The “Lesser” Civil War

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By Colin Woodward

Civil War Central and Not-So Central

Central Virginia is, appropriately enough, Civil War central. Yes, the war spanned all the southern states and even some northern ones (hello Vermont, this is a stick up!). Anyone interested in Robert E. Lee and the Civil War will have hit the major sites: Antietam, Gettysburg, Chancellorsville, Petersburg, but that just scratches the surface.

When living in Richmond back in the years 2005-2010, I didn’t have a car, and so I didn’t visit many battlefields. I did manage to see the Stonewall Jackson Shrine at Guinea Station and to walk the grounds of Spotsylvania. I also visited Gaines’ Mill and Cold Harbor (briefly). But trips to battlefields were rare for me.

Now, in my second year of residing again in Virginia, I have had the chance to walk more in the footsteps of Robert E. Lee and the Lee family. Of my list of Robert E. Lee sites, I can check off Stratford, where he was born and where I work, Chancellorsville, Fredericksburg, Manassas, and Antietam, just to name a few. In my last post, I talked about visiting Petersburg again, which included a stop at Lee’s headquarters at Violet Bank.

But today I’m going to talk about the “lesser” Civil War sites around Richmond. These are places that don’t get the vast numbers of visitors that the big battlefields do, but are nonetheless part of the epic story of the Civil War/War between the States/Second American Revolution/War of Northern Aggression/War of the Rebellion/Late Unpleasantness/War of Southern Independence.

Milford Station

Last week, I drove to the North Anna and Milford Station battlefield. Milford Station is obscure by Civil War standards. To get to the battlefield, you have to turn off of Route 3 in Caroline County. Milford is what you could call a “wide place in the road.” It had a store and houses, but things were quiet when I visited on Friday morning. The loudest thing I heard was a train pass nearby.

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Milford Station battlefield in Caroline County

The site is a historical bridge between the slaughter-filled battle of Spotsylvania and the far less bloody movements at the North Anna. On 1864 May 21, Union commander Winfield Scott Hancock drove Confederates across the Mattaponi River (not to be confused with the Po, Ni, Poni, Mat, Ta, or Matta rivers). Hancock’s efforts forced Lee to change his base of operations further south at Hanover Junction. The Union victory at Milford Station broke the stalemate that had developed at Spotsylvania Courthouse. The North Anna became the scene of the next round of fighting.

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The North Anna

The North Anna was part of the Overland Campaign, which was the bloodiest of the Civil War. After failing to destroy each other at Spotsylvania, the armies of Grant and Lee moved further south. They met again at the North Anna in the third week of May 1864.

I drive over the North Anna every time I go up I-95 to get to work. On the day I visited the battlefield, however, I took the more leisurely Route 1. In Doswell, I took a left off of Rte. 1 at the Civil War Trails sign. Another two miles or so brought me to the North Anna battlefield park.

The park is not part of the National Park System. And by NPS standards, it is rustic. A gravel road leads to the battle site. You then have to walk a good distance along a dirt trail before you see any interpretive panels. The area is heavily wooded: quite a contrast to how it looked in 1864. Farmers don’t like trees, and many parts of 19th century Virginia, as was true of the country at large, was less wooded than it is now. This photo, nevertheless, gives a good sense of how Civil War armies could turn a battlefield into a desert. Men needed wood for fires and entrenchments. From Virginia to Georgia, in 1864, soldiers could strip an area bare in order to keep fighting.

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Contemporary photo of the North Anna battlefield

The losses at the North Anna were slight compared to what had gone before: 30,000 casualties at the Wilderness and an additional 30,000 men killed, wounded, and captured at Spotsylvania. But by today’s standards, the clash at the North Anna was a bloodbath. Grant suffered roughly 4,000 casualties before he moved to Cold Harbor. Lee suffered about 1,500 killed, wounded, and missing.

An Ailing Robert E. Lee

At the time of the battle, Robert E. Lee was not feeling well. He was suffering from diarrhea and not getting much sleep. He felt so lousy that he spent much of his time in a wagon rather than on horseback.

