ECW Weekender: Sailor’s Creek

Recently Doug Crenshaw and I visited Sailor’s Creek, the only major battle of the Appomattox Campaign. Fought April 6, 1865, it was just three days before Appomattox, but of course no one knew that yet at the time.

General Pickett’s division defended this area against Union cavalry.

The site is a Virginia State Park and has an outstanding exhibit area in the visitor center.  They detail the march to the area, the battle, and the aftermath. Throughout the space are rare artifacts and detailed maps (I love maps!).

The park is fortunate to preserve most of the area of fighting, thanks to recent efforts by the American Battlefield Trust (If you donated, thank you!). While Antietam and Shiloh often hailed as some of the most pristine battlefields (and rightly so), Sailor’s Creek is certainly up there too.

We explored nearly every hiking trail, and as we both noted, the best way to study a battlefield is by walking it. Looking at our battle maps was helpful, but when we saw the ground and noted the numerous swales and steep hillsides, it made us appreciate the movements of the troops and the experiences of the soldiers even more.

The park has gone to great efforts to restore the original landscape, including removing non-historic trees, replanting trees in other areas, and adding worm fencing. The effect is remarkable, as one can look around and see a similar view to what the soldiers saw in 1865, without much traffic or power lines.  Its not a huge battlefield, but it had its fair share of maneuver movement. Unlike many larger battlefields, there are points where you can see nearly all they key areas of the battlefield.

Landscape restoration in the form of replanted trees.

Sailor’s Creek was a bad day for the Army of Northern Virginia, with about 7,700 men captured, and 9 generals. My guess is that Lee realized it was over after that day, and only kept moving west to find a better position to make a stand.

A highlight of the park is the restored Hillsman House, an original structure pressed into service as a hospital after the battle. The park has incredible accounts by those who were treated there and can even place individuals where they lay on the floor. The rooms are set up as they would have been that evening, one of the most impressive interpretive exhibits I have ever seen.

Finally, I see the park at Sailor’s Creek as a tribute to retired manager Chris Calkins, who has dedicated himself to the study and preservation of the battlefield. Chris was the park’s first superintendent, designed the visitor center, created the exhibits, and donated research materials to the park library. It shows how much good one person can do.

Sailor’s Creek Battlefield State Park is northeast of Farmville, well worth a stop if travelling between Richmond and Appomattox.

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10 Responses to ECW Weekender: Sailor’s Creek

  1. I visited while following Lee’s Retreat. It is beautiful ground. I regret that I did not have enough time to study the battlefield given its historical importance and its portent of ANV demise. I am sure that the battlefield requires many hours to begin to understand the battle

  2. I’ve been there twice, and if I were to describe it as “off the beaten path” I would be guilty of understatement. Make sure your GPS set is on because — approaching from the east, at least — the roadside directional signs are barely adequate.

  3. I’ve only been to Sailor’s Creek once, way way back when I was in college at Longwood College (1988-1992). Back then, there wasn’t much out there, very little in the way of interpretation. Your post made me very interested to go back out there and see all the improvements. Thank you!

  4. Really impressed with the upgrades Chris made with walking paths. What I found most interesting was how close to the battle field was the cross roads where Sheridan blocked the way .

    The crossing up stream where Gordon crossed is well worth going to as well with a similar home on the over looking hill side. The traces of the original narrow bridge shows how vulnerable the wagon train was that resulted in many captured and destroyed.

  5. Sailor’s Creek is a favorite for me. It is one of the first CW battlefields we visited after returning to the States after many years living abroad. From the Hillsman House you can see where two of my great-great-grandfathers. Once was in the 119th PA, which advanced along the road, and the second was in the 65th NY, which was deployed as skirmishers on the left.

    The ranger on duty during our first visit was happy to spend as much time as we wanted to chat with us about the park itself and the two regiments in particular. During our second visit we braved summer heat at midday to walk a newly made walking trail from Hillsman House; we returned panting and faint to our sun-baked car!

    1. Bob–I also love Sailor’s Creek, and have a great-great grandfather, 2nd Lt. Timothy Carroll, who fought and was wounded there. If you wish to learn more about the 65th NY, you might like my book, “No Flinching From Fire.” It is available on Amazon.

      1. I’ve read it; great job! I’m expecting to rely on it for research about my gg-grandfather who was in Co. A and H. In fact I made a gift of it to the research library at Pamplin Park in thanks for allowing me to use their library.

      2. Also hoping to visit Malvern Hill in a few weeks. Any advice?

      3. Very sorry I missed this Robert. I hope you enjoyed Malvern Hill. It is one of my favorite CW battlefields, not only because of the role of the 65th NY there, but it is a beautifully preserved battlefield.

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