Eastern Front

Trapped in trench warfare, the soldiers around Petersburg suffered the misery of living amongst the debris of battle, the unsanitary conditions in the lines, and the unrelenting exposure to the weather. Combined with this was the stress of living under constant mortar and rifle fire that took lives and wounded men on a daily basis.

This front provided the most intense experience of this deadly combination. The opposing lines were closer here than anywhere else in the siege as distances between the armies were measured in yards and feet. Living at point-blank range was constant high-level stress as one soldier described, “... [their] sharpshooters had a clear range of our entire front ... my regiment suffered a daily loss ...”

The presence of United States Colored Troops (USCT) along the eastern front added to this tension across the lines as well as within the Union lines. The Battle of the Crater is a primary example of the dynamic of this animosity between the USCTs, the Confederates and white Union troops. With black troops calling for no mercy to be shown at the beginning, the Confederates answering that call at the battle’s end and white Union officers attempting to kill their own black soldiers at the battle’s climax, the issue of race helped define the experience on this front of the siege.

Voices from …

Kind of envision, once you click onto the link to Voices, picture pops up like it does on opening screen, and then text box appears. What do you think? Use small boxes as usual for links to the particular individuals, use their names in the boxes? Will that be too much to write in a single box? Got a better idea?

“It is not easy to write about the dreadful war between the North and the South. We press our breasts against a thorn when we recall the anguish of those days of death and disaster. It is often said that it is still too early to write the story of our Civil War. It will soon be too late. Some of us still live who saw those days. We should not shrink from recording what we know to be true. Thus only will a full history of American courage and fidelity be preserved, -- for all were Americans.” -- Sarah Pryor, Petersburg citizen

While no one now lives who saw the days of the Civil War, many people who lived in the city of Petersburg or in the trenches along the Eastern Front, fortunately recorded their stories. Use the following links to learn more about the Eastern Front experience from multiple perspectives.

Digging the City’s Defenses

The Dimmock Line was a ten-mile arc of trenches, containing fifty-five artillery batteries extending east, west, and south of Petersburg below the Appomattox River. The Dimmock Line was constructed to protect Petersburg, whose strategic importance became apparent after the first year of the war. Per Dimmock’s request to Mayor Townes, the Petersburg Common Council complied with his request for slaves and free Negroes to expedite construction of these works. Local landowners complied with this request, allowing some of their slaves to work for several months digging the trench line around the city.

Use the following link to track the correspondence.

Captain Charles Dimmock

On December 12, 1862, Engineer Dimmock addressed a letter to the mayor of Petersburg stating:

“The early completion of the defensive works around your city must be a matter of paramount interest to yourself. It has been found impossible to secure an immediate and adequate force to meet the demands for labor upon your defenses.

The following suggestions ... will afford means to push our works to an early completion.

It is proposed that you secure a force of 200 Negroes by such means as may in your judgment seem best ... This force to report each morning upon their work – which is two miles from the city – at 8:00 o’clock, to be permitted to return home at 4:00 p.m. With this force, for two or three weeks, more can be accomplished than in as many months of the rapidly approaching bad weather.”

Samuel French, Major General Confederate Forces at Petersburg

December 1862

Gentlemen:
This call on the citizens to contribute some labor for early completion of the defences of your city, are made at my suggestion and meets any approval, and I trust it will meet with a hearty and prompt response and I hope it can be done without any real sacrifice on the part of this community which is so deeply interested in the safety of the City.

Samuel French
Maj. Gen.

Mayor W. W. Townes

At an adjourned meeting of the Common Council of the City of Petersburg, held December 13, 1862

Resolved – That the Mayor and Messers Vaughan and Potts, be and they are hereby appointed a committee for the purpose, whose duty it shall be to advertise for free and slave labors to work at once upon the fortifications of the city, for a time not exceeding 20 days, that they advertise that the labourers will under the control and supervision of Mr. Saml Lecture as Principal – that the labourers or their owners be paid $2 per day by the city and rations furnished by the government, that they labour from 8 in the morning till 4 in the afternoon with an hour intermission at midday, and return to their homes at night. . .

Citizen Responses

March 2, 1863
Meeting of Common Council of the City of Petersburg

The time for which the hands were employed by the city to work on the defences around the City, having expired, on motion of Mr. Vaughan, it was ordered that said hands be continued in the works one month longer.

Two months later, the following entry appears in the City Council Minute book.

May 1863

Mr. Donovan offered the following resolution which was adopted –

Resolved that the contract heretofore made with the owners of the slaves to labor on the fortifications, (the time for which the city agreed to continue the hands having expired) be ended from this day.

Soldiers on the Front

While the fighting on the Eastern Front included the initial assault on the city of Petersburg and the famous Battle of the Crater, the soldier experience here was really characterized by constant bombardment at close quarters. Soldiers who fought in the opening battles soon found themselves living at point-blank range of the enemy, digging deeper trenches, and laying low from the constant exchange of rifle and artillery fire. Soldiers dealt daily with the stress of fighting and living yards away from the enemy.

Read two personal accounts of those who were eyewitnesses to life on the Eastern Front. John Walters fought with a Confederate artillery Regiment, while William J. Bolton fought with a Pennsylvania regiment. Their diaries provide a first-hand perspective of fighting.

William J. Bolton / A Union Soldier’s Perspective

51st Pennsylvania

June 18, 1864

“... The troops were again moved forward to attack, reaching the summit of the opposite bank of the ravine, about 100 yards from the enemy’s line. Our line became exposed to full view of the enemy, whose fire was too severe to attempt any further advance. Our position, however, held and intrenched during the night, and is the nearest point to the enemy’s line gained by our army. Our intrenching tools were tin cups, plates, and spoons. Poor Creek, or river as called by the rebels, run red with blood and the flag of the 2d Michigan was found floating down the little stream.

John Walters / A Confederate Perspective

Norfolk Light Artillery Blues

July 7, 1864

“At daylight this morning it was discovered that the enemy was endeavoring to advance a portion of their line by throwing up an earthwork a short distance to the left of us. Our artillery opened a slow fire on them which, though it was returned at the rate of three shots to our one, put an end to their digging for the day. I think we threw our ammunition away to little purpose, as they will finish their work under the cover of the night in spite of us ...”

William J. Bolton / A Union Soldier’s Perspective

June 23

“... Our division are erecting works for artillery within 200 yards of the enemy’s main line, and have built abates along our whole division front under heavy fire ... The firing on our division front was almost incessant last night, and up to daylight this morning.

John Walters / A Confederate Perspective

Norfolk Light Artillery Blues

July 13, 1864

“We worked all last night under a heavy mortar shelling. Fortunately none were struck. About daylight the enemy ceased shelling, which enabled us to work with much greater comfort, so that by night we were well advanced with our work. Our work is very fatiguing as the clay is almost hard as a brick, and the weather intensely hot and no air stirring.”

William J. Bolton / A Union Soldier’s Perspective

July 30, 1864

“... After some waiting the fort was exploded at 4:42 A.M. Immediately all of our guns 110 guns and 54 mortars opened along the whole line. The firing from each piece was slow, deliberate, and careful ... taking great care in firing over our heads. The charge was not successful, but we held the crater.

At 9:45, Meade sent orders to Burnside to withdraw ... The enemy had a crossfire on us and it was a difficult matter to get out of the crater. At 1 P.M. the bottom, sides, and nearly all parts of the crater were strewn with dead, dying, and wounded soldiers, causing pools of blood to be formed at the bottom of the crater.

John Walters / A Confederate Perspective

Norfolk Light Artillery Blues

July 30, 1864

“... a dull noise and heavy shock of the earth caused us to look around, when a singularly horrid shock of the earth caused us to look around, when a singularly horrid sight presented itself about three quarters of a mile on our left, which was no less than the going upward of a huge mass of earth, together with logs, guns, wheels, limber chests, muskets, and men. The enemy had sprung a mine on us! At the moment of doing so they opened a furious cannonading all along our line ...”

