1928 - Alderson High School - 1968


Looking Back To Petersburg

John McCurdy - February 38, 2012

I just a few moments ago finished reading the Bill O'Reilly book, "Killing Lincoln". The opening several chapters of the book were of Gen. Robert E. Lee and his actions while the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia was encamped around Petersburg and City Point, Va., City Point is the harbor area on the James river and now a part of Hopewell, Va. From 1975 until 1978 I was at employed at the Federal Correctional Institution in Hopewell and I initially lived in Hopewell just a few hundred yards from the City Point area.

The city of Petersburg was about 5-6 miles east of Hopewell and both they and Colonial Heights are about 25 miles south of the City of Richmond. The City of Petersburg has many older homes of the Civil War era, the oldest were beside the Appomattox River and consisted of Low Street and High Street. In the period before the Civil War and shortly afterward it was the street on which the merchant princes and the hoi-polloi of society in Petersburg resided. The passage of years led to even finer and grander homes being built further from the river and its now nasty pollution problem. The homes were taken over by the lower middle and the trades people of the city. When they left, the homes became boarding houses and lower class dwelling and finally slums occupied primarily by the descendents of the servant class and the slaves of the pre-civil war era. By the 1980's the area had came full circle, once again the homes were owned and occupied by leaders of the City!

General Lee's Headquarters, a lovely smaller home with an English basement stood at the top of High Street and below it on Low Street was the oldest home in Petersburg, a log structure that predated the Revolutionary War and which had been owned for over a hundred years or more by the same black family, The houses on High Street and, to a slightly lesser degree, those on Low Street had seen increased sales for the previous few years. One I was familiar with was lived in by the Director of the Virginia Natural History Museum in Richmond and the next door by the Chief of Surgery at the Petersburg Memorial Hospital. On the street below Low Street nearer the Appomattox River, an enterprising young entrepreneur had a Warehouse full of old doors, windows and other items removed from building being town down or restored. He didn't pay much for them nor did he sell them for exorbitant prices.

I was very unhappy in the townhouse I had rented, I wanted to have something to occupy my time when not at work. I decided to explore the idea of buying one of the homes on High Street, living in it, doing some work, and then, when I wanted, selling it for a profit. The Realtor showed me several pretty run-down places and then got to the better places. I actually looked at the house that General Lee had used as his headquarters, but someone had a option to buy and it was a little out of my comfort zone to buy. I was taken by a brick and frame house built in the early 1800's by a physician and used for his home and business through-out the War Between the States. Four bedrooms on the second floor, four on the first floor, including another one used as the doctors office. The kitchen had originally been in the basement, a large brick fireplace and, unusual to me, a dug well about 30 feet deep in the middle of the brick kitchen floor! The house was on a sloping lot and the back of the basement was largely above ground level. There were several buildings, described by the realtor, as "dependencies", a barn on the rear of the lot and a building used as a garage and containing a blacksmith shop! The young couple who owned the house previously had added a bath and a lavatory and and a nice kitchen on the first floor and had installed a new furnace with copper baseboard heat. The slate roof looked in good shape and new downspouts and guttering had been installed a few years before. I wanted the house immediately, and the price of $17,000 was not out of my range, I gave the realtor about all I had in my wallet, $200.00 for a 4 day hold.

Harsh reality came like a flash, I was driving back to Alderson nearly every weekend, my dream of moving my power tools and renovating the house just wouldn't stand the facts of reality. There was really no way I could actually do what I had envisioned and have any sort of a family life. I called the realtor and forfeited my "Earnest Money". The house sold later, the owners fixed it up, it looked lovely, but I really did not want to know about it!

Reading Bill O'Reilly's book raised many memories of Petersburg and of Lexington. Lee's retreat toward Appomattox and subsequent surrender of the Army of Virginia. His acceptance of the Presidency of Washington College in Lexington, the many times I walked past the President House on the Washington and Lee campus as a youngster and the many times I passed the Lee Chapel and slipped in and sat in a pew at the back and gazed awe-struck at Valentines Recumbent Statue of General Lee atop the tomb in which he lay. General Lee and the War was, and is, an intimate part of the life of Lexington and Virginia.

I heartily recommend the O'Reilly book for your reading pleasure.


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