Malvern Hill Trail (Richmond National Battlefield Park, VA)

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Malvern Hill Trail, Richmond National Battlefield Park, March 2018

– Civil War Series –

Malvern Hill is one of the country’s best-preserved Civil War battlefields and marked the culmination of the Seven Days’ Battles, a series of engagements outside Richmond, Virginia in June-July 1862 that ended Union Gen. George McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac, in the midst of a retreat to the James River, nonetheless won an undisputed victory at Malvern Hill on July 1, 1862, fending off an ill-fated attack by Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Confederate forces.

The terrain today at Malvern Hill is a mix of sunny fields and dense woods. The roughly 2-mile Malvern Hill Trail (a.k.a. White Trail) forms a circuit around the battlefield, while a 1.5-mile add-on loop—the Carter’s Farm Trail (a.k.a. Blue Trail)—explores the forested area that served as the Confederate staging area for the battle. The trail is maintained as part of Richmond National Battlefield Park.

Malvern Hill Trail hike information

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Map of Malvern Hill Trail

The hike

Hikers can access the main loop at two different points along Willis Church Road, or Virginia Route 156. The first and most common is the Malvern Hill parking area, marked by a line of Union cannons to the west of Willis Church Road, about two miles south of Glendale National Cemetery and about a 25-30 minute drive from downtown Richmond. The second option, however—beginning up the road 4/10 mile at the Parsonage parking area—is preferable, as it allows hikers to follow the battle roughly chronologically in a counter-clockwise direction.

The small, graveled parking area at the Parsonage has only enough space for around five cars, but it is considerably less crowded than the main trailhead 4/10 mile to the south. The parking lot is situated across the street from the ruins of the Willis Creek Parsonage, a house that was a key landmark during the battle. Looking south, one can survey the modest slope of Malvern Hill, with the West House in the distance.

The Battle of Malvern Hill came amid the backdrop of Union retreat. After a long and cautious advance up the Virginia Peninsula beginning in March 1862, Gen. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac finally approached the doorstep of Richmond by May…and then, after a set of counterattacks by Gen. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, promptly called off the attack. Even after a Federal victory at Beaver Dam Creek on June 26, the ever-timid McClellan ordered a “change of base”—effectively a capitulation—moving his entire force south to the banks of the James River. Lee’s Army struck the retreating Federals several times—at Gaines’ Mill (June 27), Garnett’s and Golding’s Farms (June 28), Savage’s Station (June 29), White Oak Swamp (June 30), and Glendale (June 30)—before attempting a final blow on July 1 at Malvern Hill.

Only a few miles from the James, Federal forces at Malvern Hill enjoyed a significant advantage in their final battle of the campaign. The slight incline of the grassy hill, though minor, offered excellent fields of fire for Union artillery. Nonetheless, it was from here—at the Parsonage—that Maj. Gen. D.H. Hill’s division decided to go forward with charging the hill, despite the shower of shells and shot from the Federal batteries.

Heading counterclockwise around the loop, hikers will follow the path of the ill-fated Confederate charge. Begin by crossing the street and passing through a break in the fence, leading to the Parsonage ruins. (Note: All that remains of the Willis Creek Parsonage is a pair of chimneys.) It was here that Hill—under Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s command—set up his headquarters for the battle.

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Ruins of the Parsonage

The trail stays well left of the Parsonage, briefly fading as it crosses a grassy patch. It is easy to pick up again, however, as the trail drops into the woods, descending a steady slope and crossing a bridge over a minor stream. From here the path climbs gently and bears west.

At 2/10 mile, the trail splits. Here you face a choice: stay left on the main track, or tack on 1.2 miles to your hike by continuing right on the Carter’s Farm Trail (or Blue Trail), which explores the woods to the north that served as the staging point for D.H. Hill’s forces. (Note: This description follows the main trail to the left, but I have included a brief description of the Carter’s Farm hike below under “Extra credit.”)

Staying on the main track, hikers will make good time across a steady flat, surrounded by tall oaks, poplars, and beech trees, as well as a shrub-sized holly. At about 1/3 mile, two depressions on the right mark the site of former graves of Confederate soldiers slain in the battle. Most fallen soldiers were disinterred after the war and reburied at nearby Glendale National Cemetery; these shallow graves, however, represent the hasty construction that was required to bury the dead on a transient and shifting battlefield.

After a short uphill, the woods abruptly end as the trail crosses Carter’s Mill Road, a now-paved track that traces the route of a former road present during the battle. Traverse the road and continue onto land once owned by Dr. Carter (first name unknown) during the war. These crop fields would serve as the primary funnel for the Confederate forces who staged their attack on Union positions in the late afternoon of July 1, 1862.

Just ahead, at the ½ mile mark, hikers will encounter three Civil War-era cannons, marking the spot where Gen. Lee made his first moves of the battle. The Confederate plan called for rolling out dozens of cannons—here and at nearby Poindexter Farm—to try to neutralize the superior Union artillery on Malvern Hill, paving the way for an infantry assault. While the cannons were in place by 1pm, they were outnumbered more than two-to-one by Union artillery, and their fire was largely ineffective in softening the Union defenses.[1]

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Confederate artillery position

Confederate plans for the battle—an opening artillery barrage followed by an orderly infantry frontal charge—quickly disintegrated. Ambiguous instructions from Gen. Lee led the Confederate infantry to attack prematurely: at around 3 pm, Brig. Gen. Lewis Armistead’s brigade advanced into a small ravine, baited by Union skirmishers; Maj. Gen. John Magruder, believing that Armistead’s movement signaled the start of the infantry attack, led 5,000 men in a charge against the Union line. D.H. Hill’s division followed, sending five brigades forward, even as Gen. Lee was considering calling off the entire attack.[2]

Looking south across Carter’s Farm, one can spot the West House and the site of the Union cannons on the horizon. Armistead’s brigade would have emerged out of the woods behind you, followed by Magruder’s forces. Here, at the cannons, the trail splits—the Carter’s Farm (Blue) Trail comes in from the right, while the main trail cuts left, following the path of the Confederate assault across the fields to the south.

