Today I will expand the scope of my museum reviews to include a National Historic Park. I recently had the pleasure of visiting the Richmond, Virginia area, which is nothing, if not historic! I had a very limited schedule, and was only able to fit one tourism item onto my itenerary. I chose the Pertersburg Battlefield. What can we learn at the Petersburg site? Let’s take a look:
Quality of research
This battlefield is part of the U.S. national park system, and the research behind its presentation is robust, naturally. Petersburg was a Civil War battle, and there are political and cultural minefields, but the writers navigated it successfully. For example, in at least one location the placards explain that the earthworks were constructed by slave labor. The curators did not enter into a punitive discussion about slavery, neither did they skirt or ignore the subject. In this sense, I think the site is respectful of multiple American perspectives and also maintains historic integrity.
Interest to historians, and non-historians
The rangers at national parks are the commonality that ties all the parks together and help Americans connect with their history and natural wealth. I was not surprised by the knowledgability or friendliness of the ranger who greeted me at the front desk – awesome rangers are a given. What I did NOT expect was his follow-up. The visitor’s center at the park’s entrance contains a small museum and a 15 minute introductory video. Before the video began, the ranger asked if any of the visitors had ancestors in the Civil War – I raised my hand and gave a few details about my great-great-great-grandfather, who died at the Andersonville prison camp. The ranger started the video, left, and returned at the end with a small stack of printouts which showed my ancestor’s service record and the battle record of his unit. Few things will connect someone with an historic site quite so well as learning their familial relation to the event.
The Petersburg battlefield experience begins at the visitors’ center, which is located next to a redoubt, where Union forces first made contact with Confederate defenders and made a foothold in the defenses. The main portion of the park is seen by way of a self-guided driving tour, with stops at key locations. There are short walking portions which bring visitors closer to the ground where key engagements were fought, but those who choose to stay in the car can still benefit from the visit. The park is immediately adjacent to Fort Lee, a U.S. Army installation, and there are many hiking and running trails available. I did not have time to enjoy the trails, but they looked enticing!
The last stop on the driving tour is the site of “The Crater.” Trails lead to the tunnel which Union forces dug to place explosives under Confederate defenses, and to the crater itself. Approximately 5,000 men died in the assault at the crater after the explosives were detonated. I was awed by the small size of the space in which this carnage occured. The contours of this hallowed ground (and those of the earthworks throughout the battlefield) are still plainly visible, and only the smallest amount of imagination brings the scene to mind. Visitors are able to see their history, but the space is preserved in quintessential National Park Service fashion.
About halfway through the driving tour, visitors will see a replica of Civil War-era earthworks. Aside from looking into the Crater, this was the most fascinating feature of the park. All of the wood features that are absent today from the original ramparts can be seen in this replica. The lifesize fortification was obviously modelled off of period photographs. It was easy to see the futility of frontal assaults.
The visitors’ center sported an average gift shop. I did notice that they had a cool selection of reprinted maps from the Civil War, though.
Should you go?
Absolutely. If you’ve seen any of the Civil War’s great maneuver battlefields (Gettysburg, etc.), add this seige to your list of essential visits. The Vicksburg battlefield (also maintained by the NPS) in Mississippi is another collection of pristine earthworks.