Petersburg Virginia

Page | 1 | 2 |


the visitor center

Petersburg is an independent city in Virginia, United States located on the Appomattox River and 23 miles (37 km) south of Richmond. The population was 33,740 as of the 2000 census. It is in Tri-Cities area of the Richmond-Petersburg region and is a portion of the Richmond Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA). The Bureau of Economic Analysis combines the city of Petersburg (along with Colonial Heights) with neighboring Dinwiddie County for statistical purposes. Other nearby counties are Prince George and Chesterfield County.

The city's unique industrial past created wealth for Virginia. Among the city's significant properties is Battersea, a Palladian-style house built in 1767-1768 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP). Also on the NRHP is Petersburg National Battlefield of the American Civil War. Numerous historic properties and districts are associated with downtown. The Pocahontas Island National Historic District is the location of the largest free black population in 1860. Among the oldest black churches in the nation are two Baptist churches, established as the first of that denomination in the city in the early 19th century. The black churches were leaders in the national Civil Rights Movement of the mid-20th century that achieved historic legislation for civil and voting rights.

In 2006 archaeological excavations at Pocahontas Island found evidence of prehistoric Native American settlement dated to 6500 B.C. This is in the early third of the Archaic Period (8000 to 1000 BC)

When the English arrived in Virginia in 1607, the region was occupied by a significant tribe of the Powhatan Confederacy, shown on Captain John Smith's map as Appamatuck. They were governed by a weroance, King Coquonosum, and by his sister, Queen Oppussoquionuske. This Algonquian people later had a town at Rohoic Creek (formerly Rohowick or Indian Towne Run), on the western edge of present-day Petersburg.

Land along the south bank of the Appomattox as far west as present-day Sycamore street, and about 1 mile (1.6 km) inland, was patented by 1635. In 1646, the Virginia Colony established Fort Henry a short distance from the Appamattuck town, near the falls. Col. Abraham Wood sent several famous expeditions out from here in the following years to explore points to the west, as far as the Appalachians.

Some time around 1675, Wood's son-in-law, Peter Jones, who then commanded the fort and traded with the Indians, opened a trading post nearby, known as Peter's Point. The Bolling family, prominent tobacco traders, also lived in the area from the early 1700s. In 1733, Col. William Byrd II (who also founded Richmond at the same time) conceived plans for a city at Peter's Point, to be renamed Petersburgh. The Virginia General Assembly formally organized it in 1748.

During the American Revolutionary War, the British drive to regain control erupted in the Battle of Blanford in 1781, which started just east of Petersburg. As the Americans retreated north across the Appomattox River, they took up the planks of the Pocahontas bridge to delay the enemy. Although the British drove the Americans from Blanford and Petersburg, they did not regain strategic advantage in the war. Cornwallis' forces surrendered at Yorktown soon after this battle. After the war, in 1784 Petersburg annexed the adjacent towns of Blanford (also called Blandford) and Pocahontas, which became neighborhoods of the city.

In the first two decades after the war, inspired by the Revolution's principle of equality and with less need for enslaved labor as the economy moved from tobacco, a number of Virginia slaveholders manumitted their slaves. Some freed were the "natural children" of white planters, born to enslaved mothers outside of legal marriage. Because of the availability of jobs in Petersburg, many free people of color in Virginia migrated to the growing community. They established First Baptist (1774) and Gillfield Baptist Church (1797), the first and second oldest black congregations in the city and two of the oldest in the nation. The black Baptist churches were the first Baptist churches established in Petersburg. For years the center of the free black residential area was Pocahontas Island, a peninsula on the north shore of the Appomattox River. With access to waterways and a sympathetic population, this neighborhood was an important site on the Underground Railroad. Two surviving houses in the Pocahontas Island National Historic District are associated with it.

The Port of Petersburg became renowned as a commercial center for processing cotton, tobacco and metal, then shipping products out of the region. The city became an important industrial center in a mostly agricultural state with few major cities. At the time of the Civil War, it was the second largest city in the state.

