For years, Williamsburg’s Civil War history has lived in the shadow of better-known attractions situated nearby.
But local historians and preservationists have made strides in recent years to right that imbalance by showcasing opportunities to enjoy the preserved parts of this hidden history and by adding to the protected portions of the sprawling battlefield.
Even many locals are, at most, vaguely aware that there was a battle outside town during the Civil War, though they are often at a loss to identify where and when the action occurred.
In fact, Union and Confederate soldiers clashed east of Williamsburg on May 5, 1862. When the battle ended indecisively that night, nearly 4,000 soldiers had been killed, wounded or captured.
“Many people have a hard time imagining what it was like when the battle took place,” said Drew Gruber, Interim Director of the Williamsburg Battlefield Association, a nonprofit devoted to the battlefield’s protection and interpretation.
The public’s apathy could be forgiven; of the more than 10,369 acres considered by the National Park Service to be part of the battlefield, the public can access only a small fraction.
A majority of the battlefield lies under roads, dwellings and businesses, or on private property, according to military historian Carson Hudson, who has written two books on the Civil War Battle of Williamsburg.
One-third of the fortifications that played a central role in the battle were leveled for development long ago. Others, such as Fort Magruder, which was the centerpiece of the battle, remain standing but have been compromised through the years.
“Only about a fifth or a sixth of Fort Magruder remains intact,” Hudson said. “The rest is under pavement or development.”
Currently three small parts of the battlefield are preserved, interpreted and publically accessible. The south-facing parapets of Fort Magruder still stand on Penniman Road in Williamsburg. Redoubt Park, also within city limits, contains two fortifications, called redoubts. New Quarter Park in York County contains two additional redoubts.
While Fort Magruder is hemmed in on all sides by high-density housing and a church, Redoubt Park and New Quarter Park are much more open and laced by a network of trails ideal for hikers of all skill levels.
Winter and early spring are the best time to see these vestiges of battle, according to Gruber.
“With the foliage down, it gives a good idea of the field of fire, what it looked like, a better sense of place when they’re standing there,” Gruber said.
Gruber, who is also executive director of Civil War Trails, said that Williamsburg’s battlefield is an excellent springboard for locals to explore other related sites nearby. Williamsburg is about halfway between the beginning and the end of the 1862 Peninsula Campaign.
While not everyone might be taken with the ebb and flow of armies’ maneuverings, Williamsburg’s battlefield has another connection to local history that has carried through the ages. Many of the laborers who constructed the fortifications were enslaved African Americans, and the historic landscape that remains is a physical testament to their work.
“There are a few families to this day in York Terrace [a neighborhood built on the battlefield] that can trace their lineage back to these people,” Gruber said.
The portion of the battlefield that is preserved has increased in the past 18 months.
In May 2015, Anheuser-Busch donated a 65-acre parcel of the battlefield to the Civil War Trust. In October 2016, the Civil War Trust secured and consolidated ownership of a four-acre tract, wedged in the historic crossroads adjacent to York Terrace, where the armies converged and clashed.
Gruber said that public access to more of Williamsburg’s battlefield should be forthcoming this year.
This March, the Williamsburg Battlefield Association will be hosting a battlefield cleanup, and volunteers will have an opportunity to beautify and identify potential concerns on both recent acquisitions to the battlefield. Gruber said the preservation group hopes to have interpretive signs at the historic crossroads.
Gruber said that increased visitation and volunteerism has raised awareness of Williamsburg’s brush with the Civil War, which will in turn lift the battle out of the shadows once and for all.
“That momentum is going to carry us well into the future,” he said.
For more information, email Ben Swenson at firstname.lastname@example.org