It’s easy to appreciate sacrifice at Yorktown Battlefield, where Americans secured their independence. Visitors there find historic fortifications, artillery and cemeteries containing the remains of hundreds of soldiers who fought and died for a cause. But sometimes folks render service to their country in less visible ways, and in an out-of-the-way quarter of the battlefield, a neglected road leads to what’s left of a different kind of sacrifice.
“Representatives of my staff have previously been in contact with you regarding the necessity of inspecting your property,” wrote a National Park Service regional director to Sherman Hill, a resident of Slabtown, Virginia, in November 1976. “The purpose of the inspection of your property is to prepare an appraisal to be used in negotiating with you for the acquisition of your property by the Government.”
At issue was that Park Service officials wanted to remove Slabtown, a tight grid of streets tucked into 115 acres of the sprawling battlefield, ahead of Yorktown’s bicentennial. Congress had authorized the government to acquire the home and lot of the Hill family and scores of others who lived in the old, working-class neighborhood and to help them with resettlement efforts.
Left: Marl Pit Rd, Slabtown’s Main Street; Right: The intersection of Marl Pit Rd and Union Rd, Slabtown
The idea behind relocating Slabtown’s residents was that the National Park Service could present a landscape that more closely approximated the Yorktown of two hundred years earlier–a core colonial town surrounded by acres and acres of open fields. That seemed sensible enough justification, but in the process of destroying Slabtown, the government was also erasing a feature that was as much a part of the battlefield as all the trenches and guns there.
The story of Slabtown begins in the turbulent days of the Civil War. As in the Revolutionary War, Yorktown was the scene of warring armies, only this time between Union and Confederate forces instead of British, American and French. In 1862 when General George B. McClellan marched his army up Virginia’s lower peninsula, slaves from plantations far and wide fled to Union lines hoping the rumors that they’d be given their freedom were true.
Indeed, so many slaves sought protection–12,000 according to the Union general in charge there–that officers ordered the construction of a village to house a portion of the overwhelming number of refugees. All the able-bodied males among the freedmen built the homes themselves. The exterior of the two-room cabins were typically made of slabs, or the outermost cuttings of tree trunks, lumber that is rounded on one side flat on the other. Although some people later referred this village as Uniontown, the original name–Slabtown–stuck.
Left: Daffodils emerging on an empty lot at Slabtown; Right: Vacant fields where rows of houses once stood
Slabtown flourished for more than a hundred years after the Civil War, and eventually included a seminary and church, school building, Freemason’s hall, corner store, scores of homes, even a couple juke joints. The inhabitants were virtually all African American. Most of them descended from the original slaves who sought protection from the Union army.
But in the 1970s, Park Service officials insisted that Slabtown was in the way. The neighborhood didn’t fit with the long term plan for the battlefield’s preservation. Some of the homes didn’t have indoor plumbing. The aging buildings there were too far removed from the original, noble settlement that sprung up behind Union lines.
The government agreed to pay fair market value for Slabtown property. A handful of people who lived on the fringes of Slabtown proper were offered so-called life rights, allowing them to stay in their homes until they died, even though they’d no longer own the property. But most people in Slabtown itself were bought out. Many sold their property willingly, others were reluctant to go and officials began condemnation proceedings. Within several years, this village founded by Americans fleeing slavery during the nation’s greatest crisis no longer existed.
Scenes from abandoned Slabtown
Shiloh Baptist Church was established at Slabtown in 1863 although the building has since moved just outside the boundary of the battlefield. On a recent July afternoon, the congregation celebrated their 150th anniversary. In Shiloh Baptist’s parish hall, Park Service officials hosted a symposium on the history of Slabtown and African Americans in the Civil War.
The following day, after a stirring homecoming service, Shiloh Baptist’s parishioners, some of whom lived in Slabtown, walked the mile and change from their current church building to the site of one built in 1898 and torn down by the Park Service in the 1970s. It was a moving march with the congregation singing spirituals and gesturing to the roadside foliage, recalling where this or that family lived, where they went to school, got their hair done.
After brief services at the site of the old church and the national cemetery, Park Service officials unveiled waysides, or informational signs, about Shiloh Baptist and Slabtown. Not exactly absolution for destroying Slabtown but good step toward the recognizing the village that gave its existence for Yorktown Battlefield.
Left: Shiloh Baptist’s congregation marches to their old church site. Right: Parishioners acknowledging their history.
Today, Slabtown isn’t part of the battlefield tour, although it’s still possible to walk where this displaced community once thrived. The scant ruins sit at the end of a cracked asphalt road, blanketed beneath wild growth. Nature’s reclamation is nearly complete. Marl Pit Road, Slabtown’s Main Street, is still there, but not much else. The structures where Slabtown residents, the descendants of freedmen, laughed, played and loved are long gone, but the fondness of former residents for the town where they lived is still very much around.
Here is a link to the location of Slabtown on Google Maps.
*Special thanks to Dr. Kelley Deetz, whose work on Slabtown when she was at William and Mary furnished primary sources used for this post.
Old graves near Slabtown