Day Twelve in Richmond was rainy and cool. After dropping off the girls, my son and I headed down some winding country roads until we found our first destination.
While threads of the Civil War are woven everywhere in Richmond, the National Park Service also has 13 battlefield sites in Richmond. Since, to date, we had visited none of them, we thought we would remedy that and take advantage of the cooler weather to be outside.
My husband, the military historian, has taken me to several Civil War battlefields over the years. The first time I went to a Civil War battlefield, I was a bit surprised. If you go into the experience thinking that because this is a “national park” it will be like the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone, you are going to be disappointed. Civil War battlefields are much more subtle. Most of them are just open fields flanked by woods and an occasional cannon or statue. There is not a lot to see per se but you can certainly learn a lot by reading the signs and walking the grounds where the battles took place. If you enjoy walking in the woods (like I do) then you can always appreciate the preservation of natural space.
Our first battlefield stop was Gaines’ Mill. It is located at the end of a long residential country road. The road becomes so narrow that you aren’t quite sure whether you are still on your way to the national park or whether you have mistakenly entered someone’s private driveway. Then the road emerges at the top of a hill and you have a wonderful view of the battlefield and trees.
The rainy weather made my son incredibly sleepy so we sat for a while in the car while he napped and I read. The battlefield was so quiet and serene. There were only two other visitors while we were there.
When my son awoke, we went for a walk on the battlefield trail. Gaines’ Mill is important for its role in the “Seven Days Battles” of 1862. This series of battles was a major push by the Union Army to overtake Richmond and end the Civil War. Gaines’ Mill was the third battle of this series and occurred on the third day of fighting. The Seven Days’ Battles were a victory for the Confederates but not a decisive one. The battles were very bloody. 15,000 American soldiers were killed, wounded or captured at Gaines’ Mill in just six hours—more than twice the number of casualties at Normandy on D-Day. Had the Union won the Seven Days’ battles, many feel that the Civil War would have ended but slavery would have remained.
The trail is wooded and was a bit buggy on the day we visited. The tree cover is dense and is similar to the way these woods were during the battle. However, it is also hard to visualize the lines of the battlefield in these conditions. This might be a battlefield that is better to visit in winter.
Gaines’ Mill was also significant because it was the only time in the Civil War when both Union and Confederate hot air balloons were used simultaneously for reconnaissance. The utility of this birds eye view however was limited by the dense smoke on the battlefield. The balloonists could only tell that a lot of activity was going on.
A startling sign with a photograph of the skeletal remains of soldiers on the battlefield ends the tour. The sign informs us that the War Department was appalled with some of the indecent burials and established a series of national cemeteries.
We then traveled on to Cold Harbor. Cold Harbor is part of a different series of battles called the “Overland Campaign” that occurred near the end of the war in 1864. Cold Harbor was also an extremely bloody battle and one that General Grant regretted as the loss of life did not justify the minimal battlefield advantage.
At first it was hard to keep all these battles and years straight. If you can just remember the two distinctions of the “Seven Days” in 1862 and the “Overland Campaign” in 1864, you can easily comprehend almost all of Richmond’s battlefields.
Cold Harbor has a tiny visitor’s center with a gift shop and a small museum exhibit area. The exhibit has some fascinating information as well as a large wall map with LED lights. A sound program describes the pattern of battles and the LED lights show how the Union and Confederate Armies were moving in each battle. It was a helpful overview.
Outside, you can take an approximately 1 mile trail through the woods.
There are small signs along the way pointing out remnants of trenches. Cold Harbor is known for having some of the best preserved trenches. The first “trenches” we encountered, however, were hardly impressive and were more typical of the trench remnants I have seen elsewhere.
Along the trail, we encountered a man in a park service uniform cutting plants along the walkway with a machete. We said a quick hello and he began following us and starting a conversation. At first, I was a bit nervous to be all alone in the woods with a man with a machete. After a while, however, I relaxed and began to think of him as our defender in case bears or other threats came along. He had quite an interest in the battlefield history and told me to look up Andersonville, a Confederate prisoner-of-war camp, to learn about how Union soldiers suffered.
We parted company at a bend in the trail and headed back toward the visitor’s center. We passed through some beautiful trails.
Right before we reached the Visitor’s Center, I stopped suddenly to see a beautifully preserved trenchline. There was something awe-inducing about it. My picture doesn’t really capture what it felt like to be there and I think I will save a surprise for those who go to visit. The trench was deep and almost perfectly preserved which is amazing for an earthwork nearly 150 years old.
This was definitely worth seeing.
At this point we had to rush back for camp pick-up. Although I had not expected the day to be particularly thrilling I found myself enjoying the experience and looking forward to seeing more of the Civil War battlefields Richmond had to offer.