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Heading south toward the West House and Union positions

After around 1/3 mile in the exposed sun, the trail reaches the edge of the woods. Though not easily visible from this vantage point, this forest covers a steep drop-off in the terrain, a geographic barrier that forced the Confederates to stay left, conducting a frontal attack on Malvern Hill amid a barrage of artillery fire. Stacks of recently harvested wheat provided some cover; however, the advance halted at a point marked by a wayside at roughly 0.9 miles. (Note: It was here that Private Edwin F. Jemison, a 17-year old Georgian soldier, was killed; a photograph of young Jemison in uniform, taken before the battle, would go on to be one of the most iconic photos of the war.) By now the line of destructive Union cannons is in full view.

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View of the West House and cannons from the trail

As the trail approaches the Union position, the path splits. Head right to hike a short 0.4-mile out-and-back spur, which leads to an obscured viewpoint of Malvern Cliffs. After skirting the property of privately-owned Crew House, the trail drops back into the woods and crosses a grassy patch to one of the Richmond area’s 61 “Freeman Markers,” a set of stone tablets that tells the story of the Civil War in the area (with a noticeable pro-South bias). Beyond, the trail dips left and narrows, ending at the edge of a steep slope with a wooden bench and wayside sign.

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Malvern Cliffs

Now covered in woods, the area around Malvern Cliffs comprised largely treeless terrain at the time of the battle, and the sharp ridges and ravines proved difficult for the attacking Confederates to handle. Here forces under the direction of Gen. Magruder were repelled by the Yankees stationed at and around the Crew House, effectively putting an end to the ill-fated Confederate assault.

From the end of the spur, return the way you came, arriving back at the main trail at about 1.4 miles. From here, head straight, hugging the side of the road as it approaches the main parking area for Malvern Hill Battlefield. (Note: This is the alternative starting point for the loop hike.) Here a covered shelter offers a view north across the battlefield, where six Northern cannons are pointed at the Confederate artillery position encountered earlier at the ½ mile mark. (Note: You can also spot the chimneys of the Parsonage in the distance to the northeast.) During the battle, this battery unleashed more than 1,300 rounds of shell and canister, stopping the Southern charge in its tracks.

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Malvern Hill Battlefield from the Union line

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Federal cannons

Continuing east from the Malvern Hill parking area, the trail reaches an intersection near the West House. Bear north at Willis Church Road, paralleling the street on the left for less than 1/10 mile. Use the crosswalk to get to the other side of the road, then follow the eastward path through the fields to another set of artillery.

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Union artillery east of the road

This section of the battlefield saw slightly less action but was also the site of a Confederate push by D.H. Hill’s forces. Facing weaker fields of fire than the forces to the west, Union soldiers east of the road were forced to deploy infantry ahead of the cannons, but the Federals once again enjoyed superior position and turned back the charge.

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Trail returning to the Parsonage

At 1.75 miles, the trail abruptly turns left and hugs the edge of the woods. Aiming for the Parsonage, the path continues north for ¼ mile before leaving the forest behind and cutting across open fields back to the Parsonage parking area. Brig. Gen. Darius Couch’s three brigades took on the brunt of the fighting in this area, holding off the Southern attackers until darkness fell on Malvern Hill, ending the day’s fighting. In the end, the Confederates never breached the Union defenses, providing the Federals a rare victory in an otherwise disappointing campaign in which McClellan failed to seize Richmond.

The entire circuit, including the 4/10-mile detour to Malvern Cliffs, covers roughly 2.1 miles, or about 1-1.5 hours of mild hiking. In an area where many battlefield sites have been lost to development, Malvern Hill stands out for its near-complete preservation, an excellent capstone to a multi-day driving tour of the Peninsula Campaign.

Extra Credit: Carter’s Farm Trail

As mentioned earlier, the blue-blazed Carter’s Farm Trail offers an extended option that adds 1.2 miles to the loop hike; it was just constructed in 2015. The extension begins at a right turn about 2/10 mile down the Malvern Hill (White) Trail from the Parsonage. Spending most of the time in the woods, the Carter’s Farm Trail goes behind the Confederate lines, crisscrossing the area where D.H. Hill positioned his division as he awaited orders to advance. (Note: Along the way, eight marked posts correspond with descriptions on the “Malvern Hill Trail System” brochure, found here.)

The Carter’s Farm Trail offers a more natural experience than the Malvern Hill Trail, remaining within earshot of the flowing stream of Western Run through much of the first mile. Around 2/10 mile past the start, the trail crosses a tributary of the main creek, followed by a sharp climb to an obscured view of Western Run.

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Viewpoint of Western Run on the Carter’s Farm Trail

One of the most interesting stories of the battle comes at post #3, which explains how Gen. Hill and fellow Confederate Brig. Gen. Robert Toombs nearly fought each other in a duel after Hill and Toombs accused one another of poor performance during the failed attack. The defeated Confederates fled back through this area as twilight approached on the night of July 1, with confusion ensuing. After hikers cut through swampy terrain (where the blue-blazed trail is somewhat hard to follow), they will approach an escape route used by the Confederates at 6/10 mile: the remnants of an old dam, which Brig. Gen. Jubal Early’s brigade used to transport horses across Western Run.

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Western Run

Beyond this point, the trail cuts left, leaving the stream valley behind and climbing to cross Carter’s Mill Road at 0.9 miles. Follow the road south for ¼ mile, keeping the corn fields—formerly belonging to Dr. Carter—on your right. Just before the road reenters the woods, the blue-blazed path cuts right, and then bears south through a pine forest. This was the last solace of cover for attacking Confederates before they were exposed to intense Union artillery fire.

