The Long Road to Preservation

Matthew Huntley

Protection of important battlefield landscapes around Richmond, Va., has always been driven by public-private partnerships — from the earliest interpretation efforts in the 1920s through the three-fold growth of Richmond National Battlefield Park in the years since 1995. As the American Battlefield Trust pursues the Gaines’ Mill – Cold Harbor Saved Forever Campaign, explore the long road that has taken us to the verge of setting the most important unprotected battlefield land in America aside forever.  

Identification and Early Interpretation: 1920-1930

Rob Shenk

In the early 1920’s the fields were completely unmarked, overgrown with timber, no roads, no markers, nothing to indicate where the engagements were, and you had to learn to know your way around.

James Ambler Johnston, architect, historian and civic activist

September 5, 1921: Historian Douglas Southall Freeman and the Richmond Rotary Club orchestrate a 21-car caravan of Civil War veterans from the city’s Soldiers’ Home on a driving tour of area to identify locations so that they can be marked for posterity. (“Rotarians make tour of state battlefields”, Richmond Times-Dispatch, Sep 6, 1921.)  

May 1924: Freeman and J. Ambler Johnston, another Richmond historian and civic leader, organize the Battlefield Markers Association to “identify points of interest on various battle fields of Virginia and to place thereon suitable markers.” They raised $10,000 and erected 59 roadside markers consisting of a cast iron plate set on a concrete capstone atop a granite base. Materials were donated by local companies and Freeman wrote the concise historical summaries. 

September 1924: The immediate success of Freeman and Ambler’s group inspired an offshoot — the Battlefield Markers Association, Western Division. Its purpose was “to raise funds for the purchase of bronze tablets with appropriate historic inscriptions, to be placed on the bases erected by the Daughters of the Confederacy, D.A.R., and Memorial Association on the principal battlefields of Virginia.” An additional 25 markers — bronze tablets atop white granite block bases — from Bull Run to Appomattox, particularly throughout the Shenandoah Valley, given that the group was founded at Charlottesville.  

August 18, 1927: Out of the success of this movement to erect markers so that drivers could identify battlefields as they drove, came the Richmond Battlefield Park Corporation, granted its charter by the Commonwealth of Virginia and led by T.M. Carrington (“Battlefield Corporation granted charter by state”, Richmond Times-Dispatch, Aug 19, 1927.) The group’s first victory was fitting, since the threat of sale was an impetus of its founding: the acquisition of Fort Harrison at auction for $18,000. (“Virginia’s Early Battlefield Markers,” Richmond Battlefields Association Newsletter Summer 2010) 

October 1929: Sir. Winston Churchill, known as a great historian before he became a great statesman, visits major American Civil War battlefields near Fredericksburg and Richmond, Va., with Freeman as his guide.  Churchill writes an article about the experience titled “Old Battlefields of Virginia” for the London Daily Telegraph. “You must see the ground,” Churchill wrote, “You must cover the distances in person; you must measure the rivers and see what the swamps were really like.” 

State Park to National Park: 1930-1944

Rob Shenk

September 28, 1930: Completion of the first phase of the planned roads through the acquired Richmond battlefield park land was celebrated with a motorcade on the 66th anniversary of the Battle of Fort Harrison. For those who needed guiding through the territory, J. Ambler Johnston, secretary-treasurer of the Richmond Battlefield Parks Corporation, had compiled a brief guide for motorists. The designated motorist route only covered a small portion of the area purchased by the corporation, but still lead through some of the “largest fortifications of the Civil War still standing.” (“Completion of Battlefield Parks Roads Will Be Observed Today,” Times Dispatch, Sep 28, 1930) 

The article also makes mention of another road that was completed by the State Highway Dept., connecting “the scene of Old Cold Harbor and passes by Second Cold Harbor and Gaines’s Mill.”  

