For thousands of years Native Americans hunted the woods, fished the rivers, built their villages and raised their crops in the vicinity of today’s Fort Lee. Here was centered the Powhatan Confederation, whose tribes met the first European settlers upon their arrival at Jamestown in 1607.
Those who followed in the wake of Captain John Smith and company soon established thriving plantations along the James River and deep into the interior. The land hereabouts provided 17th and 18th century farmers with a rich harvest of tobacco, corn, beans, root plants, vegetables and more. By the time of the American Revolution, Virginia’s population had grown to nearly 200,000.
In April 1781 British troops under Major General William Phillips landed at Old City Point on the banks of the James River (at present-day Hopewell) and marched through Fort Lee property to defeat a much smaller patriot force defending Petersburg. In October that same year Washington and Rochambeau’s combined forces captured Cornwallis at the Battle of Yorktown – less than two hours’ drive from Fort Lee – and thus secured America’s independence.
Eight decades later another army crossed Fort Lee. This time it was Union General Ulysses S. Grant. Strategically located on the banks of the Appomattox River, 23 miles south of the Confederate capital of Richmond, the town of Petersburg served as a major road and rail center throughout the Civil War. In the spring of 1864 a combined force of more than 100,000 Yankees marched across Fort Lee in a surprise effort to cut off Confederate General Robert E. Lee from his supply base. The nine-and-a-half month siege that followed was the longest in U.S. history. Four historic markers today trace the route of the United States Military Railroad that crossed Fort Lee bringing supplies to troops along the siege line.