The fighting at the North Anna is interesting not only for what happened, but what did not. At the battle, Lee had constructed one of his strongest defenses of the war. As Emory Thomas has written, “Lee’s defensive position on the North Anna was ingenious.” Thomas suggests that Lee might have dealt Grant a major blow had he been feeling better and had Grant fallen into the Confederate trap. Unfortunately for Lee, Grant did not.

And yet, the North Anna was important, not just because it was part of the Overland Campaign, but because it contributed to Grant’s decision to make an all-out assault at Cold Harbor about a week later. By the time the Union army had arrived at Cold Harbor, Grant was tired of running up against Lee’s entrenchments and thought a massive frontal assault would break the Army of Northern Virginia. Grant was wrong. He was rash at Cold Harbor, and Lee made him pay dearly for it on 1864 June 3.

As Douglas Southall Freeman has noted, Lee’s stand at the North Anna forced Grant away from a direct attack on Richmond from the north. It also kept Lee connected to his supply lines in the Shenandoah Valley. “No achievement,” Freeman wrote in his biography of Lee, “meant more in prolonging the struggle.”

Emmanuel Church

Closer to Richmond, I stopped at two sites close together along Route 1, not far from where Hilliard meets Brook Road. There, the nineteenth century meets the twentieth: remnants of the Civil War are overshadowed by a strip mall with a recently abandoned Martin’s store as its anchor.

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Cemetery at Emmanuel Church

Nearby is Emmanuel Episcopal Church, which was built in 1860. It has a beautiful old cemetery, where, sure enough, I came upon some Confederate history. One marker memorialized Confederate soldiers. Another was a large tombstone for Captain John William Drewry, an officer in the Southside Artillery.

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Six Degrees of Lee

As is often the case, there’s less than six degrees of separation when one wants to make a connection between a minor Civil War figure such as Drewry and the Lees. John Drewry’s artillery unit fought in Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Another connection: John William Drewry was the brother of Augustus Drewry (1817-1899), who owned the land on which the battle of Drewry’s Bluff was fought in May 1862. At the battle was Sidney Smith Lee, who commanded naval forces. Augustus and John were the sons of Martin Drewry, whose other son, Clay, was also an officer in the Confederate army. Clay served with Ransom in the Army of Northern Virginia.

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Earthworks along Route 1, where Richmond meets Henrico County

Near Emmanuel Church, I found earthworks that were used during the war to defend the Confederate capital. The works were one of the countless military projects during the war that used slave labor. The Confederate army used tens of thousands of African Americans to protect its troops and strategic locations, though none of those black men (until March 1865) were considered soldiers. The area I visited was where Jeb Stuart launched his famous ride around McClellan’s army in 1862. The fortifications remaining are the only such works I have seen in the Richmond area.

The site was also in the vicinity of where Gabriel Prosser planned his slave uprising in 1800. But that’s a story for another time.

 

 

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Podcast: Dr. Allen Guelzo of Gettsyburg College

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Allen Guelzo is a three time winner of the prestigious Lincoln Prize and a professor of the Civil War era at Gettysburg College. But as he tells Colin, he began as a scholar of colonial religion and philosophy. In their talk, they discuss religion, Abraham Lincoln, and Robert E. Lee (about whom Dr. Guelzo is writing a much anticipated biography). Colin also asks about Dr. Guelzo’s appearance on The Daily Show during the 2008 presidential campaign.

 

 

Petersburg Again

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The Crater in 1865. The site is much easier to navigate in 2017.

Revisiting

July 30 marked the 153rd anniversary of the battle of the Crater, one of the bloodiest battles of the nine month long Petersburg campaign, which became the lengthiest siege in American history. The Crater battle, fought on 1864 July 30 was historic for many reasons, but only recently have historians examined it at much length. Of the Confederate victory there, Robert E. Lee said of the enemy, “I trust he will succeed no better in his next than his last attempt.” The battle was arguably the last real victory for the Army of Northern Virginia.

