When the vote on secession was taken on May 24, 1861, Henricoans voted unanimously for secession. Little did they realize that their county would be the scene of some of the bloodiest fighting during the war that was to come.
It would be a war that ended the institution of slavery and one that left a scene of desolation on both sides of the three lines of fortifications that would be cut deep into Henrico soil to protect the city of Richmond.
During the war, new weapons would be introduced on Henrico soil. Balloons for aerial observation would be used by both sides, as would early versions of machine guns. Both of these innovations appeared on the battlefields of Fair Oaks-Seven Pines just east of the airport. The first use of railroad artillery occurred during the battle Savage Station (June 29, 1862) some five miles east of the airport.
During the 1864 campaign, the Confederates introduced land mines called sub-terra shells to reinforce their thinly held lines. These were nothing more than artillery shells with pressure-sensitive fuses that would explode when stepped on by attacking troops.
The intensity of fighting resulted in 51,842 officially verified casualties reported as killed, wounded and captured or missing on Henrico soil (24,116 Confederate and 27,726 Union).
The first incursion on Henrico soil occurred during General George B. McClellan's Peninsula Campaign. On May 20, 1862, elements of the Federal IV Corps, under General Erasmus Keyes, crossed the Chickahominy River into Henrico at Bottoms Bridge one and a half miles east of the airport. Keyes' entire corps crossed into Henrico and advanced up Williamsburg Road to Seven Pines, six miles east of the airport.
Behind him, General Samuel Heintzelman's III Corps crossed at Bottoms Bridge on May 25 and encamped as a reserve for Keyes' troops. McClellan had moved the remaining three corps of his army up the north bank of the Chickahominy River. On May 31, 1862, Confederate troops under Joseph E. Johnston launched a frontal attack against Keyes' corps at Seven Pines. During the battle, elements of Keyes' Corps became involved in heavy action at Fair Oaks Station just north of Seven Pines. McClellan ordered General Edwin V. Sumner's II Corps to cross the Chickahominy and reinforce the troops at Fair Oaks Station and ordered Heintzelman to move up to support Keyes.
After heavy fighting on May 31 at Seven Pines and Fair Oaks Station in which the Confederates suffered 7,417 casualties and the Union 5,504 casualties, the combatants rested. The fighting resumed the next day and an additional 731 Confederate and 838 Union casualties were inflicted before the Confederates withdrew to their old lines.
During the fighting at Fair Oaks Station, General Johnston had been wounded, and General Robert E. Lee was appointed to command the Confederate forces that he styled the Army of Northern Virginia. Lee established his headquarters at Dabbs House, three miles northeast of the airport on Nine Mile Road. After the war, Dabbs House served as the county's almshouse. Later it served as county police headquarters, and today it is the county's tourist information center and houses a small exhibit on the Civil War in the county.
The next battle occurred on June 25, 1862, in the area currently occupied by the airport proper. It was variously called Oak Grove, French's Farm, French's Field, King's Schoolhouse and The Orchard. General McClellan ordered a limited thrust against the Confederate line, which cost the Union forces 626 casualties while they inflicted 441 on the Confederates. Part of the Confederate defensive line remains along airport drive with artillery pieces in place as silent sentinels.
Observing that McClellan's army was divided by the Chickahominy, Lee determined to concentrate his forces against the lone Union corps north of that river, while two divisions were left to hold the line in front of Seven Pines. The movements of Lee's Troops north of the Chickahominy succeeded in driving General FitzJohn Porter's V Corps back after heavy fighting at Mechanicsville and Beaver Dam Creek on June 26, and Gaines' Mill on June 27.
Following the last battle, Porter's troops retired across the Chickahominy to join the rest of McClellan's army. Lee then ordered General John Magruder to advance from his position in front of Seven Pines to cut off McClellan's route of retreat. On June 29, Magruder cautiously advanced and found that the three Union corps in his front had retired toward Savage Station. Magruder's forces were greatly outnumbered, but the Union commanders were under orders to retreat.
Advancing with a piece of railroad artillery, the Confederates succeeded in driving the Union rearguard at Savage Station (three miles east of the airport) until night ended the fighting. The Union forces continued their retreat that night and left some 2,500 wounded in field hospital facilities at Savage Station. Total Union casualties, including the 2,500 wounded, amounted to 3,973. Confederate losses were reported as 357.
McClellan's army retreated across White Oak Swamp toward the James River. Lee had ordered elements of his army to move so as to intercept their route of retreat. There were several confrontations at White Oak Swamp Bridge and Charles City Road where Union forces blocked Confederate forces. At Glendale, some five miles southeast of the airport, on June 30, there was a major battle resulting in 3,615 Confederate and 2,853 Union casualties.
The next day, July 1, at Malvern Hill, about six miles south-southeast of the airport, Union forces successfully fought back several Confederate attacks and thus allowed the Union army to continue retreating eastward. At Malvern Hill, Confederate casualties amounted to 5,073 and the Union forces lost 3,214. Except for a reconnaissance force moving back into Henrico at Malvern Hill on August 6, military encounters on Henrico soil ceased until 1864.
