I love old roads! There’s nothing more thrilling than pouring over a map or thrashing through the woods and finding an old remnant, and thinking about who travelled that long-lost spot in the past. I look for old roads all the time and use maps daily along with other documents to find old roads that have fallen out of use. Neglect, straightening, bypasses, and urban encroachment all distort the location of old roads, but if you look long enough you can often find their trace.
The June 29, 1862 battle of Savage’s Station is one of the forgotten battles of the war. Part of the Seven Days’ campaign outside of Richmond, it was a Union rear guard action to hold off pursuing Confederates. The bulk of the Army of the Potomac was moving south to the James River, and Confederate forces under Gen. John B. Magruder advanced to engage, while Gen. Jackson would support him.
The heart of the battlefield unfortunately was destroyed by the construction of Interstate 295 east of Richmond, built in the 1980s. In fact the cloverleaf interchange between Interstates 295 and 64 seem to be built though the very center of the area of fighting. V-DOT could not have planned it any better. Yet it is still possible to access peripheral areas and the Union and Confederate approaches along the Old Williamsburg Road. This was the wartime road, later replaced by US. 60, now called Williamsburg Road.
See the map below and note how traces of Old Williamsburg Road can be seen on each side of 295. I’ve driven to the dead end on each side many times, and it’s a regular stop for tours I give that feature the battle of Savage’s Station. Thankfully there are only a few homes along these stretches, and there’s even some farm fields still in use. There are also two original wartimes structures, one on each side of the interstate.
In this area the 1st Minnesota fought against Kershaw’s South Carolinians here. It was some intense fighting. Sergeant Augusts Dickert of the 3rd South Carolina wrote “The troops bounded to the front with a yell and made for the forest in front, while the batteries graped us as we rushed through the tangled morass. The men became woefully tangled and disorganized and in some places losing the organization entirely . . The graping was simply dreadful, cutting and breaking through the bushes and striking against trees.” A Minnesota soldier recalled, “We held the position . . . without yielding an inch, and about sunset the Vermont Brigade came up on our left and in a last counter attack, the enemy was driven back.” The 5th Vermont lost 209 of its 428 men, nearly half.
The Philadelphia Brigade fought here as well. Alfred Hills of the 71st Pennsylvania recalled an incredible incident: “Our skirmishers immediately became engaged with the enemy who fought from the cover of the woods, seldom showing himself in the open ground. I remember seeing a rebel attempt to run stooping from one tree to another, but as he was shot, and turned a summersault which would do honor to a skilled gymnast when he fell.”
The Union troops pulled out, destroying as much of the supplies stockpiled at Savages’ Station as they could before departing. About 3,000 sick and wounded were also left to the enemy. The exhausted Federal regiments moved east at dark, following in the wake of the rest of the army on its way to the James River.
Having accessed both ‘ends’ of the old road, I was determined to get to the part that is now gone. I made the effort to walk the missing ‘link’ of the road one Sunday morning, before traffic was too heavy. I started by walking across the exit ramps and the four lanes of I-295 (not recommended). Sure enough, right where I thought it would be, I found the old roadbed in the median, covered by thick woods and underbrush.
This spot is a two-for one: in June, 1781 The British army under General Charles Lord Cornwallis marched east from Richmond on this very road towards Williamsburg and eventually Yorktown. Following were Continental troops under General Lafayette.
Standing in the roadbed, thinking about the thousands of troops who fought here and marched through here, and all the famous people who passed that way, was exciting. I enjoyed my discover as the sound of traffic buzzed in the background.