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Out of the woods and onto the battlefield

Hikers reach this breakthrough point at around 1.3 miles, crossing the sun-soaked field to the Confederate cannon position, where the Carter’s Farm Trail merges with the white-blazed Malvern Hill route. From here, continue right on the main loop, or bear left to head back to the Parsonage parking area. The Carter’s Farm Trail is roughly 1.5 miles long and adds about 1.2 mile to a loop hike around the battlefield; allot around 2-2.5 hours for the entire loop if you opt to include the Carter’s Farm extension.

[1] Michael Weeks, The Civil War Road Trip Volume I: A Guide to Northern Virginia, Maryland & Pennsylvania 1861-1863 (Woodstock, VT: The Countryman Press), 183.

[2] Weeks, The Civil War Road Trip Volume I, 184-85.

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Gaines’ Mill Trail (Richmond National Battlefield Park, VA)

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Gaines’ Mill Trail, Richmond National Battlefield Park, March 2018

– Civil War Series –

Following General Robert E. Lee’s defeat the day prior at Beaver Dam Creek, the Confederate Army won a decisive but costly victory on June 27, 1862 in the Battle of Gaines’ Mill. Attempting to catch the Federal Army as it was retreating south to the James River, Lee sent the brunt of his force against Union General John Fitz Porter’s 5th Corps at a point outside Cold Harbor, Virginia. Although eventually succeeding in dislodging Porter’s troops, the Union’s strong position along the banks of Boatswain’s Creek produced scores of Confederate casualties, making the battle the Civil War’s second-bloodiest engagement to that point (behind only the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862). The battle was the third of the Seven Days’ Battles, which resulted in Lee’s successful defense of Richmond from General George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac.

A section of the battlefield today is protected as part of Richmond National Battlefield Park, situated in the Cold Harbor area northeast of Virginia’s capital city. An excellent 1-mile loop hike provides a tour of the grounds, now mostly covered in dense woods. Spur trails offer access to a monument for fallen soldiers, as well as an overlook of the area where Maj. Gen. James Longstreet’s division delivered the decisive blow that won the day for the Confederacy.

Gaines Mill Trail hike information Richmond Battlefield

The hike

The Gaines’ Mill Trail is located a short drive southwest of the Cold Harbor Visitor Center in Richmond National Battlefield Park. Follow Watt House Road south as it crosses wood-laced Boatswain’s Creek and then climbs up Turkey Hill to an open field where the road ends. Next to the parking area and trailhead is the Watt House, once the centerpiece of a small plantation and a makeshift field hospital during the battle.

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Watt House

It was here at Turkey Hill that Porter positioned his forces to protect against a potential attack on the rear of McClellan’s army. In the early morning hours of June 27, McClellan decided to begin withdrawing the entire Army of the Potomac southward to the James River. To his commanders, this was billed as a “change of base”—but in reality, this was simply cover for what amounted to a retreat. According to historian Stephen Sears, McClellan decided that day that he was “quitting his grand campaign, surrendering the initiative, and giving up all hope of laying siege of Richmond from the line of the Chickahominy.”[1]

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Near the parking area

As day broke on June 27, however, Porter believed that his orders were to hold off a Confederate assault at any cost. Retreating east a few miles from Beaver Dam Creek, Porter’s 5th Corps set up a strong defensive position along Boatswain’s Creek. At the Watt House, Capt. William Weeden set up two guns aimed northwest across the woody ravine. (Note: This position is marked by two cannons today, within sight of the parking area.)

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Trail map

From the parking area, a dirt trail heads downhill off to the right, while a gravel road continues west across the grassy pasture. Bear right on the trail, beginning a counterclockwise loop around the Gaines’ Mill Trail (or Gaines’ Mill Breakthrough Trail, as it is officially called). The path makes haste for the edge of the woods, where an interpretive sign offers an overview of the battle. Beyond, the trail drops into the woody ravine, snaking down the north-facing slope at the heart of the action during the battle.

After a second sign, hikers will get their first views of Boatswain’s Creek, the boggy obstacle that separated the Union and Confederate forces for much of the day. At about 2/10 mile, the path flattens out and approaches the edge of the stream.

 

Following a minor skirmish at around noon, major fighting did not occur until around 2:30 pm, when Brig. Gen. Maxcy Gregg’s Confederate brigade attacked Union forces at a point roughly ½ mile east of your present location. Despite assaults all along the Federal line, Confederates largely failed to gain a foothold across the creek until very late in the day—when at last, at around 7pm, when Brig. Gen. John Bell Hood’s brigade pierced the Union defenses. (Note: Like at Beaver Dam Creek the day prior, famed General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson was late to the fight at Gaines’ Mill.)

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Boatswain’s Creek, where John Bell Hood’s brigade pierced the Union line

After following the gentle stream for around 150 yards, the Gaines’ Mill Trail reaches the decisive point where Hood’s brigade charged across Boatswain’s Creek. With the sun setting on the battlefield, Lee reportedly asked Hood: “This must be done. Can you break the line?” Hood’s response: “I will try.”[2] Try he did, eventually succeeding where dozens of other units had failed during the day.

From here the path leaves the creek and winds left up through a minor gap in the wooded hills. At about 0.3 miles, stay right at the trail fork. (Note: Heading left offers a shortcut back to the trailhead and passes a marker dedicated to Hood’s breakthrough in the Federal line.) The narrowing trail beyond ascends a minor slope amid a sea of beech trees.

At 0.35 miles, a spur trail to the right offers a short detour for curious hikers. After crossing Boatswain’s Creek, the path climbs sharply uphill—effectively going behind the Confederate lines—and ends at a grassy patch with a granite monument to Hood’s “Texas Brigade.”

