Virginia Council Pioneers
Following In The Footsteps Of The Blue And Gray
One hundred and fifty years ago, the land of Central Virginia was the scene of some of the most intense fighting of America’s Civil War. Through the efforts of our ancestors, the sites of some of those battles were set aside - so that future generations could learn from the experiences of those who lived and fought there.
Both Richmond and Petersburg have their National Battlefield parks - staffed and managed by the National Park Service. These teams of rangers and historians are constantly seeking to improve the experience of visitors to the parks. That is where the Virginia Council of the New Outlook Pioneers makes its contribution. Over the past several years, local Pioneers have been involved in the restoration and construction of several buildings and bridges in the Petersburg National Battlefield Park. And in the Spring of 2012, the Pioneers once again answered a call to service when the Park Service beckoned. In the Spring of 2012, the Park Service decided to add a new trail that would trace the ground where the Confederates mounted their last offensive of the war in the Spring of 1865. Boy Scout teams cleared the trail. Then the Pioneers were called on to supply the missing gap.
In the Spring of 1865, Petersburg was in its ninth month of siege by the Union army - the last days of this four year conflict. Trenches and battlements stretched around the south of the city and up its eastern side toward Richmond. Inside the city lines were the remnants of the Confederate Army of Northern
Virginia, approximately 55,000 men, who by that stage of the war were ill-fed and ill-equipped. Outside the lines were approximately 122,000 men of the Union Army of the Potomac, well equipped from their supply depot at City Point and led by a general that was determined to bring the war to an end.
A panoramic view of the bridge/stair structure that provides a vital link on the new trail from Colquitt’s Salient (a Confederate position) to Fort Stedman (a Union strongpoint) in the Petersburg National Battlefield Park. Pioneers completed the construction and installation in two days (May 15 - 16, 2012).
In late March, General Lee realized that he could no longer maintain his position around Petersburg. He planned to withdraw west to the Blue Ridge mountains, where he could join his now-ragged army with the remnants of the Confederate forces that were
retreating north from the Carolinas. But the Confederate politicians in Richmond were opposed to that strategy. So in a last desperate gamble, Lee decided to stage
an attack to the east - in the direction of the federal supply depot at City Point, at the mouth of the Appomattox River.
So on the morning of March 25, Lee’s last offensive began. The starting point was an extension of the Confederate lines known as Colquitt’s Salient. The immediate objective was a point in the Union perimeter named Fort Steadman. (The term “fort” was liberally applied. Fort Stedman was little more than some felled trees and earthworks protecting a battery of cannon.) The initial charge of the Confederates did indeed overrun Fort Stedman. But as the day wore on and more men were thrown into the battle, the
fighting surged back and forth, with the same ground changing hands several times.
At the end of the day, the battle line was just about where it had started. The confederates had given up a little ground. But they had lost about 5,000 men - about 10% of their remaining army. On April 2, General Lee finally abandoned Petersburg, heading west toward the Blue Ridge mountains. On April 9, General Grant’s Union army caught up with him and Appomattox Court House. And the “War Between The States” was over.
President Lincoln had been at Petersburg on March 25. So he was able to view part of Lee’s last offensive - from another of the many Union strong points to the south of Petersburg. And now, thanks to the work of your fellow Pioneers, you too can walk the same path that was trod by Union and Confederate soldiers in that last desperate charge.
The trail leading from Colquitt’s Salient slopes down, crossing a stream which at times becomes a torrent, then rises to Fort Stedman. To make the trail passable, a short bridge was required to span the stream; and a flight of stairs was needed to
surmount each adjoining slope. At the Pioneers’ April meeting, Park Service officials outlined these structures. By early May, Bruce Fichter had refined these outlines into a set of detailed designs and materials specifications. The Park Service then
obtained the raw lumber and the fasteners. So by mid-May, the project was ready for the construction phase.
