The Reverend John Miller ascended the pulpit at the second Presbyterian Church in Petersburg, Virginia, one Sunday in June 1864 and began a prayer. ‘Almighty Father we are assembled to worship Thee in the presence of our enemies, had just passed his lips when a Federal shell crashed through the wall of the sanctuary. Life for the reverend and his flock had changed forever.
Before the war, and before the war literally fell into their laps, the members of Second Presbyterian and their fellow Petersburgers knew life in a prosperous, cosmopolitan city that was just as sophisticated as its neighbor Richmond. Petersburg boasted a municipal water system, four volunteer fire companies, gas-fueled streetlights, and brick sidewalks. Two daily newspapers, 159 grocers, four banks and four savings-and-loan institutions, as well as numerous tobacco companies, flour and textile mills, and the heavy machine shops associated with the town’s four railroad lines served and employed many of the more than 18,000 inhabitants.
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
|Union shells rained on Petersburg, Va. houses causing rampant destruction.|
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
Some of the grocers and many of the employees of the railroad and tobacco factories were free blacks. By 1861, Petersburg was home to the largest population of freedmen in the state of Virginia — 3,644. Still, like other Southern cities, Petersburg had a slave auction where many slaves were sold, some to be shipped away by rail. The 6,000 or so slaves who remained local worked alongside free laborers or in prosperous white households.
Naturally, the siege the Federals laid to Petersburg in June 1864 hurt living conditions for the inhabitants, but the war had impacted on the city from the start. When the Confederate government established its seat at Richmond, Southern politicians and bureaucrats soon overran the capital. Overcrowding forced the families of the new government officials to seek lodging in Petersburg, which began to burst at the seams by the end of 1862 — after no fewer than three military prisons and at least 11 hospitals for sick and wounded soldiers were established. Supplies should have been easy for civilians to get, but the Confederate army disrupted railroad service by appropriating trains for military use early in the war. Meanwhile, the city’s busy docks along the Appomattox River grew quiet as the Union navy blockade shut down shipping traffic at Hampton Roads, at the tip of the Virginia Peninsula. Acquiring any type of goods became a gamble. When Sara Pryor, wife of Confederate Brigadier General Roger Pryor, relocated to Petersburg in 1863, she noted that most of the butcher shops were closed. Meat, if you could find it, cost $5 a pound (more than $70 in today’s currency) and butter was $8. By early 1864, though the Petersburg Daily Express still advertised flour, peas, and pickled beef, its editors suggested citizens carry their poles to the Appomattox and take advantage of the shad fishing.
In June 1864, the situation got worse. Confederate troops took up position in the fortifications around the city and prepared to defend it from the advancing Federals. Union General in Chief Ulysses S. Grant, who had been directing Major General George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac in its ongoing fight against General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia since early May, had tried to sidestep Lee and take Petersburg in mid-June. But due to a combination of luck, skill — and exhaustion and miscommunication on the Union side — Lee blocked attacks the Federals made from the 14th through the 17th. Nonetheless, Grant’s bloodied and battered legions were at Petersburg’s doorstep for good. Ever despising retreat, Grant decided on June 18 to lay siege to Lee’s Rebels in the city and ordered his men to start entrenching.
At that point, some citizens fled, but most remained. Union lines never completely surrounded the city, but as far as the civilians were concerned, they might as well have. Grant soon had his artillerymen pounding away at the Confederate trenches, and it was inevitable that Union bombs would find their way into town, too. The Union’s huge mortar known as the Dictator, as well as numerous other cannon, hurled shells into the city day and night. In July Petersburger Charles Campbell wrote, We have the same hot sun, same drought, same dust, same war circumstances, same shellings to-day as on every day.
Methodist minister Alexander Gustavus Brown decided to stay in Petersburg but sent his wife Fannie and their children to nearby Lynchburg. I preached on yesterday twice and had excellent congregants for the times…, he wrote to his wife on August 29, 1864. The size of my congregation was owing in part to the fact that the people are now afraid to attend the churches down town as the shells are falling there again quite fast…. While I write I can hear the shells as they whistle through the air.
To escape the terrifying missiles, some people dug bomb shelters, known as bomb proofs, in their back yards. Others fortified their basements with sandbags and bales of cotton.