January 12, 1932: The Richmond Battlefield Parks Corporation deeds all its property to the Commonwealth of Virginia to become Virginia's first state park--the Richmond Battlefield State Park. According to the National Park Service’s 2015 State of the Park Report, “the private Richmond Battlefield Parks Corporation began a quiet, systematic effort to purchase significant battlefield acreage related to the 1862 and 1864 campaigns. The organization could not develop or maintain the newly purchased property and [in 1932] arranged to deed parcels totaling 572 acres to the state.” The transfer contained land at Beaver Dam Creek, Gaines’ Mill (60 acres including the 1820 Watt House), Cold Harbor, Fort Gilmer, Fort Johnson, Fort Gregg, Fort Harrison, Malvern Hill, Drewry’s Bluff, and Parker’s Battery, but nothing at Glendale.  

That same year, a study done by the Secretary of War for the U.S. Congress determined that the newly protected acres around Richmond were appropriate for acquisition by the War Department, should they be offered for donation. The study further recommended that, in such an event, an additional 1,905 acres of core battlefield land be purchased. 

1934: Although Richmond Battlefield State Park was Virginia’s first state park, NPS administrative histories and cultural resource inventories note that “by 1934 the Commonwealth realized it did not have the funding to build and maintain a park of this nature, and initiated transfer of all parkland and assets to the Federal government.” This was largely contemporaneous with the transfer of all existing federal battlefield parks from the War Department to the Department of the Interior and National Park Service following the Reorganization of 1935. 

March 2, 1936: Via an act of Congress “to set [the lands] apart as a public park for the benefit and inspiration of the people,” and to protect the Civil War battlefield resources associated with the struggle for the capital of the Confederacy and to interpret these resources so as to foster an understanding of their larger significance” Richmond National Battlefield Park is established as the 17th unit of the national park system to commemorate the events of the Civil War. 

According to the 1995 Park General Management Plan, the original boundary was meant to “include ‘all such lands, structures, and other property in the military battlefield area or areas in the city of Richmond, Virginia, or within 5 miles of the city limits of said city or within 5 miles of the boundary of the present Richmond Battlefield State Park.’ This embraces an exceptionally large geographical area of 225,000 acres with a complex set of issues related to land use and resource protection.” 

July 14, 1944: Legal issues regarding the transfer of land titles, back taxes, right-of-way easements and other formalities meant that the land did not transfer to federal ownership for eight years, until mid-July 1944. During this time, the Commonwealth of Virginia maintained the parcels of land, endeavored to establish access to the discontiguous battle sites, and undertook interpretive and administrative improvements – much of this work was done through Civilian Conservation Corps labor under supervision of the NPS between 1933 and 1941. Beyond trails and parking areas, the CCC also constructed a visitor contact station at Cold Harbor. The park’s administrative history estimates that between 1938 and 1942, some 68,000 cars brought more than 221,000 people to the battlefields. 

Mid-Century Preservation Efforts: 1945-1960

Library of Congress

July 14, 1952: Richmond National Battlefield Park superintendent Floyd B. Taylor invited Richmonders to observe the park’s eighth anniversary by touring the sites. The full park tour was then a 57-mile drive divided into seven different sections, each a famed battleground. He especially recommended visiting Fort Harrison, which housed a museum of battle relics along with restoration work completed on old gun emplacements. He mentioned that the best example of field fortifications were to be found at Cold Harbor. (“Local Battlefields Mark Eighth Year as U.S. Park,” Times Dispatch, July 14, 1952) 

August 17, 1954: Park growth in this period often came as the result of donations, as was the case for a six-acre parcel under discussion in Congress and the medial (“Richmond Park Area May Be Expanded,” The Progress-Index – Petersburg, Va., August 17, 1954). The Virginia Electric and Power Co. sought to donate the land, which contained historic fortifications, in exchange for a right-of-way across the western side of Parker’s Battery site.  

