Shirley, Berkeley And Westover
( Originally Published 1900 )
The winding James flows by Deep Bottom and Turkey Bend, and one elongated neck of land after another, passing the noted battlefield of Malvern Hill, which ended General McClellan's disastrous "Seven Days" of battles and retreat from the Chickahominy swamps in 1862. The great ridge of Malvern Hill stretches away from the river towards the northwest, and in that final battle which checked the Confederate pursuit it was a vast amphitheatre ter-raced with tier upon tier of artillery, the gunboats in the river joining in the Union defense. Below, on the other shore, are the spacious lowlands of Bermuda Hundred, where, in General Grant's significant phrase, General Butler was "bottled up." Here, on the eastern bank, is the plantation of Shirley, one of the famous Virginian settlements, still held by the descendants of its colonial owners—the Carters. The wide and attractive old brick colonial house, with its hipped and pointed roof, stands behind a fringe of trees along the shore, with numerous outbuildings constructed around a quadrangle behind. It is built of bricks brought out from England, is two stories high, with a capacious front porch, and around the roof are rows of dormer windows, above which the roof runs from all sides up into a point between the tall and ample chimneys. The southern view from Shirley is across the James to the mouth of Appomattox River and City Point.
The Appomattox originates in the Blue Ridge near Lynchburg, and flows one hundred and twenty miles eastward to the James, of which it is the chief tributary. It passes Petersburg twelve miles southwest of its point of union with the James, this union being at a high bluff thrust out between the rivers, with abrupt slopes and a plateau on the top, which is well shaded. Here is the house—the home of Dr. Epps —used by General Grant as his headquarters during the operations from the south side of the James against Petersburg and Lee's army in 1864-65. Grant occupied two little log cabins on top of the bluff, just east of the house; one his dwelling and the other his office. One is still there in dilapidation, and the other is preserved as a relic in Fair-mount Park, Philadelphia. A short distance away is the little town of City Point, with its ruined wharves, where an enormous business was then done in landing army supplies. To the eastward the James flows, a steadily broadening stream, past the sloping shores on the northern bank, where, at Harrison's Landing, McClellan rested his troops after the "Seven Days," having retreated there from the battle at Malvern Hill. His camps occupied the plantations of Berkeley and Westover, the former having been the birthplace of General William Henry Harrison, who was President of the United States for a few weeks in 1841, the first President who died in office. The Berkeley House is a spacious and comfortable mansion, but it lost its grand shade-trees during the war. A short distance farther down is the quaint old Queen Anne mansion of red brick, with one wing only, the other having been burnt during the war ; with pointed roof and tall chimneys, standing at the top of a beautifully sloping bank—Westover House, the most famous of the old mansions on the James. It was the home of the Byrds—grandfather, father and son—noted in Virginian colonial history, whose arms are emblazoned on the iron gates, and who sleep in the little graveyard alongside. The most renowned of these was the second, the " Honourable William Byrd of Westover, Esquire," who was the founder of both Richmond and Peters-burg.
William Byrd was a man of imposing personal appearance and the highest character, and his fulllength portrait in flowing periwig and lace ruffles, after Van Dyck, is preserved at Lower Brandon, farther down the river. He inherited a large landed estate—over fifty thousand acres—and ample for-tune, and was educated in England, where he was called to the bar at the Middle Temple, and made a Fellow of the Royal Society. The inscription on his Westover tomb tells that he was a friend of the learned Earl of Orrery. He held high offices in Virginia, and possessed the largest private library then in America. In connection with one Peter Jones, in 1733, he laid out both Richmond and Petersburg on lands he owned, at the head of navigation respectively on the James and the Appomattox. He left profuse journals, published since as the Westover Manuscripts, and they announce that Petersburg was gratefully named in honor of his companion-founder, Peter Jones, and that Richmond's name came from Byrd's vivid recollection of the outlook from Richmond Hill over the Thames in England, which he found strikingly reproduced in the soft hills and far-stretching meadows adjoining the rapids of the James, with the curving sweep of the river as it flowed away from view behind the glimmering woods. He died in 1744. Westover House was McClellan's headquarters in 1862. The estates have gone from Byrd's descendants, but the house has been completely restored, and is one of the loveliest spots on the James. Major Augustus Drewry, its recent owner, died in July, 1899, at an advanced age. Coggins Point projects opposite Westover, and noted plantations and mansions line the river banks, bearing, with the counties, well-known English names. Here is the ruined stone Fort Powhatan, a relic of the War of 1812, with the Unionist earthworks of 1864–65 on the bluff above it. Then we get among the lowland swamps, where the cypress trees elevate their conical knees and roots above the water. The James has become a wide estuary, and the broad Chickahominy flows in between low shores, draining the swamps east of Richmond and the James. This was the "lick at which turkeys were plenty," the Indians thus recognizing in the name of the river the favorite resort of the wild turkey.