NPS Adventures: Petersburg National Battlefield

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The Roarbots’ series of NPS Adventures takes a big-picture view of one location within the National Park Service and highlights some of the best activities that site has to offer. This is usually done through a kid-friendly lens and almost always includes activities and suggestions we can recommend from personal experience. And pictures. There are lots and lots of pictures. Glad to have you aboard!

Welcome to Petersburg National Battlefield!

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Lasting some nine and a half months (from June 1864 to April 1865); costing upwards of 70,000 lives; and ending the Civil War, the siege of Petersburg may not have the name recognition (at least among the general population) as Gettysburg, but it was clearly a pivotal event in Civil War history.

The siege was actually composed of several different battles and campaigns, and six days after General Grant cut off Petersburg’s supply lines, the war was over. Lee had surrendered.

(Click on all pictures to embiggen.)

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Today, the National Battlefield is spread out over four separate units in and around the city of Petersburg, Virginia. From north to south: Grant’s Headquarters at City Point, Eastern Front, Western Front, and Five Forks Battlefield.

There’s technically a 33-mile route connecting the four locations, and it’s certainly scenic, but it takes small backroads in places and can take a long time to navigate (there are several non-intuitive turns on either side of the Western Front unit). If you’re just hitting the two main sites – Eastern Front and Five Forks Battlefield (each of which has a visitor center) – you’re better off using I-85 to get between them.

Grant’s Headquarters at City Point

On the banks of the James River sits Appomattox Plantation, which served as office for the U.S. Quartermaster and his staff during the siege. Nearby is Grant’s cabin, which was built in November 1864 and is the only remaining structure from a series of 22 log cabins built for Grant during the war.

Today, there’s not much else to see here, though the grounds around the remaining structures and the view of the James River are both pretty enough. There’s a short video inside the plantation house, and a couple of the rooms are set up as museum pieces, but if you’re short on time, this is the unit to skip.

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Eastern Front

This is really the place to begin your tour. The visitor center has a nice museum and movie that will situate you and put everything in context. There’s also a loop trail behind the visitor center that leads to (a replica of) the notorious Dictator, the 13-inch mortar that kept the people of Petersburg – not to mention Confederate soldiers – in more or less constant terror. This thing fired 220-pound mortar shells a distance of more than 4,000 yards!

A four-mile driving tour of the Eastern Front begins at the visitor center and includes several stops at various confederate batteries, monuments, and forts. The final stop of the driving tour is also the infamous Crater. The Crater is why most people visit Petersburg in the first place.

On July 30, 1864, Union troops exploded a mine beneath a line of Confederate soldiers under the command of Robert E. Lee. The explosion caused the ground to give way and created a huge crater. As Union troops advanced, they charged directly into the crater and couldn’t get out. The Confederate troops soon took position around the edge of the crater and gave new meaning to “shooting fish in a barrel.”

Today, the (sealed) entrance of the mine can be seen, along with several sunken areas and air shafts connecting the tunnel below. The most amazing thing is to see how close the entrance to the mine is to where the Confederate line was entrenched.

The Crater is probably the most impressive site at Petersburg, so this really should be your priority.

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If you have time after exploring the Eastern Front, Five Forks Battlefield visitor station should be your next stop. It’s about 20 miles southwest of Eastern Front and in a bit more of a rural area, so it’s far less visited. You’re likely to surprise the rangers at the visitor center who will be more than happy to go out of their way to help you.

This is precisely what happened to us; the wonderful ranger took us out to give us a first-hand demonstration of how the artillery was fired during the war. If you’ve got kids, I guarantee they’ll love it.

There’s also a series of trails through the woods and battlefields of Five Forks. If you have extra time to explore, it’s gorgeous ground.

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Junior Ranger

Petersburg offers a park-centric Junior Ranger program, along with one focused on the Underground Railroad. The latter isn’t specific to Petersburg (and is offered at other relevant NPS locations), but it does give a unique insight to some of the events that happened during the siege.

As always, the Junior Ranger program is one of the highlights of any NPS visit for the little Roarbots. It wouldn’t be a visit without a passport stamp and a Junior Ranger badge/pin!

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