On the morning of May 15, a platoon of hearty volunteers (Alvin Anderson, Vickie Anderson, Bruce Fichter, Richard Hannah, Frank Haselton, Dave Haught, Henry Janowitz, Jeanette Kahn, Bob Whiteman and Sandy Whiteman) reported to the Petersburg Battlefield Park Maintenance Headquarters. Construction immediately commenced. Bruce and Alvin lent their considerable carpentry skills to the intricate task of cutting the stair stringers (the sides that would support the steps themselves). Dave led the team that cut the boards for the stair steps and for
the deck sides and planking. Every volunteer lent a hand in some phase of the construction.
National Park Service employees Dave Shockley and Laura Kellam outline the
new trail project at Petersburg National Battlefield Park.
After three hours of non-stop activity, the bridge/stair structure was ready for installation. The bridge platform had been completed, and planks had been assembled to the center section of the deck. All of the stair stringers and steps had been cut in preparation for on-site assembly. Concrete blocks for the bridge support had been gathered.
With the assistance of a few Air Force volunteers, all of this material was hoisted onto and lashed to a trailer. It was time to advance (after lunch).
The Park Service then again entered the fray - transporting the bridge and the stair sections to the trail site. Here, the Pioneers faced, not the Minnie balls and grapeshot of 1865, but the gnats, ticks and mosquitoes of 2012. A nearby nest of fledgling eagles also limited the team’s maneuverability. Undaunted, the team soldiered on.
Under Construction: Bob Whiteman, Richard Hannah and
Dave Haught assembles planks to the deck platform.
Ready To Go: The bridge platform and all of the stair sections loaded on the
transport trailer. It could surely fit into a Civil War supply train.
The trailer transport could only reach the area of Fort Stedman. From there, the bridge and stair sections were transferred to a smaller cart and moved down the hill and
through the woods to the creek. Three trips, and the continued help of the Air Force volunteers, were required to get all of the material to the installation site. Concrete blocks were embedded on both sides of the creek to provide a firm foundation for the bridge. The top surface of the soil was removed to reach solid ground. Then
the ground and blocks were leveled to provide a stable platform for the bridge. The bridge was jostled into place. When measurements showed that the bridge was indeed
level; a halt was called to the day’s work.
Reinforcements (in the person of Don Sage) arrived on the following morning - as the installation work began in earnest. The soil on both sides of the creek was adjusted to allow the placement of both of the stair sections. The stringers were put in place; and the base of a platform at the top of each stair section was located. As with the bridge, concrete blocks were placed under the platforms in order to provide a stable and level
structure. The stair stringers (three on each side) were attached to the bridge supports (at the bottom) and the platform supports (at the top).
Then fun began. The pre-cut panels for the stair steps, the platform planks, and the remaining deck planks were fastened to the support beams with deck screws. Volunteers vied with each other for a turn using the electric drill. As something of a finishing touch, foot guards were installed along the sides of the bridge and the stair platforms. This second-day assembly portion of the project consumed an additional four
hours. The mission had been fulfilled. It was time to retire.
Installation: Dave Haught and Alvin Anderson complete work on the platform at the top of one of the stair sections. With the bridge/stair project complete, the volunteers paused briefly for a ceremonial memento of the project. Pictured (left to right; back to front) are Bob Whiteman, Alvin Anderson, Bruce Fichter, Dave Haught, Sandy Whiteman, Richard Hannah, Vickie Anderson, Don Sage and Henry Janowitz. Not pictured are Frank Haselton and Jeanette Kahn.
There still remains a bit of follow-up work to make the new trail accessible to the general public. Some trail clearing remains to be done. And some gravel fill around the stair platforms is required. Other volunteer groups will tend to these remaining tasks. For their part, the Pioneers look forward to the opening of the new trail in time for the sesquicentennial observation of the events at this site (2014 - 2015) and to their next project in the park – the transformation of a old horse pole barn into a visitors’ shelter.