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Short Visit to Petersburg National Battlefield Park

On a very hot May day that ran into the upper 90’s, I set out on a trek to visit the Petersburg National Battlefield Park. I only had but a limited time, noon to 4pm, to squeeze in the visit along with a side visit to the Richmond Battlefield Park before having to return back to the real world. The Petersburg National Battlefield Park commemorates the nine- and 1/2-month siege during the Civil War, from June 1864 to April 1865. There are five basic area of the park, but I was only able to touch on two. I look forward to seeing the other parts of the park in more detail in the future.

  • Eastern Front Driving Tour
  • Western Front Driving Tour
  • Old Town Petersburg: Home Front
  • Five Forks Battlefield
  • Grant’s Headquarters at City Point
Petersburg National Battlefield Visitor Center external view

Normally the Eastern Front Visitor center is open from 9:00am to 5:00pm, but on this hot spring day, the air conditioning in the building was broken!  Consequently, the operating hours changed to close at noon.  I fortunately took the time to verify this before I left, so I was planning to arrive by 11:30am.  Plenty of time!  However, I made the inadvertent mistake of putting in the address to the park administration headquarters off Rt. 109 and was a little stressed that I would miss the window.  Thankfully, it only took a few minutes to arrive at the actual location.  

TIP:  Always double check driving directions!  There are sometimes a number of sites and locations at a National Park Site, especially the larger battlefield and military parks.  This can create some confusion as to where to go.

Inside the Petersburg National Battlefield Visitor Center

Due to the heat, and the fact that the AC was not functioning, only the small lobby was open, therefore they kept the front doors propped opened.  While the gift shop was small it was functional and had a decent level of business.  The stamp location was set at a low table and held five stamps; the Junior ranger stamp, Poplar Grove Cemetery, Grants Headquarters, Five Forks, and Petersburg National Battlefield, of course.  I broke out the trusty Blue Passport book and my Collector’s Edition Black book to collect the stamps. 

Passport Station at Petersburg National Battlefield Visitor Center

I wrote a whole article on National Park Passport Stamps you want to know more about details.

Walking path from Petersburg Visitor center to earth works

I found a short trail behind the Visitor Center that takes you to the earthworks of Confederate Battery 5. It was one of the original Confederate defensive lines (the Dimmock Line). Confederate Captain Charles Dimmock oversaw the construction of the ten-mile defensive lines around Petersburg. Most of the works shown were built by slaves. Union troops captured it on June 15, 1864.

Civil war mortar cannon named the 'Dictator' at the Petersburg National battlefield
The “Dictator”

There is a trail just outside the that leads down to a 13″ seacoast mortar that is similar to the famed “Dictator”, a famous mortar used to shell Confederate Batteries. It was the largest gun used in the siege and could lob a 225-pound explosive shell over two miles (!). During its service it fired over 218 rounds at Petersburg, but while big and famous was militarily ineffective.

Talking with the park ranger revealed another inconvenience for the day.  Normally, visitors can drive along Siege Road to see the sights of the battlefield.  As it happens, Siege Road was closed due to a huge sink hole in the road system.  The ranger indicated that archeologists just recently arrived to do their assessment, and they still need to have a hydrologist inspect the entire road system before any repairs can start.  Looks like this will be closed for the foreseeable future.

Civil War Cannon at Petersburg National Battlefield

But where there is will there is a way and to no surprise the helpful Park Ranger provided an alternative route.   He shared directions to a local convenience store parking lot that was close to the exit of Siege Road.  This afforded the opportunity to walk about a mile to see one of the key sights at the end of the road.

Driving tour road and open grass fields at Petersburg National Battlefield

I started the walk after a brief stop to obtain some water, towards the end of the end of the four-mile driving tour. The road was clear and saw some lovely flowers along the mile walk, but boy was it hot! No shade nor wind. My destination was the location of the Battle of the Crater. This battle marks the giant explosion and the follow-up attack by the 9th Corp that failed miserable early in the siege on July 30, 1864.

The Battle of the Crater

A huge explosion started the battle and cleared a way through the Confederate line. Instead of pushing through, the first waves of Union troops stood and gawked at the incredible scene. This hesitation allowed the Confederates to regroup. The 15,000 Union attacker never reached the objective of Cemetery hill. The appearance of the crater has of course changed over the years. After the battle, the Confederates incorporated part of the crater in their defenses. In addition, the movement of over 600 bodies after the war has altered the landscape. It is fascinating to me that after the war this was a popular spot for tourists, even before they re-interned the bodies.

Cannon in an open grass field at Petersburg National Battlefield

I had to make a decision to either go toward the Eastern Front and Five Forks or to Grant’s Headquarters to the North in Hopewell. I also wanted to check-in on a few locations at the Richmond Battlefield Park that I had not visited before. Given my short time window that seemed the best route.

When I arrived at the park was closed and the parking lot, blocked. It was my understanding some staffing shortages was the reason. I was able to easily park on the side of the road and walk around the Eppes’ house, the grounds, and take in the view of the property. Unfortunately, I was not able to tour the house, so that must wait for another visit.

Sign for Grants HQ Petersburg national battlefield
wrinkled Welcome sign at Grants HQ at Petersburg National battlefield

I must admit, I was a little disappointed at the condition of the site when I arrived. I realize it was closed, but there was some basic stuff that needed to be addressed. The main welcome sign that detailed the site was weather-worn and sagging. Plus the grounds needed a little TLC. Hoping since I was coming in the spring that this would be addressed soon.

Appomattox Plantation comprised over 2,300 acres including the house, and 130 slaves. After the union arrived in 1862, his family apparently left to their house in Petersburg.

Appomattox Plantation house at Grants HQ in Petersburg
Small brown wooden house where Grant had his Headquarters during the siege on Petersburg

Grant arrived in June of 1864 and originally directed the war from a tent on the wast lawn. This cabin was one of 22 built and the only remaining cabin remaining, that was used by the Union army. While here, President Lincoln visited during the final two weeks for the war and directed the conditions of reconstruction to his generals. Additionally, Grant’s wife and son Jesse stayed with him in the final months.

I found the view of the James River amazingly peaceful, with an expansive view and the ability to see up the James and across the Appomattox River. It seems clear how City Point was one of the busiest seaports in the world for a time.

My visit to Grant’s Headquarters at an end, my next stop was to Drewry’s Bluff, which is part the Richmond Battlefield Park. More on this site, and then also the Chimborazo Visitor Center, and Cold Harbor Battlefield in another post.

  • The one thing I can certainly take away from the visit is to allot the appropriate amount of time to your visit. I could not see it all in a short visit, and will no doubt have to return (after their Air Conditioning is fixed!) and touch on the areas I missed.
  • I would also say, don’t try and see it all in one visit. It is a lot to take in at one shot. I found it best to sometime break it up, and if possible, even try to visit on different days.
  • Planning ahead, when possible, is key. There are always the possibility of building closures or site adjustments that is best known before you start driving.

Visit another Civil War Battlefield with us at Kennesaw Mountain HERE

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