Forts Boykin, Huger are sentries to history of war on the James
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Some visitors to Isle of Wight County, VA, come for a taste of the renowned Smithfield ham produced in the county since the 1760s and defined by Virginia statute since 1926. Others visit the Isle of Wight Museum to snatch a look at the “oldest peanut” (113 years) or the “oldest ham” (103 years), both certified by Ripley’s Believe it or Not.
But just up the James River from the quaint and historic town of Smithfield are two public historic parks that now bear steady and silent witness to the importance of Virginia’s “Southside” of the James River in the early history of our country.
Six miles of sandy beach along Burwell Bay separate Fort Boykin and Fort Huger, both Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network sites. Each park offers opportunities for quiet reflection, time in nature and historic interpretation. In addition, Fort Boykin offers a secluded river beach for swimmers.
John Smith visited the area in 1608, and then again in 1609, trading with the Warraskoyack Indians who lived along the coast. Though both forts also saw action during the Civil War, this is where the similarities end.
“What’s so remarkable about Fort Boykin, and different from Fort Huger,” said Jennifer Williams, historic resources manager for the Isle of Wight County, “is that we can trace every war that has been fought on our soil since the 1600s – each successive war resulting in a further expansion of the original structure.”
That structure – called The Castle — was a triangular earthen fortification constructed in 1623 under the direction of Capt. Roger Smyth after the previous year’s Good Friday Indian uprising. His orders were to protect the growing number of small plantations that had sprung up on the southern banks of the James “from Spaniards by sea and from Indians by land.”
During the Revolutionary War, the fort was expanded and used by colonialists protecting the James from the movement of British naval vessels – and renamed Fort Boykin for Major Francis Boykin, an aide to Gen. George Washington. In the 1812 war against Britain, the fort was again expanded and built into the shape of a seven-pointed star.
During the first years of the Civil War, the Third and Ninth Virginia Regiments held position at the fort with ten, 32– or 42-pound guns trained on the lower James. Fort Boykin and four other forts, including Huger, formed a defensive phalanx on both sides of the James. Naval vessels cruising up the James encountered shoals and barriers that diverted traffic into the mouth of Burwell Bay beneath the guns of Forts Boykin and Huger.
But naval warfare technology progressed with the development of ironclads. Three Union gunboats advanced up the James toward Richmond and with longer-range guns overwhelmed the guns at Fort Boykin. No one was killed, but within an hour the Confederates had retreated and the Union flag was raised at Fort Boykin.
The best way to preserve earthworks like Fort Boykin is to let the land reclaim the structures. Now Historic Fort Boykin is a verdant tangle of trees and shrubs that anchor the linear mounds that are all that remains of the earthen fortifications. Grassy spaces within the perimeter are interconnected by breaks in the mound that reflect the repeated incarnations of the fort. After climbing a set of stairs over the most landward ramparts, visitors descend into a maze that can confound new — and returning — visitors and delight children, who race from space to space on their way to the overlooks or the swimming beach below.
In one section, a towering black walnut stands in a circle of of bare earth, testimony to the juglone toxin in its roots that ensures its survival in the local plant community. This tree has been hailed by the Remarkable Trees of Virginia project as “probably the second largest in Virginia,” and definitely one of the oldest. Round and hard, the black walnut seeds are underfoot along the trails everywhere on an autumn day. Another space is home to a round brick well built during the 1850s.
Sections of split rail fence guard visitors from the steep, sandy cliffs in a series of small, private overlooks where the heavy artillery once stood. The overlooks are connected only by deer trails through the dense thickets of honeysuckle and trumpet vines that separate them. Gulls soar and cry at eye level, Williamsburg and Newport News are visible more than five nautical miles across the James.
The fluffy down from an owl litters the ground here; nearby, tail feathers of a yellow-shafted flicker are strewn in a careless trail of conquest. Part of the Tidewater Loop of the Virginia Birding and Wildlife Trail, Fort Boykin and the surrounding county provide cover and food for more than 100 species of birds sighted here and in the county.