April 19, 1956: The National Park Service began eyeing maintenance and improvement projects that could be completed in advance of the Civil War Centennial. Initial vision estimated the cost at $210,000 for improvements to include the visitors’ center, rehab of Watt House, repairs to Ft. Harrison museum, markers and signs, and an access road. At the time, the park covered 687 acres across Chesterfield, Hanover, and Henrico counties (“Battlefield Park Improvements Are Studied,” Richmond Times Dispatch, April 19, 1956). By the park’s July anniversary, plans were expanded to $458,000 targeting buildings and utilities, road and trail work. Of particular note was construction of an administration building and information center on Rt. 60 east of Seven Pines National Cemetery and restoration of the Watt House. (“Battlefield Park Improvements Set,” Times Dispatch, July 14, 1956) 

February 12, 1957: Richmond City Council responded unanimously in the affirmative to a proposal by the city manager — as initially suggested by J. Ambler Johnston — that abandoned weather bureau building and 4.6 acres of adjacent land at Chimborazo Park be given to the federal government and made part of the Richmond National Battlefield Park. (“City Urged to Give U.S. Chimborazo Building, Times Dispatch, February 12, 1957). The National Park Service accepted the gift the following April, and opened the new visitor center in late November 1958, following some $73,000 in renovations and exhibit development.  
October 23, 1958: The park grew by 85 acres following the donation of land where Gen. Robert E. Lee assumed his first combat command during the Seven Days battles — situated on a high bluff facing U.S. Rt. 360 and 2.5 miles southwest of Mechanicsville. The land had previously been owned by the E.I. du Pont de Neumours & Co., which had constructed some small powder magazines (the major corporation commonly known as DuPont began as a gunpowder manufacturer in Delaware in 1802), but otherwise kept the land pristine, including well-preserved breastworks. (“Du Pont Donates 85-Acre Tract for Use by NPS,” Times Dispatch, October 23, 1958.  

Civil War Centennial: 1960-1965

Matthew Huntley

July 8, 1960: A new overlook at the Beaver Dam Creek battlefield east of Mechanicsville is completed, Richmond National Battlefield Park’s first field project under Mission 66, a systemwide infrastructure improvement initiative undertaken in anticipation of the National Park Service’s 50th anniversary in 1966. construction program in the Richmond NBPs. (“Tourists Get New Look,” Times Dispatch, July 8, 1960) 

May 5, 1961: As events marking the Civil War Centennial got underway, six directional signs were placed in Richmond to help guide visitors to the park’s battlefields and headquarters on Chimborazo hill (“Signs of Centennial,” Times Dispatch, May 5, 1961). By this time, the Park had grown to just under 800 acres and included a 57-mile driving tour connecting numerous disparate units, according to its official tour pamphlet. “Markers, maps, and interpretive devices along the tour will help you to understand the military operations. You will see parts of the fields of combat, massive forts, and intricate field fortifications. Two houses on the battlefields have wartime associations—the Watt House (Gen. Fitz-John Porter’s headquarters) and the Garthright House (Union field hospital).” 

May 10, 1961: Rep. J. Vaughan Gary introduced a bill in the House of Representatives that would authorize the NPS to buy 12 acres for the Richmond NBP, a departure from the donation-based growth the park had experienced until that time. The proposal included nine acres at Grapevine bridge, an acre each at Ft. Brady and Savage Station, and a half acre at Glendale, but merely authorized the acquisition without appropriating the estimated $7,775 cost (“Gary Introduces Battlefield Bill,” Times Dispatch, May 10, 1961). A senate companion bill is passed on July 17, with news coverage noting that the land could be acquired and ready for use by the time of Centennial observances in 1962 

August 10, 1961: While a suggestion to add 20,000 acres to Richmond National Battlefields Park via land at Glendale, Grapevine and Savage Station during the Civil War Centennial was presented in a bill before Congress, J. Ambler Johnston and Walter W. Regirer opine that the $5 million proposal is unlikely to occur (“Purchase of Civil War Battle Sites Recalled,” Times Dispatch, August 10, 1961)  

June 30, 1962: To mark their 100th anniversary, some 450 Civil War enthusiasts gathered to hear J. Ambler Johnston narrate the history of the Seven Days’ Battle near the breastworks of the recently opened Chickahominy Bluffs area; “Johnston described the military action of the bloody week in terms of ‘along highway 156’ and ‘right where Byrd Airport is.’” The motorcade also toured Gaines’ Mill, Savage Station, and Glendale. Park superintendent Wallace T. Stephens added that the park intended to have a tour route with guide markers completed by November so that folks could tour the battlefields on their own. (“Battle Sites Are Toured,” Times Dispatch, July 1, 1962) 

Toward the Modern Preservation Movement: 1966-2000

Buddy Secor

October 15, 1966: Richmond National Battlefields Park is administratively listed on the National Register of Historic Places on the day that the National Historic Preservation Act is signed into law.   

