The Richmond Battlefields
Richmond, Virginia: the contentious capitol of the Confederacy. Its preeminence as a prosperous city of commerce and industry made Richmond a strategic location to establish the Confederate States' new political center. In May 1861, Richmond earned that distinction, and almost immediately drew the ire of the Union Army. Throughout the Civil War, Richmond was the target of numerous, hard-fought campaigns that tested the strength of the its defenses, the tenacity of its leaders, and the will of its people. The hardships of war were no stranger to Richmond as hundreds of thousands of casualties mounted on its doorstep during four bloody years of conflict.
The Peninsula Campaign: March 17 – May 31, 1862
On March 17, 1862, Major General George B. McClellan launched the largest amphibious operation of the Civil War. Over 120,000 soldiers of the Union Army of the Potomac were transported from Alexandria to Fort Monroe, Virginia, with orders to march on the Confederate capitol of Richmond. As the Union presence on the Virginia Peninsula swelled, the situation grew increasingly bleak for the Confederates. The only line of defense between McClellan and Richmond was Major General John Magruder’s 13,000-man Army of the Peninsula, outnumbered nearly ten-to-one on the front.
As the Union Army prepared to mobilize, Magruder’s Army hastily constructed a series of redoubts and defensive positions along the Virginia Peninsula. While many of these earthen works were haphazardly assembled, undermanned, and short on supplies, they created an illusion of a daunting Confederate defense. When McClellan began his march on April 4, 1862, his intelligence officers reported that the rebel army numbered over 100,000 men, a gross overestimation based on the number of Confederate works in their path. This changed McClellan’s plans drastically. Instead of being swift and ambitious in his campaign, McClellan became more methodical and apprehensive. He decided to engage the Confederate defenses at Yorktown, besieging the town for nearly a month. The stagnation of the Union Army allowed the Confederates to better fortify their defenses further up the peninsula and amass numerous reinforcements from General Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of Northern Virginia. When the Siege of Yorktown was finally completed on May 3, the Confederate Army numbered 57,000 men. Despite the reinforcements and strengthened defenses, the Confederate Army still faced a force twice its size and continued to fall back towards Richmond.
DREWRY’S BLUFF: May 15, 1862
“The batteries on the Rebel side were beautifully served and put their shots through our side with great precision…The Galena did most of the fighting—her sides look as though she had an attack of smallpox.”
– Commander John Rodgers, USS Galena
On the evening of May 10, 1862, Confederate forces retreated from Norfolk. Their untimely withdrawal left the CSS Virginia—an ironclad warship that wreaked havoc on the Union’s wooden naval vessels—without a friendly port for resupply. She was scuttled by her crew the following day to prevent capture. The loss of the Virginia allowed the Union to access the James River virtually unrestricted.
Union command dispatched a squadron of five Federal ships, including ironclads USS Monitor and Galena, to test the Confederate defenses along the James. The Union vessels encountered weak and sporadic resistance during their expedition and easily overwhelmed these minor obstacles with superior firepower. It soon became apparent that the relative ineffectiveness of the Confederate defenses made the James River Richmond’s greatest vulnerability.
On the evening of May 14, the U.S. Navy found themselves less than ten miles away from the capitol. The only formidable Confederate defense between Federal forces and Richmond was Fort Drewry (Fort Darling as the Union called it). Named after Captain Augustus H. Drewry, the fort’s landowner, Fort Drewry occupied a commanding position on a 90-foot bluff, overlooking a sharp bend in the James River. The fort was outfitted with three powerful seacoast cannons and nearly four hundred Confederate troops under the direction of Naval Commander Ebenezer Ferrand. With the Union bearing down on Richmond, the Confederates feverishly constructed rifle pits along the river and mounted five additional cannons in preparation for the assault.
On the morning of May 15, at 7:15 a.m., the Monitor and Galena opened fire on Fort Drewry. The three other vessels in the squadron remained out of range of the seacoast guns as the lead ships attempted to soften the Confederate defenses. After firing some ineffective rounds at the Monitor, Confederate artillery turned their attention to the lightly-armored Galena and delivered some devastating blows. One artillery shell passed through the Galena’s hull and killed most of the crew manning her 100-lb Parrot cannon.
The USRC Naugatuck moved forward from its safety position to relieve the Galena, but its 100-lb Parrot cannon exploded on its 7th round, effectively taking it out of the fight. The Galena continued to be the main target of the Confederate cannon, taking 45 hits over the course of the fight, 18 of which pierced its armor.
After nearly four hours of fighting, the U.S. warships retreated from the bluff at the expense of 27 Union and 15 Confederate casualties. The intense artillery duel at Drewry’s Bluff saved Richmond from naval bombardment and deterred McClellan from launching amphibious assaults on the outskirts of the city. This was also the last major action for the USS Monitor. United States Marine Corporal John Mackie and Navy men Charles Kenyon and Jeremiah Regan received the Medal of Honor for their heroism during the fight. Fort Drewry would not see action again until mid-1864.