Caring for the Wounded

On the eve of the Civil War Claiborne reported to his Senate seat representing the District of Petersburg and Prince George with the intention of resigning, so that he could fight. Shortly after, Claiborne was ordered to serve as a surgeon for a Virginia Regiment. By 1862, however, Claiborne received orders that he would fill until the war’s end. He was to secure a suitable building in Petersburg and open a hospital.

Read Claiborne’s letters written about the siege of Petersburg, while he served his post as a surgeon.

War at the Door
June 9, 1864

... I have only time to send a line. The enemy have landed on the S. side of the James & Appomattox and are this morning in what force I do not know at our breast works 2 ½ miles from the city on the City P. Road. All in excitement again.

Vacate the Hospitals
June 12, 1864

... I have now the management of all the sick from this great army who are required to be sent to Genl. Hospital. How gladly would I lay down the responsibility tonight – but that would be unmanly. I must do the best I can and merit success if I do not win it. There are now one hundred ambulances waiting in line on the street my orders and I have to send off on them a thousand sick and wounded. I have now to vacate the Poplar Lawn, S. Carolina, and N. Carolina, and Va. Hospitals – all for fear of the horrid missiles of the enemy . . . Just to think of having to vacate four of the largest – best hospitals at such a time as this. . . They are going to defend the city I suppose to the last and wish the sick and wounded sent to a safe place. . .

A City Under Siege
July 11, 1864

... It is perhaps – this City – the most disagreeable human habitation that is left upon this sin stricken earth. Heat not often equaled at this latitude – dust such as never been surpassed anywhere – a dried & parched vegetation – with thousands of man and horses & wagons passing continually ... and the general excitement relayed by the occasional visit of a shell, knocking over a fence or scattering the dirt and rocks about you – or passing over your head with a whirr ...

Food for the Hospitals
July 14, 1864

... I mess at the C. S. Hospital, with five or six other officers. We draw our rations form the Government which now gives us a ration ... I expect I am living better than you. The Government has a plenty of subsistence, and for the hospitals we send wagons to the country & bring in lambs & veal & chickens & eggs & Butter – so that the soldiers sick & well – get a plenty – so far. The people who are scattered & camping out in Fields and woods – they suffer and I fear, unless the Government interposes, will suffer more ...

Sickness in the Ranks
... The poor fellows in the Trenches have been having a hard time ... There is a great deal of sickness in the army and disease is claiming for victims many fine fellows who have braved the dangers of a hundred fights. Poor, poor fellows – death comes to them in a more dreaded form in the Hospital than on the battlefield. It makes my heart sick to see them languishing, parched & fever racked on their narrow beds – and to think of the eyes that grow weary at home watching for their return ...

Hospital Affairs
December 21, 1864

... All it well here – and all bright & gay ... I was waited on by quite a deputation of officers asking permission to have their Ball in the Virginia Hospital; but I most respectfully declined granting it. I told them, that, apart from the questions of the taste and propriety of a public Ball in a city – in whose every house was mourning, widowhood and orphanage – and before which brave men were every day offering up their lives in pain and sorrow, I was responsible for the uses of all the Hospitals ...

The End of the Siege
March 9, 1865

... Petersburg has not been evacuated. No intention of falling back unless the R.R. connection be severed to the extent that supplies cannot be brought int. When that happens, the Army will fall back without notice to anybody in my opinion and it may happen at any time ...

Prisoner’s Camp
April 12, 1865

I am a prisoner of war & captured on Sunday morning about eight. Have lost everything – even to knapsack and canteen. Since the 2nd of April when Petersburg was evacuated have seen sights. Hope to have opportunity of writing or telling all some day ... I hope to be removed and paroled in a day or two ... Can say nothing of prospects future or otherwise.

A Woman and a Child’s Perspective

“I am afraid that the evening is at hand, when we must bid adieu to the bright days – the balls, the merry hair-dresser, the round of visits ... the charming ‘at homes’ ...” -- Sarah Pryor, 1860

Explore a woman and a child’s perspective of the siege of Petersburg from two individuals who recorded their experiences of living in the city throughout the war. Both Sarah Pryor, wife of a prominent Congressman, and Jennie Friend Stephenson, daughter of a wealthy plantation owner moved back to Petersburg for the duration of the war. Little did they know that a few years later, they would live in a city under siege. After the war ended, both woman and child recorded their experiences of life in Petersburg during the siege.

Follow the links to read their reminiscences of life in Petersburg during the Civil War.

Background

Leaving The Old Home
“And here let me describe the old home, as I remember it then. All Southern homes bore a title. The name White Hill must have come from the large, square, white frame house built on the Northern brow of an oblong hill, very level on top, and covering several acres ... on [the] Southern side were the domestic arrangements; houses for the house servants, the poultry, the smoke house, the garden, and still beyond, but in sight, the stable for the pleasure horses.” – Jennie Stephenson

After the war began, Jennie’s mother and servants left this country home, overlooking the city of Petersburg, for the safety of the city.

Leaving Washington, D.C.
“Apprehension was felt lest the new President’s inaugural might be the occasion of rioting, if not of violence. We were advised to send our women and children out of the city. Hastily packing my personal and household belongings to be sent after me, I took my little boys, with their faithful nurse ... on board the steamer ... and, standing on the deck as long as I could see the dome of the Capitol, commenced by journey homeward.”

“My husband remained behind, and kept his seat in Congress until Mr. Lincoln’s inauguration. He described that mournful day to me ... We were reunited a few weeks afterward at our father’s house in Petersburg.” – Sarah Pryor

Secession

A Rising Cloud
“I am sorry I cannot give dates, but somewhere about this time, 1860, discord seemed rife. My confidence and love for my Father were unbounded and my affection and sympathy for the servants were great. Mammy was almost as dear to me as Mother. All the servants were safe in our hands, and could say what they chose without fear of tale-bearing. We never betrayed them and they knew it. But ... I hear mutterings and felt the charge of the coming storm.”

“When with my elders, excited, political discussions of secession from the Union ... On leaving the family and going to the nursery, where the seamstresses sat at their work, there again I heard whisperings of a change, and murmurings of discontentment, which grew as the days went on. I was filled with apprehensions.” – Jennie Stephenson

Fort Sumter
“When it was disclosed that a majority of the Virginia Convention opposed taking the state out of the Union, the secessionists became greatly alarmed ... They were positively certain, however, that, in the event of actual hostilities, Virginia would unite with her Southern associates.”

“Accordingly, it was determined to bring a popular pressure to bear upon the government at Montgomery to make an assault on Fort Sumter. To that end my husband went to Charleston, and delivered ... a most impassioned and vehement speech, urging the Southern troops to “strike a blow,” and assuring them that in the case of conflict, Virginia would secede ... The blow was struck; Mr. Lincoln called upon Virginia for a quota of troops to subdue the rebellion, and the state immediately passed an ordinance for secession.” – Sarah Pryor

Patriotism

Fighting and Sewing
“... After the surrender of Fort Sumter and the Virginia troops were called out, no man went more promptly or remained more faithfully at his post. I remember well the morning Father left us. As he stood on the rug in the old dining room, with the family about him, many were the suggestions made as to how his sword was to go on. It was well some puzzling detail engrossed thought, for my Mother was not of the strain that could with tearless eye, and steady voice, grandly bid him go to do battle for his country, but just the reverse, tears were plenty and words were few.”

“Mother’s diversions for the next few months must have been in making all kinds of soldier’s apparel for my Father and her friends. She sent the former large linen aprons she had made for him to war” – Jennie Stephenson

Fighting and Sewing
“When I returned to my father’s home in Petersburg, I found my friends possessed with an intense spirit of patriotism ... my husband was colonel of the Third Virginia Infantry. The men were to be equipped for service immediately.”

