles.
The Siege of Petersburg wasn’t technically a siege because the city wasn’t entirely surrounded, but it shared similar characteristics, including fortifications, mortar bombardments, and near-constant, low-intensity fighting. It lasted 9 months, 2 weeks, and 2 days. Over time, the battle lines crawled westward as Ulysses S. Grant tried to find a way to cut Lee’s main supply line to the west and south.
The Siege Encampment Exhibit not far from the Visitor Center is an incredible re-creation of the trenches and earthworks around Petersburg. It’s easy to see how the Civil War was a precursor to World War 1 and is considered by some historians to be the first “modern war.”
At Fort Stedman, pictured above, March 25, 1865, Confederate Maj. Gen. John B. Gordon conducted a surprise attack using infiltration tactics, later re-developed during World War 1 by the Germans to break the stalemate in France. Sharpshooters and engineers posing as Confederate deserters cleared lanes of obstacles. They were followed by three groups of 100 men assigned to storm the Union works and continue rearward.
Gordon’s attack experienced initial success, but Union forces were able to quickly mobilize units to seal off the breakthrough. They inflicted heavy casualties on the retreating Confederates and ended any hope of another Confederate offensive.
The most famous engagement during the siege was the co-called “Battle of the Crater,” depicted in the movie Cold Mountain (2003). Lt. Col. Henry Pleasants devised a plan to dig a 510-foot long tunnel and fill it with explosives in order to blast a passageway through Confederate lines. On July 30, 1864, the charges were detonated and the IX Corps attacked. The blast, however, simply created a crater in which Union soldiers became sitting ducks. The battle caused 3,798 Union casualties, and Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside was relieved of command.
Petersburg National Battlefield preserves 2,740 acres of the original battlefield. The beautiful setting, parks, monuments, and trails make this a must see on any trip to the Richmond-Petersburg area. Eastern Front Visitor Center, the main visitor center for the park, is located at 5001 Siege Road. It is open Sunday-Saturday, 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.