After his frontal assaults failed to capture Richmond in 1864, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant recognized that the key to victory was Petersburg, a vital rail junction on the Appomattox River 23 miles south of the Confederate capital. Moving his troops south across the James River at Hopewell east of Richmond, he advanced on Petersburg, hoping thus to cut off Gen. Robert E. Lee's supplies and starve him into submission. The ever-wily Lee quickly countered, however, and the tragic 10-month Siege of Petersburg ensued. Finally, on April 2, 1865, a Union assault smashed through Lee's right flank, at what is now a fine privately funded memorial park. Lee retreated west that very night and surrendered a week later at Appomattox Court House.
Sitting at the strategic junction of interstates 95 and 85, Petersburg today is a quiet Southern city. Although much of its downtown business district has a down-on-its-heels appearance, the Old Town section near the river is undergoing a restoration and has several antiques stores, restaurants, and two Civil War-era museums. The major sights, however, are on Petersburg's eastern and southern outskirts, where the battle lines were drawn.
Visitor Information -- When you arrive, take Washington Street (Exit 52) west and follow the Petersburg Tour signs to the Petersburg Visitor Center, 19 Bollingbrook St., Petersburg, VA 23804 (tel. 800/368-3595 or 804/733-2430; www.petersburg-va.org). Follow the signs from the Washington Street exit. There you can get maps and literature and buy a block ticket to local museums . The center is open Monday to Saturday from 9am to 5pm, Sunday 1 to 5pm.
Information also is available from Petersburg Area Regional Tourism, P.O. Box 1776, Petersburg, VA 23805 (tel. 877/730-7278; www.petersburgarea.org).
Exploring Old Town Petersburg
Old Town's top attraction is the Siege Museum, 15 W. Bank St. (tel. 804/733-2404; www.craterroad.com/siegemuseum.html), occupying the old Merchant Exchange, a magnificent Greek Revival temple-fronted building. It tells the story of everyday life in Petersburg up to and during the siege in displays and an interesting 18-minute film narrated by the late actor Joseph Cotten, a Virginia native whose ancestors lived in Petersburg during the Civil War. The film is shown on the hour and half-hour. Give yourself another 30 minutes to see the museum.
Centre Hill Mansion, 1 Centre Hill Circle (tel. 804/733-2401), between Adams and Tabb streets, is a nicely restored 1823 mansion furnished with Victorian pieces. You'll have to take a 30-minute tour (departing every hour 10:30am-4:30pm).
The Siege Museum and Centre Hill Mansion are open April to September Monday to Saturday from 10am to 5pm, October to December Tuesday to Saturday 10am to 5pm, and January to March Tuesday from 1 to 5pm; year-round they are open Sunday from 1 to 5pm.
The visitor center sells block tickets to the Siege Museum, Centre Hill Mansion, and Old Blandford Church for $11 adults, $9 seniors and children 7 to 12. Otherwise, admission to each is $5 adults, $4 seniors and children. Active-duty military personnel pay the seniors/children rate.
The Civil War Battlefields
Together, the sites below will take most of a day to tour. After a look around Old Town, drive out to the national battlefield's visitor center east of the city and follow the one-way tour to The Crater. You'll come out of the national battlefield at Crater Road (U.S. 301); Old Blandford Church is a quarter-mile north. Have lunch at King's Barbecue, which is on Crater Road south of I-95. Spend the afternoon at Pamplin Historical Park.
Attractions at Fort Lee
Fort Lee is home to the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps and its Quartermaster Museum (tel. 804/734-4203; www.qmmuseum.lee.army.mil), which has uniforms and equipment from all of America's wars. Stars of the show are the World War II jeep with a Mercedes car seat specially installed for Gen. George S. Patton and one of the armored "Circus Wagons" in which Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower lived when on the road in Europe during the war. The museum is open Tuesday through Friday 10am to 5pm, Saturday and Sunday 11am to 5pm. Admission is free.
Next door, the U.S. Army Women's Museum (tel. 804/734-4327; www.awm.lee.army.mil) is the only facility in the world dedicated to army women. It traces their contributions from the Revolution to the present. If you, a relative, or another woman you know was in the army, especially during World War II, then this is a poignant stop. It's open Tuesday through Friday from 10am to 5pm and Saturday, Sunday, and federal holidays from 11am to 5pm. Admission is free.
The gate into Fort Lee is a mile east of the national battlefield visitor center on Va. 36. This is an active U.S. army post, so you must show valid photo identification, and you and your vehicle also are subject to being searched. Tell the guards at the gate that you want to visit the Quartermaster Museum and the U.S. Army Women's Museum, and they'll tell you how to get there.
Where to Stay
National chain motels near I-95 and Washington Street (Exit 52) include aging editions of Ramada Plaza (tel. 800/272-6232 or 804/733-0000), Super 8 (tel. 800/800-8000 or 804/861-0793), and Travelodge (tel. 800/578-7878 or 804/732-7836).
Several motels on South Crater Road are less convenient to downtown but are newer than those at Exit 52. These include Comfort Inn Petersburg (tel. 804/732-2000), Days Inn Petersburg-Fort Lee/South (tel. 804/733-4400), Econo Lodge South (tel. 804/862-2717), Hampton Inn Petersburg-Fort Lee (tel. 804/732-1400), Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites Petersburg-Fort Lee (tel. 804/518-1800), Howard Johnson Inn Petersburg (tel. 804/733-0600), and Quality Inn Petersburg (tel. 804/732-2900).
Where to Dine
As you tour Old Town, you can fuel up on pastries and caffeine at Java Mio, 322 N. Sycamore St. (tel. 804/861-1646), a trendy coffeehouse offering sandwiches and salads for lunch plus dinner and live music on Friday night.
Worthy Old Town restaurants include The Brickhouse Run, 407-409 Cockade Alley (tel. 804/862-1825), a British pub which is open Tuesday through Saturday, and Andrade's International Restaurant, 7 Bollingbrook St. (tel. 804/862-1365), with a wide-ranging menu and patio dining in warm weather. Andrade's is open daily.
Near The Crater and Old Blandford Church, King's Barbecue, 2910 S. Crater Rd. (tel. 804/732-0975), has the same offerings and prices as Eley's Barbecue.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.