If you spend any time in Richmond, Virginia, you will see the sites and scars that still remain from the Civil War and Richmond’s time as the Capital of the Confederacy. With it being located only 100 miles from the US capital of Washington, DC, Richmond was a strategic and deliberate choice for the capital. Many of the battles from the Civil War were fought within 100 miles of its boundaries, many times close enough for the Confederate government officials and Richmond citizens to hear the booming of the cannons.
One of the most important sites to see while visiting Richmond is the Richmond National Battlefield Park. This park is made up of several sites spread throughout the Richmond area – check out the map here to begin planning your visit. Also be sure to follow the “Richmond Battlefield Tour” signs if you are following the map provided by the park’s visitor centers.
There are 4 sites with visitor centers, which are open daily during the summer months and Wednesday – Sunday during the rest of the year. Always check the website or Facebook page for the latest info on closures or special hours.
While the Civil War may be a difficult topic to discuss, it is important to take your children to these sites to help them understand how this country was torn apart by this terrible and deadly conflict. Exploring the battlefields, talking to the park rangers, and watching the videos at the visitor centers can explain this difficult time period in a way that a textbook cannot.
My recommendation for families is to see the three essential parts of the park first – the Tredegar Visitor Center, the Chimborazo Medical Museum, and the Cold Harbor Visitor Center and nearby battlefields. These sites can be seen in a couple of hours, including driving time. Of course, all of the sites are important but these are the ones of most interest and are the easiest to see with children.
Your visit should start at the Richmond National Battlefield Park Civil War Visitor Center at Historic Tredegar. (**UPDATE: Note that as of 10/16/19, this location is closed for one month to move to a new building. An updated version of this review will be posted as soon as it is open)
I mentioned this location in my review of the adjacent American Civil War Museum. There are three floors of exhibits to explore, all in a building that was part of the Tredegar Iron Works, where much of the artillery from the war was created. The main exhibits are on the second and third floors. The second floor contains many photos of Richmond from the time of the Civil War. It is neat to look at these with your kids and see if you can spot buildings or landmarks from today’s Richmond.
This floor also contains several large maps that help plot the different battles around Richmond and give you insight into just how close the Union troops came to the city. If the Union campaigns of 1862 or 1864 had been successful, how many lives would have been saved?
This floor also has a children’s corner where kids can try on uniforms and play with toys from the Civil War era.
The third floor has two rows of exhibits with interesting artifacts and a 20-minute movie about the battles that raged around Richmond. It does contain some graphic photos from the battlefield so it may be best to avoid with younger kids.
The bottom floor has a great gift shop where your child can get their National Park Junior Ranger book stamped. Don’t forget to get the Richmond Junior Ranger booklet here so your child can have fun activities to do at all of the sites. Be sure to look around inside and outside to see the inner workings from the iron works still displayed. The National Park Service has done a wonderful job incorporating the historic elements from the building and preserving them for all to see.
While at the Tredegar Visitor Center, talk with the ranger on duty about how to see the other battlefields. They can fill you in on any closures and give you information on any special events.
From Tredegar, the Chimborazo Medical Museum is a quick 10-minute drive through downtown Richmond and up Church Hill.
I recommend this site for children ages 10 and up so if you have younger kids, it’s ok to skip this. This museum is on the site of the largest and most famous Confederate Civil War hospital. The museum is small but has several exhibits, including a model of what the site would have looked like during the war that is worth the trip! It is amazing to see how large the hospital was and to learn how it defied the stereotype of Confederate hospitals – it was clean and well-supplied for most of the war. There is a short movie to watch that does contain some graphic photos and information. There is also a small gift shop in the lobby.
Follow the map provided at the Visitor Center to drive to a must-see site for all ages, Cold Harbor. This drive also takes you past two other sites in the park, Chickahominy Bluff and Beaver Dam Creek, which has a pleasant walking trail over the creek with interpretive signs. This is not an essential stop but can be a nice place to let kids run off some of their energy!
The Cold Harbor Visitor Center is small but contains great information the battles that raged all around this area in 1864. There is an electric map program that explains the battles and a small gift shop. The rangers here can provide the military information on the battles, along with some very personal, human stories. There are cannons to explore outside the Visitor Center and a one mile walking trail that is great for little ones to explore. Be sure to bring your bug spray! There is also a 1.25 mile driving tour road that allows you to see the fortifications up close. This road is also great for biking!
After leaving the Visitor Center area, be sure to turn left to see the Garthright House, which is just a few hundred yards away.
You can only view the exterior of the home but it has an interesting history as a Union field hospital during the battle. Ask the ranger at the Visitor Center to tell you stories about the house’s time as the field hospital – when its inhabitants sought refuge from the battle outside in the home’s basement. The house also served as a Confederate hospital after the battle.
As you head back towards the Visitor Center, Cold Harbor National Cemetery will be on your right and is worth a stop to pay your respects to those who fought and died here.
I encourage you to continue your tour by heading to the nearby site of the Gaines’ Mill battle of 1862. The site of this battle is located only 1 mile from the Cold Harbor Visitor Center and is worth a stop to see the Watt house. While not open to the public, the interpretive sign in front of the house and its story about Mrs. Watt and how she had to flee her home during the battle is very interesting. There are also walking trails here to get a better vantage point of the battlefield.
If you or your children are getting tired, this is a great place to end your tour. However if you would like to see the other sites that are a part of the park, keep going!
The most important site remaining is the Glendale/Malvern Hill area, a 30 minute drive southeast of Cold Harbor. Coming from the north, you will first encounter the Glendale site, which also contains the picturesque Glendale National Cemetery. The Visitor Center that was once open here has been closed permanently.
