Living in Virginia counts as one of my greatest blessings. A couple of days ago, I visited Forts Harrison, Brady, and Hoke, which formed part of the fortifications around Richmond and saw action during the sieges of Richmond and Petersburg from September 1864 – April 1865.
I must mention that the Osborne Turnpike, which leads to these forts, offers some of the most scenic landscape around Richmond. It also numbers among one of the few roads where I felt that the speed limit was actually a limit. I found myself driving 45-50 mph rather than the posted 55 mph. The road is encompassed by woodlands, rolling hills, and beautiful homes. It was a real pleasure to drive on it.
At last, one comes to Battlefield Road. Traveling down far enough brings one to the ruins of Fort Hoke, which marks the beginning of the Hoke-Brady Road on one’s right. If you guessed that Fort Brady is on the opposite end of the road, you would be correct. The turns are quite sharp and encourage one to keep to the posted limit as one weaves through heavily forested areas. Now, I did not walk through Fort Hoke, but the remaining walls of the fort are some of the highest I’ve seen.
However well-preserved Fort Hoke may be, Fort Brady is accounted as the best preserved among Richmond’s Civil War forts. This Union fort is famed for its participation in the Battle of Trent’s Reach, which began on January 23, 1865 and ended on the 25th. Three Confederate ironclads and five other vessels attempted to destroy the Union supply base on City Point. Fort Brady did not halt their approach and the Confederates managed to disable one of the fort’s largest guns. I cannot accuse the Confederate gunners of poor marksmanship for only inflicting that much damage: Fort Brady is so far elevated above the river that it makes Drewry’s Bluff seem low. The Confederates were defeated by Union forts and ships near City Point, forcing their retreat and giving Fort Brady another crack at them. The fact that Fort Brady failed to sink one of the Confederate vessels on either occasion indicates that the fort may just have been far too elevated for its own good.
After imagining this gallant battle, I turned back along the path to see a bald eagle flying over the fort! This sent a thrill of joy running through my soul. At first, I could not believe what I was seeing, but the white head and tail feathers left no room for doubt. I must confess to being so elated at the sight that the thought of taking a picture never entered my head until it was far too late.
Then, I traveled to Fort Harrison, which had been renamed to Fort Burnham following the Union’s capture of the fort prior to the siege of Richmond on September 29, 1864. Now that it rests in the right hands, the park service calls it after its original name. Here, I saw three eagles flying high in the proximity of the fort, as if the raptors showed a preference for places where brave men fought. I found myself again delighted by their presence and their clear cries of “kiirrrr…”
Both forts are remarkable for the condition and cleanliness of the plaques, fortifications, and trails. This fact made me surprised that one which recalled the near demise of General Ulysses S. Grant at Fort Harrison from an artillery shell was allowed to remain so dirty. The fact that the bird droppings looked to be of recent origin makes me give the keepers the benefit of the doubt. Otherwise, one is reminded of the deep animus still held by both Southerners and Blacks toward certain figures in the Civil War. As a descendant of a Confederate and a family who solely fought for the Southern cause, I am appalled that some people consider this just treatment of the memory of that honorable general. Surely, they cannot imagine that even Grant’s enemies during the war would have condoned such ill-will, and I encourage them to imitate their ancestors. But, again I write in defense of the park service that they might simply not have had enough time to clean the plaque, and thus all blame lies with the birds.
The Union payed a heavy price for the capture of this fort, however: General Hiram Burnham, a courageous officer who had served in the army since the McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign in 1862, fell while leading his men in the assault. I am surprised that he felt obliged to lead his men into combat. For the Union outnumbered the 200 Confederate defenders 12:1, making his presence rather unnecessary to a successful assault. A Confederate attempt to recapture the fort a short time later ended in failure.
I hope to enjoy many more outings. So far, I have visited Cold Harbor, Chickahominy Bluff, Gaines Mill, Drewry’s Bluff, Dantzler’s Battery, and the Petersburg Battlefield. You might expect articles on them in the near future. Virginia does a remarkable job of remembering their past, and each state ought to be encouraged to follow their example.