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Stratford follows me everywhere. Intersection of Stratford Avenue and Crater Road near the battlefield

On my trip to Petersburg last week, I revisited the Crater battlefield, which I had seen about ten years ago.  I had the chance to reevaluate the place. I couldn’t remember the last time I had been there, and I wanted to check out some sites I had not known about the last time I visited the “Cockade City.” As is true of so many places, with PVA (to quote 19th century French critic Jean-Baptiste Alphone Karr), the more it changes, the more it stays the same.

 

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The Siege Museum in downtown Petersburg

Petersburg is a city with major problems. It has had long standing issues with crime, financial solvency, political dysfunction, and public education. A discussion of these things goes beyond the scope of a fluff blog piece. When it comes to history tourism, though, anyone interested in the Civil War should visit the city.

Last week, I wanted to hit two museums I had not been in before: the Siege Museum, which is downtown, and Violet Bank, used by Robert E. Lee as his headquarters for a few months of the siege. My trip again highlighted for me the pleasures and frustrations involved in visiting Petersburg.

Unfortunately, my good camera’s battery went dead upon my arrival, so I was forced to take pictures with my Verizon flip phone.

Old Towne

To say Petersburg is historic is an understatement. Old Towne has a rich history that includes major events in the Revolution and the Civil War. The house on Bank Street, where Edgar Allan Poe stayed, still stands. Steven Spielberg chose Petersburg to film parts of his 2012 film Lincoln.

As is true of anywhere, I suppose, Old Towne follows national economic trends. When I taught college in Petersburg back in 2005-06, the economy was doing great and Petersburg’s downtown seemed to be coming back. But when I visited a few years after the economic depression of 2008-09, Old Towne had taken a noticeable turn for the worse. One coffee shop I had loved had closed.

Yet, based on what I saw on Tuesday, Old Towne seems on the rebound, and I hope it continues to improve. I had a “Dirty Banana” (a banana shake with a shot of espresso) at Demolition Coffee on Bank Street, a nice cafe that I want to revisit for breakfast with the family.

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Magnolia tree on the grounds of Violet Bank

It’s easy to get around Old Towne on foot, and when I was last there, it was a good day for walking. The weather was warm, dry, and sunny. I had a good lunch at Longstreet’s, but unfortunately the Siege Museum (apparently still being renovated) was not open for visitors.

A short drive over the Appomattox River bridge brought me to Violet Bank, where Lee lived for several months in 1864. Lee often liked to live in a tent when he should have been indoors, but in Petersburg, he apparently came to his senses. His last headquarters was located at Edgehill, further west, but that building burned down a long time ago.

Violet Bank is next to an enormous magnolia tree, which is as impressive as the building itself. Since Violet Bank Violent Bank was not open, that left me with time to visit the battlefield again.

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Violet Bank, site of Robert E. Lee’s second-to-last headquarters used during the Petersburg siege

The Crater Battlefield

Getting to the Crater wasn’t easy. The area along Crater Road was a mess of roadwork, and there seemed no way to get inside the park without making a major flanking maneuver. I ignored the park’s Do Not Enter road sign. No ranger was there to arrest me, though, as I drove illegally onto the battlefield. Luckily, it didn’t take me long to get to the Crater site. I hope any Civil War buff would have forgiven me for butting my way into the park.

It is easy to see why Petersburg was so vital. Grant attacked Petersburg in June 1864 because of the city’s importance as a rail juncture. And sure enough, the railroad is still prominent. After being there only a few minutes, a train drove through the park, a few hundred yards away, along the Norfolk & Petersburg line.

The infamous Crater is not nearly as large as it was in 1864. Time and erosion has filled it in with earth and grass. As it is true of all the national parks, you have to use your imagination when viewing the grounds. The Crater is a shadow of its former self, but it’s clearly marked and you can still see the depressions in the ground where the Federals blew a huge hole in the Confederate defenses. I was one of only a few people in the area that afternoon, but one of them was English (as I could tell when he asked about the UDC). Like me, he was interested in exploring hallowed ground.

