When I lived in Petersburg, Virginia I lived literally yards away from where the Union 6th Corps broke through A.P. Hill's lines on the morning of April 2, 1865. My apartment building was uniquely situated between the Confederate line of entrenchments and the spot where Hill was shot and killed that April morning.
What was probably the major action that allowed the attack of the 6th Corps, occurred the day before a few short miles to the west. The defeat at the Battle of Five Forks, often referred to as the "Waterloo of the Confederacy," in effect sealed the fate of Lee's dug-in army around Petersburg and Richmond.
Many times when I wanted some peace and quiet I would drive down Boydton Plank Road to White Oak Road and then on to Five Forks. It was like traveling back in time. The area is still very rural and other than an occasional friendly farmer there was never many people out and about when I would visit the battlefield. I remember how happy I was to visit there for the first time shortly after moving to Southside Virginia. I was surprised to find there were a number of informative waysides to read and really impressed there was even a visitor center...I say visitor center, but really it was little more than a ranger station. In fact, it was formerly a painted concrete block service station that the National Park Service had remodeled into a "visitor center." The visitor center had things that most NPS battlefield visitor centers have; there were books for sale and displays of artifacts and other exhibits-the only difference is that at Five Forks it was all in a space about the size of a living room. My thoughts were...better than nothing, but still, it left a lot to be desired.
Before I left Petersburg last April to move to Kentucky I made one last trip out to Five Forks. That rainy day the old visitor station was not open and there was one lone battlefield rat like myself out taking pictures at the forks in the road. As I headed off down the road toward the town of Dinwiddie I noticed quite a bit of construction equipment off to the right side of the road. I was later informed that a new visitor center was in the works.
On October 3, 2009, the new visitor center (pictured above) was unveiled by the National Park Service. The new $3 million, 2,400 square foot building now has spacious room for exhibits and displays. And now, instead of a cramped old gravel parking lot, visitors have a roomy paved parking area that can accommodate bused tour groups. Also, now the battlefield has an eight mile trail that can be enjoyed on foot, bike, or horseback.
Hopefully, by providing a better facility for visitors, visitation will increase and more people will learn about this important battle. I know that when I make a return trip to the Petersburg area, one of my first stops will be back to the historic atmosphere of Five Forks and its new visitor center. Three cheers for the NPS!