Revolutionary War earthworks–genuine ones that haven’t been touched up or reconstructed–are hard to come by anymore. They’ve been fending off the elements and growth for getting on two-and-a-half centuries. That’s why it’s so remarkable that a rural Virginia county contains the well-preserved remains of an earthen fort built by hardscrabble colonists in 1776.
You have to be looking for what’s left of the Battle of Cricket Hill. Either that or you stumble on the site scoping out a spot to store your pleasure craft. That’s because these earthworks are now hiding in plain sight, guarding, of all things, a boatel. The fort is right where Americans left it a couple centuries back, on a handsome shoreline in Mathews County, Virginia. These old trenches escaped the bulldozer despite the centuries of development that happened around them.
In 1776, Virginia’s last colonial governor, Lord Dunmore, took up residence with about 500 soldiers on Gwynn’s Island, separated from Mathews’s mainland by a narrow inlet called Milford Haven. Dunmore ordered his position there shored up with earthworks and a stockaded fort. He thought those defenses would suit while his command recuperated from widespread illnesses and he figured out what to do next.
What Dunmore wasn’t counting on, it seems, were General Andrew Lewis’s plucky patriots. Dunmore at first scoffed at the Americans, saying they looked like a bunch of crickets coming over the hill. Dunmore’s conceitedness was a bit premature, though. The 2,000-strong American contingent threw up a couple lines of earthen fortifications just across the water and pummeled Dunmore’s meager force with so much artillery fire that the Redcoats packed up and left. Dunmore never returned to Virginia.
After those few heated days in 1776, the fortifications that faced one another opposite that wide ribbon of water melted into the seaside scenery. The Chesapeake Bay claimed some of the trenches; part of the lines are now underwater. Other stretches were razed as various enterprises sprung up along the shore. There were probably once earthworks under what’s now United States Coast Guard Station Milford Haven and the bridge that connects Gwynn’s Island to the mainland.
A good portion of the trenches Americans dug, however, remained in a fair state of natural preservation. For whatever reason, a roughly 300-foot stretch of earthworks were allowed to grow over with thick and tangled brush–the ideal situation for minimizing erosion. In the late 1980s, developers of that waterfront parcel saved some of the surviving earthworks, effectively building around them. And that’s where they are today–on the grounds of Morningstar Marinas, Gwynn’s Island.
The brush has been cleared. Thick grass grows and daffodils bloom on the parapets. The features soldiers constructed in the earthworks still stand out. Perhaps one of these embrasures shielded the gun that ruined Dunmore’s china set and sent splintered wood into his leg. Maybe it was behind these very lines that American Captain L. O’Hickey d’Arundel died when his prototype wooden mortar exploded (umm…Darwin Award, anyone?).
Equally as important as the turn of events at Cricket Hill is that, even after all these years, there’s still a tangible remnant–a rarity in a nation that has long since obliterated the physical traces of its first watershed moment.