Federal Picket Line


Petersburg Main Unit
Five Forks Unit
Federal Picket Line
City Point


Petersburg Main Unit
Petersburg National Battlefield, Virginia

Archaeological investigations of the Main Unit
included  the Federal picket line in the vicinity
of Elliot’s Salient, better known as the Crater

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A "picket," or sentinel,  served as the eyes and ears of the army.  Posted as close to the enemy as possible, the picket was responsible for noting any movements of the enemy and alerting the main line or camp of an enemy attack.  An additional duty of the picket was to prevent desertion from his own ranks.  Ironically, most deserters escaped from their own lines at Petersburg while serving on picket duty.

Generally, picket post locations were selected for their proximity to the enemy, panoramic view, and concealment.  On campaign, pickets were to remain hidden from the enemy's outposts and not make his presence known.  However, as the siege at Petersburg evolved, so did the tactical positioning of the picket.  Picket posts at Petersburg became permanent, well entrenched positions which were representative of standard defensive earthworks.

The positioning of pickets at Petersburg illustrates the strategy of the Federal Army to control as much territory as possible.  Picket trenches were constructed as close to the Confederate line as possible with little regard to terrain features.  As a result, the Federal picket line between Elliot’s and Colquitt’s Salients received a terrible infiltrating rifle fire from Confederate soldiers occupying higher ground.

The Federal picket line was chosen for excavation for several reasons.  First, Petersburg National Battlefield Park was interested in locating the precise location of the Union Army's entrenched picket line.  While the park knew the general location of the trench, all visible trace of the earthwork opposite of the Confederate line at the Crater had vanished.  Second, this excavation would provide data to be compared to that recovered from a 1979 excavation of the Confederate picket line at the Crater.  The excavation would also shed light on the impact an early-mid twentieth century golf course had on the landscape.

In addition, the park wished to develop a public archaeology program.  This program would provide visitors with an opportunity to understand archaeology and its potential for recovering lost or poorly documented history. This program also would introduce to the public the Federal Government's role in protecting the Nation's archaeological resources.  The public archaeology program would then be evaluated and used as a model for future public archaeology projects in the park.

The Excavation

Over the course of thirteen days, archaeologists excavated a 20'x7' area, which revealed a cross section of the Federal earthwork.  About half a foot below the surface, a 6'-7' wide band of very compact, gravely sand was uncovered.  This band of light-colored soils, which represents the fill of the original picket trench, contained a dense concentration of military artifacts (see below).

The compact sandy dirt which the picket trench was filled with matches soils found in Taylor's Creek, located in the rear of the Federal picket line.  Historic documents indicate that soil from the bank of this creek were used to fill sandbags which were then carried to the picket line and placed in front of the entrenched troops to provide them protection from incoming Confederate projectiles.  It is believed that soil containing the dense concentration of military objects was once piled in front of the trench and later used to fill in the earthwork.  The soils surrounding this compact sandy matrix contained few artifacts and quickly became an artifact free, natural soil, thus confirming the location of the Federal trench line.

While excavating, archaeologists look for changes in the soils as well as for for artifacts.  By exploring these sometimes subtle soil changes, archaeologists can determine how the trench was built and later filled in, as well as seeing how troops may have lived within the trench and changed it to fit their needs.  By analyzing the artifacts that were found in different areas, archaeologists can learn about activities that were taking place in different sections of the trench line.

Artifact Analysis

Within the picket trench, archaeologists found approximately 400 fired and unfired percussion caps, unfired Federal bullets, fired Confederate bullets, tin cups, a ration can, half a canteen converted into a frying pan, two cartridge box tins, remains of a leather bayonet scabbard and canvas knapsack, and large pieces of rubberized canvas.  All artifacts recovered from the picket trench were taken to the archaeology lab at the University of Maryland where they were cleaned and cataloged.  Analysis of these artifacts is contributing to our understanding of military culture in the mid-19th century.



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