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History's Faded Trail

The Union commander replied, "We'll try it."

The Confederates charged.

Standing here on the banks of the James on a warm day 140 years later, it's easy to see yourself huddling behind those earthworks, rifle cradled in sweaty hands, thinking that you might have just a few more minutes to live. Then the putt-putting of Harrison Tyler's golf cart jerks you back to the 21st century.

Asa Gordon, left, and Robert Freis at what was Gen. U.S. Grant's headquarters near Hopewell, Va., a site they'd like to include on a "Fight for Freedom" tour. (Wayne Scarberry For The Washington Post)

Tyler is the owner of this particular battlefield, which is known, confusingly, as both Fort Pocahontas and Wilson's Wharf; he snapped it up after a would-be developer went bankrupt a few years back. A big-boned, silver-haired man in his late seventies with the relaxed manner of the not-newly rich, he wears a pair of dirty white shorts and a lavender Pebble Beach golf shirt that's torn around the pocket. His family tree is astonishing. One maternal ancestor was Edmund Ruffin, the ardent secessionist credited with firing the shot at Fort Sumter in 1861 that kicked off the Civil War. He is also the proud descendant of Pocahontas and the grandson of President John Tyler, whose nearby plantation house, Sherwood Forest, is still in the family. (That's right, grandson: Both President Tyler, who died in 1862, and Harrison Tyler's father, who died in 1935, had children late in life after being widowed and remarrying.)

The president's grandson met Asa Gordon through another Civil War preservationist. Now he's fired up the six-seater golf cart to give Gordon and Freis a personal tour.

The battle at Fort Pocahontas was part of a Union push toward Richmond, and the fort was built, Tyler explains, "to protect this narrow part of the river. Because Benjamin Butler's supply ships were going to be coming up, and see, the Confederates could have put a little cannon right over there and sunk every one of them."

No problem. The black troops routed Fitzhugh Lee's men, driving them off and inflicting substantial casualties while sustaining relatively few themselves.

Freis and Gordon love this story, and they love the fact that -- thanks to the generous descendant of the famous secessionist -- the battlefield is in really good shape. It should be a highlight of what the two have taken to calling the "Fight for Freedom" tour.

History's Stepchildren

Two guys can't begin to change the perceptions of the Civil War harbored by both blacks and whites if the tour never happens, though -- and a few months after the scouting trip, the prospects are looking a bit iffy.

Freis and Gordon's effort would be a unique one, they say. There are plenty of Civil War battlefield tours, but none to their knowledge evokes the overall African American experience so thoroughly. So they were disappointed when their planned launch this fall didn't draw enough interest to make it worth going through with. They had hoped in particular that African Americans would start claiming the war as their own, but they know they have a lot of negative history to overcome. The current plan is to try again in the spring, perhaps tying in the tour with the 140th anniversary of the fall of Richmond in April.

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