Crusader Tobacco - Cigar Box Label from Petersburg, VirginiaInv# TL1007
Petersburg is an independent city in the Commonwealth of Virginia in the United States. As of the 2020 census, the population was 33,458. The Bureau of Economic Analysis combines Petersburg (along with the city of Colonial Heights) with Dinwiddie County for statistical purposes. The city is 21 miles (34 km) south of the commonwealth (state) capital city of Richmond.
It is located at the fall line (the head of navigation of rivers on the U.S. East Coast) of the Appomattox River (a tributary of the longer larger James River which flows east to meet the southern mouth of the Chesapeake Bay at the Hampton Roads harbor and the Atlantic Ocean). In 1645, the Virginia House of Burgesses ordered Fort Henry built, which attracted both traders and settlers to the area. The Town of Petersburg, chartered by the Virginia legislature in 1784, incorporated three early settlements, and in 1850 the legislature elevated it to city status.
Petersburg grew as a transportation hub and also developed industry. It was the final destination on the Upper Appomattox Canal Navigation System, which opened in 1816, to a city mostly rebuilt after a devastating 1815 fire. When its Appomattox River port silted up, investors built an 8-mile railroad to City Point on the James River, which opened in 1838 (and was acquired by the city and renamed the Appomattox Railroad in 1847). As discussed below, that became one of four railroads built (some with government subsidies) constructed (with separated terminals to the advantage of local freight haulers) before the American Civil War. In 1860, the city's industries and transportation combined to make it the state's second largest city (after Richmond). It connected commerce as far inland as Farmville, Virginia at the foothills of the Blue Ridge and the Appalachian Mountains chain, to shipping further east into the Chesapeake Bay and North Atlantic Ocean. During the American Civil War (1861–1865), because of this railroad network, Petersburg became critical to Union plans to capture the Confederate States national capital established early in the war at Richmond. The 1864–65 Siege of Petersburg, which included the Battle of the Crater and nine months of trench warfare devastated the city. Battlefield sites are partly preserved as Petersburg National Battlefield by the National Park Service of the U.S. Department of the Interior. Petersburg rebuilt its railroads, including a connecting terminal by 1866, although it never quite regained its economic position because much shipping traffic would continue to the Norfolk seaport. Still, after the consolidations of smaller railroads and both the CSX and Norfolk Southern railway networks serve Petersburg
Petersburg had one of the oldest free black settlements in the state at Pocahontas Island. Two Baptist churches in the city, whose congregations were founded in the late 18th century, are among the oldest black congregations and churches in the United States. In the 20th century, these and other black churches were leaders in the national Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s-1960s. In the post-bellum period, a historically black college which later developed as the Virginia State University was established nearby in Ettrick in Chesterfield County. Richard Bland College, now a junior college, was originally established here as a branch of Williamsburg's famed College of William and Mary.
Petersburg remains a transportation hub. Area highways include Interstate Highways 85, 95, and U.S. Route highways with 1, 301, and 460. Both CSX and Norfolk Southern rail systems maintain transportation centers at Petersburg. Amtrak serves the city with daily Northeast Regional passenger trains to Norfolk, Virginia, and long-distance routes from states to the South.
In the early 21st century, Petersburg civic leaders promote the city's historical attractions for heritage tourism, as well as industrial sites reachable by the transportation infrastructure. The federal government is also a major employer, with nearby Fort Lee, as home of the United States Army's Sustainment Center of Excellence, and the Army's Logistics Branch, Ordnance, Quartermaster, and Transportation Corps.
Archaeological excavations at Pocahontas Island found evidence of a prehistoric Native American settlement dated to 6500 BC, the early third of the Archaic Period (8000 to 1000 BC). Succeeding cultures of indigenous peoples lived in the area for thousands of years before European exploration and colonization.
When the English arrived in Virginia in 1607, the region was occupied by the Appamatuck, a significant tribe of the Powhatan Confederacy. They were governed by a weroance, King Coquonosum, and by his sister, Queen Oppussoquionuske. This Algonquian-speaking people later had a town at Rohoic Creek (formerly known as Rohowick or Indian Towne Run). Present-day Petersburg developed to the east.
