No one who knows the history of the Civil War needs to be reminded of the Siege of Petersburg's landmark status.
But with the 150th anniversary of the brutal 10-month struggle in which the Union army finally brought the Confederacy to its knees, the sacred ground where the future of the United States was decided is getting a new wave of attention.
Despite the threat of heavy rain, more than 2,000 people recently showed up at Petersburg National Battlefield's Eastern Front Visitor Center to commemorate the bloody Battle of the Crater. And that doesn't count another 500 who assembled before dawn on July 30 to honor the exact sesquicentennial moment of the immense explosion that led to nearly 5,300 casualties on a horrific day of bloody hand-to-hand fighting.
Tens of thousands of other visitors are expected to tour the park and nearby town over the coming months, most of them drawn by the anniversaries of the many dramatic clashes that played out along a 40-mile front stretching from west of Petersburg to the Confederate capital in nearby Richmond.
"Petersburg is not a one-day battle. It's not a three-day battle. It's a 292-day, 9 1/2-month battle made up of more than 1,100 different military actions," says Chris Bryce, Chief of Interpretation for the historic site.
"This was the lifeline to Richmond from the rest of the Confederacy, and everybody knew it."
Most visits to Petersburg begin with the National Park Service's Eastern Front Visitor Center, where a 17-minute introductory video and a small but evocative museum detail the epic sweep of the struggle that embroiled nearly 200,000 men and inflicted tens of thousands of casualties before it ended.
The four-mile-long Eastern Front Driving Tour takes you to some of the most historic sites associated with the early months of the siege, including the landmark Battle of the Crater, where ferocious fighting erupted after Union soldiers tunneled under Southern earthworks and temporarily breached the line with a huge explosion.
Among the other attractions here is a re-created earthen fort, where today's verdant landscape of lawns and forest gives way to a far starker and more realistic vista of piled-up dirt, sharpened wooden obstacles, sandbags and firing ports.
"This was a lunar landscape during the war," Bryce said, describing the desolation wrought by miles of trench warfare.
"All the trees and most of the rest of the vegetation here were completely erased within few weeks."
The Western Front Driving Tour explores still more landmarks of the siege, including the sites of the battles for control of Petersburg's vital rail lines and Poplar Grove National Cemetery, where more than 6,000 Federal soldiers are interred.
A third driving tour takes in the historic grounds of the April 1, 1865, Battle of Five Forks, where Union troops led by Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan finally achieved the long-sought victory that led to the following day's breakthrough, the South's abandonment of its lines and — a few days later — the Army of Northern Virginia's surrender at Appomattox Court House.
Peaceful and pastoral today, Appomattox Plantation became a virtual city during the Civil War, when the Union built one of the world's busiest ports in order to supply its giant army during the siege.
More than 10,000 patients filled the immense field hospital erected here, while some 22 miles of railroad track and spurs help move thousands of tons of supplies and material every day from the Appomattox River wharves and warehouses to the North's front lines.
Some sense of that heroic scale can be found at the Park Service visitor center, where a detailed scale model of the port and surrounding grounds illustrates the huge complex that sprawled out for nearly a mile around the waterfront manor house.
The center also includes an eye-opening video filled with Civil War images of the port — plus the chance to peek inside the partly original plantation cabin from which Union commander Ulysses S. Grant orchestrated the immense siege that brought the war to an end.
"On any given day there were 175 to 200 boats at anchor there bringing in supplies for the Union war effort," Bryce said.
"It was boat on top of boat on top of boat."
Blandford Church and Cemetery. Some 30,000 Confederate graves — many of them bearing the remains of soldiers who died during the siege — fill the evocative cemetery here, making Blandford Church a principal destination for pilgrims of the South's "Lost Cause."
Inside the 18th-century Anglican sanctuary, visitors will find 15 stained-glass windows created by New York designer Louis Comfort Tiffany in the early 1900s after the Ladies Memorial Association of Petersburg led a nation-wide drive to honor the fallen soldiers from every Southern state.
National Museum of the Civil War Soldier. Seven galleries filled with more than 700 period artifacts, interactive digital displays and a simulated Civil War battle provide an eye-opening and even-handed glimpse into the lives of the nearly 3 million Americans who fought in the ranks of the Confederate and Union armies.
Other attractions at 422-acre Pamplin Historical Park include three restored historic homes, the national landmark site of the Union breakthrough, a Confederate winter encampment and the Battlefield Center, where film, interactive maps and exhibits join to interpret the Siege of Petersburg and the grim realities of combat during the Civil War.
Despite the hardships suffered during the longest siege on American soil, the town of Petersburg survived a barrage of more than 20,000 shells during the Civil War to boast what is recognized today as one of Virginia's largest and most evocative collections of pre-1860s and late-19th-century structures.
