WILLIAMSBURG, Va. (AP) — The College of William and Mary has long claimed fame as the “Alma Mater of a Nation,” pre-dating the American Revolution. Now archaeologist say weeks of fresh excavation have uncovered the remnants of earthworks apparently dug by occupying Union troops — new evidence that the colonial-era school had an outsized role in the Civil War.
Buried just beneath the surface lies a reminder that the country’s second-oldest college still bears the scars of America’s bloodiest conflict. Archaeologists in recent weeks have probed a defensive encampment in downtown Williamsburg. It was here that Union forces survived raids by Confederate troops from 1862 to 1865 and kept a small portion of secession-minded Virginia under federal control.
Joe Jones, director of the William and Mary Center for Archaeological Research, said finding evidence of the fortifications and so many well-preserved artifacts in such a small space on the campus is unusual.
“From 1862 to 1865 this was one of the front lines of the Civil War,” Jones told The Associated Press. He said the new finds are already triggering a new round of discussion about the school’s Civil War chapter on the 150th anniversary of that conflict — a chapter long overshadowed by the school’s colonial past.
William and Mary long has touted its ties to several of America’s founding fathers. It was here, as the college boasts on its website, that a 17-year-old George Washington received his surveyor’s license and where Thomas Jefferson received his undergraduate education, much like future presidents John Tyler and James Monroe.
But Jones said that’s not to overlook its history in later times.
The initial discovery that there may be more Civil War artifacts buried on the grounds occurred last fall when the college was doing survey work for some new utility lines for renovations on a building originally constructed in 1723. The historic school was chartered in 1693 and is home to the oldest college building in the United States, built in 1700.
Archaeologists also discovered the remains of a brick well that was dug up — and then covered over again — by Union troops when they took over the abandoned campus and began tearing and burning down some of its buildings. For about three years, 1,500 troops encamped on the college grounds, about 50 miles from the former Confederate capitol in Richmond.
Those discoveries as well as other Civil War artifacts such as rifle rounds, buttons and dishes were found just a few feet below the surface of the college’s serene Brafferton Yard.
“There were really interesting things that happened on this campus during the Civil War,” he said.
Richmond, just up the road, was the capital of the Confederacy. The school notes many professors and nearly all of the students soon after the outbreak of hostilities had entered the Confederate army. A Confederate barracks and later a hospital were located in one of the buildings. Then in May 1862, Williamsburg was taken by federal troops, who occupied the campus and even blocked up one of the main buildings in 1865, placing cannons to protect against a possible Confederate raid. Each end of the famed College Building was flanked by palisades extending over adjacent roads before war ended in April that year and the college reopened.
What archaeologists found was the evidence of the ditches that were dug to erect those palisades.
A curiosity of history is that federal occupation of this wedge of Williamsburg ultimately resulted in slaves nearby not being freed under Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation that took effect in January 1863. Only slaves in states that were openly rebelling against the Union were freed under Lincoln’s order and there were exemptions for several places in Virginia and Louisiana under federal control.
Surrounding York County was one of those spots were the proclamation did not apply.
“It doesn’t say why, but it’s perfectly clear, because York county is pacified. It’s under firm federal control,” said William and Mary history professor Jim Whittenburg. “It’s really interesting. This great document applies in one place but not the other.”
The small dig site about two feet below the surface rests at the tip of the historic campus and is a stone’s throw from downtown Williamsburg, which remained in Union hands following the Battle of Williamsburg in 1862. Students, parents and tourists occasionally stopped by for a glimpse of the dig.
The college today adjoins Colonial Williamsburg, where historic re-enactors wear period costumes dating back to when the city served as Virginia’s colonial capitol.
“This is one of the places in the country where there are a lot of entrenchments, but not in Williamsburg itself. What surprised me is that it was that extensive of a fortification on the grounds of the college. I had not considered that. It must’ve looked a little like Fort Apache,” Whittenburg said.
The artifacts correspond with an account of what the campus looked like in 1865 that was made by Benjamin Stoddard Ewell, who was the school’s president at the time. Ewell described the campus to the college’s board of visitors, which was republished in a 1928 issue of the William and Mary Quarterly.
In Ewell’s account, he describes a line of defensive works that was thrown up across the college yard, connecting several buildings.
“What we’ve got here are archaeological features that kind of shine a spotlight on periods of history on the campus that are otherwise, I think it’s fair to say, overshadowed by the emphasis on Colonial revival,” he said. “That colors the personality of the college.”
Jones said the college planned to rebury most of the remnants to keep them preserved. Other smaller artifacts would be stored by the archaeology department and could possibly be put on display as a reminder of what took place there 150 years ago.
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