Our Visit to the Petersburg Driving Tour

This entry is part of 5 in the series Battlefield Visits

After we visited Malvern Hill and Grant’s Headquarters we finished off our day by taking the Petersburg Driving Tour. This was the second time for me but the first time for my wife who gives new meaning to the word trooper.

Petersburg, a prosperous city of 18,000, was a supply center for Richmond, given its strategic location just south of Richmond, its site on the Appomattox River that provided navigable access to the James River, and its role as a major crossroads and junction for five railroads. Since Petersburg was the main supply base and rail depot for the entire region, including Richmond, the taking of Petersburg by Union forces would make it impossible for Lee to continue defending Richmond.

The Siege of Petersburg was 9 1/2 months long with a total of some 70,000 casualties. The siege lines eventually stretched over 30 miles and were the most elaborate ever seen on the North American continent. Today, over 150 years later the fortifications can still be seen in parts of the battlefield. The Union Army started at 67,000 men but eventually rose to a staggering 125,000 soldiers. The Confederates averaged about 52,000 soldiers.

The Union Army of the James led by Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler attempted to storm the poorly-manned Confederate fortifications on June 8, 1864. Petersburg was protected by multiple lines of fortifications, the outermost of which was known as the Dimmock Line, a line of earthworks and trenches 10 miles (16 km) long, with 55 redoubts, east of the city. The 2,500 Confederates stretched thin along this defensive line were commanded by a former Virginia governor, Brig. Gen. Henry A. Wise. Despite the number of fortifications, because of a series of hills and valleys around the outskirts of Petersburg there were several places along the outer defenses where cavalry could easily ride through undetected until they reached the inner defenses of the city.

Butler planned to overwhelm the defenders with a force of 4,500 troops but a number of problems prevented them from making a concerted effort. The Confederate Home Guards fought tenaciously and suffered heavy casualties but they managed to hold off the Union attackers until General P.G.T. Beauregard could rein force them. The two sides settled down for a long and costly siege.

The Union Army continued to advance South and then West forcing General Robert E. Lee to follow suit. Grant had his cavalry continually cut the railroads into the city creating a serious shortage of supplies. Eventually Lee’s lines were so poorly manned that the Union Army was able to pierce them in a number of locations on April 2, 1865. One of those locations, the Breakthrough of the Vermont Brigade is at the modern-day Pamplin Historical Park.

The 16-stop tour itself covers some 33 miles of driving. It begins at the Visitors Center near Fort Lee. It’s a very nice drive with reconstructions and actual fortifications sprinkled throughout. The first reconstruction is an example of a fortification. Then, you can visit Fort Stedman, the Confederate Army’s last attempt to break the siege (March 25, 1865). The next major attraction is the site of the Battle of the Crater where the Union Army attempted to blow a hole in the Confederate lines. They failed at the cost of several thousand troops.


Series NavigationVisiting the Battlefields of Central Virginia >>

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