A Tour of the Seven Days Battlefields

By Paul Siedel
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2022, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in The Charger in October 2022.

While trolling through the web one day last April I came across an ad for a tour of the Seven Days battlefields sponsored by Woodbury Tours and directed by Mr. Bobby Krick, one of the foremost historians of the Seven Days Battles. As I had never studied this series of battles, I decided to attend. The tour lasted two days, June 11 and 12, 2022, so on June 10 I packed my car and my dog and headed for the Richmond Airport, where our hotel was located. That evening we congregated for pizza, drinks, and a lecture by Mr. Doug Crenshaw, author of the book Richmond Shall Not Be Given Up: The Seven Days Battles, June 25 – July 1, 1862. We all received a signed copy of the book and discussed our adventure of the next two days. The next morning we all got together for breakfast, and Mr. Krick introduced himself. He explained our agenda, and we were off at 8:15.

The battlefields are located just east of Richmond, and several have suffered as a result of 150 years of development. However, four of the six do survive in almost pristine condition. Two of the six have been totally obliterated by development, but the rest are almost totally intact, and one has been restored to the 1862 sight lines thanks to the American Battlefield Trust among others. Mr. Krick told us that we were going to take them in chronological order from Beaver Dam Creek on June 26, 1862, to Gaines’ Mill on June 27, to Glendale on June 30, and wind up at Malvern Hill fought on July 1, 1862. I will also take them in order and briefly explain the experience we had when visiting each one.

We boarded the van, and the first battlefield we saw was Seven Pines.

The Battle of Seven Pines

This particular site was gobbled up and dismembered during World War I, and much has been taken up by housing and the Richmond Airport. However, if one knows what they are looking at, they can relate somewhat. We traveled up the Nine Mile Road, which figured heavily in Joseph Johnston’s battle plan. We drove through the village of Seven Pines and found the spot where General Johnston was wounded. We drove on to the Dabbs House, which was Lee’s headquarters. The home is owned by Henrico County and has been restored, and several of General Lee’s letters are on display. We spent about 90 minutes there and had a wonderful guide. Leaving the east side of Richmond, we drove on northwest, crossed Meadow Bridge, where A.P. Hill crossed the Chickahominy River, and passed through the village of Mechanicsville. We drove on the Atlee Station Road across the Mechanicsville Turnpike to Beaver Dam Creek, arriving at the place where the Confederates attacked Fitz John Porter’s V corps.

Chickahominy River near Meadow Bridge

The Battle of Beaver Dam Creek or Mechanicsville

Lee’s plan was to cross the Chickahominy River on the Union right and sweep southeast like a giant garden sickle, attacking Fitz John Porter’s V corps. A.P. Hill was to cross the river at Meadow Bridge, join the rest of the Confederates in D.H. Hill’s division, and then sweep southeast into Mechanicsville. Stonewall Jackson was to appear on the Confederate left and drive Fitz John Porter’s V corps into the Chickahominy River. Jackson never appeared, but A.P. Hill drove the Federals through Mechanicsville to Beaver Dam Creek and Ellerson’s Mill. The rebels tried time and again to scale the bank of the creek, but suffered heavy losses. Porter, after a successful defense, retreated southeast to the high ground above Boatswain’s Swamp and prepared to meet the Confederate assault the next day.

Ellerson’s Mill

Most of the Beaver Dam Creek battlefield is in great shape, although in recent years much of the northern half has been built over. The southern half is well preserved and has been added to. We crossed the creek and stood at the spot where Ellerson’s Mill was located, and we saw the creek bank where the Confederates unsuccessfully tried to break the Union line. Mr. Krick lectured on the battle and the recent additions to the battlefield site. I was not quite clear on this particular action until he pointed out the locations of various units and the retreat lines leading up to the Battle of Gaines’ Mill.

The Battle of Gaines’ Mill

The Gaines’ Mill battlefield is in almost pristine condition and is being added to on a regular basis thanks to the American Battlefield Trust and other historically minded organizations such as the Central Virginia Battlefields Organization and the Richmond Battlefields Association. Matching funds from Congress are also being used to buy land and purchase options on acreage. Mr. Krick directed the van around the area, which also is the site of the Cold Harbor battlefield. We saw several landmarks such as Old and New Cold Harbors, Walnut Grove Church, the Garthright House, and the trenches on the Cold Harbor battlefield. The American Battlefield Trust has acquired the crossroads of Old Cold Harbor and is developing a high-tech visitor experience of the area. That should be interesting. I can see why the late Ed Bearss labeled this area the most valuable land in the battlefield protection movement.

After driving through the area, we left the van, sat down, and had a great box lunch. Then we walked along the perimeter of the Union defense line on the heights above Boatswain’s Swamp and stopped at the spot where John Bell Hood’s Texans broke through and thus prompted the Union withdrawal toward the Chickahominy. We were caught here in a torrential thunderstorm, but Bob Krick continued on and explained the movements of the Confederates as General Hood’s men crashed through the Union lines and made the day a resounding victory for the Confederates, although Stonewall Jackson did not appear on the Confederate left until later in the day. We wound up the day with a visit to the Watt House right in the center of the battlefield. Mr. Krick told the story of old Sarah Watt, who had to be removed from her home under protest as the armies closed in on her beloved farm. The Watt House is still very much as it was in 1862 and is owned by the National Park Service. At the end of the day, we were all tired but glad to be so, and I had learned much about the first days in the campaign to save Richmond in 1862.