It was in 1864 that General Ulysses S. Grant launched his overland campaign. Advancing his army through Hanover County, he slipped east of Henrico and crossed the James River to invest Petersburg.
On June 20, 1864, his troops established a foothold at Deep Bottom on the James some six miles south of the airport. From this base he launched two campaigns—1st Deep Bottom, July 26-28, and 2nd Deep Bottom, August 13-20. Both efforts were effectively blocked by the Confederate forces.
On September 29, he launched a two-pronged attack that would allow his forces to advance into the area through which the route of the Richmond Airport Connector Road runs. One attack column moved out of the Deep Bottom base against the Confederate line at New Market Heights. Two attacks were made by United States Colored Troops. The first was repulsed with a loss of 387 of the 750 that advanced. The second attack hit the retreating defenders and broke through.
Out of approximately 1,300 U.S. Colored Troops that went into the attack, 66 were killed, 366 wounded and 23 captured or missing. For their bravery and valor during the two attacks, sixteen Medals of Honor were issued (two to white officers and fourteen to African Americans).
Meanwhile the other assault column crossed the James upriver from Deep Bottom and successfully assaulted and captured Fort Harrison, five miles southwest of the airport. The troops from Deep Bottom then moved up to the Fort Harrison line and extended the right of the new Union line after heavy fighting at Laurel Hill Church and Fort Gilmer, one-half mile north of Fort Harrison. They were now just west of the airport connector.
On September 30, Lee counterattacked to try to retake Fort Harrison. The effort failed with a loss of 1,150 Confederates to 87 Union. On October 7, an attempt was made to drive the Union forces on the right of Fort Harrison by attacking their right flank on Darbytown Road. The plan of attack called for two brigades of Confederate infantry to drive General August V. Kautz's division of Union Cavalry on the Union right from its defensive position on Darbytown Road. Confederate cavalry under General Martin W. Gary was to move down the Charles City Road and, once it was even with and behind Kautz's position, Gary's troopers were to cross over to the Darbytown Road.
Kautz's cavalry was easily routed and General Charles W. Field advanced his division of five brigades down the Darbytown Road. With his last brigade just in front of the Confederate defensive line, the brigades of Field's division flanked to the right (south) and began to advance toward the Union right on New Market Road. Union commanders quickly redeployed the 1st Division, X Corps, which was in line facing the Confederate defensive line and reformed them so they were facing north toward Darbytown Road. Kautz reformed remnants of his division of cavalry on the right of the new Union line.
When Field's five brigades moved toward the New Market Road, Gary's cavalry was on the left. Advancing through dense undergrowth, they encountered the Union skirmish line armed with Spencer repeating carbines. Driving back the skirmishers, the Confederate line made contact with the Union main line. They were met with a roar of artillery and infantry fire. The Confederate line staggered and while two of the brigades broke to the rear, the famous Texas Brigade and two brigades on Field's left continued to press forward.
It was then that General John Gregg, commander of the Texas Brigade, fell mortally wounded.
All three of Field's remaining brigades then retired back to Darbytown Road followed by Gary's cavalry. Failing to roll up the Union right flank, Field's division retired back behind the defensive line. The airport connector road passes through Field's route of advance from Darbytown Road south toward New Market Road. This action resulted in some 2,000 Confederate casualties compared with 458 Union losses.
An attack by two divisions of the X Corps on October 13 was directed against the Confederate line between Darbytown and Charles City roads parallel to and just west of the Airport Connector. Finding that the Confederate line on Charles City Road was stronger than thought, Union commanders called off a general attack and withdrew after suffering 437 casualties. Confederate casualties were estimated at 100.
The final Union attempt to extend their right came on October 27. To create a feint, elements of the X Corps were moved over to Darbytown Road to confront the Confederate defenders while the XVIII Corps moved behind them to the Confederate left.
General Godfrey Weitzel advanced the XVIII Corps toward the Charles City Road and then to Seven Pines on the Williamsburg Road. He then directed his column to advance up the Williamsburg Road toward Richmond. Weitzel had reports that the Confederate line across Williamsburg Road was only defended by Home Guard troops and an artillery battery. Little did he realize that Confederate General James Longstreet concluded the movement on Darbytown Road was a feint, and he had ordered his veteran troops to move to the left and extend the line of defenders to Williamsburg Road and beyond.
Weitzel sent the three brigades of his 1st Division forward up Williamsburg Road, the north boundary of the airport. The 2nd Division deployed behind the first and advanced up the road. The head of Weitzel's column soon came under heavy Confederate artillery fire from reserve artillery that had moved up.
Weitzel deployed his 1st Division on the right of the road and his 2nd Division was placed on the left side of the road. Ordered to advance, the Union troops came under heavy infantry and artillery fire. The advance stalled and survivors sought refuge in several shallow ravines on both sides of the road.
