Richmond National Battlefield Park Richmond, Va. Visited: October 7, 2005 NPS Site Visited: 253 of 353 NPS Website; Local Website
WHAT IS IT? Richmond served as the capital of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War. Battlefield sites scattered throughout the city’s outskirts commemorate the Union’s attempts to take the city in both 1862 and 1864. The Park also includes the Rebels’ primary armory and foundry, the Tredegar Iron Works and Chimborazo, a major Confederate military hospital.
BEAUTY (7/10) Richmond’s indelible Civil War image is of charred and gutted brick buildings; a veritable ghost town destroyed by the flame. Amazingly, the Site plays on this imagery, utilizing the remains of the burned Iron Works to house the Richmond Civil War VC. The building’s brick walls, scarred from the 1865 blaze, still hold cannon balls and shells. The Iron Works’ forge lies in an eternal stage of destruction. Vaulted entrances to an outdoor park are, in fact, the remnants of the Iron Works’ interior. The use of a vital Civil War ruin as a working educational building is a stunning architectural triumph.
That being said, we can think of no fathomable reason as to why a statue of Abraham Lincoln stands nearby the VC’s entrance. Then again, the former Confederate states, from Virginia to Mississippi to Texas, now vote predominantly for Republicans, the political party of their conqueror, Mr. Lincoln. My, my, my how things have changed.
Richmond NBP’s numerous battlefield sites are wedged in between the sprawl of Virginia’s growing capital city. Some units (Malvern Hill) are more isolated than others (Beaver Creek Dam). The stately Chimborazo Medical Museum stands perched atop what must be Richmond’s highest point.
HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (10/10) Richmond, Virginia is easily the most important city of the Civil War. It was the Confederates’ capital and the Federals’ primary military target. Not only was it the South’s brain, but also its power and muscle, producing its weapons and ammunition.
The casualties totaled in the area’s two major military campaigns, the 1862 Seven Days Battles and the 1864 Cold Harbor Battle, outnumber those lost at either Gettysburg or Antietam. Only the Fredericksburg area saw more bloodshed.
CROWDS (6/10) It is not that we had the Park site to ourselves, but Richmond NBP is so spread out. Traffic can be problematic because of vexing downtown one-way streets, meandering country roads that lead to nowhere, the screaming speeds of I-95 and people’s general tendency to tailgate.
EASE OF USE/ACCESS (4/5) The Richmond NBP is even more sprawling than the nearby Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania NMP. The Park’s northern-most display (Totopotomy Creek) is over 25 miles north of its southern-most exhibit (Parker’s Battery). A circuit traveling only to the Park’s five official Visitor Centers would encompass at least one full day and over 50 twisting miles. In addition, the Malvern Hill and Fort Harrison VC’s are only open seasonally.
Nonetheless, these sites are all within an accessible urban area, close to Interstates 64, 95 and 295 as well as a plethora of hotels. The two downtown VC’s, the Chimborazo Medical Museum and the Tredegar Iron Works both contain ample free public parking despite published reports to the contrary.
Although there are many signs leading you to the Park’s innumerable units and display, separate paths often cross. It would be a good idea to start your Richmond NBP with a Park Map, a AAA map of the Richmond vicinity, and a plan for where you want to go.
CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (5/5) Who buys all these Civil War books? The Richmond NBP is indubitably the best Civil War bookstore… until we get to the next one.
Check out these obscure titles found at the Tredegar Iron Works bookstore: The Religious World of Civil War Soldiers; Civil War Acoustic Shadows; The Sacred Remains: American Attitudes Towards Death 1799-1883; Military Ballooning During the Early Civil War; Counterfeit Currency of the Confederate States of America; The Telegraph Goes to War and War of the Aeronauts. Now get this, those seven books stand next to each other, in a row, on the same shelf! Just imagine what is on the bookstore’s 50+ other shelves.
COSTS (5/5) Entry to all Richmond NBP sites is free.
RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (5/5) Sure, two of the Park’s five VC’s were closed for the season but enough Rangers and knowledgeable volunteers staffed the other three. We especially enjoyed the long military strategy discussion we had at the Cold Harbor Visitor Center. The Ranger was a Virginia Military Institute alum. Strangely, the Ranger the day before at the Stonewall Jackson Shrine graduated from Washington & Lee. What is it with Lexington, Va. and Park Rangers?
TOURS/CLASSES (8/10) We love electric maps and Richmond NBP has a lot of them. The Cold Harbor VC runs two standard maps in its tiny Museum space, one covering the 1862 Seven Days’ Battle, the other discussing the events of 1864 and Cold Harbor. The Tredegar Iron Works takes it a step further with its table top, flat screen TV display electric maps that recount the specific battles of the Seven Days and lesser-known 1864 fights. So many maps, so little time.
Did we say that everything at the Tredegar Iron Works VC is really cool? The Museum is innovatively interactive and built within the Confederacy industrial heart. Two facing timeline displays follow Richmond and the United States as a whole throughout the war. We never would have guessed that the fleeing Confederates, not the Union troops, burned this fair city. All the Museum’s exhibits are fascinating and simple enough for the Civil War neophyte as well as probing and esoteric enough for the history buff.
The Chimborazo Museum focuses on the War’s medical history and is not for the squeamish. The flat screen TV’s make the grisly realities of war a little too intense. We never thought we would pine for a lower quality television and a poor sound system.
FUN (8/10) Why does the Civil War still hold such a grasp on the American psyche. For one, it is a great story with great characters and great settings. Richmond was the center of it all. The Richmond NBP, especially the Tredegar Iron Works VC, does a good job of bringing these characters to life: incompetent McLellan, gallant Lee, irascible Early, vicious Grant, prideful Davis and complex Lincoln. That is just scratching the surface. You can flesh out any Civil War story you want in the Richmond area. It is your choice.
WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (8/10) All Americans should be interested in the Civil War. This history should not be forgotten or left as the dominion of battle reënactors and military strategists. A trip down the Virginia I-95 corridor, to Fredericksburg, Richmond and Petersburg is an essential American learning experience.
The Civil War attractions afforded by the Richmond NBP and found in the Richmond area (the Confederate White House, the Museum of the Confederacy, Monument Avenue) are among some of the most defining places in our United States. If your automobile vacation brings you past Richmond on I-95, stop into the Civil War Visitor Center at the Tredegar Iron Works. Did we mention it is free? The Museum provides a terrific introduction to the War and the area’s attractions. From there you can decide how much more you want to learn and see.
USA-C2C.com is an independent website, not affiliated in any way with the National Park Service, the National Parks Foundation or any of their partners.