Civil War Petersburg: Confederate City in the Crucible of War

by A. Wilson Greene University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville, 2006, $34.95.

Wilson Greene, the director of the National Museum of the Civil War Soldier, an impressive high- tech institution in Petersburg,has access to a mass of material about Petersburg at his museum,and he makes good use of it as he chronicles day-to-day life in his native city from 1861 to 1865.

During the war Petersburg’s 18,000 inhabitants—half of them black—made the city a metropolis by Southern standards, second in size only to Richmond in antebellum Virginia. Although it is generally considered a Deep South product, cotton also grew in southern Virginia,and Greene points out that Petersburg was the farthest northern city that both grew and processed cotton.Tobacco remained the leading product, as it was in the rest of Virginia, but the city also was a major industrial and commercial center.

Commercial Southern cities showed no enthusiasm for secession, and Petersburg was no exception. In the 1860 election won nationally by Abraham Lincoln, voters in Petersburg gave little support to the Southern favorite, John Breckinridge of Kentucky. He came in a distant third with 223 votes, behind Northern Democrat Steven Douglas’613 votes and winner John Bell of Tennessee with 970. Lincoln received zero votes from Petersburg. Bell narrowly won the statewide vote in Virginia,edging out Breckinridge.In the February 1861 election to a state convention, Petersburg’s Unionist candidate won overwhelmingly,and the convention itself supported “compromise,” i.e., remaining in the Union provided the Federal government guaranteed Southern property rights.Minority secessionists showed relentless energy in their cause,so Virginia opinion shifted even before the April attack on Fort Sumter.

The book’s best sections describe the city and its people through their predictable arc from war fever in 1861 through despair in 1865.The author notes that the few citizens who expressed Union support after secession were driven from the town. Public opposition to the war persisted in the North until the very end, but vanished throughout most of the South,and anyone who spoke out took his life into his hands.

Prices began to rise by the fall of 1861, becoming a universal preoccupation that unlike the war never produced good news.The author records persistent efforts of the Petersburg Common Council to provide welfare to families who sent a wage earner to war and to the poor in general. This included the black population, although at a much lower level. Petersburg newspapers describe torrents of charity benefits,which the author dutifully records until the end of 1864, when the need became overwhelming.

Fighting north of Richmond produced only modest concern during the first year. Matters changed in March 1862, when McClellan’s immense army landed at Fort Monroe,50 miles away.Everyone took for granted that the Federal force was aimed at Petersburg, leading to frantic appeals to Richmond and an upsurge in construction of defenses.McClellan’s departure in August barely relieved the citizens’ anxiety because a large force remained behind.With Richmond’s attention again focused on northern Virginia,Union troops at Fort Monroe outnumbered Petersburg’s defenders, and an aggressive general could have fulfilled the city’s worst nightmare. Luckily, no such general appeared.

The approach of Grant’s army in 1864 caused less concern than McClellan’s in 1862 because citizens assumed its goal was Richmond, 25 miles north. They had scarcely recovered from news that forces were continuing south when Petersburg entered the history books with the beginning of the siege in June.

Today we know the siege marked the beginning of the end, but no one thought so at the time. Mostly citizens raged over the shelling,which,lacking military justification, confirmed their view of Yankees as barbarians.They also agonized over skyrocketing inflation, as incoming troops scoured the countryside.

On the plus side, General Robert E. Lee arrived. His reputation had already reached godlike proportions, so everyone assumed matters were in good hands until his abrupt withdrawal in April 1865 and the surrender a week later.The book ends after a quick review of the benign Union occupation and the city’s unimpressive recovery. With a 2000 population of 33,740—less than double that of 1860—Petersburg’s claim to fame today still rests on its role in the Civil War.

Dedicated buffs will want a book that is clearly the last word on the city, its demographics, civic organization and the mechanics of day-to-day life. Sensibly, the author does not claim to have written a military history. His text retains an air of academia,so for example readers will learn the name and commanding officer of every Confederate regiment that marches through Petersburg, including many never heard from again.

Four years of war in the vicinity saw plenty of minor local as well as major engagements.However,making sense of them is a hopeless task with the few sketchy maps provided—accompanied by a plethora of detail and a prose style suitable for a scholarly audience. For a more lucid account of the siege try The Last Citadel, by Noah Andre Trudeau.


Originally published in the September 2007 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.