On April 25, 1871, a British army force of 2,500 soldiers under the command of Genera! William PhilIips attacked Petersburg, hoping to capture the American military supplies here and eventually link up with General Cornwallis' army coming to Petersburg from the south. On his immediate approach to the City, Phillips was met by an American militia force of about 1,000 black and white troops gathered from the city and the surrounding area, commanded by Brigadier General Peter Muhlenberg. After stalling the British attack for a while, Muhlenberg's militia units fell back in good order to a second defensive line just a few hundred yards east of here and fought another delaying action. In anticipation of this British attack, American commander Major General Frederick von Steuben had removed the military supplies from Petersburg and the adjacent counties and prepared his defenses at a bridge just north of here linking the City with Pocahontas.
By the time the British had pressed their advance, the American militia had arrived at the bridge supported by an artillery battery posted on Baker's Hill in what is now Colonial Heights. The Americans fought a fierce battle at the south end of the bridge. As the outnumbered Americans withdrew, they removed the plank flooring of the bridge to impede a British attempt to cross the river. By dark, the British troops had taken control of Petersburg and the American forces had withdrawn into Chesterfield County. The British troops burned some tobacco and a warehouse belonging to local merchants, then used Petersburg as a base to raid much of Central Virginia and to wait for General Cornwallis' army to arrive.
On May 10th, American Major General Lafayette's artillery shelled the British in Petersburg from across the river while an American supply train and reinforcements crossed the Appomattox upriver heading for American forces to the south. On May 13, 1781, General Phillips died of fever in Bollingbrook, a local estate owned by the Bolling family, and was buried at Blandford Cemetery. A few days later, Cornwallis finally arrived and combined the British forces. Cornwallis left Petersburg a few days later on his way to Yorktown and the eventual British surrender.
The Cockade City and the War of 1812
In 1812-15, America fought Britain in our "Second War for Freedom." On September 1, 1812, the United States Government requisitioned 1,500 armed militia from Virginia. Petersburg's militia, numbering some 75 men, was armed, equipped, and trained for war. The company made a long march to northern Ohio to the falls of the Maumee River. Upon arrival, the company joined others to construct a massive fort named Fort Meigs. In early May, the British and their Indian allies began a siege of the fort.
The Petersburg militia distinguished itself on May 5, 1813, the heaviest day of fighting during the siege. Along with other companies, they left the fort to attack a British artillery position. They charged the British positions, captured and spiked the British guns, and drove the enemy into the forest. Seventeen of Petersburg's volunteers were wounded in the attack. Three of them died of wounds. General William Henry Harrison commended them for bravery. The Petersburg company was discharged with ceremony and commendations at Detroit on October 17, 1813. President Madison called Petersburg "The Cockade City of the Union" after seeing the Petersburg Volunteers on their return, wearing hats with leather cockades or emblems.
Two other residents of Petersburg were heroes of the War of 1812: General Winfield Scott commanded regular troops in campaigns in Canada, defeating the British in several engagements. Scott became Chief of the United States Army. He conquered Mexico in the Mexican War. Then as head of the United States Army, he devised the Union strategy to strangle the South in the 1861-65 War. Lieutenant Colonel Abraham Eustis distinguished himself in the campaigns along the Canadian border, Fort Eustis, Virginia, is named for him.