Continue driving south to the Malvern Hill battlefield, passing the the evocative ruins of a parsongage that was caught in the crossfire.
The Malvern Hill battlefield is the best preserved battlefield in the park and is one of my favorite places to see as it looks much like it did in 1862. You can stand behind the cannons and just imagine the Confederate regiments marching up the hill towards you. There is a 1.5 mile walking trail here that is a great place for kids to explore.
Only a 15-minute drive west of Malvern Hill is the Fort Harrison Visitor Center. If you are a Civil War enthusiast or are looking for a battlefield to explore on bicycle, make this your next stop. The battles around Fort Harrison are not as well known but were strategically important. The Union forces stationed here were some of the very first Union soldiers to march into Richmond once it had fallen. The Fort Harrison Visitor Center can be accessed on Battlefield Park Road, which is a 5-6 mile drive with multiple forts and walking trails. I recommend entering this road at its most western point, stopping at the pull outs for the various other forts and at the Visitor Center, which has a 10-minute movie about the battles that does a great job explaining the significance of these forts. There is a short walking trail that begins at the Visitor Center so you can see the fortifications and learn more about their use during the war.
After the Visitor Center, you can leave or continue on the battlefield road to Fort Brady, which also has a walking trail.
Other sites that are part of the Richmond National Battlefield Park are:
- Drewry’s Bluff, which has a walking trail and an amazing view of the James River (20 minute drive from Fort Harrison)
- Totopotomoy Creek, which is only open to the public during special events, including the kid-friendly Harvest Day held in the fall (20 minute drive from Cold Harbor)
- Parker’s Battery, which has a short walking trail through the fortifications (20 minute drive from Fort Harrison)
To enhance your visit, be sure to talk to the park rangers at each visitor center to hear detailed and exciting stories from the Civil War in Richmond. You can also listen to Park Ranger Michael Gorman’s stories on the excellent podcast from the Richmond-based NBC affiliate, How We Got Here, Episodes 1 and 4. This a great podcast to listen to with your kids and makes learning about Richmond history fun!
Another way to enhance your visit is to include some of the other important Civil War sites in the area. This interactive map on the Virginia Civil War Trails site can help you plan your visit, especially to the lesser known sites not part of the park.
I hope you take your children to see these important battlefields. Whether you do several in a day or go to each site individually, seeing these well-preserved and maintained battle sites really helps children visualize the Civil War history that they are learning at school. This tour is truly stepping into history!
- Cost: Free
- Recommended ages: all ages (except Chimborazo, which is recommended for ages 10 and up)
- Tour time:
- Tredegar Visitor Center: 45 minutes
- Chimborazo Visitor Center: 30 minutes
- Cold Harbor: 45 minutes (includes Visitor Center, trails, tour road, and additional sites nearby)
- Glendale/Malvern Hill: 30 minutes (includes walking trail)
- Fort Harrison: 30 minutes (includes driving tour road, trails, and Visitor Center)
- Gift shops located at each Visitor Center. Largest one is at the Tredegar Visitor Center
- Transportation: The entire park encompasses an 80 mile drive so a car is a must. Parking is readily available at each Visitor Center with a paid lot at Tredegar (1 hour is validated free) and street parking at Chimborazo.
- Dining options nearby:
- Tredegar: No nearby restaurants but there are sometimes food trucks close by. It is a perfect place to bring a picnic!
- Chimborazo: There are many restaurants nearby in Church Hill, including Proper Pie Company, Patrick Henry Pub, Alamo BBQ (outside seating only), and Union Market
- Cold Harbor: There are many chain restaurants located at the intersection of I-295 and Mechanicsville Turnpike, which is a 10 minute drive from the Cold Harbor Visitor Center, including Chick-fil-a and Bonchon
- Glendale/Malvern Hill: Upper Shirley Vineyards restaurant is nearby
- Fort Harrison: Ronnie’s BBQ (my older son’s favorite!) is located at the entrance to Battlefield Park Road (outside seating only)
- Other attractions nearby:
- Tredegar: American Civil War Museum, Brown’s Island, Belle Isle, Virginia War Memorial, and Hollywood Cemetery
- Chimborazo: Libby Hill Park for an amazing view, Chimborazo Park, Historic St. John’s Church, and the Edgar Allan Poe Museum
- Cold Harbor: Totopotomoy Creek (see above) and Historic Polegreen Church
- Glendale/Malvern Hill: Shirley Plantation, other historic James River plantations, and City Point – Petersburg National Battlefield Park
- Fort Harrison: Drewry’s Bluff and Parker’s Battery (see above) and the Virginia Capital Trail
Books to read:
- 14 and up:
- 10 and up:
- Ghosts of Belle Isle (Virginia Mysteries #3)
- Mystery on Church Hill (Virginia Mysteries #2)
- Across Five Aprils
- Spy on History: Mary Bowser and the Civil War Spy Ring
- A Picture of Freedom (Dear America Series)
- Dear America: When Will This Cruel War Be Over? (Dear America Series)
- The Civil War for Kids: A History with 21 Activities
- DK Eyewitness Books: Civil War
- Top Secret Files: The Civil War: Spies, Secret Missions, and Hidden Facts from the Civil War
- You Wouldn’t Want to Be a Civil War Soldier!
- You Wouldn’t Want to Be a Nurse During the American Civil War!
- A History of US: War, Terrible War: 1855-1865
- 6 and up:
What is your favorite site in the Richmond National Battlefield Park? Comment below!