THE PETERSBURG CONNECTION

Petersburg's current City Hall on Tabb Street served as General Pickett's office while he was in charge of the Department of North Carolina. It was from here that Pickett sent numerous telegrams to Richmond and to General Beauregard advising them of the impending Union invasion via the James River.

 

In September 1863, Major General George E. Pickett was placed in charge of the Military Department of North Carolina and Southern Virginia, which embraced military operations in southern Virginia and North Carolina and was responsibile for protecting the southern approaches to Richmond. General Pickett thus was the senior military officer present in Petersburg when Union General Benjamin Butler began the invasion of Bermuda Hundred during May 1864. The Confederate Signal Corps had warned Pickett at some point in November 1863 to expect a serious Union attack and, by April of 1864, they were able to give General Pickett specifics. An army of 36,000 men was about to invade the south bank of the James River between City Point and Bermuda Hundred.

On April 23, General Pickett received orders to join his newly rebuilt Division and the main body of the Army of Northern Virginia. General P. G. T. Beauregard was to report to Petersburg to take over the Military Department of North Carolina. Beauregard, still in Weldon, North Carolina, knew of the intelligence reports about the Union invasion, and he sent word for Pickett to retain command until he arrived.

On the evening of May 5, 1864, 36,000 Union soldiers began to disembark at City Point. General Pickett sent numerous telegrams to Richmond and to Beauregard, still in North Carolina, requesting an immediate increase of Confederate troops. Between May 5 and May 10th when General Beauregard arrived in Petersburg, General Pickett retained responsibility for defense of the area. During those five days, Pickett was either on horseback or at this headquarters in the Custom House.

At noon on May 5th, General Pickett mustered the Petersburg City Battalion, which consisted of about 400 men, in front of the Custom House and ordered them to City Point. That afternoon Pickett mustered an additional 100-200 men and boys from the second class militia (boys younger than 17 and men older than 50) and sent them to the Ordnance House for arms. Altogether, there were no more than 600 armed Confederates to meet the enemy on May 5th.

The following was taken from the Minute Books, page 571, of the Petersburg Common Council: "May 1864. City of Petersburg Common Council. Resolved that our people have entire and implicit confidence in our able and gallant commander (of this department) Major General George E. Pickett and in behalf of that people, we hereby tender to that General the thanks of this body for the distinguished ability and gallantry displayed in the administration of its affairs, both military and civic."

While in Petersburg, Pickett made his personal headquarters at the residence of Captain Robert Dunn McIlwaine, at the southwest corner of West Washington and Perry Streets. The house, which he described as palatial, was erected in 1858 by Robert Dunn McIlwaine and had "tastefully flowered and embowered" grounds, including the first fountain in Petersburg. The fountain still exists underneath the large house on the west side of the McIlwaine house.

The McIlwaine-Friend house is much the same as it was when it served as General Pickett's headquarters while he was in charge of the Department of North Carolina. The former kitchen can be seen behind the house in the photograph on the right. Although still part of the house, it is rented as a separate residence. The wooden porch and steps (shown in the photograph below on the left ) are original, as well as the pull-style doorbell, which bears the initials of Robert Dunn McIlwaine, the first owner.

   

Pickett's Petersburg headquarters

Private correspondence and other sources record Pickett's marriage, in St. Paul's Episcopal Church on Union Street, to Miss Sallie Ann Corbell. It was an important local event. The regard in which he was held was expressed in resolutions adopted by the Common Council at the end of his tenure. The body expressed entire and implicit confidence in the general and tendered its thanks to him as commander of the department.

VIEW photographs of St. Paul's Church
[Updated 09-21-05]

Recently, board members of the Society were fortunate indeed to have an opportunity to visit Mrs. Francis Drake, the current owner of the headquarters house on Washington Street. Mrs. Drake is the great granddaughter of Robert Dunn McIlwaine. She and her cousin Hibernia entertained the guests with memorable Southern grace, and everyone shared "Pickett" stories. After having spent an afternoon inside the home, the board members agreed that General Pickett was correct in his assessment of the house as palatial.

The board members also accepted the ladies' kind invitation to return to the McIlwaine House soon. Since Cousin Hibernia is a member of St. Paul's Episcopal Church where General Pickett was married, she promised to arrange a private tour of the church when the board members revisit Petersburg.

 

Society President Pat Wood and owner Mrs. Bessie Meade Drake stand just outside of the massive front door, which is original. Much of the house remains the same as it did while Gen. Pickett resided there.

Sources include "Along Petersburg Streets" by Edward A. Wyatt, IV, and "Petersburg's Story" by James G. Scott and Edward A. Wyatt IV.


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