Petersburg was founded at a strategic point at the fall line of the Appomattox River and settled by English colonists. By 1635 they had patented land along the south bank of the Appomattox River as far west as present-day Sycamore Street, and about 1 mile (1.6 km) inland. In 1646, the Virginia Colony established Fort Henry a short distance from the Appamatuck town, near the falls. It provided water power for mills and later industrialization. Col. Abraham Wood sent several famous expeditions out from here in the following years to explore points to the west, as far as the Appalachian Mountains.
Around 1675, Wood's son-in-law, Peter Jones, who then commanded the fort and traded with the Indians, opened a trading post nearby, known as Peter's Point. The Kennon and Bolling families, prominent tobacco planters and traders, also lived in the area and engaged in local politics. In 1733, Col. William Byrd II (who founded Richmond at the same time) conceived plans for a city at Peter's Point, to be renamed Petersburgh. The Virginia General Assembly formally incorporated both Petersburg and adjacent Blandford on December 17, 1748. Wittontown, north of the river, was settled in 1749, and became incorporated as Pocahontas in 1752. Petersburg was enlarged slightly in 1762, adding 28 acres (110,000 m2) to "Old Town".
During the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783), the final British drive to regain control of the colony led to the Battle of Blanford in April 1781, which started just east of Petersburg. As Virginia militia retreated north across the Appomattox River, they took up the planks of the wooden Pocahontas bridge to delay the enemy. Although the British captured Blanford and Petersburg, they did not regain the strategic advantage. Lord Cornwallis' forces coming up from the Carolinas into Virginia occupied Yorktown on the York River, waiting to meet a Royal Navy fleet. But a larger combined American-French army soon surrounded and besieged them. Cornwallis and his troops found themselves trapped and isolated when the French Navy's West Indies fleet under Admiral de Grasse sailed north and won the offshore naval Battle of the Capes at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, forcing the British resupply and evacuation fleet to withdraw. In October 1781, Lord Cornwallis surrendered to the superior allied Continental Army's General George Washington and French General comte de Rochambeau. After two further years of infrequent conflict and many treaty parlies, the Revolutionary War ended with Britain formally recognizing the new United States.
After the war, in 1784 Petersburg annexed the adjacent towns of Blandford (also called Blanford), Pocahontas and the outlying town of Ravenscroft, which became neighborhoods of the larger city. An area known as Gillfield was annexed in 1798. Residents' devotion to the cause of America two decades later during the War of 1812 (1812–1815) led to the formation of the militia unit of the Petersburg Volunteers—who distinguished themselves in action at the Siege of Fort Meigs on the Great Lakes frontier on May 5, 1813. Fourth President James Madison called Petersburg "Cockade of the Union" (which later was applied to the town as a nickname "Cockade City"), in honor of the cockades which Volunteers wore on their caps.
Petersburg Blacks established the First Baptist (1774) and Gillfield Baptist Church (1797), the first and second oldest black congregations in the city and two of the oldest in the nation. These black churches were the first Baptist churches established in Petersburg. The Gillfield Baptist Church obtained title to its land in 1818 and in 1859 completed a $7000 brick structure; the Petersburg African Baptist Church also owned its own sanctuary and the community also organized burial and other benevolent societies.
Many free blacks in Virginia migrated to the growing urban community, despite increasing legislative restrictions. Until 1860 Petersburg was a majority African American city, although the enslaved population had few legal rights. Between 1850 and 1860, Petersburg's free black community increased 24%, although industrial growth fueled an even greater increase in the white population. Of the 18,366 people counted in Petersburg by federal census takers in 1860, 9,342 were white, 5,680 were slaves, and 3,244 free blacks. Thus in 1860, nearly 26% of all free persons were black, the highest proportion in any Southern city. Free Black men worked as tobacco twisters, in iron foundries, and as draymen, boatmen and cabdrivers, or in the skilled trades of mason, wheelwright, coopers and blacksmiths. Free Black women worked in tobacco factories as stemmers, or as washerwomen or seamstresses or laborers. Plantation owners also brought slaves for hire into the city. As in many other upper South cities, many white households had slaves, but more than 40% were enslaving just one servant.
