Reprinted from the Richmond Times-Dispatch while I was outdoor writer.
Civil War Hikes
By Lee Graves
A walk in the woods usually means getting up-close and personal with Mother Nature – admiring the trees, feeling the breeze, listening to the birds and soaking up some fresh air and sunlight.
Sometimes, though, the path can also shed light on human nature – how love can spawn malice, kindness can rub shoulders with brutality, and courage can outweigh fear.
So forgive me if I indulge a pair of passions – being outdoors and learning history. In Richmond, we are blessed with many opportunities to combine the two.
Marggie and I spent last weekend visiting three Civil War sites that provide excellent means to hike, bike, jog or ride a horse amid settings rich with the drama of battle. All commemorate engagements observing their 140th anniversary this year as part of the Overland Campaign, which ended in a siege that left little doubt of the war’s outcome.
Cold Harbor in Hanover County marks where Union and Confederate forces met in early June 1864. The value of trench warfare was proved here over several days, but it took less than an hour during the morning of June 3 to drive the point home. At 4:30 a.m., more than 50,000 Union soldiers assaulted Confederate troops that had spent days digging and fortifying trenches.
“The Federal losses, about 7,000, were the heaviest ever sustained in America in so brief an action,” reads one marker.
You can circle the national battlefield by auto, but as another marker notes, “a more thorough understanding can be obtained by walking the self-guided one-mile trail that begins behind the visitors’ center.”
This path of butternut pebbles winds through oaks and locusts that now shade well-preserved earthworks. Numerous markers offer insights, such as when adversaries chatted and exchanged newspapers during a two-hour lull (after which they resumed hostilities). A more primitive trail, marked by white paint on trees, can extend your hike by 1 ½ miles.
On a nearby parcel of 50 acres, Hanover County also has fashioned a network of gravel paths with interpretive markers. The trail is easily accessed by bicycle as well as on foot.
Petersburg National Battlefield offers 10 miles of recreational trails in its Eastern Front Unit. A free color-coded map, available at the visitors’ center, spells out distances and uses for each route – some allow horseback riding, others are strictly for hiking and biking. In addition, the four-mile motor loop has a special lane for people on foot or cycling.
One of the interpretive paths circles The Crater, a battle recently depicted in “Cold Mountain.” Here, less than two months after Cold Harbor, explosives in a 511-foot shaft dug by Pennsylvania miners erupted beneath a Confederate artillery battery. The plan backfired, resulting in heavy Union losses, and a 10-month siege ensued.
You can see not only the mounds left by the explosion but also the entrance to the mine shaft if you follow the paved walkway looping the site.
Fort Harrison National Battlefield in Henrico County favors cyclists, and a seven-mile interpretive bike ride is scheduled for Aug. 7. Some of the sites, such as at the visitors’ center and Fort Brady, have short interpretive walks.
Here again, Union forces hoped to pierce Confederate defenses with an attack in 1864. While they didn’t make it to Richmond, they did end up occupying Fort Harrison (renamed Fort Burnham) until the end of the war. Black soldiers played a prominent role in the action, suffering heavy losses at Forts Brady and Gilmer.
War often illuminates man’s inhumanity to man, but the human spirit can find beauty even in the darkest moments. Witness these words from a soldier, writing to his mother about being pinned down at Petersburg:
“It was a beautiful moon light night. Everything looked so calm and peaceful overhead. It did not seem right that we should be making so much noise and I thought to myself that the same beautiful moon was looking down upon my peaceful home, and I must confess I had a strange longing to be there.”