While Fort Boykin traces the arc of history through the successive walls of its fortification up through the Civil War, Fort Huger was not built until 1862. It was part of the Confederate deterrent holding back the press of Union naval ships toward Richmond upriver.
When developers were poised to transform this stretch of the cliffs into riverfront homes, savvy county government leaders encouraged them to offer the site as a proffer, saving this well-preserved example of military architecture for the enjoyment and education of future generations.
The Isle of Wight historic resources department has only recently developed Fort Huger, opening it to the public in 2007. Visitors are greeted by a sloping gravel pathway that ends in a 500-foot wooden bridge over a lush, soggy wetland, all that remains of the moat dug around the backside of the fort. At the end of the walkway, through an entrance of earthworks, the path opens up to a large flat area that served to house armaments, cannon bastions, and tent and parade grounds.
Albert Burkhart, a county resident, has volunteered his skills in historic resources and interpretation at both sites since 1986. He said that the site at Fort Huger has suffered considerable shoreline erosion since the 1860s, the front ramparts having been long lost to the river. When slaves and free blacks from the nearby county built the fort, they defensively felled trees for a mile from the fort to provide a 360-degree view. Later, this hastened the erosion at the site.
The county has placed replica cannons on parapets where the originals were mounted under the direction of Lt. Col. Fletcher Archer and the Fifth Virginia Infantry Battalion posted here. Union ships under the command of Maj. Gen. George McClellan brought siege during the Peninsula Campaign of 1862. The relentless enemy shelling from ironclads, including the USS Galena, overwhelmed the guns mounted at Fort Huger and Fort Boykin, both of which were abandoned in mid-May of 1862.
In a twist of fate, through the pines on the bluff at Fort Huger, visitors are treated to one of the best views from land of the James River Reserve Fleet – known locally as the Ghost Fleet – lying at anchor in Burwell Bay. Once numbering more than 300 vessels, this fleet of outdated naval and merchant technology has dwindled to less than 10 ships.
Historians are careful with their claims, but Burkhart said that county historians believe that Fort Huger is the United States’ best-preserved remaining earthen fort that has seen and survived active battle.
Burkhart offers monthly tours at Fort Huger through the Isle of Wight Historic Resources. Dressed as a war correspondent, he provides colorful details of these battles that would make both Yankees and Southerners proud.
Burkhart also tries to help visitors feel what he senses visiting these places. “For me, it is an overwhelming feeling of the presence of historic figures of the past. Not necessarily famous people, but the people who were here, huddling in these forts for protection.”
On a quiet day overlooking Burwell Bay, it’s not hard to summon up these old feelings at each of these remarkable parks.
Forts Huger & Boykin
Historic Fort Huger and Fort Boykin Historic Park in Smithfield, VA, are open 8 a.m. to dusk daily.
Admission to both forts is free.
The Historic Resources Division of Smithfield and Isle of Wight offers free monthly tours of Forts Boykin and Huger. A walking tour of Fort Boykin is scheduled at 3 p.m. Dec. 15. Walking Tours of Fort Huger are scheduled at 10 a.m. Nov. 16 & Nov. 22. Call 757-357-0115 for details.
For information about the forts, visit www.historicisleofwight.com/fort-huger.html or www.historicisleofwight.com/fort-boykin.html. For information about other sites in the Chesapeake Bay Gateways and Watertrails Network, visit www.baygateways.net.
The Isle of Wight County Museum, also in Smithfield, is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday–Saturday and 1–5 p.m. Sunday. It is closed Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.
The museum’s exhibits include prehistoric fossils, Native American and Colonial artifacts, a turn-of-the-century country store, displays interpreting the Smithfield ham industry and perhaps the museum’s most notable artifact: the world’s oldest, edible cured ham. For details, call 757-356-1223 or visit www.historicisleofwight.com/museum.html.
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