On June 27, 1862, in the largest and bloodiest of the Seven Days' battles and Robert E. Lee's first major victory in the Civil War, the Union army established a headquarters at the Watt farm and built a 1-1/2 mile line here at Gaines Mill. At noon, the Confederates struck the center of the line and then fanned out their attacks to the left and the right. After seven hours of brutal fighting the Union line was broken as Lee's largest charge of the Civil War - 55,000 Confederates - assaulted their position and the Federals were forced to retreat back across the Chickahominy. The massive defeat at Gaines’ Mill with combined casualties of a staggering 15,000 men caused Union Gen. McClellan to turn back from the advance on Richmond and retreat towards the James River.

During the Battle of Gaines Mill both sides employed aerial reconnaissance to gather information about the enemy's strength and position. Chief Aeronaut of the Union Army of Balloon Corps Prof. Thaddeus S.C. Lowe launched a balloon that observed Robert E. Lee's camp amassing for the attack at Gaines Mill. Lowe's balloon, named Intrepid, could seat five men and was decorated with a portrait of Union Gen. McClellan and an eagle. Positioned behind front lines at an altitude of 1,000 feet, the balloonist's oberservations were reported to the ground by telegraph or signal flags. While he was in the air over the Battle of Gaines Mill, Lowe observed a Confederate balloon monitoring Union activities at the same time. The balloons were tethered to the ground and could make observations as far away as Richmond.

Visiting the Gaines Mill Battlefield

Your best bet to visit Gaines Mill is to start at the Gaines Mill Battlefield Richmond National Battlefield Park. The park features the historic Watt house and farm and an artillery exhibit. The Gaines Mill Breakthrough Trail takes you to the area where the Confederates broke the Union line, as well as Wilcox's Brigade Monument, and a Battlefield Overlook. The 1-1/2 mile trail is a grass and dirt track through fields and forest that is a little hilly in places. You may want to combine a visit to Gaines Mill with a visit to nearby Beaver Dam Creek located about 15 minutes away. At Beaver Dam Creek - the second of the Seven Days' Battles - there are signs interpeting the battle, a footbridge over the creek and a short hiking trail to the area of major battle actions.

Visit Civil War Trust and National Park Service for battle details and information about the preservation of this battlefield.

Pictured at the top: The unburied or hastily-buried fallen Union soldiers at Gaines Mill discovered by soldiers digging in before the battle of Cold Harbor two years later led to the establishment of a national cemetery system for the re-interment of Union soldiers.

Gaines Mill Watt Farm

The Watt plantation encompassed several hundred acres where 28 slaves farmed grains and livestock. Watt Farm Road was used to transport the farm's produce to Richmond - a full day's journey away.

Historical Photo

Gaines Mill Professor Lowes Miliary Balloon

Professor Lowe's military balloon near Gaines Mill, Virginia Matthew Brady, 1862 (Library of Congress)