Confederate Battery 5

Confederate Battery 5

Today (6/10/14) finds myself, my mom, and Jen, a fellow blogger friend back in Virginia for a much needed vacation. Jen and I left the day after graduation to join mom back in my favorite Williamsburg. Since mom and I come often, we wanted to visit some sites that Jen hadn’t seen. Our first stop today was Petersburg.

I had first been introduced to Petersburg by Larry Potts, a fellow Civil War buff. Petersburg isn’t traditionally covered in most classes except by virtue of being a 9 1/2 month siege, so I didn’t know a whole lot about it until he showed me around. It has since become one of my favorite battlefields.

Tall Grasses represent Union Troops

Tall Grasses represent Union Troops

For those of you who also don’t know much about Petersburg, it was indeed a siege, but there’s so much more to it than that. It’s not a siege the way we tend to imagine them: an army surrounds a city and starves them out. The lines of troops around Petersburg would stretch over thirty miles long, and the armies would engage in trench warfare, conduct raids, and go on supply runs. Grant wanted Petersburg because it was the supply source of Richmond, but he had expected it to be a quick defeat, not an almost ten month siege. Obviously, there’s a ton to see in this area!

"The Dictator"

“The Dictator”

We began our tour at the Visitor Center. After a brief film on the battle and browsing around the museum and gift shop (and refraining from hitting a teenager who was talking about how he thought Sherman was “cool” because he tore everything up), we headed out to Confederate Battery 5. During the Siege, this was one of the strongest Confederate defenses, and visitors can see cannons and earthworks here. While the trail with steps from the upper earthworks sends visitors to see “the Dictator,” a mortar (Like a huge cannon) used to shell Confederate batteries, visitors who want a shorter walk should take the trail to the right before going up to the earthworks. This way, you can see ‘The Dictator,” while avoiding the steps and a bulk of the walking.

Siege Works

Siege Works

From there, we headed past stop 2 on the trail, which seemed not to have as much to offer, and pulled off at Confederate Battery 9. It has amazing examples of siege works, as well as examples of the winter quarters of the troops. The program describes the path like this: “A trail leads to a wayside on Meade Station, in important supply and hospital depot on the U.S. Military Railroad built during the siege. It is a 10-minute walk.” This is a bold faced lie. Every time I have gone on this trail, we end up walking on trails hither and yon for about an hour trying to find our way out of the forbidden forest. Apparently, there is something cool to see and some strategic way to do it, but I’ve never figured it out. A full hour later, we finally emerged back at the siege works, hot, sweaty, and exhausted. I don’t even recall seeing a railroad, but Jen assures me I did. I think I could see it just as well from the crater.

Ruins of the Taylor House

Ruins of the Taylor House

Though weary, we meandered around a few smaller areas before arriving at stop 7, Fort Morton. Here, a brief journey takes the visitor out to the ruins of the Taylor house. It’s an incredible place to walk around, and especially interesting to look down at the crater and realize how far troops stretched in this action.

The crater, however, remains my favorite place on this tour. Jen had introduced me to the Civil War Traveler podcast tours, which we had stumbled upon at Gettysburg. If you’re ever visiting a Civil War Battlefield, I’d highly recommend you utilize this website: http://www.civilwartraveler.com/audio/podcasts.html# We’ve usually just taken a smart phone and walked around with it, but this time, Jen brought her tablet so we could all listen. The major things I appreciate the most about these podcasts are that they always feature historians and battle guides who offer reliable information about the actual battles, but also share vignettes, point out key locations and troop positions, and always give insider information. They truly make the battles come to life. The Crater tour is no exception.

Opening to the mine shaft dug to blast "The Crater"

Opening to the mine shaft dug to blast “The Crater”

The Crater is truly the “must see” of Petersburg. The story of the crater is an incredible one. Grant was trying to figure out an easy way to take Petersburg without a lengthy siege. Lt. Col Henry Pleasants, one of Burnside’s men, offered the perfect solution. Pleasants led the 48th Pennsylvania Infantry. A number of his men had been coal miners back in Pennsylvania. Now, they had the opportunity to put their pre-war experience to wartime use. These men built a 500 yard shaft underneath the Confederate Fort. The Confederates figured they were mining, and even sent out some of their own miners to try to discover the location, but unfortunately, they didn’t dig deeply enough.
Monument to Colored Troops