By mid-1863, Drewry’s Bluff had expanded into a military city. Hundreds of Confederate soldiers, sailors, and marines were based here under the command of Sydney Lee (Robert E. Lee’s brother). Many of them attended the newly-formed C.S. Naval Academy aboard the CSS Patrick Henry or served in the Confederate Naval Hospital under the direction of William A.W. Spotswood. The fort also contained a hotel, Masonic lodge, and a chapel to accommodate the large number of soldiers and civilians who frequented the bluff.
Fort Drewry came under attack again during the 1864 Overland Campaign. On May 5, General Benjamin Butler and 15,000 Union troops landed at the Bermuda Hundred—a confluence between the James and Appomattox Rivers—which threatened the defenses of Richmond and Petersburg. Major General P.G.T. Beauregard dispatched Major General Robert F. Hoke and several thousand Confederate troops to defend the river and the bluff. Butler’s forces engaged Hoke’s on May 13 and took the outer defenses of the fort, but were unable to advance any further. On May 16, Beauregard arrived with three divisions of reinforcements and led a counterattack against Butler. An early-morning fog disorganized the Confederate attack, but Butler withdrew from his position anyway around 10 a.m. The fort remained in Confederate hands until the fall of Richmond in April 1865.
Seven Days’ Battles: June 26 – July 1, 1862
Following the Battle of Seven Pines (Fair Oaks) May 31 – June 1, McClellan’s offensive stalled for nearly four weeks. General Joseph E. Johnston was severely wounded during the fighting and was placed on medical leave. President Jefferson Davis placed General Robert E. Lee in command of the Army of Northern Virginia. Lee sought to mount an impregnable counteroffensive, intent of disrupting Federal supply lines and driving the Union Army away from Richmond at all costs.
CHICKAHOMINY BLUFF: June 26, 1862
As McClellan’s Army lay in wait on the outskirts of Richmond, Confederate engineers expeditiously constructed an intricate series of fortifications around the capitol city, consisting of interior and exterior lines of defense. Chickahominy Bluff—once a simple artillery post—had evolved into a permanent gunnery defense on Richmond’s outermost defenses.
McClellan planned to move his army within artillery range of Richmond by the end of June. General Lee mobilized 43,000 men in his army to Chickahominy Bluff to prevent such maneuvers, leaving only two Confederate divisions under General John Magruder and Benjamin Huger to defend Richmond if he failed. As Stonewall Jackson’s reinforcements trickled in from the Shenandoah Valley to join Lee, the newly-appointed Confederate commander decided to launch his first series of attacks against the Union Army.
BEAVER DAM CREEK (Mechanicsville): June 26, 1862
“[A brigade of rebels] were about to ascend our hill, when one of our regiments…which lay concealed
in a position near the base, arose and poured such a murderous volley into the rebel ranks that they
broke and fled in dismay.”
– A.F. Hill, 8th Pennsylvania Reserves
The bulk of Lee’s Army had been assembled earlier that morning at Chickahominy Bluff, but ordered not to advance to Mechanicsville until the entirety of Jackson’s forces were present on the field. The stagnant Confederates grew increasingly restless by the hour waiting for Jackson until General A.P. Hill completely lost his patience. At 3 p.m., he ordered his and D.H. Hill’s men to advance across the Chickahominy River against Lee’s direction. Confederate forces engaged members of the Union 5th Corps on the banks of the Chickahominy and managed to take Mechanicsville with relative ease.
The Union Army fell back to their defensive positions at Ellerson’s Mill along Beaver Dam Creek, giving the illusion of retreat. The Confederates continued to push past the town and across Beaver Dam, only to fall into the trap the Union had set. The Federal Army unleashed relentless artillery fire that shattered the Confederate lines as they attempted to cross the flooded creek. Thousands of men were pinned down in the boggy marsh while hundreds more were slaughtered by canister shot and rifle volleys.
In an effort to suppress the Union artillery fire, Brigadier General Joseph Reid Anderson performed a flanking maneuver on the Union left with members of the 3rd Louisiana and 14th and 35th Georgia Infantries. Anderson’s Brigade momentarily succeeded in driving the 1st Pennsylvania Reserves from their positions, but was pushed back following counterattacks from the 3rd Pennsylvania, 22nd Massachusetts, and 13th New York regiments.
Stonewall Jackson’s Army didn’t arrive until 6 p.m. that evening. When Jackson found no troops at Chickahominy Bluff, he ordered his soldiers to make camp for the night instead of joining the battle that raged within earshot.
The Union bombardment continued until nightfall and the Confederates retreated back across the Chickahominy under the cover of darkness. Miscommunication, insubordination, and inexperience caused the Confederate Army to suffer heavy casualties—1,300 compared to only 400 Union. One brigade of men, Ripley’s Brigade, lost 600 soldiers in the fight when they tried to mount an aggressive attack across the creek. They were met with deadly artillery fire from George C. McCall’s Pennsylvania Reserves.