“... We women resolved ourselves into a sewing society – resting not on Sundays. Sewing-machines were put into the churches, which became depots for flannel, muslin, strong linen, and even uniform cloth. When the hour for meeting arrived, the sewing class would be summoned by the ringing of the church bell.” – Sarah Pryor

Hospital Work

My resolution was taken. My children were safe with their grandmother. . . I would ask that every particle of my household linen, except a change, should be rolled into bandages, all my fine linen be sent to me for compresses, and all forwarded as soon as possible.

I would enter the new hospital which had been improvised in Kent & Paine’s warehouse, and would remain there as a nurse as long as the armies were fighting around Richmond. . . Kent & Paine’s warehouse was a large, airy building, which had, I understood, been offered by the proprietors for a hospital immediately after the battle [in Richmond]. [The Union] advance upon Richmond had heavily taxed the capacity of the hospitals already established.

Enemy Nearing the City

June 9th
“In May [1864] the Federal troops landed at City Point. From that time on the sound of cannon was terrible. On the 9th of June the Petersburg home guard of old men and young boys met the enemy just outside of town, and held them back until some troops came to their relief. Some few Yanks had dashed into the town before the fighting commenced. That evening universal mourning was over the town, for the young and old were lying dead in many homes. ” – Jennie Stephenson

June 9th
June 9 will always be a sacred day to the citizens of Petersburg. Every man capable of bearing arms had enlisted early in the service of the Southern Confederacy. They felt that much was expected of them ... For the first three years of the war ... no gun was fired near her gates ... When [Union troops], in June, 1864, commenced [their] advance on Richmond, [they] sent [a force] on June 9 to make a cavalry attack on Petersburg, twenty miles below Richmond.

“... In number scarcely more than sufficient to constitute a single company, in dress nothing to distinguish them from citizens pursuing the ordinary avocations of life, in age many of them silvered over with frosts of advancing years, while others could scarcely boast of the down upon the cheek of youth; in arms and accoutrements such as an impoverished government could afford them ... they stood as a and of patriots whose homes were imperiled and whose loved ones were in danger ... These were the men who saved the city.” – Sarah Pryor

The Siege

“... In a few days the siege of Petersburg began. In our family history this was an eventful day. My Father had gone to White Hill to look after the last plowing of corn ... The Yankees took the moving in the corn for military operations and kept up the firing all day long. My Father gave orders to the men to cut loose the horses and escape as best they could. He with some of them creeped between the rows of corn to the breastworks and there lay under cover, until darkness hid his movements.”

“It was a day of anxiety to us. We feared that he had been killed or captured. So suddenly had they taken possession of the old home not one feather’s worth had been saved. For the next ten months all the happenings there were a sealed book to us. ” – Jennie Stephenson

“As soon as the enemy brought up their siege guns of heavy artillery, they opened on the city with shell without the slightest notice, or without giving opportunity for the removal of non-combatants, the sick, the wounded, or the women and children. The fire was first directed toward the Old market, presumably because of the railroad depot situated there ... But the guns soon enlarged their operations, sweeping all the streets in the business part of the city, and then invading the residential region ... To persons unfamiliar with the infernal noise made by the screaming, ricocheting, and bursting of shells, it is impossible to describe the terror and demoralization which ensued.” – Sarah Pryor

Behind Lee’s Lines

The month of August in the besieged city passed like a dream of terror. The weather was intensely hot and dry, varied by storms of thunder and lightening – when the very heavens seemed in league with the thunderbolts of the enemy. Our region was not shelled continuously.

One shot from “our own gun,” as we learned to call it, would be fired as if to let us know our places; this challenge would be answered from one of our batteries, and the two would thunder away for five or six hours. We always sought shelter in [a] bomb-proof cellar at such times, and the negroes would run to their own “bum-proofs,” as they termed the cells hollowed under the hill.

Starvation Parties

There were parties, “starvation parties,” as they were called on account of the absence of refreshments impossible to be obtained. Not even the lump of sugar . . . was possible here; but notwithstanding this serious disadvantage, ball followed ball in quick succession. The soldier danced with the lady of his love at night, and on the morrow danced the dance of death in the deadly trench on the line. . . I think all who remember the dark days of the winter of 1864 – 1865 will bear witness to the unwritten law enforcing cheerfulness.

The War’s End

The Surrender
“The combined trials of privation, separation, hardship, anxiety and loss filled the dark days of the struggle for freedom. But hope was not lost. The reins were drawing tighter and tighter, until at last the attenuated cord of hope snapped, with the surrender at Appomattox on the 9th of April. The news of it came slowly to us ...”

“Blacker still seemed to grow the night of horror, when it was spread abroad that Lincoln had been assassinated. We felt that vengeance would be taken on an already conquered people. Only the consciousness of having done our best, sustained the crushed South. Honor was left. ” – Jennie Stephenson

The Surrender
“We found our released prisoner pale and thin, but devoutly thankful to be at home ... We sat all day in the front room, watching the splendidly equipped host as it marched by on its way to capture Lee.”

“Immediately after General Lee’s surrender, the United States Circuit Court held a session at Norfolk, Virginia, and made haste to indict for treason Robert E. Lee, John C. Breckenridge, Roger A. Pryor, and others. These men thereafter were not to feel any sense of personal security. A cloud of doubt and possible disaster still hung over them. Under this cloud they were to commence their lives anew.” – Sarah Pryor

Sarah Pryor’s husband had been taken prisoner of war by Union troops in November of 1864. He was finally released at the war’s end.

Home

Return to the Old Home
“But what of the old home that had been lost to us for ten months, as if it had dropped out of existence, and verily it had ... Now all was desolation. Even nature’s landmarks were removed.”

“A body of 250 acres of timber had been cut down ... Fort and breastworks were thrown up in every direction. Quarters, barns, overseer’s house, out houses, and fencing were all gone. Farm roads were obliterated and army roads made instead. All appearance of domestic habitation gone ...”

“The yard so carefully tended, was cut up with fortifications. An earthwork on the brow of the hill overlooking Petersburg extended in the form of an incomplete horse shoe ... It was from these works Petersburg was swept with shot and shell. ” – Jennie Stephenson

Tourists Come
“A great number of tourists soon began to pass our house on their way to visit the localities near us, now become historic. They wished to stand on the site of General Lee’s headquarters, to pluck a blade of grass from the hollow of the crater, to visit the abattis, lunettes, and fortifications of both lines, especially Fort Steadman, Fort Gregg, and Battery 45, where the lines were broken the last of March and on April 2.” – Sarah Pryor

Life After War

Stephenson Text: Hired Servants
“My Father and brother soon returned and hired servants, and began life as best they could. He was fortunate in getting a most respectable family servant, a nurse of a friends’ of ours. She and her family moved to the home, and until my Father’s death some years afterwards, she and her son, Tom, served us faithfully, she as nurse, he as a man of all work, the dining room being his chief care.”

“Our own servants were never in our employ after the surrender, save one, who rented a house of my Father’s in Blandford and paid the rent in the family laundrying ... All the house servants did well where they settled whether North or South. They always come to see us when we are near, and seem to take an affectionate interest in us, as we do in them. Most of the field hands are lost to our knowledge.” – Jennie Stephenson

Pryor Text: Looking Back
“The last time I visited Petersburg I drove out to her battle-fields. Nature had hidden the scars with beauty. The seeds of the daisy had been scattered wherever the Federal forces had been encamped, and they had whitened the fields and covered the graves by the waysides. Nature had not forgotten these lonely unmarked graves, nor will she ever forget until time shall be no more.”

Profiles of Duty

Hearing the call to duty, citizens of both the North and South volunteered their services in support of their respective causes. Some chose to enlist as soldiers to fight for their beliefs, while others chose to work on the home front, behind the lines, where they provided necessary medical care and support. During the nine-and-a-half month siege, Petersburg became a hub of activity, where tobacco warehouses became hospitals and farmland was transformed into battlegrounds marked by miles of trenches. Here, the duties of an infantry soldier, an artillery soldier, an engineer and a surgeon were critical to the success and survival of the armies.

