Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Memorializing the Battle of Old Men and Boys


Petersburg, rightly so, has many monuments that commemorate various aspects of the town's long history. Some are enormous, some are elaborate, some stand out, others are, well, fairly inconspicuous. One of the town's monuments that often gets passed by without much of a glance is located on Crater Road not all that far from the exit entrance of Petersburg National Battlefield. Long ago it was placed on a mound of dirt that is a survivor of the Dimmock defensive line that once ringed Petersburg. 

The monument was placed in 1909; during an era of massive Confederate memorialization. It was placed by the group that oversaw the erection of the majority of Confederate monuments, the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

When speaking to people who grew up in Northern states but who have since moved to former Confederate states, they often explain to me that they did not receive the emphasis on the Civil War era during their education that Southern schools seem to provide. I think that in part, some of that is related to monuments such as this one.

The stone marker remembers the group of old men and boys who went out to Petersburg's defensive line on June 9, 1864, to make a stand against an early Union effort to attack and capture the town. To me, it attempts to hearken back to the era of America's bid for independence and the famous "minutemen." Simply put, monuments such as this one emphasize, that for the most part, the South experienced the war in fundamentally different way than the majority of the North.   


On June 9, 1864, Virginia Reserves, composed of mainly of males excluded from normal military service (old men and young boys), held a portion of the defensive line at a southern approach (Jerusalem Plank Road) to the "Cockade City." Commanded by Raleigh Colston and Fletcher Archer this group of men composed of silver hairs and beardless boys beat back a Union cavalry attack by men commanded by Gen. August Kautz. A second concerted attack by dismounted cavalry and supported by artillery breached the Dimmock line, but due to the reserves' stubborn defense, reinforcements arrived in time to beat it back, too.

The scratch force suffered heavy casualties. The end of the day's fighting saw fifteen killed, eighteen wounded, and forty-two captured among the aged and youthful defenders. However, their stand helped prevent the potentially quick capture of Petersburg. Less than a week later Gen. Ulysses S. Grant moved his Army of the Potomac south of the James/Appomattox Rivers and focused on Petersburg. That campaign would last almost ten months before the city was finally fell along with Richmond on April 3, 1865.

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