Despite the dominating Union victory, McClellan feared that Lee would launch an even greater counterattack the following morning, still overestimating the strength of the Confederate Army. He ordered the 5th Corps to abandon their defensive positions at Beaver Dam and withdraw behind Boatswain Creek, just beyond Gaines’ Mill. The Union retreat from the peninsula had begun.
GAINES’ MILL: June 27, 1862
“Dashing up the steep bank, being within thirty yards of the enemy’s works, we flew towards the
breastworks, cleared them, and slaughtered the retreating devils as they scampered up the hill
towards their battery.”
– Decimus Barziza, 4th Texas Infantry
McClellan deployed General Fitz John Porter and the 34,000-man Union 5th Corps north of the Chickahominy River as rearguard while the rest of the army retreated down the peninsula. Porter established his headquarters at Springfield Plantation—a large farm situated on a plateau overlooking Boatswain Creek. The natural, sloped terrain and clear, rolling farm fields made Springfield an optimal defensive position. Porter arranged Brigadier Generals George Morell and George Sykes’s brigades into three lines of infantry, placed dozens of heavy artillery pieces atop the plateau, and patiently waited for the Confederates.
Lee was in hot pursuit of the Union Army after discovering that McClellan had withdrawn from the field earlier that morning. The Confederate Army tracked elements of the 5th Corps to Powhite Creek, but found that the bulk of the Union Army was stationed around Boatswain Creek nearly a mile to the east. Lee ordered E. Porter Alexander to launch a reconnaissance balloon into the air and observe the Union position in preparation for an offensive maneuver. While Alexander relayed the enemy’s location to Confederate command, the Union launched a balloon of their own—piloted by Thaddeus Lowe—to track the Confederate’s movements. It was the first and only time during the Civil War that aerial reconnaissance balloons were used by both armies prior to battle.
With the Union’s position confirmed, Lee mobilized his army on a two-mile front—General James Longstreet on the right, A.P. Hill in the center, Stonewall Jackson to the left, and D.H. Hill to the extreme left across the river—and engaged Porter shortly after noon. The Confederate Army, which numbered 55,000 men, had a rare numerical advantage against Porter’s 5th Corps, but the Union Army had the geographical advantage, which would prove difficult to overcome.
The first several hours of battle consisted of repeated, uncoordinated, and unsuccessful Confederate attacks. At 3:30 p.m., three brigades led by Richard Ewell, under General A.P. Hill’s division, attacked the Union center held by General Sykes. The rolling, sloped terrain allowed multiple lines of Union infantry to fire at once and with great accuracy. Murderous volleys and precise cannon fire greeted the Confederates as they tried to ascend the plateau. Hill’s division suffered 2,000 casualties within two hours.
Later that afternoon, Generals William H.C. Whiting and Charles Winder arrived to reinforce the Confederate assault, followed by elements of Stonewall Jackson’s brigade. At 7 p.m., Lee consolidated 32,000 troops from sixteen brigades to perform a decisive, all-out charge against Union lines. Members of Hood’s Division, including the 4th Texas and 18th Georgia regiments, led the assault up Turkey Hill with a ferocious rebel yell and overran the Union skirmish lines following vicious combat. Simultaneously, another break in the Union left occurred at the hands of General Longstreet. General Cadmus Wilcox’s Alabama Brigade spearheaded Longstreet’s charge into the Union battery controlled by Brigadier General Daniel Adams Butterfield. One-third of Wilcox’s brigade was listed as casualties following the battle, but they managed to drive the Federal Army from the high ground.
In a last-ditch effort to repel the Confederate advance, U.S. cavalry commander Philip St. George Cooke, J.E.B. Stuart’s father-in-law, organized a risky counterattack that resulted in one-quarter of his men dead or wounded. By dusk, the battle had turned into a rout in the Confederacy’s favor. Reinforcements from the Union 2nd Corps prevented the Confederates from completely decimating Porter’s army, allowing them to escape across the Chickahominy River that night.
The Battle of Gaines’ Mill resulted in nearly 15,000 casualties, the most of any battle during the Peninsula Campaign. Approximately 8,600 Confederate and 6,200 Union soldiers were wounded, killed, or missing in action. Despite the high casualty count, this was Lee’s first tactical victory as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, which left the Confederacy in control of the battlefield and the Richmond-York River Railroad, the Union Army’s main supply line.
MALVERN HILL: July 1, 1862
“As soon as they made their appearance from the woods, our artillery opened on them with terrible
effect. The air over their heads was filled with the smoke of bursting shells whose fragments plowed
– Charles A. Phillips, 5th Massachusetts Light Artillery
Following the disaster that was Gaines’ Mill, McClellan’s Army was on the brink of collapse. He managed to avoid direct combat with Lee over the next few days—only a few small-scale skirmishes were fought at Garnett’s Farm and Golding’s Farm (June 28), Savage Station (June 29), Glendale and White Oak Swamp (June 30), all inconclusive. On the morning of July 1, Lee and his army of 70,000 men prepared their final assault against the battle-weary Union soldiers at Malvern Hill, hoping to decimate McClellan’s Army once and for all.
