Ghosts of Petersburg

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The Fives have been talking about the Civil War for some time now. Many of the books we read in our previous life, including those of the American Girl and Dear America series, have touched on the war in one way or another. Then on this trip we’ve been reading aloud the wonderfully written The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg. Despite our readings, we found ourselves quite unprepared for the realities of war when we visited the Petersburg National Battlefield in Virginia.

The Siege of Petersburg was one of the last major conflicts of the Civil War. Petersburg was connected to the Confederate capitol of Richmond, about 20 miles away, by road and rail; it therefore was the major supply route for the seat of the Confederacy. Both sides knew that if the Union Army could take Petersburg, then Richmond would soon fall as well.

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Driving into the Visitor’s Center in the Battlefield’s Eastern Front, we started our tour with a 15-minute video describing the nine-month siege of the city and its role in the larger conflict. We then explored the rest of the Visitor’s Center, which was surprisingly kid-friendly. Together we read aloud the informational signs about trenches and railroads, saw artifacts from the battlefield such as surgeon’s saws and wagon wheels, and even tried on reproduced clothing of both soldiers and civilians.

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Outside we watched a Civil War renactor give a musket demonstration. Five Ball and Five of Hearts asked some great questions about how the weapons  worked and the challenges that taking so long to ready your weapon presented in battle. As we walked back to the car to drive the park road, the horrific nature of what we had been learning about was really hitting home. Standing where thousands had suffered and died was powerful to say the least. It was also haunting to think what life was like in besieged Petersburg, cut off from the outside world for nine months.

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Our last stop was The Crater where miners from Pennsylvania had put their coal mining experience to use and dug a tunnel directly underneath a Conferate fort. They then packed the tunnel with explosives and lit the fuse, destroying the fort and opening up a three hundred yard gap in the Confederate trenches. Despite the seeming success, scores of marching Union soldiers were pushed into the crater and killed by Confederate soldiers, and the opportunity to gain ground was lost. We were able to take the walking path to see the remnants of the tunnel and crater. It was hard to muster up much of an appetite before we got back in the car to continue on Route 1, but we knew we had to eat before hitting the road. Needless to say, it was a somber feast where so many tried to survive with so little.

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