For those who don’t live in Virginia, or those who don’t live in densely populated areas of any state, I’d like to clear something up that no one really explained to me when I first started this journey into Civil War history. As we explore battles within Virginia, please keep in mind that the majority of the battles between 1861 through 1865 occurred VERY close to each other.
It’s hard to explain why my brain had a difficult time grasping the concept that the battles at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Wilderness, Spotsylvania, etc. were close to one another at all. While listening to podcasts, reading books, or watching documentaries, they don’t really explain the distance between these places unless it has some significance in the outcome of the battle. I thought, “These places have to be at least an hour’s drive away from each other or maybe in different sectors of the state or something.” I live in a town where it takes a good half hour to an hour to reach any major city where you can find a mall or decent shopping center. I thought, “This must be the same as anywhere else.” Nope.
Here’s a map of the battles that took place in Virginia, the red dots signifying an engagement that took place there. That’s a lot of red and all within a close proximity to one another.
Let’s break it down by mileage according to Google (any traveler’s trusty guide)
Richmond to Williamsburg – 51 miles
This is approximately one hour of travel by car, depending on traffic. Okay, this sounds like a fair distance. This is how far Union General George McClellan and his men during the Peninsula Campaign of 1862 had to march and fight to reach their objective. But let’s take this a step further. The closest McClellan really came to Richmond was to the Chickahominy River.
How far is that? About 7 miles… That’s the distance I travel in the morning to get to work. The Seven Days Battle began along the banks of the Chickahominy River and ended at Malvern Hill, 16 miles from the center of the Confederate capitol. Imagine two massive armies maneuvering within a 16 mile radius like that. It was no joke when the Federal soldiers said they could hear the church bells and see the tall steeples of Richmond from their camps.
Let’s look to another cluster of battles.
Fredericksburg is about 60 miles north of Richmond and 50 some-odd miles from Washington. It’s a sweet halfway point between both capitols. It sits comfy on the Rappahannock River, too. But when I learned about the battle of Chancellorsville, again, I thought these two places weren’t that close to one another. Maybe Chancellorsville was a good 50 or 60 miles west of Fredericksburg, farther from the river. Nope.
Fredericksburg to Chancellorsville – 12 miles (depending on the route you take)
12 miles! A neighboring town is over 20 miles from me! How could these two battles have been so close? Simply because the two were basically fought along the Rappahannock River. Ambrose Burnside and Joseph Hooker used it to anchor their lines and both crossed it with pontoons before confronting the Confederate army. The Union army was still working to maneuver its way around Robert E. Lee and the Rappahannock, which flowed into the northwest, was their boundary line for the winter of 1862 and spring of 1863. They had a narrow avenue to cross the river without retreating further north (in a way), which would give Lee the opportunity to pursue or open up the way for an attack on Washington. They didn’t want the Confederate Army to get anywhere near Manassas again (about 30 miles away).
But as I was reading up and studying for the next series in this blog, covering the battle of Chancellorsville, I realized something even more startling. Place names were given that I recognized from reading about the Overland Campaign that took place in the summer of 1864. Names like “Brock Road”, “Orange Turnpike”, “Old Plank Road”, “Germanna Ford”, “Elly’s Ford”, and “The Wilderness”. Again, I paused in confusion and then had the “Ah-hah!” moment that helps bring everything into further perspective.
Chancellorsville to The Wilderness (Battlefield) – 7 miles
Again, I’m astounded at the nearness of these two battles. But then, it shouldn’t be that surprising. There are accounts from the soldiers who traversed this piece of ground in 1864 who found the exhumed remains of their dead battle buddies from that fierce engagement in May of 1863 – just one year earlier. They knew this ground and its dense, second-growth woods that made it nearly impossible to maneuver through – let alone fight in. The same Brock Road that Union commander Winfield Scott Hancock protected during the battle of the Wilderness is the same road that ran parallel to the farm road Jackson used to move his entire division around Hooker’s front to hit his right flank outside Chancellorsville. The same fords that General Ulysses Grant crossed to enact his plan to deal a crushing blow to the Confederacy are the same fords Hooker utilized with the same intent just a year earlier. The Ellwood Manor, situated nearly in the middle of these two major battles, experienced the tragedy of both. Those within the house could hear the artillery fire both in 1863 and 1864.