McClellan was not present for the day’s battle at Malvern Hill. Instead, he was on the USS Galena inspecting Harrison’s Landing for routes of supply and retreat. General Fitz John Porter was left in charge of the Army of the Potomac, with nearly 80,000 troops spread across a 1.5-mile front. Anticipating another audacious Confederate assault, he ordered Colonel Henry J. Hunt, the Union Army’s Chief of Artillery, to arrange 171 cannon atop Malvern Hill and place 91 more in reserve. Porter hoped that a display of overwhelming artillery power would deter the Confederates from commencing an attack.
However, Lee had no intentions of backing down and devised a plan to break the Union artillery lines. He ordered for dozens of Confederate batteries to be placed at Poindexter Farm (about a mile away from Malvern Hill) and bombard the Union guns into submission, clearing the way for a massive infantry assault up the hill. Lee maneuvered the necessary elements of his army into position and commenced his attack at 10 a.m.
The battle opened with a barrage of cannon fire from both sides. Confederate batteries emerged from nearby woods and launched a series of uncoordinated attacks on the Federal guns. There was no synchronization to their bombardment as the batteries acted independently, piece by piece, unable to concentrate fire. There weren’t enough guns arranged at once to effectively silence the Union cannon. Eventually, the Union batteries, with overpowering numbers, found their range and focused their attacks against active elements of Lee’s artillery. The harassing Federal firepower easily suppressed the Confederate’s ability to soften the Union lines.
After several hours of fighting, there was a brief lull from Union guns. Believing his artillery had suppressed their fire, Lee implemented the next stage of attack: the infantry assault. At 1:30 p.m., 6,500 Confederate troops under D.H. Hill and Stonewall Jackson’s command mobilized towards the Union center line, commanded by General Darius Couch. The two forces engaged in fierce firefights near the West House that produced no decisive results.
While Hill and Jackson fought the Union center, Lee instructed General Magruder to march down Quaker Road and flank the Federals on their left. Magruder’s troops mobilized but were mistakenly led down the wrong Quaker Road (a common and indistinct name at the time). Magruder was forced to countermarch back to his original position, which delayed his presence on the field by three hours.
As the Confederate right awaited Magruder’s reinforcements, General Lewis A. Armistead noticed Union skirmishers attempting a flanking maneuver. He ordered his men to advance and engage the skirmishers, but were soon pinned down by intense artillery fire. When Armistead relayed his situation to Lee, it was miscommunicated as a successful advancement. Encouraged by this false report, Lee ordered Magruder to attack at his discretion.
At 5:30 p.m., Magruder charged the Union left with some 5,000 men from his and General Huger’s command. They unwittingly advanced into open fields within sight of the U.S. artillery. The Union guns unleashed a devastating fire that decimated the Confederate ranks as they neared the Federal lines. Some of Magruder’s men managed to get within point-blank range of General Charles Griffin’s artillery position, but were driven back after intense, heavy fighting with U.S. sharpshooters. D.H. Hill and his 8,200 men arrived at the Union left at 6 p.m. and attempted to reinforce Magruder, but were repulsed just the same after several uncoordinated attacks.
The firefight that resulted from Magruder’s charge alerted three Union gunboats positioned on the James River. They responded by firing ordinance into the Confederate’s supposed position; however, most of the projectiles missed their intended targets and some even fell behind Union lines.
The final Confederate assault took place at dusk and involved the divisions of Brigadier Generals Paul Jones Semmes and Joseph Kershaw, who once again attempted to break the Union left. As darkness and smoke blanketed the battlefield, confusion ensued. Kershaw’s men, who had advanced past the Confederate front lines, were subjected to a deadly crossfire between hostile and friendly forces. The Confederate right collapsed and the assault turned into a rout.
The Battle of Malvern Hill claimed the lives of 8,000 men, over half of which were Confederate. The superior Federal firepower, combined with the Confederacy’s numerous tactical errors, culminated in a decisive Union victory to end the Seven Days’ Battle and preserve the remnants of the Army of the Potomac.
McClellan withdrew his battered army at Harrison’s Landing the following day and returned to Alexandria later that week, effectively ending his disastrous Peninsula Campaign. Despite his victories at Beaver Dam Creek and Malvern Hill, McClellan was ruthlessly ridiculed by Northern newspapers, politicians, and local citizens for his overly-cautious demeanor and indecisiveness in battle. As a result, portions of McClellan’s Army were reassigned to the newly-formed Army of Virginia under Major General John Pope.
