Not being raised in the south, I’m not big on the military part of the Civil War. What I know about it I learned in school a long, long time ago. Some of the place names around Virginia are familiar from those times: Appomatox, Chickahominy, etc. I’ve lived in Richmond now for 16 years and had never visited any of the many National Park Service battlefields that dot the countryside around here. That is, until last weekend.
Yesterday marked the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gaines’s Mill, otherwise know as the First Battle of Cold Harbor (two battles were fought there, 1862 and 1864). Last Saturday, there was a re-enactment and military demonstrations at the battlefield, so I grabbed my camera and headed on down to Mechanicsville. I spoke with a woman in period costume whose persona was Fanny Gaines Tinsley, daughter of the owner of the mill:
We had a nice chat. I should have gotten pictures of her using her digital camera to take pictures of her fellow re-enactors. It was actually a funny sight.
The battle took place on the farm of Sarah Watt. What appeals to me more than the military aspect of the war is the affect the war had on civilians.
You can read all about the battle here if that interests you: Battle of Gaines’s Mill.
There is a sign on the property that reads:
“In 1862 this farmhouse was home to the widow Sarah Watt, her granddaughter, Mary Jane Haw, and a maid. It was a typical Hanover County plantation of several hundred acres with some 28 slaves who produced a modest income from grains, potatoes, and livestock. Around the house stood a kitchen, slave quarters, and other outbuildings. A series of roads, now abandoned, connected the Watt family to their neighbors and Richmond.
“Their lives drastically changed on the morning of June 27, 1862. The Union commander selected the house for his temporary headquarters, forcing the family to leave. When Mary Jane returned after the battle, she found “the walls and roof were torn by shot and shell, the weatherboarding honeycombed by minie balls, and every pane of glass shattered.” Inside, evidence of a field hospital was everywhere. “Now, from garret to cellar,” she wrote, “there was scarcely a space of flooring as large as a man’s hand that did not bear the dark purple stain of blood.”
“Before the battle two of the Watt slaves carried the ill 77-year-old Sarah Watt from her house to a waiting carriage, while others placed a trunk filled with clothing and valuables on a farm wagon. This would be the last time Sarah Watt saw her home of 60 years. She sought safety with a nearby relative where she remained until her death in April 1863.
“Sarah Bohannan Kidd was born in 1784. She married Hugh Watt, an Irish immigrant, in 1802 and was widowed in 1854.”
The circa 1802 house has been restored and is a private residence now, I presume the living quarters of the resident Park Service employee/caretaker.
There is an article on Wikipedia about the Second Battle of Cold Harbor that mentions Union soldiers were disturbed (I’d say creeped out) when they discovered the skeletons of soldiers buried in the yard of the house.
One thing I learned here is that both Confederate and Union forces used balloons for reconnaissance. There was a demonstration of this scheduled, but I had to leave before they did it. I did see them hoist a replica into the air (that’s supposed to be a person in the basket but it’s not):
Another thing I learned was about the Zouaves. You can read more about them here: Zouave (pronounced zoo-av).
I was fascinated by their colorful uniforms with baggy pants and short jackets. I know all about the “Blue and Gray” but I didn’t know there was any red in the Civil War. If you think, as I did, that the hats look a little fez-like, you’d be right. The Zouaves were a French infantry unit with origins in northern Africa. They aided the Union forces and the ones in this battle were based in New York state.
The Zouave re-enactors demonstrated bayonet techniques (yuk):
They and the other unit demonstrated their shooting techniques, which was largely lost on me:
Now here are random shots from the rest of the morning:
And that’s your history lesson for today.