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Texas Monument at Gaines’ Mill

Beyond lies the gravel Watt House Road; while private property lies to the right, continue left to enter the vast, largely tree-less tract of land that was acquired and transferred to the National Park Service in 2014. The tract has no official trails, but it is possible to follow a faded gravel road across the fields, which were effectively a staging area for Confederate forces during the latter hours of the battle.

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New tract at Gaines’ Mill

Returning back to the main trail, bear right as the path enters an area flooded by Longstreet’s division around dusk on June 27, 1862. While Hood’s brigade (part of Brig. Gen. W. H. C. Whiting) first breached the Union lines, it was Longstreet’s division—which trudged through thick swamp from the west—that delivered the final blow to Porter’s forces, forcing a Federal retreat.

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Gaines’ Mill Trail

At 0.75 miles, the trail approaches a monument dedicated to Brig. Gen. Cadmus Wilcox’s Alabama Brigade, which led Longstreet’s charge and seized this hill—but at great cost: Wilcox’s four regiments lost nearly a third of all their men in the battle.

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Wilcox monument

From the Wilcox monument, the Gaines’ Mill Trail bears southeast, leaving views of the creek behind and heading back toward the trailhead. At about 0.9 miles, the path abruptly reemerges from the woods, returning to the open fields of Turkey Hill. The hike is not over, however: at the next fork, bear right and follow the grassy path—between two sets of snake rail fence—to the Battlefield Overlook.

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Gaines’ Mill Trail spur to the Battlefield Overlook

The overlook is somewhat underwhelming, with scattered foliage partly obscuring views across the fields to the west. (Note: The extreme right of Longstreet’s division barreled up this hillside during the evening assault.) There is an interesting panel, however, on the use of survey balloons during the battle, the only time during the Civil War that the two sides used aerial reconnaissance at the same time.

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Battlefield Overlook

Heading back east on the trail, follow the grassy tread back toward the Watt House, staying straight at both trail forks. At the second junction, two artillery pieces mark the location of two guns operated by Union Capt. Stephen H. Weed’s artillery batteries during the battle.

Weed’s men would be forced to abandon the artillery as they—and the rest of Porter’s forces—retreated during the evening of June 27. Even in defeat, however, Porter’s 5th Corps achieved its purpose: covering the retreat of the Union Army as it moved south toward the James River. The Battle of Gaines’ Mill was celebrated as a Confederate victory in the South, but it came at a steep price of around 9,000 men killed and wounded.

The trail ends shortly after merging with a gravel road that cuts across Turkey Hill. The loop clocks in at about 1.3 miles (including the two spurs), roughly a 1-1 ½ hour hike across one of the Civil War’s bloodiest battlefields.

 

[1] Stephen W. Sears, To the Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign (New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1992), 211.

[2] Sears, To the Gates of Richmond, 240.

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Beaver Dam Creek Trail (Richmond National Battlefield Park, VA)

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Beaver Dam Creek Trail, Richmond National Battlefield Park, March 2018

– Civil War Series –

The Battle of Beaver Dam Creek—also known as the Battle of Mechanicsville or Ellerson’s Mill—is widely remembered today for being General Robert E. Lee’s debut as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia. With the Union Army on the doorstep of Richmond in June 1862, Lee embarked on a series of offensive maneuvers to fend off the numerically superior Federal forces. The first of these attacks, at Beaver Dam Creek, was a tactical defeat for the Southerners but a strategic victory; the engagement on June 26, 1862 was enough to persuade Union General George McClellan to withdraw his forces to the east, taking up a new position near Cold Harbor. The battle was second in a series of bloody engagements known as the Seven Days’ Battles and an important point in McClellan’s broader Peninsula Campaign (March-July 1862).

The battlefield today has been mostly overtaken by modern development. There is a narrow sliver, however, that is protected as part of Richmond National Battlefield Park: it is a boggy lowland surrounded by dense woods, appearing much like it did during the battle. Here visitors can walk a 2/10-mile out-and-back trail that crosses Beaver Dam Creek at a spot that saw intense action during the battle.

Beaver Dam Creek Trail hike information Richmond National Battlefield Park

The hike

Driving on Cold Harbor Road in Mechanicsville, Virginia, turn onto the signed road that heads south for 2/10 mile to the Beaver Dam Creek Battlefield parking area. The parking lot lies just to the east of Beaver Dam Creek, today a calm but swampy waterway flowing north to south into the Chickahominy River.

As soon as the Federals took this position in June 1862, the Confederates knew their assault would be challenging. One Southern military engineer would later remark that “the enemy took the beautiful Beaver Dam position for his own right.”[1] Moreover, the attack was a risky endeavor: massing the bulk of the Army of Northern Virginia north of the Chickahominy River,  Lee risked leaving Richmond exposed to attack by Union forces south of the river.

Nonetheless, Lee intended to move forward with the attack on the Federal right on the morning of June 26. The plan called for sending three Confederate divisions—those of D.H. Hill, A.P. Hill, and James Longstreet—east across the Chickahominy to meet the Federals, followed quickly by the approach of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s men from the north. The success of the assault would depend on the timely arrival of Jackson’s men, who were fresh off a lengthy campaign in the Shenandoah Valley.

Belying his reputation as an invincible commander, however, Jackson was delayed by lethargy, indecision, and poor navigation. It was not until late in the day on the 26th that his forces arrived at their necessary position on the Union right; they would effectively miss the battle entirely.

Meanwhile, impatiently awaiting the start of battle, Confederate division commander A.P. Hill ordered his forces to cross the Chickahominy at around 3 pm, without the go-ahead from Lee. Thus Hill’s division kicked off the day’s battle before the Confederates were ready and met resistance north of the river from Union General John Fitz Porter’s 5th Corps.[2] Yankee pickets fell back to their strong defensive position behind Beaver Dam Creek, and Porter’s corps prepared to confront the approaching Confederates.

