Sunday, July 21, 2024

Williamsburg Battlefield Tells Largely Untold Enslaved Black American Story

The James Custis Farm tells a largely untold story of enslaved people during the Civil War. (Courtesy of American Battlefield Trust)

WILLIAMSBURG — The American Battlefield Trust has secured a contract to acquire a 250-acre property on the Williamsburg Battlefield in York County that could be used to tell the largely untold story of enslaved people in the Civil War.

Thanks to federal and state matching grants, including a landmark $4.6 million sum from the American Battlefield Protection Program (ABPP) administered by the National Park Service (NPS), the Trust expects to preserve the historic 250-acre property, known as the James Custis Farm.

The wooded property off the Colonial Parkway that has been sought after for decades tells the powerful story of enslaved Black Americans during the Civil War’s 1862 Peninsula Campaign.

“There was not a real focus on what African Americans had done to help the union before Emancipation, explained Dr. Glenn Brasher, author of “The Peninsula Campaign and Necessity of Emancipation.”

Brasher was working on his thesis for his Master’s degree at Virginia Commonwealth University when he first discovered the story of how Black American troops helped the Union troops at the Battle of Williamsburg.

“My professor, Dr. Philip Schwarz, remarked to me offhandedly, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if they could actually find the place where this took place and preserve it?'” Brasher recalled.

Brasher did not think about the story again until after his book came out in 2012, when he decided to seek out the property on his own.

“I was blown away by how well-preserved that redoubt was,” he said. “I’d been a park ranger for many years, so I knew what a well-preserved Civil War fortification looked like, and this was one of the best i’d ever seen. It almost brought me to tears.”

Protected by forest, the land has remained untouched.

“It immediately struck me that this needs to be something that’s being interpreted,” Brasher said. “Something that visitors can go and see so that this story can be told.”

Brasher noted that the land tells the largely unknown story of the role that Black Americans played in their freedom prior to the Emancipation Proclamation.

In the spring of 1862, Northerners said that it was a “military necessity” to free the slaves in order to win the war. In a nationwide debate, it argued that the Confederate troops were using the slave population to fight the war by having them dig trenches of fortifications.

Among other reasons, the North also claimed that it wanted to free the slaves because it felt that if it took them away from the Confederacy, the slaves would rather fight for the Union. Additionally, the enslaved Black Americans brought to the North vital strategic information.

On May 5, 1862, members of the local enslaved population approached Union commanders at Williamsburg to tell them of two redoubts, numbered 11 and 14, that the Confederate troops abandoned, leaving the Confederate troops open to attack.

The American Battlefield Trust has secured a contract to acquire the 250-acre property on the Williamsburg Battlefield in York County. (Courtesy of American Battlefield Trust)

Gen. Winfield Hancock’s brigade then moved to occupy the abandoned redoubts, outflanking the Confederates. The Confederates’ counterattack was unsuccessful and the Confederates withdrew from the Williamsburg defensive line into Richmond.

Following the battle, Union forces used the Custis barn and stable as a field hospital. Brasher noted that the factors behind people calling for military necessity can be told using the land.

“These are just enslaved people whose labor was being exploited by the south to their benefit and who showed themselves as more than willing to help Union troops because they knew that winning the war would free them,” Brasher said.

Undiscovered archaeological resources on the property, including burial sites, may also help the organization identify enslaved men and women there.

“And then you can add the story of the enslaved people’s lives there,” he added. “Because if they get that land and they get out there and start doing archeology, who knows what they’re gonna find about the enslaved people’s lives in that area.”

Don Kline, a retired Navy officer who gives historic tours in Williamsburg, lives adjacent to the land and said that it would be a “huge win” if the American Battlefield Trust is able to preserve it.

“If the Trust is successful and we’re able to preserve it and properly interpret it, put signage up, maybe some trails or however it’s going to end up being developed, it’s only going to improve our property values here in this community,” he said.

Calling it a “microcosm of U.S. history,” Kline noted the uniqueness of the property.

“It’s definitely worth conserving and interpreting,” he said.

Brasher said that preserving the land would also bring more economic opportunity to the area.

“You’ve got a Civil War story thats largely not interpreted in that area. The fact that the Civil War story in that area hasn’t been told is really a shame,” he said. “So if the National Park Service were able to get that land and start interpreting that story, just think about what a boom that would be for that area. Because now you’re not only getting the Colonial Williamsburg visitor, but you’re going to start getting the Civil War visitor.” 

The $4.6 million matching grant from NPS is the largest in the two-decade history of the federal ABPP.

The American Battlefield Trust also acquired a 29-acre tract at the Bloody Ravine from the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation through grants from ABPP and the Commonwealth of Virginia, as well as donations from Trust members last December.

The nonprofit organization, which is dedicated to preserving battlegrounds and educating the public about what happened there, has protected nearly 54,000 acres connected to the Revolutionary War, War of 1812 and Civil War.

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