Crossing the Rubicon

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March 14th 2011
Published: January 7th 2012
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Union linesUnion linesUnion lines

Site of the initial Union victory, close to the eventual location of the Dictator
Today I cross the James River heading south.

This is a very important moment on this trip, because the James River marks the southernmost point I have ever been.

At this point, I leave the places I have seen before for something new.

The day had two very distinct halves.

The first was a final exploration of Civil War sites near Richmond.

The other was the long drive into Georgia.

Seige of Petersburg

As the Civil War wore on, Ulysses S Grant realized he was not going to take Richmond by force.

The Confederate defenses were too good.

He decided to take Petersburg instead.

Petersburg was a crucial railroad junction for supplying Richmond.

If it fell, Richmond would follow.

The Confederates also knew this, and raced to build fortifications.

Grant’s forces broke through the initial line, and sent the Confederates running.

Rather than follow up this victory, they waited for reinforcements.

This gave Lee enough time to reorganize his troops and repulse the assault.

The Union Army created its own fortifications at this point, and settled in for a long, brutal siege.

It lasted for
The DictatorThe DictatorThe Dictator

The most powerful cannon in the world in 1865. The Union Army used it to shoot buckshot into Petersburg
nine months, the longest of the entire war.

This siege was different to the ones that had occurred before, due to changing technology.

For starters, cannons were more powerful and much more accurate.

Continuous streams of shells fell on both lines, as well as the city below.

It got to the point that soldiers were able to identify the shell type by the noise it made, and react accordingly.

The Union Army brought in the most powerful cannon in the world at the time, and lobbed hundred plus pound shells of buckshot into Petersburg.

Its strategic effectiveness is debatable, but its psychological effect was immediate.

Confederates ultimately nicknamed it “The Dictator”.

Equally important were improved rifles.

Sharpshooters could now kill targets at long distances.

One effect of this is that the fortifications became almost immune to infantry assault; the soldiers would all be killed before they reached the enemy line.

The other effect is that soldiers tended to hide behind the fortifications at all times, since anyone visible would be quickly killed.

Historians of technology now consider the Petersburg siege to be
Trench Fort - the abattisTrench Fort - the abattisTrench Fort - the abattis

The abattis was a flimsy wall of sticks that made noise when an enemy passed through, warning defenders behind the main wall
the first instance of a type of war that became endemic over the next half century, culminating in World War I: trench warfare.

The major sites of the siege are grouped together into Petersburg Military Park.

The area at this point is unnervingly peaceful; open fields and forests of pine trees.

The first section of the park has the site of the initial Union victory, and a trail to the recreated Dictator.

Another section has a recreation of the full earthworks.

The design came from the Napoleonic Wars in Europe, and the parts have French names.

The basic core is a mound of earth with logs and sandbags at the top, the curtain wall.

Cannons and sharpshooters poke through holes in the sandbags.

The mound has a large trench in front of it, the counterscarp, which is filled with sharp wooden poles pointing outwards, the ravelin.

A distance in front of the mound is a fence made of flimsy wood, the abattis.

It acts as an advance warning system; an advancing enemy army will cause it to break and make noise.

Behind the mound are the simple soldiers’ huts,
Trench Fort - the main wallTrench Fort - the main wallTrench Fort - the main wall

The three portions of the main defensive wall of a trench. The wall on the left is the curtain, the trench in front of it is the counterscarp, the poles around it are the ravelin
the mess hall, etc.

The Battle of the Crater

The last section of the park I saw is the site of the most bizarre maneuver of the entire Civil War.

It ranks as one of the most bizarre maneuvers of ANY war.

It’s now called the Battle of the Crater.

A regiment of Alabama Confederates held a fort on a small hill.

Facing them was a regiment from Pennsylvania composed mostly of coal miners.

Their commander Henry Pleasants convinced Grant that they could tunnel under the hill and pack it with explosives without the Confederates noticing.

Calling this plan daring would be an extreme understatement.

Grant reluctantly agreed.

The miners knew their stuff, and managed to finish the tunnel.

The Confederates did realize something was going on, however, and sunk tunnels of their own.

Those tunnels were not deep enough.

What happened next is a combination of high drama, incompetence, and tragedy.

The miners managed to successfully fill the tunnel with black powder.

The next morning, the hill became a volcano of dirt and mangled bodies.

The Union soldiers rushed into the
Trench Fort - the soldiers campTrench Fort - the soldiers campTrench Fort - the soldiers camp

Recreation of soldier camp and huts behind the fortified trench wall.

Those that were not overcome by nausea hesitated on the brink, overcome by the gruesome sights.

Their commanders did not know how to handle this.