August 21, 1969: According to a story from the Associated Press, Richmond National Battlefield Park had been targeted by multiple relic hunters. “These people are ruthless,” said Glenn Hinsdale, the acting ranger of Richmond National Battlefields Park. “They can cover 10 to 15 acers a day. These collectors sell their stuff.” More than just digging holes on earthworks, the relic hunters we reusing the most sophisticated technology available — metal detectors and walkie-talkies, allowing diggers to post a lookout. Hinsdale also described a particularly brazen group that he discovered scouring his own front yard, since he was lodged in the Watt House at Gaines’ Mill.  

March 18, 1975: Richmond National Battlefield Park is added to the Virginia Landmark Register, citing the Watt House in particular as a classifying structure. “Watt House (Springfield Plantation) Building No. 5 Original site, restoration work completed, altered interior. Occupied by the Watts prior to the 1862 Campaign for Richmond. This middle class farm house was the site of Porter's headquarters and hospital, and of Hood's breakthrough' on June 27, 1862.   

July 18, 1987: The Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites (APCWS), which has evolved into the American Battlefield Trust, was founded out of concern for the rapid suburban development of Virginia.  

July 10, 1993: Ongoing concerns over the loss of battlefield land, especially in Virginia, prompted Congress to appoint a panel to study the state of all Civil War battlefields. The landmark report of the Civil War Sites Advisory Commission identified the 384 principal engagements of that war and assigned rankings related to both historic significance and preservation status. Gaines’ Mill and Cold Harbor were both given a Priority I, Class A designations, marking them as among the 11 top candidates for preservation efforts in the nation. Malvern Hill, another unit of Richmond National Battlefield Park also met that criteria.  

Mid-1990s: The Trust purchased two properties totaling just over 200 acres at the fringes of Glendale, another one of the Seven Days’ Battles, that were subsequently donated to the Richmond NBP.  

2001: Richmond Battlefields Association (RBA) established as an all-volunteer organization dependent on the support of its members – with a mission “to protect the historical integrity of the battlefields near Richmond, Virginia, by preserving them from destruction.” 

Public-Private Partnerships Feed Park Growth: 2000-2020

2001: Richmond Battlefields Association (RBA) established as an all-volunteer organization dependent on the support of its members – with a mission “to protect the historical integrity of the battlefields near Richmond, Virginia, by preserving them from destruction.” 

Spring 2008: RBA was alerted of a “For Sale” sign that had suddenly appeared near Beulah Church, an area that saw heavy and historic fighting during June 1-3, 1864. RBA investigated and found a beautiful line of earthworks hidden in the woods. These field fortifications were likely constructed for artillerists of the Union 18th Corps after their disastrous attack on June 3rd. Federal forces made two attacks across this ground, on June 1st & 3rd. Upon purchase of this historic site, RBA successfully competed for matching funds from the Commonwealth of Virginia, thereby increasing the impact of their members' contributions by 50%. 

Approx. 2010: RBA purchased an 18-acre tract on Beulah Church Rd (site of action on June 1 & 3); Trust then purchased a tract adjacent to the saved RBA land. This land will enable interpretation to include the story of the VI & XVIII Corps attackers on the morning of June 3, as it was their path to battle; their comrades attacked across this blood-stained field. 

