Williamsburg’s Civil War Battlefield and a Community at a Crossroads

The white clapboard house hides in plain sight on a short city street lined with recycle bins and compact sedans. Nothing on the exterior betrays what happened within those walls long ago, that officers engaged in the nation’s greatest crisis made decisions that ended many lives and spared others. What’s now a rental home close to the campus of the College of William and Mary is better known to a select few as the Whitaker House, headquarters of Union General William “Baldy” Smith during the Battle of Williamsburg on May 5, 1862.

The house dates to the 18th century when it was a dwelling on the Whitaker Plantation. Later a Civil War cartographer and artist named Robert Knox Sneden painted the structure and called it the Adams House, and some today call it the Whitaker-Adams House. More than eight decades later, a gentleman purchased the floorless, tumbledown Whitaker House for $350. He disassembled the home and board-by-board, moved it five miles west to a lot on Delaware Avenue in the city. There he reconstructed the historic house, minus one story and 16 feet of width, where it stands today. The foundation and a circular basin that mark the original location languish in woods near a theme park and retail development that’s seen its share of financial difficulties.

Whitaker House      Whitaker House 1

Two views of the Whitaker House, General W. F. Smith’s headquarters during the battle of Willliamsburg.

In many respects, the Whitaker House is an apt symbol of the Battle of Williamsburg’s memory—forgotten, transformed, overshadowed by better-known historic attractions nearby in the Historic Triangle of Jamestown, Yorktown and Colonial Williamsburg. Now citizens and policymakers in this community are at a crossroads once more as this landscape’s future will soon come down several fateful decisions.

The Battle of Williamsburg took place during the Civil War’s Peninsula Campaign and, though inconclusive, gave Confederates enough time to organize closer to Richmond and plan defensive strategies that resulted in the bloody Seven Days battles. On a two-and-a-half mile front line just east of Virginia’s colonial capital, the Army of the Potomac captured its first battle flag, seven men earned the Congressional Medal of Honor, and some 3,800 gave life and limb for their countrymen.

As patriotic fervor in the 20th century fostered the preservation of Greater Williamsburg’s historic resources, however, the Battle of Williamsburg, for whatever reason, was a brief epilogue to a colonial narrative that ended in the 1780s. Forests reclaimed earthworks that enslaved and free African Americans helped to construct. Mid-century tract housing grew around the battle’s centerpiece, Fort Magruder.

In 2007, Williamsburg city officials, preservationists and private landowners came together to dedicate Redoubt Park, a 21.5-acre, city-owned park containing the remnants of fortifications where the battle’s opening salvos occurred.

Battle of Williamsburg 1      Battle of Williamsburg Battle of Williamsburg 2

Redoubt Park, three percent of Williamsburg’s battlefield.

Now much of the battlefield’s remaining undeveloped parcels are under the gun. Preservation Virginia included the battlefield as one of the commonwealth’s most endangered historic sites, with only three percent of the acreage protected.

Construction of a mixed-use community is moving forward at the Quarterpath at Williamsburg where Union soldiers advanced toward Confederate redoubts the morning of the battle. And discussion is ongoing about the future of the Egger Tract, where the 5th North Carolina encountered fighting so heavy that three-quarters of the men became casualties.

The best thing you can do is stay informed, consider competing alternatives for the future of Williamsburg’s battlefield, and join the discussion. If a community that values historic preservation can’t reach a solution that honors both the sacrifices of our ancestors and private property rights, then we’ve lost sight of what these people were fighting for in the first place.

 

Here are some resources to help you stay informed:

The Williamsburg Battlefield Association (both their website and Facebook page) provide updates and information about the battle. Special thanks to Tom McMahon and Drew Gruber who provided much of the research and photographs for this post.

The Civil War Trust’s page on the Battle of Williamsburg provides a lot of good information.

Local news source WY Daily is providing thorough coverage of the issue, as with this article on the Egger Tract.