As Hill’s division ran into intense artillery fire, Lee decided that he “was obliged to do something” now that the battle was underway.[3] He ordered the three Confederate divisions to press ahead with a frontal attack, spreading out across the small town of Mechanicsville. At least four brigades ran right up against Union positions along the creek, failing to puncture the Federal line.

One such position was here, at the former site of Ellerson’s Mill, now within the boundary of Richmond National Battlefield Park. Facing the creek, A.P. Hill’s fourth brigade, commanded by Dorsey Pender, streamed down the hillside behind you, running straight into the fire of Truman Seymour’s third brigade of Pennsylvania reserves.[4] Pender’s brigade suffered heavy casualties, as did the Confederate forces of Roswell Ripley that followed them.

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Beaver Dam Creek Trailhead

Much of the Confederate losses stemmed from the strength of the Union forces amid the eastern bluffs overlooking the boggy floodplain surrounding Beaver Dam Creek. Visitors can view the difficulty of the terrain from the parking area: a muddy stream followed to the east by tall grasses and thick brush.

From the parking area, the trail begins by crossing a quaint footbridge, where you can straddle the front lines of the battle. The bridge replaces an old crossing that was destroyed by Union forces ahead of the engagement.

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View of the battle grounds from the bridge (Union positions were on the right; Confederates on the left)

Beyond the bridge, follow the wide, partly-graveled path as it follows the remnants of the Old Cold Harbor Road to the old site of Ellerson’s Mill. Although the millhouse is long gone, one can still see the old millrace as it runs through the woods. The trail ends abruptly thereafter, connecting with a paved drive that enters a residential neighborhood.

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Historic Old Harbor Road

The battle came to end on the evening of June 26 as darkness fell over Mechanicsville. Lee’s Army was firmly repulsed, owing in large part of Jackson’s tardiness, and the Union suffered less than a quarter of the casualties of the attacking Confederates.[5] However, even as Lee’s debut resulted in failure, he succeeded in persuading McClellan to pull back Porter’s 5th Corps to a defensive position three miles to the east at Boatswain’s Swamp. Here a bigger and deadlier battle would occur the next day.

Return the way you came, completing the 2/10-mile hike, a short and easy jaunt that should take no more than 15-20 minutes.

[1] Edward Porter Alexander, Fighting for the Confederacy: The Personal Recollections of General Edward Porter Alexander, ed. Gary Gallagher (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989), 77.

[2] Stephen W. Sears, To the Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign (New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1992), 200-201.

[3] Sears, To the Gates of Richmond, 203.

[4] Sears, To the Gates of Richmond, 206-207.

[5] Michael Weeks, Civil War Road Trip Volume I: A Guide to Northern Virginia, Maryland & Pennsylvania 1861-1863 (Woodstock, VT: The Countryman Press, 2011), 162-163.

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Drewry’s Bluff Trail (Richmond National Battlefield Park, VA)

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Drewry’s Bluff Trail, Richmond National Battlefield Park, March 2018

– Civil War Series –

As Union gunboats approached Richmond, the Confederate capital, on the morning of May 15, 1862, they were greeted with a hail of heavy artillery fire from what would come to be known as Drewry’s Bluff, a Civil War fortification perched high above Virginia’s James River. Named for local property owner Augustus Drewry, the commanding heights offered a prime position for Confederate defenses, which were constructed just in time for a small but critical role in the 1862 Peninsula Campaign: by halting the advance of the Federal squadron—led by the famed ironclad USS Monitor—the artillerymen at Drewry’s Bluff closed off the Union’s option for attacking Richmond by water.

Today part of Richmond National Battlefield Park, a nearly 1-mile round-trip hike circles the fortifications at Drewry’s Bluff, some of the best preserved in the area. The highlight is an 8-inch Columbiad cannon positioned at the cliff’s edge. Despite being on the official Richmond Battlefields driving tour, Drewry’s Bluff is relatively quiet and perhaps overlooked.

Drewrys Bluff Trail hike information Richmond National Battlefield Park

 

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Map of Drewry’s Bluff Trail, Richmond National Battlefield Park

The hike

The Drewry’s Bluff Trail begins at the end of Fort Darling Road, which doubles as a frontage road to the east of Interstate 95. (Note: The small and wooded parking area is situated about a 20-minute drive south of central Richmond. Follow the signs as you get off I-95 Exit 64, swinging north on Jefferson Davis (ugh) Highway, Bellwood Road, and Fort Darling Road. Fort Darling was the official name of the military installation during the war.)

At the parking area is a three-paneled sign with information on Drewry’s Bluff, Richmond National Battlefield Park, and the 1862 Peninsula Campaign. To the right of the sign, the path follows a wide, paved track as it bears northeast through the woods. After about 150 yards, the path bends slightly left, skirting a field of tall grass on the right. In another 70 yards, the path abruptly turns from smooth pavement to a rough mix of packed dirt and gravel. At 2/10 mile, the narrowing trail descends rather sharply to cross a minor stream, then climbs to the first of several interpretative signs on the trail. Just to your right, there once stood a small hotel, part of the wartime encampment at Drewry’s Bluff.

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Initial trail

At the sign, a short spur trail bears off into the woods to the left, approaching the edge of the earthworks. A second interpretive sign tells the tale of Camp Beall, a Confederate Marine outpost that was constructed here after the May 1862 battle.

Returning to the main trail, continue east until reaching an open grassy pasture, with the bulk of the earthworks beyond. Off to the right, there is little remaining of what was once the grounds for a small chapel and cemetery constructed during the war.

