At the conclusion of the Seven Days Battles in the 1862 Peninsula Campaign in Virginia, Major General George McClellan and the Army of the Potomac retreated to Harrison’s Landing on the James River. Harrison’s Landing was a deepwater site on the river, capable of handling large supply ships and transports, as well as Union Navy gunboats that provided additional firepower against the Confederates.
There was a lot of history at this location on the James River going all the way back to December 4th, 1619, when a group of settlers from England arrived and established a plantation this tract of land known as Berkeley Hundred. These settlers celebrated the first Thanksgiving in America on the day of their arrival (though it was more of a religious service rather than feast) in accordance with orders from the English businessmen financing the operation that a service of thanksgiving for their safe passage be observed. In March 1622, the settlement at Berkley as well as other plantations along the James were attacked in an Indian uprising, and several of the colonists were killed. For a time the location was abandoned, followed by a succession of owners before Benjamin Harrison III, attorney general and treasurer of the Virginia colony, acquired it in the 1690s.
Harrison’s son, Benjamin Harrison IV, built a large Georgian style plantation house in the 1720’s which still stands today. Harrison’s Landing accommodated the shipping of agricultural products and lumber of the Berkeley Plantation. Harrison’s son, Benjamin Harrison V, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. As the home of a signer of the Declaration, the plantation was a target for the British during the Revolutionary War. Benedict Arnold led a raid on the place, burning the Harrison’s belongings and furniture, and killing the livestock, but sparing the house from complete destruction or burning.
The Harrisons were a prominent family in Virginia, and the Berkeley Plantation had many famous visitors both before and after the revolution. The first 10 Presidents of the United States visited there. The ninth president, William Henry Harrison, son of Benjamin Harrison V, was born there in 1773. William Henry Harrison’s presidency lasted just one month before he died in office; he was succeeded by Vice President John Tyler, who lived nearby. William Henry Harrison was the grandfather of another Benjamin Harrison; this Benjamin Harrison (who was born in Ohio and not at Berkeley) was elected the 23rd president in 1888.
By the 1840s, crop yields were down and debt was up as land fertility declined. The Harrisons lost the plantation, and it passed through many owners and fell into decline. The house was abandoned at the time the Army of the Potomac reached the location on July 2nd, 1862. The Federals used the house as a hospital, and well over 100,000 Union troops camped in the plantation’s fields and grounds.
Soon after the arrival of the Union Army, General J.E.B. Stuart briefly shelled the plantation until McClellan’s troops chased the Rebels away and secured the surrounding area. One of Stuart’s cannon balls can still be seen in a wall of one of the plantation’s buildings.
During its stay, the Army of the Potomac rested and resupplied over the summer of 1862. The wounded and sick (and there were many of the latter in the summer heat) were treated. President Abraham Lincoln visited McClellan at Berkeley twice during that time. Also that summer, Brigadier General Dan Butterfield, a brigade commander in the 5th Corps, decided he didn’t like the regulation lights out bugle call then in use. Together with bugler Oliver Wilcox Norton, Butterfield came up with a new arrangement. It caught on quickly, and was soon played at the end of the day and at military funerals throughout the army. The new song was the now familiar Taps, adapted officially by the army in 1874. There is a monument on the Berkeley grounds commemorating Butterfield, Norton and the origin of Taps.
By the end of August, the Army of the Potomac was gone from Harrison’s Landing and the Peninsula, transported down river and back to Northern Virginia where Confederate forces were on the move. One soldier did return to the site many years later. John Jamieson, who had served as a drummer boy, bought Berkeley and its 1400 acres of land in 1907. In the 1920s, John’s son Malcolm and his wife grace set about the task of restoring the buildings and grounds of the Berkeley Plantation, and getting the land back into agricultural production. With many years of hard work, they succeeded on both counts. Still owned by the Jamieson family, the restored plantation buildings and grounds are today open to visitors and the land is again producing crops.