Explore these profiles of duty along the Eastern Front using the links to the right.

Infantry

No safety today except in hugging the works vigorously. An incessant fire is kept up and it is deliberately inviting death for one of us to leave the works to go to our tents, just a few feet away. No one has been hit, but it has been thump! Thump! Thump! All day long. There must be tons of iron piled outside our works.

In the trenches of Petersburg, soldiers from both armies endured great hardships during the nine-and-a-half month siege. Life behind dirt walls consisted of long periods of boredom marked by moments of complete terror. Here, you can choose to explore life under fire through a series of orders or you can travel with an injured soldier from battlefield to hospital through his diary entries. Learn first-hand the difficult life-style of an infantry soldier in the trenches of Petersburg.

Under Fire
On June 12, 1864, General Grant ordered his army to make a move to the south with the city of Petersburg being the target. General Robert E. Lee was caught off guard; when the Union army crossed the James River to attack Petersburg before he could send reinforcements down to defend the city. When the Union army failed to capture Petersburg, Grant ordered his men to cut off all the Confederate supply lines to the city.

Soldiers on both sides engaged in a different form of warfare than they had witnessed during the previous three years of war because of the prolonged siege that ensued. For nine-and-half months, soldiers were entrenched in the fields and forests around Petersburg. They ate, slept, fought, and lived in trenches that they dug to protect themselves.

Explore life under fire at Petersburg by choosing the order below. You can follow a number of actual soldier experiences from both the Confederate and Union soldiers at Petersburg by selecting different journeys. Good Luck.

Launch multimedia version

Artillery

“The shot and shell were flying around in good style for the enemy had a good range upon us ... I lay with the company in line just in a hollow exposed to raking fire of artillery and musketry, as I was looking out for my men cautioning them to lay low I happened to glance to the left of me when I saw a solid shot coming directly towards me I had just time enough to whirl over on to my left side when it struck in just the place where I sat, grazing my right arm and tearing my coat sleeve almost entirely off.” – Quoter?

The artillery experience on the Eastern Front at Petersburg was one of constant bombardment at close quarters. Unlike where large barrages were noted as significant events, the exchange of shells along the front was merely part of the daily routine - a routine repeated two hundred and ninety-two times. For these soldiers living at point blank range, survival meant living underground in bomb proofs, dealing with the stress of bombardments, and learning which shell was coming your way.

Here, you can explore the life of a soldier at Petersburg under shot and shell. You can learn about artillery in the Civil War, specifically the guns used on the Eastern Front during the siege. Finally, you can see become the cannoneer by identifying the implements and how they were used to fire a cannon.

Slide Show
“We are still at the front and right under artillery fire of the enemy day and night. Our Artillery in the meantime is not idle. We tender compliments to the enemy every few minutes with considerable effect. We can see the sand fly from their works at every discharge of our rifled guns & mortars. I do not write this letter with the intention of telling you very good news, there is none. It is the same old story of lay low and Keep as cool as possible.” – Quoter?

“Quiet on the lines” was a welcome break from the constant firing of rifles and artillery guns. However, even when soldiers were not under direct fire, they could never escape the war with the sounds of artillery fire in the distance. View the following slide show that provides first-hand account of life under shot and shell.

Artillery in Civil War
Artillery of the Civil War had come a long way since the days of the American Revolution but its use had not changed much since the days of Napoleon, some fifty years before. This was because Civil War artillery was still more effective as a defensive weapon than as an offensive one.

By the 1860’s smoothbore cannons were easier to move, dependable and quick to load and fire; rifled cannons were long-range, accurate, and destructive; and large siege artillery could send two hundred pound shells a couple of miles across the landscape. Though the range for these guns was between three-quarters of a mile to over two miles, the distance at which artillery was used most often was less than half a mile (1,000 yards). Even at that a Civil War gunner knew his piece was most effective at less than 500 yards. Reasons for this included having to see the target, faulty fuses, terrain and conditions of the battlefield, range of the enemy’s artillery and rifle fire, and the inability to safely produce cover for your own advancing troops.

The artillery on both sides suffered from a perception of commanding officers that it was merely a subordinate branch of the army. So instead of massing these weapons at supportive points along the battle front they were often scattered to boost the fire power of infantry units. It would not be until after the war that the artillery branch was consolidated and its strength exploited on the field.

Explore artillery pieces used on the Eastern Front.

It is ironic that Civil War artillery, which was employed to keep the enemy at bay at a distance, was most effective in defense at close quarters. On no other battlefield is this irony more poignantly demonstrated than here at Petersburg.

The types of cannon found on the Eastern Front were, for the most part, familiar. Among them were the 3” Ordnance, the 4.2” Parrot, the 8” Columbiad, and the Napoleon. However, due to the nature of siege warfare the Coehorn, the 8", and the 10" mortars dominated the landscape around Petersburg. This supremacy is shown through the fact that of the nearly 64,000 rounds of artillery fire the Union expended during the siege, about 41,000, or 64%, of them were fired from mortars.

Click on any of the artillery pieces listed below to learn more about the artillery used on the Eastern Front. Each entry has an image of the piece and will tell you its range, its role, which side used it, what type of projectiles it fired, how many men it took to fire it, and whether it was a smoothbore, rifled, or both.

Within each section, once you are looking at the 3” ordnance, the other five images will be to the bottom or side of your screen.

CYU Activity – Become a Cannoneer

Engineer

“Hot and hazy. Worked on fortifications. Sharpshooters and artillerists quite noisy. . . .We are digging detail every 3rd – 4th day. Basically our works are a trench 8 ft. wide and 6 ft. deep, faced with logs extended by a parapet 18 inches high and strengthened in front by a heavy embankment. Unless we stand on the firing step, our heads are well below ground.”

The longest siege in American warfare unfolded in a methodical manner, with soldiers from both armies “digging in” for protection under the direction of engineers. Engineers from both armies provided educated designs of trenches, fortifications, bridges, and roads to provide soldiers protection and transportation routes during the nine-and-half months of fighting around Petersburg. Infantry soldiers worked side by side with engineers to dig and build these protective walls.

As the Union army advanced west of the city in an effort to capture the rail lines, the landscape became marred with an intricate system of parallel trenches covering a distance of thirty-seven miles across the Petersburg front. The trenches were not only the soldiers’ protection in this bitter Civil War, they were the only home the soldiers would know for days, weeks, and months. In the trenches of Petersburg, the shovel and the sandbag were symbols of the soldier’s commitment to their cause.

Learn about different types of defenses constructed by both armies or explore the field fortifications at Petersburg from both the Union and Confederate perspectives to learn how important engineers were to soldiers fighting on the front lines.

General Overview
“The work had to be done at night of course, as it was in close proximity to the enemy. . .as soon as it was dark enough, a long cord was stretched all along our front, and on this cord at intervals of a few feet white bits of cotton cloth were tied to render the position of the cord visible. Picket men held the cord in their hands at intervals of fifteen or twenty feet. . . The cord was thus carried forward silently, the men crouching low to avoid the incessant skirmish fire of the enemy. Along the cord the infantry line was formed and went to work with a will getting themselves covered before daylight revealed their position to the enemy.” - Lieutenant Colonel, W. W. Blackford, C.S.A.

Field fortifications were used extensively at Petersburg during the Civil War. Miles of competing earthworks seemed to zigzag through the fields and forests around the city without any real organization, but this was simply not the case. Forts, bombproofs, covered ways, abatis, fraise, and many other defenses were constructed by engineers and infantry following the design of French military engineers. Many of the siege terms were named in their language because of this.

