By Ben Swenson
Williamsburg pulsed with activity. “The streets were thronged with artillery, supply trains and soldiers,” Val Giles wrote, “and the huckster was there crying his wares, for war had no terror for the Virginia huckster with his old poor horse and two-wheel cart.”
Yet this stirring scene wasn’t happening in the 18th century, when American liberty hung in the balance; those revolutionary dramas had long been put to rest. Giles was in town nearly a century later, when war was on Williamsburg’s doorstep once more.
This time, the United States was deep in the Civil War and Williamsburg was 50 miles from Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy. No longer the colonial capital, the Patriot firebrands had all passed on. Duke of Gloucester Street, by then simply Main Street, was a mish-mash of old and new structures.
Enter two armies, Union and Confederate. They clashed outside Williamsburg on May 5, 1862, in a rain-soaked battle that resulted in nearly 4,000 casualties and no clear victor. For all the warring parties’ differences, however, they shared in common a history at Williamsburg, a legacy that called both camps to fight for a larger purpose.
Giles, for instance, was a Confederate soldier in the 4th Texas Infantry, on leave from the front lines east of town. “We sallied forth to inspect William and Mary college,” he recalled, “where two presidents and Patrick Henry got their inspiration for American independence, the very thing that we were struggling for.”
Giles fancifully imagined what Williamsburg had been like during the previous century. “Back in colonial days, the belles and swells gathered in old Williamsburg…and danced the minuets to the music of spinet and fiddle.”
More than 72,000 thousand soldiers were in the vicinity of Williamsburg. One of them was a fellow Texan named Decimus et Ultimus Barziza, whose roots and family connections ran deep in Williamsburg (a compelling story that Colonial Williamsburg public historian Drew Gruber explores in this Past & Present podcast).
For Barziza, his time in Williamsburg was a homecoming. Traces of old Williamsburg, such as the Ludwell-Paradise House, where he had been born and raised, and the Public Hospital (then called the Eastern Lunatic Asylum), where his father worked, no doubt summoned memories of his upbringing. In researching Barziza and the Battle of Williamsburg, Gruber discovered a number of references to Williamsburg by soldiers and citizens alike.
Like this remembrance from Virginia infantryman T.D. Jennings, who recognized Williamsburg’s colorful past when he discovered that a line of earthworks he fought over was a relic from the American Revolution. “And so it is possible that we ragged ‘Rebs’ were actually defending the same works where once stood the ragged continental ‘Rebs’ fighting the [H]essian of Europe, as we were now, some eighty years later. ‘So doth history repeat itself.'”
After the battle, the Confederate army retreated westward to make a stand closer to Richmond, and the town that had helped fuel their fight fell into Union hands for the remainder of the war. For all the encouragement Confederates drew from the faded whispers of revolution in Williamsburg, their northern adversaries also found the same streets a wellspring of inspiration.
Massachusetts soldier Henry Blake thought Williamsburg timeworn and somewhat helter-skelter in the wake of the battle, although its prominence was not lost on him. By the time armies met there, he wrote, “the ancient city had lost its former importance and was now celebrated as the seat of the College of William and Mary, in which some of the eminent statesmen of the United States had been educated.”
Union Gen. George B. McClellan, who was commanding the army inching its way toward Richmond, wrote home to his wife from Williamsburg. “This is a beautiful little town–several very old houses & churches, pretty gardens, etc.” Of the Vest-Palmer House, his headquarters while in Williamsburg, McClellan wrote, “I have taken possession of a very fine house which [Confederate General] Jo[e] Johnston occupied as his Hd Qts–it has a lovely flower garden & conservatory–if you were here I would be inclined to spend some weeks here.”
Perhaps no Civil War soldier observed Williamsburg with better foresight than New York Col. Charles Wainwright: “This afternoon I took a ride all through the town of Williamsburg. … It is a queer old place; apparently has not grown any since the last century. Many of the buildings are very old–that is, for America–and everything indicates a perfect stagnation for years past.”
Wainwright had no idea just how long Williamsburg’s 18th-century character would carry on, drawing generations of citizens to a town, to an idea, for which many Americans proved willing to give their lives.
Want to see Williamsburg’s Civil War sites? Try these:
Bassett Hall – Long before this was the home of John D. and Abby A. Rockefeller, Bassett Hall was the home of one Colonel Goodrich Durfrey where George Armstrong Custer was best man at the wedding of a former classmate.
Ludwell-Paradise House – Although a private residence today, this is the dwelling where Decimus et Ultimus Barziza grew up and the ancestral home of his family.
Palmer House – This was Union General George B. McClellan’s headquarters, although the home was nearly twice its current size when he stayed there in 1862.
Bruton Parish Church – This served as a hospital during the Battle of Williamsburg and the churchyard became the final resting place for at least 40 Confederate soldiers.
Redoubt Park – About a mile from the Revolutionary City, this city-owned park contains two original Civil War fortifications.
For more ideas on Civil War sites in the Revolutionary City, see Civil War Williamsburg by Colonial Williamsburg’s own Carson Hudson.
Civil War programs:
America’s Music; The Civil War in Seven Songs – Join musician and historian Carson Hudson as he uses the themes of patriotism, home, freedom, bravery, loss and hope, to explore the moving story of the catastrophe that overtook Williamsburg and America in the 1860s.
Why Aren’t They Smiling: A New Look at Civil War Photographs – Every photograph tells a story. Join historian Carson Hudson as he examines interesting and unusual wartime photographs, sharing the stories behind the emerging photographic moment and the myths surrounding Civil War images.
Yankees in the Streets: Williamsburg During the Civil War – Williamsburg is known for its 18th-century history but what happened here during the Civil War? Join historian and author, Carson Hudson for an illustrated lecture on a different aspect of Williamsburg’s history and learn about the Battle of Williamsburg that took place May 5, 1862. Book signing to follow.