Flourishing businesses helped the city make improvements. Starting in 1813, the city paved its streets. A development company created a canal to bypass the Appomattox Falls. Next came railroad lines to link the city to all points of the compass. As travel technology developed in the mid-19th century, Petersburg became established as a railroad center, with lines completed to Richmond to the north, Farmville and Lynchburg to the west, and Weldon, North Carolina to the south. The last major line was completed in 1858 to the east, when the Norfolk and Petersburg Railroad was finished.

In 1851 the city introduced gaslights and by 1857 installed a new municipal water system. All these civic improvements helped attract and hold a substantial business community, based on manufacture of tobacco products, but also including cotton and flour mills and banking.

Petersburg's 1860 population was 18,266, half of whom were black. Free blacks numbered 3,224 or one-third, attracted to the city for the job opportunities in industries and trades. The Petersburg population had the highest percentage of free blacks of any city in the Confederacy and the largest number of free blacks in the Mid-Atlantic. Many free blacks had settled on Pocahontas Island. Because of this significant past and prehistoric archaeological evidence, the Pocahontas Island Historic District is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Ninety percent of the white half of the population were native Virginians. Their devotion to the cause during the War of 1812 had inspired the nickname "Cockade City" for Petersburg in honor of the rosettes which residents wore on their caps. By that time, ninety percent or more of free and enslaved blacks were also native Virginians, as most of their ancestors had been in the state since the 1600s and 1700s.

When the Civil War started in 1861, Petersburg's men again responded. They provided the Confederacy several infantry companies and artillery units, as well as three troops of cavalry. In April 1861 more than 300 free blacks from Petersburg volunteered to work on the fortifications of Norfolk with their own leader. Slaveholders "volunteered" the work of numerous enslaved men.

In 1864, Petersburg was a significant target during the Overland Campaign of Union General Ulysses S. Grant. Its numerous railroads made Petersburg a lifeline to Richmond, the Capital of the Confederacy, and other major points. The depot at Pocahontas Island, built for the Richmond & Petersburg line, was an embarkation point for Confederate troops and supplies.

After the Battle of Cold Harbor, Grant stayed east of Richmond and headed south to Petersburg. Grant decided to cut off the rail lines into Petersburg, and thus Richmond's supplies. On June 9, troops under William F. "Baldy" Smith, of the 18th Corps, attacked the Dimmock Line, a set of defensive breastworks originally constructed in 1861 and 1862 to protect Petersburg against the Army of the Potomac under General George McClellan during the Peninsula Campaign. The Confederate troops numbered around 2,000. The lines could have easily been taken, but with the memory of Cold Harbor still fresh, Generals Smith and Winfield S. Hancock were reluctant to attack a fortified line. Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard alerted Lee that he was facing the Army of the Potomac at Petersburg. Lee later arrived, and the 292-day Siege of Petersburg began.

On the Eastern Front, the trench lines were very close together. One soldier in the 48th Pennsylvania, a coal miner in civilian life, remarked aloud, "We could blow that battery into oblivion if we could dig a mine underneath it." Colonel Henry Pleasants, division commander, took this idea seriously and moved it up the chain of command. The plan was given the go ahead. On July 30, the mine was exploded. Due to poor Union leadership and the timely arrival of Confederate General William Mahone, the Union lost the Battle of the Crater. They suffered more than 4,000 casualties. This famous battle was portrayed in the 2003 film Cold Mountain (based on the novel by the same name).

In early April 1865, Union troops pushed successfully on their left flank to reach both the railroad to Weldon, North Carolina and the Southside Railroad. These were Petersburg's crucial lifelines to the rest of the Confederacy and supplies. With these developments, the Siege of Petersburg ended.

The fall of Petersburg also signaled that the Confederate capital of Richmond could not be defended, and precipitated Robert E. Lee's last retreat march. It ended later that month with Lee's surrender at Appomattox Court House and essentially, the end of the war. Confederate General Ambrose P. (A.P.) Hill died on the last day the Confederates occupied the Petersburg trenches. The use of an extended network of fortified entrenchments around Petersburg established a warfare precedent. Armies on both sides used trenches extensively in Europe during World War I

By the end of the war, the city was ringed with a series of fortifications. Many of these have been preserved within Petersburg National Battlefield Park and in neighboring Dinwiddie County.

