We continued to explore the Civil War on Day 13 of our travels. We looked at the tourism map and found a cluster of small historical sites near Mechanicsville, Virginia and headed that direction.
Our first stop was Beaver Dam Creek. This was the site of the first day of fighting in the Seven Days Battles of 1862. It is a relatively tiny battlefield with a lovely bridge spanning, of course, Beaver Dam Creek. You can walk a very short distance into the woods to see some interpretive signs until you back up to a residential neighborhood.
Beaver Dam Creek was a terrible loss for the Confederate soldiers. The Union Army had a superior position being at higher elevation and protected by features in the landscape such as a mill race (a sort of gated channel that controls water flow to a water wheel). The Confederate Army was not well trained and many errors were made, resulting in Confederate casualties of approximately 1,500 men.
This was a relatively quick stop but the landscape was beautiful.
We got back in the car and headed for our next battlefield stop which looked relatively close on the map. Unfortunately, my lack of navigation ability had us heading in some other direction that I couldn’t retrace now if I tried! When we found ourselves in the middle of farmland with increasingly provocative signs from the Tea Party, I had a feeling I was in the wrong place and we turned back.
We recentered ourselves in downtown Mechanicsville and after getting turned around by some highway construction finally found where we needed to be.
Chickahominy Bluffs is the spot where General Lee commanded his forces to begin the Seven Days Battles. This battlefield site was not all that impressive to me but it is another good one to visit if you don’t want to do a lot of walking.
From the parking lot, there is a very short walk to a small staircase that you can ascend to view the sloping landscape where Lee gave the order for the battles to begin. The park service has a sign at the top of the staircase where you can push a button and a well-done dramatic voice tells you about what happened there.
You can also see some entrenchments here which is probably one of the main reasons they wanted to preserve this battlefield. I am still not quite clear what these entrenchments were for. I needed my husband as tour guide to answer some questions about the battlefield strategy.
As we were leaving Chickahominy Bluffs, it was reassuring to see two police cars parked nearby, one for the Park Service and one for Henrico County. The two officers were chatting and waved as we left. Some of these national park sites are so remote that it can be a little concerning visiting them on your own. If your car breaks down or you need help, it could be quite a while before someone comes by. It was nice to see the police have at least some sort of timetable for visiting these places.
Our next stop was Meadowview Park and specifically a spot called the Armour House. We weren’t sure what the significance was of this spot but it was close by on the map. It turns out this was a farmhouse built in 1915. The property includes much of the site of Chief Justice John Marshall’s Farm dating from the Revolutionary War. Today, the Armour House is mostly used as a meeting and wedding facility. At the time we visited, some teachers were using the downstairs parlor areas but a kind employee allowed us to look around upstairs. There were so many wonderful home décor ideas from this home.
Since this was also a relatively quick stop, we continued on to hit one more in our cluster of tourist spots in Mechanicsville, the Dabbs House and Henrico County Tourism Office.
When you enter the Dabbs House, you are offered the opportunity to view a short film about the historic role of the Dabbs House. It is quite an interesting property. It was built in the 1820’s and rose to prominence when General Lee used it as his headquarters for planning the Seven Days Campaign in 1862, summoning his generals Stonewall Jackson, A.P. Hill, D.H. Hill and James Longstreet, to meet him there. After the Civil War, it was used as a house for the poor and for the Henrico County Police Department. Underneath the house is a huge bunker of offices built during the Cold War as a post-nuclear operations center. The bunker is not currently part of the tour but they may open it someday to the public.
There is a small museum discussing the building’s use as a poor house and police station and a little bit of information about the Civil War. I learned here the interesting detail that Robert E. Lee was technically not the first General of the Confederacy. (It was actually Joseph Johnston who was wounded early in the war.) If you take the guided tour, the guide will unlock the portion of the building that Lee and his generals used. It is staged to recreate how it might have looked at this time. The original house is tiny, consisting of one room on the main floor and a bedroom upstairs.
While chatting for a bit with the guide, I mentioned that I find Robert E. Lee a very fascinating person in history, mostly for his ability to maintain the respect of both the Union and Confederate people, including President Lincoln and General Grant both before, during and after the war. No one really tried to humiliate or villify Lee after the war and he was able to rejoin public life. The guide, who was about my age, looked at me in surprise and appeared shocked as to why anyone would even consider vilifying Robert E. Lee and said in the South General Lee is “canonized” not “vilified.” He also mentioned “The Lost Cause.” I said I was not familiar with this phrase. He said that “The Lost Cause” is a view of the Civil War that emphasizes the role of state’s rights in the war as opposed to slavery. (I discussed this with my husband and he indicated that most historians no longer support this view.) I was a little surprised that even after all this time feelings about the Civil War still run so deep. My husband said I received an important living history lesson in this conversation.
At this point, we had to leave for camp pick-up. Even though our day was a random collection of sites, it was interesting to see that at the end of the day, had we run the sites in the reverse order, starting at the Dabbs House, then proceeding to Chickahominy Creek and then to Beaver Dam Creek, we would have traced the origins of the Seven Days Battles nearly perfectly.
P.S. In an exciting coincidence, I just received an automated email from the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond with their latest newsletter. It was one of those moments where I had to stop for a moment and think, “Did they read my blog?” You may recall that earlier in our Richmond tour I visited the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond and walked the slave trail, where I noted how interesting I found the economic history of slavery. The Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond has just published a fascinating article on the economic history of slavery and it is mind-blowing!
The financial scale of slavery was even bigger than I imagined. You need to read it yourself but the article raises the question of whether there was a “slave bubble” much like there was a dot-com bubble and real estate bubble. It also informs us that even people who didn’t own slaves might have been profiting from the practice through investments in slave trading operations and banks. I find it exciting that historians and others now feel comfortable bringing all these facts to light and creating a new hotbed of research. I also hope that Richmond institutions will continue to lead in researching these issues as a way of reconciling its past.