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NP: July 19, 1964 Petersburg Progress-Index: Siege Centennial, Part 21: Two Memorable Petersburg Spectacles

Two Memorable Petersburg Spectacles

(The following is the twenty-first in a series of articles published in observance of the centennial of the 1864-65 campaign for Petersburg.)

At this time, a hundred years ago [July 19, 1864], the main tunnel of the undertaking which would culminate in the Battle of the Crater had been completed for two days. There was nothing new about a mine dug for military purposes, but its length of 510.8 feet was unprecedented. The next phase , which was in  progress at this time and would be completed on July 23 [1864], was the digging of shafts to the left and right, at right angles to the tunnel, to contain the powder which would blow up Elliott’s Salient, the Confederate battery 20 to 22 feet above. During this period the miners encountered springs which gave them a little trouble.


July 30 [1964] will be the hundredth anniversary of the Battle of the Crater, the most extraordinary episode in the long siege of Petersburg and surely the best known event which ever occurred at Petersburg. The digging of the tunnel has been discussed in these articles, and the sequel will appear at the proper time. Meanwhile, although these articles are concerned chiefly with contemporary rather than commemorative affairs, there is something to be said for recalling two ambitious reenactments of the Battle of the Crater. They were noteworthy events in themselves.

These were the reenactments of 1903 and 1937. Possibly there were others. One which was scheduled in 1905, in connection with the reunion of the Grand Camp of Confederate Veterans of Virginia, was rained out. Neither of the two in question was held on the anniversary of the battle. Weather being what it is, July 30 in these parts is a date which better can be left to those caught in the web of history.

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The occasion which many living people can recall is the reenactment held on April 30, 1937. It was inspired by the acquisition of the Crater battlefield property for the Petersburg National Military Park, as it was then known, and it deserves a place among the city’s most ambitious civic undertakings. Plainly there was a feeling that the dedication of the Crater battlefield as a public park called for a  maximum effort.

William L. Zimmer, Jr. was general chairman, and Frank K. Martin was secretary. A listing of committees and all the people who were engaged in the project probably would fill these two columns.

Petersburg was described on the following day as thrilled and awed by the event. It attracted an estimated 50,000 spectators, the weather was all that could be desired, and it was agreed that the presentation had been realistic. The chief participants were the Virginia Military Institute Cadet Corps, Marines from Quantico, The Richmond Howitzers, and various units of the Virginia National Guard.

The reenactment was presented in two parts, first from the Burnside or Union point of view and then from the Mahone or Confederate point of view. Efforts to eliminate anachronisms and to recreate the scene of 1864 were very successful. Although one plane violated the ban on traffic in the skies, most of the spectators were too engrossed to notice. After all they were listening to the incomparable narration of Dr. Douglas S. Freeman which combined emphasis upon accuracy of detail with a keen appreciation of the dramatic elements in the story. His sentimental interest in the occasion will be noted later.

The action and the narrative were so realistic and so moving that when the Virginia Military Institute cadets charged across the field, spectators rose to their feet with lusty yells.

When congratulations were being received and exchanged on the following day, notice was taken of the fact that only 20 persons had had to be given first aid treatment, and for minor causes.

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The 1937 event was a worthy successor to the re-enactment of 1903. In that earlier year some 430 survivors of Mahone’s command were living to take part in the spectacle. It was held on November 6. The day dawned “gloomy, raw, cloudy, and altogether unpropitious”, and at 9 o’clock there was a light snow, but the sky cleared about noon.

Participants included Confederate veterans, Richmond Howitzers, Norfolk Light Infantry Blues, Grimes’ Battery of Portsmouth, and some other units. Failure of rifles, belts, and blouses to arrive on time prevented participation by the Petersburg Grays, so they assumed the useful function of keeping the crowds from passing beyond the lines of danger. Spectators came from all over Virginia, the total being estimated at from 15,000 to 20,000.

There was a traffic problem, but it was solved by a firm decree that carriages and buggies entering the Crater grounds would have to leave and return to pick up their occupants, lest the horses be frightened by the noisy proceedings. Yet there was a promise of things to come in the report from the Norfolk Landmark that some 20 automobiles from that vicinity were coming to Petersburg in “a procession that will startle the natives and also many country horses.”

The spectacle was preceded by a parade which began in the vicinity of Bollingbrook and Second Streets and moved by various streets to the car line which conveyed most of the participants to the scene. A feature of the occasion was the reception en route to the survivors of Mahone’s brigade, at the late residence of General Mahone on South Market Street, by Mrs. Mahone, Mrs. William L. McGill, and other members of the general’s family. There the veterans were presented with badges bearing the insignia of Mahone’s command. On leaving the residence to resume their trip to the Crater, they gave the Rebel yell.

It was made very plain that the limelight belonged to those who had taken part in the 1864 charge. However, members who had been wounded after leaving the Wilcox farm and before arriving on the scene would be allowed to participate.

The following was published in advance of the occasion as a partial list of those who were eligible to take part in the charge: H. L. V. Bird, George S. Bernard, Richard B. Davis, James Hardy, Hugh N. Smith, William H. Scott, N. B. Simmons, John R. Turner, Robert J. Thompson, J. E. Whitehorne, all of the 12th Virginia Regiment, and Judge D. A. Hinton, of General Weisiger’s staff. Mr. Bernard was chairman of the committee in charge; Colonel E. M. Field was the ranking officer present of the 12th Virginia; and General Stith Bolling was chief marshal for the occasion.

The program began with a prayer, which was followed by an address. The reenactment itself was described as “most realistic and inspiriting”. Visiting military companies and fireworks made noises appropriate to the occasion.

“There was nothing lacking but the slaughter”, wrote one account, “to make it a real battle.”

If realism was not sustained through the climax drama and emotion were served: “But the old fellows’ legs were not so strong as they had been, and it was a scattered and ragged line which reached the summit of the hill, some of them getting there in a walk.” At the conclusion the participants were presented with silver medals.

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A not unimportant postscript is the fact that the narrator of the 1937 [event] had been a spectator at the 1903 event. As a youth accompanying his father to the reunion, Douglas S. Freeman found the spectacle very moving. He resolved then, he wrote years later, to write the history of the Army of Northern Virginia. The history materialized as R. E. Lee and Lee’s Lieutenants. Re-enactments may be as useless and wasteful as they have come to be regarded, but a respectable and lasting result could be claimed for that of 1903.1

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


  1. “Two Memorable Petersburg Spectacles.” Petersburg Progress-Index.  July 19, 1964, p. 4, col. 1-2
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