Soon enough, the Confederates reorganized and starting shooting the Union soldiers now trapped in the crater.

The Union was repulsed with heavy losses.

The holes created by the explosion are still there, although they are heavily eroded.

They were never filled in because during the siege people had more important things to do, and afterward they became a tourist attraction.

The hill is now covered in trees.

There are a few monuments as well, mostly to the bravery of the Confederates.

The tunnel entrance has also been recreated.

From here, it’s obvious just how long the tunnel needed to be to reach the enemy lines.

After Petersburg, it was time for a long drive into Georgia.

Interstate 95 passes though lowlands throughout, so the scenery did not vary very much.

The road was mostly straight, flat as a pancake, and surrounded by pine trees.

Occasionally, it crossed lazy rivers on really long
Battle of the Crater mineshaftBattle of the Crater mineshaftBattle of the Crater mineshaft

Entrance to the mineshaft used to mine the Confederate line. The line is located under the trees in the far distance

South of the Border, South Carolina

Certain things do stick out from the monotony.

In North Carolina, the truck stop has been raised to an art form.

These spots exist in the northeast, of course, but nothing like here.

All of them feature restaurants, multiple fast food joints, stores, hotels, and (of course) large gas stations.

I quickly learned to find them, because they had the lowest gas prices available, often advertised on large signs next to the highway.

One store along the highway, JR, claims to be the largest tobacco outlet in the world (I did not stop to verify this, however).

None of them can prepare one for the visual assault of South of the Border.

This high temple of highway kitsch exists exactly one foot over the line between North and South Carolina.

Its original reason for existence is that fireworks sales are legal in South Carolina, but not next door.

Billboards advertising it first appear just beyond the Virginia border, and continue for hundreds of miles.

All of them feature a cartoon of a Mexican trader in a sombrero (which is not offensive only because it’s too tacky to take
The CraterThe CraterThe Crater

Roughly two thirds of the Crater from the Battle of the Crater. Erosion has partially filled it in.
seriously) promoting food and other things with really bad puns.

The place itself consists of a complex of buildings selling everything a highway traveler could want (fast food, ice cream, souvenirs, supplies) and many things they may not (beach outfits many miles from any beach, western boots, etc.); along with hotels, an RV park, an arcade, and South Carolina’s largest mini-golf course (which is saying something).

The entire place is covered in day-glow paint that could cause brain damage and the most neon outside Las Vegas.

I still had a long way to go, so I limited myself to their free ice water.

Deeper in South Carolina, I noticed something truly eerie.

In North Carolina, I was being passed regularly.

In South Carolina, this stopped.

Very strange.

I found out why soon enough.

The next thirty miles featured police car after police car, all sitting there waiting to catch people.

I got through unscathed, but it was nerve-racking.

I had dinner tonight in a southern road-trip institution.

The South has a large number of restaurant chains that make their money catering to
South of the BorderSouth of the BorderSouth of the Border

Welcome to (part of) the singular attraction that is South of the Border in South Carolina
highway travelers.

They are found elsewhere but with far less variety.

For the most part, they feature comfort food at reasonable low prices, and most are open 24 hours.

Several have buffets, which is helpful for getting in and out fast.

It should go without saying that healthy eating is not really on the agenda (at the place I ate, the healthy selections part of the menu had exactly three items in it).

I chose the exact place based mostly on when I needed the break from driving.

After that, it was back on the road to Savannah.

Additional photos below
Photos: 18, Displayed: 18


Petersburg SiegePetersburg Siege
Petersburg Siege

Diagram of army lines during the Petersburg Siege, the world's first instance of full trench warfare
Cannon galleryCannon gallery
Cannon gallery

Sample of cannons used during the Petersburg Siege
Trench Fort - Army hutTrench Fort - Army hut
Trench Fort - Army hut

Reconstruction of soldier's barracks during the siege
Trench Fort - Army campTrench Fort - Army camp
Trench Fort - Army camp

Reconstructed army camp behind the main wall
Trench Fort - cannonTrench Fort - cannon
Trench Fort - cannon

Placement of cannons behind the main wall
Trench Fort - main wallTrench Fort - main wall
Trench Fort - main wall

Another look at the construction of the main wall of the trench
The craterThe crater
The crater

The other half of the remains of the Crater from the Battle of the Crater. Erosion has partly filled it in
South of the BorderSouth of the Border
South of the Border

More roadside kitsch at South of the Border just inside South Carolina
South of the BorderSouth of the Border
South of the Border

More roadside kitsch at South of the Border just inside South Carolina
South of the BorderSouth of the Border
South of the Border

More roadside kitsch at South of the Border just inside South Carolina

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