The Confederacy and citizens of Richmond praised Robert E. Lee for defending the capitol city; however, Lee was unhappy with the overall result, believing he missed an opportunity to force the Federal Army into surrender. After some much-needed rest and rehabilitation, Lee continued his offensive strategy north to engage Pope’s Army in the Second Battle of Bull Run.
CHIMBORAZO HOSPITAL (Oct. 1861- April 1865)
“The hospital presented the appearance of a large town, imposing and attractive, with its alignments
of buildings kept whitened with lime, streets and alleys clean, and with its situation on such an
elevated point it commanded a grand, magnificent, and pleasing view.”
– Dr. John R. Gildersleeve, C.S.A.
Following the Seven Days’ Battle, tens of thousands of sick and wounded soldiers flooded the streets of Richmond seeking treatment. Many churches, warehouses, and private homes were converted into de facto hospitals to accommodate the influx of sick and injured patients. Once a soldier’s condition had stabilized, they were transported to progressive medical facilities, such as Chimborazo Hospital, to complete their rehabilitation.
Chimborazo Hospital was established by Confederate Surgeon General S.P. Moore, a 27-year veteran medical officer, and directed by Dr. James McCaw. It was constructed on a 40-acre plateau overlooking the city and named ‘Chimborazo’ after a dormant volcano in Ecuador, believed to be the tallest peak in the world at the time (there was little knowledge of Mount Everest in the Western World). The medical complex consisted of 150 buildings, over 100 tents, and had the capacity to treat 3,500 patients at once, making it the largest military hospital in the world. Over the course of the war, Chimborazo cared for 78,000 patients of whom 7,000 died, making for an exceptionally low mortality rate of 9%.
The Confederate Medical Department was one of the best-managed branches of the C.S.A., due in part to Dr. Moore’s flexible and autonomous policies of practice. Efficient care and effective patient outcomes were at the forefront of Moore’s philosophy, which enabled Dr. McCaw to implement numerous medical advances at Chimborazo. McCaw oversaw the establishment of specialty hospitals for head and orthopedic injuries, taught surgeons new and innovative techniques to treat fractures, and commissioned dentists to be part of the medical staff.
McCaw also employed hundreds of women and African Americans to work as matrons and nurses, roles that were essential to hospital function and patient care. Matrons, in particular, worked tirelessly to assist surgeons on the battlefield and were increasingly tasked with administrative duties in the hospital setting. Notable women such as Sally Tompkins, Phoebe Pember, and Juliet Hopkins embraced these redefined roles for female caregivers and helped further the advancement of women into the medical community and, more greatly, American society.
Following the devastation of the 1862 Peninsula Campaign, Chimborazo and many of the other Richmond hospitals were stressed beyond their means. There was no organized system of admissions and surgeons were unable to keep up with pace of incoming patients. In response, the Confederate Congress passed a bill that established new standards of care in the hospital system. All surgeons were required to have a five-year-minimum working experience and pass a competency exam before being hired. Increased awareness for sanitation was also put into practice. The hospital wards at Chimborazo were neatly organized into rows of well-ventilated buildings, which promoted air circulation, and surgical tools were washed between operations to reduce the risk of infection (although Germ Theory was not completely understood at the time).
As the war dragged on, Confederate physicians and surgeons had to increasingly rely on plant-based drug therapy as the Union blockade restricted the flow of necessary medical supplies to the South. Surgeon General Moore directed F. Peyre Porcher to write a report on indigenous plants for his medical staff’s reference. In 1863, Porcher published Resources of the Southern Fields and Forests, which described and illustrated over 400 plants that could be used for medical purposes. Most of these remedies were not too effective, but they were vast improvements from potentially harmful treatments like mercury and alcohol.
Following Lee’s retreat from the defenses of Petersburg on April 3, 1865, Chimborazo was surrendered to the Union. The Federal Army commandeered the hospital for their own sick and wounded, although some Confederate patients were left behind during the evacuation and still required treatment. Union and Confederate soldiers were housed in separate wards until the U.S. military vacated the hospital grounds in the summer of 1865.
Chimborazo soon became a refugee camp for recently-emancipated and disenfranchised blacks. White residents complained about the rapid influx of African Americans to the war-torn Richmond government, but city officials refused to act. With no response, white citizens took matters into their own hands by harassing black citizens and inciting race riots. The black Chimborazo community reacted by forming their own militia to protect themselves from the unjust violence directed their way. After a series of deadly altercations in March 1866, the Freedman’s Bureau ordered for Chimborazo to be evacuated by April 1st. The city of Richmond purchased the land once it was vacant and developed it years later, wiping away any trace of the once-impressive hospital complex.
