The Siege of Petersburg

The Fall of the “Cockade City” and the End of the Confederacy
November 14, 2014 to May 17, 2015

Charles H. Dimmock's Parole Pass at Appomattox, 10 April 1865, Charles H. Dimmock Papers, Mss. 65 D59


In 1861, Petersburg (dubbed the “Cockade City” by President James Madison) was the second largest city in Virginia. It had a population of 18,000 in 1860, about one-half the size of Richmond.  The majority were blacks, and free blacks comprised 36% of the black population. As was true of most southern cities, almost all of the property was owned by whites but nine-tenth of the white population owned no property. The city was run by elites. 1

At that time, Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, and Petersburg were the two largest tobacco towns in the world. A manufacturing town, Petersburg housed tobacco warehouses and factories, cotton mills, flour mills, iron foundries, commission merchants, retailers and banks. 2

Petersburg was also important strategically because it was a transportation hub. The city’s network of roads and railways was vital to moving troops and supplies in the Confederate nation. By the end of the war, Petersburg would have endured a ten-month siege, the longest of any city in US history. By comparison, the well-known siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi lasted only forty-seven days. Many civilians fled, though some would come back intermittently. The eastern part of the town suffered the most damage from shelling.

When Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was unsuccessful in his attempts at attacking Richmond directly, he decided the way to conquer Richmond was through capturing Petersburg first. Gen. Robert E. Lee realized Grant’s strategy and responded by moving the Army of Northern Virginia into a defensive position around Petersburg.

The siege resulted in six battles, eleven engagements, 44 skirmishes, six assaults, and three expeditions. Finally, on 1 April at Five Forks and 2 April at Forts Gregg, Whitworth and Mahone, the Union army succeeded in breaking through the Confederate defenses. Lee moved his army out of the lines at Petersburg and started westward, hoping to find supplies for his troops and to eventually meet up with the army of Joseph E. Johnston in North Carolina to continue the fight.

The battles of Sailor’s Creek, High Bridge, Cumberland Church and Appomattox Station marked Lee’s retreat and on 9 April 1865, the Army of Northern Virginia surrendered at Appomattox Court House. On 26 April, the Army of the West under Johnston surrendered to Union forces led by William T. Sherman.

The brochures in the exhibit are to encourage the public to visit the scenes of these battles, where one can view a battleground as the setting of a giant chess game with human pawns or, on a deeper level, contemplate why those men fought, what transpired on that ground and what resulted.

As Swem Library wraps up its commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, it is clear that both the politics and execution of war are complex and difficult. And whatever role the American Civil War played in bringing freedom to enslaved people, the struggle for civil rights is ongoing in the United States and elsewhere in the world. 

1. Greene, A. Wilson. Civil War Petersburg: Confederate City in the Crucible of War (University of Virginia Press, 2006), pp. 4-5
2. Ibid, p. 6


Images of the exhibit are available from Swem Library on Flickr.


Curator: Susan Riggs, Frances Lightfoot Robb Special Collections Librarian. Exhibit design and Installation: Jennie Davy, Burger Archives Specialist; with assistance from Andrew Cavell, SCRC Graphics Assistant, and Kelly Manno, Undergraduate Student Assistant.