The late Margaret Burgess lived in the old Yellow House for over 81 years. She was four years old when her family moved from North Carolina. The family understood Chester had better schools than what their home town had to offer. Burgess remembered the streetcars she would see on her walk to school and how neat her father kept the cemetery located next to their home. She also recalled with a gleam in her eye how she and her sister would slide down the banister on the elegant staircase in the center of her home.
But history tells us there is an even deeper story behind the old Yellow House. It’s not the size of the house or the design, or even the house itself, but what went on around it 150 years ago in May and ending on May 17, 1864. The house remained standing though in the center of a series of battles that led up to the capture of Richmond by the Federals, which ended the Civil War. Battle scars made by musket balls and pieces of exploding bomb shells, remain on the house today. There are stories of how the southern General Beauregard had his headquarters there temporarily while he had the Yankee General Butler bottle up at Bermuda Hundred. Although no one knows for sure if this was true.
During the early part of May, when General Butler was attempting his move toward Richmond and just days after the Battle of Chester Station, in which the Federal succeeded in blowing up part of the rail line there, Butler’s troops had moved from Bermuda Hundred up to the turnpike (Jefferson Davis Highway). Beauregard organized to push them back. From the book War of the Rebellion, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies:
“May 15 – Attack of 10,000 to 12,000 enemy cavalry upon Richmond was reported as imminent. General Whiting reported Petersburg much exposed. Regiments were ordered in from Macon, Georgia and Savannah, Georgia, for eventualities. General Beauregard organized for an attack at Drewry’s Bluff by infantry and artillery. The wounded that were able to fight were ordered back to the lines. Army organized into three divisions (right, left and reserve) under Major Generals Hoke, Ransom and Brigadier General Colquitt. Ransom at left behind trenches on Kingsland Creek. Hokes line crossed the road to the turnpike. Colquitt’s reserves centered on the turnpike…The Federals outnumbered the Confederates who had about 16,000 men.”
“May 16, 4:45 a.m. (daybreak) – Ransom attacked. The enemy resistance weakened. 6:30 a.m. General Beauregard reported satisfactory progress; General Ransom turning enemy’s James River flank, pressing the enemy back in front center. Ransom stormed breastwork and took four stands of colors and 300 prisoners. General Hoke and Colquitt attacked on the right drove enemy back capturing several siege pieces and many prisoners. 1:15 General Beauregard in personal command on turnpike prepared for combined attack. 5:15 Enemy driven to south side of Proctor’s Creek and east of railroad and also from part of turnpike. Combined attack on Proctor’s Creek begun.”
“May 17, 7 a.m. – The general advance commenced. Enemy retreating. Whiting’s Division cut its way through enemy, joined the attack about noon and formed right wing. Enemy forced back to his lines across Bermuda Hundred Neck and his forces neutralized. Federal losses 4,350. Confederates losses 2,730.”
A marker rests at the corner of the Burgess property, which was erected by the Chester Station Camp No. 1503 of the Sons of the Confederate Veterans. Recognizing the battle that took place in the Bermuda Hundred Campaign.
Another report of the combat that took place around the Yellow House is that of James Marcus Gregory, who later became a distinguished lawyer and judge in Chesterfield County and served on the State Legislature. His portrait hangs in the Chesterfield Courthouse today. Part of this story goes like this: “The exploding enemy bomb shell, which struck his hip in the Battle of the Yellow House, left him unconscious and so severely wounded that his comrades believed him to be dead and moved on. After many hours he regained consciousness and, all alone, he dragged himself to a small sapling, which he broke down and after breaking out the forked top he used it as a crutch and hobbled about seven miles to “Rockwood” his father’s home on the Patrick Henry Highway where it crosses the Court House Road. He received a military distinction for bravery.”
Stories of bravery and loss surround the Battle of the Yellow House, but years later life at Yellow House was much lighter. Under the ownership of the Burgess family the home has been the center of many family gatherings. And although the exterior of the house has had its share of damage the interior remains warm and inviting with its curved staircase and antique furnishings. An antique trunk graces the landing at the top of the stairs that was once used to hide valuables during the war. It was the habit of southerners, who were in the path of northern forces, to store their heirlooms in a trunk and when invasion was imminent, the trunk would be whisked away and hidden in the woods until the danger of looting had passed. And then another reminder of the past, in an upstairs hallway, a framed presentation of Confederate currency, which serves as a vehicle to take us back to the battlefield almost forgotten.
Originally printed in Chester Village News, May 17, 2001, Volume Three, No. 38