As the political, manufacturing, and supply center for the South, Richmond was a high-value military target during the Civil War. Of the seven offensives against the city, only two came close enough to threaten the Confederate capital—the Peninsula Campaign of 1862 that ended in the Seven Days’ Battles and the Overland Campaign of 1864, which culminated in the fall of Richmond and shortly after, the end of the Civil War. Today, visitors to Richmond National Battlefield Park can learn about the struggles for the capital of the Confederacy by touring battle sites related to both of these campaigns. Visitors can also learn about the industrial role of Richmond in supporting the Confederacy at the Tredegar Iron Works and about medicine during the Civil War at the Chimborazo Medical Museum.
The Tredegar Iron Works complex contains the main visitor center for the park. During the Civil War, this foundry cast artillery and manufactured ammunition, including the mortar fired at Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, the first shot in the Civil War. Though the iron works also produced a variety of machinery, including locomotives and other parts for the railroad, the factory complex was primarily important to the southern war effort.
Well connected by rail to much of the fighting, Richmond became a prime location for hospitals to treat Southern casualties. Chimborazo Hospital in Richmond was one of the largest hospitals, treating approximately 75,000 patients during the war. Wounded soldiers staffed Chimborazo. The hospital had a fleet of surgeons but was primarily a convalescent hospital. The Chimborazo Medical Museum in a building on the site of the hospital provides information about medicine in the mid-1800s and the hospitals of Civil War Richmond.
As part of the Peninsula Campaign of 1862, under the leadership of General George McClellan, Union forces captured Richmond after multiple attacks by land and water. Troops under first Confederate General Joseph Johnston, then General Robert E. Lee who replaced the wounded Johnston, faced off against the Union troops. McClellan’s plan had been to move up the peninsula toward Richmond and capture the city to secure an early end to the Civil War. Lee, meanwhile, fortified Richmond against attack and, with Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, worked to provoke a conflict that would settle the fate of Richmond. This planned offensive led to the Seven Days’ Battles. Ultimately, Union forces retreated to the James River leaving Lee’s troops to march into the North for the first time.
Walking trails and interpretive signs at the sites of the Seven Days’ Battle offer the opportunity to retrace the steps of both Confederate and Union lines. The Beaver Dam Creek battlefield marked the beginning of the Union retreat toward the James River. At Gaines Mill, a Union force faced a much larger number of Confederate troops in a move designed to allow the balance of Union troops to retreat. The Confederates won their first victory here since July 1861. Malvern Hill, the thunderous concluding engagement of the Seven Days’ Battles, ended with a Union victory when Southern leadership failed to design and execute a battle plan that could defeat the Union. The appearance of the area today is very similar to the way it looked at the time of the battle.
Union forces also looked to attack Richmond by water. Because the James River is navigable by ships of war up to Richmond, the Confederacy established naval defenses on a bluff overlooking the river. Drewry’s Bluff saw both early and late fighting during the war and was the location of Confederate naval training facilities, where Confederate troops successfully defended against a Union advance up the James in May of 1862. The fort at Drewry’s Bluff is open to visitors who can walk a one-mile trail through the fort to see exhibits and look out over the James.
The Overland Campaign of May to June 1864 raged across the center of Virginia as General Ulysses S. Grant’s Union troops advanced steadily toward Richmond. At the end of the Overland Campaign, Richmond fell on April 3, 1865 after the evacuation of the city and the setting of portions of it on fire. The Confederate capital city that federal troops encountered was in shambles, its few remaining residents living mostly among ruins. As the Overland Campaign moved closer to Richmond, the style of fighting changed to trench warfare.
During the Overland Campaign, Union and Confederate troops collided at Totopotomoy Creek in late May of 1864. Visitors can take a walking tour to see part of the creek side battlefield and a local home, “Rural Plains,” that received damage in the fighting. From Totopotomoy Creek, Grant decided to move toward Cold Harbor. Confederate defenses at Cold Harbor made Grant move on to Petersburg. A visitor center, with electric map program, provides an orientation to the battlefield. An auto tour and walking trails lead visitors through the site where Union and Confederate trenches from the 1864 battle are still visible.
After the Battle at New Market Heights at Chaffin’s Farm, 14 United States Colored Troops (USCT) received the Medal of Honor for their actions. At New Market Heights, USCT troops under the command of Brig. General Charles Paine crossed the James and began to advance northward under constant fire. Trapped, they endured a barrage of Confederate bullets for 30 minutes. Taking advantage of a break in the fire, some of the Colored Troops charged Confederate fortifications. Eight hundred of Paine’s troops, including USCT members, died in the fighting in a little more than an hour. Though poor leadership decisions led to high casualty rates among USCT troops at the Battle of the Crater in Petersburg, at New Market Heights, members of the USCT showed their willingness and ability to fight, and fight well when not hampered by the bad decisions of others.
While members of the United States Colored Troops fought at New Market Heights, a series of battles crisscrossed the countryside as Union and Confederate troops battled for months in late 1864 at a series of forts extending from the present-day Route 5 to the James River, seven miles south of Richmond. Visitors can explore remaining fortifications at Fort Harrison and Fort Brady using walking trails inside the forts. A seasonal visitor center is at Fort Harrison, a Confederate fort Union troops captured.
Though they broke through the outer defenses of Richmond, Union troops could not march straight on to the capital. Conflicts took place at the chain of forts around Fort Harrison and Parker’s Battery on the Bermuda Hundred between Richmond and Petersburg, an example of a long-standing Confederate artillery line that lasted from May 1864 to April 1865. Using trench warfare at Fort Harrison and other locations, Union troops edged ever closer to Richmond. After breaking the siege of Petersburg, Union troops entered Richmond, only to find it evacuated and partially on fire. Very shortly after the capital of the Confederacy fell, Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865, and five days later John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Lincoln in Washington, DC.
Richmond National Battlefield, a unit of the National Park System, is located among several sites in and around Richmond. The main visitor center is in the Tredegar Iron Works at 470 Tredegar Street in Richmond, Va. The Tredegar Iron Works has been designated a National Historic Landmark. Richmond National Battlefield and several sites within the park are listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The park sites are open daily from sunrise to sunset, except on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. The main visitor center is open from 9:00am to 5:00pm. Other visitor centers at Cold Harbor, Fort Harrison, and Glendale/Malvern Hill have different hours, as does the Chimborazo Medical Museum. For more information, see the National Park Service Richmond National Battlefield website or call 804-771-2145.
Richmond National Battlefield is also featured two other National Park Service travel itineraries: Civil War Era National Cemeteries: Honoring Those Who Served and the Richmond Travel Itinerary.