Virginia: Petersburg National Battlefield

Crater at Petersburg National battlefield
Although the Battle of the Crater was more than 150 years ago, the land remains scarred

Courtesy of Ken Lund, Flickr's Creative Commons

In Petersburg, Virginia and the fields and towns surrounding the city, Union forces lay siege to Confederate troops during the Civil War. For more than nine months between 1864 and 1865, soldiers from the North fought those from the South for control over the City of Petersburg. The consequences of the struggle at Petersburg were larger than just the fate of city. Events at Petersburg set in motion the dramatic conclusion to the Civil War. Within two weeks after the siege broke, Richmond fell to the Union, Confederate forces under General Lee surrendered to General Grant at Appomattox ending the war, and President Lincoln died at the hand of an assassin. The fighting at Petersburg was the beginning of the end of the Civil War. Petersburg was also where the largest number of U.S. Colored Troops served.

Having earlier failed to take Richmond by attacking it directly, General Grant led Union troops in an attempt to cut off rail connections and supplies to the city by attacking Petersburg where many of the rail lines and supplies were concentrated. The assaults on Petersburg began around present-day Hopewell on June 15, 1864. Over time, the battles moved progressively west until the final conflict at Five Forks in 1865. Today, Petersburg National Battlefield Park includes a large area and four visitor centers that document the more than nine-month siege of the City of Petersburg and surrounding communities. 

Beginning in the north, the park starts at the Grant’s Headquarters Unit in Hopewell where visitors can learn more about Union leadership during the Civil War and the growth of the area at that time. The Eastern Front Unit in Petersburg includes a large section of the battlefields to tour. At Eastern Front, the main visitor center for the park offers exhibits and programs that tell the story of Petersburg. The Five Forks Battlefield Unit focuses on the end of the siege of Petersburg. A seasonal station at Poplar Grove National Cemetery provides information on those who participated and died while fighting in the Civil War. From Hopewell, Virginia and running to the battlefield site at Five Forks, a 33-mile auto tour route passes through the units of the park. Along the way, visitors can stop at more than a dozen wayside exhibits to learn about a particular area or battle.

The siege of Petersburg included great battles that occurred on terrain that is similar today to the way it was in the 1860s. Visitors to the Eastern Front section of the park may walk, hike, or ride through the battlefields of the siege where they can still see remnants of trenches and other fortifications, though some have worn away over time or were destroyed during battles, such as those at the site of the Battle of the Crater. Hoping to gain valuable land near Petersburg, Union forces tunneled under the Confederates and planted a massive charge. The Union troops thought they would be able to use the confusion following the explosion to overwhelm the Confederates. When the mine detonated, Union troops ran into the crater created by the explosion. This gave the Confederates a height advantage and Federal losses were heavy. In all, nearly 6,000 troops died in the Battle of the Crater. The crater area is a stop along the auto tour route and has an interpretive walking trail that runs around the site. 

The Battle of Five Forks, the final battle of the siege of Petersburg that concluded the almost yearlong struggle, occurred southwest of the city at a crossroads. On April 1, 1865, Union troops under General Grant outflanked Confederates to capture the remaining supply lines for the South. With the capital of the Confederacy the next target for northern troops, the evacuation of Richmond began. Union troops took the city on April 3. On April 9, Lee surrendered at Appomattox, and on April 14, President Lincoln was shot in Washington, DC. Visitors can learn about the conditions on the battlefield at the Five Forks section of the park. During the Civil War, skirmishes and battles could occur almost anywhere. The Gilliam family had their home within the war zone at Five Forks. Visitors may walk an approximately half-mile interpretive trail to learn more about the battle and the home, which still stands.

During the battles, Grant established his headquarters at City Point (today part of Hopewell). This tiny landing on the James and Appomattox rivers grew during the war, because City Point was a major port for supplies and important hub on the military railroad that Union forces built. Federal troops around Petersburg constructed a transportation network that helped to keep them supplied during the long siege transforming City Point into a bustling port and railroad depot. Elsewhere around Petersburg, they quickly constructed new buildings and took over private houses for the war effort. Union forces built a very large hospital to treat their wounded staffed by a number of women nurses or cooks; some former slaves also worked there. Near the Appomattox River, Grant used the Eppes family home, Appomattox Manor, as a headquarters building. Today, this is the Grant’s Headquarters unit of the battlefield park. Visitors exploring this part of the park will learn more about the family, their home, and its role in the war. 

African Americans supported both sides during the siege of Petersburg. About half the population of Petersburg was black, 35% of whom were free, and both free and enslaved African Americans assisted the Confederacy in such efforts as the construction in 1862 of a ten-mile long defensive line of trenches and batteries around Petersburg. Following heavy losses, General Lee hoped to increase the number of Confederate troops at Petersburg by using slaves as soldiers. In March of 1865, he called for 40,000 slaves to join the Confederate army. The war ended before he could implement this plan.

Almost 187,000 African Americans served in the Union forces during the war with the largest number of U.S. Colored Troops serving at Petersburg. Many U.S. Colored Troops took part in the initial attack in 1864 and the ill-fated Battle of the Crater. African Americans also worked at the port and depot at City Point helping to load and unload goods.

Death was part of the siege of Petersburg. Visitors to the park may tour the final resting place of some 6,700 Union dead at Poplar Grove cemetery. Open seasonally, a visitor center at the cemetery provides information about the history of those buried at the site. Almost 30,000 Confederate dead are buried nearby at Blandford Church Cemetery, which is not included in the park.

Petersburg National Battlefield, a unit of the National Park System, is located south of Richmond, VA.  The park is divided into several units.  The main visitor center is Eastern Battlefields, located at 5001 Siege Rd. in Petersburg, VA.  Additional visitor centers are located at the Grant’s Headquarters Unit at 1001 Pecan Ave. in Hopewell, VA and at Five Forks Battlefield Unit at 9840 Courthouse Rd. in Dinwiddie, VA.  A seasonal visitor center is located at Poplar Grove National Cemetery at 8005 Vaughan Rd. in Petersburg.  The unit and a number of sites in the park are listed in the National Register of Historic Places.  Click here for the National Register of Historic Places file for Appomattox Manor (text and photos). Five Forks Battlefield has been designated a National Historic Landmark. A fee is charged to enter the park at Eastern Battlefields; all other parts are free.  Each visitor center maintains separate hours.  For more information, visit the National Park Service Petersburg National Battlefield website or call 804-732-3531.

Appomattox Manor has been documented by the National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey

Last updated: August 4, 2017