Past is Prologue

Clint Schemmer writes about history, heritage preservation and the American Civil War.  On Facebook: Past is Prologue  On Twitter: @prologuepast  ContactEmail Clint or call 540/374-5424.

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Civil War Trust, Virginia preserve Richmond-area battlefield

MORE: Read more news from Fredericksburg

Virginia and the Civil War Trust announced Monday that they’ve preserved 285 acres at the heart of the Gaines’ Mill battlefield Mechanicsville, Va. (ROB SHENK/CIVIL WAR TRUST)




MECHANICSVILLE—The Civil War Trust has teamed with Virginia to complete a $3.2 million campaign protecting 285 acres at Gaines’ Mill, where Gen. Robert E. Lee had his first major victory as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia.

The preservation greatly expands the number of protected acres at Gaines’ Mill, the bloodiest chapter in the Seven Days’ Battles that saved Richmond from the Yankees, making it a “monumental achievement” in the trust’s history, President James Lighthizer said.

“Prior to this, only 65 acres of this crucial battlefield had been protected,” he said in a statement prepared for the formal announcement. “With just one purchase, we have more than quintupled the amount of land at Gaines’ Mill preserved forever.”

The entire 285 acres are within the boundary of Richmond National Battlefield Park, so the trust will turn over the property to the National Park Service for long-term stewardship and interpretation for visitors.

A 1932 state marker attests to Confederate victory on the Gaines’ Mill battlefield east of Richmond. Now, with additional preservation of the field, visitors can retrace Robert E. Lee’s biggest assault of the entire Civil War. (ROB SHENK/CIVIL WAR TRUST)

The preservation was completed with a $1.5 million transportation enhancement matching grant from the state. The property’s historic significance and the looming prospect of development made it an ideal candidate for the funding, said Sean T. Connaughton, Virginia’s secretary of transportation.

“The commonwealth of Virginia is committed to making the permanent protection of historic and scenic landscapes like this one an important part of the sesquicentennial commemoration of the Civil War,” Connaughton said in a statement.

Gaines’ Mill is full of history—from Lee’s powerful assault against Union lines just outside the capital of the Confederacy to the use of observation balloons by both sides—a military first, the dawn of aerial reconnaissance.

Civil War Trust President James Lighthizer (left) addresses the audience Monday during the announcement at the Watt House on the Gaines’ Mill battlefield. Virginia Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton (seated, left)’ Kathleen Kilpatrick, director of the state Department of Historic Preservation; and Del. Chris Peace, R-Hanover, wait to speak. (JIM CAMPI/CIVIL WAR TRUST)

The battle, fought on June 27, 1862, was the second of the Seven Days’ Battles in which the Confederates sought to blunt federal forces that moved up the Virginia Peninsula with their sights set on seizing the Confederate capital.

Historians say Lee unleashed upwards of 32,000 men in 16 brigades, far overshadowing the 12,500-man Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. The 15,500 casualties made it the second bloodiest battle of the war to that point, topped only by Shiloh, Tenn., 2½ months earlier.

In its 1993 study, the congressionally chartered Civil War Sites Advisory Commission rated Gaines’ Mill a Priority I, Class A designation. That made it one of the 11 top candidates for preservation in the entire United States.

Nearly a century ago, a group of prominent Richmond residents—including Douglas Southall Freeman, Lee’s biographer—purchased 60 acres of the battlefield. The land was donated to the state and ultimately the National Park Service.

The Army of Northern Virginia’s tough Texas Brigade led the charge that broke the Union line atop the plateau on which the pre-war Watt House still stands today. (JIM CAMPI/CIVIL WAR TRUST)

The trust’s campaign to raise $3.2 million for the 285 acres was launched in 2011.

“The inclusion of this truly historical land will be a tremendous boon the park,” Superintendent David Ruth said. “For the first time, visitors will be able to retrace the dramatic Confederate charge of June 27, 1862—by many accounts, Robert E. Lee’s largest assault of the war.”

The Civil War Trust is the largest nonprofit battlefield preservation organization in the nation. It has preserved more than 34,000 acres of battlefield in 20 states, more than half of that in Virginia.


Civil War Trust:

Ten Facts about Gaines’ Mill:


Park Superintendent David Ruth Q&A:

Confederate Brig. Gen. John Bell Hood’s attack near the center of the Union line is seen in this Battle of Gaines’ Mill map. The yellow section is part of the 285-acre tract saved by Virginia and the Civil War Trust. (CIVIL WAR TRUST)