Pocahontas Island (actually usually a peninsula on the north shore of the Appomattox River) became the area's free black residential area. With access to waterways and a population sympathetic to refugee slaves, this neighborhood was an important site on the Underground Railroad.
During the Antebellum period Petersburg became the slave states' eleventh largest city, and 49th among all American cities in industrial development. Commission merchants (39 firms by 1860) bought agricultural products from nearby Dinwiddie County as well as points to the north, south and west and sold supplies. Petersburg's industrialists processed cotton, tobacco and metal, then shipped the resulting products out of the region. Richmond and Petersburg became the two largest tobacco towns in the world, with Richmond selling 61% of the state's tobacco in 1861, and Petersburg 23%. Petersburg's cotton industry relied on water power since its inception in the 1830s, and by 1860 towns had developed around the Lynch and Callender mills at Ettick and Matoaca and Battersea across the Appomattox river, and the Merchant's Manufacturing Company had another mill at Campbell Bridge near Ettrick. Together those cotton mills constituted approximately a third of that industry in the state. The town also had three water-powered flour mills by 1860, and five iron foundries.
The city became an important industrial center in a mostly agricultural state with few major cities. Starting in 1813, the city paved its streets, which helped attract business. In 1816 the Upper Appomattox Canal Company completed the Upper Appomattox Canal Navigation System to bypass the Appomattox Falls, which facilitated traffic up and down river to Farmville as well as powered cotton and flour mills. Petersburg responded to the silting-up of its Appomattox River port by building the 8 mile long City Point Railroad, which linked the city to City Point on the James River, reachable by larger Chesapeake Bay and Norfolk-bound ships. During the same decade Petersburg became a railroad center. The Virginia and North Carolina legislatures authorized the 65-mile long Petersburg and Weldon Railroad, in 1830 (three years after the first American railway, the B.& O.) and its "Southern depot" began handling (mostly freight) traffic to Weldon, North Carolina in 1833. The Virginia legislature authorized the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad in 1835, and three years later it opened between Petersburg's Pocahontas neighborhood and Richmond's Manchester neighborhood, proving a more convenient and cheaper link than the Manchester Turnpike. The legislature in 1846 chartered Southside Railroad to Farmville and Lynchburg to the west. It would run 124 miles westward and supersede the technologically outdated Upper Appomattox Canal, and acquire the Appomattox Railroad in 1854. Petersburg business interests for years managed to block a charter for the last major line, the Norfolk and Petersburg Railroad, which was completed in 1858. It connected Petersburg to the Atlantic Ocean port of Norfolk, and would foster more groth in that city than Petersburg itself.
In 1851 the city introduced gaslights and by 1857 installed a new municipal water system. All these civic improvements helped attract and hold a substantial business community, based on manufacture of tobacco products, cotton and flour and banking.
At the time of the American Civil War, Petersburg was the second-largest city in Virginia after the capital, Richmond, and the seventh-largest city in the Confederacy. Petersburg's population had the highest percentage of free African Americans of any city in the Confederacy and the largest number of free blacks in the Mid-Atlantic region.
When the Civil War began in 1861, Petersburg was strategic in supporting the Confederate effort. The city provided several infantry companies and artillery units to the Confederate Army, along with three troops of cavalry. In April 1861 more than 300 free African Americans of Petersburg volunteered to work on the fortifications of Norfolk, Virginia under their own leader. Slaveholders also contributed the labor of numerous black slaves.
In 1864, Petersburg became a target during the Overland Campaign of Union General Ulysses S. Grant. Its numerous railroads made the city a lifeline for Richmond, the Confederate capital. After his defeat at the Battle of Cold Harbor, Grant remained east of Richmond and moved south to Petersburg. Grant intended to cut the rail lines into Petersburg, stopping Richmond's supplies. On June 9, troops led by William F. "Baldy" Smith of the 18th Corps, attacked the Dimmock Line, a series of defensive breastworks constructed to protect Petersburg.
General Robert E. Lee arrived with his Army of Northern Virginia, and the 292-day Siege of Petersburg began. Due to botched Union leadership and arrival of Confederate General William Mahone, the Union forces suffered a disastrous defeat at the Battle of the Crater, suffering over 4,000 casualties. In early April 1865, Union troops finally managed to push their left flank to the railroad to Weldon, North Carolina and the Southside Railroad. With the loss of Petersburg's crucial railroad lines, the Confederate forces had to retreat, ending the siege in a victory for the Union Army. The fall of Petersburg meant that Richmond could no longer be defended. Lee attempted to lead his men south to join up with Confederate forces in North Carolina. Hopelessly outnumbered, he was surrounded and forced to surrender at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, on April 9, 1865.
In the years after the Civil War, many freedmen migrated to Petersburg, founding numerous churches, businesses and institutions. The Freedmen's Bureau established new facilities for freedmen, including a mental health hospital in December 1869, at Howard's Grove Hospital, a former Confederate unit. The U.S. Federal Government and the railroad companies repaired the damaged railroads to the city. Saint John's Episcopal Church was founded in Petersburg in 1868.
In 1870 the General Assembly incorporated the Central Lunatic Asylum as an organized state institution, as part of an effort by the bi-racial Reconstruction-era legislature to increase public institutions for general welfare. The legislature also founded the state's first system of free public education.
During the 1880s, a coalition of black Republicans and white Populists held power for several years in the state legislature. This resulted in two major public institutions in Petersburg, as the legislature invested for education and welfare. In 1882, the legislature founded Virginia State University in nearby Ettrick as Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute. It was one of the first public (fully state-supported) four-year historically black colleges and universities (HBCU) in the Mid-Atlantic. This was part of a drive to improve public education that started with the Reconstruction legislature. In 1888, its first president, John Mercer Langston, was elected to the US Congress on the Republican ticket, the first African American to be elected to Congress from Virginia.
In 1882, the state legislature also authorized moving the mental asylum facility to the Mayfield Farm and developing a new campus there. This is the site of the present-day Central State Hospital, which provides a variety of mental health services.
In 1894 a fireworks factory exploded killing eleven people.
The limitations of Petersburg's small geographic area and proximity to Richmond are structural problems that have hampered it in adapting to major economic changes in the 20th century. Other forces in the mid-20th century, such as industrial and railroad restructuring, reduced the number of jobs in the city. In addition, suburban development attracted people to newer housing outside the city.
World wars led to major federal institutions being constructed near Petersburg, which created local jobs. Soon after World War I started, the US Army established Camp Lee just outside of Petersburg in Prince George County for training draftees. The facility was used again during World War II. In 1950 the camp was designated as Fort Lee, and additional buildings were constructed to house the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps Center and School.
During WWII Camp Picket was established west of Petersburg near the small rural town of Blackstone, and the Defense Supply Center, Richmond opened in neighboring Chesterfield. In the postwar period, some of these installations have been reduced in size. In the 1950s, Petersburg became the southern terminus of the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike, predating the U.S. Interstate Highway System.
Since that time, Petersburg has struggled in competition with nearby Richmond, as the capital has grown to dominate the region in a changing economy as industries restructured.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, Virginia's Democratic Party–dominated legislature approved constitutional changes that effectively disenfranchised most blacks and many poor whites. Those disfranchised suffered major losses in the ability to exercise their rights as citizens. The legislature also instituted Jim Crow laws, including imposing racial segregation.
With many African Americans having served the nation and cause of freedom in WWII, in the postwar years they pressed for social justice, an end to segregation, and restoration of voting power.
