Union fort rediscovered in Va. History: About 1,100 former slaves serving in the Union forces successfully defended an isolated outpost in Virginia on May 24, 1864, against a Confederate cavalry force of about 2,500 men.

January 04, 1998|By Mark St. John Erickson | Mark St. John Erickson,NEWPORT NEWS DAILY PRESS

CHARLES CITY, Va. - Confederate Maj. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee had every reason to be confident when his troops pulled up outside Fort Pocahontas on May 24, 1864.

Beside him rode nearly 2,500 cavalrymen, including some of the South's most seasoned fighters. Defending the isolated, partly unfinished outpost before him were a few Yankee officers - and an African-American force made up of about 1,100 ex-slaves.

But nearly 134 years after the bullets began to fly, Civil War enthusiasts gathered this week to honor the unlikely Union victors with a highway marker commemorating their historic triumph.

They also applauded the preservationist instincts of Harrison R. Tyler, the owner of nearby Sherwood Forest plantation, who followed his recent purchase of the site by commissioning what archaeologists are calling an "extremely significant" excavation.

"Even though I grew up a few miles from here - and knew of the trenches - I did not know about their importance until Mr. [Edwin W.] Besch told me," Tyler said, crediting the historian who told him about the long-forgotten battle.

"They might have been destroyed by development if I hadn't bought the land."

Known as Wilson's Wharf during the Civil War, the remote waterfront landing became a strategic point in the Union's James River supply line during its 1864 advance on Richmond, Va., the Alabama-based Besch explained.

Gen. Benjamin Butler, a former Union commander at Fort Monroe, assigned contingents of the U.S. Colored Troops to defend the vulnerable site because, as he noted in his reports, "I knew they would fight more desperately than any white troops, in order to prevent capture."

The Southern authorities considered the garrison of black ex-slaves an affront, especially after the soldiers raided nearby Sherwood Forest and the homes of other well-to-do Charles City County planters. Their commander, Brig. Gen. Edward A. Wild, incited the Confederates even more by forcing a local slave owner to endure a whipping from his own slaves, Besch said.

Lee's objectives were partly strategic and partly psychological when he launched his first assault on the earthen fortification on the afternoon of May 24.

According to one Virginia private, the cavalrymen dismounted and advanced with their sabers drawn, hoping to frighten their outnumbered opponents into submission. "We had orders to kill every man in the fort if we had taken them," he wrote.

No one in the Confederate force seems to have expected the resistance they encountered during their first attempt to storm the outpost, Besch said.

"Present my compliments to General Fitz Lee - and tell him to go to hell," the Union commander responded - after reading the Confederate cavalry leader's demand for surrender.

The Confederates also might have been overconfident when they launched their last, ill-advised assault on the well-defended east side of the fort three hours later. "It was a stupid attack," said historian Edward G. Longacre, who describes the battle in his 1997 book, "Army of Amateurs."

"They got mowed down."

Lee's losses totaled nearly 200 men killed, wounded or captured, Besch said, but the Confederate leader - nephew of Gen. Robert E. Lee - later changed the numbers to lessen the embarrassment of his defeat. The Union, in contrast, suffered fewer than two dozen casualties - and scored a huge psychological victory for African-American soldiers.

Though tested on several previous occasions, including the September 1863 attack near Charleston, S.C., made famous by the movie "Glory," the U.S. Colored Troops never had defeated the Confederates so decisively or so entirely on their own.

"It had a huge effect on the opinions of the Union's white troops, who previously thought the blacks were suspect," Longacre says.

"The newspapers in the North all wrote big stories praising their performance."

Still, the historic battle remained largely overlooked by 20th-century observers until Besch, working as a consultant for the Civil War Sites Advisory Commission, stumbled on word of the fort's existence several years ago.

Sharing his research with Tyler, the grandson of early 19th-century President John Tyler, he eventually persuaded the history-minded landowner to purchase the property for its protection.

"I didn't realize how steep the walls were until I returned with Besch and started walking through the brush and the briars," said Tyler, who had picked up Minie balls near the site as a youth, he said.

"It's a very impressive fort."

Recent archaeological surveys, which Tyler commissioned soon after his purchase, also have added to the fortification's importance.

Conducted by Paul M. Nasca of the College of William and Mary's Center for Archaeological Research, the studies have turned up evidence of several Union encampments areas that, because of their remote location, are unusually well preserved. "This is an extremely significant find," said center Director Dennis B. Blanton, "There are no encampments from the peninsula campaigns that have been thoroughly explored - and most of them have been lost to development or looted by collectors."

Tyler said he hopes to stage re-enactments and public tours of the site once additional archaeological work has been completed.

The Civil War attractions will be offered to the public as part of the tour of his family's famous 18th-century house.

Historian John V. Quarstein, head of the Virginia War Museum in Newport News, praised Tyler's efforts, calling them a model for both historic preservation and the development of cultural tourism on the James River peninsula.

Pub Date: 1/04/98

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