Traveler's Checklist: Petersburg National Battlefield

Today the "crater" created by a tremendous detonation of gunpowder remains for visitors to inspect. Kurt Repanshek photo.

Virginia is rife with Civil War battle sites, many of which are part of the National Park System. One that seems to rise above others, though, is Petersburg National Battlefield, which history has left with a massive crater from a poorly executed Union attack.

Located roughly 22 miles south of Richmond, Petersburg played a key role in the Civil War. In the last stage of the war, Petersburg protected the only remaining railroad that served the besieged Confederate capital. Union General Ulyssess S. Grant recognized that capturing Petersburg would seal Richmond's fate, so he made it a prime strategic goal to do just that.

From lines established near Petersburg, and with supplies assured via a massive depot near today's Hopewell, Gen. Grant embarked on a nearly 10-month siege of Petersburg with the end goal of breaking through to Richmond. It was a demoralizing time for the Confederate troops, who by February 1865 were badly outnumbered, poorly equipped, and barely fed.

Seven months earlier, though, a key event in the siege played out when Union Col. Henry Pleasants proposed that a roughly 500 foot-long tunnel be dug from Union lines to beneath the Confederate lines. There an explosive charge laid around 20 feet under the Confederate trenches would be detonated, creating a huge breach that Union troops could pour through. Pleasants figured that this bold stroke could turn the tide of battle in favor of the Union and hasten the end of the war.

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The entrance to the tunnel used to plant explosives under Confederate lines. Kurt Repanshek photo.

The planning was intricate: coal miners from Pennsylvania would dig the tunnel, using hardtack boxes to carry out the dirt. The massive charge -- four tons or so of gunpowder -- would "blow ... the rebels to the clouds," Col. Pleasants wrote in a lettter to his uncle.

Unfortunately, the plan didn't work as envisioned. Even though the blast that occured at 4:45 a.m. on July 30, 1864, created a crater that was 170 feet long, 60-80 feet wide, and about 30 feet deep (killing 250-300 Confederates in the process), the Union troops tasked with exploiting the breach utterly failed to do so. Instead of moving around the crater, they spilled down into it, could not get out, and were rendered helpless.

Confederate troops formed up around the crater and began firing rifles and artillery down into it. As park historians have noted, (Maj. Gen. William) Mahone later described the resulting massacre as a "turkey shoot.'"

"The plan had failed, but (Gen. Ambrose) Burnside, instead of cutting his losses, sent in (Brigadier Gen. Edward) Ferrero's men. Now faced with considerable flanking fire, they also went down into the crater, and for the next few hours, Mahone's soldiers, along with those of Maj. Gen. Bushrod Johnson and artillery, slaughtered the IX Corps as it attempted to escape from the crater."

The explosion that created the crater is well-known to those who have read Cold Mountain or watched the movie, which opens with the explosion.

The crater remains to this day, although its original dimensions have been softened by time. Walls have caved in or sloughed down, grass has reclaimed the ragged maw, and there are spots along the route of the tunnel where overburden has collapsed into the passageway.

While the site of the "Battle of the Crater" remains the highlight of a visit to Petersburg National Battlefield, there are other sites to see. Here's a checklist to help you negotiate this fascinating Civil War site:

* Start at the battlefield's Eastern Front Visitor Center and watch the interpretive film that explains the Siege of Petersburg, mixing in graphics and historic photos to tell the story.

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The 'Essayons' were a dramatic club formed by a battalion of Union engineers. Library of Congress photo.

* After the film walk around the circular Visitor Center to inspect the exhibits, some of which depict the weapons, uniforms, and artifacts from the siege. There's a .58-caliber 1861 U.S. musket on display, mess kits, playing cards and dominoes, and various other artifacts of Civil War front-lines life.

You'll also learn how the troops entertained themselves -- some were involved in cockfighting during idle times, while a U.S. Engineer Battalion formed the "Essayons," a dramatic club. Also on display are models of "winterized" tents that have log walls, pitched canvas roofs, and stone fireplaces. Surgeon's tools are on display, too, as is an exhibit of that letter Col. Pleasants wrote to his uncle.

* After leaving the Visitor Center (don't forget to stamp your Parks Passport), spend some time walking the grounds.

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A nice display of Civil War cannons is right outside the Visitor Center. Kurt Repanshek photo.

There's a nice display of cannons used during the war along the path that leads to Confederate Battery 5 with its protective earthworks. Just outside the battery is a brick circle laid into the ground with arrows pointing to surrounding towns and noting their distances (i.e., Richmond is 22 miles to the north, Northfall is 65 miles to the southeast.) Battery 5 was built in 1862 as part of the Dimmock Line. Built by slaves under the supervision of Capt. Charles Dimmock, this 10-mile-long defensive line was designed to protect Petersburg.

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Confederate Battery 5 is down the path from the cannon display. Kurt Repanshek photo.

* Continue on past Battery 5 and a nice trail takes you down close to the rail line and then back through the forest to the location of a replica of the Dictator, a 17,000-pound mortar that Union artillerymen used to lob 225-pound shells in a high trajectory at Petersburg 2.5 miles away.

A few yards past the Dictator is the actual powder magazine the troops burrowed into the hillside. The trail continues on to the front of Battery 5. (Handicapped visitors who can't manage steps should take this trail counterclockwise to see the Dictator.)

* From the Visitor Center, a nice drive takes you through today's forests to various keypoints along the Petersburg siege line. There are two other Confederate Battery positions -- 8 and 9 -- as well as the site of Fort Stedman, a Union stronghold that Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee attacked in March 1865 with hopes of easing the Union pressure on Petersburg. The attack, Lee's last serious attempt to break the Union siege, was beaten back.

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A replica of the Dictator is on location below Battery 5. Kurt Repanshek photo.

* Stop 8 brings you to the site of The Crater. A winding trail takes you across the landscape to the location of the entrance of the Union tunnel (a short series of steps takes you down to the entrance, which is gated.) From there the trail leads on to the edge of The Crater.

While you can't walk down into the crater itself, you can walk around it on, taking note of where Confederate troops dug their own "listening tunnels" to see if they could detect the Union efforts.

There also is a statue that commemorates Confederate Gen. Mahone and his troops.

From here you leave the Eastern Front of the battlefield and continue on Crater Road to the Western Front, where you'll find, among other sites, the Poplar Grove National Cemetery that holds the remains of Union soldiers who died at Petersburg and Appomattox.

Other sites in the area:

* Head to the historic center of Petersburg and you can visit the Siege Museum as well as the Civil War-era Courthouse.

* Visit Grant's Headquarters at the City Point unit of Petersburg Battlefield near present-day Hopewell and you can find the cabin built for Gen. Grant in November 1864.

* The White Oak Civil War Museum and Research Center contains one of the most amazing collections of artifacts and memorabilia you'll find under one roof. Amassed by the late Pat D. Newton and other men who collected artifacts from Civil War sites in the early 1950s and now maintained by D.P. Newton, the museum offers displays with thousands of bullets, rifles, uniforms, clothing buttons, personal items, bottles, canteens, tools, and various personal artifacts.

Comments

Good article but not sure why the White Oak Museum is identified as "other sites in the area". It's probably seventy miles or more north of Petersburg.