The Overland Campaign: May 4 – June 24, 1864
In March 1864, President Lincoln summoned Lieutenant General Ulysses Grant to Washington and offered him full command of the United States Army. Grant had been the champion of the Union Army in the Western Theater, and Lincoln hoped his success would carry over in the East. Lincoln was desperate for a decisive victory over the Confederacy, as his popularity and prospects for reelection were dwindling. Under Lincoln's direction, Grant orchestrated a series of coordinated offensives across the South—he would lead an assault against Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia using the Armies of the Potomac and the James, General William Tecumseh Sherman would invade Georgia against Johnston’s Army of the Carolinas, and General Nathaniel Banks would capture Mobile, Alabama.
Grant’s Overland Campaign opened with a series of explosive and costly stalemates against Lee’s forces. The Union Army suffered 40,000 casualties in the month of May alone and were unable to penetrate the elaborate Confederate defenses. Grant was hard-pressed to flank the rebel forces and believed he could do so at the Pamunkey River, a mere seventeen miles away from Richmond. If he could turn the Confederate Army there, Richmond was at his mercy.
TOTOPOTOMOY CREEK: May 28 – 30, 1864
“Every man had taken dead aim, and almost the whole front rank of the enemy went down. The
confusion among them was great. They struggled forward a few paces, only to receive another
rattling volley, and then broke and ran back to shelter of the pines, followed by the yells and cheers
of our brave fellows.”
– Captain T.C. Morton, 26th Virginia Infantry
Hard-marching troops of the Union 2nd Corps encountered elements of Major General Wade Hampton’s forces after crossing the North Anna River on the morning of May 28, 1864. Cavalry from both armies clashed at the inconclusive Battle of Haw’s Shop that left the Union in control of the field while the Confederates fell back to their entrenched positions on Totopotomoy Creek.
The 2nd Corps received reinforcements from Major Generals Governor K. Warren’s 5th and Horatio Wright’s 6th Corps the following morning and advanced towards Rural Plains—a 1,000-acre plantation belonging to the Shelton Family. The main house on the property was constructed by John Shelton I in 1725. In 1754, his granddaughter, Sarah Shelton, married famed orator Patrick Henry, supposedly in the home’s front parlor (however, this claim cannot be substantiated). By time of the Civil War, the property belonged to Edwin Shelton, whose wife and children were present when the Union arrived at their doorstep. Generals Francis Barlow and Winfield Hancock used the historic home as their headquarters while the Sheltons sought shelter in their cellar.
As the Union soldiers shoveled earthworks across the property, they encountered Confederate skirmish parties probing the area. Barlow ordered his division to charge down the slopes of Totopotomoy Creek and engage the enemy. The Confederates fell back to their entrenched positions on the hilltops surrounding the creek and orchestrated a valiant defense. The Union Army withdrew back to Rural Plains as dusk fell on the second day of fighting.
Grant ordered for a general advance of his troops on May 30, hoping to break the Confederate defenses. They were met by crushing Confederate firepower and fresh reinforcements from Jubal Early’s Second Corps. As the Union Army fell back, Early advanced his troops across the creek against Warren’s 5th Corps near Bethesda Church. He directed Major General Robert Rodes’ division to attack the Union left flank under Colonel J. Howard Kitching’s command. Kitching’s inexperienced regiments quickly folded to the battle-hardened Confederates, but the rebels soon became disorganized and were repulsed by Major General Warren’s counterattack.
After three days of fighting at Totopotomoy Creek, nearly 2,000 casualties lay scattered across the battlefield: 730 Union and 1,200 Confederate. The Shelton House was shelled fifty times by Confederate artillery, but the family and their home managed to survive the conflict. Union leadership decided that the Confederate defenses were too formidable and withdrew to Cold Harbor the following morning.
COLD HARBOR: May 31 – June 12, 1864
“Few men fell until we reached within [eighty yards] of the enemy’s first line, when they opened upon
us with canister [and] grape hurling it into our faces and mowing down our lines as wheat falls before
– Lieutenant Eli Nichols, 8th New York Heavy Artillery
Unable to advance past Totopotomoy Creek, Grant attempted to swing his army around Lee’s right flank once more. He dispatched General Philip Sheridan’s cavalry to capture the Old Cold Harbor crossroads, just ten miles northeast of Richmond. Sheridan encountered Major General Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry at the juncture and a skirmish ensued. The Union cavalry managed to hold their position and drive the Confederates back. Both armies converged on the crossroads and dug in defensive positions, preparing for a lengthy conflict.
The area around Cold Harbor saw intense action at the Battle of Gaines’ Mill during the Peninsula Campaign of 1862. History seemed destined to repeat itself two years later with another bloody encounter. The Union Army sent in 108,000 troops to Cold Harbor while the Confederates armed their defenses with 59,000—their battle lines extended for nearly seven miles.
The first day of heavy fighting commenced on June 1 when Richard H. Anderson’s First Corps assaulted the Union positions held by General Horatio Wright and Baldy Smith, commander of the Union 18th Corps (the Army of the James). The attacks were sporadic and uncoordinated and easily repulsed by the Federals. Colonel Laurence M. Keitt attempted a final Confederate charge into Brigadier General Wesley Merritt’s entrenched cavalry, but was mortally wounded during the attack, forcing his men to retreat back behind their defensive lines.
