A different Civil War story

Published 9:52 pm Monday, May 20, 2013

By Dennis Edwards

It never made sense when I was growing up. Why were there so few trees in my neighborhood? I mean there were trees, but not as many as you’d expect, and the ones we climbed weren’t as old as they could have been. Where’d the old trees go?

And there were the bunker-type hills behind houses between Wellons and St. James and trenches in Saratoga. Somebody had been here before.

Newsletter

Email newsletter signup

This mystery lingered through my childhood. The thought of an unspoken past was propelled by random comments from neighbors older than we imagined — people who had lived other lives long before we were born.

Looking back, I consider Suffolk the perfect canvas on which to have painted a childhood. Yet we never imagined we were living and playing on the very places where Union soldiers had encamped during the Civil War. Major battles, some with gunboats, were fought near Saratoga and Jericho Run and around forts built in what we know as Riverview.

One day my mother went to visit a woman who lived in what remained of Saratoga’s old Fort Nansemond. It was an odd place — two stories with trenches carved into the ground like shallow spider webs.

The lady who lived there talked of finding body and gun parts all the time. She even alluded to spirits in the house. I was all eyes and ears. But there was nothing special about it to her.

Kermit Hobbs’ recent articles about the Siege of Suffolk confirmed something I’ve been thinking about the Union occupation for a while. It seems many of their forts and encampments later became housing developments for blacks.

On the Suffolk map drawn by Union Captain E.A. Curtis, Wellons Street appears to be Somerton Road. Before the siege of 1863, the 200 block, where I grew up, was where the New York 15th and 16th camped. In Williamstown off West Washington, you’d have found the 4th U.S. Battery including the 99th New York. Fort Helcia appears to have been somewhere near old East Suffolk High School. Fort Jericho was somewhere near the community appropriately called Jericho.

I never would have known this had the trees not given the secret away. The land around our neighborhood was flatter, and the trees were scarcer. They weren’t as old or plentiful as they were on the Holland-area farm my mother’s family owned.

I am amazed now that men on both sides were living and dying here. Union soldiers would have been despised and destructive enemies to many, but they were heroes to others. And those from Suffolk who fought for the Confederacy made their point and bravely returned to build new lives, homes and futures from the ashes of war.

The Union soldiers left. Our ancestors stayed. I’m glad at least one Yankee lingered in the Holland area. Family legend and ancestry.com records confirm that my maternal great-grandmother, Cornelia Hodges Boykin, was the daughter of a slave called Pleasant and Union Army Capt. U. Bragg of Pennsylvania.

Cornelia married Garrison Boykin and went on to have 10 children. One was my grandmother, Maude Boykin Reid. Had the good captain not come through, my whole family might not be here right now. Cornelia and Garrison raised their own children, then took in and helped raise eight grandchildren whose mothers or fathers had died too soon. Imagine the void had she never been born.

This is a different Civil War story. Isn’t it amazing what answers come from a boy wondering what happened to all the trees?

Dennis Edwards is an Emmy Award-winning television news reporter and anchor, He is a 1974 graduate of Suffolk High School. Email him at dedwards247@comcast.net.