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While driving down Route 60 near Riverside Doctors’ Hospital, it’s unlikely the area would be recognized as the site where seven Union Army soldiers fought in the Battle of Williamsburg on May 5, 1862, which led to those men receiving Medals of Honor for their efforts.
“As the train and an ambulance go by and people pull into 7-Eleven, it’s lost,” said Drew Gruber, a local historian.
A few years ago, Gruber and Steve Barnes –another local historian—set about researching the Civil War. Their passion for researching the local war effort led to reading historical accounts along with wartime letters and diaries kept at The College of William and Mary’s Earl Gregg Swem Library.
“It’s there, it’s hidden somewhere—someone’s story—and it’s just waiting to be discovered,” Barnes said.
About a month ago, the two men discovered there were seven Medal of Honor recipients whose awards were for efforts during the Battle of Williamsburg, which broke out as Confederate forces attempted to defend the Union’s advances on Richmond. They explored the battleground, pinpointing the locations of the conflict that saw these men’s heroic efforts.
“It sort of puts a human touch on a lot of the history we read about … it brings out the humanity in it. It makes it seem more real,” Barnes said.
The Civil War battle sites are not widely promoted in the Historic Triangle. Gruber and Barnes say that’s likely because in a tourism-driven economy, it’s important to focus on one thing. Jamestown is well-known for being the first English settlement in America in the 17th century, Yorktown is well-known for the Revolutionary War battle fought there during the 18th century and Williamsburg is well-known for serving as the state’s capitol during the 18th century.
Lost in all that history is the 19th century.
“It’s great that [the area] is focused on the 17th and 18th centuries … but you can’t succinctly wrap up the 17th and 18th centuries without the 19th century,” Gruber said.
Whether there will ever be historical markers showing the sites of these Civil War soldiers’ efforts is unknown.
“From a community perspective, battlefield preservation is a fiscally and socially responsible thing to do,” Gruber explained.
Ultimately, Barnes and Gruber agree preservation boils down to a few things: a property owner having the knowledge of history and drive to put a historical marker on their property or a locality preserving an area for tourism.
In an area with such a large push on Colonial history, Barnes and Gruber are holding strong to their appreciation for the Civil War. They want the community to realize what happened, where it happened and to go out and experience it.
“I want, every single time it rains, for people to think about these seven guys,” Gruber said.
One hundred fifty-one years ago, on a rainy Monday, the Battle of Williamsburg began at dawn. Seven men, ranging in age from 19 to 35, went to battle, some for the first time.
Sergeant John Coyne of the 70th New York Infantry captured the flag of a Virginia color guard just as the infantry was getting pushed back in battle. Inciting a group to aid in the capture, Coyne successfully slowed down the Confederates.
The site where Coyne captured the flag is on Route 60, between Car Quest and the Williamsburg Area Transit Authority. The property is cut with a gravel road and overgrown with weeds and poison ivy. A large water tower stands on the property, just as the land starts to slope upward into the woods. A ravine ran across the area, with Route 60 representing what was once its apex.
Nearby, Sergeant John Haight of the 72nd New York Infantry was dragging a wounded soldier off the battlegrounds. During his effort to save the wounded man, Haight was injured and taken prisoner by the Confederacy. Despite being severely wounded, he went into battle a few months later at Bristol Station and then, at Manassas, searched the woods for wounded soldiers.
Down Government Road, along what was Hampton Road during the Civil War, the York County Head Start building stands next to land where Private Michael Dillon of the 2nd New Hampshire Infantry exhibited bravery in battle by pushing back Confederate forces in an attempt to seize their guns.
On Merrimac Trail stands the Teamsters Local Union Number 95. The building stands on the site where three men– Sergeant Robert Boody of the 40th New York Infantry, Private Thomas Fallon and Sergeant Martin Conboy both of the 37th New York Infantry– performed actions leading to their Medals of Honor.
Fallon was a 25-year-old Irish immigrant who arrived in the United States in 1859.
“There’s something to say for immigrating here three years before and fighting to preserve the Union,” Gruber said.
Mike Brooks, the secretary and treasurer of Teamsters, had no idea the building he worked in stood on a former Civil War battle site.
As Gruber explained the historical significance of the site, Brooks became excited.
“I think that’s important; I think anything in our history is important,” Brooks said. He explained he could have easily believed “something from the Revolutionary War, but certainly not something in the Civil War” happened there.
Immigrants fought in the battle for workers’ rights, Gruber said, drawing a connection between Fallon in the Civil War and the purpose of today’s labor unions.
After Brooks understood the Civil War history represented by the site of the Teamsters building, he asked how to go about getting a historical marker for the site, saying he was going to look into it.
A little ways down Merrimac Trail, just past Tequila Rose, in the parking lot of Iglesia Casa de Pan at the intersection of Adams Road, is the site where German-born Aide-de-camp George Washington Mindil of the 61stPennsylvania Infantry worked to push the Confederate forces back.
“They’re not any different than we are and you make that connection,” Barnes said, explaining the men met the ultimate test in battle of whether they should retreat to save themselves, but they all chose to fight. “I just can’t imagine doing that. I’d be so scared,” he said.