A Civil War Thanksgiving at Petersburg National Battlefield
WCVE TV is presenting an enhanced version of Ken Burn’s The Civil War as the 150th Anniversary of the conflict draws near. This weekend, The Petersburg National Battlefield is offering a glimpse of Thanksgiving during the siege of the city in 1864.
On Saturday night, the 146th anniversary of Thanksgiving in the trenches will be marked by three performances.
Watkins: Thanksgiving was a big part of the soldier's life. Both sides, Confederate and Union, did celebrate it back home.
Ranger Randy Watkins.
Watkins: We have three different presentations, one at six, one at seven and one at eight. Each one lasts about fifty minutes; there's gonna be five scenarios at each presentation, and it's all gonna revolve around music.
Visitors' first stop on the walking tours will be a northern home scene.
Watkins: In a building that we can kinda convert to a house; we're putting a table and some chairs and things in it and candles, lanterns. We'll have a family in there with one vacant seat. There's a song called 'The Vacant Chair,' and it talks about the soldier that's away from home. They will be talking about what it's like to have him gone, will he be back the next Christmas, the next Thanksgiving and things like that. Then the second one will be a Confederate scene, just with a soldier sitting next to a winter quarters hut, reading letters from home, writing letters from home, talking about Thanksgiving where he’s from.
The next scene will be a reminder that the War Between the States is still raging.
Watkins: There'll be an artillery detachment, with a twelve-pound Napoleon cannon, which they will actually fire at night. Anybody that's ever seen one during the day, it's impressive. You see it go off at night, it's even more so. And that's just to remind people that, even though both sides were celebrating Thanksgiving, and the soldiers were in their own way in the trenches, that the war still was going on and people were fighting and dying.
The fourth stop will present U.S. Colored Troops involved in the siege of Petersburg.
Watkins: Petersburg had a large presence of African-American soldiers there. The ones who had been free prior to the war, and they celebrated their Thanksgiving, where the ex-slave who was now a United States Colored Troop, he saw it completely different. His family celebrated it entirely differently from the African-Americans up north. And then the last one is gonna kinda harken back to the first scene. It'll be a funeral scene, where there'll be a chaplain and an officer and a non-commissioned officer that are conducting something of a funeral service for a slain soldier. It'll be talking about, you know, how there'll be people, maybe people back home, who were celebrating Thanksgiving hoping that their soldier would be back the next winter, but some of them would not.
The siege brought General U.S. Grant face-to-face with General Robert E. Lee.
Watkins: It's the longest siege that's ever been held in the United States and actually in the western hemisphere. It involved the Union, really three Union armies, parts of it, Army of the James, Army of the Potomac and Army of the Shenandoah, and all commanded by U.S. Grant against Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, which was spread from Richmond all down through Petersburg, and the idea was to try to prevent the Union army from cutting all the rail communications and supply lines going into Petersburg 'cause then if you could keep them from getting into Petersburg, they couldn't go up the Richmond-Petersburg railroad up to Richmond, see? And it just took them nine and a half months to do it.
Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox just days after the siege of Petersburg ended the following April. Be sure to check with Ranger Watkins at 732-3531, ext. 205, as tickets may be sold out.
John Ogle, WCVE News