Cloverleaf Earthworks; Hidden Remnants of the Civil War

Thousands of people drive within feet of this forgotten trace of history every day with no knowledge that it’s there. Not that most would give a flying fig. Nevertheless, this site’s very existence is a study in contrasts, an example of what happens when history and development intersect. Some might see this as an injustice. Others, a good compromise. One thing’s for sure: the tired, dirty, homesick soldiers who huddled here one hundred-fifty years ago couldn’t have imagined that the ground they were defending would end up like this.

The site is a well-preserved line of Civil War earthworks that Confederate soldiers made in 1864. You can find trenches like these slung silently throughout the American South, anyplace military brass and politicians deemed halfway strategic. Soldiers dug in early and often. Armies threw up literally hundreds of miles of earthworks during the war.

Flash forward to the present and it’s the modern-day setting that sets these earthworks apart. They are entirely surrounded by the cloverleaf of an interstate off-ramp, inaccessible without dashing across fast-moving traffic. This humble relic of the Civil War lays in a teardrop-shaped patch of woods, an abandoned and isolated reminder of the nation’s greatest crisis.

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L: The line of cloverleaf earthworks R: The interstate off-ramp a few feet in front of the fortifications

What this little-known piece of history illustrates is how much the Civil War transformed the southern landscape. There used to be earthworks everywhere. Washington, D.C. and the South’s major cities were ringed with fortifications like ripples in a pond.

Since 1865, however, it’s been hard to get people excited about saving these irreplaceable remnants of the Civil War. Earthworks were all too often in the way of growth, a roadblock to the money to be made by plowing fields, paving roads, building homes. They were, after all, little more than long mounds of dirt. And there were once plenty of them. Now, a century-and-a-half later, most Civil War earthworks, probably a number approaching one hundred percent, have been destroyed in the name of progress.

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Cloverleaf earthworks

That’s unfortunate, given that these trenches were the last thing some Civil War veterans saw. Soldiers hunkered down behind these earthen walls during good weather and bad. They defended them with their lives and sometimes unwittingly committed their earthly remains to them.

What was once the rural fringes of southern cities where armies campaigned is now Greater Metropolitan So-and-So, which is why earthworks turn up in, of all places, an interstate cloverleaf. Too many Civil War battlefields have turned out like Fort Sedgwick, a.k.a. Fort Hell, which played a pivotal role in the Siege of Petersburg. Casualties were an almost daily occurrence while Union soldiers occupied Fort Sedgwick. A century later, bulldozers leveled it. Today the site is a tired cityscape, a church that’s moved into an old K-Mart and large swaths of crumbling and litter-strewn pavement.

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L: Fort Hell, 1865, courtesy Library of Congress R: Fort Hell, 2013

Earthworks are the last physical trace of the Civil War left on the field of battle, and they deserve better than to be erased from memory.

In my forthcoming book I explore what has happened to Civil War trenches in the one hundred-fifty years since Civil War soldiers dug them. I explore, too, how long they may be around after we’re gone.

I’m withholding the location of the earthworks I found in the interstate cloverleaf. The vast majority of us would be happy to honor their existence in this unlikely place, but there are those who’d damage this irreplaceable resource for personal gain. Suffice it to say these earthworks lay on a wooded, unbuildable parcel, which are the best circumstances for their long-term preservation.

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A sapsucker’s handiwork on a tree atop the cloverleaf earthworks’ parapet

About Ben Swenson

Ben lives in Williamsburg, Virginia. He is writing a book on places of historic value that have been forgotten and are being reclaimed by nature. Abandoned Country is a companion blog to that project. You can contact him at benswenson@cox.net
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6 Responses to Cloverleaf Earthworks; Hidden Remnants of the Civil War

  1. Jane. Paden says:

    I used to date a ( summer) Coast guard reserve person I later married. One of the reserve attendants was a “history buff”. All this was when I was twenty two. Several of the “reservists” let me tag along on a “dig”. All I remember is it was across the bridge in Yorktown and to the left at a distance I have forgotten. They pointed out the trenches of dirt that had been dug in the Civil War. I was not knowledgable about trenches, the war, or why the mounds were there. You probably know of this place. I believe it was about to be “developed”. We found many things…little ink bottles. Buttons, and bullets. It was so long ago. I am seventy four now. I was honored to be “one of the boys” a nice memory.

    • Ben Swenson says:

      Yes, Jane, I’ve seen the trenches you’re talking about (or what’s left of them anyway). Gloucester Point and Yorktown were both fortified during the Civil War (soldiers dug them on any Revolutionary War earthworks that still existed then). These earthworks were mostly left alone until Gloucester Point started being more heavily developed. As you say, the ones you recall may have been leveled for construction projects, but there are still plenty of earthworks to be found on Gloucester Point–at a county park as well as in between modern buildings and roads. Thankfully in Gloucester the trenches that weren’t in the way of growth are still visible.

      Thanks for reading and for sharing your recollections.

  2. John K says:

    Mr. Swenson,
    Since being stationed at Ft Eustis, my family and I are excited to see things like this from our past. We try to get out as much as possible and discover/learn about this area and it’s vast history. The earthenwork you show here are wonderful, as we enjoy seeing them all the time. We walk the earthwork in Newport News whenever we go there. Same goes for the area from the Battle of Bethel, which is located behind our house. It’s sad to see these relics being destroyed. I enjoy your stories. Thank you.

    • Ben Swenson says:

      John,

      Thanks for the kind words and for reading. I grew up in Newport News and know very well those earthworks in Newport News Park from the Battle of Dam No. 1. Fort Eustis is a great spot for earthworks, too, there are a lot of little-known trenches on or near the base. For most people they may be just piles of dirt but I think they deserve respect since men were willing to and often did give their lives to defend or assault them.

      Thanks again for reading.

      Ben

  3. Steve Barlow says:

    When I was taking Civil War history at Richard Bland College(Petersburg) with Professor Henderson(a Civil War Expert), the topic of Ft Hell came up and the original site that was leveled to build a “Mason’s” Department Store. He told us that this was a fake, a recreation, that he had been there many times when it was in operation, but that this was not the actual site.. which I can’t remember if he said it was the other side of the railroad tracks, or across the street near the water tower. Can ANYONE confirm this? I know that for years people thought the original site of Jamestown was under water only be recently discovered. Was this Ft Hell the actual fort at all or just created? It seems like a lot of work to recreate but there ARE plans from 1903 for ‘plans’ for building this Ft Hell that i found on the internet that match up exactly with the handouts given at the site in the 50’s and 60’s. All things even I have to give Professor Henderson the benefit of the doubt being that he was probably one of the top if not the top expert on the topic in the area, but I’d love to know for sure.

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