The Freedmen's Bureau established new facilities for freedmen, including a mental health hospital in December 1869, at Howard's Grove Hospital, a former Confederate unit. In 1870 the General Assembly incorporated the Central Lunatic Asylum as an organized state institution, as part of an effort by the Reconstruction-era legislature to increase public institutions for general welfare. The legislature also founded a system of public education.

In the years after the Civil War, freedmen migrated to Petersburg for rebuilding, work on the river, and to escape the white control of more rural areas. They found numerous churches, businesses and institutions founded by free blacks, and added new energy to the community. In 1874 James M. Wilkerson, Sr. founded the Wilkerson Undertaking Company. It continues to operate as the James M. Wilkerson Funeral Establishment, Inc. and is one of the oldest black-owned firms in the United States. Although in the 1870s, conservative whites took power in the state and began to legislate racial segregation, African Americans continued to create their own businesses and community organizations.

During the 1880s, a coalition of black Republicans and white populists held power for several years in the state legislature. This resulted in two major institutions in Petersburg. In 1882 the state authorized moving the asylum facility to the Mayfield Farm, and developing a new campus there. This is the present-day Central State Hospital, which provides a variety of mental health services.

Also in 1882, the legislature founded Virginia State University in nearby Ettrick as Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute. It was one of the first public (fully state-supported) four-year historically black colleges and universities (HBCU) in the Mid-Atlantic, and part of a drive to improve public education that started with the Reconstruction legislature. John Mercer Langston, a national political leader and former dean of Howard University's law department, was selected as the college's first president. An Oberlin College graduate, he was an accomplished attorney who had been a leader of abolitionists in Ohio and held national appointments. In 1888, Langston was elected to the US Congress on the Republican ticket, the first African American to be elected to Congress from Virginia. He was also the last for nearly a century.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, Virginia's white-dominated legislature instituted Jim Crow laws and constitutional changes that established legal racial segregation and effectively disfranchised most blacks and many poor whites. Those disfranchised suffered major losses in the ability to exercise their rights as citizens. For instance, without being able to vote, they could not serve on juries. Services and schools for blacks were consistently underfunded by the state.

The limitations of Petersburg's small geographic area and proximity to Richmond were structural problems which hampered it in adapting to major economic changes in the 20th century. Other forces in the mid-20th century acted to pull people and jobs from the city. It suffered from competition with nearby Richmond, which grew to dominate the region in a changing economy.

World wars led to major federal institutions being constructed at Petersburg, which created local jobs. Soon after World War I started, the US Army established Camp Lee for training draftees. The facility was used again during World War II. In 1950 the camp was designated Fort Lee and additional buildings were constructed to house the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps Center and School.

With many African Americans having served the nation and cause of freedom in WWII, in the postwar years they pressed for social justice and an end to segregation. Even after the Great Migration, Petersburg was 40 percent black in 1960, but those citizens were barred from free use of public spaces and facilities. Major black churches such as First Baptist and Gillfield Baptist formed the moral center for the Civil Rights Movement in Petersburg, which gained strength in mid-century and was a major center of action.

Dr. Wyatt Tee Walker, the pastor of Gillfield Baptist Church, had become friends with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the early 1950s when they were both in divinity school. In 1957 they co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), an important force for leadership of the movement in the South. Walker also founded the Petersburg Improvement Association (PIA), modeled on the Montgomery Improvement Association in Alabama. According to Walker and other close associates of King, Petersburg had played an important role, as something like a blueprint for the national civil rights struggle. King spent time in the city on several occasions in the 1950s and 60s, and several of his top lieutenants were recruited from the local movement.

African Americans in Petersburg struggled with federal government support, to desegregate public schools and facilities. Through sit-ins in the bus terminal in 1960, the PIA gained agreement by the president of the Bus Terminal Restaurants to desegregate lunch counters in Petersburg and several other cities. Virginia officials at the top levels resisted school integration in its program of Massive Resistance. (Rather than integrate, the school board of neighboring Prince Edward County closed public schools for five years, starting in 1959.)

