The heart of Williamsburg Virginia: Spirits of the Civil War period walk among the living as the town fills in the blanks in its not-always-genteel history.

June 07, 1998|By Dale Brown | Dale Brown,Special to the Sun

So steeped is Williamsburg in American Colonial history that you forget it has had other pasts as well.

My friends and I were reminded of this on a recent visit by a rifle-carrying Confederate soldier we came across on an evening walk. He was in a state of near hysteria as he accosted us, frantic to know whether we had seen his buddy who had gone missing. Both, he said, had fought side by side earlier in the day as part of a 20,000-man Southern force trying to hold back an onslaught of 25,000 Yankees determined to march through Williamsburg on the one road connecting Fort Monroe at the tip of the Virginia Peninsula with Richmond. The Northerners' objective was to take the capital of the Confederacy and end the war. According to the records, both sides suffered some 4,000 casualties in the woods and fields east of town on May 4-5, 1862. Plainly, many a soldier who had been through that hell would be in a state of shock afterward.

No, we were not caught in a time warp. We had merely met up with one of the dozens of authentically clad, savvy "character interpreters" employed by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation to bring history to life. William Travis, the soldier's name, had actually existed, as had his friend. Travis went on to die fighting in the Richmond-Petersburg siege line two years later. The young actor who played him, William Balderson, had obviously schooled himself thoroughly in Civil War history and lore and was so much immersed in the persona of Travis that he could get us willingly to suspend our disbelief as we watched and listened to him.

Who would have thought that Williamsburg - which had become a sleepy little backwater after the capital moved to Richmond in 1781 - had such a violent Civil War past? Certainly not I.

After the battle, the town was turned into a hospital for the wounded of both sides, with many houses and all public buildings converted to wards and surgeries. The Yanks failed to reach Richmond, but they would keep Williamsburg for its strategic location, putting the population under martial law. Despite a Confederate raid and several skirmishes fought in and around town in 1862, 1863 and 1865, the Federals held onto the town for more than three years. Indeed, they did not depart until five months after General Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox.

Williamsburg now commemorates those dark moments in its history as part of the Civil War Discovery Trail, linking more than 500 sites in 28 states. It has added six to eight Civil War tours given evenings on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays, during which participants meet and have a chance to talk to both a Confederate and a Union soldier and a woman of the town. (To run the tours by day would sow unnecessary confusion in a setting that remains steadfastly 18th century.)

African-Americans

If Williamsburg continues to be anchored in Colonial times, it is beginning to present a more rounded view of the period, mindful, among other things, that more than half of its population in the 1700s was African-American. The Williamsburg generated by the restorers of the 1930s and presented for years thereafter was a genteel one, as though slavery had not existed. Now, the character interpreters and "the persons of the past," as the more generalized costumed employees in the living history program are called, include African-Americans like Roy Black, whom we came upon behind the house of the speaker of the Virginia House of Burgesses, Peyton Randolph. Black and a friend were busy squaring a tulip poplar log into a beam, a reminder that without unpaid slave labor, Williamsburg might never have been built - or perhaps not quite so grandly. As Black explained, he and his assistant hoped to be able to sell the beam and earn cash - and a little independence - for themselves.

At the same site, a vanished kitchen-laundry complex, above which lived Randolph's slaves, will be reconstructed, based on carefully sifted and studied archaeological evidence. Work has already commenced on the outbuildings, including a dairy and a smokehouse. When the reconstruction is complete in 2000, a whole new community will occupy what hitherto had been treated merely as a garden and lawn, instead of the spot where several unfortunates spent most of their lives working for the benefit of their master and his family.

(At Carter's Grove, just eight miles from town, the plantation's slave quarters have been re-created, complete with cabins and African-American men and women who guide visitors through the primitive buildings and around the site.)

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