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NP: September 27, 1964 Petersburg Progress-Index: Siege Centennial, Part 29: When Endurance Was Heroic

When Endurance Was Heroic

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


Food supply in Petersburg during the ten months with which these articles are concerned was not equal to the demands of either traditional southern hospitality or what modern advertising calls gracious living. Even so, as Mrs. Roger A. Pryor recalled in her memoirs, the besieged city was never reduced to a diet of rats, mice, or mule meat, but an unwary pigeon could become a delicacy.

An ounce of meat a day came to be considered an abundance for an individual, but often the ounce was not available. Cornbread, peas, and sorghum were principal items in local diets, and the well known Confederate substitutes were tried in local kitchens. An enterprising family would send its children out to pick up grain from the ground after the army horses were fed.

The situation became progressively worse as the siege went on, although there were some bright spots, as in November, 1864, when an unusually large supply of beef became available; the inferred explanation was that the owners could not afford to feed their cattle or feared impressment of livestock by the government.

The intense drought which oppressed both armies before Petersburg in the early summer of 1864 parched the gardens which provident residents had planted. The dry spell of seven weeks came to an end with a heavy rain on July 19 [1864].

Residents who attempted to solve the food problem by keeping poultry, pigs, or cows found that they were soon stolen, as were any supplies of flour or meat kept in places which could be entered without too much difficulty. If there was any consolation, it was that the city was cleaner than usual and that health conditions among the depleted population were generally good.

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The shelling of the city contributed to the problem by frightening farmers who ordinarily brought produce to town. In July, 1864, a newspaper appealed to them to bring in their fresh meats, fruits, and vegetables. It assured them there was no danger in coming into Petersburg if they entered from the western side. While the markets were still open, The Express warned its readers to go plentifully supplied with Confederate “shucks”, to wear their oldest clothes, and to be prepared for crowds. It did not repeat the familiar Confederate joke that a person going to market should carry his money in baskets and bring home provisions in his pocketbook.

Petersburg’s food condition became markedly worse after Grant in August [1864] succeeded in cutting the Petersburg [and Weldon] Railroad south of the city. Prices quoted in September [1864] included: $12 for a pound of butter; $3 for a quart of cornfield peas; $5 for a pound of bull beef; $4 for a dozen peaches; $20 for a peck of sweet potatoes; $5 for a small head of cabbage; $10 for a chicken; $8 for a dozen eggs; $1 for a little roll; and $2.50 for a tough apple dumpling.

In time the hotels, the Bollingbrook and Jarratt’s, closed their dining rooms. Both markets were closed. The Old Market, now the Farmers Market, before the siege had been used as a shelter for troops passing through the city, and when the siege began it was in the prime target area for shelling. The New Market, which stood at the intersection of Halifax Street and South Avenue, was one of many structures converted to hospital use.

Complaints were voiced that the loss of the southern railroad presented an opportunity to profiteers and exploiters, including some personas who did not regard themselves as such. Families with blockade-running connections fared better than others and sometimes were criticized as a result, but the letters and memoirs of Confederate soldiers testify that they were generous in sharing their bounty with the soldiers who were defending the city.

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The condition became truly grim in the winter of 1864-65. Fuel like food was in very short supply, for both the army and the civilian population of Petersburg, and those who were lucky enough to have fence rails were likely to burn them. The stringency of the time scan be glimpsed through Lee’s January 11, 1865 statement to Secretary of War Seddon: “There is nothing within reach of the army to be impressed. The country is swept clear. Our only reliance is upon the railroads. We have but two days’ supplies.”

When Union forces entered the city on April 3, 1865, they found some tobacco which had escaped burning but no appreciable supplies of food. The military authorities began issuing supplies of beef, bacon, bread, and coffee to those who would accept charity and continued doing so for several months.

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Relief had been a major activity of the city governing body well before the siege began. There was a Board of Relief which was followed by a General Board of Charities. Council minutes make possible a fairly close tracing of such activities, and the bickering and dissension which sometimes accompany noble efforts and good causes seem to have been present. Coal, wood, salt, and other necessaries were bought by the city and sold at cost or at specified rates of profit.

A soup house was opened for the benefit of the poor—and the normally poor were poorer than ever—and of “salaried people.” For 20 cents an eligible person bearing a ticket could obtain a quart of soup and a loaf of bread. A reporter pronounced the soup “good enough for a prince.”

Units in the Confederate army sometimes raised funds for the poor of Petersburg. In December [1864], General Lee made a personal gift of $200 through Dr. Gibson, the rector of Grace Episcopal Church. Contributions of food sometimes were received from Raleigh and other places in North Carolina. One of the problems of distribution was how to get the food to those who needed it most, and an effort was made to give families of soldiers and residents priority over refugees and the families of deserters.

Another concern which figured much in the proceedings of the governing body was that of procuring clothing, shoes, and blankets for the Petersburg men who were serving in such units as Graham’s battery and the Twelfth Virginia Regiment. Repeated appropriations were made for such purposes, in figures which mounted along with inflation.

Although the struggle was one of epic proportions, this phase of the story is dreary as well as devoid of excitement and dramatics. Those engaged in the activities sketched supra probably did not think of such matters as heroic. It may or may not have occurred to them tha[t] even endurance can partake of the heroic.1

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


  1. “When Endurance Was Heroic.” Petersburg Progress-Index.  September 27, 1964, p. 4, col. 1-2
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