Followed by two skirmishers, Captain Joseph Banks Lyle of the 5th South Carolina charged from the Confederate line and, crossing no-man's land, captured over 500 Union soldiers trapped in the shallow ravines. When challenged by a Union officer, Lyle picked up a carbine and aimed it at the officer who quickly surrendered. Little did Lyle know the weapon was not loaded.
Anticipating a successful attack, Weitzel sent a brigade up Nine Mile Road, north of Williamsburg Road, to attack the Confederate Home Guard unit on the line at Nine Mile Road. Confederate cavalry had been dispatched to the same position. No sooner had the Union attackers penetrated the Confederate line, than the cavalry under General Martin W. Gary counterattacked and drove them back down Nine Mile Road.
Weitzel's troops in the shallow ravines on Williamsburg Road were able to withdraw under cover of darkness. He moved the XVIII Corps back to Charles City Road that night and eventually they returned to their old position behind Fort Harrison. Total Union casualties on October 27 amounted to 1,603. Confederate casualties totaled 64.
Except for a Confederate reconnaissance down Darbytown Road in a driving snowstorm on December 10, all military activity ceased north of the James. The reconnaissance was undertaken to attempt to attack the Union defenders at Deep Bottom. When the Confederates discovered a series of earthen forts east of Deep Bottom, they withdrew.
The Confederates abandoned their lines on the night of April 2-3, 1865. On April 3, Weitzel's troops entered Richmond. The lines were silent. During four years of war, over 20 major battles and 15 major engagements had been fought in eastern Henrico County.
Evidence of the severity of fighting is the four national cemeteries in Henrico established after the war. The first is at Seven Pines where remains of those killed on both sides were recovered and reinterred. The second cemetery was established at Glendale where the same policy was followed.
The cemetery at Fort Harrison, established after the battle, was designated a national cemetery. The fourth is Richmond National Cemetery, just east of the city, on Williamsburg Road. Reinterments were made here from 70 different sites within a radius of 25 miles of the cemetery. Those Union soldiers buried at Oakwood and Hollywood cemeteries in Richmond and those buried on Belle Island, the site of a prisoner of war camp in the James River at Richmond, were reinterred here.
The three defensive lines that cut through Henrico County to defend Richmond were constructed over time, beginning early in May 1861. At the request of a city council committee, engineers under General Robert E. Lee identified two sites south of the city.
The first site on the eastern side of Marion Hill covered Osborne Turnpike and the James River. The earthen battery anchored the southern flank of the line of star-forts, which eventually encircled the city of Richmond. Twenty-two of these star-forts on what is known as the Inner Line were constructed in Henrico County. The second site selected was on this line and covered the Darbytown Road.
A second defensive line was constructed in front of the Inner Line of stand-alone star-forts. This line, known as the Intermediate Line, was designed with small forts and field battery emplacements connected by infantry entrenchments, or earthen walls, called breastworks. The southern anchor of the Intermediate Line tied into the battery on Marion Hill and continued in a northeasterly direction across New Market Road and then ran in a northerly direction to the high ground along Mechanicsville Turnpike. The line then turned west and continued to the James River above Richmond.
In May 1862, a third line, known as the Outer Line, was started with the construction of a series of batteries on Chaffin's Bluff downstream from the Inner Line. Pieces of heavy ordnance were mounted on siege platforms behind earthen walls up to 20 feet high. Confederate infantry under General Henry A. Wise began constructing entrenchments connecting the heavy gun emplacements.
At this same time, Confederate forces under General Joseph E. Johnston retired from the Williamsburg line and assumed a defensive line just west of Seven Pines and Fair Oaks and along the high ground overlooking the Chickahominy River. Troops under Confederate General James Longstreet were on the right of Johnston's line. General Wise's men constructed entrenchments from the new Chaffin's Bluff line northward to Darbytown Road and connected with Longstreet's right.
Following the defensive line of Johnston's army, the Outer Line continued north to the Chickahominy River opposite the village of Mechanicsville and then turned sharply westward in front of the Intermediate Line.
Several of the heavy gun installations on the Chaffin's Bluff line were enlarged during 1863. One installation of three heavy guns was redesigned as an earthen fort with high walls. This position became Fort Harrison. Just north of Fort Harrison, several smaller fortified positions were enlarged to provide greater coverage of possible avenues of approach.
The most notable of these proved to be Fort Gilmer. The large forts contained gun ramps, siege platforms and bombproofs. Some had powder magazines built into the earthen walls of the fort. The trees in front of the forts and along the entire line were cut down and either used in construction of the inner walls of the forts or left along the front of the line as an obstruction for advancing troops. Cut lumber for gun platforms had to be hauled to each site and carpenters had to construct platforms, living quarters and other needed structures. All the earth had to be moved by pick and shovel, using wagons and wheelbarrows to haul the loose dirt.
Whereas the initial labor was provided by Confederate infantry, the construction of the earthen walls was done with the use of slave labor. Slave owners in Henrico were required to send slaves to help in the construction of the defensive lines. Slaves from other counties were also employed in the construction of all three lines.