Eventually, the shelling became just another hardship the citizens had to endure and try to ignore. The Confederate artillery commander, Brigadier General William Nelson Pendleton, wrote, The people of the place, ladies and all, bear this outrage upon their pleasant homes with great fortitude and dignity. Brown wrote to his wife in September, You have doubtless heard of the severe shelling to which the city has recently been exposed. The severest of all took plase last Sabbath night, lasting just one hour, from half past eleven to half past twelve…. Several [shells] passed over my church and our house and garden…. A shell entered the house of Brother Paul and providentialy exploded in his only unoccupied chamber…. Dr. Clayborn [John Claiborne] came near being killed. He had just gotten up to light a candle when a shell entered his room passing through his [bed] where he had been laying a minute or two before…. The people were all very much excited…. But all of this did not disturb my sweet slumbers.
Many Petersburgers determined not to let the siege ruin their daily lives, and certain social events were not to be missed. There were parties, starvation parties, as they were called, on account of the absence of refreshments impossible to be obtained, recalled Claiborne. Ball followed ball, and the soldier met and danced with his lady at night, and on the morrow danced the dance of death in the deadly trenches out on the line.
Petersburg resident Sallie Putnam noticed that while the god of war thundered from the ramparts, not less busy was the artful boy-god [Cupid]. Despite the cannonading and distress, weddings continued unabated. A great many of the soldiers are marrying around and in Petersburg, some for life, some for the war and some for one winter only, observed one R.P Scarbrough.
As the winter approached, the worsening food situation was a universal concern. Indeed it is generally agreed that all who can get away ought not to think of wintering in Petersburg, wrote Brown. The best part of our population will go away. This will be a blessing to the poor who remain for they will have the more for themselves.
Despite the apparent truth of Brown’s assessment, the situation of the poor went from bad to dire. The First Baptist Church established the Petersburg Soup House to feed the poor, and it fed 600 people a day. Flocks of pigeons would follow the children who were eating bread and crackers, remembered Sara Pryor. Finally the pigeons vanished, having themselves been eaten. She was understandably wary of the meat pies being sold on the streets, for in addition to the vanished pigeons, it was common knowledge that people were eating rat, mouse, and mule meat.
Determined that her children would not be forced to eat such gastronomic atrocities, Pryor managed to set her table with peas, bread, and sorghum molasses, supplemented with some milk when she could get it. By the end of 1864, flour was $1,300 a barrel, and not even the relatively well-off Pryor could afford a decent amount of it. One of her sons vividly described his hunger: Mamma, I have a queer feeling in my stomach! Oh, no! It doesn’t ache the least bit, but it feels like a nutmeg grater. One little girl, Anne Banister, wandered to Lee’s headquarters, a relatively insulated location where she played in safety with other children. When she got home she ran to her mother and cried, Mother, I don’t believe General Lee thinks we are going to win the war. Mrs. Banister replied, Of course, we cannot win. We are all starving.
The days continued to drag on with no relief in sight for Petersburg’s residents. As the winter came on, reminisced one young woman, I bought at the old market rough country shoes, with leather strings and no lining, for the children. Mammy, also Mary our cook, the then servants, went barefoot. I think I gave $200 a pair for those shoes….
The Christmas season arrived with no visions of sugarplums or hope of toys for the children. What kind of Christmas did you have[?]a friend wrote to Eleanor Platt on December 31. I made some cakes & puffs, bought some apples. Candy at $25 was out of my reach and so were toys. [We] had our taste of eggnog.
Shipments of food were making it into town, but skyrocketing prices kept the supplies out of the hands of all but the wealthy. Upon visiting Petersburg in January 1865, Scarborough wrote, I have since I have been around Petersburg, seen many poor women and children compelled to go among the soldiers and beg for bread to eat. Theft was rampant. One woman remembered that after killing hogs, she dared not leave the pork to cure in the smokehouse. Instead, she brought barrels into her house and salted the meat inside. Thieves accosted farmers when they tried to get to market with wagons of produce.
The privations and dangers of the war hit the hospitals hard. The facilities were already full at the start of the siege, so the influx of wounded from the trenches tested the skills of the overstretched staff. Claiborne was made a major and put in charge of the city’s military hospitals shortly before the siege’s start. Union shells soon were endangering hospitals, requiring him to move thousands of wounded soldiers out of artillery range. Sara Pryor remembered the caravan as a never-ending line of wagons, carts, everything that would move on wheels.
