Seven Days in seven hours: See where Robert E. Lee made his mark
Union cannon peer toward the treeline and Boatswain Creek at the Gaines' Mill battlefield east of Richmond, Virginia. A battle between North and South occurred here on June 27, 1862, the second day of the Seven Days Battles. (Chuck Myers, MCT / May 23, 2012)
Red cutgrass, trumpet weeds and a host of other herbaceous species grow freely on bordering wetland meadow, while red maples, river, birch, Sycamore, On the banks, Tulip poplar and a variety of oak trees fill out the landscape. A footbridge spanning the creek connects with a rustic gravel path that terminates after 75 yards, astride the former site of a 19th century mill.
The lush view, flush with natural sounds and aromas, paint a bucolic scene.
But 150 years ago, Beaver Dam Creek presented a very different scene, as cannon thundered and infantry pressed forward.
The Battle of Beaver Dam Creek, also known as the Battle of Mechanicsville, hailed the first major engagement of the Seven Days Battles, a series of clashes between North and South during the Civil War in late June and early July 1862.
The Seven Days sites present a unique opportunity for day-trippers and Civil War enthusiasts alike. Over the course of seven hours or less, visitors can track the routes of two armies as they battled east of Richmond in 1862.
Navigating two-lane roads by car to five battlefields in a few hours may appear daunting. But the distances and travel times between the sites are comparatively short - approximately 32 miles total travel distance.
The Seven Days Battles laid the foundation for one of the legendary leaders of the American Civil War - Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
Lee served as military adviser to Confederate President Jefferson Davis early in the war. But after Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston fell wounded at the Battle of Seven Pines in late May 1862, he assumed command of Confederate forces in Virginia. He also renamed his new charge the Army of Northern Virginia.
His opposite number, Union Gen. George B. McClellan, had spent months cautiously moving his large Army of the Potomac up the Tidewater Peninsula, after it had landed at Fortress Monroe near Norfolk.
McClellan's wary approach toward the Confederates chagrined many on the Union side, including his commander-in-chief, President Abraham Lincoln.
Still, by June 24, 1862, the federals had reached the outskirts of the Confederate capital at Richmond, and seemed poised to take the city.
But Lee would have none of that. Although in the process of reorganizing his army, he had a good strategic fix on the Union situation and McClellan's command style.
Ronald S. Coddington, the author of two books profiling the Union and Confederate soldiers, and a third, "African American Faces of the Civil War," due out in late 2012, said Lee possessed a strong perceptive ability, which allowed him to anticipate McClellan's moves.
"Lee knows McClellan and what he's capable and incapable of. Lee is a remarkable judge of character. He figures out early on that McClellan is not really going to come on strong. . He knows exactly what McClellan is all about. I don't even think McClellan was that much of a challenge for him."
An opening salvo between the opposing forces occurred at Oak Grove on June 25. This minor engagement proved inconclusive, as the Confederates repulsed a Union probing attack.
Evidence of the battle, which occurred near the present-day Richmond International Airport, disappeared long ago.
Bob Krick, historian at the National Park Service's Richmond National Battlefield Park, noted that Oak Grove's role in the Seven Days has undergone reconsideration, given the nature of the battle.