In 1949 Petersburg businessman and politician, Remmie Arnold, the president and owner of the Arnold Pen Company, at the time one of the largest manufacturers of fountain pens, launched a campaign for Governor of Virginia. As a Petersburg city councilman, Arnold had pushed through a budgetary increase earmarked for equality and fair access for public housing and recreational facilities for everyone, including people of color, and increased budgetary considerations for the black schools in Petersburg. Unusually for a Democratic politician in the Jim Crow South, Arnold promised to "deal with all Virginians fairly", whatever their ethnicity. He was endorsed by Arthur Wergs Mitchell, the first African American to be elected to the United States Congress as a Democrat. Arnold ultimately lost the Democratic primary to John S. Battle, who won the gubernatorial election.
Even after the Great Migration of many blacks to northern jobs and cities, Petersburg was 40 percent black in 1960. Under state segregation and Jim Crow laws, those citizens were barred from free use of public spaces and facilities.
Major black churches, such as First Baptist and Gillfield Baptist, formed the moral center of the Civil Rights Movement in Petersburg, which gained strength in mid-century and was a center of action. Dr. Wyatt Tee Walker, the pastor of Gillfield Baptist Church, had become friends with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the early 1950s when they were both in divinity school in New York state. In 1957 they co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), an important force for leadership of the movement in the South. Walker also founded the Petersburg Improvement Association (PIA), modeled on the Montgomery Improvement Association in Alabama. According to Walker and other close associates of King, Petersburg had played an important role, a kind of blueprint for the national civil rights movement.
Beginning in the 1950s African Americans in Petersburg struggled to desegregate public schools and facilities. In 1958 the City Council closed Wilcox Lake, a popular swimming hole in Petersburg to prevent the lake's public recreational area from being racially integrated. It never re-opened to swimming. Through sit-ins in the bus terminal in 1960, the PIA gained agreement by the president of the Bus Terminal Restaurants to desegregate lunch counters in Petersburg and several other cities.
Virginia officials strongly opposed school integration following the 1954 US Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that segregated public schools were unconstitutional. They initiated the program of Massive Resistance. For instance, rather than allow schools to be integrated, then Governor of Virginia, J. Lindsay Almond ordered the schools in several localities including Warren County, Charlottesville and Norfolk, to be closed. The school board of Prince Edward County closed the public schools for five years, starting in 1959. In Petersburg, the Bollingbook School opened in 1958 as a segregation academy for white students.
Retail and industry prospered until about the late 1980s. Petersburg was hit hard in 1985 when tobacco giant Brown & Williamson, the city's largest manufacturer, closed a cigarette factory in town. De-industrialization, restructuring of railroads, and related national structural economic changes cost many jobs in the city, as happened in numerous older industrial cities across the North and Midwest. The post-World War II national construction of highways encouraged development outside cities and suburbanization added to problems. In addition, reacting to racial integration of schools in the 1960s, many middle-class families moved to newer housing in the predominantly white suburbs. They also moved to the Richmond metro area, where the economy was expanding with jobs in new fields of financial and retail services. Some companies shifted industrial jobs to states further south, where wages were lower, or overseas.
The declining economy increased the pressure of competition and racial tensions in Petersburg. These flared from 1968 until 1980, when black members of the City Council accused the white Mayor of racism over a re-districting plan which they and the ACLU alleged was designed to allow whites to maintain white supremacy in the city. For decades, the city government was run by a small group of white businessmen and bankers. Most were wealthy enough to own homes in the exclusive Walnut Hill neighborhood and their interrelated families had been established there for generations. In 1980 one black councilwoman described the Petersburg city government as "our own little version of the Byrd Machine", comparing it to the political organization led by segregationist Democrat, Harry Flood Byrd, that controlled Virginia politics for decades. In 1968, following the April assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Petersburg was the first city to designate his birthday as a holiday; in 1983 it would be memorialized as the federal Martin Luther King Jr. Day, becoming a true national holiday when South Carolina became the last state to sign the observance into law.
