Unearthing the Civil War

Published 10:56 pm Saturday, September 15, 2012

(U.S. Naval Historical Center Photo) An engraving, published in “Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper” in 1861, depicts the USS Harriet Lane engaging a Confederate battery at Pig Point on the Nansemond River on June 5, 1861.

North Suffolk site yields new clues about Confederacy

Civil War ordnance found buried at the end of College Drive offers fresh insight for history buffs into the minds of Confederates guarding the strategically important mouth of the Nansemond River.

Workers digging a trench to replace a sewer line damaged by erosion in April 2010 unearthed 21 shells on land owned by Tidewater Community College.


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Last year, archaeologists on a subsequent site inspection found 183 exfoliated lead shot and a portion of iron shot.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers archaeologist John Haynes says Civil War ordnance unearthed in North Suffolk shows Confederates at Pig Point were prepared to repulse an infantry attack. The relics, after being rendered safe, are being stored at the corps’ Fort Norfolk facility, while some were destroyed by the U.S. Navy. (Matthew A. Ward/Suffolk News-Herald)

The discoveries were reported this month during a meeting to update the public on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers efforts to decontaminate the former defense site, where TCC and Suffolk are planning a multimillion-dollar mixed-used development.

“I’m of the opinion that, because of the context, they were part of Civil War munitions,” said John Haynes, the corps’ sole in-house archaeologist for the Norfolk district.

“It’s not something you come across all the time. I find it very interesting, and to me, it confirms the location of the battery … and it fits with the Civil War map.”

Researching period artillery manuals, Haynes concluded the shells were ammunition for 8-inch guns, and the lead shot, averaging a quarter-inch in diameter, and iron shot, a little more than two inches in diameter, would have been loaded into 32-pounders as grapeshot.

“I believe the shrapnel to have been from Civil War canister shot, which means they were prepared to defend against land assault — it was not just an anti-shipping battery,” Haynes said.

“It’s too short-range to use against shipping. It’s also interesting that they had the grapeshot as well — that’s a little longer range.”

Where the ordnance was found is marked on maps as Pig Point. According to Haynes’ research — based on period records and accounts from historians — secessionists obtained more than 1,200 heavy guns when they seized Gosport Navy Yard — modern-day Norfolk Naval Shipyard — and 300,000 pounds of gunpowder at Fortress Norfolk, then a naval magazine.

The booty armed shore batteries to defend Norfolk. Pig Point was outfitted with five 32-pounders of 57 hundredweight, four 32-pounders of 42 hundredweight, one rifled 32-pounder and four of the 8-inch guns.

The relics came from the main battery, to the northeast of which two more batteries are believed to have existed; although Haynes says the period map shows only one additional battery.

Maj. General Benjamin F. Butler, commanding Union forces at Fort Monroe, across the James River from Pig Point, developed a strategy to take Norfolk that included seizing Suffolk, gaining control of the Nansemond River and the railroad, then draining the Great Dismal Swamp Canal into Lake Drummond, thus strangling the city.

Capturing Pig Point was key to the plot and, in the only skirmish to involve the Confederate stronghold, it engaged the cutter USS Harriet Lane, which Gen. Butler had sent out to reconnoiter the battery, on June 5, 1861.

Both sides fired multiple shots, resulting in some hits on the Lane and the premature decommissioning of one battery gun, before the cutter saw its disadvantage and retreated.

The two additional batteries, which Haynes said haven’t been located “as far as I know,” are thought to have been constructed after Robert E. Lee, following what became known as The Attack of Harriet Lane, or The Battle of Pig Point, recognized Pig Point’s strategic importance.

The recently uncovered ordnance is from the main battery, Haynes said, adding that because the initial discovery came during emergency repairs, archaeologists were not on hand to document the context.

“This wasn’t during the clean-up, this was something else,” he said. Consultant archaeologists “documented the ordnance; (they) went down and inspected the site,” but “unfortunately, they didn’t get a chance to look at the trench when it was open.

“The site has had mechanisms in place to deal with archaeological resources all along. If this had been found during a remediation action, it would have been dealt with a lot better.”

In addition to showing that the Confederates at Pig Point were prepared to repulse an infantry attack by their Union foes, the discovery also suggests their strategic withdrawal from Hampton Roads was rushed, stranding valuable guns and ammunition, and that the ammunition was likely hidden in case it was needed later, Haynes concluded.

A Navy Explosive Ordnance Disposal team destroyed 20 of the shells, deeming them “too dangerous for curation,” and a single shell, rendered safe, is currently in storage at the corps’ Fort Norfolk facility, along with the grapeshot.

The TCC development site has had numerous archaeological surveys, Haynes said, and the ordnance discovery may set a precedent for further work.

“It would be good to identify what may be left there and protect it from erosion,” he said. “If there were other caches of … ordnances out there, it may be contributing to lead levels that have been found in groundwater.”

TCC was given the site in 1968 by a nonprofit group, which, eight years earlier, came into possession of the land for a community college after it was deemed surplus to requirements of the U.S. Marine Corps.