1) At the end of this program, students will identify two characteristics of siege warfare at Petersburg.
2) At the end of this program, students will explain two reasons that soldiers felt fear behind the trench lines.
3) At the end of this program, students will describe three pastimes of the soldiers who lived in the trenches.
The landscape and the length of the siege of Petersburg made it a uniquely horrible experience for the soldiers who fought here. For the first three years of the war most engagements were of one to three days duration and therefore the terrain of these battles remained largely intact. However, the siege transformed treeless rural fields into hundreds of miles of fortifications in which soldiers found themselves trapped by trench warfare.
The Union and Confederate armies found themselves in this situation as General Robert E. Lee (CSA) committed to defending a thirty-seven mile front from Richmond, the Confederate capital, to just beyond Petersburg, its supply center. Opposing him was General Ulysses S. Grant (USA) who, after the disaster at the Battle of the Crater, did not directly assault Petersburg again and instead committed his troops to severing all supply routes into the city. By doing this Grant knew he could drive Lee out of both Petersburg and Richmond. It would take eight separate Union offensives during nine-and-a-half months for Grant to achieve this objective.
In terms of soldier life in the trenches around Petersburg this meant a great deal of misery and stress punctuated by moments of pure horror. In a regimental history it is noted "the trenches were rife with garbage that attracted rats and insects, and nearby latrines drew swarms of flies that in turn infected food supplies. Men under fire had no choice but to urinate or defecate where they were standing. . . The sum of all these odors, from the rotting flesh of death to the stench of human waste, from the odious decomposing garbage, to the sulfurous tang of black powder, during the summer months when the heat of the sun made the stink increase." This misery was combined with the constant stress of living within point-blank range of the enemy. A soldier expresses this while relating life along the front, ". . . [their] sharpshooters had a clear range of our entire front, and we were quick on the trigger; my regiment suffered a daily loss. Captain Stevens, while sitting behind a tree and reading a newspaper inadvertently exposed his head and was shot through the neck. He bled to death in the arms of Sergeant-Major Stevens, his brother."
After the war’s conclusion in April 1865, few veterans of the siege returned to commemorate what had transpired here. That silence speaks to us today as testimony of the hardships faced by those who fought in the trenches of Petersburg.
1) Uniform Items - coats, hats, haversacks, trousers, belts & cartridge boxes
2) Enlistment copies
3) Tin Cups, pots, pans, food
4) Shelter Halves, poles, tent stakes
5) Flag and drum
All items needed for Life in the Trenches supplied by PNB
Soldiers of both the Union and the Confederate armies were were "Prisoners of Petersburg" for a nine and a half month long siege. Soldiers spent their days in the trenches where they fought, slept, ate, and passed the time away. This program will take students through a day in camp. At various stations students will sign their enlistments to the government, be issued their uniforms, learn marching drill procedures, examine the design of the trenches, study the meal time rations, and finally erect shelter halves for bed time. This program will provide students a hands on approach to army life in camp.
b) Body of Program:
1) Shade Shelter at Stop 3 - Background information on the Dimmock Line and the roots of siege tactics at Petersburg.
Read poem/passage on soldier life i.e.: Walt Whitman
2) Assigning of uniform items. Identify the dress of a soldier, why they wore uniforms, accouterments.
3) Procedures for Enlisting in the army, signing, oaths
4) Marching Drill procedures
5) Building of trenches and fortifications, tour through part of the trench line. Explanations of trench design, bomb proofs, mortar position, gabion, abatis, fraise. Discussion of upcoming battle, nearness of lines, mortars.
5) Meal Time - Students will assemble at the mess, set up as if it were meal time. Unpacking a haversack to demonstrate what rations a soldier would have eaten.
6) Shelter halves containing rubber and wool blankets. Students may lie down to experience comfort level of soldiers who slept in the shelters.
7) Same station: students will sing songs of the soldiers as if it were evening. Discussion of pastime activities...letter writing, games, cards, chats. Percentage of time actually spent fighting and how the soldiers otherwise occupied their time. i.e.: Goober Peas
c) Conclusion and Dismissal:
1) Read a couple of letters written by individuals who who participated in the siege of Petersburg. i.e.: William Pegram's letter from Petersburg on Aug. 1
2) Repeat the theme of the Program and discuss the title of the program as "Prisoners of Petersburg." What was the meaning behind this?
3) Thank the students and teachers for visiting PNB, and volunteering their services to the army. Look forward to seeing you back again...
Provide the teachers and students report cards to evaluate their likes and dislikes of the activities. Suggestions?
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 describe 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.
Trudeau, Noah A., The Siege of Petersburg Civil War Series, Eastern National, 1995.
Billings, John, Hardtack and Coffee, Gansevoort, NY, Corner House Historical Publications, 1996.
Griffith, Paddy, Battle in the Civil War: Generalship & Tactics in America, Field Books, 1986.
Robertson Jr., James, The Civil War's Common Soldier Civil War Series, Eastern National, 1994.
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