Monument to Colored Troops

So, on the morning of July 30, 8,000 pounds of gunpowder, buried under the confederate earthworks, was detonated. Originally, the spliced fuse sputtered out (Grant proposed making the assault anyway), but it was re-lit, and at 4:44 AM it exploded, spraying a huge pile of earth, cannons, men, and debris, and creating a crater 170 feet long, 60-80 feet wide, and 30 feet deep. Burnside had trained his untested-by-battle colored troops to lead the assault, but Grant changed this order last minute, siding with Meade and trying to avoid the criticism of being a butcher for sending black troops to their deaths. The top generals drew straws, and Ledlie drew the short straw. His white troops, who essentially led themselves since Ledlie was off drinking, were not trained how to maneuver the crater as the black troops had been.
The Crater

The Crater

Instead of marching parallel to the crater (Burnside’s plan for the colored regiments), they marched directly into the newly blown crater, creating a “fish in the barrel” scenario for the Confederates, and ruining Grant’s hopes for capturing the city. When Mahone’s men came to support the South, Burnside sent another division in, who would also go in the crater, seeing it as a better alternative to the flanking fire they were receiving. Finally, the colored troops saw their first action, and headed into the crater as well, only to be shot, sometimes by members of their own side who did not want to surrender together, and sometimes by the enemy who granted little quarter. This was the first time many Southerners would fight against colored troops. Grant had had the perfect opportunity, deftly executed, only to be botched in the aftermath. He would call it, “The saddest affair of the war.”

Eppe's Home at Appomattox Plantation

Eppe’s Home at Appomattox Plantation

From the crater, we headed to Appomattox Plantation–Grant’s headquarters for most of the siege. Jen had found this in another favorite companion for walking around battlefields: Jeff Shaara’s Civil War Battlefields. None of us had ever been there before, and it sounded neat. It is definitely a Civil War jewel! It isn’t well advertised, and the directions are difficult to follow, but we managed to find it between a combination of signs and map skills. This was Grant’s headquarters during the siege. You may have seen it in the classic photos of Grant in front of what looks like a striped background. You can see a recreation of the cabin on site–made with 5% original material, due to the fact that previous showings of the original led to its demise.

Grant's Headquarters

Grant’s Headquarters

Our curator Emanuel Dabney has been working at Appomattox plantation for 13 years. In addition to sharing stories about Dr. Eppes and family, he also shared about the lives of the slaves there. Two in particular were the slaves Madison and Harriet. Through his stories of this couple, he was able to give an incredible picture of the lives of slaves at this time. Madison was described as the “gardener, etc,” implying that he didn’t just handle the landscaping, but a great deal of other things around the house. His wife Harriet was the household manager. There were a number of interesting things Emanuel shared with us. First, he explained that Dr. Eppes did a number of things to try to keep order with his slaves. He tried threatening them, he whipped a lot (though Madison and Harriet were exempt, but their children weren’t), he shortened food rations, denied travelling papers to visit family on other plantation–basically, he tried to rule through an iron hand, even describing times he had whipped a slave until he (Eppes) was worn out. Interestingly enough, slaves had their own ways of getting even. They would sabotage equipment, lose or break tools, steal boats to go visit their family members, despite having no papers, take food rations even when they were denied–essentially, they would do what they wanted. One of the things that was the most interesting to me is that when the family deserted the plantation, they didn’t take Madison and Harriet with them to Petersburg in 1862, though they took several other slaves with them. When the Union troops came through, Madison and Harriet were the first to abandon the estate. They were, however, also the first to return after the war, though now as paid employees.

"Madison's" Grave

“Madison’s” Grave

Because Emanuel had worked at Appomattox Plantation for so long (which he lovingly calls “My park”) and had been to so many Civil War events, I asked him what his favorite story was of the place. He shared the fact that Madison was actually buried in St. John’s Episcopal church down the road (Hopewell). Not only is it unique for a slave to be buried in a traditional (white) graveyard, but he also was buried (intentionally by his own desires) near his former master. But, that’s not all. On his grave, his name is listed as James Madison Ruffin. It’s the only place his whole name is listed–and his whole name is the same as the man who wrote the majority of the Constitution–the same document that gave this James Madison Ruffin his freedom. (We went to see the church cemetery after we left.)

Lovely Landscaping

Lovely Landscaping

On our way out, we met Sandy who had come to lock up, but graciously allowed us a “behind the scenes” look at Grant’s Cabin. Unlike the general public, we were able to go inside. She shared about the park’s recent break-in, and explained the reason the cabin is only 5% original. Additionally, the police drove over the remains of the chimney on the original building while they were coming to investigate the break-in. Sandy, who has done the landscape at Appomattox Plantation for 26 years and is the only full time employee, shared how much she loves the peacefulness of the grounds. For her, it is truly a labor of love, demonstrated by her willingness to stay with us and show us around long after the park closed.

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