WILLIAMSBURG, Va. — When College of William and Mary president Benjamin Ewell returned home at the Civil War's end, he found the school's historic Wren Yard violently transformed.
Burned by Union troops in September 1862, the charred brick ruins of the Sir Christopher Wren Building had been remade into the tip of a formidable V-shaped defensive bastion, with two long earthworks linking it to the masonry walls of the flanking president's house and Brafferton Building.
Log palisades 10 feet tall stretched from these structures across Jamestown and Richmond roads, signaling to passing Confederate scouts and the South's capital in not-so-distant Richmond the westernmost outpost of Federal power on the Peninsula.
That war-torn landscape is virtually unthinkable today, when the college's stately, carefully restored colonial buildings are nationally recognized as educational landmarks.
But when scientists from the William and Mary Center for Archaeological Research explored part of the yard last summer, they made the Union's long occupation of the town a little easier to imagine.
"This was the farthest point west that the Federal troops held and occupied," says center director Joe B. Jones, who will present a talk on the summer 2012 dig at the Hampton History Museum this Wednesday.
"So not only was the campus a Union encampment, it was the Union's front line during the Civil War."
Undertaken in conjunction with the college's $4.5 million restoration of the 1723 Brafferton Building, the excavation turned up a convincing cluster of military artifacts — including grape shot and solid shot from an artillery emplacement — as well as a brick-lined cistern and an enigmatically shallow ditch.
Though initially believed to have survived from the construction of a Union palisade wall, the nail-filled ditch is now thought to represent a Federal attempt to deal with the drainage difficulties that have plagued the yard — and the Brafferton Building, in particular — since the historic brick structure was constructed to serve as an Indian school in the early 1700s.
"The original campus has always struggled with poor drainage," Jones said, "and we think that this ditch and the cistern we originally believed to be a well were all part of a Union attempt to deal with the same problem.
"It looks like the ditch was lined, and it functioned as a ground gutter leading run-off directly into the cistern."
Evidence of the palisade may still survive, however, in the historic plot of ground that several recent digs have found remarkably undisturbed.
"We certainly haven't exhausted all the options we have for looking for those palisade walls," Jones says.
"So I'd like to go back and look again when we get another chance."