Dig Unearths Details Of Historic Civil War Battle
Fort Pocahontas was the site of one of the fiercest battles between
African-American Union troops and the Confederate army.
In 1996, Harrison Tyler achieved one of
his life-long dreams. The grandson of President John Tyler bought
a long-forgotten Civil War fort on the banks of the James River
a few miles downstream from Richmond.
Artifacts found at the site include
unfired Civil War lead bullets and knapsack hardware, all probably
from Union soldiers.
Tyler quickly set about clearing more than 100 years of brush from
the site, researching the role that Fort Pocahontas played in the
conflict and undertaking an archaeological investigation of the
area. What has emerged-literally and figuratively-is both a well-preserved
piece of Civil War history, and, more importantly, fascinating new
information about one of the most important battles fought by U.S.
Colored Troops in the conflict.
Supported only by a few white Union soldiers manning two cannons,
some 1,100 African-American soldiers repulsed 2,500 Confederate
cavalrymen led by the legendary General Fitzhugh Lee.
"We know from the movie 'Glory,' U.S. Colored Troops proved
that those who initially questioned their fighting ability were
dead wrong, but most of the battles in which they fought involved
the extensive use of white Federal troops. The action at Fort Pocahontas
proved that the African-Americans could fight effectively without
extensive support from white troops," explained Tyler, who
owns Sherwood Forest, the nearby home of President Tyler.
The battle of Fort Pocahontas took place on May 24, 1864, when
Confederate cavalrymen led by Robert E. Lee's nephew attacked the
earthen fort garrisoned by African-American soldiers commanded by
U. S. General Edward A. Wild. The smaller Union force beat back
the Confederate attacks and maintained the Union's grip on James
To recognize the site's importance, the Commonwealth of Virginia
is erecting a historical marker which recounts the valor of the
African-American troops. The plaque was unveiled yesterday on Virginia
Route 5, near President Tyler's home.
Both Tylers-Harrison and his Presidential forebear-are graduates
of the College of William and Mary, and Harrison's father served
as president of the institution from 1888 to 1919. (As president
of the College, his father is credited with securing the institution's
financial footing.)When it came time to select an archaeologist
for the project, Tyler naturally looked to the William and Mary
Center for Archaeological Research and its director, Dennis Blanton.
Early this year, Blanton and several William and Mary students began
Paul Nasca, a graduate student
in anthropology, excavates a trench in the earth indicative of the
previous presence of a Civil War shelter. Nasca's work is the basis
for his master's thesis.
"Contemporary accounts of the battle and the numerous spent
bullets and cannon balls found by relic hunters over the years indicate
that this was a fierce battle," said Blanton. "This conclusion
is sustained by our ongoing study."
According to written accounts, the Confederates first attacked
from the north and then from the east. After heavy fighting, these
efforts were repulsed by the 1st and 10th Regiments of the U.S.
Colored Troops and two cannons from the white 3rd New York Artillery.
The Confederates experienced heavy losses, and a nearby burial ground
is thought to contain a mass grave in which some of the Confederate
dead are buried.
"One of our more interesting discoveries is the previously
unknown site of a Federal encampment just outside the walls of the
fort," said Blanton. "Included in this area are many artifacts
normally found at such sites, and, more significantly, rare evidence
of shelters. We are investigating further in an effort to determine
what these shelters looked like and how they might have been used."
Blanton went on to explain that troops often bivouacked outside
the fortifications they manned. The archaeologist has also located
the site of a house within the fort itself, which he believes served
as General Wild's headquarters.
The fort's well-preserved bastions, breastworks and gun ramps form
a rectangle that runs about 1,800 feet westward from the mouth of
Kennon Creek, which flows into the James near Wilson's Landing.
The fourth side of the rectangle is formed by bluffs that overlook
the James River and offered a vantage point from which a few cannons
could control movement on the vital waterway.
Historical accounts indicate that during 1864 the fort was home
to many African-American slaves in the region who left their masters
to seek refuge with the Federal troops. Imprisoned at the fort during
this period were Confederate sympathizers who had been apprehended
by Wild's soldiers so that they could not pass information to Lee's
embattled troops. Historians speculate the Confederate attack might
have been designed to free them.
As early as Colonial days, the landing (which at various times
was known as Kennon's Landing, Wilson's Landing or Wilson's Wharf)
was used to ship tobacco from James River plantations to England.
During the Revolutionary War, a thousand British troops under the
command of Benedict Arnold disembarked at the landing to dash to
Richmond in hopes of capturing the Virginia legislature.
For almost a century-and-a- half, the fort lay forgotten (except
by relic hunters), until Tyler purchased it. Once the underbrush
is cleared from the site and archaeological studies are completed,
Tyler hopes to open the area to the many visitors who come to tour
by Bill Walker