Petersburg, Virginia: Civil War History and Classic Southern Spirit


| May/June 1992



Steam engine

Tourists at the Appomattox Iron Works admire a large steam engine.

In a city filled with attractions spanning more than three centuries, including abundant Civil War historic sites, Petersburg these days is celebrating an industry that may have been this city's saving grace.

Surrounded by important Civil War battlefields, elegant architecture and abundant shopping opportunities, including some of the finest antique shopping on the East Coast, the newly restored Appomattox Iron Works brings back memories of post-Civil War Petersburg and the age of Reconstruction.

Before the Civil War, Petersburg had been an industrial and trade center for the Southern states. Wealthy, prosperous and ideally positioned for commercial activity, the city grew to become the seventh largest in the South. Then came the Civil War.

Located near the James River and less than 30 miles from Richmond, the Confederate capital, Petersburg played a pivotal part in determining the outcome of the war. A 10-month-long siege devastated the town, destroying fine old homes, closing off vital railroad lines and all but stopping Petersburg's commercial and industrial activity. After the war Petersburg, along with the rest of the South, faced the rigorous task of reconstruction.

One of the few bright spots was Appomattox Iron Works, which emerged as an industrial force in leading the South from its agricultural past to a mechanized future. The iron works built and repaired everything from peanut harvesters to boot scrapers, and from lampposts to steam engines. It prospered, as did much of the rest of the reunited country at the turn of the century, and Petersburg's recovery continued into the 20th century.

Eventually, however, as technology raced ahead, the pre-Civil War machinery lost ground to modern industrial giants, and the iron works finally closed in the 1970s.