In an attempt to stem its economic decline, in 1971 the city completed steps begun in 1966 to annex 14 square miles of land from adjacent and predominately white counties of Prince George and Dinwiddie. The annexation had been generally supported by the citizens of Petersburg, black and white alike, since the mid-1960s, as a necessary measure to allow the city of expand its tax base and its potential for growth and development. The city argued to the counties that it was better prepared to provide municipal-type services than the predominately rural counties and that the city needed more land for expected new development. The annexation was opposed by the county governments, who lost most of their commercial tax base, as well as the residents of the annexed suburban areas.
Following the annexation, blacks realized that the annexations had added 8,000 new white residents. City council members were then elected at-large, requiring majority approval for each seat. Black civil rights organizations challenged the annexations in court, saying these were motivated to illegally dilute the voting power of blacks. A federal judge, citing provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, agreed and ordered the city to be divided into single-member districts, or wards, to enable blacks the opportunity to elect representatives of their choice.
White flight from the annexed suburban neighborhoods began almost immediately. As residents of the city of Petersburg, their children would be required to attend the Petersburg City Schools, which had become predominately black due to whites sending their children to private schools or moving to suburbs.
Projected industrial development of large tracts of farmland in the annexed areas failed to take place. In 1985 Petersburg again sought to annex more land from Prince George County. This time the nearby City of Hopewell, a city that already had huge amounts of taxable industry within its borders, joined the annexation suit to try to annex commercial areas of Prince George County, including Fort Lee and suburban neighborhoods near the base where many military families live. Many residents of Prince George had relocated to stay within the county after the previous annexation by Petersburg. They were strongly opposed to another attempt by the cities to annex their neighborhoods. The U.S. Department of Defense also expressed strong opposition to the proposed annexation. After five years of litigation, with attorney Richard Cranwell representing Prince George County, the Virginia courts, including the Virginia Supreme Court, unanimously ruled that the cities had not shown that annexation would benefit their cities, nor was it necessary to provide governmental services to Prince George residents.
The prolonged annexation fight contributed to decades of racially tinged hostility between the county and city governments that have had negative impact on regional cooperation. Prince George County is predominately white while the city of Petersburg is roughly four-fifths black. These strained relationships have slowed regional progress and eroded business confidence, hampering economic development in the region to the present day.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, numerous remaining retail merchants, including Thalhimers, JC Penney, and Sears Roebuck, left older shopping areas in Petersburg for the new Southpark Mall that opened in 1989 in adjacent, and predominately white, Colonial Heights. A Miller & Rhoads store in Petersburg closed when the department store chain went out of business in 1990. The Ku Klux Klan had held marches in Colonial Heights. After the new shopping mall opened, blacks led by civil rights activist Curtis W. Harris and the SCLC boycotted Southpark Mall for about five years. The boycott ended after the Mayor of Colonial Heights, James McNeer, met with Harris and members of his board to discuss job opportunities for blacks in the mall area. McNeer later became President of Richard Bland College.
In the late 20th century, Petersburg worked to restore historic buildings and attract different kinds of stores and businesses to its historic center. During the 1993 Virginia tornado outbreak, Petersburg was struck by an F4 tornado that swept through the downtown area, seriously damaging a number of restored historic buildings and businesses. The same tornado also touched down in Colonial Heights destroying a Walmart store.
As of 2007, Petersburg has continued to evolve as a small city, and its commercial activities have changed. Downtown Petersburg, known as Old Towne, has had new businesses established in the compact core: these include indie restaurants, bars and coffee shops. The long-abandoned Walnut Mall, which closed in the early 1990s, has been demolished. A new Food Lion grocery store and a Walmart opened on the South end of town. The Army has expanded activities at nearby Fort Lee, home of the United States Army's Sustainment Center of Excellence. The Army's Logistics Branch, Ordnance, Quartermaster, and the Transportation Corps moved there from Fort Eustis following the round of Base Realignment and Closure actions in 2005.
In 2016, Petersburg faced the prospect of large-scale cuts to public services after a state audit found a $12 million budget shortfall and the prospect of insolvency by the end of the year.