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