A city forever scarred by siege

Sun Journal

Kinship: Those who lived through 10 months of shellfire during the Civil War in Petersburg, Va., would be able to empathize with the residents of Yugoslavia.

May 23, 1999|By Greg Schneider | Greg Schneider,SUN STAFF

PETERSBURG, Va. -- The past litters Petersburg the way candy wrappers and cigarette butts litter other cities: Piles of mysterious columns rust by the railroad tracks. Pieces of filigreed wrought iron sprout outside a warehouse.

This city 25 miles south of Richmond wears history's rawest kind of face, but it also has a connection to current headlines from Yugoslavia that few other places in America share.

Anyone with a television or daily newspaper has witnessed the plight of both Serbs and Kosovars whose lives are disrupted by a daily military onslaught they are powerless to resist. It is a condition Americans have rarely had to endure -- standing by, day after day, as homes, businesses and lives are slowly pulverized from afar.

For 10 months at the end of the Civil War, the people of Petersburg did. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and the Union army pounded the city from June 9, 1864, to April 3, 1865, and the longest siege ever withstood by a U.S. city continues to haunt and shape Petersburg in ways that suggest what lies ahead for the people of Yugoslavia.

"There are many, many similarities between the Kosovo situation and Petersburg's situation," says William D. Henderson, a retired history professor who wrote a recent book about life in Petersburg during the siege.

Like both the NATO bombardment of Yugoslavia and the Serbian operations in Kosovo, the battle at Petersburg featured seriously mismatched opponents. Grant and the Army of the Potomac had intended to roll over Petersburg and its four major rail lines in a final push to the Confederate capital at Richmond.

The first 2,300 Union troops to reach Petersburg were met by about 120 boys and old men. Seen glancing back at their homes as they fought, the defenders lost half their number but lasted almost two hours -- time enough for regular Confederate reinforcements to arrive.

The superior Union forces had not counted on the network of trenches and bulwarks built up around Petersburg, and the two sides soon settled into a stalemate.

As in Yugoslavia, goods and supplies were not completely cut off from Petersburg, with one rail line remaining open until the final days. As the siege dragged on, the consequences took a shape familiar to viewers of CNN:

Refugees were a problem even before the bombardment, streaming into Petersburg as Union troops occupied Norfolk, Newport News and Williamsburg on their march toward Richmond. Families made room in their homes, but as the city itself came under attack, residents fled into makeshift refugee camps to the south and west.

Camp conditions were terrible. Many refugees simply dragged beds and even chests of drawers into open fields and used bedsheets to make crude tents, Henderson says. The camps were crowded, tempers flared and stealing was common. Some people nearly starved.

Only one civilian is said to have died in Petersburg during the constant shelling, but the damage to buildings was great. Homes and businesses were wrecked, then abandoned, then looted, Henderson says, "so you'd lose a lifetime of household belongings."

Rail lines were ripped up, and the rivers were blocked with gunboats, just as NATO is destroying rail lines and bridges in Yugoslavia.

Consumer goods became scarce and almost unaffordable. Flour sold for $1,500 a barrel, chickens for $50 each. Yugoslavia is facing food shortages, power blackouts and long lines for supplies such as gasoline.

Just as the world is sending humanitarian aid to Kosovar refugees, other Confederate cities sent money to Petersburg to fund soup kitchens and subsidize food for the most desperate. Through it all, life went on. While Serbs in Belgrade have staged rock concerts and pinned targets to themselves, people in Petersburg threw "starvation parties" where the only refreshment, called "Jeff Davis Punch," was water.

A school headmaster wrote in his journal of a June night near the courthouse "when a Confederate band was playing polkas and waltzes -- ba-da-da, ba-da, ba-da -- as the shells were coming down," Henderson says.

"To be idle was torture," wrote Mrs. Roger Pryor, a siege survivor whose memoirs described ladies' sewing circles making bandages out of chintz furniture covers.

When it all finally ended -- Petersburg fell, then Richmond, and shortly afterward Robert E. Lee surrendered at nearby Appomattox -- Petersburg had paid a heavy price for its 10 months of defiant endurance.

Its thriving industries never recovered. Iron works and cotton mills lost their customers during the siege, then found that Northern competitors had moved on to new technologies.

Likewise, the city's tobacco producers discovered that tastes had changed, and the public now favored milder flue-cured leaf from North Carolina over the harsher product from Petersburg.

While the city had two later boomlets as nearby Fort Lee filled with troops for World Wars I and II, "it never really rebounded from the Civil War," says Jay DeBoer, a lawyer who represents Petersburg in Virginia's General Assembly.

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