Petersburg may be the most financially challenged city in Virginia today, but it was once a powerful center of industry and commerce.
Much of its pre-Civil War prosperity was built with slave labor but Petersburg also had the highest concentration of free blacks in Virginia in the years leading up to the war.
In 1854, Lippincott, Grambo & Co. published a Gazetteer of the United States that suggests how mighty Petersburg once was:
Petersburg, a handsome and flourishing post-town...is the third town of Virginia in respect to population, and possesses extensive facilities for business. Vessels of 100 tons ascend the [Appomattox] river to the town…
The South Side railroad has its eastern terminus at this place, and the Appomattox railroad connects it with City Point, at the mouth of the river...Large quantities of flour and tobacco are exported from this place.
Petersburg is well built, and contains 2 churches of the Presbyterians, 2 of the Methodists, 2 of the Episcopalians, 1 of the Baptists, 1 of the Catholics, besides several places of worship for colored people. It has also 3 banks, several cotton factories, 1 woollen factory, 2 rope-walks, 1 iron furnace, 6 forges, and numerous mills of various kinds. Three newspapers are published here.
The falls of the river, which arrest the ascent of the tide immediately above Petersburg, furnish extensive water-power. Around these falls a canal has been constructed, by which means small boats ascend the river for the distance of about 100 miles. ...In 1815 a great fire occurred here, by which near 400 houses were consumed... Pop. in 1850, 14,010; in 1853, about 15,000.
Richmond’s population in 1850 was 27,570, according to the Gazetteer, and Norfolk’s in 1853 was about 16,000.
What the old book doesn’t say is that two of Petersburg’s churches -- First Baptist (founded 1774) and Gillfield (1797) -- were among the first black churches in the United States.
It was the fall of Petersburg to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in 1865 that helped bring down the Confederate army. Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Grant at nearby Appomattox Court House soon after.