When twenty-three-year-old George S. Bernard marched off to war in April 1861 as a member of the Petersburg Rifles, he left behind a city of no small accomplishments. Much of its importance derived from it's location, just below the falls of the Appomattox River, where planters transferred their goods to ships for passage to the James River and beyond.
Formally organized by the Virginia General Assembly in 1784, Petersburg was not long in acquiring many of the signs of civilization. Paved streets began to appear in 1813, soon followed by a canal bypassing the Appomattox falls; railroad lines linking it to all points of the compass came next, gaslights were introduced in 1851, and a new municipal water water system was installed by 1857. All these civic improvements helped attract and hold a substantial business community, based on tobacco manufacture, but also including cotton and flour mills and banking.
Its 1860 population was 18,266, half of which were black, and nearly a third of them were free. Ninety percent of the white half were native Virginians, whose devotion to the cause in 1812 inspired the nickname "Cockade City" in honor of the rosette they wore on their caps. When Civil War came in 1861, Petersburg's men again responded, and they provided the South several infantry companies and artillery units, as well as three troops of cavalry.
All these young men left to fight elsewhere, and for a short while the war was something known only through the newspapers. But it all came home when a Union navel blockade established in Hampton Roads, at the mouth of the James, closed down the port of Petersburg. There was some compensatory prosperity as the town's industries expanded to meet the new demands for military material. This led Confederate leaders to worry about its security. In 1862 Captain Charles H. Dimmock arrived from Richmond to remedy the situation. Employing a large slave labor force, he built a ring of earthworks stretching fully ten miles around the city, a line of fortifications and 55 battery positions that lacked only the troops to man them. This became known as "The Dimmock Line."
Petersburg's young men marched toward that dark horizon in proud little units; the Petersburg Rifles, the Petersburg Grays, Graham's Battery, the Lafayette Guards, and the Archer Rifles were just some of the seventeen separate units that disappeared into the maw of the war.
On June 9,1864 Union Major General Benjamin Butler sent a mixed cavalry- infantry expedition of 6,500 men to capture the Cockade City. The horsemen (numbering 1,500) were sent on a wide swing to enter the city from the south, while two columns of foot soldiers marched in from the northeast and east. This soon led to "The Battle of Old Men and Young Boys."
Five railroads converged into Petersburg, unerringly pointing out its strategic importance. To the northeast, southeast, and south the City Point, Norfolk, and Petersburg and Weldon lines tied the city to river and sea ports. From the west, the Southside Railroad fed in supplies from the interior. All of these routes then funneled northward to Richmond on a single line.