Richmond National Battlefield Park

Location: Richmond, Virginia

Website: National Park

General Description: Richmond National Battlefield Park commemorates and protects 30 civil war sites around Richmond, Virginia.  While most of the sites are battlefields, there are two sites that are concerned with military supplies and the aftermath.  The main Visitor Center is located at the Tredegar Iron Works factory within Richmond along the James River.  Under the leadership of Joseph Anderson, Tredegar had grown to the largest iron works in the South by the time of the Civil War and was a major reason for making Richmond the Capital of the Confederacy.  Prior to the war it produced railcars and tracks and had expanded with a flour mill, stove works, and woolen mill at the site.  During the civil war it produced about half of the artillery and ammunition used by the South, as well as, much of the clothing and iron plating for the ironclad warships.  As the war progressed, Anderson was faced with severe shortages of materials (the factory never ran at full capacity) and labor with the skilled labor joining the army.  Also within the city of Richmond is the site of Chimbarzo Hospital, the largest hospital in the south.  From 1862-1865 they treated over 76,000 wounded and sick soldiers with only a 10% mortality rate.  Of course, some of this was due to the high mortality rates close to the battlefield, so those that made it to Chimbarzo already had a higher survival probability.  The battlefield sites represent two separate engagements.  In the spring of 1862, Major General George McClellan led the Union Army of the Potomac up the James River from Fort Monroe to attack Richmond from the southeast, rather than from the north.  His army slowly made it to within a few miles of Richmond after a series of small battles at Williamsburg, Eltham’s Landing, Dewey’s Bluff, and Hanover Court House.  Both McClellan and General Joseph Johnston, commander of the Confederates Army of Virginia, were very cautious and most of these actions were holding actions as the Confederates withdrew to Richmond.  General Johnston reversed this and attacked the Union forces at Seven Pines.  Although both sides suffered heavy casualties the battle was inconclusive and General Johnston was severely wounded.  This led to General Robert E. Lee assuming the command of the Army of Virginia on June 1, 1862.  Not waiting for the Union Army to begin a siege of Richmond, General Lee ordered a series of counter attacks collectively called the Seven Days Battle (June 25-July 1) repeatedly hitting the Union positions and with the arrival of General Stonewall Jackson’s “foot cavalry” on the western flank drove General McClellan’s Army of the Potomac back to the James River.  None of the engagements were significant Confederate victories, they accomplished the objective of protecting Richmond and made Lee’s reputation.  In particular, the final Battle of Malvern Hill was a stunning Confederate defeat with heavy casualties preventing Lee from destroying the Army of the Potomac and allowing McClellan to withdraw to the James River.  The Richmond area remained quiet until 1864 when Lt. General Grant began his Overland Campaign, again with the objective of capturing Richmond.  This campaign began with the crossing of the Rapidan River in May, 1864.  General Lee surprised Grant by attacking him aggressively at the Battle of the Wilderness on May 5-7, 1864 with heavy casualties on both sides but no decision.  However, unlike his predecessors, Grant did not withdraw back to Maryland, but continued to attempt to get in between Lee and Richmond.  Thus began a series of battles with Grant moving south and east and Lee blocking his avenues to Richmond.  Major battles occurred at Spotsylvannia Courthouse (May 8-21), North Anna River (May 23-26), and Cold Harbor (May 31-June 12).  At each battle, Lee was able to stop Grant’s superior numbers from advancing directly at Richmond, with Grant withdrawing and moving further south and east around Richmond.  Grant knew that he was able to replace the men he lost, while Lee could not, so continued to press the attack.  Following the Battle of Cold Harbor, Grant surprised Lee by moving on the Petersburg instead of directly towards Richmond, setting up a strong supply line from Fort Monroe to City Point on the James and Appamatox River.  From here he could resupply his army with men, food, and ammunition to lay a 9 month siege on Petersburg.  As Petersburg was the main railroad and road terminus instead of Richmond, Grant reasoned that by capturing Petersburg and severing these supply lines, he would force Lee to abandon Richmond.  This also forced Lee to simultaneously defend both cities stretching his lines very thin while Grant kept pressure along all fronts.  As Grant was working his way south around Petersburg during the fall and spring of 1864-1865, he continued to attack positions southeast of Richmond to force Lee to move soldiers around.  More than once, Grant would order an attack on the defensive lines around Richmond to be followed closely by major attacks at Petersburg.  The best example was the taking of Fort Harrison by General Benjamin Butler’s Army of the James on September 29 as part of the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm which preceded the Battle of Peebles Farm which extended the Union line southwest of Petersburg.  While most of the heavy fighting was occurring around Petersburg, the defenses to the east and southeast of Richmond saw numerous skirmishes, some with heavy casualties through the fall and spring.

Brochure

Impressions:

1) The main Visitor Center is located within the main remaining building at the Tredegar Iron Works near downtown Richmond.  Along with a very good movie about the factory and its importance to the south during the Civil War, there are numerous exhibits about life in Richmond during the war.  In particular, I enjoyed the many “voices” of both the soldiers and civilians that play on a continuous loop in the museum.  You can also walk around what remains of the factory, which is not much, due to an explosion and fire in 1863.  Although it was saved by Anderson from the burning of Richmond in 1865 when the Confederates abandoned Richmond, it never fully recovered and fell into ruins.  In addition, I was disappointed with the interpretive signs they have out on the grounds.  Most were difficult to read and some of them were completely missing.  There is a lot of history in this place and would be more interesting to tourists if they understood what they were looking at.

VisitorCenter TredegarRuins

2) There is also a museum and small visitor center at the Chimbarzo Hospital, also near the center of town.  The hospital grounds are now a very well maintained and beautiful by the city.  Since the buildings that made up the hospital were meant to be temporary and wooden in construction, none of them remain today.  The visitor center does have a good movie about medical care and the many hospitals around Richmond (Chimbarzo was just the largest of them) that cared for the wounded and sick Confederate soldiers.

