As the political, medical, and manufacturing center of the South and the primary supply depot for Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, Richmond was a prime Union target throughout the Civil War. In 1862 Gen. George McClellan's Peninsula Campaign attacked from the southeast, and in 1864 Gen. Ulysses S. Grant advanced from the north. Neither succeeded in capturing Richmond, but Grant won the war by laying siege to Petersburg, thus cutting off Richmond's supplies from the south. The bloody battlefields of those campaigns ring Richmond's eastern side, now mostly suburbs, for some 80 miles.
Stop first at the Richmond Civil War Visitor Center at Tredegar Iron Works, at the foot of 5th Street on the Richmond Riverfront Canal Walk . Here, a 22-minute video about the battles will get you oriented. Upstairs, the "Richmond Speaks" exhibit poignantly tells the city's story with photos, artifacts, and readings from letters soldiers wrote to their families. Outside stands a touching statue of President Abraham Lincoln and son Todd, a depiction of their visit to Richmond shortly after it fell in 1865. The visitor center and Chimborazo Medical Museum are open daily 9am to 5pm; they are closed New Year's Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.
Before driving around the battlefields, be sure to get the free park service brochure, which has an excellent map outlining the route, and buy a CD tour ($16) at the bookshop, which also carries a wide array of Civil War books. You will need at least an hour at the visitor center and another 3 to complete the battlefield tour without stops, so give yourself at least half a day, more to do it in comfort.
Your first stop heading out of town will be the Chimborazo Medical Museum, on East Broad Street at 33rd Street. This was the site of one of the Confederacy's largest hospitals (about 76,000 patients were treated here). Park headquarters are located here.
There are visitor centers at Cold Harbor to the northeast and at Fort Harrison and Glendale/Malvern Hill to the southeast. Cold Harbor was the scene of a particularly bloody 1864 encounter during which 7,000 of Grant's men were killed or injured in just 30 minutes. Programs with costumed Union and Confederate soldiers reenacting life in the Civil War era take place during the summer. The Cold Harbor Visitor Center is open daily 9am to 5pm, and rangers lead walking tours of the battlefield during summer. The Fort Harrison and Glendale/Malvern Hill visitor centers are open daily 9am to 5pm in summer.