Lesson Plan

A City Under Siege

Civil War Petersburg
National Archives


This program provides students an orientation to the battlefield through an interactive map activity and a tour of Battery Five, where the initial assault on Petersburg occurred.  Students practice their map skills by using a canvas map to view the position of the trench lines around Petersburg and to identify the battle objectives of the Union army.


At the end of this program, students will provide two reasons the Confederates constructed a fortification such as the Dimmock Line around most of the city.

At the end of this program, students will describe two difficulties Baldy Smith may have had during the Union army attack on Battery #5.


As it had been before the Civil War, Petersburg, Virginia was an important transportation center and a critical link between Richmond, (the Confederate capital) and the rest of the South. Through the city of Petersburg came most of the supplies that Richmond needed in order to function.

When the smoke had settled from the Union's failed attempt to take Richmond in 1862, Confederate authorities realized the vulnerability of this supply center. In response, a ten mile-long wall, fortified with numerous gun batteries, was constructed around the city by slave and freed black labor. For the next two years Petersburg was relatively quiet and untouched by the war, with the wall becoming more a place for children to play rather than for soldiers to defend.

In May 1864, Union forces arrived east of Richmond to sever the rail connection into the Confederate capital city. This campaign included several actions against Petersburg but it was not until June 15 that the Union forces arrived at the city's wall with its capture in mind. The battle that night had come after six weeks of heavy fighting between the armies of General Ulysses S. Grant (USA) and General Robert E. Lee (CSA) that had started near Fredericksburg, Virginia and ended just outside of Richmond. After the Battle of Cold Harbor, Grant, realizing that he could not get Richmond by direct assault, had turned to Petersburg knowing that if it fell, Lee would have to abandon Richmond.

Union forces led by General William "Baldy" Smith (USA) did breach the wall on June 15th, but failed to exploit their success. This decision would ultimately lead to the nearly ten month-long siege that turned the landscape around Petersburg into one of trenches and dirt and added another 70,000 men to the casualty lists of the war.


1) Siege Map

2) Toy Soldiers

Provided by PNB


a) Introduction:

Having set his sights upon defeating the Confederate armies, Grant sent General William (Baldy) Smith to capture Petersburg, an important supply center for the southern forces. After breaking through about a mile of the Dimmock Line, including nine batteries, Baldy claimed that he held the key to Petersburg. Instead of continuing his charge into Petersburg, Baldy rested his troops for the night, unsure of where the Confederates were positioned within the fortifications around Petersburg. This provided the Confederate troops enough time to reinforce their positions. The opening assault lasted from June 15-18. The actual siege began on the 19th, after several days of fighting.

This program allows students to 1) practice their map skills by using a large canvas siegemap to view how the trench lines were built to secure Petersburg, and 2) to discover the difficulty of traveling from point A to point B through a scavenger hunt around the Visitor Center. Students will gain a basic understanding of how the soldiers protected the Petersburg area, and how difficult it was for the armies to travel into battle in an unfamiliar area.

b) Body of Program:

1) Activity One: Under tree outside of Visitor Center - Students will review basic map skills including the legend, compass uses, scales, etc. Students will position the map correctly. They will be divided into groups. Each group will be handle specific tasks involving locating the correct area of railroads, plank roads, and earth works. Students should try to position the soldiers in a strategic place along the Dimmock Line.

2) Activity Two:

Students will discuss the difficulties of charging an enemy line of trenches, and the finding the weakest point. Students will be divided into two teams. Using a compass the students will read the clue and follow the directions to locate the site of the next clue. The two teams/armies will be lead along a different trail to reach the ultimate location. The team who works together and makes it the final stop first is the victor.

3) Activity #3

The clue cards will lead the group to the site of the famous Dictator. Here, each side will have a remaining clue card. The card will contain a question about how trench warfare and the design of the mortar relate. Brief discussion of why the opening attack was not a victory for either side.

c) Conclusion and Dismissal:

1) The group will reassemble at Battery Five to discuss a final quote by General Lee about the possibility of a siege at Petersburg, if the initial attack did not go as planned. Students will explain what Lee's prediction meant and why.

2) Thank the students and teachers for visiting PNB, and volunteering their services. Award Parks as Classrooms certificates to participants.


Ask students to describe the importance of the roads, rivers, and railroads to the two armies.

Ask students to compare and contrast the two armies approach to their use.

Ask students to describe how the terrain features on the map influenced the initial assault on Petersburg.

Provide the teachers and students report cards to evaluate their likes and dislikes of the activities. Suggestions?

Park Connections

Nine and a half months, 70,000 casualties, the suffering of civilians, thousands of U. S. Colored Troops fighting for the freedom of their race, and the decline of Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of No. Virginia all describes the Siege of Petersburg. It was here Gen. Ulysses S. Grant cut off all of Petersburg's supply lines ensuring the fall of Richmond on April 3, 1865. Six days later, Lee surrendered.

Additional Resources

For Teachers:

Trudeau, Noah A., The Siege of Petersburg Civil War Series, Eastern National, 1995.

Henderson, William, Petersburg in the Civil War, Lynchburg, VA, H.E. Howard Inc., 1998.

Horn, John, The Petersburg Campaign, Conshohocken, PA, Combined Publishing, 1993.

For Students:

Reeder, Carolyln, Across the Lines, New York, NY, Avon Books, Inc. 1997.

Herbert, Janis, The Civil War for Kids, Chicago, Chicago Review Press Inc. 1996.

For a complete listing of Park Programs see the Peterbsurg Battlefield Educators Guide.