ChimborazoHospital

3) The Battlefield Driving Tour is well designed taking visitors first to the overlook at Chickahominy Bluff from where General Lee could see Mechanicsville and the Chickahominy River Valley and he watched the opening of his Seven Days Battle at the Battle of Beaver Dam Creek on June 26.

ChickahomonyBluff

4) The next stop on the tour is the site of the Battle of Beaver Dam Creek where the Confederates were unable to break through the Union lines at Ellerson’s Mill.  However, fearing the approach of Jackson’s cavalry from the north, McClellan ordered his troops to withdraw towards the James River.

BeaverDamCreek

5) You can also visit the site of Totopotomy Creek (Rural Plains) to the north of the driving tour, which is one of the sites in the Overland Campaign in 1864 where Grant was once again denied direct access to Richmond leading to the Battle of Cold Harbor.  However, the driving tour is over 80 miles long and even with two days to visit the battlefield, we simply did not have the time.

6) The next stop on the tour is the Battle of Gaines Mill on June 27, 1862 where Confederate infantry repeatedly assaulted the Union lines along Botswain Creek.  This was the site of the heaviest fighting of the Seven Days War with the largest casualties totalling over 15,000.  A short trail takes you along the Union artillery placements at the crest of the hill and down through the woods to along the creek where the Texas and Georgia troops broke through the line, precipitating the Union withdrawal.

GainesMill

7) Near Gaines Mill is also the site of the Battle of Cold Harbor on June 1-3, 1864.  There is a small Visitor Center with some good exhibits about the battle and its importance to Grant’s Overland Campaign.  This was especially useful, since jumping between 1862 and 1864 can become confusing, but such is the nature of the Civil War around Richmond.  At Richmond you can see the changes in how the war was fought from 1862 to 1864.  Early in the war, the main strategy was to overwhelm the opponents with organized charges against opposing lines of soldiers, generally protected by stone walls, wooden fences, or hastily constructed breastworks, if anything.  By 1864 the war had progressed to the use of quickly building trenches, redoubts, and earthen forts to create a strong defensive line that was nearly impregnable.  Richmond was protected by an inner and outer series of breastworks around the city and it was these outer defenses that the Union attacked on June 1.  A one mile walking trail takes the visitors around the site of the battle where Grant was soundly defeated by the entrenched Confederates after which he changed his strategy to one of siege, turning his focus on Petersburg.ColdHarborVisitorCenter ColdHarborBreastwork1

8) The driving tour then continues to the south around Richmond with brief stops at the Battle of Savage’s Station along the railroad and Williamsburg Road on June 29, 1862 where the Union rear guard under the command of Maj General Sumner was briefly attacked by Brig General Magruder trying to stop the withdrawal of the Union army attempting a difficult crossing of White Oak Swamp to the south.  There is also a brief stop at White Oak Swamp.

WhiteOakSwamp

9) The next main stop on the tour is Glendale (Frayser’s Farm) where you can visit the Glendale National Cemetery.  There is also a small Visitor Center at the cemetery, which is only opened seasonally (meaning it was closed when we were there in April).

MalvernCemetery

10) Just down the road a little is the site of the Battle of Malvern Hill, where the Union army finally did turn and face the pursuing Confederates.  Positioning their cannon at the crest of a gentle hill in the middle of crop fields anchored by steep slopes on the left and swamps on the right.  The massed cannon and infantry fire from the hill shattered the multiple Confederates attacks.  This defeat ended the Seven Days Battle for Lee and allowed McClellan to withdraw his forces to Harrison’s Landing on the James River.

MalvernHill

11) From Malvern Hill it is a short drive to the location of a series of forts that were part of the Overland Campaign in 1864.  The first is Fort Brady on the bluffs overlooking the James River from which Union artillery protected the Union supply base at City Point from Confederate ironclad warships.  The Confederates only attempted to attack City Point once, but were turned back by the Union Navy.  Firing on the ships as they left and returned was the only action seen at this location.  The breastworks surrounding the fort are largely intact today.

FortBrady

12) The next fort is Fort Hoke that was briefly taken by the Union on September 29, 1864 when they captured Fort Harrison to the north, however, was retaken by the Confederates becoming an anchor for a new set of trenches cutting off Fort Harrison.  The CCC attempted to rebuild the fort in the 1930s and from what I can tell, they did a terrible job.

FortHoke

13) The main fort in this line is Fort Harrison, which was the largest fort surrounding Richmond.  On September 29, the Union forces in the Army of the James captured this fort in an heroic charge up the face of the fort.  The Confederates attempted to retake the fort the next day, but failed.  The Union then enclosed the back side of the fort and then enlarged it.  This makes the earthworks of the fort very confusing as you can see the original Confederate fort, the early attempts to close the back side and then the newest works to enlarge the fort.  Therefore, you can see a line of earthworks running through the center of the fort that don’t seem to have any purpose.

FortHarrisonVisitorCenter FortHarrison

14)  There are also Fort Johnson and Fort Gregg to the north of Fort Harrison that are part of the driving tour, but they are neither one very well preserved, being today little more than bumps on the ground.

15) Across the James River is also Drewry’s Bluff, the location of Fort Darling that saw action early in the Peninsula Campaign in 1862 when it repulsed the Union Navy from attacking Richmond directly.  We did not have the time to cross over the river to visit this location, so I cannot comment on it.

16) There are many more battlefield sites that are either city or county parks that can also be explored.  These include the Battle of Seven Pines where General Johnston was wounded leading to General Lee being made the commander of the Army of Virginia, Battle of Oak Grove, and many others that relate to both historical periods.

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