Confederate Engineers
“We were armed and drilled as infantry, and in campaigns served as infantry unless there were military bridges or other works to construct. In sieges we served as sappers and miners. Two companies of the regiment were equipped as pontooners, each being furnished with a train of boats mounted upon wagons made for the purpose, and these companies were drilled in the art of taking up and laying down these bridges across streams until they became experts at it.”
--Lieutenant Colonel W.W. Blackford, C.S.A.

Two years prior to the Union assault on Petersburg, the Confederate army decided that it was vital to protect this major supply depot for the Confederate army that lay just 23 miles south of the Confederate capital in Richmond, Virginia. A Confederate engineer, Captain Charles Dimmock designed a 10 mile line of fortifications consisting of 55 artillery batteries. Slave labor and free black labor dug this 10-mile trench system, nearly surrounding Petersburg.

When war came to Petersburg’s door in June 1864, this forbidding trench system would slow the Union assault and prevent a direct capture of the city as Grant had hoped. Over the next nine months, the Union army besieged the city forcing Confederate forces to dig in and defend Petersburg and Richmond.
The forts were the strongholds of Petersburg’s trench system, though the Confederate lines contained more powerful batteries and fortified salients than large forts.

In most cases, engineers would lay out the design of the trenches and obtain the help of infantry in digging these lines. Infantry soldiers were also sent on fatigue duty to assist engineers in the building of bridges and roads or the digging of mines. While the most famous mine at Petersburg was dug by Union soldiers in what later became known as the Battle of the Crater, Confederate engineers did their fair share of mining as well. In fact, Confederate engineers were sent to dig counter-mines in an effort to find the Union tunnel.

Union Engineers
“After the hard day’s labor we had accomplished, the prospect of a night’s work in water up to the armpits was not pleasant to contemplate, but as soon as the men arrived they went at it with a will. Trees were chopped down, cut to the proper length and notched, some cutting, some rolling them to the water, while others in the water placed them in position and others found stone and filled the cribs to sink and hold them in their places. . .On and across these cribs were placed heavy logs and they in turn covered crosswise with smaller ones thus forming a corduroy road, high and dry above the water.”
--Colonel Wesley Brainerd, 50th New York Volunteer Engineers

The experience of the Union Engineers at Petersburg began with the building of a 2100 foot pontoon bridge across the James River, used by one corps, one division and all the wagons, artillery and animals to get south of the James. This bridge was considered an engineering marvel as it was built quickly and a great advantage to the movement of a number of troops. Union soldiers crossed on the 14th and by the 15th of June, many troops launched the initial assault on the Petersburg lines.

While the towering earthen walls of the Dimmock Line were a major factor in the Union army’s failed attempts to capture Petersburg directly, the Federals wasted little time digging an opposing trench line. Grant quickly changed his focus to the capture of Confederate supply routes as a means of defeating Lee’s army. The Union army moved west of the city to capture Confederate railroads, digging trenches as they extended their lines, and forcing the Confederates to do the same. This zigzag system of trenches stretched for over a hundred miles between the Richmond and Petersburg fronts.

Federal engineers tested a wide variety of fort designs during the siege of Petersburg. In total, they designed and constructed forty-one forts along the inner and outer Union trench lines, with additional forts built to protect City Point. Some of the more famous forts were Fort Stedman near the city, Fort Wadsworth on the Weldon Railroad, and Fort Fisher, the largest earthen fortification on the Petersburg front. In addition to building fortifications, Union engineers kept busy building bridges and roads for the army, and sometimes digging mines.

Read on to find information about the famous mine built for the explosion along Confederate lines, now known as the Battle of the Crater.

Mining at the Crater
“As a sufficient pile of clay accumulated around their feet the miners would back out and allow the shovel crew to dig out and bag the clay for removal to the shaft. At first the clay was removed in sandbags, then in hand barrows and finally wheel barrows had been removed or left off to make filling them easier. Every beam, plank, piece of rope, sand bag, wheel barrow, wrench, bucket, candles; had to carry in at night, by hand through the muddy zigzags of the covered ways, a distance of over one mile.” --1st Regiment Engineer Troops

As the Union army pushed west, cutting the Jerusalem Plank Road and trying to get to the Weldon Railroad, soldiers from both armies dug in to protect their lines along the Eastern Front. In some areas along this front, forward trench lines of the armies sat a few hundred yards apart. The opposing trenches were especially close along the section of the lines where a Confederate redoubt known as Elliot’s Salient was just 400 feet from the Union lines.

Union soldiers belonging to a Pennsylvania regiment began a mining operation to tunnel underneath the Confederate lines. Despite lacking adequate tools and equipment, the Federals made great progress. Excavated dirt was spread behind the lines so as not to arouse suspicion, timber was found at a nearby sawmill to support the walls and ceiling of the tunnel, and finally tools were improvised from what was on hand. The major problem was getting air to the miners working inside the tunnel. Henry Pleasants, the officer in command, solved this problem by creating a circulating system that heated and expelled the bad air up a chimney shaft dug for that purpose. An eight-inch square wooden duct brought good air in along the floor.

By July 17th, the tunnel had reached a point directly under the Salient, a distance of 511 feet. The explosion at this site, known today as the Battle of the Crater, created a tremendous break in the salient. As Union soldiers filed up the hill to the tremendous hole, many went directly inside only to find themselves trapped. What Union soldiers had planned as a direct assault on Petersburg, became the scene of bitter hand-to-hand fighting, resulting in a defeat for the Union army. Though the tunnel construction was considered brilliant mining operation, Grant later said of the Battle itself “It was the saddest affair I have witnessed in the war.”

Medical

During the siege of Petersburg 70,000 soldiers from both the Union and Confederate armies were casualties of war. These soldiers fighting in the trenches were killed, wounded or captured during this bitter nine-and-a-half month struggle. Many of the injured and sick Confederate soldiers made the journey to Chimborazo, one of the largest Confederate field hospitals located in Richmond, Virginia. Others were treated in smaller hospitals in the Petersburg area that were established in old tobacco warehouses, where they could handle large numbers of patients.

Follow one soldier’s journey from the trenches of Petersburg to the safety of a Confederate hospital. What was it like to be injured during the siege? Read his sample diary scenario to experience life as a wounded soldier.

I never saw it coming. Our assault on the Yanks had been successful in pushing them out of their lines and away from the railroad. We had to do something to stop them from destroying our supply lines. The first bullet whizzed past, but the second got me inside my left knee. I fell to the ground in pain. I must have passed out, because the next thing I remember is being carried off the battlefield by two of my campmates through the toughest mess we had seen yet.

I owe my life to those two men who carried me off of the battlefield that day in June. I am sure that I would have died on that very ground where I was shot, had it not been for their help. A field dressing station was a short distance from the battle site, where someone bandaged my wound and gave me a little dose of medicine to numb the pain. From here, I was loaded onto an ambulance wagon and taken into Petersburg to one of the smaller regimental hospitals in an old converted tobacco warehouse. My stay here was short, as the hospital was full of wounded and supplies were few. When it was determined that I needed surgery, and that I could endure the train ride to Richmond, I was sent to the big hospital known as Chimborazo.

I had heard talk in the lines of the shortage of supplies and how the local hospitals scrambled to get medical supplies when war came to Petersburg's door. Among the many shortages in the southern states were those of ambulances and animals to draw them, so I was loaded onto an ordinary wagon which offered no comfort from the rough road. I was laid in the back of this wooden cart. Every time we hit a bump in the road, I knocked against the wounds of those lying around me. I screamed in pain as my own leg bounced against the splintered wooden wall of the cart during the entire ride. To make matters worse, a steady rain was falling during our short journey, so by the time we got to the railroad station, most of us were soaked and chilled to the bone. By the time we arrived, I was numb from the cold.

When the ambulance finally made it to the train station, I was loaded onto a rough, flat railroad car with dozens of other men headed to the big hospital, where we took our mercifully brief trip. What a sight that railroad must have been pulling into Richmond loaded with all the wounded! I was unloaded from the flat car where we had been piled like logs and then laid to rest in a field near the hospital. Hundreds of other men lay around me waiting for their turn to see a doctor, since the wounded far outnumbered the doctors here. Flies buzzed over the wounds of these poor men, and I pitied them until I noticed the flies hovering over my own wound too. I had made it this far, and now I waited patiently with the others for my turn to see a surgeon.

