This is one of my favorite Civil War sites in the area – or maybe of anywhere. If you have not made the trek, you should do so. (And it is a bit of a hike, but very easy.) The earthworks are awesome, and they have done an incredible job of making you feel like you were there for this very important battle that stopped the Union naval advance on Richmond. Did you know that the Monitor was part of the naval group that sailed up the James that May of 1862? I didn’t.
Following the very clear directions given me by the battlefield visitor center, we started out to cover all of the battle sites of the 1862 Seven Days Battles and the 1864 Peninsula Campaign. In a hurry to get to Cold Harbor as the storm clouds gathered, we zipped by Chickahominy Bluff and Beaver Dam Creek. We checked in at the Cold Harbor visitor center, saw the movie and grabbed a map. There were two tour groups outside content to listen to their guides and just stare at the battlefield. Hah! Not us. We set out across a field toward the tree line, and spent an hour walking the trails and stopping to read about the battle’s ebb and flow. Tip #14: Don’t forget insect repellent if you are going to be doing any hiking. Trust me on this one.
With that number one goal out of the way, we back-tracked to the Garthwright House which is privately owned – they do have a parking area and a trail, but you are cautioned not to trespass near the house. Next stop was Gaines Mill (Watt’s House), then on past the site of the Grapevine Bridge and past Fair Oaks to search for the site of the famous Seven Pines battle. We followed the directions into and out of Sandston, turned around and went back, drove around for a while and finally pulled over to check the maps – where was it?? This was a MAJOR battle but all we found was the cemetery. It slowly dawned on us that we were basically on the battlefield – Sandston had been created on top of it. It was an ahah! moment in the case for battlefield preservation.
Lunch was fried bologna burgers at the Sandston Grill and Treasure House, and thanks to Mary for the wonderful treat. Tip # 15: Seek out the local places and avoid the fast food chains for a real appreciation of the character of small towns. Revitalized, we headed back along the NPS battlefield route. We drove through White Oak Swamp to our next stop, the newly opened Glendale/Malvern Visitor Center at Frayser’s Farm. It featured another one of those fascinating topographical maps with the lights indicating the various troop movements while a narration is given, as well as many interesting exhibits. So interesting, in fact, that we lingered a bit too long and the storm clouds were darkening the sky as we left.
Too bad – according to the signage, the Malvern Hill battlefield is one of the most perfectly preserved battlefields in the US. We were itching to hike the 1 ½ mile trail when the clouds opened up and it started pouring rain. A race to the car and we were reluctantly on to the next stop, the Fort Harrison Visitor Center (with brief pullovers at Battery IV and Fort Hoke).
The rain was coming down pretty hard when we pulled into the Fort Harrison parking lot. We scrounged for jackets and umbrellas and decided to wait to see if it would abate somewhat. Then suddenly Henry opened the car door and yelled out “Come on! Let’s go!” Russ and I immediately obeyed and started running in the torrential downpour. Poor Brad got locked in the car and had to be rescued by Russ, then he got drenched as well. Safe under the shelter of the porch, we peeled off our wet outerwear as the sun broke through. If we had only waited. Tip #16: If you think you might get caught by rain, in addition to umbrellas it’s a good idea to pack some dry clothes. Unfortunately, we didn’t. So we squeaked and dripped as we walked around.
Later, it was Russ who pointed out how that mad dash somehow helped explain why Civil War soldiers on both sides would doggedly obey their commanders or whoever picked up a dropped flag and yelled “Forward!” into a line of blistering fire. We knew the smart thing was to wait in the car, yet when Henry rallied us……
The lonely gent on duty at the NPS Fort Harrison visitor center (it was late afternoon and we were his only visitors that day) could not have been nicer or more helpful. We watched the orientation video, viewed the exhibits and then walked around the perimeter of the fort slowly drying out in the sunshine. It proved to be a short respite, however, as the dark clouds began forming once again as we headed back to Richmond.
For our final cap to the tour, I drove by the site of the old Robt. E. Lee Camp for Confederate Veterans (now the site of the Virginia Historical Society, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and United Daughters of the Confederacy). I pointed out the old Home for Confederate Ladies (VMFA’s Pauley Center and now also home to the VAM offices) and the Confederate Chapel, then drove along Monument Avenue for a parting wave to the stone generals. Exhausted and thirsty, we headed back to the Capital Ale House for rest and libations.
When the time came to say our final goodbyes, I was truly sad to see the adventure end. Over the past four days, I had seen sights in Richmond that I had always meant to visit but just hadn’t gotten around to – and I was so grateful for the opportunity to see them with such fine, interesting, fun, smart, witty, generous, thoughtful, and noble gentlemen. Sometimes it really takes seeing things through another’s eyes to bring home the richness around you. My final tip: Carpe diem. Don’t put it off – invite someone to visit and explore with you this summer! Life really is too short – and the Civil War Sesquicentennial provides the perfect opportunity to invite friends and family to Virginia.