One only has to walk down Duke of Gloucester Street to see that Williamsburg’s primary export is history. Stroll past Merchant’s Square and you’re suddenly in the 18th century. Tourists donning tricorn hats shuffle around Colonial Williamsburg’s Revolutionary City. A reenactor portraying Marquis de Lafayette or Benedict Arnold might even gallop past you on horseback.
How then, did the site of a battle named for the city come to be included on a list of Virginia’s most endangered historical sites?
In April, Preservation Virginia featured the Williamsburg Battlefield in its list of most endangered historical sites in Virginia. The battle’s name, “The Battle of Williamsburg,” can be a bit misleading — the site actually spreads across three municipalities, James City County, York County and the City of Williamsburg.
Since the early 1990s, an estimated 2,000 or more acres of the site have disappeared. In a 2009 study, Congress’ Civil War Sites Advisory Commission classified the battlefield as Class B (“had a direct impact on the war”) and priority II (“in needing of additional protection”), with only 3 percent of the site protected. The report also said that 1,000 acres of the total 10,000 within the battlefield boundaries are eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. In 2010, the Civil War Trust declared the site “At Risk.”
Preservation Virginia’s Director of Preservation Initiatives and Engagement Justin Sarafin compiles Preservation Virginia’s annual “most endangered” list. The Williamsburg Battlefield Association submitted the site to Preservation Virginia for consideration. The Williamsburg Battlefield Association’s Facebook page has 1,942 likes at press time and outlines its commitment to advocacy and education.
Sarafin noted that Preservation Virginia enjoys success in preserving endangered sites, but acknowledged that Williamsburg Battlefield’s situation is complicated, due to multiple owners interested in developing the site.
“It’s not about freezing something in time, having it exist in a vacuum,” Sarafin said. “It’s not that at all. Development happens. We want it to happen in an intelligent way in consideration of historic resources and assets that, in almost every case, benefit whatever development’s happening and maintain a sense of place. These things have to work hand in hand. It’s not saying ‘no’ to any type of change — it’s encouraging people to think more responsibility about the kinds of changes they want to make to historic fabric and landscapes, whether they’re untouched or they’ve already been altered.”
Riverside Healthcare Association owns most of the City of Williamsburg’s portion of the battle site. In 2005, the lower portion of this property was rezoned to the ED Economic Development District in 2005 for a combination commercial, residential and medical development. The 2013 Williamsburg Comprehensive Plan supports this construction on the ED District portion of the property adjacent to Route 199, and a residential development for the property north of Tutter’s Neck Pond. The entire area can have up to 1,362 dwelling units, with 384 currently under construction. Riverside Doctors’ Hospital opened in April 2013.
City of Williamsburg Planning Director Reed Nester noted that developers have made efforts to preserve portions of the site.
“The development of plans for ‘Quarterpath at Williamsburg’ by Riverside Healthcare System resulted in the construction of the 21 acre Redoubt Park on the east side of Quarterpath Road north of Tutter’s Neck Pond,” Nester said in an email. “Redoubts #1 and #2, which supported the defense of Fort Magruder, have been preserved and interpreted as a part of the park.”
It has been proposed that the gravel portion of Quarterpath Road should be converted into a paved multi-use path to preserve the setting of the redoubts.
Nester said that, as part of the initial rezoning of the property that occurred in 2005, Riverside Healthcare donated 21.5 acres of land for Redoubt Park, which contains Redoubts #1 and #2 along the defensive line. The park includes an interpretation of Redoubt #1 and a walking trail connecting the two forts located within one of the City of Williamsburg’s six Archaeological Protection Districts.
Historian Lisa Heuvel said she does not believe these preservation efforts are enough.
“We can’t afford to lose any more of this battlefield, or others, than the nation already has,” Heuvel said. “By July 2009, the Update to the Civil War Sites Advisory Commission Report stated that only 342.52 acres were protected out of 10,369 acres in the study area. It’s a race against the clock.”
Nester expressed confidence that continued development will not remove historical resources from the battlefield site.
“As development of Quarterpath at Williamsburg continues, there is opportunity to include additional interpretation of the Battle of Williamsburg,” Nester said. “This could include walking trails and interpretative signage, and could build on what has been done with Redoubt Park. The Bloody Ravine, that was an important part of the battle, is located north of the area now being developed, and is split between the City of Williamsburg and James City County.”
Roberts District Supervisor of the James City County Board of Supervisors John J. McGlennon said that the area’s preservation outlook is limited, because much of the battlefield has already been developed.
McGlennon said that James City County now requires that development proposals document historical significance. If indication of historical significance is detected, the county requires that the site undergo a full archaeological examination before development proceeds.
In addition to serving as a historical site, battlefields may function as an economic asset. The Williamsburg Battlefield could attract Civil War visitors, who, in Virginia, stay twice as long and spend twice as much as average Virginia tourists, according to a report by the Civil War Trust. The same report found that 20 Civil War sites from Gettysburg to Chickahominie contributed $11.7 million annually to local government tax revenues, generating a total of $32.7 million tax dollars. Williamsburg Battlefield Association member Drew Gruber explained the logic behind the “development through conservation” movement.
“Open space conservation is still development,” Gruber said. “When you conserve a section of space, you’re preserving not only the fiscal vitality of the development that’s around it, but the social vitality. … Lately, if you preserve a section of open space in the middle of, say, a subdivision … because of the demand, the property values stay nice and high, because there’s a green space for people to walk on, bike on and have a community garden on. Conservation unto its own, is not just an equalizer and a form of community development, but is also fiscally sustainable.”
Walter Zaremba represents District 1 of York County, where part of the battlefield is located. Recently, the county did not rezone a tract of land owned by the Egger family, who wanted to have the property rezoned to facilitate residential development.
“Battlefield reenactment is a huge niche market that the Historic Triangle currently ignores,” Zaremba said in an email. “This is a shame because this means that battlefields will not be valued and therefore remain at risk for development. … Why aren’t we telling the story of these battlefields? I think the reluctance stems from the fact that Virginia fought on the wrong side of this war. Gettysburg is a thriving example of America’s interest in this history.”
Author of Civil War Williamsburg and Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Program Manager Carson Hudson said that Virginia encounters the problem of having to choose to interpret one time period over another. With pre-contact Native American tribes, 17th century explorers, 18th century colonists and 19th century soldiers all competing to have their stories told, it can be difficult to choose what is of primary importance. Hudson said that the impulse to preserve should not be ignored.
“In America as a whole, we are letting a lot of our past slip away,” Hudson said. “I’m not saying we need to preserve every square foot where George Washington’s horse stood or anything like that, but there are places that are hallowed ground and, at the Battle of Williamsburg, there were Americans who fought and died to preserve or destroy the Union, depending on their viewpoint.”
For more on the College of William and Mary’s role in the Civil War, read here.