Battle of Williamsburg 5      Battle of Williamsburg 4 Battle of Williamsburg 6

Top: Construction underway at Quarterpath at Williamsburg, left of the Union line at the battle. Bottom: Development-ready infrastructure on the battle’s “Core Area” according to the National Park Service’s American Battlefield Protection Program.

Whitaker House (1)

The Whitaker House before it was moved. Photo courtesy of Fred Boelt, whose great-grandmother, mother and uncle are in the photo.

Whitaker outblgs foundations      Whitaker Basin

Foundations and basin from the original location of the Whitaker House. Photos courtesy of Tom McMahon.

Fort Magruder 3      Fort Magruder 2 Fort Magruder 1      Fort Magruder 4 Fort Magruder

Fort Magruder, centerpiece of the Battle of Williamsburg. Note the surrounding development.

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
This entry was posted in African Americans, Earthworks, Military. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Williamsburg’s Civil War Battlefield and a Community at a Crossroads

  1. Lisa K. says:

    My parents live in Williamsburg. I’m trying to place in my mind where your photo locations are relative to my parents home. They live just off Rte 5 about half a mile from the Food Lion. My great great Uncle was at the Battle of Williamsburg with a New York regiment. Funny how the universe works. Anyway is there a map somewhere online that shows the batlle lines etc., in relation to todays Williamsburg? Interesting article, next time I visit them I will have to check the sites out.

    • Ben Swenson says:

      Hi Lisa,

      Thanks for reading and for the comment. I think Steve with the WBA is spot on. Those resources should give you an idea of where much of the battle took place. By your description, your folks’ place near the Food Lion on John Tyler Highway is about two or three miles west of where most of the action took place. If nothing else, do go see Redoubt Park on Quarterpath Rd and Fort Magruder on Penniman Rd next time you’re in town. Those represent the small fraction of the battlefield that’s been preserved.

      Thanks again,

      Ben

  2. Steve says:

    Hi Lisa K – check out the website of the Civil War Trust at http://www.civilwar.org. They have a map (as well as maps of other civil war battles) of the ebb and flow of the battle of Williamsburg along with the modern road network.

    You mentioned that your G G uncle fought with a New York regiment at Williamsburg…by chance do you know which regiment? We (The Williamsburg Battlefield Association) are always interested in connecting with folks whose ancestors fought here. Check out our facebook page and our website.

    • Lisa K. says:

      Hi there Steve, apologies for the super late reply. I happen to be visiting my parents and wanted to show her this blog post, hence the late reply. My gr great Uncle was with the 131 st New York. I believe they made a second swing through the Williamsburg area in early 1865 as well.

      My mother and I will be checking out Redoubt Park this week. Thanks for the civilwar.org tip, we’ll be checking that out.

      Lisa

  3. Jim Mackay says:

    A difficult issue, for sure, when modern development impacts a significant historic property. Survival of the battlefield aside, though, it’s a whole other problem to consider what’s really “historic” about the Whitaker/Adams house any more . . . heavily altered and moved a good distance from its original site. To what extent have historic sites lost their integrity as historic sites when they are removed from their context in the landscape and basically re-used as building materials elsewhere?

    • Ben Swenson says:

      Thanks for your thoughts, Jim. Yes, the only way I even knew about the Whitaker House was through the Williamsburg Battlefield Association, even having been a longtime resident. I wonder whether the undeveloped parcels will suffer a similar fate–alteration to the point of little or no historic value–as their future is at hand. I hope not. Thanks again.

      Ben

  4. Great post, and of interest to me for obvious reasons 🙂

  5. Dave G says:

    Some many historical needs. So few dollars and such little attention, especially with patriotism seemingly frowned upon.

    I was born at Ft Monroe and am worried about what the commercial interests will do with it. I mostly grew up in the Colonial Triangle. I now live in the Shenandoah Valley and so much Civil War history is disappearing under Walmart’s and the like.

    We can only do what we can do and pray to pass along that interest.

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