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NP: June 30, 1964 Petersburg Progress-Index: Siege Centennial, Part 18: The Shelling of Petersburg

The Shelling Of Petersburg

(The following is the eighteenth in a series of articles pertaining to the centennial of the 1864-65 campaign for Petersburg).

Petersburg in late June of 1864 was becoming inured to an unusual civic experience. It was being shelled frequently and fiercely. By the saturation standards of World War II the treatment was gentle, but by the standards of that time, when some ground rules supposedly still obtained, the treatment was tragic and historic.

The experience was already familiar when Grant reported on July 1 [1864]: “Our artillery is now so located that it plays easily on the bridges in Petersburg. They were hit a number of times yesterday by Smith’s guns. A small steamer lying at the Petersburg wharf was also hit and burned.”

Actually the bridges across the Appomattox were low and difficult to destroy, even though they could be seen easily from Union batteries downstream. Other military targets included the railroad depots and the routes traveled by the ordnance and commissary trains.

However, shelling was not confined to them. All of the public buildings and churches in the eastern part of the city seem to have been struck, and several hundred other structures were hit by whole shells. Most of Petersburg was within range, but the northeastern section was more heavily damaged than others. Post-war travelers, Trowbridge and others, would comment upon the many patches of bright brick to be seen upon old walls.

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When the treatment began, the city governing body sent a delegation to [Pierre G. T.] Beauregard to seek advice. He could suggest only that the residents go to their cellars or the sides of hills. S[u]nken streets proved to be especially convenient. Happily, the noise and the nocturnal spectacles were more extraordinary than the effects, for the destruction of life and property was not as great as might have been supposed. A Union nurse at City Point wrote that, at that distance, the noise was deafening.

Residents who could do so refugeed in Richmond or on distant farms. Farms and lawns north and west of Petersburg were described as filled with tents occupied by terrorized people. However, within three weeks after the beginning of the shelling, the press was describing the residents as “artful dodgers” and was warning them to be more careful. Sandbags and sometimes bales of cotton were placed around lower floors of buildings. Basements were converted into bombproofs, and in some instances fairly elaborate underground rooms and tunnels were dug in yards, sometimes to create surprise when they were rediscovered in later years.

Letters of the time often tell of a general exodus from Petersburg, but contemporary descriptions are contradictory. One might record that the city appeared to be deserted, but a Confederate soldier noted that business was proceeding almost as usual in one section while shells were falling in nearby streets. Another wrote of seeing ladies knitting on their porch on South Sycamore Street and scarcely looking up as shells fell close by. In any case, refugeeing seems to have been a matter of coming and going, rather than permanent evacuation. Some returning residents explained that they would prefer to be killed by shells than to die of starvation elsewhere.

Lee described the ordeal of Petersburg with words of compassion. “Poor Petersburg” is a phrase found in the letters of Confederate soldiers, often followed by the comment that if shelling was intended to weaken morale, it was having the opposite effect. The shelling was intermittent and unpredictable. When it was at its worst, some residents would contribute to the general misery by turning plunderers.

Behind the Union lines a diversion arose of chalking imaginary street addresses on missiles before dispatching them. When a building was seen to be on fire, the guns would concentrate on that point. In order to observe the results, Union soldiers would watch from the roofs of the Friend house and the Avery house, in Prince George County, both of which, like the tower of the courthouse in Petersburg, somehow escaped destruction.

Burials in Blandford Cemetery were suspended, and the yards of Second Presbyterian Church, Grace Episcopal Church, and High Street Methodist Church were used for temporary interments. In some instances the dead were buried in the yards of their homes.

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Few aspects of Petersburg’s 1864-65 experience are described more copiously than shelling. Even so, it is difficult to ascertain the number of deaths resulting from the cause. John S. Wise wrote of seeing a man struck by a shell and lying dead on Bollingbrook Street. A Petersburg newspaper reported on July 11 [1864] that only two persons had been killed. Dr. John Herbert Claiborne wrote in one instance of two nurses killed while off duty and in another of two persons killed near the Old Market. General [Johnson] Hagood described seeing a woman killed in Blandford.

The New York Herald reported after the evacuation of the city, that not a single person had been killed, but Grant’s Petersburg Progress said that only white person had been killed. Writing some years after the experience, William E. Cameron put the total at two. In any case, it is evident that the loss of life from shelling was slight.

“What advantage Grant hopes to gain by knocking holes through the dwellings of Petersburg, no intelligent man can conceive”, wrote the Petersburg Daily Register. That was the way it seemed to the Chicago Times, also, which criticized the practice on the ground that it did not touch the defenses of Petersburg and served only to injure property and destroy lives. Union officers before Petersburg occasionally complained of the shelling on the ground that it was purposeless, wasteful and cruel and that it caused Confederate batteries to go into action unnecessarily and kill their men, but the complaint was not heeded. Like the indignities of Wilson’s raid, the shelling may have been an expression of a new factor of hatred.

The chief military result was that the trains of the Petersburg and Richmond, the South Side, and the Petersburg Railroads were forced to stop short of the city. Beyond that, the shelling intensified Confederate determination to resist and made a contribution to post-war bitterness.1

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


  1. “The Shelling Of Petersburg.” Petersburg Progress-Index.  June 30, 1964, p. 4, col. 1-2
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