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Forgotten battlefield | Fundraising totals more than $9 million to preserve Civil War battle ground in Williamsburg

Union forces flanked Confederate soldiers during the Battle of Williamsburg with the help of escaped African American slaves.

WILLIAMSBURG, Va. — To the naked eye, a 245-acre plot of land by the Jones Mill Pond is merely dense, undeveloped woods.

But more importantly, it's a chapter of American history, one that preservationists are trying to restore.

More than $9 million has so far been raised to acquire and preserve the site of the James Custis Farm, a pivotal moment in the Battle of Williamsburg. 

In May of 1862, Union troops attacked Confederate forces near what is now the modern-day Colonial National Historical Parkway as part of the Peninsula Campaign, a push to take the Confederate capital of Richmond by traveling up Virginia's peninsula.

"Over 10,000 acres, but the core of it is over 1,500 acres between I-64 and Colonial Parkway. About 230 acres, it's pristine and untouched, which is why people like the American Battlefield Trust are interested in it," explained local historian and member of the Williamsburg Battlefield Association, Drew Gruber. "Over 40,000 soldiers North and South will fight here, and 4,000 casualties resulting from the battle."

With the help of intelligence gathered from escaped African American slaves, Union forces took control of an unoccupied earthen fort to flank Confederate troops at the site of the farm. Although it was an hour-long battle, Gruber said the heart of the fighting took place in just a 25-30 minute window, and describes the "crescendo" of the battle taking place there through a driving rainstorm. 

“Soldiers realize the Union won the day, from the local intelligence the African American community gave, them allowing them to turn that Confederate line," Gruber said. "By the time they get to Richmond, they’ve started thinking about this war not as one to preserve the Union, but one to free the enslaved."

Today, the site of this part of the battle is now private property and inaccessible to the public. Sightseers can view the exterior of the land from across the Jones Mill Pond, but cannot physically visit the locations where the battle's most significant moments took place.

RELATED: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, William & Mary receive grant to move, revitalize key piece of history

In 2021, the National Park Service issued a $4.6 million grant to the American Battlefield Trust (ABT) to help preserve land associated with the Battle of Williamsburg through its American Battlefield Protection Program. It's the largest grant ever issued by the agency, for the purpose of battlefield preservation.

“It took a long time to make this deal come to the table, sort of like a puzzle: we’ve got the right zoning, the right partners, if you can make all of those things happen at the same time, that’s when the preservation can begin," said Garry Adelman, chief historian with the American Battlefield Trust.

Adelman said it's a journey that's taken decades, but now the finish line is in sight.

Grant funding from the Department of Defense, as well as the Commonwealth of Virginia itself, has left a small slice of the monetary pie the Trust now needs to fundraise. The Trust recently began a fundraising campaign to raise less than $60,000 to complete the acquisition of the land, before preservation and restoration can begin.

While it's not immediately clear how the battlefield will be restored, the idea is to make it an attraction for the Historical Triangle.

“Do they want trails here? What do we need to do to make it safe? Do we want to restore the wheat field to show people what it looked like during the battle, an interpretive sign to show the farm?" Adelman asked. "All of that has to be worked out; preservation, restoration and interpretation will all happen in the months and years to come."

Despite it being the site of an influential moment in American history, Adelman said it's not of particular surprise that it's been, what he calls, "relegated to obscurity."

"One battle being more popular than the other has frustrated people even since the Civil War," he said. "While some battles are happening, they get overshadowed. The Battle at Shiloh just took place, and it’s more costly and bloody."

Not to mention, the area is already known for other historical landmarks.

“The Battle of Williamsburg is overshadowed by its colonial past, also overshadowed by the battles that came after.”

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