2011 marks the beginning of the sesquicentennial of Virginia's participation in the nation’s bloodiest conflict, where more than 650,000 soldiers died. Three out of every five Civil War battles were fought in Virginia and some of the Confederacy’s top leaders were Virginians. Virginia also had the most military hospitals and prisoner-of-war camps. The war affected everyone who lived in Virginia, and the goal is to bring attention to the many diverse stories of the soldiers and civilians whose lives were greatly impacted during the four-year struggle.
Chesterfield County holds the distinction of having one campaign, the Bermuda Hundred Campaign fought entirely within the confines of its borders. It has been overshadowed due to the military engagements fought elsewhere in Virginia in 1864. Chesterfield County has preserved 7 Civil War battlefield sites that point to this unique military campaign.
The Bermuda Hundred Campaign
In May of 1864, Major General Benjamin F. Butler embarked 38,000 men of the Army of the James on transport ships at Yorktown. Their destination was a neck of land in Chesterfield County known as Bermuda Hundred. Butler was to land there, secure a base of operations, sever the rail link between Richmond and Petersburg, and then move on to Richmond. At the same time, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant moved the Army of the Potomac across the Rapidan River west of Fredericksburg in an attempt to crush Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. During the first days of May, Butler made tentative advances toward both Richmond and Petersburg, but was stopped each time by Confederate soldiers and forced to fall back each time to his defensive positions at Bermuda Hundred.
Confederate commanders Gen. George E. Pickett and Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard scrambled to find enough spare troops to place in Butler’s path. The open door to Richmond quickly closed as more Confederate troops rushed to Chesterfield County from other parts of Virginia, North Carolina and eastern Tennessee. The Battle of Drewry’s Bluff on May 16 halted Butler’s attempt to make a direct approach on Richmond. The May 20 Battle of Ware Bottom Church forced him back again into his defensive positions in Bermuda Hundred, and this became known as “the cork in the bottle.” The construction of Confederate fortifications and trenches known as the Howlett Line held Butler in place until Lee evacuated the position on April 2, 1865.
Despite being overshadowed by other battles in Grant’s 1864 Overland Campaign, the fighting at Bermuda Hundred played a very important role during the last year of the Civil War. When Butler landed at Bermuda Hundred, there were scarcely 6,000 Confederates guarding Richmond and Petersburg. If Butler had moved more aggressively, it is possible that he could have captured those cities and hastened the end of the war. Military historians still debate whether his campaign was a failure, or whether he was successful in carrying out his orders to set up a base of operations and Grant’s arrival.
A Bermuda Hundred Campaign Tour Guide has recently been published that serves to better assist the public in learning about these sites. Copies may be purchased at Magnolia Grange Museum House and other historic sites throughout the County.
For a schedule of upcoming tours and a list of county Civil War sites visit www.chesterfieldhistory.com
Historical Sites in Chesterfield County