The battle signified a shockingly bad missed opportunity for the Union, whose commanders botched the assault and allowed the Rebels to win the day. Federals, chief among them Pennsylvania coal miner soldiers, spent weeks digging under the Confederate fortifications. They managed to get 500 feet under the Rebel lines and pack the mine with tons of explosives.

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Tunnel at Crater battlefield. Federals used it to blast a hole in the Confederate line (just a few yards to the back of the man pictured). Confederates were also mining at that time, but they weren’t able to stop Union miners in time to prevent the July 30 explosion

The explosion was felt in Richmond and blew a huge hole in the Confederate line. The blast could have been fatal to Lee’s army. And yet, the Federals took an hour to mount their assault. The delay gave the Confederates time to regroup. Poorly led Yankees went into the Crater rather than  around it. Rebels under William Mahone (a Petersburg native) poured a withering fire into the huddled Yankee masses in the Crater. As Mahone noted, it became a “turkey shoot.” The film Cold Mountain features a fairly good recreation of the Crater battle,  which featured vicious hand to hand combat.

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Monument to William Mahone’s counterattack at the battle of the Crater, 1864 July 30

The Union might have won the battle and the fight for Petersburg in July 1864 were it not for incompetent leadership. General Ambrose E. Burnside’s corps made up the attacking force. But at the last minute, the decision to let African American troops lead the attack was changed for political reasons. Union commanders feared a debacle might suggest northern generals were using black troops as cannon fodder.

Black troops fought well, but they charged into the fray after white forces had already been halted in the Crater. Union Colonel James Ledlie, who was supposed to manage the attack, chose to stay in a bombproof bunker with a bottle of booze rather than direct his men. The slaughter at the Crater became a no quarter fight.

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It’s not easy taking pictures with a Verizon flip phone, but this shot gives a sense of how much of the Crater has been filled in.

Aftermath and Legacy

The fighting at the Crater was horrid and was the scene of the greatest massacre of African American troops of the war. Rebel troops were enraged at the sight of charging African Americans and they vowed to take no prisoners. Amid the carnage, even some white northern troops killed their black comrades in order to avoid Confederate retribution.

The debacle resulted in General Ambrose Burnside losing his job. Colonel Ledlie was dismissed from the army a few months later. The siege dragged on. And only in the past few years have historians such as Kevin Levin have examined the Crater battle at length: what it meant in the larger story of the Peterbsurg siege, our racial past, and Civil War memory.

The Petersburg siege was, as Shelby Foote once said, a “rehearsal for World War I.” During World War I, the Crater battle was repeated, so to speak, at the Somme and during the 1917 battle of Messines, where Allied miners blew a hole in the German defenses in Belgium. The shock was felt in London, and the explosion at Messines was the loudest man-made sound in history up to that time.

Many historians have walked the grounds of Petersburg, but one in particular stands out. In 1940, Life magazine featured an insightful story on Virginia born Civil War historian and Lee disciple Douglas Southall Freeman. Of all the battlefields Freeman could have chosen for the shoot, he went to the Crater. Freeman went into one of the tunnels, and one photo shows how much more of the original Crater was still there.

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When I visited last week, I didn’t have any reporters with me (let alone a servant), but it was another enjoyable visit to the NPS and one that further educates me on the terrain, geography, and landmarks of the Civil War.

Some sources on the Crater and the Petersburg siege:

Axlerod, Alan. The Horrid Pit: The Battle of the Crater, the Civil War’s Cruelest Mission. New York: Carroll and Graf, 2007.

Greene, A. Wilson. Civil War Petersburg: Confederate City in the Crucible of War. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2007.

Hess, Earl J. Into the Crater: The Mine Attack at Petersburg. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2010.

Levin, Kevin. Remembering the Battle of the Crater: Was as Murder. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2012.

Slotkin, Richard. No Quarter: The Battle of the Crater, 1864. New York: Random House, 2009.