DHR Announces Easement on Williamsburg Civil War Battlefield To Protect 245.40 Acres

Published December 29, 2021

Department of Historic Resources (www.dhr.virginia.gov) For Immediate Release December 29, 2021

–An American Battlefield Protection Program grant via the National Park Service of $4.6 million supported purchase of the York County acreage–

RICHMOND – The Department of Historic Resources has executed and recorded a perpetual historic preservation and open-space easement on 245-plus acres of the Williamsburg Battlefield in York County. Known as the Egger Tract, the wooded property—witness to several centuries of occupation by Native Americans prior to European settlement of present-day Virginia—is affiliated with the Civil War’s 1862 Battle of Williamsburg during the Union’s Peninsula Campaign. A National Park Service American Battlefield Protection Program (ABPP) grant announced in November supported purchase of the battlefield acreage by the American Battlefield Trust (ABT). The $4.6 million grant represents the largest single grant in the ABPP’s history, according to the NPS. Additional grant funding for acquisition and perpetual protection of the property was provided through the Virginia Battlefield Preservation Fund, the Virginia Land Conservation Foundation as part of a mitigation agreement pertaining to the Surry-Skiffes Creek-Whealton Transmission Line, and the U.S. Department of Defense’s Readiness and Environmental Protection Integration Program. Preliminary archaeological investigations on the property have revealed important information about the battle. In addition to battlefield-related resources, archaeologists have also uncovered evidence of the 19th-century James W. Custis farmstead as well as an earlier 17th- and 18th-century occupation that may relate to a quarter for enslaved peoples associated with a nearby plantation. Researchers anticipate future archaeological investigations of the property will yield more insights about the battle, and enslaved and free people who lived on the land, and about the lifeways of Virginia’s First Peoples. “This easement preserves and protects a vital array of historic and archaeological resources important to all Virginians’ history,” said DHR Director Julie V. Langan. “These include crucial acreage involving the 1862 Williamsburg battlefield, and portions of the property significant for its occupation by tribal communities prior to European colonization, and for a quarter farm site worked by enslaved individuals who resided on the property.” “We are grateful to the partners who supported this easement: the American Battlefield Trust, American Battlefield Protection Program, and the Department of Conservation and Recreation through the Virginia Land Conservation Foundation.” Langan added. In April 1862, Union Gen. George B. McClellan led the massive Army of the Potomac from Fort Monroe toward Richmond, the Confederate capital, advancing his army west along the “peninsula” between the York and James Rivers, in what became known as the Peninsula Campaign. On the morning of May 5, 1862, six enslaved individuals from the area approached Union commanders at Williamsburg with some vital intelligence. Confederate troops had hastily abandoned nearby redoubts after a skirmish the previous day, leaving their forces open to attack. Union Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock moved to occupy the redoubts, anchoring his artillery on a nearby farm. Facing a well defended opponent, Confederate reinforcements under Gen. Jubal Early advanced on the farm. The subsequent fighting resulted in the annihilation of Early's 5th North Carolina Infantry. A Union soldier described the carnage as a horrible sight, recording that “Our men were busy all day in burying the dead and taking care of the wounded rebels.” In the battle’s aftermath, Union forces used the barns on the Custis property as a field hospital and buried the dead where they fell. The Federals suffered about 2,300 casualties to the Confederates’ 1,600. During the night, Confederate forces slipped out of the earthworks and continued the march toward Richmond. The American Battlefield Trust, which owns an adjoining 65-acre parcel, intends to create low-impact pedestrian trails, install signage for battlefield and historic interpretation of the property and develop opportunities for public access. With the addition of the Egger Tract, DHR has placed under easement in 2021 more than 1,111.5 acres of battlefield lands. DHR easements are held by the Virginia Board of Historic Resources (VBHR) and DHR staff monitors the eased lands. Currently, the VBHR holds easements on approximately 15,347 acres of battlefields in Virginia.

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