How long I laid in that field, I do not remember. I fell in and out of consciousness, from the pain pulsing in my leg and the amount of blood I had lost. Finally, after my bandages were soaked through with blood, I was placed on a crude stretcher and carried into the hospital. A surgeon looked my wounds over and decided that my leg needed to be amputated. After three years of fighting, I knew that most men who were wounded in battle took a hit from a musket. I had heard that many had lost an arm or a leg, but somehow I never thought I would be among them.

I had also heard stories about the grim scenes in and around field hospitals, where surgeons performed amputations one after another until piles of limbs set nearby. I was scared to think that my own leg might be thrown into one of these piles. Yet, the bullet was deeply lodged into my kneecap, shattering the bone so completely, that it seemed my only choice. Not that I was really given one. Surgeons often opted for the amputation of a leg or arm to prevent the wound from getting infected and to save a soldier's life.

As I lay there helplessly, I heard the cries of others hoping for any relief from their pain. When it was my turn, I was given chloroform to put me out. I remember nothing of the operation where surgeon's saw cut through my leg. When I did wake up and look down to see where my leg had once been, I wanted to scream from the horror of it all. I couldn't stop the tears. The sight of my crippled body was too much for me to take. The moment I looked down, I wished that I had been left on that field to die. It would have been easier. Instead, I was taken to a large room in the hospital where I lay in bed and listened to the painful groans and a few angry words from others who shared my fate.

My life changed forever during my long stay at this hospital called Chimborazo. As I slowly got better, I spent days staring at the other wounded men around me, wishing that I could get out of this depressing place. All around me, men tossed from side to side in their beds writhing in the agony of their own splintered bones. Still others, overcome with fever and sickness, laid in their beds listlessly day after day. During the long daylight hours, I found my escape from it all with pen and paper.

As the days passed and the pain dulled, I thought long about my experiences. Why was I in this hospital bed? I was so angry. I had enlisted in the army to fight for my rights in our young nation. I knew that death could come to me at any time, but never did I think that I would return home as half a man. The sights that I saw in this hospital during the weeks and months I was there, were enough to make me question what we were really gaining from all that we lost.

The hospital that was my home for longer than I care to remember was one of the largest general military hospitals in Richmond. It had eight thousand beds in five separate buildings. Soldiers in the regimental hospitals down in Petersburg who needed further care, like myself, were taken by railroad to this larger hospital in the Confederate capitol. While Chimborazo provided very good treatment to thousands of soldiers, the siege was causing great shortages of medicine and surgical instruments.

Yes, my wound eventually healed, but in its place came a terrible fever that stayed with me for weeks. I guess that I could have returned home sooner, but because of this sickness, I was doomed to stay in that hospital ward and in that hospital bed for so many days that I lost count. I suppose I was luckier than many soldiers who suffered from illnesses in the camps and trenches, without proper food or rest. Instead, I just lay there listening to the sounds of the men groaning from their wounds, calling upon their loved ones, and cackling with delirium. These sounds still haunt me to this very day. The sounds and sights of empty eyes and pale, sunken faces are forever in my mind. I wanted so much to get out of this place. Instead, I lay in that hospital bed, a witness to the sadness of it all.

Grant versus Lee

General Ulysses S. Grant, commanding the United States Army and General Robert E. Lee commanding the Army of Northern Virginia opposed each other for eleven months of the Civil War. Almost ten months of this time was spent in Petersburg, Virginia. Attempting to wear down and destroy Lee’s army, Grant applied unrelentless pressure and continual contact in a campaign of a magnitude and concentration unprecedented before or since on American soil. The strengths and weaknesses of these two leaders and their resources ultimately determined the fate of a nation.

Explore their military movements and decision-making skills during the siege of Petersburg. Along the Eastern Front, Grant’s army made their initial assaults, exploded a mine under Confederate lines a month later in the Battle of the Crater, and opposed the last offensive waged by the Confederate army under Lee at Fort Stedman. Read their correspondence referencing each of these military actions.

Opening Assaults on Petersburg

On To Petersburg
After the disastrous events at Cold Harbor, where the Union army’s attempts to take Richmond, Virginia ended in thousands of battlefield casualties, Grant decided on a new strategy. On June 12th, he packed up his men and moved them south to Petersburg, a supply hub that connected Richmond to the rest of the eastern Confederacy. While Lee was aware that Grant’s army was moving, the Union army’s assault on Petersburg came as somewhat of a surprise to the Confederate army. General Beauregard, commanding the Confederate forces around the city had his work cut out for him. Follow the events of the opening assaults on Petersburg through the correspondence of Grant and Lee.

June 14th 1864. 1 30 p m

To: Maj Gen. H.W. Halleck / Chief of Staff (Located in Washington D.C.)

Our forces will commence crossing the James River to day. The Enemy show no signs of yet having brought troops to south side of Richmond.
I will have Petersburg secured if possible before they get there in much force. Our movement from Cold Harbor to the James River has been made with great celerity, and so far, without loss or accident.

U.S. Grant

June 15, 1864 / 8:30 P.M.

To: Maj. Gen Hancock (Corps commander moving towards Petersburg)
If requested by [our forces] to move up to where [the fighting] is now do so. The enemy are now seen to be reinforcing Petersburg by rail and by troops marching. So far however but two regiments and eleven cars have been reported. Your rations have gone up. Hope they have reached you by this time.

U. S. Grant Lt Gen.

P.S. If Petersburg is not captured tonight it will be advisable that you [and our forces] take up a defensive position and maintain it until all the forces up. It was hoped to be able to carry Petersburg before the Enemy could reinforce their garrison –

7 ½ P.M. / June 16, 1864

President Jefferson Davis

I received this morning at 2 A.M. a dispatch from Genl Beauregard, stating that he had abandoned his line . . . and would concentrate all his force on Petersburg. He also said that his skirmishers and pickets would be withdrawn at daylight. . . I have not learned from Genl Beauregard what force is opposed to him in Petersburg, or received any definite account of operations there, nor have I been able to learn whether any portion of Grant’s Army is opposed to him ...

R. E. Lee

Genl.

June 16th 1864
10.15 o.clock, A.M.

Maj. Gen. Meade (Union Commander)
[We] carried very strongly located and well constructed works forming the left of the enemys defences of Petersburg taking some prisoners and sixteen pieces of Artillery. The enemy still hold their right works and are massing heavily in that direction. Hurry [infantry] up by the nearest road to reach the Jerusalem plank road about three miles out from Petersburg. . .

U. S. Grant

June 17th 1864

Hon J.A. Seddon (Secretary of War)
Genl. Beauregard telegraphs that last night the enemy assaulted his lines twice and were repulsed, leaving 400 prisoners, including eleven commissioned officers, in our hands. To-day the enemy carried a weak point in his lines. Our troops assaulted and carried our original lines near Bermuda Hundred with slight loss on our part.
R. E. Lee

June 20, 1864

Maj Gen Meade

As soon as [the] Cavalry is rested sufficiently they should make a raid upon the enemys rail roads. My view is that the road to Weldon should be crossed as near Petersburg as possible and the first strike made for the Lynchburg & Petersburg road thence to the Danville road upon which all the damage possible should be done. . .

U. S. Grant

June 18th 1864

President Jefferson Davis
From information received last night it is pretty certain that Grant’s whole force has crossed to the South Side of the James River – [The] division of cavalry crossed yesterday. I have ordered all the troops over towards Petersburg leaving the outer defences of Richmond in charge of Gen G. W. C. Lee . . .

R. E. Lee

June 20, 1864 / 5:25 P.M.

