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.