- The Washington Times - Friday, May 23, 2003

“I was originally interested in classic cars.” So says Fredric Minus of Trenton, N.J., as he portrays a first sergeant in the 6th Regiment Infantry of the USCT (United States Colored Troops) in a re-enactment at Fort Pocahontas on the James River, about 15 miles upstream from Williamsburg, Va.

“I had a musket from my great-great grandfather, John Henry Minus. He had been in the 3rd Regiment USCT, but I was not really interested in re-enacting until I went to a museum in Hamilton Township, N.J. I thought they were only interested in getting my musket. Instead, they said I should be involved in re-enacting. That was 1996. Since that time, I’ve traveled from Boston to Jacksonville, out to St. Louis and Fort Pillow, Tenn. I’ve spoken at elementary schools and universities,” Mr. Minus says.

“Blacks being involved in re-enacting was not a big thing until the movie ‘Glory.’ Now there are over 1,000 black men and women taking part in it. I’m glad when I see younger people getting involved. I’m 62 — but I can’t really complain. During the Civil War, men 65 and sometimes older joined up to fight for the cause. For example, another ancestor, Charles Rixson, was 40, a freeman with a wife and two children, yet he joined the Union Army.”

While interviewing Sgt. Minus, as we sat in his tent with rain coming down, watching his fellow Colored Troops walk by, it was easy to forget that it was 2003 and to drift back to May 24, 1864. At that time, Fort Pocahontas was an earthen fort built and manned by hundreds of Colored Troops under the command of Brig. Gen. Edward Augustus Wild. The engagement that day resulted in a victory for the USCT against a dismounted cavalry attack led by Maj. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee, Robert E. Lee’s nephew.

Harrison Ruffin Tyler, grandson of President John Tyler and the resident owner of Sherwood Forest, a family home since the president purchased it in the 1840s, bought the well-preserved earthen-fort site known as Wilson’s Wharf in 1996. The Virginia Department of Historic Resources considers Fort Pocahontas, virtually untouched for more than 130 years, “one of the best preserved fort sites.” It has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

At noon on May 24, 1864, about 2,500 Confederate cavalry initiated action on Wilson’s Wharf, manned by a force of about 1,400 black troops led by white commanders. It was the first meeting between USCT and the Army of Northern Virginia.

The area had been seized barely three weeks earlier as part of a Union attempt by Gen. Benjamin Butler to capture Richmond while Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s army operated against the bulk of Lee’s army north of Richmond. On May 23, Gen. Braxton Bragg, military adviser to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, ordered Fitzhugh Lee to “surprise and capture if possible a garrison of Negro soldiers at Wilson’s Wharf.”

Wild, who commanded the black troops, had lost an arm at the Battle of South Mountain in 1862 and was a fervent abolitionist. Wild was supported from the James River by two gunboats, the USS Dawn and USS Young America.

According to a statement given later by Lt. Edward Simonton (Company I, 1st Regiment USCT), “Our entrenchments were only about one-third completed when General Lee’s force came upon us so suddenly. Along the unfinished portion of our line, the enemy could easily and successfully have charged upon the works, but our men were ready for them.”

After delivering several surrender summonses, a Confederate reported that Wild replied, “Present my compliments to General Fitz Lee and tell him to go to hell.” This reply inflamed Lee and goaded him into sending his men to assault Wild’s strongest position. Lee’s true intentions were later penned by Pvt. Charles Price, 2nd Virginia Cavalry, “We had orders to kill every man in the fort if we had taken them.”

Lee’s troops eventually left the field with more than 100 casualties. There were about 20 on the Union side. Simonton reported, “The account in the Richmond Examiner was a gross exaggeration of the actual facts which amused us not a little at the time. No mention was made that Gen. Lee was defeated and driven back by Union forces consisting nearly all of colored troops.”

This battle secured the Union outpost and demonstrated that blacks could fight. Construction was completed after the battle, and the installation was named Fort Pocahontas. Wild and his troops were later replaced with Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, New Jersey and New York troops until the fort was abandoned in June 1865.

For more than 130 years, from 1865 to 1996, the fort lay forgotten until purchased by Harrison Tyler. In conjunction with the Center for Archaeological Research at the College of William and Mary and the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, Mr. Tyler has worked to preserve and interpret the fort. Historic and archaeological research has helped provide information about life in a Civil War encampment.

Artifacts found at the site include unfired Civil War lead bullets and knapsack hardware, all probably from Union soldiers. Mr. 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.

The fort had been lost in the mists of time — its true purpose and design seen only through aerial photography. What has emerged is both a well-preserved piece of Civil War history and, more important, fascinating new information about one of the most important battles fought by black troops in the conflict.

“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, says Mr. Tyler, on hand during the re-enactment. “The action at Fort Pocahontas proved that the African Americans could fight effectively without extensive support from white troops.”

To recognize the site’s importance, Virginia is erecting a historical marker that recounts the valor of the black troops. The plaque will be on Virginia Route 5, near President Tyler’s home.

Both Tylers — Harrison and his presidential forebear — graduated from William and Mary, and Harrison’s father served as president of the institution from 1888 to 1919. When it came time to select an archaeologist for the project, Mr. Tyler naturally looked to the William and Mary Center for Archaeological Research and its director, Dennis Blanton. Early this year, Mr. Blanton and several William and Mary students began excavations.

“One of our more interesting discoveries is the previously unknown site of a Federal encampment just outside the walls of the fort,” Mr. Blanton says. “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.”

Mr. Blanton says troops often bivouacked outside the fortifications they manned. The archaeologist also has located the site of a house within the fort itself, which he believes served as 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 River near Wilson’s Landing. The fourth side of the rectangle is formed by bluffs that overlook the James River and offer a vantage point from which a few cannon could control movement on the vital waterway.

Historical accounts indicate that during 1864, the fort was home to many 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 they could not pass information to Lee’s 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, 1,000 British troops under the command of Benedict Arnold disembarked at the landing to dash to Richmond in hope of capturing the Virginia legislature.

For almost 11/2 centuries, the fort lay forgotten (except by relic hunters) until Mr. Tyler purchased it. Once the underbrush is cleared from the site and archaeological studies are completed, Mr. Tyler hopes to open the area to the many visitors who come to tour Sherwood Forest Plantation, just a few miles away. The re-enactors appreciate Mr. Tyler’s opening the fort once a year for their use. Many other battlefields (including Antietam and Gettysburg) are largely federal property and not open for other uses. Here they can stand and fight and feel what their ancestors felt.

William S. Connery is an editor with the World & I magazine and has written on Fort McHenry and Montana during the Civil War.

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