The men of the Sixth Corps of the Army of the Potomac waited in the chill dampness of an early April morning for the signal to begin their all out assault against Lee’s lines southwest of Petersburg. For them, though they could not know it, this was to be the last great struggle against the vaunted Army of Northern Virginia. One week later, forced to abandon Petersburg and Richmond, Lee’s army, decimated by the breakthrough at Petersburg and the disaster of Saylor’s Creek, reached Appomattox Courthouse to find their path to safety and supplies blocked by Union cavalry, with infantry close behind.
Pamplin Park, a privately funded historic site located on the site of the Sixth Corps breakthrough near Forts Gregg and Whitworth, features an interpretive trail at the site of the assault, a fortifications exhibit, recreated camp structures staffed by costumed interpreters, field and farm exhibits at the restored Tudor Hall Plantation, and the acclaimed National Museum of the Civil War Soldier.
The soldier museum features exhibits on numerous aspects of a typical soldier’s experience, including camp life, training, equipment, and medical treatment. In one room, visitors face a life size video of a regimental firing line. The command to fire rings out and the room is filled with noise and the whir of bullets – simulated by jets of compressed air firing from the walls as smoke fills the screen in front and the command to reload echoes above the din. At the beginning of the tour, I chose a soldier to follow through the war as I progressed through the exhibits on the museum. The extracts from memoirs and letters specific to each soldier provide a unique experience for each visitor. During my visit, I learned how a certain private (I don’t wish to spoil it for anyone) escaped from a prisoner of war camp after his capture and decided he had had enough of war and returned home. I did not have time for the film in the museum, which purports to be a gritty, realistic portrayal of soldier life and the horrors of war.
Leaving the museum, I headed straight for the fortifications exhibit. Made of realistic synthetic materials to preserve the exhibit, the fortifications reconstructed here include a rampart, ditch, abatis, and chevaux de frise. The rampart terminates with an artillery platform complete with embrasure where uniformed reeanactors demonstrate artillery drill several times per day. Reconstructed cabins and other camp buildings lie just beyond the fortifications exhibit. Reenactors also staff the camp and will readily answer questions about life in the siege lines at Petersburg.
The park also houses the Breakthrough Museum, the gateway to the interpretive trails tracing the course of the Confederate works where troops of the Sixth Corps finally broke Lee’s lines on April 2, 1865, forcing the evacuation of Petersburg and Richmond. A short film describes the action, and the museum also displays Don Troiani’s Medal of Honor, which captures the moment when Captain Charles Gould of the 5th Vermont Infantry vaulted over the ramparts of the fortifications – claiming the distinction of first man into the rebel works. He suffered three wounds and was later awarded the Medal of Honor.
Gould’s regiment approached the rebel lines along the course of a ravine cloaked in early morning mist. The remainder of his brigade crossed open ground gently sloping down toward the Confederate position. The men gripped their rifles and strained for a glimpse of the opposing lines in the early morning mist, awaiting the inevitable storm of musketry and canister from the desperate rebel defenders. But Lee’s forces had been stretched beyond their limits. The Federals pierced the lines in several places almost simultaneously. Nearby, General A.P. Hill hastily departed from a meeting with Lee to determine the situation in his front. He would be dead within the hour, not far from the ground preserved today by the park (a marker erected on the spot where Hill was killed is still accessible). A podcast for the battlefield trail is available on civilwartraveler.com. As I was touring with a friend, I did not take advantage of this, but I’m hoping to take advantage of other podcasts for yours I am planning in the Spring.
While I did not spend any time touring Tudor Hall Plantation, also on the grounds of the park, I noted several items of interest. Costumed interpreters staff the home and farm buildings, and demonstrate the tasks of everyday life in the nineteenth century, including planting and tending crops.
Few sites offer the range of interpretation Pamplin Park provides. I thoroughly enjoyed my visit and will visit again the next time I travel to Petersburg. Plan to spend the better part of a day touring the park, especially if you want to take in the soldier’s museum and film.
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