(Washington, D.C.) — Late June will offer an unusual, family-friendly opportunity to experience one of Virginia’s most remarkable Civil War battlefields, Gaines’s Mill in Hanover County. Va. The event and related programs are being hosted by the American Battlefield Trust and the National Park Service on the battle’s 156th anniversary.
The afternoon and evening of June 27 will offer an all-ages “Generations” program by the Trust, titled “The Greatest Charge of the Civil War!”; the Park Service’s unveiling of historical markers on newly preserved battlefield land; and a park historian’s walking tour of a battle site where the Union army’s elite Irish Brigade fought. People can come for one part, or all three.
In “Generations,” visitors are invited to share their interest in America’s past with a young person, whether that is a son, a granddaughter, a nephew, or a friend’s child. “Curiosity and passion are essential for success in the classroom and in life,” Trust President James Lighthizer said. “Who better to instill those critical attributes in a young person than the multigenerational role models already in his or her life?”
Those interested are welcome to join the Trust for a short hike centered on the Battle of Gaines’s Mill, the North’s first major attempt to capture Richmond. Choose your side, drill and maneuver like a soldier, outflank the enemy, and learn about what worked and what didn’t as soldiers were pushed to their limits. Kids will get to don hats and uniforms, and can also earn a Junior Ranger patch from Richmond National Battlefield Park to take home.
“Help instill in your kids and grandkids a lifelong love for history,” said Garry Adelman, the Trust’s director of history and education. “We are going to learn how Civil War soldiers fought, and walk this ground ourselves, just as the soldiers did.”
Gaines’s Mill was the largest of the 1862 Seven Days Battles waged near the gates to Richmond. It was Gen. Robert E. Lee’s first major victory of the war, as his army fended off Union Gen. George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac during its Peninsula Campaign to seize the Confederate capital.
The battle included what some say was the Civil War’s largest assault — which was not the more famous Pickett’s Charge that occurred at Gettysburg in July 1863. It came on June 27, 1862, when more than 40,000 Confederate soldiers led by Lee attacked outnumbered Union defenders at Gaines’s Mill.
Much of the same ground was fought over again two years later during the June 1864 Battle of Cold Harbor. That dual significance is why the Trust has been striving for years to save more acreage on the battlefield, and add it to the national park.
“We are pleased to partner with our friends at the American Battlefield Trust on these programs, which highlight the significance of preservation efforts and the necessity of inspiring future generations to care for special places like Gaines’s Mill,” said Andrea DeKoter, chief of interpretation and education at Richmond National Battlefield Park and Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site in Richmond.
At the time, Gaines’s Mill was the second bloodiest battle in American history (after Shiloh), with 15,500 casualties, comparable to the later suffering at Cold Harbor, Chattanooga, and Fredericksburg.
For the “Generations” event, attendees should park in the battlefield’s Watt House parking area, at 6283 Watt House Road off State Route 156 near Mechanicsville. Parking for the wayside marker dedication program is located nearby at 6366 Watt House Road, Mechanicsville.
“Generations” participants will assemble at 4:45 p.m., choose their side, and be issued uniforms and wooden muskets. From then until 6:15 p.m., they will get an introduction to Richmond’s significance to the war in 1862, and to the Seven Days Battles fought over control of the capital.
Visitors will receive training in the School of the Soldier, then tour the vicinity of Boatswain’s Creek, which divided the opposing forces in the Battle of Gaines’s Mill. Participants will follow in the footsteps of the gigantic infantry charge, learn about the fighting and some folklore, and view historic photos.
Pausing at one of the national park’s cannons, National Park Service education staff will discuss the teamwork that firing a cannon required, how artillery was used in battle, the camaraderie that was essential to a military unit’s effectiveness, and the daily challenges of a soldier’s life.
At 6:30 p.m., visitors can witness the dedication of new wayside exhibits at Gaines’s Mill. David Ruth, the Richmond battlefield park’s recently retired superintendent, will speak.
The Park Service will unveil two illustrated wayside markers along Watt House Road, not far from the Trust-owned monument to the 11th Mississippi Infantry. The interpretive markers are on an 11-acre tract added to the park after being acquired by the American Battlefield Trust in 2016. This tract and its markers serve as the new gateway to Gaines’s Mill, where all visitors are first exposed to the battlefield.
The markers include a map of troop movements at that spot, and a reproduction of a combat painting created by famed historical artist Keith Rocco. A friend of the park commissioned Rocco to paint the scene for the battlefield, so people could understand the scope of the action, DeKoter said.
At 7 p.m., ranger Bert Dunkerly will lead a History at Sunset program entitled “Rearguard Action at Gaines’ Mill” that will follow in the footsteps of the Irish Brigade’s charge at the end of the battle. Participants will explore seldom-seen Park Service and private land at Turkey Hill. Parking for this tour is located at 5399 Cold Harbor Road, Mechanicsville.
All of the events are free. The “Generations” program is open to all, but participants are encouraged to bring a young person (the ideal ages are 6-17) with him or her. Guardians must accompany the child they bring to the event. Everyone should have appropriate footwear, and be prepared for inclement weather. Program updates can be found on the park’s Facebook page at www.Facebook.com/RichmondNPS. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org. For directions to the “Generations” site, visit battlefields.org/events/greatest-charge-civil-war. Learn more about the Seven Days Battles at battlefields.org/learn/articles/seven-days-battles and http://www.nps.gov/rich.
The American Battlefield Trust is dedicated to preserving America’s hallowed battlegrounds and educating the public about what happened there and why it matters today. The nonprofit, nonpartisan organization has protected more than 50,000 acres associated with the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, and Civil War. Learn more at www.battlefields.org.