In the 1920’s Douglas Southall Freeman and some of his friends began riding the Richmond battlefields, taking with them aging veterans from the Confederate Soldiers’ Home in Richmond. In the hope of preserving some of these fields, they raised money and began the process of saving small parcels at Gaines’s Mill, Cold Harbor, Beaver Dam Creek, Malvern Hill, Fort Harrison and Drewry’s Bluff. For many years, these small sites were all that was saved in the Richmond area.
Near the end of the century things began to change. Preservation-minded groups, such as the Richmond Battlefields Association and the organization that would become the American Battlefield Trust had as their mission the saving of battlefield land. It was none too soon, as development in central Virginia was booming and the battlefields were under severe pressure. Seven Pines/Fair Oaks and Yellow Tavern were already lost. Would other sites suffer the same fate?
The Richmond Battlefield Association was able to put together funds to save a small, but important piece of Beaver Dam Creek (Mechanicsville). At Gaines’s Mill, the area of Hood’s approach to his breakthrough attack was preserved. Major action occurred at Cold Harbor on May 31 and June 1, 1864, and the RBA saved land that allowed visitors a better grasp of these crucial events. Part of the land that witnessed the Federal attack at Fort Harrison was added. This piece is key in understanding the experiences of the Union Soldiers on September 29, 1864. The RBA has also saved lands at lesser-known sites such as First and Second Deep Bottom. For a small organization, they have done outstanding work.
Enter the Trust.
In the 1990’s only one acre of the Glendale (Frayser’s Farm) battlefield was preserved, and housing developments were encroaching. It seemed certain that this major battlefield would be lost. Through some masterful work, and the cooperation of some local landowners, the Trust was able to save nearly the entire battlefield! While there are no trails open yet, hopefully sometime soon the site will be open for visitation. The Trust did not stop there. A large portion of the Malvern Hill battlefield was saved and cleared, restoring most of it to its 1862 appearance. Recently another preservation group added an additional large parcel. It is one of the best -preserved fields in America… the field looks much like it did on the morning of July 1, 1862.
The North Anna battlefield was virtually ignored until Hanover County preserved a large section. It’s now open to the public, and contains amazing earthworks… you can clearly see Lee’s “V” shaped defense. A visit here is highly recommended. It would be good to read Chris Mackowski’s “We Must Strike Them a Blow “or Gordon Rhea’s “To the North Anna River” before your tour. The Trust later stepped in and purchased hundreds of additional acres. In just a few years North Anna has gone from nothing being saved to a massive preservation effort.
Perhaps the most important efforts have been made at the Cold Harbor/Gaines’s Mill site. These two battlefields were in large part fought across the same land, two years apart. Only a small parcel of each had been saved, neither which could adequately tell the story of these massive battles. In recent years, the Trust has added several hundred acres over which Longstreet attacked at Gaines’s Mill. Land is in the process of being saved on the Federal left, and as well as the center, and in “Griffin’s Woods.” Now a visitor can get a much better understanding of the battle; The Trust is still at work here.
For Cold Harbor, the intersection at the site of the Cold Harbor building has been saved, along with a fortification known as “Fletcher’s Redoubt.” Other parcels are being added, including the critical space where the actions of Cold Harbor and Gaines’s Mill intersect. Hanover County saved a parcel from a housing development. As a long-time volunteer of the Richmond Battlefield Park, I never imagined that I would see the day when these lands would come into the Park. It is nothing short of miraculous.
More land has been saved at First and Second Deep Bottom, and there are efforts to preserve as much of the New Market Heights battlefield as possible. It is truly amazing how the efforts of a few historians created what would become the American Battlefield Trust, and how much success they would have. Add to this the efforts of the few history-minded individuals of the Richmond Battlefields Association and the efforts of Hanover County. In the end, it is the contributions of people like you that have made the difference. Without that, these lands would now be neighborhoods or industrial parks. Instead, present and future generations can visit these sites and better understand our past.