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Petersburg (Independent City)

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Petersburg is an independent city on the borders of Dinwiddie, Chesterfield, and Prince George counties. The town developed on the fall line of the Appomattox River where in 1645 Fort Henry, a garrison and trading post, was established. Ships to and from England could reach the falls but get no farther inland, so they were loaded or unloaded at this spot. In 1733 William Byrd II named the community Petersburgh for local trader Peter Jones (see DW21), who accompanied Byrd on expeditions. The community was established as a town in 1748 (by then known as Petersburg) and incorporated in 1784. That same year, Pocahontas Island in the Appomattox River became part of Petersburg. As early as 1776, one-third of North America's tobacco was exported through the Petersburg area. Because Virginia's waterways south of the Appomattox River drained into North Carolina's too-shallow Albemarle Sound, products for export were brought here and on to the deeper harbors of Richmond's James River.

In 1850 Petersburg was incorporated as a city and by 1860 it was the seventh-largest city in the South and, within Virginia, second only to Richmond, the state capital. Industry used the falls to drive grist and saw mills and, later, large cotton mills. The city's tobacco inspection stations, warehouses, and processing plants sprang up along the river and made fortunes for some and employment for many, both free and enslaved. Despite its proximity to Richmond, Petersburg prospered until the Civil War.

Before Emancipation, Petersburg had one of the largest black populations in Virginia, outnumbering whites by four to three. About 40 percent of the black population was free, one of the largest free black populations in the South. The reasons trace, in part, to the early settlement of the city, when Virginians, especially in the Revolutionary era, had strong misgivings about slavery and were more inclined to manumission. In the later part of the eighteenth century, local Quakers and Methodists freed a relatively large number of slaves. The manumission of women, especially, was not uncommon and meant that children subsequently born to them were free. Those freed in rural areas tended to gravitate toward cities where there were more opportunities.

During the Civil War, the early summer of 1864 was especially disastrous for Petersburg. General Ulysses S. Grant adopted a plan to defeat Richmond by cutting off its supply lines through Petersburg, which by then was Virginia's southern railroad hub. His brutal Siege of Petersburg lasted ten months in 1864–1865 and left more than 65,000 Northern and Southern casualties. In both a literal and a figurative sense, Petersburg became the graveyard of the Confederacy. The fall of Petersburg on April 2, 1865, a city littered with the dead and wounded, led to the Confederate surrender at Appomattox a week later. After the war, money was scarce to rebuild and modernize and, although Northern capital aided in the speedy reconstruction of Richmond, less was available to assist Petersburg. Fortunately, the tobacco industry soon recovered and remained strong well into the twentieth century. Light manufacturing and the proximity of Fort Lee during World War I fed Petersburg's importance as a Southside retail, banking, cultural, and service center. After World War II, strip development and shopping centers, and increased services on the base at Fort Lee, contributed to the economic decline of Petersburg's downtown.

In its best days, Petersburg's citizens manifested their high aspirations for the city by commissioning acclaimed architects from New York City (Calvin Pollard), Philadelphia (Thomas U. Walter), and Baltimore (Niernsee and Neilson) to design civic buildings and churches. The federal government added further luster to Petersburg with Ammi B. Young's U.S. Custom House and Post Office (1856–1858; DW30). Petersburg's most popular architect in the late nineteenth century was Harrison Waite and several of the city's business leaders commissioned him to design or remodel their houses. The versatile Waite designed in many styles and his practice included fraternal, religious, educational, and commercial structures. But by the early twentieth century, major construction in downtown Petersburg was over.

With all its manifold benefits, racial integration brought to Petersburg the same problems of white flight and subsequent loss of economic resources that troubled the centers of other southern cities. Petersburg also has seen waning urban business and industry, as well as fires, floods, tornados, siltation of the river, and a declining population. From a population of around 41,000 in 1980, Petersburg's population in 2010 had dropped to fewer than 33,740 residents. Much has been visited on this still-beautiful but pockmarked city as it struggles to rejuvenate itself.

Writing Credits

Author: 
Anne Carter Lee

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