We’re going to jump to the other side of the state for another distance comparison.
Harpers Ferry to Winchester – 30 miles (give or take)
These two places were nearly ravage by the war. They exchanged hands so many times during the 4 years between Confederate and Union occupation that they might as well have been like hot potatoes. Both armies, within the span of 30 miles, continually fought back and forth for control of the lower (northern) portion of the Shenandoah Valley. The Valley was known as the “Breadbasket of the Confederacy”. While it didn’t have the foundries and as many railroads that ran into the interior as other places like Fredericksburg or Manassas, it had something the army couldn’t do without. Food. If you control the supply lines, you control the army. Plain and simple. The Shenandoah Valley might as well have been one big supply line, feeding the Rebel army. Once it finally fell to General Philip Sheridan in the later part of the war, and was subjected to The Burning, there was little avenue left for the Confederacy.
The Shenandoah Valley was also a great back door to either capitol. If the Union could travel up (south) the Valley, they could cut across to the east and blindside Richmond. Likewise, as Lee did, the Confederates had a direct route down (north) the Valley into Maryland and Pennsylvania. He took advantage of the screening Blue Ridge Mountains in 1863 to penetrate into enemy territory. If it wasn’t for his hold over the Shenandoah, it’s likely he wouldn’t have made it as far as Gettysburg that summer. And to think it all depended on just 30 or so miles.
Petersburg to Richmond – 24 miles
If the 30 miles in the Shenandoah could make the armies sweat, the 24 miles between Petersburg and Richmond had them drenched. In the fall of 1864 and early part of 1865, the two armies were entrenched in a near stalemate half an hour’s drive from the Confederate capitol. On the tail end of the Overland Campaign, Grant hadn’t made it as close to Richmond as McClellan had, but he stayed there for much longer. Running low on supplies, men, and morale, Lee had to keep his enemy there or push him back somehow or the Confederacy would be totally lost. Petersburg had numerous railroads connecting from across the state, all of which were the arteries keeping the army running. Grant knew this and targeted these railroads, tag-teaming with Sheridan in the Valley and William Tecumseh Sherman in the Carolinas to cut off Lee on all sides.
Now, we’re going to take another approach. Just like I had imagined some of these places to be very far from one another, some places I thought were incredibly close… but they weren’t.
Richmond to Appomattox Court House – 92 miles (up to 99 depending on the route)
When I think of the final months and weeks leading up to the surrender between Grant and Lee, I somehow thought that the site of the surrender was crazy close to the capitol. Again, I was astounded that the surrender took place so far from the capitol and just days after Richmond fell to the Union army.
New Market to Winchester – 52 miles
This is remarkable to me because of all that I’ve read pertaining to the Shenandoah Valley campaigns in 1862, 1863, and 1864, leading up to the battle at New Market and Cedar Creek. More impressive is the fact that Lexington is over 130 miles from Winchester and New Market is settled about halfway between them. General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson is famed – among other things – for commanding the famous “Foot Cavalry” of the Confederate Army. They had the potential to travel between 10-30 miles a day, WALKING (well, marching and sometimes on the double-quick, but still on foot). The fact that they could traverse through the Valley at such speeds and for long distances makes you want to tip your hats to the soldiers for their efforts.
There are plenty of other Civil War distance brain-twisters out there. The distance Sherman’s men marched from Atlanta to Savannah in the fall and winter of 1864 was about 250 miles. The city of Chattanooga is only about 10 miles from the site of some of the nastiest fighting in the western theater at Chickamauga. And plenty more.
The moral of this post is that when you’re studying a battle, pay attention to its location on the map. Not just because you’ll want to know what’s in the vicinity when you visit (don’t miss Chantilly if you plan to visit Manassas), but because you can gain a better understanding of the terrain and the context of the environment in which the battles were fought. Their proximity to railroads, capitols, rivers, or former battlefields was prevalent in the minds of the soldiers and commanders on both sides. Whether for good or for bad.
More maps of the battlefields by year: