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NP: July 3, 1964 Petersburg Progress-Index: Siege Centennial, Part 19: Petersburg, July 4, 1864

Petersburg, July 4, 1864

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

A century ago today [July 4, 1864] apprehension reigned in Petersburg. The shelling of the city which had been going on for little more than two weeks had not yet come to seem routine, and rumor had it that on the Fourth of July all of the Union guns would be turned on the city.

While a ceremonial observance of that kind seemed inappropriate to those who felt they were being denied the right of independence, a more immediate concern was that of personal safety if the city was going to be blown to bits. Large numbers of people left to spend the Fourth at safer places.

As it turned out, special precaution was not necessary. The Fourth of July was a day of considerable shelling, but not on an extraordinary or dramatic scale. On the Union right, near the Appomattox River, the day was greeted with a terrific booming of cannon.

At [Eighteenth Corps commander William F. “Baldy”] Smith[‘s] headquarters, a battery of Parrot[t] guns opened a salute at noon and dropped 30-pound shells into Petersburg at intervals of a minute until every state had been represented. The only result, wrote a reporter for the New York Tribune, was a vast cloud of dust and smoke over the streets of the city.

If the Fourth provoked bitterness, it also stirred old loyalties. When a Maryland brigade brought up its band near the front and played “Hail Columbia”, a North Carolina regiment opposite rose as a man and gave three cheers.

To one Confederate officer it seemed that the enemy “was unusually quiet and contented himself during the day with throwing some shells into the city, which did not do much damage beyond smashing some furniture in two empty houses and killing two mules. Along the enemy’s breastworks there was a good deal of noise and cheering, caused by whiskey and buncombe, which was very freely dispensed by their grog-shop generals. At night their festivities were wound up by a grand feu d’artiface of mortar bombs, none of which did us any harm.”

Noting that a special effort was made to provide the soldiers with fresh vegetables, a Union officer commented that the result would be more impressive in newspaper copy than in the eating.

Looking back on the day, the Petersburg Express reported that the 2nd and 3rd [of July 1864] had been more exciting. “It was expected”, wrote the editor, “that being so close to us, General Grant would at least send over a few lemons or some cake and ice cream, or dispatch a julep and cigars to some of our officers, but he proved neither neighborly nor generous.” Then, in a different vein, he said that the enemy’s celebration and profession of a principle of independence made him “the blackest hypocrite of the age.”

Later in the year there would be ceremonial shellings of Petersburg more remarkable than anything staged on July 4 [1864]. They would celebrate, in the form of shotted salutes, the victories which [William T.] Sherman and [Philip H.] Sheridan were winning elsewhere. On Grant’s own front, until the campaign of attrition drew to its end in the spring of 1865, there would be few events to inspire such expressions of joy and triumph.1

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


  1. “Petersburg, July 4, 1864.” Petersburg Progress-Index.  July 3, 1964, p. 4, col. 1-2
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