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NP: October 11, 1964 Petersburg Progress-Index: Siege Centennial, Part 31: “Busiest Place In The United States”

“Busiest Place In The United States”

(The following is the thirty-first in a series of articles published in observance of the centennial of the 1864-65 campaign for Petersburg. A century ago the ancient village of City Point had mushroomed into a great wartime city as General U. S. Grant’s headquarters. Later the temporary structures would disappear and City Point would return to its former status for half a century, before being embraced in the modern city of Hopewell.)

While Petersburg was enduring siege and related difficulties, an ancient settlement at the confluence of the James and Appomattox Rivers, City Point, was experiencing a preview of the permanent growth which was to begin just 50 years later.

City Point long had provided book-writing travelers with a theme. Having no knowledge of the origin of its name, they discoursed with amusement upon a City Point where there was no city. Some went on to marvel, in view of the obvious advantages, that Petersburg and/or Richmond had not grown up there.

City Point’s normal appearance was summarized by a Union officer who wrote that it must once have been quite a pretty place, with its large number of scattered private houses, several of them very good, especially that near which Grant had his headquarters.

The riverside hamlet was no stranger to war. Like Petersburg, it had seen something of the American Revolution and in all likelihood of Indian warfare also. Butler had landed there early in May, 1864, before moving across the Appomattox to Bermuda Hundred.

Its Civil War baptism of fire had come still earlier, during McClellan’s 1862 campaign against Richmond. In that year a visitor wrote: “The wharf, the warehouses, every building, even the trees, excepting blackened stems, were burnt; only singed and ruined chimneys were standing of what so recently had been a place of business. The Federal ships, a few of them, stood off the shore, and a group of officers were on the banks, watching the train with an expression of contemptuous curiosity.”

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City Point had achieved business status as a port and as terminus of the railroad from Petersburg. General U. S. Grant turned it into a full-blown wartime city, through which could be channeled the resources of the Union and a large part of the world to bring about the conquest of the Confederate States of America.

So great was the single asset that commentators have wondered why the Confederacy did not evacuate Petersburg and draw Grant away from his ideal base, but the answer was that defense of the capital was fixed Confederate policy. In the day of the supremacy of the civil arm over the military arm, it is doubtful that Lee and others felt free to press such an argument very far.

In 1864-65 City Point came to be routinely described as the busiest place in the United States. It was said to have more traffic than any southern port, including New Orleans, in time of peace. In view of the frequent presence of President Lincoln, it was at times the Union’s unofficial capital. Sherman and Sheridan were only two of the more famous Union leaders who might be seen at City Point.

Wharves extended for a mile or more along the river, and it was commonplace to see a hundred or more vessels of all kinds. Within a few months City Point became the terminus of Grant’s U. S. Military Railroad, extending several miles south and west to supply the army against Petersburg, but that is another story. In addition to a large complex of warehouses for quartermaster, commissary, and ordnance, there were bakeries, blacksmith shops, barracks, and quarters for civilian workers. Barber shops, restaurants, news stands, and photograph galleries ministered to the less military needs of the temporary residents. A huge hospital occupied a whole plain white with tents capable of accommodating 10,000 patients. Sprinkling carts were used to lay the dust of the city.

City Point had a tragedy in the explosion of an ordnance barge on August 9 [1864], and in the following month General Wade Hampton’s cattle raid created a flurry of fear for its safety, but, with its own fortifications for good measure, it was a secure place from the Union point of view.

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Wartime descriptions of City Point are plentiful. One which impresses us as especially good is that of Auguste Laugel, written in French and published in translation in The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography in October, 1961:

“We finally reached City Point, at the junction of the James and the Appomattox. A forest of masts announced the city from a distance; the steamer slowed down amidst a large fleet of schooners, transports, tugs. The piers here were lines with wooden warehouses with the railroad, built by the Federal army to have faster means of communications, behind them. The war gave an extraordinary animation to an area formerly almost deserted. Although its location at the junction of two beautiful rivers deserved an important establishment. I disembarked, showed my pass, and headed for the headquarters which, located atop a kind of small bluff, overlooked the harbor and was easily recognized because of the starred flag waving atop a tall pole. I followed a vague path, worn down by carriages and horses, and soon found myself amidst the tents and wooden barracks which covered the plateau.

“In the middle of a small bunch of pines and cedars I found the square parade ground surrounded by the small houses of the headquarters. The house of the commander in chief was a simple loghouse, similar to the ones I saw in the West; it is only slightly bigger than the others. Most of them do not have a roof but only a canvas. A soldier took me to the office, a small square hut with a single room where staff officers met during the day.  . . . Behind the wooden houses of the headquarters was another large dwelling abandoned by General Grant to the Quartermaster. In the dilapidated garden, I could still see magnolias and tulip trees. From the top of the bluff overlooking the James I admired the countryside.

“At the junction of the James and the Appomattox, the point called Bermuda Hundred thrusts forward like a cape. The James River turns at this point, and the wide river is covered with a lively fleet of steamers and transports. All along the piers, from the wide open schooners come boxes, barrels, and bags, which are immediately loaded on the railroad and carried ot the different stations as far as the extreme left flank of the army. . . .”

On the point of Grant in a cottage while someone else occupied the Eppes residence, there is an enlightening note in Charles S. Wainwright’s diary: “He (Grant) is still in tents, pitched on the bluff, without any pretension of display. Ingalls, who is now chief quartermaster on his staff, is the only one having a house; but then, he always took care to be better off than anyone else.”

A cluster of perhaps 50 cabins stood close to Appomattox Manor, which now and properly is a shrine and tourist attraction. After the war the cabin which Grant occupied was removed to Fairmount Park, Philadelphia. A table and chairs which Grant used may be seen in Centre Hill Mansion Museum, in Petersburg, to which it was given by Misses Eppes.1

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


  1. “Busiest Place In The United States.” Petersburg Progress-Index.  October 11, 1964, p. 4, col. 1-2
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