This Civil War lithograph shows Fort Yorktown in late 1863, including such details as the Union gunboats patrolling the York River and the tent cities where the garrison lived. Used as a hospital, the Nelson House can be seen at center. (Courtesy of the Virginia Historical Society / November 6, 2013)
Despite the confusion that gripped the Army of the Potomac during its August 1862 withdrawal from the outskirts of Richmond, one thing remained clear.
So critical a role did the deep-water port at Yorktown play in Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan’s failed Peninsula Campaign that — even after retreating down the James River to Fort Monroe — he issued repeated commands urging that the run-down bastion be rebuilt and defended.
Used to store ammunition, the Yorktown Courthouse was among 15 buildings destroyed in a Dec. 16, 1863 explosion and fire. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress / November 6, 2013)
“Push the work laid out by the engineer officers with the utmost rapidity,” McClellan ordered on Aug. 22, while waiting to depart from Old Point Comfort.
“It is a matter of vital importance that the (work) details be furnished and the work done in the shortest possible time,” he added later that day.
“It is imperatively necessary that the work required should be pushed forward with the utmost vigor.”
What the Union got when the soldiers of the 4th Corps finished was a strong forward outpost that repeatedly confirmed McClellan’s vision.
Fort Yorktown not only provided a crucial harbor for the Federal blockade of the York River and the Chesapeake Bay but also a springboard for expeditions to the Middle Peninsula and Richmond.
It also became a vital magnet and refuge for thousands of runaway slaves, depriving the Confederacy of badly needed food supplies and labor.
“Yorktown posed a constant threat to Richmond both because of its proximity by land and the ease with which you could send large numbers of troops from its wharves to the Richmond & York River Railroad on the Pamunkey River,” historian John V. Quarstein says, describing the historic Civil War stronghold that Colonial National Historical Park will recreate Saturday and Sunday through the living history programs of “Fort Yorktown Sesquicentennial Weekend.”
“It would have been even more important had the North had more enterprising commanders and used its resources better.”
You can find the rest of my story on Fort Yorktown and the living history celebration planned by Colonial National Historical Park for the town's historic area this weekend in the Thursday or Friday paper.
Click here to see a photo gallery of archival images documenting the stronghold during the Civil War.
-- Mark St. John Erickson
Yorktown commander Maj. Gen. Isaac J. Wister, center, and his staff sat for this pictures in the fort's photography studio in November 1863. (Courtesy of the Wistar Institute / November 6, 2013)