Grant organized a counterattack later that afternoon. At 5 p.m., Generals Wright and Smith led 45,000 troops against General Thomas Clingman’s Confederate defenses. The 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery spearheaded the charge across the field under intense fire. The regiment incurred 330 casualties in the charge, but managed to momentarily break through the rebel lines before losing the ground to Confederate reinforcements.
Encouraged by his army’s progress, Grant planned for a full-scale assault to take place the following morning at 5 a.m. He ordered Major General Winfield Hancock’s 2nd Corps to maneuver with Horatio Wright’s 6th Corps to the Union left in preparation for the offensive. However, the 6th Corps didn’t move into position until 6:30 a.m., so Grant delayed the assault until 5 p.m. that afternoon. Logistical errors continued to plague the Union throughout the day, forcing Grant to push the attack even further back to 4:30 a.m. on June 3. The delays in the Union attack gave Lee precious time to strengthen his already well-fortified defenses at Cold Harbor. His troops worked tirelessly to construct nearly seven miles of trenches, rifle pits, and breastworks.
On the morning of June 3, Grant launched his grand assault. Nearly 50,000 Union troops stormed the Confederate lines just before daybreak and faltered almost immediately. General John H. Martindale’s division of the Union 18th Corps was decimated by entrenched Confederates under Anderson’s command. Winfield Hancock’s 2nd Corps brazenly charged through open ground and hundreds fell to the volleys of Confederate rifles. Elements of the 2nd and 6th Corps briefly broke through Major General John C. Breckinridge’s right flank, resulting in fierce hand-to-hand combat. However, the Federals were driven back in disordered retreat after Major J.P.W. Read’s Battalion and the Richmond Fayette Artillery unleashed an unrelenting barrage of cannon fire into the vulnerable Union regiments.
The chaos and confusion within the Federal ranks was unprecedented. Scores upon scores of men were cut down in a deadly crossfire. Those who survived the onslaught had to dig makeshift trenches in the fields with cups and bayonets in order to protect themselves from enemy fire. The Union lost between 5,000 and 7,000 men that day, many of whom lay wounded in open hostile territory. There they would remain for four more days as the two armies negotiated a ceasefire. Many of the wounded perished from exposure as a result.
The final few days of fighting consisted of sniping and trench warfare. Neither army was audacious enough to engage in another full-scale assault. Over the course of two weeks, the Confederate line held its ground against fourteen separate Union assaults. In the end, 12,000 Union soldiers were listed as casualties compared to 4,000 on the Confederate side (only 83 of which were listed as killed), making Cold Harbor one of the most lopsided engagements of the war. It was also Lee’s last major field victory.
The Richmond-Petersburg Campaign of 1864
The staggering losses incurred by Grant's Army deterred him from attempting another assault on Richmond. Grant instead withdrew from Cold Harbor, joined forces with Benjamin Butler’s Army of the James, and turned his attention towards Petersburg. Lee rushed his troops south to defend the important commerce city and dispatched General P.G.T. Beauregard to oversee the defenses on the Bermuda Hundred.
Parker’s Battery was installed on June 17, 1864, as part of the Howlett Line—a series of interconnected redoubts that stretched eight miles between the James and Appomattox Rivers. The battery was known as the Boy Company, as they had several enlistees between the ages of fourteen and nineteen. Parker’s Battery had seen considerable action during some of the most contentious battles of the war, including Second Manassas, Antietam, and Gettysburg. In fact, the famous photograph of Confederate dead near Dunker Church in Sharpsburg are believed to be members of Parker’s Battery.
FORT HARRISON (Battle of Chaffin’s Farm): September 29, 1864
“The men nobly respond to their officers’ call and pour over the edge of the ditch into the dry moat, and
then, scrambling up the bank…the blue column mounts the parapet, lingers for a moment in a fierce
blaze of musketry on its crest, and finally, overflowing all barriers, pushes across the parade grounds.”
– William S. Hubbell, 21st Connecticut Infantry
Constructed between 1862 and 1863, Fort Harrison was the largest Confederate fort on Richmond’s exterior line of defenses, which extended from the James River to New Market Road. However, its earthworks had fallen into disrepair after most of its forces had been pulled to the defenses of Petersburg. Only a garrison of two hundred troops under the command of Major Richard Taylor were left to guard its walls.
Hoping to draw Lee’s Army away from Petersburg, General Grant ordered Major General Benjamin Butler to conduct a diversionary attack on Richmond’s outer defenses. Butler assembled his 27,000-man Army of the James and formulated a dual-front offensive against the Confederates: the Union 10th Corps under Major General David Birney would assault New Market Heights while General E.O.C. Ord’s 18th Corps would attack against Chaffin’s Bluff and Fort Harrison to the west.