Claiborne soon had to resort to black-market tactics to get medical supplies; Sergeant Joseph Todd helped him in these efforts. Claiborne would draw tobacco from government stores and give it to Todd. Todd then took the tobacco to the streets and managed to keep the hospitals well stocked by trading and selling the crop.
By the spring of 1865, Union gunfire had destroyed whole sections of the city. Lines of trench scarred the countryside, and soldiers were well on their way to deforesting the surrounding region by chopping down trees for firewood. Residents had a hard time getting any of that vital fuel for themselves. Some turned to alternative sources. Nearly every little foot bridge about town has lost half of its timber while some of them have entirely disappeared, Petersburg’s Daily Express reported in March. They are stolen at night, and burned as fuel. Petersburg’s city council had established a wood committee the previous fall to obtain wood for the poor, but by January 1865, it had already overspent its budget by $35,000.
The Petersburg residents did not realize it yet, but the end of the shelling was near. The Union and Confederate armies were restless after a winter in the trenches, each side wanting the siege decided once and for all. After clashes at nearby Five Forks and Fort Gregg in the first two days of April, the Rebels realized they had to evacuate Peters-burg or the Army of Northern Virginia would be strangled to death.
Late on April 2, Claiborne got an order to begin clearing the hospitals of all patients that could survive a move. Chaos ensued when hundreds of wounded from fights at Five Forks and Fort Gregg began to pour into the city at the same time Claiborne was trying to evacuate. The exasperated Claiborne wrote of the wounded being hurried in from ambulances and upon stretchers, their moans mingling with the cries of women, the shrieking and bursting of shells, and the hoarse orders of men in authority.
Not until 10:00 that evening did a representative from Lee’s staff speak with Petersburg’s harried mayor, W.W. Townes, to tell him and the city council that the army was pulling out of the city. At 4:30 a.m. on April 3, Union Colonel Ralph Ely met Townes at the Petersburg Court House to accept the city’s surrender.
As the Confederate troops left town, some of them looted and others destroyed what they could to keep it out of enemy hands. Great fires were raging in the city, wrote one soldier, for the authorities were burning the big warehouses filled with all kinds of army stores. Some soldiers got stranded on the banks of the Appomattox River when the bridge was torched before they had crossed.
Union troops entering Petersburg found that everything was in terrible commotion. Irish women, negro women, men, and boys were running hither and thither, some of them with slabs of bacon on their heads and others with sacks and bundles of various sorts and sizes, wrote one soldier. The Federals wasted no time in establishing order. In two hours, one officer boasted, … [it] was as quiet in property and person [in Petersburg] as in Washington, an instance of discipline and good conduct on the part of the troops unsurpassed in military history.
For the most part, the white population remained out of sight as the Union army marched through town, but the black community was overjoyed, particularly the slaves. A soldier from New England wrote, The colored portion of the people were wild with singing, praysing God for sending the Yankee hosts to free them, claping hands…, singing hymns, shaking hands, pushing on another with joy. The most boisterous outpouring of joy was reserved for the passing of the U.S. Colored Troops, who displayed even more than usual of their famed soldierly discipline and decorum in front of the grateful throng.
The elation of Petersburg’s black citizens stood in stark contrast to the ruinous condition of the city. One New York soldier wrote, Marks of bombardment were plentiful on all sides — chimneys down, holes through brick walls and little drifts of debris, mortar and brick, in yard and street.
Military action at Petersburg had ended, and the Civil War in the eastern theater would end a few days later, when Lee surrendered his army at Appomattox Court House on April 9. Petersburg residents no longer had to duck incoming shells and grimace as newly wounded soldiers hobbled past on their way to Claiborne’s hospital wards. Instead, they had to begin trying to pick up the pieces of their shattered surrounds.
On April 8, English traveler Edward Moseley wrote home to his wife in London describing the scene in town: The city presented the most desolate appearance — public buildings, warehouses, private houses &c., to clearly bore evidence of the effects of the heavy shelling…. Not an hotel open in the place, or the slightest appearance of any business having been carried on for some time.
The effects of the 10-month siege were much more than met the eye, of course. One could not fail to remark the deep mourning worn by the ladies moving about the streets, or the careworn expression of their countenances, wrote Moseley. Perhaps they knew their home would never again be what it once was. Efforts at revitalization by generations of Petersburgers following the end of the Civil War have yet to return the city to its former glory.
This article written by Heidi Campbell-Shoaf and originally appeared in the August 2004 issue of Civil War Times magazine.
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