Petersburg and The American Civil War:
How the Union Was Saved and Slavery Defeated in Petersburg


Dr. Stephen Rockenbach
Department of History
Virginia State University

At the start of the American Civil War, Petersburg had the distinction of being both a bustling commercial center and the home of a significantly large population of African Americans, both enslaved and free.  The “Cockade City,” as it was known at this time, was the second largest city in Virginia after Richmond and the eleventh largest in Virginia.  Petersburg’s complexity makes it all the more important that the war and slavery would end in Virginia when Union forces finally took the city in April 1865.  While tension mounted between northern and southern political factions in 1860, Petersburg held characteristics commonly associated with both free and slave communities.  Slavery was essential to the local economy, but the city was also home to tobacco factories and cotton mills.  White planters in southern Virginia and North Carolina sent tobacco and cotton grown by southern slaves to Petersburg, where these crops were turned into commercial products and sent to northern and southern consumers.  Boasting a river port and railroads running in five different directions, Petersburg was also part of a regional transportation system designed to bring agricultural goods into Petersburg for purchase and send goods out to both national and international destinations.   The city was naturally an essential part of the Confederate war effort, and by extension the target of Union strategy.

Petersburg’s connection with southern planters and the northern marketplace made the issue of secession controversial.  Virginians were conflicted over whether or not to join the six lower South states that had seceded from the Union by late January 1861.  Secession was seen as an unnecessary risk among the white communities in Virginia with little interest in slavery, including the mountainous portion that would become West Virginia, and in urban areas with financial ties to northern cities, including Petersburg and Richmond.  The Virginia Convention elected to consider secession voted on April 4, with the result of secession being voted down by 2 to 1. In Petersburg, the division was much closer, with only a slim majority of white men supporting secession.  The primary concerns of white men in Petersburg included protecting slavery, the possibility of war with the seceded southern states, and a distinct distrust of the Republican Party, including the newly inaugurated President Abraham Lincoln.  However, this did not necessarily mean secession until after Confederate guns opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina on April 12, 1861.  With War at hand, the white community of Petersburg overwhelming supported the southern cause.

The African-American population in Petersburg no doubt understood the implications of the secession debate and their tenuous position in the looming conflict. Petersburg had the largest free black population for any city in Virginia, with 3,244 free people of color working as business owners, craftsmen, fishermen, and laborers.  The city was also home to 5,680 enslaved black residents and 9,342 white citizens.  During the Civil War free blacks continued to ply their trades, including James Major Colson who was a shoemaker.  But the hardships of war affected black and white, evidenced by the effect inflation had on Colson’s business when he reportedly sold a pair of boots for $400 in Confederate money.   However, because free black men had no political or legal rights, they remained dependent on their white neighbors who carefully defined and protected the subordinate position of black residents.  Therefore, unwilling to lose the few rights they had, one hundred free black men volunteered for service to the state of Virginia.  Although the state government did not allow black volunteers to serve militarily, eventually free black men from Petersburg were formed into labor parties and worked on Confederate defenses throughout the war.  However, as the war progressed some free black residents, including women, were forced to perform duties for the Confederate war effort.  

Petersburg’s slaves were forced to work on military defenses and felt the burden of war just like their free counterparts.  Virginia’s state government began conscripting Petersburg slaves for labor on military projects in early 1862.   Although working on defenses close to Union lines might offer the slim chance of escape and freedom, military labor was grueling and more dangerous than most slaves’ usual duties.  Slaves may have contributed to the Confederacy's wartime preparations, but Petersburg’s enslaved blacks had heard the rumors about the war and northern abolitionists.  Unwilling to wait to see if the war would bring freedom, some slaves took matters into their own hands.  An enslaved conductor on the Underground Railroad in Petersburg known as “Ham and Eggs” wrote his northern colleagues promising to send more slaves north. Petersburg’s black population, free and enslaved, watched the surrounding events and carefully chose their actions. 

Although throughout the conflict Petersburg’s residents lived with the anxiety of a possible raid up the Appomattox River by Union gunboats, the war came to Petersburg in 1864.  The Union capture of City Point and Grant’s aggressive yet costly advance towards Richmond put Petersburg in harm's way.  Although Petersburgers had several close calls, it was not until June 1864 that Union cavalry approached the city and made an attempt to capture it.  On June 9, Petersburg militia successfully defended the city and allowed time for regular Confederate troops to arrive.  This initial skirmish in what would become the 10 month siege of Petersburg was later known as the “Battle of the Old Men and Boys,” because most of militia were men too young or old to serve in the Confederate Army.  Once Union troops laid siege to the city, residents endured artillery bombardment and food shortages.  Black Petersburgers suffered under the siege as well.  Union shells did not discriminate, killing and injuring white and black civilians alike.  Additionally, many free black city dwellers did not have the ability to leave the city and seek shelter with friends and family in the surrounding countryside, as some white residents did.  Slaves had little choice but to stay in Petersburg in spite of the danger.

The fighting around Petersburg was indicative of the importance of race and slavery to the final two and a half years of the Civil War.  President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863 freed slaves who made it to Union lines or were present when Union troops occupied Confederate territory.  Ironically, enslaved black men were forced to build and strengthen the Petersburg defenses to hold back the very army that would eventually bring freedom and hope to local slaves.  Free black men in Petersburg were also among the two thousand black laborers that Confederate General Robert E. Lee requested in early September to extend his trenches around Petersburg. Further, the Proclamation signaled the official enlistment of black men into the Union Army.  Therefore, the Union army around Petersburg contained regiments of black soldiers now fighting to end slavery and gain full citizenship.

