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Neatly described as "America's Best Idea," the National Park Service has many properties, each quite different from the next. A case in point is Virginia's Richmond National Battlefield Park, which its managers point out is not just the tale of one large Civil War battle, nor even one important campaign. "Instead, the park's resources include a naval battle, a key industrial complex, the Confederacy's largest hospital, dozens of miles of elaborate original fortifications, and the evocative spots where determined soldiers stood paces apart and fought with rifles, reaping a staggering human cost," they say.

Even so, there were two major campaigns to take Richmond: the first in 1862 (the Peninsula Campaign), the second in 1864 (the Overland Campaign). And for all the fighting, no Union troops (other than prisoners of war) reached Richmond until after the Confederate government evacuated the city on April 2, 1865. General Ulysses S. Grant never got to the city.

More than one million Americans were killed or injured during the four-year Civil War, centered on Richmond as capital of the Confederacy. Other notable historical highlights include a visit by Abraham Lincoln on April 4 and 5, just days before his own assassination in Washington, D.C.

The park was established in 1936, and has been listed on the National Register of Historical Places since 1966.

Highlights

Begin your visit at the park's Civil War Visitor Center, in the old Tredegar Iron Works at 470 Tredegar Street. Here, park rangers can provide maps for touring the battlefields. There are four other Visitor Centers, one each at the Chimborazo Medical Museum in Richmond, one at Cold Harbor Battlefield, one at Fort Harrison (where General Grant fought), and one at Glendale/Malvern Hill Battlefields. The last two are open only in summer months.

There are 13 areas within the 1,900-acre park, many with self-guided trails that take you past historical features such as earthworks and structures. In addition to the areas near visitor centers, check out Chickahominy Bluff, Beaver Dam Creek (Robert E. Lee's first battle as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia), Gaines' Mill, the Garthright House, Drewry's Bluff (a naval battle), and Parker's Battery.

A fascinating story here concerns the United States Colored Troops (USCT), who charged the Rebel forces at New Market Heights on Sept. 29, 1864. An amazing 14 men received the Congressional Medal of Honor for their valor in battle that day.

There are five National Cemeteries where most of the Union dead are buried, while most of the Confederate soldiers are buried at either Hollywood or Oakwood cemeteries.

Hours & Seasons

Park battlefields are open sunrise to sunset. Visitor centers are open 9am-5pm daily. Closed on Thanksgiving, Dec. 25, and Jan. 1.

Fees

There are no entrance fees to the Richmond National Battlefield Park sites.

Visitors

There were 130,415 visitors to the park in 2010. The highest figure to date was 481,300 in 1971.

More Info

Richmond Battlefield National Park (tel. 804/226-1981 ext. 23; www.nps.gov/rich). A good commercial site about this area is www.ontorichmond.com.