Past is Prologue

Clint Schemmer writes about history, heritage preservation and the American Civil War.  On Facebook: Past is Prologue  On Twitter: @prologuepast  ContactEmail Clint or call 540/374-5424.

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Witness to History: Petersburg’s South Side Depot

Petersburg’s South Side Depot in the spring of 1865. (NATIONAL ARCHIVES)

Petersburg’s South Side Depot, which shares its pre-war Italianate architecture with the railroad depot in downtown Gettysburg (where President Lincoln arrived to deliver his Gettysburg Address), has an equally fascinating history.

Completed in 1854, it is one of the nation’s older surviving railroad stations, serving the line that linked Petersburg with Lynchburg. In the antebellum years, it was vital to the region’s trade in African American labor, both slave and free, according to Virginia State University.

After the Civil War, it housed the office of Gen. Billy Mahone, a railroad president who was a founder of Virginia State. From here, Mahone–Confederate hero of Petersburg’s Battle of the Crater–fought campaigns for railroad dominance and political control of the commonwealth. Mahone lead the radical Republicans’ Readjustor Party, which ran post-war Virginia for a time.

The South Side Depot, seen today.

In 1993, a tornado that devastated downtown Petersburg ripped away the eastern side of the building at the corner of River and Rock streets.

Now, state and local officials–with vital help from the Civil War Trust–hope to stabilize and restore the structure and convert it into a visitor center for Petersburg National Battlefield, much as the American Civil War Center’s Tredegar Iron Works does for Richmond National Battlefield Park.

Lewis Rogers, superintendent of Petersburg National Battlefield, says that having such a visitor center in the city’s historic heart will enable the park to “reach out to new audiences who haven’t come to the park and help them learn more.”

“I’m African-American. When I grew up, I didn’t think there was anything in the Civil War for me,” Rogers told the Richmond Times-Dispatch on Tuesday. “I learned there were African-Americans who fought in the Civil War, and Native Americans who fought in the Civil War, both of which fought at Petersburg.”

When Ulysses S. Grant’s army laid siege to Petersburg in 1864, the South Side Depot became a crucial element in Confederate logistical efforts.

The survival of Richmond depended on the South Side Railroad and three other Petersburg-area rail lines that supplied the Confederate capital with food and other essentials of life, and war.

Naturally, Grant’s forces sought to cut off supplies and communication to Robert E. Lee’s army and Richmond.

When the South Side Railroad–the last line controlled by the Confederate army–fell to Union troops in early April 1865, the loss and evacuation of Petersburg and the capital became inevitable.