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NP: May 22, 1964 Petersburg Progress-Index: Siege Centennial, Part 4: Why Grant Visited Petersburg

Why Grant Visited Petersburg

(This is the fourth of a series of articles taking cognizance of the centennial of the 1864-65 Petersburg campaign. In one of the earlier articles we referred to Petersburg’s profound boredom with such matters and entered an apology for treating of them. But notice should be taken of something which after all is the thing about Petersburg of which the world is aware and is also considerably interested. Centennial observances by their nature occur only at intervals of a hundred years, so we really should take some notice of this one. Persons who find such articles as the following ridiculous or boring will need no prompting from us to ignore these contributions to the cause.)1

Once we heard a lady in Savannah refer to General William T. Sherman’s headquarters in that city as the house which Sherman occupied “when he visited us.” In view of the nature and purpose of Sherman’s appearance and the bravado with which he dispatched a telegram to President Lincoln making him a Christmas present of the City of Savannah, use of “visit” could be called euphemistic. But there is something to be said for a good euphemism now and then. So let us see why General Grant became so determined to visit Petersburg.

A hundred years ago [late May 1864] he was still trying to take Richmond by the approaches which a whole series of Union generals had used without success. “On to Richmond” cries had impelled the Union to attack the Confederate capital from the north and east. Grant was following well worn paths, ever moving to the left as he found Lee between him and his goal. Soon he would have to try the southern back door, the rail center of Petersburg. General McClellan had proposed doing that back in 1862, but McClellan was out of favor with a government which had lost confidence in his ability to act, and, then as now, whether one is in or out of favor can be more decisive than the merits of an idea.2

Persons reared in the local Confederate tradition might suppose that the object of the Civil War was to see who could get Petersburg, but it was not that simple, nor was this one of the causes of the conflict. If Petersburg’s strategic importance had to be summed up in one word, the word would be “railroads.” Just as Charleston’s enterprise in rail pioneering marked out a route for Sherman, so Petersburg’s status as a rail center attracted Grant after frontal attacks on Richmond had failed. He proposed to cut off communications and supplies reaching Richmond through Petersburg. Only one of Richmond’s southern rail connections, the Richmond and Danville, did not pass through Petersburg.

Petersburg had built the first railroad of more than local importance in Virginia. This was the Petersburg Railroad, commonly and more descriptively called the Petersburg and Weldon in Civil War writings. It was chartered in 1830 and completed for 60 miles in 1833. Built like all of the other early railroads to serve limited and local purposes, it already had become part of the main coastal route from Richmond to Wilmington, Charleston, and Atlanta. The road would be the scene and the reason for some of the fiercest battles of the campaign for Petersburg. A Union officer [Meade’s aide-de-camp Theodore Lyman] compared getting on it with touching a tiger’s cub.

The Petersburg Railroad had been followed by the Richmond and Petersburg, a manifestly vital artery. As noted earlier, Butler had failed to hold it3, nor would Grant be able to put it out of commission. At the very end of the Petersburg campaign, it would be carrying troops of Longstreet’s corps to Petersburg to enable Lee to hold his inner line long enough to make an orderly evacuation.4

The east-west Southside Railroad, which at Burkesville crossed the Richmond and Danville, was a comparably vital line. After the loss of the upper end of the Petersburg Railroad, it became the principal means of supplying the Army of Northern Virginia at Petersburg. When the Union forces reached the Southside, the campaign would be over. Almost on the eve of evacuation, the Southside was carrying Pickett’s troops to Sutherland Station, en route to fateful Five Forks.

This summary still leaves two Petersburg railroads. The City Point Railroad, which a few years before had become a part of the Southside after a disappointing career, had no great military importance. However, it would supply General Grant with the beginning, and perhaps with the inspiration, of the U. S. Military Railroad which he would construct east and south of Petersburg to supply his ever lengthening lines.

A late-comer to the group was the Norfolk and Petersburg, which had little military importance after the loss of Norfolk in 1862. However, it would provide Grant with a reservoir of rails and material for his military railroad. Incidentally it had given William Mahone, its builder, a good knowledge of the country.

The Petersburg Railroad is the oldest portion of the present Atlantic Coast Line, of which the Richmond and Petersburg is the parent line in a corporate sense. The City Point Railroad is the oldest part of the present Norfolk and Western.

Two and perhaps three of the five lines entering Petersburg were constructed as the result of Petersburg initiative and largely with local capital. They recall one of the most enterprising and prosperous periods in the city’s history.

Since the Civil War was in large degree a railroad war, it is idle to speculate on what would have happened if Petersburg had not been a rail center. Anyway, the fact that the lines were unintended invitations to General Grant and his armies made a somewhat grim reward for the extraordinary zeal which the city had displayed as a railroad builder in the 1830-60 period.5

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The Petersburg Progress-Index Siege of Petersburg Centennial Series, 1964-65:


  1. SOPO Editor’s Note: I’ve often wondered what the article’s author would think of this series being reproduced on a web site devoted exclusively to the study of the Siege of Petersburg.
  2. SOPO Editor’s Note: I’m surprised by the acknowledgement of the fact that McClellan thought of doing in 1862 what Grant did in 1864-65 during the Centennial.  McClellan wasn’t going to find many friends in the 1961-65 time frame.  In any case, this mention caught me off guard.
  3. SOPO Editor’s Note: Butler’s Army of the James advanced to briefly hold the railroad running from Richmond to Petersburg in mid-May 1864 during the Bermuda Hundred Campaign.  Butler retreated of his own volition after the failed Battle of Drewry’s Bluff on May 16-17, 1864.
  4. SOPO Editor’s Note: Field’s Division was being ferried to Petersburg after the Union Sixth Corps breakthrough on April 2, 1865 while Harris’ Mississippi Brigade and others held off the Yankees at the Battle of Fort Gregg.
  5. “Why Grant Visited Petersburg.” Petersburg Progress-Index.  May 22, 1964, p. 4, col. 1-2
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