Early 2011: Richmond Battlefields Association purchased a key parcel of land (5 acres) on the north bank of Boatswain Creek. This represents the first battlefield acquisition since the 1920's, when Douglas Southall Freeman and others in the Richmond Battlefield Park Corporation secured the 60 acres of the Gaines’ Mill battlefield, which were incorporated into the Richmond National Battlefield Park. Shortly thereafter, the trust protected a 2-acre tract further east.  

October 26, 2011: The Trust launches a $3.2 million fundraising campaign to protect 285 acres at Gaines’ Mill that encompass a significant portion of Longstreet’s Assault. At the time, Trust president Jim Lighthizer characterized the project as one of the “top three” properties the organization had ever attempted to protect, and noted the tight window to raise funds.   

November 26, 2011: An Associated Press article highlighting the Longstreet’s Assault effort is printed in hundreds of newspapers across the country, introducing readers to the Civil War’s “Kitty Hawk moment.” Aeronautical experts and photo historians visited the site to pinpoint the location where the first reconnaissance balloons were simultaneously sent aloft by both armies.  

November 19, 2012: The Trust and Commonwealth announce the completion of fundraising to protect 285 acres at Gaines’ Mill.  The successful effort was made possible by a $1.5 million Transportation Enhancement grant from the Commonwealth of Virginia. 

Late 2012: Late in 2012, the family that sold RBA battlefield land at Cold Harbor in the past notified them that an additional 7 acres would soon be on the market. The RBA and the Trust quickly partnered to preserve this hallowed  

December 31, 2013: According to the 2015 State of the Park Report for Richmond National Battlefield Park, between 1995 and the end of 2013, the park more than tripled in size, growing from 754 acres to nearly 3,000. This was n no small part thanks to Trust efforts, particularly at Gaines’ Mill, Glendale and Malvern Hill. 

2014: RBA transfers 18 acres at Cold Harbor (Beulah Church property purchased in 2010) to the National Park Service.  

July 10, 2014: In a celebration at the Watts House, Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell accepted the ceremonial transfer of 285-acres at Gaines’ Mill, a Trust project that had quintupled NPS holdings at that unit of the park. The integration was made possible by a $400,000 grant from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a piece of landmark federal conservation program then celebrating its 50th anniversary.  

2016: RBA transfers three acres at Gaines’ Mill to Richmond NBP

August 4, 2017: Trust acquired a 51-acre tract of the Cold Harbor battlefield that contained the fortification called Fletcher’s Redoubt, allowing events of June 3 battle to come into greater focus 

January 6, 2018: Trust set about acquiring 55 acres of the Cold Harbor battlefield, a piece between Beulah Church and Garthright 

December 2018: Trust announces $1 million campaign to protect 50-acre “sportsplex” site. 

December 2019: Trust partnered with VDHR and VDCR to set about saving 50 acres of the Cold Harbor Battlefield 

May 2020: The Trust declared victory after completing the protection of 128 acres associated with the Battles of Gaines’ Mill and Cold Harbor, the amalgamation of several projects announced at different times in 2018 and 2019.  

November 9, 2020: Fundraising begins to save 30 acres overlapping the Gaines’ Mill and Cold Harbor battlefields, including the site of the original Cold Harbor Tavern that gave the area its name.  

Since 2011, the Trust has protected a total of 565 acres at Gaines’ Mill and Cold Harbor over the course of 25 individual transactions. And the best is yet to come:

Saved Forever Campaign: 2020 & Beyond

Michael Melford

Saving the most important unprotected hallowed ground in America is a battlefield preservation opportunity 20 years in the making!

December 15, 2020: The Trust begins its Gaines’ Mill – Cold Harbor Saved Forever Campaign, which will protect an area covering roughly one square mile over the course of five years, land that has topped the organization’s list of most desired properties for more than two decades. The first stage will protect 108 acres referred to as “Pickett’s Charge, Five Times as Large.”

Your gift today will help save land of unrivaled historic significance. Your gift will play a crucial part in preserving the most-important unprotected hallowed ground in America!

If pressed to select the single most desirable tract on any battlefield, I would, without hesitation, select the ground essential to protecting both Gaines’ Mill and Cold Harbor.

Garry Gallagher, Historian