In the process, invaluable traces of America’s founding have been discovered right next to remains from the Civil War. “It’s probably the only place you would have a story like that,” says Colin Campbell, president of Colonial Williamsburg, citing the conjunction of two pivotal moments in U.S. history. “I think it’s absolutely fascinating.”
To some observers, the fate of Fort Pocahontas — a series of rolling, grassy mounds shaded by old cedar trees — is a vivid demonstration of the axiom “Archaeology is always destructive.” But William Kelso, chief archaeologist at Jamestown Rediscovery, which is doing the excavation, disagrees: “If properly excavated and recorded digitally in 3-D, as we did, it is no longer valid to say we destroy sites.”
The remains of James Fort and Fort Pocahontas lie on 22.5 acres owned by Preservation Virginia, a nonprofit organization. The remaining 1,500 acres of Jamestown Island belong to the National Park Service. James Fort itself originally enclosed 1.1 acres.
The archaeologists working for Preservation Virginia have excavated Fort Pocahontas with the same care they apply to James Fort, says team member Bly Straube: “We’ve removed it with shovels and trowels, recording everything using [graphic information system software], digging in a grid system where it’s all mapped in. We’re not just arbitrarily digging things up.”
As Fort Pocahontas gets steadily cut away, valuable insights have been gained into Civil War fortifications. Last year a bombproof — an underground, timber-lined room where soldiers could hide if they were bombarded — was uncovered. It’s one of the few that professional archaeologists have ever excavated. Well-preserved log supports and even Civil War sandbags were unearthed.
Fort Pocahontas was established in 1861 as Confederate for-
ces prepared to defend Richmond from possible naval assault during the opening months of the war. (It is not to be confused with an 1864 Union fort of the same name, farther up the James River.) Military engineers unknowingly placed Fort Pocahontas right atop the traces of James Fort, the location of which had long been forgotten. But the spot is ideal for fortifications, with commanding views of the James River.
The decision to remove much of Fort Pocahontas took into account the fact that troops never fired a shot in anger from it during the Civil War. Instead, Pocahontas was abandoned as Union forces advanced overland in May 1862. The fort did, however, play a part in the most famous naval duel of the Civil War, between the Union’s USS Monitor and the Confederates’ Merrimack (renamed CSS Virginia), the first battle ever between ironclad warships. Confederates used the fort’s cannons to test armor plates for the Virginia, blasting them with eight-inch shells from powerful Columbiad cannons.