Civil War fort in Gloucester Point revealed

Hand-drawn map of strategic Civil War artillery position has been in Roanoke family's hands since the Civil Wa

After its earthen walls were wiped out by the construction of an oil terminal in the early 1900s, the landmark water battery that defended Gloucester Point during the Civil War passed rapidly from the landscape of everyday life into the realm of imagination.

Only three grainy black-and-white photographs captured what it looked like in early May 1862 after Confederate defenders abandoned the strategic position to the Union Army of the Potomac.

Only a couple of period maps recorded its much altered form after its new Federal garrison — driven by threats from the surrounding countryside as well as the western reaches of the York River — finished reworking its ramparts.

But now historians who've wondered about the lost outpost for decades have an unexpected new way to travel back in time to the early Confederate battery and the point of land that fired the first shots of the Civil War in Virginia.

Prompted by an early 2017 Daily Press story on a Gloucester Point archaeological dig, a Roanoke resident has come forward with an early 1862 map done by one of the fort's defenders.

So detailed is the sketch made by William H. Powers of the Piedmont Artillery that it reveals not only the number of guns and their positions but also the locations of the garrison's hospital, guardhouse and living quarters — not to mention twin flag poles mounted with the banners of the commonwealth as well as the Confederacy.

"I've been conducting research on Gloucester Point's history for more than 20 years — and this is the sort of discovery you dream of," says archaeologist David Brown, co-owner of DATA Investigations, which conducted the 2016-17 excavation for the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

"Even after all this time, there are still things out there to be found — and this is one of them. I was speechless."

Key location

Long recognized as one of the most strategic spots on the York River, Gloucester Point has been fortified many times over the past four centuries, including defensive works constructed during the Dutch-Anglo wars of the late 1600s.

It played a key role in the Revolutionary War, too, and when Confederate soldiers and slave laborers began digging there in 1861 they were standing in the footprint of positions designed to help command the river and protect the the ill-fated main army of British Lord Gen. Charles Cornwallis entrenched across the channel at Yorktown.

"Everybody who's ever tried to defend it has recognized that — if you were going to fortify Yorktown — you had to fortify Gloucester Point, too," says historian J. Michael Moore, curator of Civil War sites for the city of Newport News.

"It was a chokepoint."

That strategic importance helps explain why the Richmond Howitzers, stationed at Gloucester Point, fired the first shots of the Civil War in Virginia when the Union gunboat USS Yankee steamed up the York on the morning of May 9, 1861, to observe the recently started fortifications.

It also accounts for the elaborate defenses captured by the Powers map some eight months later, by which time the Confederacy had not only completed a formidable water battery defended by 11 guns but also erected two additional lines of intermediary earthworks between the river and the large, star-shaped fort that occupied the top of the adjacent heights.

"Gloucester Point was extremely important to the Confederates," Moore says.

"And they built layer after layer of defenses."

Revealing view

Though drawn by Powers, the map was passed down through the family of his comrade in arms, Henry Andrew Black.

Both men were members of the Piedmont Artillery formed in and around the town of Liberty — now known as Bedford — in Bedford County, and Black's name appears alongside that of Powers on the back of the drawing.

Folded up and kept along with the family Bible, the document remained mostly out of sight until Black's great-great-grandson had it archivally framed for its protection.

"How it didn't get lost all these years I don't know," Roanoke Judge Paul Black says, describing the times he'd seen it as a child.

"It was folded up in a piece of Saran Wrap."

Ten or 20 years ago Black tried contacting historical groups in Gloucester without any success.

But when he contacted Brown by email after seeing his name in a January newspaper story reprinted from the Daily Press, the response was immediate.

Soon the two were poring over the map at a Panera Bread restaurant in Richmond.

"He looked at it for about 20 minutes before he said anything," Black recalls.

"He'd never seen anything like it."

The map was a revelation, Brown says, recalling how such details as the presence of a pivoting gun helped reveal the seriousness with which Gloucester Point was defended.

Then there were the lines of huts built outside the fort to house Black, Powers and the other members of the Piedmont Artillery as well as gunners from Gloucester and King George counties.

"There are no maps that show the water battery during the Confederate occupation, and though the pictures are clear they can be deceptive," Brown says.

"It's a beautiful map. And it was drawn by somebody who was there for some time rather than a cartographer who just stopped by for a short period. So getting the chance to see it was really exciting."

Erickson can be reached by phone at 757-247-4783.

ONLINE: Go to dailypress.com/history to see a gallery of period photos and maps showing the Civil War water battery at Gloucester Point.

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