A Civil War ‘mystery fort’: Virginia city hopes to preserve land once used by Union soldiers
(Tribune News Service) — As a boy growing up in what was then Norfolk County, Gerald Kinney played “Army” with his friends.
Kinney’s family came to own a forested plot of land off of Jolliff Road in the 1950s and Kinney and his friends pretended to trade gunfire and run up ramparts on earthen walls that seemed to naturally surround the spot.
What Kinney didn’t know then? The spot had once been a Civil War fort.
Union soldiers set up along what was a major transportation route to keep the rebel army from heading farther into the region. The fort might have been constructed by the Confederates before then.
“There was always the rumor” about the fort being used during the war, said Kinney, now 70. “The fort was always near to my heart.”
The city of Chesapeake now hopes to preserve the little-known earthworks fort in Western Branch by turning it into a public park, complete with historical markers and walking trails.
The City Council recently authorized officials to enter an agreement with the state transportation department to conduct historical and environmental reviews for what they call the Civil War Fort Park Project. VDOT took over the land while constructing Interstate 664 a few decades ago.
Local Civil War buffs, meanwhile, are working to uncover anything about the unnamed fort they can find.
On a recent crisp fall afternoon, Mike Barber pulled off Jolliff Road next to a densely forested area.
Barber is director of the city’s Park, Recreation and Tourism department and leads the charge for the park. He made his way along an unofficial path, leaves crunching underfoot, until the fort came into view — a rectangle that stretches a total perimeter of about 900 feet.
Its dirt walls are a few feet high with gaps for entrances and cannon platforms. In the center is a circular earthen structure about the size of a large kiddie pool with knee-high walls. That may have been a magazine where ammunition was stored, said Jessica Cosmas, the parks department’s director of a new historical services division. All of it has eroded a bit over time.
Earthwork fortifications were made with materials at hand and designed for temporary use, according to the National Park Service website: “Dirt is a very inexpensive resource, and when used in massive amounts it is the basis for a very strong and intimidating structure.”
The five acres now owned by VDOT are off-limits to the public. But Barber said discarded beer cans and tire tracks from all-terrain vehicles show the area is still being used.
The walls of the fort are great for bikers looking for small hills, he noted, but that’s a problem for preserving the site. He hopes the city can get the land from VDOT as soon as possible and start taking care of it.
The process may take a while. The environmental review will take 6-8 months, including historic work as the fort is eligible for the Register of Historic Places, VDOT spokesperson Jordan-Ashley Walker said in an email. Then the department can do its property management review, which can take up to a year.
VDOT could not say when it acquired the property or from whom. Walker said that information will be determined when doing a title search, which the city will have to provide.
The site first came to the city’s attention about five years ago, Barber said, when officials were contacted by members of the Hampton Roads Civil War Roundtable, an informal group of dozens of local historians. After various conversations and additional mapping of the site — including lidar, or laser sensing, technology that showed a clear outline of a fort from above — officials started discussing a park project.
“Our vision grew to where it could be another stop on the Civil War Trails tour,” Barber said.
Planning is still in conceptual stages until the land can be acquired, though.
Kinney’s family ended up with the land, including the fort in the 1950s, before VDOT took it to construct the nearby interstate.
His grandmother leased surrounding fields to farmers who grew soybeans, corn and sweet potatoes.
He didn’t think much of the history as a child. But after serving for two decades in the Air Force, Kinney returned to Hampton Roads and became more interested. A little over a decade ago, he and his family dived into the site’s history. He was facilities manager of the Mariners’ Museum & Park in Newport News at the time and was allowed some of their resources for the personal project, he said.
He then wrote a detailed report, “Mystery Fort” — explaining what they found. The report includes photos of artifacts discovered over the past century, most of which were passed down or given to his family, such as bullets, strap hooks, an ordnance fragment and buttons from a New York regiment of the Union Army.
What’s now Jolliff Road — often referred to as Stage Road — was one of two main routes that led from central Virginia to North Carolina, said Herb Harrell of the Hampton Roads Civil War Roundtable.
The location, therefore, would’ve been strategic to monitor who was coming and going — especially toward the important Norfolk Naval Shipyard, said Ed Carbaugh, another member of the roundtable. It was also along an important waterway — Goose Creek — that feeds into the Western Branch of the Elizabeth River.
The dense tree canopy at the site wasn’t there in the 19th century, when it had been cleared for farming, he said.
“It was just out there in the open,” Carbaugh said. “It would’ve been highly visible in two strategic directions.”
The fort likely was the biggest in a series that formed a picket line, the roundtable believes. Up to 50 Union soldiers would be stationed there at a time, camping in the space between the walls and central magazine.
Cannons around the edges weren’t fixed like at a major fort, Harrell said. They were on big wheels, rolled over to whichever side they were needed.
“You didn’t know when the rebels were gonna come out of the swamp or try to force their way across the bridge,” Harrell said.
At night, in fact, guards at the fort would take the boards off the nearby bridge so an attacking force could not cross it, he said.
The fort is referenced many times in regimental histories, especially in 1862 and ‘63, but never named. There were no battles there, though the ordnance fragment found may suggest a skirmish.
It’s unclear exactly who built the earthworks fort.
The Union took control of Norfolk in 1862, forcing the Confederates to evacuate posts around the area. Records indicate the Confederates had a position in 1861 near the fort, Harrell said. He believes it was built by Confederate soldiers but taken over by the Union soon afterward.
Like much about the site, the origin remains a mystery.
But Harrell said it’s amazing the original structure is so well preserved. “The minute I saw the fort, it blew my mind,” he said.
It’d be a “history teacher’s dream” to teach from an eventual public park, not only about the fort’s role but other histories that likely happened there, he said. That includes enslaved people seeking freedom after coming through the Great Dismal Swamp just to the south, military happenings during the American Revolution and Indigenous history long before any of it.
“There are so many stories that have gone untold about our history and how we’ve gotten to this point,” said Barber, the parks director. “This just gives us another piece of the puzzle that can really tell the story of Chesapeake.”
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