In the summer of 1864, Petersburg, Virginia, became the setting for the longest siege in American warfare.
When General Ulysses S. Grant failed to capture the Confederate capital of Richmond that spring, he decided to cut off Lee's supply lines by surrounding Petersburg, 25 miles to the south. An important supply center to the Confederate capital, Petersburg was the junction of five rail lines and key roads used to supply the armies with food, weapons, and additional manpower. Without access to transportation, Lee would be forced to leave Petersburg and abandon Richmond.
Nearly 150,000 soldiers from both sides spent what seemed like an eternity in Petersburg. The Confederates did their best to hang on in spite of meager rations and plummeting morale, in the hopes that the people of the North would simply tire of the war. For soldiers on both sides it meant ten months alternating between gunfire, painful tedium, and terrible food, if indeed, there was any food to speak of.
In the early stages of the siege, before either side knew how long it would last, the Union crafted a clever plan to dig a tunnel beneath enemy lines and detonate four tons of explosive powder directly beneath a Confederate stronghold. The plan was to blow a huge gap in the South’s defenses, which would allow a specially trained African-American regiment to rush into the vacuum and take the rest of the Confederate soldiers by surprise. After a month of excavation, the Union army completed the process, digging a tunnel five feet high, a few feet wide, and more than 500 feet long. But the Union commander was worried that the aggressive maneuver might mean the loss of countless African-American soldiers, and ensuing accusations of racism, so another regiment was selected at the last minute. The initial blast successfully eliminated an entire Confederate regiment, but most of the unprepared Union soldiers who charged in soon afterward ran into the gaping hole and were slaughtered by the Confederates. Fifteen hundred Union soldiers lost their lives; Grant later called it the saddest affair he had ever witnessed in the war. (Although the park was established in 1926, the resulting crater was part of a golf course and even served as a trash dump until it became part of the park in 1936; now the deep scar in the soil is a reminder of the events that unfolded here.)
Afterwards, the stalemate continued, until finally, in March of 1865, Southern commanders hoped to break the Union stranglehold on Petersburg with a surprise attack on Grant. But the Confederate army lost the battle waged at Fort Stedman, marking Lee's last grand offensive of the war. On April 2, 1865, nearly ten months after the siege began, Lee evacuated Petersburg. The final surrender at Appomattox Court House was just a week away.
Only weeks later, President Lincoln was assassinated in Washington, D.C., but he spent many of his final days at Petersburg, meeting with his generals to discuss terms of ending the war; General Grant's headquarters is preserved as part of the park as well.
Today, the Park Service is considering plans to expand Petersburg National Battlefield more than 7,200 acres, to protect the park from encroaching development, a move that would make it the largest Civil War battlefield site in the entire National Park System. Those efforts are also advancing potential changes to the park, which would include a downtown visitor contact station, increased park staff, and greater attention to the unique roles that women and African Americans played in the war.
—Scott Kirkwood, NPCA