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Fort Darling earthworks at Drewry’s Bluff

Continuing straight toward the fortifications, hikers will reach a trail fork at 0.35 miles. This is the start of the loop section of the trail. Heading left first, the path skirts the outer earthworks and climbs a flight of stairs to the main overlook. Peering out over a striking bend in the James River, one can imagine the sights and sounds of May 15, 1862…

We fought the enemy for almost four hours…and such a perfect tornado of shot and shell, right, left, front, rear, and on top of us, never was seen before. It was an awful sight to see our killed and wounded, some with an arm or leg blown off, some entirely disemboweled.

Confederate officer, excerpt from History of the Confederate States Navy from its Organization to the Surrender of its Last Vessel, by John Thomas Scharf, 1887

As the five Union ships rounded the bend on the morning of May 15, the squadron set its sights on neutralizing the Confederate defenses at Drewry’s Bluff, the last significant obstacle to a Federal entry to Richmond. However, before the USS Galena, the lead ship, could let off its first shot, it came under fire from the gunners at Drewry’s Bluff.[1] During the more than 3-hour battle that ensued, the Galena would take 44 hits, reducing the gunboat to a badly-damaged “slaughterhouse” in which 13 were killed.[2]

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View north over the James River

Up on the bluff, the Confederate defenders comprised the Southside Artillery—led by Captain Drewry himself—and a handful of navy sailors who, just days earlier, had set fire to the famed CSS Virginia, the South’s first ironclad, to avoid falling into Federal hands.[3] (Note: The USS Monitor, the Union foil of the Virginia, also fought in the battle and was undamaged by Confederate fire.) The Southerners also took casualties from the attacking Federals, and their defense was compromised in part by human error: the 10-inch Columbiad quickly went out of commission after recoiling so severely that its physical supports broke down. The Confederate defense held, however, and the Federal ships were forced to retreat by midday on May 15.

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View southeast

The story of the battle is told through a series of interpretive panels at the main viewing platform. The Union gunboats would have traveled upstream from around the bend to your right, halting just before the bluff before they were forced to turn around. Today, the James River is quiet and calm, bounded on both sides by thick forest.

From the overlook, continue the hike by descending a flight of stairs back to the base level, then proceed to the foot of the 8-inch Columbiad, the only cannon remaining at the site. Just beyond, the dirt trail winds around a large depression in the ground, the site of a collapsed bombproof during the war. The fortifications at Drewry’s Bluff were expanded significantly after the battle, becoming a key training grounds for the Confederate Navy and Marines.

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Columbiad cannon

From here the trail climbs to the outer perimeter of the fort structure, situated at the edge of thick woods. Circling clockwise around the fort, the footpath rounds a right-hand bend at ½ mile then crosses a short wooden bridge. Dropping down to the base level again, a wayside offers a photograph of what the “perfect Gibraltar” looked like at the time of the war.

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Drewry’s Bluff Trail

The loop ends back at the initial trail fork, situated just beyond the site of a former hot shot furnace. From here, head back on the initial trail you took to arrive at the fort. It’s about a 3/10 mile walk throughout the forest back to the trailhead and parking area. In total, allot 45 minutes to an hour for the round-trip hike.

[1] Stephen W. Sears, To the Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign (New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1992), 93-94.

[2] Sears, To the Gates of Richmond, 94.

[3] Sears, To the Gates of Richmond, 92-94.

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Big Devils Stairs (Shenandoah National Park, VA)

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Big Devils Stairs Trail, Shenandoah National Park, March 2018

Despite being in Shenandoah National Park’s busy North District, the Big Devils Stairs hike is relatively free of crowds, leaving visitors alone to explore one of the area’s most spectacular metabasalt gorges. Most hikers will turn around at the primary overlook at 2.3 miles, perched stop the east rim of the canyon with the cascading creek below. The trail from here turns faint and continues to the bottom of the gorge at the park border, where it ends at the edge of Big Devils Stairs Creek. Instead of doubling back, however, adventurous visitors—at least in winter and early spring—can return to higher ground by bushwhacking straight up the canyon, which offers an up-close experience with the stream’s many beautiful cascades. (Note: This off-trail section, while not technical, is strenuous and requires some minor scrambling.)

Big Devils Stairs Trail hike information Shenandoah

Big Devils Stairs Trail map Shenandoah

Map of Big Devils Stairs hike, Shenandoah National Park (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

Situated between Mount Marshall (3,368’) and Hogback Mountain (3,474’), Gravel Springs Gap serves as the trailhead for this hike, as well as a number of others in the area. (Note: Gravel Springs Gap is located at around Mile 17.6 on the Skyline Drive.) While the Appalachian Trail crosses Skyline Drive at Gravel Springs Gap, you will not be hiking on it today. Instead, head south on the wide, gravel drive at the end of the parking lot; this service road provides access to the PATC Gravel Springs Hut.

Before getting to the hut, however, keep an eye out for the start of the Bluff Trail, which veers off to left just as the forest road cuts right, at approximately 3/10 mile. Follow this narrow footpath as its heads south and approaches a second junction at around 0.35 miles. Stay left again at the fork. After a downhill turn to the west, stay left once again at the third trail junction, leaving the maze of interlocking trails in the Gravel Springs area behind.

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Heading east on the Bluff Trail

Bearing east on the Bluff Trail, the incline gradually picks up around 6/10 mile as the path hugs the south flank of Mount Marshall, named for the family of famed 19th century Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall, a Virginia native. After about a half-mile, the climb eases and briefly gives way to a brief downhill. There is not much to see during this part of the hike, save for a gradual increase in the number of basaltic boulder piles as you approach Big Devils Stairs.

