The AC Community will recall several years ago when we began to do battle (again) to preserve and interpret land at Williamsburg. We are making some headway. In 2005 we have just under 5 acres of core battlefield preserved and we are just over 70 now. Little by little.
Saving a historic Peninsula crossroads
If you had to pick the most historic road junction on the Peninsula, you could do a lot worse than the fork where the old Hampton and Yorktown roads meet just southeast of Williamsburg.
Now known as Oak Drive and Penniman Road, these ancient traces reach back to the tobacco boom of the mid-1600s — when great plantations began emerging along both the James and York rivers — and they were already more than a century old when Washington and his army marched from Williamsburg in October 1781, veered to the left and went on to decide the fate of the Revolution at Yorktown.Nearly 81 years later, the Y-shaped crossroads was still so important that Confederate engineers anchored their Williamsburg line some 200 yards away — and it was the guns at Fort Magruder that held the Army of the Potomac at bay during the May 5, 1862, Battle of Williamsburg.
Brutal artillery fire and infantry attacks crisscrossed the landscape here for most of a long, wet and bloody day, inflicting nearly 4,000 casualties before the Southerners retreated under cover of darkness.
That's why the Williamsburg Battlefield Association has joined with the Civil War Trust, the American Battlefield Protection Program and the Department of Historic Resources' Virginia Battlefield Preservation Fund to purchase a 3.27-acre tract here, spending $192,000 to preserve a critical piece of ground near the heart of the fighting.
It butts up against two smaller properties preservationists already own, providing the chance to link the site with other protected parts of the battlefield.
"If you look down this road to my left, that's where Hooker's division was coming up. Smith's division was coming up the road to my right — and the Confederates were maybe 200 yards up the road in front of us, which went straight through the middle of Fort Magruder," said WBA historian Carson Hudson, author of two books on the Battle of Williamsburg.
"There were lots of soldiers, lots of guns, lot of fighting all over this property. It was pivotal to the battle because — if you wanted to go from Fort Monroe to Richmond — you had to take this road."
Just how far the intersection reaches back can be seen in some of the region's earliest property records and maps, which begin referring to the roads and the crossing in the 1600s.
"Both of these roads are incredibly old," said local historian Paul Emigholz, who has spent years piecing together how people have traveled across the oldest English-speaking part of the United States.
"They follow the natural topography — the natural high ground — and they may date back to Native American trails. They became the main routes on the Peninsula very early on."
That same topography led to the construction of a palisade near here in the 1630s, with the line running from College Creek on the James to Queens Creek on the York in order to protect the growing plantations to the south from the Indians.
Confederate engineers followed a similar path in late 1861 when they laid out the third of three defensive lines designed to protect the Peninsula and Richmond from attack by Union forces at Old Point Comfort and Fort Monroe.
"This crossroads has been a nexus of Peninsula history for almost 400 years," said Drew Gruber, acting director of the WBA.
"The Battle of Williamsburg happened because of that intersection. That was the way to Richmond."
Covering the rear of the retreating Confederate army, which had abandoned its main defensive line between Yorktown and Mulberry Island, the 4th Virginia Cavalry was driven up the Yorktown Road by advancing Union troops on the afternoon of May 4, writes Williamsburg historian Carol Kettenburg Dubbs in "Defend this Old Town: Williamsburg and the Civil War."
Soon afterward, another Federal force tangled with Confederate cavalry and artillery commanded by J.E.B. Stuart on Hampton Road, pushing them out to find themselves facing a line of deserted earthworks.
Early the next morning, Brig. Gen. Joseph Hooker and his division came up Hampton Road, deployed artillery just to the south of the fork and launched a determined but ultimately doomed attempt to fight through heaps of felled trees toward the Confederate positions, which had been hastily manned during the night.
"This was the first major battle in the east since Bull Run the previous year — and it was no small fight," Hudson said.
"This is where Hooker earns the nickname 'Fighting Joe.' This is where Phil Kearny — the richest man in America — charges in holding his sword in his one arm, his horse's reins in his teeth and saves the day for the Union. This is where Winfield Scott Hancock becomes 'Hancock the Superb.'
"Some people overlook the Battle of Williamsburg because it was eclipsed by the casualties of later battles. But this is where the leaders on both sides began to emerge. This is where they began learning how to fight. This is where they began learning how to kill."
Nearly 155 years later, the sprawling battlefield is crisscrossed by modern development, including several 20th-century highways, a late-1800s railroad and post-World War II housing tracts and shopping complexes.
Those changes to the landscape have buried or leveled nearly a third of the original 14 Confederate earthworks — most of them in the hottest spots of the conflict, Gruber said, while another is scheduled to be lost to the widening of Interstate 64.
Still, several positions have been preserved within the bounds of the Colonial Parkway, New Quarter Park in York County and Redoubt Park in Williamsburg.
The Civil War Trust also obtained a 65-acre tract on the eastern portion of the battlefield from Anheuser-Busch in 2015, when the property was described as the potential anchor for a future Williamsburg Battlefield Park.
"Very few people associated this place with the Civil War," Gov. Terry McAuliffe said at the signing ceremony.
"But today I believe that will change."
Among the short-term plans for the newly acquired property at Oak Drive and Penniman Road are landscaping and public access improvements, with interpretive signage to follow, Gruber says.
The group also hopes to link to such sites as Redoubt Park and the surviving redoubt No. 3 at the Fort Magruder Hotel and Conference Center with a driving and walking trail.
"The opportunities for preservation and interpretation here are huge," said Gruber, who is also executive director of Civil War Trails.
"And the potential economic impact from Civil War tourism could be significant."