Watt House

The Action at White Oak Swamp

It was at this time during the Seven Days that General McClellan began in earnest to move his army south toward the James River. As they moved south, they became established at the crossing of White Oak Swamp, where the Union forces took up position and Stonewall Jackson tried to find a way around their right to attack from the southeast. A huge artillery duel took place, during which a civilian farmer was killed and the Confederates were held at bay until the Union Forces retreated once again toward the James River. Although not preserved by any organization, this area is also in pristine condition. We drove past the Trent House, McClellan’s headquarters, and arrived at the battlefield of Savage’s Station.

The Battle of Savage’s Station

The Battle of Savage’s Station was located along the Richmond and York River Railroad. As McClellan moved toward the James River, he collected his wounded and supplies there at the Savage’s Station depot. Here John Bankhead Magruder attacked the forces of Edwin Sumner along both sides of the railroad. The Confederates were unsuccessful, but Sumner abandoned most of the wounded and tons of supplies before joining the Union retreat toward the James River.

Field hospital at Savage’s Station

Almost nothing is left of the Savage’s Station battlefield today. Most of the land was used for a freeway exit where interstate 64 and interstate 295 converge. Although the railroad is still there, the rest of the battlefield is taken up with a huge solar panel complex stretching across many acres. Maybe some day, as technology advances, these can be removed and at least part of the Savage’s Station battlefield will be available for those who wish to study it. There are, however, several Virginia historical plaques in place explaining the battle, but in the words of one of the tour group, “Too little, too late!”

The Battle of Frayser’s Farm or Glendale

The battlefield at Glendale is in pristine condition, and almost all of it has been purchased by the various battlefield protection agencies. The vast expansion of this site has taken place within the last ten years as the land has become more threatened. Many individuals have come forward to help preserve the land, although the site lines have been obliterated by forest. It will take some time, but after the forest has been removed and the site lines reestablished, one will be able to study and walk the land as it was in 1862. For those of us who contribute to the American Battlefield Trust or any other preservation organization, it is here that we can see the fruits of our labors.

As the Union army moved south toward the James River and its new base of supplies, Lee had plans to attack and dismember McClellan’s army as it passed along the roads leading up to the Malvern estate and ultimately to Harrison’s Landing. We parked the van, and Mr. Krick led us along the path to the site of the Whitlock House, which was in the center of the Confederate attack upon the Union troops of Joseph Hooker, John Sedgwick, and George McCall. They moved over the farms of the Sykes brothers and into the artillery fire of Truman Seymour, George Meade, and John Robinson. (The Sykes farms have been located and are set to be opened up to trailblazers once the forest has been removed.) This vast property has been almost totally preserved since 2007! The roads and homes of the farmers can be located and will be open to the public once the general site plan for the battlefield has been established by the National Park Service. Meanwhile, more land is being purchased and added to the site, including the Frayser or Nelson Farm, which was General Sumner’s headquarters during the battle.

On our way to Malvern Hill, we stopped and ate lunch at Fort Harrison, the first site protected by the government back in 1935. At that time the WPA did much of the restoration work. We dined on the porch of the first visitor center built for the Richmond battlefields. Today the trenches around Fort Harrison are some of the most well preserved in the country and definitely worth a visit if one is in the area. After our box lunch we pressed on toward the final Union defense position at Malvern Hill.

The Battle of Malvern Hill

Malvern Hill is a prime example of what can be done to save these historic sites, where brave men of both sides sacrificed their lives. The Union Army of the Potomac reached its final goal on July 1, 1862 as it approached the James River and the old Malvern estate. (Our guide informed us that the Malvern House is the oldest brick building in Henrico County and dates from the 1600s.) This battlefield is in pristine condition and has been made more relevant by money donated by several battlefield preservation organizations. Several years ago the Malvern Hill battlefield was undeveloped, and the sight lines such as those at Glendale had been totally obliterated by the forest which had taken over the fields through which the Confederate troops moved toward the Union position atop Malvern Hill. Several hundred acres of timber were removed and the stumps ground down to restore the sight lines to their 1862 appearance. This was all done with money from the National Park Service, American Battlefield Trust, Richmond Battlefields Association, and several others. Malvern Hill has now been restored to the sight lines that were present in 1862. We can now see the exact plain across which the Confederates in John Magruder’s division advanced against the Federal artillery clustered around the West House and the Crew House, both of which have been rebuilt. Archeological work has been done around the slave cabins around which much of the action took place, and historians are learning much about the battle from the artifacts unearthed. The Battle of Malvern Hill was a dismal failure for the Confederates, as the attacking forces were mowed down by the Federal artillery, which allowed the Union army to escape past the Malvern estate to Harrison’s Landing and the relative safety of the naval guns on board Union gunboats.

Malvern Hill

Thus ended our second day on the battlefields of the Seven Days. We piled into the van and were more than tired when we arrived back at the hotel. On the way back Mr. Krick pointed out several points of interest such as the Old Williamsburg Road and the postwar home of General George Pickett. What a grand experience! I thought I knew about the Seven Days Battles, but once one has walked the very terrain, it all comes to life as never before. It was very heartening to see what strides have been made in recent years toward the preservation of these gems of American history and how many people have mobilized to secure them.

I highly recommend Woodbury Tours out of California. The event was well organized, the lunches were adequate, the transportation was adequate, and the expertise of Robert Krick was fantastic. He took a special interest in my attempt to take photos of then and now and directed me to the various sites. He showed me the location of the famous twin houses taken during the battle, and I was able to stand exactly where the photographer stood in 1862. All in all, it was money and time well spent. After a very informative and thoroughly enjoyable two days of battlefield tours, my dog and I made our way home safely and had many fond memories which will last many years.

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