Living History: Petersburg National Battlefield Hosts Events for the 150th Anniversary of Opening Assaults 

   Written by on June 20, 2014 at 8:32 am
By Nicolette M. Mann, for the Southside Messenger

On Saturday, June 15, and Sunday, June 16 of this year, Petersburg National Battlefield hosted events commemorating the 150th  anniversary of the Union Army’s opening assaults on Petersburg, where portions of the Confederate Army were stationed during the Civil War. Confederate soldiers initially suffered an unpredicted attack by the Union in Petersburg, 150 years ago. The Siege of Petersburg lasted for approximately nine months, until Lee was finally forced to abandon the area on April 3, 1865. Events for the 150th anniversary weekend brought history alive for hundreds of visitors last weekend.

Petersburg National Battlefield expands largely throughout the town; trenches and trails created by the confederate army have been preserved, and certain constructs have been rebuilt to maintain a realistic picture of the Siege of Petersburg. For the 150th anniversary of opening assaults, the town took even greater efforts to create a realistic and entertaining experience.

Volunteers reenacted real Petersburg battle scenes with campsites and stations set up in the exact places you would have seen them 150 years ago. Their dress was realistic from head to toe, with genuine-looking Confederate uniforms and firearms. Every detail of the set-ups, from waving flags to canvas tents and fire pits, looked perfectly accurate, creating an illusion of traveling back in time, right to those days of the Civil War.

At stop one, near battery five, re-enactors gave a presentation on the use of cannons during the opening assaults. Several functioning cannons were set up along the hill, ready for demonstration. Re-enactors explained that eight cannon-men would have been needed for the firing of one cannon, and each would have had a different role. One by one, eight re-enactors described to the crowd what their role would be in the cannon-firing process. After necessary precautions had been taken, the cannon was fired, leaving visitors all over the park covering their ears and laughing. Children especially loved these demonstrations, thrilled by the excitement and the realistic nature of the set-ups. Parents enjoyed watching their kids learn about history while having a great time.

Other stops along the battlefield also had interesting demonstrations during the weekend. At the siege encampment exhibit, re-enactors guarded a large fortress made from sharp wood planks and trenches, which had been reconstructed to reflect the original. At stop eight, visitors could see “the crater,” which is a large depression in the earth caused by 8,000 pounds of explosive powder in 1865.

Re-enactors made sure to remain in character throughout the weekend of the 150th anniversary. “Soldiers” sported hard, war-weathered countenances, though they were, of course, friendly to talk to and ready to answer any questions. Park rangers were also well-informed on the history of the Siege of Petersburg, and would happily stop their work to give an explanation of a certain exhibit’s significance.

Julie Steele, working with the National Park Service, had a tent full of artifacts to show, which had been dug up on the Petersburg site. Some were very old, dating back to 1864. Steele explained that when artifacts were discovered—even something as small as bits of shrapnel—it helped historians to identify places of battle and to more accurately plot out the Siege of Petersburg. Steele also showed a distinct passion for the Petersburg battlefield and its history in her work. She explained how the site is a true historical treasure, though often it does not receive its full credit. “We’re kind of under-loved,” said Steele. “Even more amazing stuff happened here in Petersburg than anywhere. Locals and the Park Service have to work together to get that story out to people, and we’re trying to do that today.”

Petersburg National Battlefield certainly does have a lot to offer, being both historically valuable and entertaining. A trip to the battlefield is well worth it any time of the year, but the site held special significance this past weekend, making visitors glad they were a part of the re-enactment.

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