Its cobblestone streets and national landmark buildings have made it a mecca for TV and film productions, including the Steven Spielberg feature film "Lincoln," the National Geographic Channel documentary "Killing Lincoln," the AMC drama "Turn" and the upcoming Meg Ryan World War II drama "Ithaca," which was shooting on the Old Towne sidewalks in late July and August.
"All of what you see in Old Towne is real," says Martha Burton of the Petersburg Area Tourism Corp., nodding toward the film crew working on Sycamore Street in early August.
"That's what making it so attractive to all these movie makers."
Many of those streets have become homes to restaurants, antique stores, art venues and specialty shops today, giving the historic district new life following years of depression caused by a post-World War II urban bust.
Among the other attractions are such landmark buildings as the 1839 Courthouse, which served as Confederate headquarters during the siege, the South Side Railroad Depot, which operated the last trains supplying Richmond, and the octagonal late-1870s Farmers Market.
The 1817 Farmers Bank of Petersburg, which went bankrupt in 1865 after investing in Confederate bonds, houses the Petersburg Visitor Center today, while the circa 1839 Exchange Building houses the Siege Museum and a revealing collection of artifacts and displays describing the wartime lives of the town's residents.
"Petersburg had a population of 18,266 at the time. It was the second or third largest city in Virginia," museum volunteer Gene Ross says.
"And its people really suffered during the siege."
Lincoln's final footsteps
A self-guided tour follows the path of President Abraham Lincoln's third and final visit to Petersburg during the last weeks of the siege in late March and early April 1865 — finally departing just a week before his April 15 assassination in Washington, D.C.
Among the stops are City Point, where Lincoln shook the hands of thousands of recovering Union and Confederate troops at the Depot Field Hospital, and Fort Wadsworth, which the president visited March 25 during a major skirmish with sharp fighting.
Also included is Old Towne Petersburg, which Lincoln toured for several hours on April 3, 1865, just after it was abandoned by Confederate troops.
"The story of Lincoln here is just incredible," Bryce says.
"This is where he spent two of the last weeks of his life."
Erickson can be reached at 757-247-4783. Find more of his history stories at dailypress.com/history and Facebook.com/hrhistory.
Where to go
Petersburg National Battlefield
Eastern Front Visitor Center. 5001 Siege Road, Petersburg. $5 per car. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. 804-732-3531.
Grant's Headquarters at City Point. 1001 Pecan Avenue, Hopewell. No fee. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. 804-458-9504.
Five Forks Battlefield. 9840 Courthouse Road, Dinwiddie. No fee. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. 804-469-4093
Poplar Grove National Cemetery. 8005 Vaughan Road, Petersburg. No fee. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily 804-861-2488
Blandford Church and Cemetery
111 Rochelle Lane, Petersburg. $5 adults, $4 children 7-12. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday. 804-733-2396
Pamplin Historical Park
6125 Boydton Plank Road, Petersburg. $12.50 adults, $7.50 children 6-12. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday. 1-877-PAMPLIN
Siege Museum. 15 W. Bank St, Petersburg. $5 adults, $4 children 7-12. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday. 804-733-2404
Petersburg Visitor Center. 19 Bollingbrook St., Petersburg. No fee. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday and 1-5 p.m. Sunday. 804-733-2400
Lincoln's last footsteps
Locations vary. Call 877-730-7278 or go to WalkInLincolnsFinalFootsteps.com to see video, download a brochure and take a virtual tour.
Where to eat
No decent guide to Petersburg eateries would be complete without mentioning family-owned King's Barbecue, which has been serving award-winning slow-cooked, pit-smoke BBQ since 1946.
But in recent years Old Towne has become a dining center that offers everything from classic American fare to Southern and South American dishes.
Here's a selection:
Andrade's International Restaurant (South American). 7 Bollingbrook St. 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday and 11 a.m.-10:30 a.m. Friday and Saturday. 804-722-0344
The Black Swan (German). 9 W. Old St. 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. and 4-9 p.m. Thursday and Friday and 4-9 p.m. Saturday. 804-732-7575
The Blue Willow Tea Room (English and Irish). 102-104 W. Old Street. 11 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday and noon-4:30 p.m. Sunday. 804-733-7605
The Brickhouse Run (American and eclectic). 407-409 Cockade Alley. 5-9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 5-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday with an 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Saturday brunch. 804-862-1815
Dixie Restaurant (American and Southern). 250 N. Sycamore St. 7 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday- Saturday. 804-732-7425
King's Barbecue. 2910 South Crater Road. 11 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday. 804-732-0975
Saucy's Walk-Up Barbecue. 5th & Bollingbrook Streets. 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Saturday. 804-504-3075
Wabi-Sabi (Asian-American fusion). 29 Bollingbrook St.11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday-Tuesday and 11 a.m.-midnight Wednesday-Saturday. 804-862-1365
For more restaurant choices, go to http://www.petersburgarea.org.Copyright © 2015, CT Now