On the 16th of June, after numerous attempts by the Union forces to penetrate the Confederate lines failed, the assault against Petersburgs civilians began when a Union Battery of Artillery set it's guns at maximum elevation and sent the first shells into the city.
This of course panicked some of the noncombatants and they began to leave the city. A Virginia artilleryman noted on June 20th that it was "very distressing to see the poor women and children leaving." In late July a correspondent observed that "houses, and even the fields, for miles around Petersburg are filled with women and children and old men who had fled from their homes." Added a surgeon, "What they live on Heavenly father only knows."
Yet many others remained behind and learned to cope with Union siege artillery of every type and caliber that ranged the town. (The most photogenic of them was a 13 inch morter known as "The Dictator," which hurled it's 200 pound shells up to two and a half miles.)
A Confederate cavalryman remarked that "It was really good to see the ladies pass coolly along the streets as though nothing unusual was transpiring while the 160 pound shells were howling like hawks of perdition through the smoky air."
One hard to miss target for the Union gunners in the forts and the forty-two battery positions located in between them was Petersburg itself. The city's eastern district suffered the worst damage, and many of the more than 500 buildings hit by Yankee shells were located east of Sycamore Street. The threat of fire was constant. Soon after the siege began, Petersburg's Common Councill organized an auxiliary fire brigade to assist the overburdened regular units. Adding to the danger was the habit of the Federal cannoneers to concentrate their aim on burning structures so that attempts to put out the blaze would be be met with what one firefighter described as a "perfect storm of shot and shell."
From The Petersburg Daily Register comes the following account:
True to their fiendish instincts, which set at naught all the courtesies of civilized warfare, and following the unhallowed promptings of a malignant hatred to the Southern people, they commenced throwing shell into the city at an early hour. Availing themselves of their temporary advantage, without giving the slightest notice, they hurled their shrieking missiles amidst the homes of helpless women and children. For about two hours these messengers of death flew fast and furious, but an overruling Providence baffled the villainous designs of these would-be murderers of unresisting non-combatants. There were no injuries done to the dwellings and but trifling casualties to the persons of our citizens. A few shells fell but did not explode in the neighborhood of the South Carolina Hospital on Washington street. On main street in Blandford, near the cemetery, a small shell passed through the frame house of a colored man named Hargrave, doing no damage but displacing a few inches of the weatherboarding. We hope the mark will be allowed to remain unrepaired, as a specimen of the Yankee mode of winning our affections and restoring the Union. In the same neighborhood, a shell exploded as it passed the house of Mrs. Naw, who was seated in her back parlor with her infant in her lap; a fragment struck her on the head inflicting a painful, but not serious wound, which did not prevent her from walking into town for medical assistance. A number of Negroes fled in affright from their dwellings but only one was hurt by a fragment slightly bruising his arm. About 9 A.M., the shelling ceased. We hear our troops captured the gun from which it proceeded but rather think the advance of our troops compelled the enemy to remove it.
Years afterward, a Confederate who survived the rigors of the campaign for the Cockade City cautioned future historians: "The story of Petersburg will never be written; volumes would be required to contain it, and even those who went through the trying ordeal, can not recall a satisfactory outline of the weird and graphic occurrences of that stormy period."