Around 1.7 miles from the trailhead, the Bluff Trail crosses Big Devils Stairs Creek, still well upstream of the gorge but a welcome sign that you are nearing the canyon. About 1/10 mile later, the trail crests a low ridgeline and splits, with the Bluff Trail continuing left while the 1.3-mile Big Devils Stairs Trail begins its snaking downhill to the right.

Bear right on the blue-blazed path as it enters a charming patch of mountain laurel, with occasional Virginia pines towering above. (Note: For overnight hikers, there are several good campsites in this area.) As the mountain laurel begins to disappear, the Big Devils Stairs Trail descends in earnest, following the woody ridgeline that will form the eastern end of the canyon.

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Mountain laurel and pines on the Big Devils Stairs Trail

At about 2.2 miles, the trail cuts sharply right and approaches the rim of the canyon. While views are partly obscured at this point, continue down the stony staircase to an unobstructed overlook. Peering over the gorge, the cliffs drop more than 100 feet to the cragged valley floor, where the cascading waters of the canyon’s highest waterfall (more on that later) can be seen below. Off to the southwest, the grassy field seen at the foot of the valley lies just outside the park, with woody Jenkins Mountain (2,024’) beyond. The taller peaks on the horizon lie in Shenandoah’s Central District, south of Thornton Gap. (Note: The experience is far better in winter or early spring, when the lack of foliage reveals better views of the canyon walls and rushing creek.)

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At the Big Devils Stairs Overlook

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Along the trail past the overlook

Many visitors will turn around here, but the determined hiker can continue as the footpath hugs the canyon rim for the next 1/10 mile, allowing for several excellent photo ops. From the overlook, the trail sheds nearly 800 feet in elevation over the course of less than a mile. As it turns away from the cliffs, the trail becomes harder to follow—keep a keen eye out for the faint blue blazes marking the way. Eventually, at just over the 3-mile mark, the formal trail ends abruptly at the banks of Big Devils Stairs Creek. A thin barbed wire fence forms the edge of the park, with private property beyond.

Hikers can turn back here, retracing your steps for three miles back to Gravel Springs Gap…

Extra credit

…But if you have made it this far—and you are prepared for some mild bushwhacking and rock scrambling—you may as well take the alternative route, straight up the heart of the canyon, back to the start. (Note: This is only recommended for winter and early spring, when there is no poison ivy or other pesky undergrowth.) It’s a real treat—while there is no established path, or even a faint social trail, it is hard to get lost as you follow the creek upstream.

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Near the start of the bushwhacking route

The stream begins as a mild meander, taking short tumbles as it cuts through the valley. After about 250 yards, however, hikers will enter a narrow gorge section, where the cascades grow in height and number. High, moss-covered walls line the canyon, making for an alluring sight. Expect to have to rock-hop across the stream multiple times as the canyon grows tighter.

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Small cascades along Big Devils Stairs Creek

For a brief period (at least when we were there in March 2018), the stream disappears, hidden under piles of sediment and other debris that have filled the canyon. Soon enough, the water resurfaces and the cascades continue, interrupted by small and solemn pools. About 2/10 mile up the creek, a small, dark cave appears on the right.

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Cave

The waterfalls grow larger and the walls higher as you continue upstream. After mounting another dry boulder jam, the stream reappears as it hugs a mossy wall on the right. At about 3.5 miles, you will enter the best part of the hike: a series of terrific waterfalls, inaugurated by a beautiful cascade that drips straight over a vibrant green rock face.

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Dripping waterfall

A great set of multitiered cascades follows around 10 minutes later. A bit of arm-strength will help you overcome the hike’s toughest obstacle at about 3.65 miles, where skirting a 12-15 foot waterfall requires mounting a wet boulder.

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Cascades

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Beautiful waterfall

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Close-up view

The terrific views culminate in a 20-25 foot waterfall, the canyon’s tallest, at about 3.7 miles. Here the creek tumbles straight over a slippery chute, dropping into a small pool. Surmounting the falls requires swinging out to the right or left to clear the sheer rock wall.

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Approaching the final falls

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Tallest waterfall in the gorge

Above the final waterfall, the waters calm, the valley widens, and the route gives way to dense brush. Beware of thorns and branches, which clog both sides of the creek for the next ½ mile. Despite this frustrating finale, most visitors will find the alternative route—which links back up with the Bluff Trail at around 4.3 miles—well worth the work.

From the end of the bushwhacking route, turn left on the relatively level Bluff Trail (heading away from the creek) and follow the trail back to the first of the three trail junctions in the Gravel Springs area at 5.5 miles. Make three straight right turns at the trail forks, ending up back at the Gravel Springs parking area after a relatively short but strenuous, 6-mile round-trip hike.

While it’s possible to cover the round-trip to and from the overlook in 2-3 hours, be sure to allot between 5-7 hours if you plan to explore the canyon in full, including the off-route excursion.

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San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, TX

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Mission San Jose, San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, February 2018

There’s no doubt that the iconic Alamo, site of the famous battle in 1836, is the most famous mission in San Antonio, Texas. Although the oldest in the area, the Alamo was neither the largest nor the most populated of the Spanish missions along the San Antonio River. Throughout much of the 1700s, Catholic missionaries operated a string of missions in the San Antonio area—as well as across much of what would later come to be the state of Texas. The Spanish Empire used the missions to extend its control of the area while educating Native Americans on European religion and traditions. At their peak, hundreds of native Coahuiltecans lived at the missions, where they received food and refuge in exchange for labor, conversion to Catholicism, and—over time—an indelible loss of their ancient living habits. This practice continued into the early 19th century, when the missions were “secularized”—transformed into civil, rather than religious, communities with greater local ownership.

San Antonio Missions National Historical Park preserves four separate missions—Concepción, Espada, San José, and San Juan—while the lovely Mission Trail driving tour leads north into downtown San Antonio, ending at the Alamo. Start your visit at the Visitor Center at Mission San José, the largest of the missions, where rangers offer hourly guided tours of the site. Then continue south to Mission San Juan and Espada, before heading north again to Mission Concepción and the Alamo.

