Lost Battlefields: Seven Pines, Part 1

seven-pines-soldiers-700_0In 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

library

airport

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.

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9 Responses to Lost Battlefields: Seven Pines, Part 1

  1. John Foskett says:

    Thanks for this post. I’ve never fully understood why this battlefield disappeared beyond knowing what is/isn’t there today. This and Atlanta are testaments to cultural myopia, greed, and lack of respect for history.

  2. Lyle Smith says:

    Sucks, but life goes on. European cities literally lay over hundreds and even thousands of years of history. Save what we can, when we can, I think.

    Johnston’s plan was sound, but very badly organized and executed. Should have the roads marked and guides to lead. Orders should have been put in writing after a meeting/council of all the division officers on the 30th where oral orders were given. McClellan and subordinates shouldn’t have exposed Keyes Corps as long as they did.

    • John Foskett says:

      Good point about Johnston’s failure to implement his orders in writing and clearly. That’s wholly aside from Longstreet’s bizarre behavior regarding choice of roads and then disputing who goes first. I think the problem on the Union side was the decision to have Casey’s mediocre division manning the front and Keyes’s failure to make timely reinforcements.

      • Lyle Smith says:

        I agree. Although, I think, even with Casey in front the Confederate had an opportunity to crumple Keyes whole command by hitting both his flanks and center simultaneously. Way easier planned than done.

      • John Foskett says:

        Toss in the effects of that gulley washer the night before and you get what you saw. As we know, complex plans have a built-in capacity to fall apart. I’ve always thought that Washington’s attack on Trenton was a masterpiece because, in addition to planning a complex timing attack from two directions, he did it at night and in a sleet storm. By rights it should have been a disaster. Johnston’s plan has always made me think of the IJN’s fetish for overly-complicated operations in WW II. His ordering it verbally and in a cavalier manner virtually ensured failure.

  3. Douglas Pauly says:

    While I concur that is often a SHAME that more of these battlefields are not preserved, I also fully understand why they haven’t been. In the years immediately after the war, I’m sure folks, especially those who lived on or near the battlefields, wanted any means possible to forget about them. Twisted, destroyed bodies of humans and animals are usually not pleasant memories for anyone. What better way is there to heal from and forget such a conflict than putting that land to use for commerce and life? It makes perfect sense. I agree that what has transpired as far as the lost history is tragic and regrettable, but my point is don’t be too harsh on those who made the decisions to go forward with LIFE. Heck, just weeks after 9/11, the usual suspects in this country were back to sniping at each other. Nothing cures tragedy like ‘normalcy’.

    • John Foskett says:

      For some reason Virginia was a problem. Veterans from both sides helped get early (1890’s) protection in Pennsylvania (Gettysburg), Tennessee (Shiloh), Maryland (Antietam) and northern Georgia (Chickamauga). Virginia came to the party late.

      • Douglas Pauly says:

        Maybe, but seeing how so much of the war was fought on Virginia’s soil, it’s understandable (to me anyways) why they would be hesitant to preserve so many lands that had been the sites of so many campaigns and battles. If that was the case. But that’s a LOT of property. The Revolutionary War site at Princeton, NJ, is about to lose a significant part of its battlefield to the construction of academic housing for Princeton U. In this day and age I am much less sympathetic when truly historical sites are lost or reduced.

  4. Pingback: ECW Week in Review 20-27 August | Emerging Civil War

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