General Butler (Union Commander)

I have determined to try to envelope Petersburg so as to have the left of the Army of the Potomac rest on the Appomattox above the City.
This will make offensive operations from between the two Rivers impracticable until we are fortified in the new position taken up. . .

U. S. Grant

June 19, 1864

President Jefferson Davis

. . . General Beauregard had felt constrained to contract his lines on the east side of Petersburg before my arrival, and I found his troops in their new position. I am unable to judge the comparative strength of the two lines, but as far as I can see, the only disadvantage is the proximity of the new line to the city. . .

My greatest apprehension at present is the maintenance of our communications south. It will be difficult, and I fear impracticable to preserve it uninterrupted. The enemy’s left now rests on the Jerusalem road. . .

R. E. Lee

Battle of the Crater

Another Attempt for Petersburg
While the Union forces pushed west around Petersburg to capture the Confederate supply lines, an attempt was made closer to the city for another direct assault. Union soldiers of the ninth army corps, under the command of General Burnside, began a mining operation to tunnel underneath Confederate lines in hopes of getting directly into Petersburg. Follow the events of the battle of the Crater through the correspondence of Grant and Lee.

July 24, 1864

Maj. General Meade (Union Commander)

The Engineer officers who made a survey of the front . . . report against the probability of success from an attack there. The chances they think will be better on Burnsides front. If this is attempted it will be necessary to concentrate all the force possible at the point in the enemy’s lines we expect to penetrate ...

U.S. Grant

July 25, 1864

Maj Gen Meade (Union Commander)
You may direct the loading of the mine in front of the 9th Corps. I would set no time when it should be exploded, but leave it subject to orders. The expedition ordered may cause such a weakening of the enemy at Petersburg as to make an attack there possible, in which case you would want to spring Burnside’s mine. It cannot be kept a great while after the powder is put in, I would say therefore if it is not found necessary to blow it up earlier, I would have it set off during the afternoon of Wednesday.

U.S. Grant

July 6, 1864

President Jefferson Davis
As I have felt some anxiety as to the position of the 9th corps from the various reports concerning it, I directed that the pickets along our lines should be directed to capture a prisoner along their front . . . one was brought in to him last night. . . he had on his person a diary kept by himself . . . It was there recorded that he had with a Comrade that day passed through the 9th . . . corps visiting certain friends & This would seem good evidence – that the 9th corps is present before Petersburg.

R. E. Lee

July 30th 10 a m 1864

Maj Gen H. W. Halleck (Chief of Staff)

“. . . Having a mine prepared running for a distance of eighty feet along the enemy’s parapet and about twenty two feet below the surface of the ground ready loaded, and covered ways made near to his ling, I was strongly in hopes by this means of opening the way the assault would prove successful.

The mine was sprung a few minutes before 5 a.m. this morning throwing up four guns of the enemy and burying most of a South Carolina regiment. Our men immediately took possession of the crater made by the explosion . . . The effort to carry the ridge beyond, which would give us Petersburg and the South bank of the Appomattox failed.

U S Grant
Lt. Genl

July 30, 1864
3:25 P.M.

James A. Seddon (Secretary of War)

At Five A.M. the enemy sprung a mine under one of the salients on [our] front & opened his batteries upon our lines & the city of Petersburg. In the confusion caused by the explosion of the mine he got possession of the salient. We have retaken the salient & driven the enemy back to his lines with loss.

R. E. Lee

Battle of Fort Stedman

Lee’s Last Offensive of the War
By March of 1865, Lee knew that to save his army from capture, he needed to evacuate the trap at Petersburg. Following Lincoln’s re-election and the fall of Atlanta, Lee made his plea to President Jefferson Davis to call a truce. Davis would not hear of it. In response to this, Lee made a desperate decision to attack Grant’s army. General Gordon led the Confederate assault against Union forces at Stedman, in hopes of shortening the Union lines enough to allow the Confederate army to escape the trap. Follow the events of the battle of Fort Stedman through the correspondence of Grant and Lee.

March 9, 1865

John C. Breckinridge (Secretary of War)

I have received tonight your letter of this date requesting my opinion upon the military condition of the country.
It must be apparent to every one that it is full of peril and requires prompt action. . . Unless the men and animals can be subsisted, the army cannot be kept together, and our present lines must be abandoned. Nor can it be moved to any other position where it can operate to advantage without provisions to enable it to move in a body.
R. E. Lee

March 25, 1865

John C. Breckinridge (Secretary of War)

At daylight this morning Genl Gordon Assaulted & carried the enemy’s works . . . captured nine pieces of artillery, eight mortars, between five & six hundred prisoners . . . Enemy’s lines were swept away for a distance of four or five hundred yards to right & left, and two efforts made to recover captured works were handsomely repulsed; but it was found that the enclosed works in rear, commanding enemy’s main line, could only be taken at great sacrifice & troops were forced to withdraw to original position. . .

R. E. Lee ***

March 25, 1865.
1 30 P.M.

Hon. Edwin M. Stanton (Secretary of War)

The following dispatch . . . is received.

Sigd U. S. Grant

“The enemy attacked my front this morning at about 4 30 am, with 3 divisions under the command of Genl Gordon; by a sudden rush they seized the line held by the 3rd Brig. at the foot of the hill to the right of Fort Steadman, wheeled and overpowering the garrison took possession of the fort, They established themselves on the hill turning our guns upon us. Our troops on either flank stood firm. . .
Two battle flags have also been brought in. The enemy also lost heavily in killed outside of our lines. The whole line was immediately re-occupied, & the guns retaken uninjured.
(signed) Jun. G. Parke, Maj. Gen

March 26, 1865

President Jefferson Davis

My dispatch of yesterday to the Secretary of War will have informed you of the attack made upon a portion of the enemy’s lines around Petersburg, and the result which attended it. . . I was induced to assume the offensive from the belief that the point assailed could be carried without much loss. . .so that if I could not cause their abandonment, Genl Grant would at least be obliged to curtail his lines. . .

But although the assault upon the fortified works ... was bravely accomplished ... the line of entrenchments were found enclosed and strongly manned ...I therefore determined to withdraw the troops, and it was in retiring that they suffered the greatest loss ...

R. E. Lee ***

March 25, 1865 7 30 P. M

Hon. Edwin M. Stanton (Secretary of War)
I am not yet able to give the results of the day accurately but the number of prisoners captured proves larger than at first reported. The slaughter of the enemy at the point where they entered our lines and in front of it was probably not less than three thousand (3000). Our loss is estimated at eight hundred (800) but may prove less.
[We] attacked on the left with great promptness capturing near one hundred men and causing the enemy to return troops to that part of the his line rapidly –
U. S. Grant

Park Ranger

Park Rangers take care of the park’s resources on a daily basis, so that visitors like you can learn more about the history of this site. Along the Eastern Front of Petersburg National Battlefield, you get a closer look at the earthworks which mark a few of the famous battles. Visitors enjoy exploring these battlefields, as well as using trails for jogging, biking, and horse back riding. Explore this image to find out how park rangers deal with resource issues in the battlefield.

Earthworks Management

Preserving the historic earthworks along the Eastern Front is a major challenge for park rangers. Soldiers dug these walls of dirt over 140 years ago for their protection during battles. The original average height of the Eastern Front trenches was eight to twelve feet. Today the average height has shrunk to about six to eight feet due to the damage done by water and wind erosion and footpaths of visitors to the site. To preserve the earthworks today, park rangers try to control damage and erosion to this battlefield landscape.

Use the links below to explore how different divisions of the National Park Service protect and preserve the historic earthworks at Petersburg National Battlefield.

Maintenance Ranger

I am a maintenance ranger at Petersburg National Battlefield. I take care of the earthworks on a regular basis by cutting the grass and keeping designated walking paths in good condition. I also assist resource managers in the field to remove hazardous trees from the earthworks and plant grasses that prevent further erosion. Finally, it is also my job to maintain signs along the edges of the historic earthworks to prevent visitors from walking on top of these historic structures.

