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AAA World Article

History Lives Here

Petersburg, Virginia’s historic attractions are a draw to Hollywood and tourists alike.

By Theresa Gawlas Medoff

AAA World Article

Centre Hill Museum
Photo by Joanne Williams

When Steven Spielberg toured Petersburg, Virginia, he knew it would be the ideal place to film his 2012 movie Lincoln. The folks from the PBS mini-series Mercy Street chose the city’s Centre Hill mansion to serve as the Green family’s hotel-turned-Union-hospital, and much of the soon-to-be released Harriet Tubman biopic Harriet was filmed in and around Petersburg.

It wasn’t the Hollywood connection, however, that first put on my radar this city of 31,000 that’s 25 miles south of Richmond. For that, I credit a friend and American history buff who used to live there. He convinced me that I needed to go to Petersburg to visit Pamplin Historical Park, which he praised as “the [Colonial] Williamsburg of the Civil War.”

Intrigued, I planned an overnight visit to check out Petersburg and Pamplin Historical Park and to learn why Hollywood keeps returning.

Remembering the Siege
Petersburg is much more than a setting for Civil War-era films. It actually was at the center of the war for nearly 10 months during the Siege of Petersburg, which took place from June 15, 1864, to April 2, 1865. Also known as the Richmond–Petersburg Campaign, it was a period of trench warfare, standoffs, skirmishes and larger battles as Union forces sought to cut off the South’s supply lines to Richmond, the Confederate capital. The defeat of Confederate forces in Petersburg on April 2 led to the fall of Richmond the following day and inexorably to the South’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia, a week later.

Open Fire Cooking
A costumed interpreter demonstrates campfire cooking at Pamplin Historical Park.
Photo Courtesy of Pamplin Historical Park

Visitors can learn about the Siege at Petersburg National Battlefield on the edge of town. Start at the Eastern Front Visitor Center, where you can view the well-done film created using historic photos. With those images in mind, you’re ready to embark on a driving tour of the battlefields, stopping along the way to survey now-silent fields and read historical placards.

Depending on your interest level, you could spend anywhere from a couple of hours to more than a day touring the battlefields and related sites along a 33-mile route that crosses into three counties and includes General Grant’s Headquarters at City Point, which was also the site of a massive Union supply base and large field hospital.

If a tour of the battlefields is a somber reminder of the war that split our nation, then a visit to Pamplin Historical Park is a Technicolor representation of the era. Pamplin celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, yet it remains an under-the-radar destination visited most often by Virginia fifth-graders, scout troops and in-the-know history travelers. At 423 acres, Pamplin Historical Park is actually about one-third larger than Colonial Williamsburg—but with significantly fewer buildings and costumed interpreters, as most of the acreage remains undeveloped. The site’s centerpiece is the National Museum of the Civil War Soldier, which focuses on the experiences of rank-and-file soldiers. More than 700 artifacts are displayed. Some are safely tucked behind glass; others are arrayed in you-are-there tableaus. The free audio tour lets visitors follow the story of a real-life soldier.

Petersburg, Virginia
l Museum of the Civil War Soldier
Photo Courtesy of Pamplin Historical Park

Outside the museum are several living history areas staffed by costumed historical interpreters. Among them are the middle-class plantation home Tudor Hall and its reconstructed outbuildings, including slave quarters. The Military Encampment features reconstructions of soldiers’ quarters. On the day I visited, schoolchildren were scattered about, some learning to handle a rifle (actually a carved wooden pole) and others learning about camp life.

Tudor Hall
Photo Courtesy of Pamplin Historical Park

Beyond the encampment, walking paths wind through woods and meadows that once saw fierce battle, and miles of earthworks—earthen mounds built as defensive barriers—are still clearly visible.

The City at the Center
The battles in this area were fought for one reason: the railroads that ran through Petersburg, supplying not only the Confederate capital but also Confederate forces. The railroad depot of the era still stands in Old Towne Petersburg. It’s scheduled for renovation as the city’s visitor center by 2020.

It was here in Old Towne that much of Spielberg’s Lincoln was filmed, its cobblestone streets and well-preserved antebellum buildings providing period-accurate atmosphere. These days, those buildings house restaurants, bars, antique shops and a few art galleries. It’s a lively, walkable place, particularly on weekends when people come out to dine at restaurants such as City Table, which occupies a hexagonal 1870 brick building that was long home to the city’s farmers market. (The building was used in Lincoln and repeatedly in Mercy Street.) Exposed beams and an industrial décor are the backdrop for dining on Southern classics such as shrimp and grits or chicken and gravy.

Petersburg, Virginia Antiques
Antique stores abound in Petersburg
Photo by Joanne Williams

Less than a block away on Cockade Alley, The Brickhouse Run pub and restaurant occupies two 1815 buildings that provide a cozy atmosphere for a dinner of British and American specialties. Try the polenta cakes topped with local mushrooms and arugula and tender, oversized fried oysters. Scattered about in other historic Old Towne buildings are restaurants offering Asian, Creole, Italian, soul and other cuisine. Old Towne also boasts AMMO brewing. A few blocks away, you’ll find Trapezium Brewing Co. with its rustic taproom and outdoor beer garden.

Beyond drinking and dining in Old Towne, you’ll want to take in the architecture. Notable buildings include Petersburg Courthouse, built in the 1830s. The courthouse clock was visible to soldiers from both North and South in their nearby encampments, who would set their watches by it. The clock tower was a favorite target of Union artillerists. The 1840 Greek Revival Exchange building on Bank Street houses the visitor center and the newly opened Petersburg Museum, with exhibits on 400 years of the area’s history.

Petersburg, Virginia Courthouse
Petersburg Courthouse
Photo by Joanne Williams

Throughout town, you’ll find impressive historic mansions from the era when tobacco and the railroads made many Petersburg residents wealthy. Most notably, the several-block High Street offers up a smorgasbord of 19th-century architectural styles, from Georgian and Greek revival to Italianate and Queen Anne. Twice a year, residents of some of Petersburg’s historic homes put out the welcome mat for visitors. Next up is the annual Holiday Homes Tour, set for December 8 in the Walnut Hills neighborhood. Petersburg is a perennial favorite place to tour during Virginia’s annual Historic Garden Week (April 18–25, 2020), too.

You don’t have to wait for a special day to tour Petersburg’s most famous home, though. The Centre Hill Museum, an 1823 brick mansion prominently featured in the television show Mercy Street, is open for tours year-round. (Call to check on days and times.) The home is fully furnished with period pieces bought for the series, and costumes from the show are displayed in every room.

Petersburg, Virginia
Centre Hill Museum
Photo by Joanne Williams

Complement your tours of historic mansions by staying at the 1857 Ragland Mansion bed-and-breakfast, a 10,000-square-foot Italianate home in the Poplar Lawn district. Staying at the boutique Jury’s Inn downtown will also keep you in the historical mood, and the city is eagerly awaiting the opening in 2020 of the restored 1915 Petersburg Hotel, which neighbors the historic courthouse. Until then, your other lodging options are several chain hotels near the entrance to Interstate 95.



This article originally appeared in the July/August 2019 edition of AAA World.

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