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Mission San José

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Mission San José

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Espada Aqueduct

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Mission Espada

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Mission San Juan

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Mission Concepción

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Remember the Alamo!

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Weir Farm National Historic Site, CT

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Weir Farm National Historic Site, October 2017

Weir Farm National Historic Site is the only National Park Service unit in Connecticut and the only NPS site in the country dedicated to the visual arts. Weir Farm, the summer home of Julian Alden Weir, commemorates the life and works of one of America’s most prominent Impressionist painters. Visitors today to the 68-acre park can walk amid the gardens, studios, and grassy slopes that helped give Weir his inspiration, while neighboring Weir Preserve offers several short hiking trails in the woodlands.

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Weir House

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Weir Studio

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Secret Garden at Weir Farm

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Weir Farm sign

 

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Nature Trail (George Washington Birthplace National Monument, VA)

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Nature Trail, George Washington Birthplace National Monument, December 2017

– Revolutionary War Series –

The roughly one-mile Nature Trail at Virginia’s George Washington Birthplace National Monument offers a short journey through peaceful woodlands situated across Dancing Marsh from the main historic area. The forest was the old stomping grounds of George Washington, who, despite moving area from the Pope’s Creek area when he was only three, often returned to visit the plantation during his childhood. Washington serves as the narrator for the hike, with interpretive signs along the trail describing the future U.S. President’s childhood views of the farmstead on the Potomac River.

Nature Trail hike information George Washington Birthplace NM

The hike

There are three principal ways to access the Nature Trail: first, parking at the picnic area at Duck Hall Point; second, connecting with the ¾-mile Dancing Marsh Trail; or third, crossing a lengthy footbridge from the historic area. This route description covers the third option, as the Nature Trail makes for a good complement to a tour of the Memorial House and farmstead.

From the Memorial House, head north on the graveled path leading down to the banks of Pope’s Creek, where you will find the lengthy wooden footbridge and the start of your hike. Traverse the bridge over a tidal marsh, then bear right at the trail fork as the Nature Trail splits. This is the start of the loop portion of the hike.

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Footbridge connecting historic area to Nature Trail

For the next 100 yards, the Nature Trail hugs the edge of Pope’s Creek, approaching a spur trail to the Log House—a former gift shop, restaurant, and inn built in 1932. Stay right at this fork—as well as a second junction at about 2/10 mile. By now the trail has climbed roughly 10-20 feet in elevation, flattening out as the path emerges from the woods and crosses a grassy field at the picnic area.

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Nature Trail along Pope’s Creek

Head west and cross the paved road, looking for the continuation of the trail as it darts back into the woods. By now the path is wide and grassy and bears west through a forest dotted with holly, hemlock, and sweet gum trees. Occasional interpretative panels paint a picture of life on the Pope’s Creek Plantation in the 18th century, when George Washington and his relatives roamed the area.

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Nature Trail

Never quite leaving earshot of the road, the trail crosses the pavement at about 7/10 mile, then bears south and descends gradually to Dancing Marsh. Bear left at the junction with the Dancing Marsh Trail, bearing east on the Nature Trail as it heads back toward the footbridge.

Steps later, the path passes under a set of powerlines. Soon the footbridge comes back to view, with Pope’s Creek beyond. The loop section ends at around the 1-mile mark; bear right and cross the bridge, returning to the historic area and bringing the short hike to a close.

Allot between 30 minutes to an hour for this easy hike.

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Footbridge to the Nature Trail

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George Washington Birthplace National Monument, VA

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George Washington Birthplace National Monument, December 2017

– Revolutionary War Series –

George Washington Birthplace National Monument in Tidewater Virginia is, at least to some degree, a fraud. Yes, to the best of our knowledge, the Revolutionary War hero and first U.S. president was born here, on what was once Pope’s Creek Plantation, in February 1732. The structures that exist today, however—from the farm fences to the horses’ stables to the quaint brick Memorial House—all date to the 1930s. They had no connection to George Washington, and there was little effort to mimic what Washington’s childhood home probably looked like. Even the traces of old foundations from the 18th century, uncovered by archaeologists in recent decades, are not yet confirmed to be Washington’s true birthplace.

At best, the homey farmstead can be viewed as a 20th century interpretation of the birthplace that Washington deserved. The Memorial House boasts grand bedrooms and cozy fireplaces, while sheep, ox, pigs, and horses roam the grounds. The natural beauty of the area—situated on the banks of Pope’s Creek, which feeds into the Potomac River—helps explain the future U.S. president’s affinity for the outdoors. The farm, gardens, and Memorial House are a short walk from the modern-day Visitor Center, while a pair of short hiking trails circles the Dancing Marsh to the north. (Note: See my subsequent post for a description of the 1-mile Nature Trail.)

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Pope’s Creek

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Approaching the Memorial House and grounds

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Foundation of what was possibly Washington’s birthplace

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Pigs!

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Oxen

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Thomas Stone National Historic Site, MD

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Thomas Stone National Historical Site, December 2017

– Revolutionary War Series –

Thomas Stone National Historic Site commemorates the life of Thomas Stone, a Maryland planter and politician during the Declaration of Independence. Aside from signing the Declaration of Independence, there is little notable about the soft-spoken Stone, but his lovely home and estate—known as Haberdeventure—is well-preserved today by the National Park Service. A few short trails crisscross the woods and fields on the property, which in the late 18th century hosted between 25-35 people, including Stone’s family and a handful of slaves. Thomas Stone and his close relatives are buried in a modest cemetery on the grounds, a short walk from the main house.

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Stone family home at Haberdeventure

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Cemetery at Haberdeventure

 

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