What does the executive director of Pamplin Historical Park, an expansive museum dedicated to the siege of Petersburg, Virginia, do in his spare time? He writes books about his adopted hometown. The very busy A. Wilson Greene recently sat down to discuss his new book, Civil War Petersburg: Confederate City in the Crucible of the Civil War, and explain how the South’s seventh largest city figured in the Confederate war effort.
Peter Carmichael: When people think of Petersburg, they usually think of the horrendous siege, and focus on that and the resulting military actions. Yet you chose to focus on the civilian experience. Why?
A. Wilson Green: During the research that I conducted for my previous book on the final battles of the Petersburg campaign, I included a chapter on the fall of Petersburg and realized there was an awful lot of source material on the end of the war there. I consulted the only published history of wartime Petersburg, an underappreciated monograph by William Henderson, a former professor at Petersburg’s Richard Bland College. Bill’s book was very well done, but relied predominantly on the unpublished diaries of Charles Campbell, a headmaster and articulate observer resident of Petersburg. I talked to Bill, and he heartily agreed a more comprehensive treatment was needed, and encouraged me to go forward.
I would like to clarify that while the book focuses the majority of its attention on the civilian experience, it is impossible to ignore military actions, and a good portion of my study deals with the Confederate army in Petersburg, not only its relationship to the civilian population, but its role in military strategy. Petersburg was the headquarters for a number of different departments, beginning in the spring of 1862 to the fall of 1864.
Why should anyone care about what was happening behind the lines at Petersburg, or anywhere else for that matter?
It is vital for us to understand the totality of the American Civil War. We’re fond of quoting statistics: 620,000 soldiers dead, 10,000 battles and so forth. There were 31 million people in the United States, however, and despite the fact only one-tenth of them were ever soldiers, nearly everyone felt the impact of the conflict. The story of the Civil War needs to extend beyond the battlefield, and what I hope I have done in this book is created a nexus between the battlefield, the military and a very important Southern city.
Take us down your favorite street in Petersburg during the antebellum period. What would we have seen, smelled and heard?
There were two streets in Petersburg that everyone would have visited. One was Sycamore Street, the primary north-south avenue. The other was the main east-west thoroughfare, Washington Street. Sycamore Street began on the Appomattox River, and it was at the heart of the commercial and cultural district in Petersburg. Any number of retail stores and commission merchant houses lined the street.
The commission merchants were the richest citizens in Petersburg. There were 39 of them in 1860, and some of them were extremely wealthy, even more so than the industrialists in town. A stroller would have passed New Library Hall, which was a brand-new lending library with a major auditorium that brought the finest academic and intellectual speakers to Petersburg.
Eventually you would have crossed Washington Street and seen Poplar Lawn Park, the main municipal green space in Petersburg, around which there were a number of beautiful, elaborate 1850s mansions built primarily with tobacco and commission merchant money that featured the finest residential amenities.
Washington Street had a section of fine homes, but it also had a mixture of churches, railroad depots and industrial buildings. Numerous large brick tobacco factories were located on or adjacent to Washington Street, and many were converted into hospitals. The city’s largest private school, Anderson Seminary, was on Washington Street. The road terminated at its western end at an experimental agricultural farm that the Confederates used for everything from campgrounds and hospitals to a prisoner exchange location.
That description complicates our view of the Old South. The Petersburg you’ve described is a very modern place with a lot of commercial activity and culture. But it was a city that was within a slave South. Where are the plantations, and what about the slave experience in Petersburg?
Petersburg was modern. Many readers of Civil War Times would be stumped to name the seven largest cities in the Confederacy, and few would likely include Petersburg in that list, even though it was in fact the seventh largest city of the Confederacy in terms of 1860 population.
Petersburg had about a 50/50 mix of black and white populace, and 26 percent of the free people in Petersburg were black. No other city, including New Orleans or Charleston, had that high a percentage of free blacks.
There were really four classes of people in Petersburg: slaves, free blacks, an upper crust of extremely wealthy businesspeople and industrialists and then the rest of the white people. Ninety percent of the whites in Petersburg owned no real estate, indicating there was not a very big middle class of whites. There were a lot of laborers; it was an industrial town.
How did the white population respond to secession?
Petersburg, not unique among Upper South cities, was a very conservative town, and its citizens overwhelmingly voted for compromise candidate John Bell in the 1860 presidential election, rejecting both Democratic candidates. The city elected a pro-Unionist to the state convention in February 1861, a man avowedly against secession. But then within a period of about five to six weeks, the citizens of Petersburg changed their minds. Fortunately, we have a very concrete way to track that change, because in the second week of March 1861, the citizens voted on whether or not to instruct their delegate to support secession.
In that election, 53.6 percent of the voters cast their ballots to support secession, whereas six weeks earlier they had overwhelmingly voted for a pro-Union candidate. So when that transition took place, Petersburgians— both white and black, for that matter—were extremely excited and supportive of secession.
That’s another factor that will be surprising to some readers, that the free black community generally supported secession, and there is evidence of them volunteering for military service. When that wasn’t accepted, they volunteered for labor service in the Confederate military.
What motivated free blacks to support the Confederacy?
I wish I could answer that, but unfortunately the source material just isn’t there, and I found no private writing from an African American that goes into any kind of explanation. We have their public statements, and they would lead you to believe that they were motivated by the same things that caused white people to go off to war.
My speculation, however, is that these fairly prosperous African Americans, who enjoyed relative freedom as compared to slaves, understood that in a slaveholder’s republic they had the most to lose. It would be logical to speculate that a good number of the free blacks were trying not to give the new government any reason to curtail the status that they had enjoyed up until 1861.
How did wartime pressures affect Petersburg’s economy?
Within a matter of weeks after the beginning of the war, Petersburg’s economy took body blows from the blockade, the proscriptions against trade with the North and the lack of labor to provide the manpower necessary to operate the tobacco factories. The military began to overwhelm the needs of civilians regarding transportation, supplies and retail goods. It became very difficult for citizens to travel, prices immediately began to escalate, speculation entered the picture, it became very difficult to obtain credit. So it became a cash-only economy, and as cash and hard currency were hoarded, the government compensated by printing more and more paper money, which simply exacerbated the inflation. So inflation started to take a toll on Petersburg very quickly.
June 19, 1864, the siege begins. What did that mean for those who stayed in the city, both black and white?
The majority of people who were in the city in mid-June 1864 were not in the city in July because the Union bombardment made life so miserable. The threat of having a shell land in your living room while you were eating your supper added a new dimension to the misery of living in Petersburg. Those who stayed tried to make the best of it. The newspapers are full of funny, sarcastic editorials about “conchology,” the pseudo-science of dodging shells. Humorous stories were also told about people simply walking into strangers’ homes to avoid shellfire.
What insights did you gain in researching and writing about Petersburg?
I was struck by how absolutely modern the Petersburg citizens and government were in their response to war’s crisis, whether it was the instinct of wealthy citizens to donate funds to the war effort, the instinct of civic organizations to conduct concerts that benefited the destitute and soldiers in the field, the city government’s instant transformation to a welfare provider supported by increases in taxes or the way that citizens reacted to inconveniences in looking for scapegoats.
When it comes to how we respond to a disaster today, you’ll see that we don’t have any new ideas.
Originally published in the January 2008 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.