Hard Times In Dixie
On March 15, 1865, a British M.P. named Thomas Conolly arrived in Petersburg on a tour of the Confederacy. Conolly described the town as a "very considerable place with large markets, Tobacco factories & handsome streets filled with large stores. He visited several dwellings in the city, all of which "bore marks of the shelling." It had been a cold winter, one consequence of which added greatly to the challenge of moving about in the dark. In a special column, the editor of the Petersburg Express laminated that "nearly every little foot bridge about town has lost half its timber, while some of them have entirely disappeared. They are stolen at night, and burned as fuel."
The stresses of the siege also played havoc on family relationships; children especially were affected by the general social breakdown. In March 1865, the Express reported that "numerous complaints reach us daily of the ....danger to which citizens are subjected by the boys....who indulge in the practice of throwing stones about the city."
At Lee's orders, caches of government tobacco were stored in what one soldier described as "sheds and houses of but little value," making it easier to destroy these stocks when the time came for the army to retreat. It was a warning sign of things to come.
Ominous too was the steady hemorrhage of deserters from the Confederate ranks. As many as one hundred men left each night, some to go home, others to Yankee prison camps. According to official C.S.A. records, 2,934 soldiers deserted in the month following the fight in which John Pegram died. Southerners now had to shoot their own in an attempt to frighten others from running. Private Bernard, on picket duty in late March, noted that the " firing at deserters [was now] a thing of nightly occurrence."
Yet, to all outward appearances, Robert E. Lee remained firm in his resolve to continue Petersburg's defense. During his visit, Conolly dined with him. Also present was a young lady who begged Lee not to evacuate the city when spring arrived. Conolly never forgot Lee's response: "Oh Miss, have you no faith in our boys?"
Conolly's dinner took place on March 17. Six days later Lee listened in grim silence as one of his most trusted subordinates outlined a desperate scheme to break the Federal grip on Petersburg. Lee had asked Major General John B. Gordon to find a way to attack the Union entrenchments. After attending a series of meetings in Richmond with Jefferson Davis, Lee came away convinced that their would be no political initiative to end the war, so his task was to preserve his army as long as possible. That meant creating the condition for a breakout from Petersburg, an assignment Lee had handed to Gordon.
Robert E. Lee and his horse Traveller at Petersburg.
(Dementi-Foster Studios, Richmond, Va)
Major General John B. Gordon