The weather is changing here in central Virginia; a few trees are starting to show a little color, but it will be a few weeks before the real show begins. For now, the roadsides are flanked by lush green forests.
I took a side trip south of Richmond along State Route 5, which angles southeast of the city and serves as a scenic drive to Williamsburg. My objective was not Williamsburg, but the heart of the Richmond National Battlefield Park at Fort Harrison (near the center of the map) and Shirley Plantation a little farther south on the banks of the James River (where the yellow highlighted line ends).
The National Park Service uses a log cabin as its headquarters for the battlefield, probably similar to shelters both armies constructed to the rear of the fortified battle lines that stretched from Richmond to Petersburg.
The siege of the two cities was the culmination of Grant’s arduous effort to end the war using a strategy based on relentless fighting. The campaign started in May 1864 near Fredericksburg, about fifty miles north of Richmond. Both Grant and Lee inflicted terrible casualties on each other from May into June – about 60,000 dead, wounded and missing for the Union and about half that for the Confederacy. It was the bloodiest period of the war.
Morale was sagging in the North and Lincoln was worried about his chances for re-election. His opponent was George McClellan, the former commander of the Army of the Potomac who had failed in his campaign against Richmond in June 1862.
A prolonged siege was not desirable because progress under such circumstances would be measured in feet, not miles. The people of the North wanted results; they were growing tired of long casualty lists with little to show for the carnage….and the November Presidential election was looming ever so close by the time Grant’s army was immersed in the excruciating process of forcing Lee to extend his defenses in order to protect vital supply lines to the Confederate capital.
The battle for Fort Harrison was far from the largest fight in the war, but the Union Army’s success at capturing the position may have sealed electoral success for President Lincoln. The fall of Fort Harrison secured a position threatening Richmond and forced Lee to divert troops from his southern flank to cover the approach to the city. Coming on the heels of General Sherman’s capture of Atlanta, it signaled the death knell of the South. Lincoln was re-elected with ease in part because of these victories.
I took a guided walk led by a National Park Service ranger. She pointed out a spot where Grant wrote an order to bring up reinforcements to secure the fort from an expected counterattack. She also noted that fourteen African Americans soldiers (the official designation for black units was United States Colored Troops) were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in the short but intense fight.
Shirley Plantation was a short drive down a scenic two-lane road alternating between woodlands and farms.
The late comic actor Leslie Nielsen probably would have said, “Surely, Shirley was the name of the owner of the plantation.”
Nielsen would have been wrong. Shirley was the name of the wife of a former colonial governor of Virginia who never set foot in America.
The great house was completed in 1738. It is not in the mold of the popular image of Tara from Gone with the Wind. The Georgian style would be a better match for Williamsburg and England.
Amazingly, the plantation has remained with the same family line since it was built. The Carter family graciously allows visitors through a foundation that manages access and services. The current Carter owner occupies the upper floors and the basement, all of which are closed to the public.
The tour takes you through the main floor. All of the furnishings were accumulated by the family since the house was first occuppied. Some of the paintings and furniture go back even later.
The home escaped damage in the Civil War due to the kindness and care the Carter women provided Union wounded during McClellan’s retreat from the outskirts of Richmond in the summer of 1862. McClellan was so touched by their kindness, he issued a general order forbidding his troops from ransaking the property.
There is some irony to the protection offered by the defeated Union general. The house was where Anne Hill Carter married “Light-Horse” Harry Lee, a hero of the American Revolution. Their son, Robert E. Lee led the Confederate Army that defeated McClellan.
I hope to make Shenandoah National Park my next foray this October when the fall foliage is at its height.