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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.