During most of the Siege of Petersburg, Violet Bank served as General Robert E. Lee’s headquarters. High above the Appomattox River across from Petersburg, the site offered a commanding view of Petersburg, the second largest city in Virginia at that time.
Petersburg was critical to the survival of the Confederacy because it was the transportation hub that was the key to Richmond. Petersburg was located at the head of the Appomattox River. It was only 23 miles south of Richmond. Five railroad lines came together in Petersburg.
General Lee had recognized Petersburg’s importance early in the war during George McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign.
“One of the few times Lee was ever confused about the intentions of his opponent was during the Peninsula Campaign,” said Russell Woodburn, site director at the Violet Bank Museum. “He didn’t believe initially that Richmond was McClellan’s target. He believed it was Petersburg,” said Woodburn. “Lee realized from the beginning that the key to holding Southside Virginia was holding Petersburg, and you can’t hold Virginia without holding Southside Virginia. It’s just a fact.”
On June 15 and 16, 1864, the Army of the Potomac launched two assaults against Petersburg. The local defense forces under the command of General PGT Beauregard. Union forces attacked the outer defensive line for the City of Petersburg. Beauregard successfully repulsed the attacks that night and fell back to the second line of defenses. Beauregard’s forces were attacked again the next morning and successfully repelled the attacks during the course of the day.
Confederate forces fell back to the innermost works of the City of Petersburg known as the Dimmock line. The Dimmock Line, completed under the direction of Captain Charles Dimmock, consisted of an oval ring of 55 artillery batteries connected by entrenchments.
The next day – June 17th – the large Union assaults subsided and the Siege of Petersburg began. The Army of the Potomac was on the far side of the river in front of Petersburg and Lee had invested the Dimmock Line with the Army of Northern Virginia.
Lee’s headquarters was established at Violet Bank by Lt. Colonel Walter Taylor, Lee’s adjutant, on June 17, 1864. General Lee arrived at Violet Bank the following day.
“The thing about this hill is that it has the main overview of the whole Appomattox River basin as far as Petersburg goes,” said Russell Woodson. “They could stand here with a pair of binoculars and see everything that was going on in Petersburg,” he said. “Without the aid of binoculars, they could see the Federal tents from this hillside.”
Violet Bank -Lee’s headquarters – was well within the range of Federal artillery. Next to the chimney on the side of the museum a round patch of cement bears testimony to the cannonball that lodged in the structure during the siege.
Federal troops had plenty of time to zero in on Confederate headquarters during the siege. General Lee’s headquarters was located at Violet Bank from June to September 1864. When Lee was at Violet Bank on July 30, 1864, he heard the explosion that began the Battle of the Crater.
Lt. Colonel Taylor mentions in his memoirs about being awakened by one of the servants during the night because shells were dropping around the manor house. Taylor told them that they would be safer staying in one spot than they would be roaming around.
“Taylor rolled over and nonchalantly went back to sleep with shells dropping around his tent,” said Woodburn. “His tent was pitched right out in the yard by the house.”
Whether Lee directed Lt. Colonel Taylor to set up his headquarters at Violet Bank is uncertain. It’s unlikely that Taylor found such a great observation site on his own.
“My opinion is, based on circumstantial evidence, that Lee sent him here. It’s all circumstantial speculation on my part – but it does fit,” said Woodburn. Lee’s contemporaries and colleagues in the Corps of Engineers in the pre-war army recognized that Lee had a photographic memory for topography. He came here to Petersburg in ’62 to inspect progress on the Dimmock Line.
“Following the Sharpsburg Campaign, Lee came to inspect the work going on here,” said Woodburn. “There was no way that Lee, with his memory for topography, could have been here and not noticed the prominence of this hill and logged it away.”
The building that stands as Violet Bank today is only a portion of what was once a 40-room manor. It is the second house built on the hilltop site. The first was built by Thomas Shore in 1778. That house was used as General Lafayette’s headquarters.
Two Revolutionary War actions were fought on the Violet Bank hillside. The first was fought in March of 1781 by Von Steuben and his Virginia militia and the second was fought in May of 1781 with Lafayette in command.
The house that existed during the American Revolution burned in 1810. The chimney stacks and the original foundation of the house museum th at exists today were all that survived. They were incorporated into the house that was rebuilt on the same site in 1815.
In 1905 Violet Bank was sold to the Greater Petersburg Realty Corporation. The company turned the main house on the property into a barn and operated a dairy farm on the site.
The realty company decided to subdivide the property in 1914 and develop the land for residential purposes. The large main house was demolished and the smaller structure that exists today was sold to Alice Pierrepont. It was one of the first homes sold in the subdivision. Mrs. Pierrepont lived in the house until 1948.
American Legion Post #284 used the building for its headquarters until the City of Colonial Heights acquired the house in 1959. The house served as Colonial Heights’ Chamber of Commerce before it became Colonial Heights’ first library. The building was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974 and has been an active historic house museum since 1988.
The Violet Bank Museum in Colonial Heights, Virginia, architecturally represents Federal design and illustrates American Interior Decorative Arts. Through its collection of artifacts, guns, furniture, accouterments, and glass and ceramics Violet Bank Museum offers visitors a tantalizing glimpse of American life in the 19th century.
Note: The Violet Bank Museum is open to the public. It is closed on Monday. Tuesday through Saturday it is open from 10 am until 5 pm. On Sunday, the museum is open from 1 pm until 6 pm. For additional information visit www.colonialheightsva.gov.
-By Bob Ruegsegger
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