Okay, so just because my first two Richmond Outside columns, and now the third, are about hiking at Civil War battle sites, I don’t want you to think that I’m an avid researcher and historian of the conflict (although it is certainly hard to escape it living here in the Richmond area). It’s just that it seemed logical, after writing about Cold Harbor, to now direct you to Petersburg, as it was the next stage after Cold Harbor in the fall of Richmond.
After Grant met such fierce resistance at Cold Harbor in early June 1864, he abandoned his idea of capturing Richmond by direct assault. Reasoning that if he could “capture [Lee’s] army, Richmond would necessarily follow,” he moved south of the James River, where his forces began a siege of Petersburg. Minor skirmishes occurred throughout the summer and fall months, with Grant capturing rail lines and diminishing the confederate army’s supplies.
Lee took the offensive in March 1865; initially successful, the tide of the battle turned several days later. The 10-month struggle for the city, the longest siege in American warfare, came to an end with Lee’s retreat on April 2. His surrender at Appomattox Court House was just a week away.
Established in 1926 as a national military park, the 2,700-acre property, with several distinct parcels, was declared a national battlefield in 1962. Unlike many designated national battlefields that have been preserved predominantly as open fields, the Eastern Front segment with more than 11 miles of trails (some closed seasonally) has grown into maturing forests—and this is what continues to draw me to historic sites. Not only can I visit places that shaped our nation, but my hikes are often through a landscape where I can also observe natural world wonders.
A prime example is that, immediately starting the hike, you enter a forest of pine with a profusion of cedar trees. Squirrels often make use of the soft bark of the cedar to line their nests. All of us know that squirrels cache nuts for the winter, burying their food supply in scattered locations. Although they cannot remember the specific sites, their acute sense of smell enables them to locate enough of the nuts to survive. Studies have shown they can find a nut through more than a foot of snow. Within a few steps is a short section of railroad tracks, all that remains of the US Military Railroad that carried supplies to union soldiers during the siege.
The creek you cross farther on in the hike is where confederate forces fell back to during a fight in June 1864, and so many federal troops were driven into the Fort Haskell earthworks that they became tightly packed and only those in the very front were able to fire weapons. Interspersed among these sites are some amazingly large tulip poplars that may have been alive when this was farmland. The tree’s common name comes from the tulip-shaped flowers growing on upper limbs in early June. As summer progresses, they fall off the trees, with dozens of them decorating the trail. Yet, these trees are members of the magnolia family and not the willow family that poplars are members of.
If you want more hiking, the other segments of the national battlefield are short drives away.
Getting there: Take the Wythe Street exit and follow it 2.5 miles to the park entrance. Take a few moments to look over the exhibits in the visitor center. You may also pick up a trail map and pay the entrance fee. Continue east on Washington Street and make the first right to obtain a free car pass at the Fort Lee entrance station. Make another right only .2 mile later onto Adams Avenue and another right onto Mahone Avenue in an additional .9 mile. The parking area is on the right.