‘There are Yankees in the creek’

Published 11:44 pm Friday, January 25, 2019

Battle of Smithfield program includes church re-enactment


The Battle of Smithfield will be the topic of a walking and driving tour held by the Isle of Wight County Museum on Feb. 2.

This year marks the 155th anniversary of the Battle of Smithfield, an event that took place from Jan. 31 to Feb. 1, 1864. Isle of Wight County Museum Director Jennifer England said the museum usually hosts a lecture about the event, but decided to do more for the special anniversary.

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“We’ll meet at the museum, and we’ll have an overview of what was happening on this side of the water during the Civil War,” she said. “We’ll talk about what brought about this event.”

In 1864, the Union controlled the James River, according to the Isle of Wight Museum. On Jan. 31, a unit of Union soldiers sailed up the Pagan River to investigate Confederate activity. After landing and heading inland, they encountered a small Confederate unit. After a minor skirmish, the Union detachment went back to Smithfield but found their gunboat departed without them.

Confederate Maj. Sturdivant captured the soldiers the following day during a skirmish along Main Street. During the three-hour engagement, the Union gunboat Smith Briggs arrived, and the Confederate cavalry cut off the escaping troops. The Smith Briggs was then destroyed by Confederate cannon fire, and Union forces were captured.

A costumed interpreter, Albert Burckard, will lead the event as the group visits sites associated with the skirmish.

“We did it specifically as close to the anniversary we could get and still make it convenient for people,” Burckard said. “The reason for doing it on an anniversary date is not so much any sort of celebration, but so you can get a feel for the weather. You get to experience the weather that the soldiers had to endure.”

The highlight will be a visit to Christ Episcopal Church, where guests will enjoy the ringing of the bells and a re-enactment of the 1864 church service interrupted by news of the gunboats in the Pagan River.

“Folks race in when it was discovered that ‘there are Yankees in the creek,’” England said, using the quip from the original event 155 years ago.

Mary Cole of Christ Episcopal Church said participants will hear about the general history of the church, which was established in 1832, as well as the role it played in the Battle of Smithfield. One Union soldier wound up hiding in the church during the skirmish, Cole said.

The Rev. Bob Gilman, rector at Driver’s Glebe Church, will portray the 1864 rector, as the current rector at Christ Episcopal is a woman — the Rev. Connie Gilman, his wife.

“It will be very condensed, but it should be fun,” said Cole, who is the events coordinator for preservation of the church.

Participants will then visit a couple other sites in town before driving to Chuckatuck, where Union troops landed and marched to Smithfield.

Reservations are required. The program is free, but donations are appreciated. Some participants may need to drive themselves to the off-site locations depending on how many there are.

Call 356-1223 for more information. The museum is located at 103 Main St., Smithfield.