From the heavy guns of a seacoast fort through battle-scarred Yorktown and the swampy outskirts of Richmond, the Virginia Peninsula tells the story of a massive war campaign and the evolution of warfare.
Along this finger of land cut by the York and James rivers and Chesapeake Bay, the Army of the Potomac launched a grand but ill-fated effort to end the Civil War in the spring of 1862. The modern traveler can trace the Peninsula Campaign through museums, roadside plaques and battlefield sites that have been blurred but not erased by development.
The Yankees' defeat at the Battle of Bull Run in 1861 had doused hopes for a quick end to the rebellion, but Union leaders still sought a smashing blow a year later. Gen. George B. McClellan planned to take Richmond with an amphibious assault northward from the tip of the Virginia Peninsula.
So we begin the journey where McClellan and his troops started -- at Fort Monroe, an almost 200-year-old bastion on a spit commanding the Hampton Roads water hub. Here in March 1862, about 100,000 Union soldiers landed and began their trek toward the Confederate capital.
Fort Monroe was one of the few federal installations in the South still in Union hands after 1861. Today, the moated fort houses the Casemate Museum, which includes displays on artillery, historic artifacts and a jail cell that held a famous inmate at war's end. Admission and parking are free, but this is still an active U.S. Army base, so be prepared to show a driver's license and registration at the security gate.
The defensive importance of the site had been clear since John Smith and the Jamestown colonists landed in the area in 1607. A simple fort was in place in 1609. The museum traces that early history, but the focus is on the development of artillery through the nation's wars. One display shows life-size figures manning a gun that fired 32-pound shot to a range of about one mile. The display explains the role of each soldier in the battery.
Fort Monroe also is important as the place where Union Gen. Benjamin Butler refused to return runaway slaves to their Virginia master. Finding that the slaves were to be used to build Confederate fortifications in the area, Butler told the Southerners that since Virginia had declared itself a foreign country, U.S. law on the return of fugitive slaves did not apply. The Yankee general labeled the runaways "contraband of war" and put them to work for the Union. Word spread among slaves in the area and they soon flocked to the place they called the Freedom Fort.
The man who sought to retain human bondage in a break-away nation -- Confederate President Jefferson Davis -- was held briefly in Fort Monroe after his capture in 1865. The museum holds the arch-ceilinged cell where Davis was locked down in leg shackles before being moved to other quarters on the base. The Casemate Museum (.monroe.army.mil) also includes a small gift shop.
From Fort Monroe, travel a few miles west to Newport News and the Mariners' Museum (mariner.org). Nautical history is the focus of this modern museum and a big part of that story is the development of ironclad warships. The two stars are the Confederate warship Virginia (formerly the Merrimack) and the USS Monitor.
Rebel shipwrights had converted a partially burned frigate by installing iron plating and heavy wooden sheathing atop the hull. The floating rampart was designed to deflect shots, an innovation still seen today in the slanting forms of tanks. Six 9-inch smoothbore cannon protruded from the Virginia's sides, while 6.4-inch rifled cannon protected the bow and stern. In March 1862, the Virginia sank two Union ships off Newport News.
For a few weeks, the rebel ship was the terror of the Union command. The Yankees rushed to answer with the Monitor. Called a "cheese box on a raft," the hastily built ship held a 21-foot-diameter turret protected with eight layers of inch-thick iron plate. The rotating turret held two 11-inch diameter cannon.
Although the Virginia and Monitor pounded each other to a draw in March 1862, the arrival of the ironclads changed nautical warfare forever. Wooden ships with broadside cannon were obsolete.
Mariners' Museum displays include a full-size replica of the Virginia's bow and a complete replica of the Monitor. The original Monitor sank in a storm off Cape Hatteras, N.C., late in 1862, but parts have since been raised. The turret, guns and main engine are now soaking in huge water tanks designed to curb deterioration and allow cleaning. Standing on a platform above the 90,000-gallon tank holding the turret, museum docent Bill Phillips said the iron remains will be in the tanks for years to come, but the ultimate goal is to stabilize the pieces and display them.
North of Newport News is Yorktown, where the British surrendered to end the Revolutionary War in 1781. Yorktown also figured in the Civil War's Peninsula Campaign. Rebel forces retreating before the Union advance halted here and parts of their defensive works overlap the Revolutionary site. The notoriously cautious McClellan determined to besiege the town, but just as he readied his heavy guns, the Confederates withdrew farther north toward Richmond. Sites to see here include Colonial National Historical Park (nps.gov/york) and the Yorktown Victory Center (historyisfun.org/Yorktown-Victory-Center.htm).
Also doing Civil/Revolutionary war double duty on the tour is Williamsburg, site of a battle during the Peninsula Campaign and also home to Colonial Williamsburg (history.org). And for a trip even further back, there's Historic Jamestowne (historicjamestowne.org).
McClellan's grand plan fell apart in late June only several miles outside Richmond when Gen. Robert E. Lee, the newly named Confederate commander, launched a series of attacks called the Seven Days Campaign. Richmond National Battlefield Park (nps.gov/rich) tells the stories of those battles, which ended on July 1 at Malvern Hill. Both sides had been heavily bloodied, but McClellan was forced to abandon his attack on Richmond, so the victory went to Lee.
The battlefield park's visitor center, housed in the historic Tredegar Iron Works, has displays on the Seven Days Campaign and also offers information for self-driven tours. Much of the drive is through open country dotted with old farmhouses and mills. Be prepared to pull over at the many black-and-white plaques along the battle route.
For an overview of the Civil War, visit the American Civil War Center (tredegar.org), which also is housed in the Tredegar Iron Works complex. And for an overview of war in general, visit the Virginia War Museum in Newport News (warmuseum.org).
To get to all the Civil War-related sites on the Virginia Peninsula, allow at least two days.
For more information on the Peninsula Campaign, visit peninsulacampaign.org.