The Siege of Petersburg, Virginia: June 1864 to March 1865
Life in the Siege Lines

Petersburg - Recreation of a Civil War Fort

The image above shows a US National Park Service reconstruction of a portion of a Federal fort along the lines contested during the Siege of Petersburg. The bright and peaceful grassy meadows of today belie the grim conditions encountered by the soldiers of both sides of this final desperate struggle for success or survival. In 1864-65, little if any grass remained due to the excavations to create the various forts and earthworks. The treading of thousands of feet, both human and animal, condemned any vegetation fortunate enough to survive the construction of these fortifications. Few trees would have remained after eager builders harvested those available for construction materials. Certainly, as temperatures grew cold, soldiers took anything that burned for fuel to keep warm.

With the coming of winter, the soldiers of both side, but especially the Confederates, suffered greatly. In February of 1865, General Lee would write to President Jefferson Davis about the condition of his men and the impact of winter. "Yesterday, the most inclement day of the winter, they had to be retained in line of battle, been in the same condition the two previous days and nights. I regret to be obliged to state that under these circumstances, heightened by assaults and fire of the enemy, some of the men had been without meat for three days, and all were suffering from reduced rations and scant clothing, exposed to battle, cold, hail, and sleet. I have directed Colonel Cole, chief commissary, who reports that he has not a pound of meat at his disposal, to visit Richmond and see if nothing can be done. If some change is not made and the commissary department reorganized, I apprehend dire results. The physical strength of the men, if their courage survives, must fail under this treatment." [5]

Fortifications at Petersburg Virginia

An unidentified photographer took the image above of military fortifications at Petersburg, Virginia. If you click on the image, a closer look exposes the conditions the men endured during the siege. The US Library of Congress did not identify the units to build or inhabit these fortifications. The image was taken from an observation tower, explaining the seemingly aerial view.

Petersburg - 50th NY Engineers CabinsIf you were fortunate enough to be an officer or a member of the engineers, your surroundings tended to be a little more civilized. Shown here is an example of the cabins built by the soldiers of the 50th New York Engineers. Although made from the logs and branches from locally harvested trees, close inspection reveals the great skill and attention to detail during the construction of these quarters. Esthetics and architectural design along with windows, chimneys, and smooth walkways all merged to help keep the inhabitants in relative comfort. Click here to view the spectacular Poplar Grove Church, a portion of which is visible to the right of this cabin, built in a similar fashion also by the 50th New York Engineers.

Petersburg fortifications and earthworksThe conditions endured by those on the front lines were far less homelike. Men burrowed into the ground or heaped soil onto impromptu structures to build bombproofs to protect themselves from the shelling. Most often sitting in dirt or mud, the men did what they could to get through the day. Most also dared not poke their heads above the upper rim of the earthworks for fear of being caught by the ubiquitous sharpshooters of either side. By clicking on the image to the right, you can see multiple images offering a glimpse into the conditions the soldiers tolerated during the ten month siege. Page may take time to load with slower connections due to the number and size of the images.