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Preserving the Darbytown Road Battlefields by Charles Bowery

Editor’s Note: Yesterday I posted an article by Charles Bowery describing how he grew up on the battlefield of Darbytown and New Market Roads, fought on October 7, 1864 during the Siege of Petersburg.  This follow-up article discusses how this and the other Darbytown Road battlefields might be preserved if people act NOW, in 2012, before these battlefields are lost to development forever.

Darbytown Road Proposal

The main goal is to preserve the remaining tracts of the Darbytown Road Battlefield before the land is developed and lost forever. 80+ acres are currently for sale and will likely be sold before the end of the year, if not within the next few months. Immediate action needs to take place. My end goal is to see the land absorbed into the Richmond National Battlefield Park System.

Current Status of the Battlefield – For Sale

The battlefield remains largely rural with scattered houses fronting the main roads. The area where the battle began, 18.5 acres, is in the greatest danger of destruction. This land sits on the corner of Charles City and Monahan Roads bordering the newly constructed Airport Connector. This parcel is in an area attractive to developers as it sits within sight of Richmond International Airport. This particular parcel saw action during all three battles of Darbytown Road and is the only currently available parcel for which that can be said. Losing this piece of land would be a huge blow to preserving the battlefield. Unfortunately, it is likely to be the most expensive parcel due to its location.

Two additional parcels (one at 30 acres and the other at 25 acres) are further east along Charles City Road. These two parcels saw action during the October 7th battle as the 7th South Carolina Cavalry pushed the 5th Pennsylvania Cavalry east toward White’s Tavern and then south toward Darbytown Road. The best way to envision how the land is parceled along Charles City Road is to think of the battlefield as a pie with Darbytown Road in the center. Each individual house is seated along the crust. Visually remove one slice of the pie and you can see what happens to the battlefield when each large parcel is sold. The parcels along Charles City Road need to be purchased because they travel deep into the battlefield close to Darbytown Road. For example, the 30-acre parcel stretches all the way to my Grandfather’s farm. The 25-acre parcel is very close to White’s Tavern and almost stretches to the farm. The land would have seen action on October 7, 1864 and during the cavalry battle on Charles City Road known as the Battle of White’s Tavern. That battle, which took place on August 16th, 1864, was part of the larger Battle of Second Deep Bottom. The cavalry engagement is considered to be one of the most severe of the war.

Current Status of the Battlefield – Sold/In Danger

One 9-acre portion of the battlefield was recently sold to a real estate company for less than 50% of its asking price. This has been a bitter pill to swallow as the land is visible from Lt. Robert M. Hall’s position on October 7, 1864 and there is a 1880s farm house on the site. While the house is not historic to the battle, it is architecturally accurate for the area during the battle.

Huckleberry Knob Farm, my grandfather’s farm, is now split in two by the Pocahontas Parkway. While the parkway is not an ideal addition to the battlefield, it does not prevent walking from one end of the battlefield to the other. Trees planted along the road’s earthen embankment are maturing nicely and almost completely block the road from sight from spring into early autumn.

The northern half of the farm is a mix of farmland and forest. The family who purchased the farm from my grandfather still owns the property today and rents the land each year to a local farmer. The slave burial ground for the Duke Family is on this parcel of land. This is also the land where Confederates attempted to reach the position of Battery B, 1st United States Artillery and the 4th Wisconsin. Pocahontas Parkway was built on top of the hill the Confederates had to climb. While the northern slope exists as the northern side of the parkway, a southern slope was created to raise the road into the air to carry it across the farm. Only the western side of the hill remains in its original state. Alabamians and Georgians, having wiped the 3rd New York Cavalry off the field, would have approached the 4th Wisconsin from the western side of the hill.

Unfortunately, this section of the battlefield is slated to be the future site of a gravel mine. This is one of the most historic pieces of the battlefield. I have spoken with the lawyer for the company that owns the land and he has not ruled out preservation. However, it will require an organization with clout to convince the company as to why the land should be preserved. It is very possible that this needs to occur before the end of the summer as they rent the land out to a local farmer on a yearly basis.

The situation on the northern side of Darbytown Road is very similar to the situation on the southern side of Charles City Road. However, the preservation need is not as urgent here. The houses front Darbytown Road with significant land parcels behind them jutting into the battlefield. The most pristine section of land is a 16-acre parcel and a 3-acre parcel where Four Mile Creek crosses Darbytown Road. None of the land here is currently for sale, but that will change within the next ten years.

The Afternoon Battle

After the Confederates pushed Kautz’s Division off Darbytown Road. Lee moved his men southward across Darbytown Road to Terry’s Division on New Market Road. What had begun as a Confederate victory ended in defeat as Terry was able to call upon reinforcements and push Lee back to Darbytown Road and then across the Outer Defensive Line. Kautz’s Division regained its position on Darbytown Road. Lee never led another offensive north of the James River.

A large chunk of the Battlefield, including Dr. Johnson’s Farm (Kautz’s Headquarters) has been preserved as part of Dorey Park. However, there is no interpretation on the site except for one Civil War Trails marker along Darbytown Road. The park is geared towards recreation, so baseball and soccer fields dot the entrance to the park. Peripheral portions of the Battlefield have been lost to massive housing developments. The one major parcel which will need to be saved in the future is the site of Confederate General John Gregg’s mortal wounding. That site remains farmland.

Future Preservation

Eastern Henrico County is paradise for any student of the Civil War. From west to east the three Darbytown Road Battles, the Battle of Second Deep Bottom, and the New Market Heights Battlefield border one another. From north to south the Battlefields of White Oak Swamp, Glendale, Malvern Hill, and First Deep Bottom border each other with Second Deep Bottom and New Market Heights bordering those Battlefields to the west. When combined with the Darbytown Road Battlefields and the Battlefield of Chaffin’s Farm, all 10 form one massive continuous Battlefield, roughly 15+ miles in length east to west.

Glendale and Malvern Hill are largely saved. A sizeable portion of First Deep Bottom has been saved by the Civil War Trust, and additional parcels could be saved in the future. Given its natural state, White Oak Swamp is not in danger of development though the northern half of the battlefield closest to Glendale has seen light development. The Richmond Battlefield Association has saved roughly 50 acres of the Second Deep Bottom Battlefield. If you are familiar with the battle, this is land associated with the fighting around Fussell’s Mill. New Market Heights has been identified by the Civil War Trust as one of the most endangered battlefields in the country.

The only part of the story lacking support is the chapters on the Darbytown Road Battlefields. Preserving the land I have brought to your attention makes sense because the October 1864 battles are, essentially, the end of the story of the Civil War in Eastern Henrico County. There were no other large-scale land battles in the immediate Richmond area following the October 27th Battle of Fair Oaks and Darbytown Road. That battle was a lop-sided disaster for the Federals resulting in over 1,600 casualties to the Confederates 100. When you tell a story, do you only tell the beginning and middle?

As I have stated, there is precious little time to save the land associated with the October 7, 1864 Battle of Darbytown and New Market Roads, the October 13, 1864 Battle of Darbytown Road, and the October 27, 1864 Battle of Fair Oaks and Darbytown Road, also known as Second Fair Oaks. The land currently for sale will not be on the market long.

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