Wednesday, January 18, 2017

On the battlefields of Richmond, Virginia

It was a journey backwards through history; starting in Petersburg where the key battles were fought resulting in Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender at the Appomattox Court House, then a stop at City Point (Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s strategic river & rail junction during the siege of Petersburg), and then on to the embattled Capital of the Confederacy. Located less than 100 miles from the Union Washington, D.C. capitol, Richmond, Virginia served as the capital of the Confederate States of America for (almost) the whole Civil War. Due to its tactical importance because of location on the James River and at the center of multiple rail lines, the city was a primary target of the Union Army. The most famous series of battles were the Peninsula Campaign (1862) & the Overland Campaign (1864), and it was this extended proximity to fighting that necessitated the construction of numerous hospitals and military prisons in city limits. The city finally fell to Union forces on the same day that Petersburg was lost – April 3, 1865 – and large portions of the city were destroyed by fires set during the evacuation.

Richmond National Battlefield reflects the diversity of the city’s assets during the Civil War; the Park's resources include the site of a naval battle, a key industrial complex, the Confederacy's largest hospital and dozens of miles of original fortifications. A complete tour of all ten units would require an 80-mile drive: Chickahominy Bluff, Beaver Dam Creek, Gaines’ Mill, Glendale, Malvern Hill and Drewry’s Bluff from the 1862 Seven Days’ Battles, and Cold Harbor, Fort Harrison, Parker’s Battery and Totopotomoy Creek from the 1864 Overland Campaign. In addition, the National Park Service managed Richmond Battlefield includes Chimborazo Medical Museum (one of the largest military hospitals of its day), and Tredegar Iron Works, the Confederacy’s most important iron foundry and rolling mill.

Tredegar is a good place to begin a tour of Richmond National Battlefield. The Visitor Center has exhibits and movies to introduce the story of Richmond during the Civil War and the battlefields around the city, and the 9-acre site contains five original buildings, a historic canal wall, ruins and artifacts. We started our explorations on the second floor of the visitor center in the Map Room where we picked up Junior Ranger books & checked out the children’s corner before heading upstairs to the third floor to watch the introductory movie and examine the exhibits.

At its height, Tredegar employed 800 free and slave laborers, making it the fourth largest iron works in US history. Founded in 1836, it harnessed the power of the James River and the Kanawha Canal, and together with other foundries made Richmond the center of iron manufacture in the southern US. Already well known when the Civil War started in 1861, Tredegar operated 24 hours a day to meet the Confederate demand for artillery and ammunition, producing 1,100 cannons in addition to the casemates of several warships that include CSS Virginia (a reconstructed USS Merrimack). On April 2, 1865, warehouses along the James River were being burned by evacuating Confederates, and Tredegar was only saved from this fate by an armed battalion of workers who blocked the attempt of the mobs to destroy the foundry buildings. The iron works would play an important role in rebuilding the South after the war.

Ulysses S. Grant’s 1864 Overland Campaign began with the Battle of the Wilderness near Fredricksburg, and ended with the Siege of Petersburg. The campaign was part of a coordinated surge across the South, and the pressure ultimately stretched the South’s resources beyond capacity. One of the Overland sites included in the Park is Fort Harrison, and because of its former reputation as the strongest point on the Confederate line of defense (as well as being the only fort that fell in 1864), we decided to make it the second stop on our Richmond battlefield tour.

After the Battle of Cold Harbor (where 16,000 lives were lost in a two week period), General Grant crossed the James River and directed his main effort against Petersburg. In a surprise attack designed to prevent Lee from shifting his troops south, Union soldiers captured Fort Harrison on September 29th. As the Visitor Center at the fort is seasonal (and closed during the winter), we instead headed out on the half-mile self-guided walking trail of the battlefield that features signs and details of the battle and on the fort.

In 1864 most of the Confederate forces were in Petersburg and there were only about 200 Confederate defenders at the fort. These soldiers were poorly armed and the Union attack overwhelmed the fort quickly with relatively few casualties. If it wasn’t for the failure of Union forces at the other Confederate forts in the coordinated attack, the military significance of the victory would have been greater. As it was, the fort was enlarged by the Federals, and together with Fort Brady served to protect Grant’s supply system from Confederate gunboats moving downriver.

We had hoped to make a couple more stops, at the Cold Harbor and Gaines’ Mill units. However we got so carried away at Tredegar Iron Works that we ran out of time, and so further exploration of the Richmond battlefields will have to wait. However, this wasn’t the end of our Richmond explorations… Stay tuned for more adventures in this historic Virginia city!

My favorite monument of the trip, on the grounds of Tredegar Iron Works

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