Petersburg has a rich history, particularly regarding the American Revolution and the Civil War. As the Revolution ended, Petersburg was the center of one of the last significant battles before Britain’s surrender at Yorktown on October 19, 1781.
So why was Petersburg a target for the British? Petersburg’s strategic location was a significant factor. Situated on both water and land routes, controlling Petersburg would have enabled the British to effectively control the supply chain and military movement in the region.
Petersburg was also a major hub for the tobacco trade, a popular commodity and a medium of exchange at the time. Controlling Petersburg would have allowed the British to stop this vital economic activity, weakening the local economy and undermining support for the Revolutionary cause.
Finally, Petersburg served as a storage and shipping point for military supplies to the American army engaged in southern operations. By capturing Petersburg, the British could have cut off an essential supply line to American forces, stopping their ability to fight effectively.
The British had been in control of Portsmouth since May 1780, and in April 1781, they decided to move up the James River. Under the command of Major General William Phillips, the British army invaded and landed at City Point (now Hopewell) on April 24, 1781.
The Virginia militia, led by Brigadier General Peter Muhlenberg, had been keeping a close eye on the British forces at Portsmouth. Upon learning of the British’s move, they, too, made their way along the south side of the river, marching toward Petersburg to counter the British invasion.
This was a significant period in the American Revolutionary War, as it marked a shift in British strategy from focusing on the northern colonies to a concentrated effort in the South. The British hoped to gain the support of Loyalist sentiment, believed to be stronger in the South, but this strategy ultimately failed due to a lack of significant Loyalist support and effective resistance from American forces.
The Battle of Blandford, also known as the Battle of Petersburg, was a significant event during the Revolutionary War. Major General William Phillips led the British army in the attack on Petersburg. The battle started just after noon on April 25, 1781, with Phillips’ forces arriving east of Blandford, a community now part of modern-day Petersburg.
The Virginia militia, under the command of Baron von Steuben, put up a tough defense. For three hours, they fought fiercely, repelling multiple assaults from the British forces. However, after the intense combat, von Steuben ordered a retreat across the Pocahontas Bridge onto what is now known as Colonial Heights.
Von Steuben’s retreat was not a sign of defeat but a calculated move. He aimed to regroup his forces and eventually join the American Regulars under Major General Marquis de Lafayette near Richmond.
The Virginia militia put up a heroic fight at Petersburg. Outnumbered by the British army of 2,500 to the militia strength of barely 1,000 men, the Virginians denied the British the opportunity to capture Petersburg without fighting for it. The Petersburg battle bought a full day’s time for Lafayette to entrench his army on the heights of Richmond and prevent a second major attack, as happened the previous January when British Brigadier Benedict Arnold assaulted and burned much of Richmond.
While there are currently no events listed specifically for City of Petersburg, search the VA250 Statewide Calendar of Events for a comprehensive listing of programs across the state.