Revolution in Petersburg

The great Civil War siege of Petersburg has given the City international notoriety, yet during the
Revolution major fighting finally came to Virginia. Petersburg was in the thick of it. This is not surprising as General
Washington had designated the City as one of the major supply depots for the Commonwealth and because Petersburg
lay across the primary north-south communications line between the states, that route that follows modern day U.S.
Highway 1.
Many of the major military leaders in the Revolution converged on Petersburg and the Tidewater for the
climactic conclusion of the Revolution. Commanding the Virginia militia was Major General Friedrich Wilhelm Augustus
von Steuben. He had forces north and south of the James River, with the southern contingent commanded by General
John Peter Gabriel Muhlenberg. Additional American leaders were the Marquis de Lafayette and General Anthony
On the British side were America’s most notorious traitor, now a Brigadier in the British Army, Benedict
Arnold, his successor Major General William Phillips, and, coming from the South, General Charles Cornwallis and his
brutal Cavalry commander, Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarelton.

Charles Cornwallis, Daniel Gardner, early 1780s, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation
Portrait of Benedict Arnold.
(Credit: Getty Images)

Petersburg was probably the largest settlement in Virginia at the time. With a population of 2,828 in 1782 it was
three times the size of Richmond. The City was a British target because of the prosperous tobacco trade, because of the
Continental Army supplies stored there, and because to take it would break Washington’s communications with
American forces in the South. General Phillips moved his 3,000 regulars west to City Point, now Hopewell, on April 24,
1781. On the same day, American troops invested the City and got set to resist the British advance. Von Steuben and
Muhlenberg knew their outnumbered and untested militia could not defeat Phillip’s regulars, but they wanted to slow
them down and make an orderly retreat across the Pocahontas Bridge over the Appomattox.
Von Steuben positioned his five regiments as follows. Two were situated at Poor’s Creek, near the current
location of Virginia Linen. The line ran from a wharf on the River south to Well’s Hill at Blandford Church. Two more
regiments were placed on the west side of Lieutenant’s Run along present-day Madison Street from the river south to the
Bollingbrook estate on East Hill. A fifth regiment was sent over the bridge to cover the retreat with artillery from a
position in present-day Colonial Heights.
Phillips began his assault with troops on land and gunboats on the River. About noon the British began to lay
into the American lines, but a spirited defense threw them back temporarily and prevented a successful flank attack on
the colonial right. The American militia escaped across the river just in time but not without considerable hand-to-hand
combat on the south side of the bridge. This allowed von Steuben to rip up the bridge planks thus preventing British
American casualties were high in comparison to the British, and while in the City, Phillips burned large
quantities of tobacco brought into the streets by the citizens who were promised that only the leaf would be destroyed not
the warehouses in which they were stored. Unfortunately, the Cedar Point facility was burned along with its tobacco,
probably by accident. Phillips died on May 13, during a bombardment ordered by the Marquis De Lafayette and was
buried in the grounds of Blandford Churh. Most likely he died of typhoid fever.
Though considered a loss to the Patriots, the Battle of Petersburg was not an insignificant engagement. It
certainly was more than a skirmish, most importantly, it proved that Virginia, hence American militia, under effective
leadership, could stand, fight, and retreat in an effective, deadly, disciplined and orderly manner. The Battle was part of
those events leading up to and helping set the stage for the final climactic military conclusion of the Revolution at
Yorktown six months later.
Each year during April, Petersburg commemorates the Battle with a re-enactment at historic Battersea built in
1768 by Colonel John Banister, signer of the Articles of Confederation and elected first Mayor of the City in 1784.


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