Interpreter

I am an interpretive ranger at Petersburg National Battlefield. It is my job to help visitors understand the park’s resources, including historic earthworks by helping them make connections to the past. I help visitors understand how and why the soldiers constructed the earthworks, and how the landscape around Petersburg contributed to the months of fighting. I give tours and talks at battlefield sites to help visitors envision what a soldier’s life was like while they lived and fought in the trenches. In addition to telling stories of the past, I create exhibits, write brochures, and work the visitor center desk to answer questions.

Protection Ranger

I am a Protection Ranger at Petersburg National Battlefield. My job is to patrol the park to ensure that visitors have a safe and enjoyable visit while also taking proper care of the park’s resources. I enforce the park’s rules and regulations. For example, if I see a visitor walking on the earthworks, it is my job to explain why he or she should use the designated trails to explore the park.

Resource Manager

I am a resource manager at Petersburg National Battlefield. One of my jobs in Earthworks Management is to write the guidelines on how to properly care for these historic trench remains. According to these guidelines, the earthworks along the Eastern Front have been treated to stop erosion by removing trees and shrubs and planting grass. With the assistance of maintenance rangers, we remove large hazardous trees that can destroy the earthworks when they fall during storms and take up large amounts of earth in their root bulbs.

Vistas and Viewsheds

The landscape of the battlefield was quite different 140 years ago, when the Union and Confederate armies fought upon the fields. Much of the land that now comprises the Eastern Front was originally used as farmland by civilians who lived in the area. One of the goals of the park service is to restore some of these historic vistas and viewsheds. Park rangers have already cleared small portions of trees to allow visitors a better understanding of how the battles took place. Currently, there are also plans to clear or thin the trees of other areas in the Eastern Front so that the landscape looks a little closer to its 1864 appearance.

Use the links below to explore how different divisions of the National Park Service protect and preserve the historic earthworks at Petersburg National Battlefield.

Maintenance Ranger

One of my biggest jobs in the park is to take care of the natural landscape of the battlefield, so that it is neat and clean for visitors. There are hundreds of acres in the Eastern Front that I mow to allow visitors a better understanding of how the area looked during the Civil War. I allow certain grassy sections of the battlefield to grow taller, so that visitors can recognize the outline of former trenches. I also assist in the clearing or thinning of trees in certain areas to allow visitors an open view like the soldiers had when they fought.

Interpreter

I provide tours to visitors on the battlefield to help them understand how battles unfolded during the siege. The landscape of the battlefield was very different 140 years ago, so it can be challenging to teach visitors how the landscape affected the fighting. I use park vistas and view sheds to provide visitors a visual idea of the obstacles that soldiers faced in their fight around the city of Petersburg.

Protection Ranger

I perform daily patrols of all park areas to ensure that visitors follow basic rules and regulations for a safe visit that allows for the protection of the park’s resources. Vistas and view sheds in the battlefield are meant to provide a more realistic picture of the landscape that existed here during the Civil War. I ensure that visitors do not use the historic landscape for picnicking, kite flying or other forms of recreation.

Resource Manager

I deal with the challenges of preserving the historic landscape while also preserving the park’s natural resources. At a cultural site like Petersburg, these two things sometimes conflict. During the Civil War, a large area of the Eastern Front Battlefield was open during the fighting. Today the battlefield is covered with trees and plants. I work with maintenance rangers to clear areas of trees or to thin sections of forest for visitors to get a more accurate view of the battle sites.

Visitor Impacts

Along the Eastern Front battlefield sites are accessible by a tour road and a system of trails that connect historical sites and wind through the forested parts of the park. Visitors interested primarily in the historical stories of the battlefield, tour the park by driving along the tour road and walking the paved interpretive sites. Visitors primarily interested in using the park for recreation, use the trails for hiking, running, riding horses, and mountain-biking. While the battlefield is here for all types of visitors, park rangers work to maintain paved interpretive trails, prevent erosion of wooded trails, keep signs in good condition, prevent visitors from walking on historic earthworks, and keep the park clean. This can be challenging with the thousands of visitors who use the park annually.

Maintenance Ranger

I work to keep the park clean and attractive for visitors. In addition to seasonal tasks of mowing the fields and earthworks, pruning trees, and cleaning monuments, I have daily jobs that need to be done to keep the park in good condition. Each day, I clean visitor centers and restrooms, empty trash cans, and care for the historic structures and monuments. Visitors regularly use the park buildings and grounds for education and recreation, so it is my job to keep these facilities clean and safe.

Interpreter

I am often the only person in uniform that a visitor may see while visiting the battlefield. An important aspect of my job is to provide visitors an orientation to the park sites. I provide maps, brochures, and helpful instructions to visitors about how to navigate through the park. The brochures and maps contain basic rules and regulations for park visitors, so it is my job to help them understand that they need to stay on designated trails, follow the speed limits along the tour road, and park their vehicles on paved lots and roadways. These simple instructions help visitors enjoy a safe visit, while also protecting the battlefield’s historic landscape.

Protection Ranger

While other park rangers answer questions and provide assistance to visitors regarding park rules and regulations, I have the job to enforce these rules when they are being broken. My duties in the area of visitor impacts are to see that visitors obey the speed limit as they travel along the tour road in the Eastern Front unit. Often, hikers, bikers, and joggers use the pedestrian path along the road for recreation, so I need to enforce speed limits to protect other visitors. I also patrol the park to make sure visitors use designated parking areas and walking trails at each interpretive stop. I enforce these regulations to protect park resources and battlefield landscapes. Finally, I enforce the rule that prohibits metal-detecting on park lands. Archeological looting of park artifacts is illegal, and when artifacts are taken from the park in this manner, we can lose valuable historic information about the sites.

Resource Manager

In my efforts to see that park resources receive minimal visitor impact, I work with other divisions to ensure that paved interpretive trails are maintained, signs are posted to protect the earthworks, and trails are maintained for recreation users. Particularly regarding the trails that visitors use for recreation, I work with park volunteers and interns to help maintain bridges and to create water bars that prevent erosion.

Invasive Species

Approximately 30% of the land in the Eastern Front has been invaded by one or more invasive plants. These plants are not native to Virginia, and grow aggressively wherever they are introduced. Problem plants in this section of the park include Tree-of-Heaven, kudzu, mimosa, Japanese honeysuckle, Japanese stilt grass and more. Management of these problem plants is very labor intensive and requires constant vigilance to prevent further spread. To maintain the natural ecosystems of the Eastern Front requires physical removal of plants such as digging, cutting, mowing, and herbicide treatment.

Maintenance Ranger

I sometimes assist the resource management staff in spraying herbicide treatments on areas of the park where invasive species grow. Spraying these plants help to eradicate the plant species that are not native to Virginia.

Interpreter

I provide programs to the public that teach them about how we take care of the natural and cultural resources in the battlefield. Getting rid of invasive species is one way that we work to take care of the historic landscape. Teaching people how we care for the park as well as why we care for it, enables us to reach a variety of audiences, particularly education groups by incorporating science as well as historical information.

Resource Manager

I have many duties related to dealing with the problem of invasive plant species in the park. First, I locate and identify areas of the battlefields where invasive species grow, and create maps to highlight these locations for others on the resource management staff. After the identification process is complete, I determine a treatment schedule based on the species and how we can best eradicate it. Last, I perform the procedures to get rid of these plants that include digging, cutting, mowing, and herbicide treatments. Usually, the eradication process must be done multiple times for success. Finally, I monitor areas in the battlefield that have been treated to ensure that the plants do not grow back.

 

Links

Petersburg Index

Introduction

Grant's Headquarters at City Point

The Eastern Front (current section)

The Western Front

The Battle of Five Forks

Poplar Grove National Cemetery

Challenge Your Understanding

 

Open multimedia version of The Siege of Petersburg

Return to Views Visitor Center