In a series of articles author Doug Crenshaw will explore some of the battlefields in central Virginia that appear to be lost forever to development. In today’s installment, Doug looks at the Battlefield of Seven Pines.
I hear it all too often: “I travelled to Richmond to see the Seven Pines battlefield. Can you tell me how to get there?” Imagine the disappointment when I tell the visitor that all that remains are a few road signs. Even worse is when the say they had an ancestor who fought there. It’s so frustrating! The question immediately arises: Richmond has a large number of preserved battlefields. Why is Seven Pines not one of them? In late May 1862 Union General George B. McClellan had a massive army of over 100,000 troops and some 288 guns situated on the outskirts of Richmond. If he could just get a bit closer, he could use his heavy artillery to fire on Richmond, drive its defenders from it and capture the Confederate capital. His opponent, Joseph E. Johnston, well aware of the threat facing him, was searching desperately for an opportunity to land the first blow. An opening seemed to appear when the rain-soaked Chickahominy River divided McClellan’s army in half. On May 31 Johnston planned to attack the two Federal corps south of the river, hoping to crush them before reinforcements could arrive. Poor communication, lack of coordination and confused execution led to the failure of the assault. Although the battle lasted for two days, the only results were the highest casualties of the war seen so far in the eastern theater, a host of recriminations, and most significantly, the loss of Johnston, who was twice wounded on the evening of the 31st and would never return to this army.
We come again to the question.. why was this battlefield not preserved?
Before the First World War a rail line ran through the Seven Pines area, and at the time of the American entry into the conflict it seemed like an excellent location to construct a powder packing facility. Plans were drawn up, land was cleared, and in August 1918 the government said that it would construct two thousand homes for the plant’s workers. A small village called Fairfield arose and over 400 buildings were constructed. The war soon ended, and with it the need for the plant. An investor, Charles J. Sands, bought the property and planned to capitalize on the railroad by building more houses. In a nod to the area’s history, the streets were named for the generals involved in the battle. Soon the locals decided to change the town’s name from Fairlfield to Sandston. Stores began to appear, as did a school and even a library, and not long after an airfield opened on the western edge of town. This field, destined to become the Richmond airport, was the staging area of the Confederate attack at Seven Pines. It would also witness action in 1864. A single cannon and a few signs are all that remain there to tell the story.
Today Sandston is a sleepy town on the eastern edge of Richmond. While many of the older houses remain, more have been built. As you come into town from the west on the Williamsburg Road, there is a sign noting McClellan’s picket line. Just behind it stands a salvage store. Down the road a bit is the main Federal line, and a county library sits approximately on the site of Casey’s Redoubt. There is a sign at the library discussing the fort, and a “Freeman” marker sits by the road. One street to the south has another Freeman marker describing the twin houses seen in the few writings about the battle. Finally, down the road a mile or so, sits the national cemetery, the site of McClellan’s second line.
That’s it. One of the least studied major battles the eastern theater threatens to fade into obscurity. It seems a shame, if not a disgrace, to the memory who fought and died there, no matter which side they were on. Seven Pines is a glaring example of why it’s so critical to save historic lands whenever the opportunity presents itself.
Next: Fair Oaks
Casey’s Redoubt Origin of Confederate attack
Information on the history of Sandston was found in Manarin, Louis H. and Peple, Charles. The History of Henrico County. Published by the County of Henrico, 2011.