One of the more notable actions involving black Union soldiers at Petersburg occurred on July 30 during the “Battle of the Crater.”  General Ambrose Burnside chose Brigadier General Edward Ferrero’s Fourth Division comprised of black regiments to lead an assault through Confederate lines.  The plan was based on the actions of the officers and men of the 48th Pennsylvania, who used their civilian skills as miners to dig a shaft under Confederate lines.  The former miners placed explosives under a portion of the Confederate defenses.  Once detonated, a path would be clear for infantry to break through the rebel line and capture Petersburg.  Ferrero’s black troops practiced for three weeks on ground similar to the detonation site, but ultimately did not lead the assault.  Less that twenty four hours before the assault was planned General Meade, with General Grant’s support, ordered Burnside to use white troops instead.  Meade was concerned that if the plan failed, Lincoln’s political opponents would claim that black soldiers were being sent to the slaughter on purpose.  However, the white divisions that Burnside had available were not trained and had less than fifteen hours to prepare.  Additionally, the white troops suffered from poor leadership.   As a result, Meade’s change in the battle order did cause the plan to fail, but not from the failings of the black division, which was put in support of the white regiments instead of leading the attack.  

The racism and prejudice that lay at the center of slavery was evident at the crater and in Petersburg at the end of the war.  The unprepared white regiments of the First Division charged into the gap in the rebel lines created by the explosion in the early hours of July 30.  Without a well practiced plan, the first wave of Union soldiers filled the crater and the attack stalled.  Two and a half hours after the assault began, the men of the black Fourth Division followed in an effort to break through as planned.  However, the Confederate defenders had responded quickly, and a bloody battle for control of the crater ensued.  Many of the black soldiers had heard of the massacre of black soldiers by General Nathan Bedford Forest’s Confederates at Fort Pillow in Tennessee.  Some of the men of the Fourth Division shouted “No Quarter,” indicating their unwillingness to take Confederate prisoners. After the brave assault by the Fourth Division bogged down from lack of support, white Confederates shot the black captives, until Brigadier General William Mahone ordered the killing to stop.   Ironically, Mahone, who was in command of white troops killing captured black soldiers, later led the bi-racial Readjuster Party and helped establish the Virginia Normal and Collegiate School for Negros, now Virginia State University. 

When the few black prisoners who were spared marched through Petersburg, the reactions of citizens were obviously mixed and conflicting as to what this meant.  Some white citizens ridiculed and mocked the white and black captives marching together. The Confederate authorities enslaved the black prisoners, which is particularly heinous considering the fact that some of the black soldiers may have been born free in states such as Indiana and Illinois. For black Petersburgers, the presence of black Union soldiers most likely brought a sense of hope.  Certainly, when United Sates Colored Troops entered Petersburg after the city fell to Union troops on April 3, black residents took to the streets cheering and celebrating.  However, former slaves in particular expected great changes to come with Freedom.  Their expectations were likely encouraged by black soldiers who informed freedpeople that they no longer needed to work for their masters.   Additionally, many freedpeople believed that they would have the right to the property they labored on or were due some recompense for their servitude.  Although historians agree that land redistribution would have allowed former slaves more independence, the Union officers in Petersburg discouraged freedmen from doing anything besides negotiating contracts with their former masters or other employers.  

Petersburg’s Civil War History demonstrates the depth of social conflict and conflicting concepts of freedom.  For white Petersburgers, April was sad a month as General Robert E. Lee’s army abandoned the defensive lines around the city and retreated, eventually surrendering on April 9.  But for black Petersburgers Union victory and freedom were solidified when President Lincoln visited the city on April 8.  Black residents filled the streets welcoming Lincoln with cheers and shouts of appreciation.  The Confederacy had met its end, and now an uncertain future lay ahead for both white and black citizens.  Slavery had ended and the Union was saved at Petersburg.

                   


A. Wilson Green, Civil War Petersburg: Confederate City in the Crucible of War (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006) 3-7.

James I. Robertson, Jr., Civil War Virginia: Battleground for a Nation (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1993) 6-7.

Green, 29

Luther P. Jackson, “Free Negroes of Petersburg, Virginia,” Journal of Negro History 12 (July 1929) 377.

Green 35-36

Green 124

Green 125

Ervin L. Jordan Jr., “Afro-Virginians Attitudes on Secession and Civil War, 1861” in William C. Davis and James I. Robertson Jr. eds., Virginia At War 1861, (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2005)  90-91.

Green 193-197

Wallace Michael Saval, “Montage of a City Under Siege, Petersburg 1864 to 1865.” Ph.D. Diss, Virginia State University 1971, 79.

Travis J. L. Stephens, “Participation of Negro Troops in ‘The Battle of the Crater,’ July 30, 1864.” Ph.D. Diss, Virginia State University 1967, 66-80.

Edward A. Miller, Jr., The Black Civil War Soldiers of Illinois: The Story of the Twenty-ninth U.S. Colored Infantry (Columbia: The University of South Carolina Press 1998), 69-77.

Green 209-210

Miller 24-25.

Ira Berlin, Joseph P. Reidy, and Leslie S. Rowland, eds., Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861-1867, The Black Military Experience  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), ser. 2, 737-38

 Steven Hahn, Steven F. Miller, Susan E. O’Donovan, John C. Rodrigue, and Leslie S. Rowland, eds., Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861-1867, Land and Labor 1865 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press 2008) ser. 3, vol. 1, 197-199.