The attack opened the morning of September 29 at 5 a.m. when Colonel Samuel Duncan’s third brigade—consisting of the 4th and 6th United States Colored Troops (USCT) and 2nd USCT cavalry—stormed the Deep Bottom bridgehead at New Market Heights. The Confederate fortifications at New Market were defended by Brigadier General John Gregg and 1,800 members of the “Grenadier Guard”—soldiers of the 1st, 4th, and 5th Texas and 3rd Arkansas. The Union Army stormed across open fields are were decimated by heavy Confederate musketry fire. Much of the 6th USCT was moved down. Facing an onslaught, the Federals continued to hurl regiments of USCT at the well-defended Confederate fortresses, seemingly without any regard for their soldiers’ lives. By time the Union Army decided to fall back, Gregg’s men inflicted 850 casualties while suffering only 50 themselves.
While the U.S. Colored Troops were thrown to the butcher at New Market Heights, the first and third divisions of the 18th Corps, respectively commanded by Brigadier Generals George Stannard and Charles Paine, were making steady progress against the defenses of Fort Harrison. A Union force of 2,500 men (many of whom were also USCT) charged the fort in the face of heavy artillery fire and landmines and managed to scale its perimeter walls. Fierce hand-to-hand combat ensued before Union forces overran the belabored Confederate defenders.
By 7 a.m., the Union Army had successfully captured Fort Harrison, but at a significant cost. The Federal Army lost nearly 1,000 men during its attack on the fort—Stannard’s division alone suffered 750 casualties, including all three of his brigade commanders—while nearly all 200 Confederates in Taylor's garrison were listed as dead, wounded, or missing.
With the largest Confederate defensive position under Union control, General Ord turned his attention to Forts Hoke and Maury, one mile south of his army’s current position. Victory against these smaller earthworks would allow direct road access to Richmond. As the Union Army stormed Fort Hoke, Ord was critically wounded in the leg. Brigadier General Charles Heckman was named commander of the 18th Corps in Ord’s wake, but the damage had already been done. With the absence of their leader, the 18th Corps’ assaults became disjointed and their momentum ground to a halt.
At 10 a.m., General Richard Ewell arrived with much-needed reinforcements for the rebel army while Confederate ironclads on the James River steadily bombarded the Union position at Fort Hoke, forcing them to retreat back to Fort Harrison. The Confederates organized a new defense at Fort Gilmer, a small fort surrounded by a 27-foot moat about one mile due north of Fort Harrison. Elements of the 10th Corps attacked Fort Gilmer later that afternoon with four companies of U.S. Colored Troops leading the assault. Only one man from those four companies returned, the rest were either killed, wounded, or captured.
Recognizing the strategic importance of Fort Harrison but not wanting to abandon his defenses at Petersburg, Lee dispatched Major General Charles Field and 5,000 veterans of the Confederate Army to reclaim it. Field attacked Fort Harrison early the next morning, hoping to take the Union by surprise. Instead, they were met with ferocious volleys of superior firepower. The troops guarding Fort Harrison were armed with Spencer Repeating Rifles, guns that could fire up to ten times faster than a conventional muzzle-loaded rifle. Needless to say, the Federals inflicted serious casualties on the counterattacking Confederates.
After two days of fighting, the Confederate Army lost 2,000 men while the Union lost 3,300. The former Confederate fort was renamed ‘Fort Burnham’ in honor of Brigadier General Hiram Burnham, who lost his life while scaling its walls in battle. The fort was held by several thousand U.S. Colored Troops for the final six months of the war. Fourteen of these soldiers received the Congressional Medal of Honor for their bravery during the Battle of New Market Heights.
The Civil War was America's greatest conflict and Richmond was constantly at its center. Some of the war's most violent and pivotal battles took place on the city's periphery, leaving untold amounts of devastation in their wake. Richmond has done a phenomenal job in preserving these battlefields and historic sites, many of which can be visited on the Richmond Battlefield Driving Tour--an 80-mile historic trail around the city. The amount of Richmond's Civil War history is almost overwhelming as I had to make three separate trips to complete the tour! The Richmond battlefields embody an accurately comprehensive and sobering narrative of the Civil War's impact on the soldiers who fought and the citizens who witnessed the conflict.
For more information on Richmond National Battlefield Park, visit the National Parks website! And be sure to check out the following sources for each of the tour destinations described above:
Robinson Jr., William. "Drewry's Bluff: Naval Defense of Richmond, 1862". Civil War History. Vol. 7, No. 2. The Kent State University Press. June 1961. 167 - 175
Beaver Dam Creek:
Green, Carol. Chimborazo: The Confederacy's Largest Hospital. University of Tennessee Press. 2007
Johns, Francis S. and Anne Page Johns. "Chimborazo Hospital and J.B. McCaw, Surgeon-in-Chief". The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography. Vol. 62, No. 2. Virginia Historical Society. Apr. 1954. 190 - 200