In 1958 Petersburg was named an "All American City" for its quality of life. Retail and industry prospered there until about the early 1980s. Deindustrialization and structural economic changes cost many jobs in the city, as happened in numerous older industrial cities across the North. The postwar national movement of suburbanization and highway construction added to problems. Many middle-class families moved to newer housing in the suburbs and to nearby Richmond, where the economy was expanding with jobs in fields of financial and retail services. Some companies moved industrial jobs to states further south, where wages were lower, or out of the country altogether. Without sufficient jobs, city progress slowed.

The declining economy increased the pressure of competition and racial tensions. These flared from 1968 to 1980, in part due to reaction to the Civil Rights Movement. Following the assassination of King in 1968, Petersburg was the first city to designate his birthday as a holiday, an observance that is now a national holiday.

In 1985 city leaders were unable to keep Brown & Williamson tobacco company, a top employer, from relocating to Macon, Georgia to seek a job market with lower wages. In 1986 the city failed in its attempt to annex a large section of neighboring Prince George County to enlarge its area for schools and tax base. When negotiations soured in 1989 to build a new regional mall in Petersburg, numerous remaining retail merchants relocated to the new Southpark mall area north of town. Petersburg suffered an economic setback.

As of 2007, Petersburg continues to evolve as a small city. In a typical postwar US pattern, suburban development through the late 20th century drew off retail from the former downtown area. It was once vibrant near the north end of Sycamore Street but had declined by the late 20th century because of structural changes in industries, and loss of local jobs and customers.

Lately downtown Petersburg, known as Old Towne, has been experiencing a rebirth. The Petersburg Old Town Historic District is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, as are other historic districts. The economic problems preserved many buildings which people now appreciate for their human scale, and architectural and historic character. The buildings are being adapted for new uses. Many restaurants, specialty shops, and up-scale apartments and condos have been developed, with more underway. Southern Living magazine recently featured this area, as did HGTV's What You Get For The Money.

The area has also become a vibrant arts center. It has both an area Arts League and a Performing Arts Center and restaurant, the "Sycamore Rouge". The city celebrates a "Friday of the Arts" on the second Friday of each month, in which many locations feature local artwork and live music.

Located along the eastern seaboard, approximately halfway between New York and Florida, Petersburg is just 23 miles (37 km) south of Virginia's state capital, Richmond and is at the juncture of Interstates 95 and 85. The city is one of 13 jurisdictions that comprise the Richmond-Petersburg Metropolitan Statistical Area. Petersburg is a part of the Tri-cities, Virginia regional economy known as the "Appomattox Basin". It includes the counties of Dinwiddie and Prince George, the southern part of Chesterfield County, and the cities of Hopewell and Colonial Heights

Arnold Pen Co., Seward Trunk Co., Titmus Optical, Brenco Ball bearings, and Boehringer Ingelheim, one of the top twenty pharmaceutical manufacturers, operate in Petersburg. The city has a long history as an industrial center for Virginia. It was home to many tobacco companies, including tobacco giant Brown & Williamson. The Southern Chemical Co., the original maker of Fleets Phoso-soda (used in hospitals world wide), was a well-known brand associated with the town.

Since the departure of Brown & Williamson, Petersburg has invested heavily in historic preservation of its rich range of architecture. The city's numerous 18th, 19th and 20th century structures in its historic neighborhoods provide unique character of place. Groups such as Historic Petersburg Foundation and Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities have worked to restore many of the city's buildings and recognized important districts.

Among the city's most architecturally refined properties is Battersea, a Palladian-style house built in 1767-1768. On the city's western edge above the Appomattox River, the house is situated on 37 acres. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. A non-profit group is working with the city to develop a long-term plan for the property.

Petersburg Virginia

Copyright © 2011 Back to Main Page The Visitor Center
butterball bear ornaments Original fine art Bear carvings

Christmas Carvings and Fine Art Wood Carvings at

Get your 35mm slides, photos, films, 3D Stereo slides and more converted to JPEG images and also get a FREE, full production, DVD slide show and all disks are included in our low pricing.