Vermont in the Civil War
Touring the Battlefields
Lee's Mill Battlefield
The site of the battle of Lee's Mill, the first attempt in the Civil War to attack an entrenched enemy, lies in a large, popular city park in Newport News, Virginia. It's easy to reach from Exit 247 on Interstate 64, which straddles the battlefield, or rather battlefields because Southerners made a distinction between the battle of Lee's Mill - or skirmish, to be more accurate -- on April 5 and what they call the Battle of Dam No. 1 on April 16.
This northern error was pointed out to us at the start of a tour with our excellent guide to the battlefield, J. Michael Moore, the registrar at Lee Hall Mansion, a nearby historic house. Moore had three ancestors with the 15th North Carolina Infantry, which faced the 3rd Vermont attack across the Warwick River. Our interest arose from the fact that my great-grandfather, James Fletcher, participated in the attack. Before setting out to tour the battlefield, Moore picked up a heavy stick which he said he always took in case of an encounter with snakes. (As it happened we did encounter two large snakes on a path, but they were too engrossed with each other to bother us.)
Moore took us first to the site of what he calls the battle, or skirmish, of Lee's Mill. Here you find a historic marker and you can clearly see in the woods the remains of rifle pits and redans for the guns that dominated the approach. You can also see why the Union called off this attempt to breach the Confederate's Warwick River line. The approach from the South or Union side is flat and open, then comes the sluggish river, and then a steep slope up to the Confederate entrenchments.
Moore drove us to the site of the Battle of Dam No. 1, crossing over Interstate 64, to a point about two miles up-river from Lee's Mill. Here you find paths and historic markers all over the battlefield and Moore led us at a brisk pace to inspect them all.
We parked close to where Garrow's Ford Road, used by the Union troops to approach the river, reached Dam No. 1. Looking back through the woods you can clearly see the route of the old road. Looking across the river, you can see why this was picked for the point of attack. The Union artillery could overlook the Confederate artillery and the embankment on the other side is less formidable than at Lee's Mill. But there was still the matter of wading across an open river. A new dam has made the river wider at this point than it was in 1862 (judging by contemporary paintings).
Moore pointed out that the entire chain of command, from General McClellan on down to Colonel Hyde, the 3rd Vermont commander, as well as the Comte de Paris, had a clear view of the battle from horseback on the bluff near the artillery, but never lifted a finger to exploit the breach in the Confederate line when the Vermonters took it, or help them when Confederates mounted a strong counterattack. Perhaps they were distracted by the division commander, General Smith, falling off his horse twice and knocking himself unconscious.
Today a footbridge crosses at about the point where the 3rd waded over under heavy Confederate fire. The old dam is gone but you can see the remains of it on both river banks, a little bit upstream from the new footbridge. Once on the other side you can easily see the outlines of the extensive Confederate earthworks connected by a network of paths and explained by historic panels. Today the whole area is heavily wooded.
As we finished the tour, Moore, a southern gentleman to the core, made a nice little speech and said that, as descendants of soldiers on both sides of the battle, we should shake hands and agree that it was all over, which we did, with ceremony.
Back at Lee Hall Mansion, we saw a large painting of the battle by Sidney E. King (undated) viewed from the Union side. In the foreground you see the "Burnt Chimneys", which gave the battle yet another name. The Union batteries are to the right of the chimneys and to the left you see the column of Vermonters heading across the river. Some have already reached the other side, some are in midstream and some are still waiting on the Union side to cross, urged on by mounted officers. Once on the other side, the Vermonters have to cross a stretch of flat ground without any cover before reaching the North Carolina rifle pits. Moore said the painting was historically accurate, except that it showed the tents of the Confederate encampment plainly within view and range of the Union artillery. For $25 you can buy a 24-by-18 inch print of the painting, which is entitled "That Dam Failure."
George Benedict's "Vermont in the Civil War, page 249ff, Chapter 11, provides an historical view of the skirmish.
The 1862 Peninsula Campaign, by the Virginia War Museum