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History of the Williamsburg Area: Civil War Battlefields

Less than a century after the Revolutionary War had concluded – when the British surrendered to George Washington’s forces just miles away from Williamsburg in Yorktown – Virginia was again at the center of a major conflict as the Civil War quickly overtook the country. Within a year of seceding from the Union in 1861, Virginia was the site of some of the heaviest fighting, with civil war battlefields spread throughout the state.

The Virginia Peninsula, a strategic location for resupplying troops from the York and James Rivers, proved essential for both the Union and Confederate sides – this placed Williamsburg, Yorktown, and other nearby cities like Richmond right in the crosshairs of the war as it intensified.

Whether you’re a history buff or learning anew about our state’s fascinating history, when you stay at our Williamsburg bed and breakfast, you’ll be just a few miles from several civil war battlefields, the land upon which the fate of our nation took shape.

The Warwick Line – Civil War Battlefields Across the Virginia Peninsula

As the furthest northern state loyal to the Confederate cause (Maryland and West Virginia were slave states but sided with the Union), Virginia was a pivotal territory throughout the Civil War. Richmond, Virginia, became the Confederate capital city – its proximity to Washington D.C. made it a strategic stronghold, easy to launch attacks from 100 miles away. For this reason, Union Major General George B. McClellan wanted to seize Richmond and the entire Virginia peninsula, striking at the heart of the Confederate war-making machine. So, in the spring of 1862, with the war less than a year old, McClellan embarked on the Virginia Peninsula Campaign, attacking the southern tip of Virginia from the water.

Much like the Battle of Yorktown during the Revolutionary War, ships from both sides fought it out off the shores of the York River, with newly-built “ironclad” ships adding to the offshore carnage. Union troops eventually made it onshore, and throughout April of 1862, they fought Confederate soldiers on the fortified Warwick Line, just south of Williamsburg and stretching 12 miles across the peninsula. Different civil war battlefields along the Warwick Line were critical for the Confederates holding back the Union advance, including Lee’s Mill, just 14 miles from Williamsburg and now a beautiful park with signs explaining what took place during that fateful month of the war. Stroll on the walking trail that winds through Lee’s Mill Historic Park alongside “earthworks,” or entrenchments, used by Confederate soldiers to hold the line.

Yorktown – A Pivotal Battlefield During Two Wars, Less Than a Century Apart

In a brilliant feat of maneuvering, Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston moved his troops along the Warwick Line and made his 12,000 men appear to be quadruple their size, causing General McClellan to focus on attacking Yorktown rather than moving north up the peninsula. This strategy bought the Confederates time to bulk up their forces to over 50,000, catching the Union forces off-guard in later weeks when they would successfully defend Richmond.

When you visit the Yorktown Battlefield, part of Colonial National Historical Park, you’ll be stepping foot on the land where both the Revolutionary War and Civil War occurred, putting it in a rare and unique historical category. This historical connection is impossible to miss, as the Yorktown National Civil War Cemetary – home to over 2,000 graves of soldiers who died during the Civil War – is right next to the field where the British surrendered 80 years earlier, ending the Revolutionary War and leading to our country’s founding.

When the Fighting Came to Williamsburg and North to Richmond

After holding their own against the larger Union contingent throughout April of 1862, the Confederates quickly retreated towards Richmond, as defending their capital was the top priority. During that retreat, the Civil War arrived in Williamsburg on May 5th, 1862, with fighting occurring throughout the city. Williamsburg’s population was only 2,000 then, but over 70,000 soldiers from the two sides battled fiercely, resulting in nearly 4,000 fatalities.

The College of William and Mary was also the site of a heated battle. The Confederates built fortifications around the Brafferton Building, the President’s House, and the Wren Building, which compose the “ancient Campus” just one block from our Virginia inn. Union forces quickly seized the campus and held it until the war ended in 1865. Tour the Wren Building – the oldest college building in the nation – much of which burnt down in 1862 during the Civil War conflagration, only to be rebuilt using its original exterior walls, which are still standing today. To take a deeper dive, visit the special collections at William and Mary, where you can see Civil War artifacts from when the campus was occupied by Confederate and Union soldiers at different points during the four long, trying years of conflict.

Other critical skirmishes occurred in May and June of 1862 as Union troops moved north from Williamsburg, inching closer to Richmond, their ultimate target. At civil war battlefields surrounding Richmond, including Gaines’ Mill and Seven Pines, General Stonewall Jackson united with the Confederate forces already on the Virginia Peninsula, doubling their size and allowing them to push back the Union advance. After General Joseph Johnston was wounded at Seven Pines just south of Richmond, Robert E. Lee took over the Confederate army, ushering in a new, more experienced leadership he would hold until the war ended. You can explore this chapter of Civil War history at the Richmond National Battlefield Park, less than an hour's drive north from the Fife and Drum Inn.

Stay with us, where Civil War battlefields and history abound