Fort Huger Project

Background about the Fort Huger Project

Fort Huger Civil War Encampment in Virginia

Fort Huger Civil War encampment in Virginia

The American Civil War brought conflict directly to those living along the James River in Isle of Wight County, Virginia. Naval maps of the river show shallow water and shoals along the project area, but a deep, navigable channel offshore. From the outset of the American Civil War, Richmond was the prime target for Union forces trying to quickly end the fighting. Access to Richmond could be gained in two ways: overland and by the James River. The James River became a strategic transportation route for both the Confederate and Union armies.

In 1861, Confederate engineer Andrew Talcott was given the task of constructing fortifications along the James River to protect against a Union naval assault on Richmond. His orders were to plan, and construct coast, harbor, and river defenses required by the State of Virginia” (Case 1995). Talcott traveled up the James River to choose the most suitable sites for the batteries. Talcott chose Harden’s Bluff (Hardy’s Bluff, Mother Tyne’s Bluff) on the south side of the James River to construct Fort Huger, which was named after Confederate General Benjamin Huger. It was situated directly across the James River from the battery at Mulberry Point. Gilmer maps of the fort show that its design was irregular in shape. It had parapets standing approximately 20 ft high and had 15 gun emplacements along the river side. There were no formal gun emplacements on the inland side of the fort. The fort was accessed by a road through the wetlands that terminated at a sloping ramp leading to the entrance to the fort. The fort design included a magazine, a shot furnace, and a shell house.

Fort Huger Civil War Encampment in VirginiaTo further bolster the defense of Richmond, obstructions were placed in the James River. The strategy was designed to force Union ships heading for Richmond to slow down due to the obstructions. Fort Huger and Mulberry Point, on opposite sides of the James River, would catch the ships in a crossfire. The Union navy would incur more damage because the obstructions would not allow them to pass through quickly. The strategy was sound, though the execution was generally not successful.

Fort Huger was not completely outfitted until mid-March 1862. Seven of the guns were in place by March 13, 1862. There was an early awareness of the weaknesses of the fortifications along the James River that foreshadowed the problems that would occur with Fort Huger in the months to come. In a letter from Lt. Col. Henry Cabell to General Lafayette McLaws dated March 14, 1862, described several problems with Fort Huger. Cabell notes the lack of general preparedness, weakness in “its rear defenses”, and serious conflicts in the leadership at the fort (ORN 1862). He stated that the thick woods surrounding the inland side of the fort could provide cover for a landward attacking force. Inadequate access to the fort was noted through the swampy area immediately surrounding the fort. Wooden structures constructed within the fort’s walls were considered to be hazards to the fort’s defenders while under attack. Brigadier General Lafayette McLaws noted other problems such as six guns that had not been placed in barbette, traverses needing to be thrown up, guns to protect the road leading from the fort were not in place, drill for firing the guns had been suspended, and bomb proofs needed to be erected.

Fort Huger Civil War Encampment in Virginia

Fort Huger Civil War encampment in Virginia

The fort itself was manned by two artillery companies within the fort and three infantry companies outside the fort. The infantry companies were commanded by Colonel Archer. The artillery companies were the Rifle Rangers, Company C, 5th Battalion Virginia Infantry. They were under the direct command of Captain DeLagnel. Colonel Archer and Captain Delagnel did not agree on the precise chain of command. This conflict had to be settled by General Magruder. In a letter dated March 13, 1862, Magruder wrote

“…The battery has been a naval battery, and is now commanded by Captain DeLagnel (late of the Navy, but now temporarily a captain in the Confederate Army). I recommend that the whole be placed under the command of the commanding officer, whoever he may be – at present Colonel Archer- while the guns and the men who serve them should be under the immediate command of Captain DeLagnel, who, however, I believe, is junior to the captains of artillery serving the guns…”(ORN 1862:6).

Even General Robert E. Lee had to step in. Lee’s letter to Major General Huger listed his knowledge of complaints, numbered one through seven. He provided suggestions for fixing those problems or his understanding of how the remedies for the problems were being executed, as he understood them. Regarding the matter of command, he wrote:

The last item of complaint, “Want of harmony among the officers,” is the most important. The senior officer present should command all, but the immediate command of the guns and the men serving them should be with Captain de Lagnel, as he was assigned to his present position because of his supposed capabilities as an artillery officer. This is not a time to squabble about rank; everyone must work, and do what he can to promote the cause. To save time, I have assumed the statements made to me to be true, which is most likely not the case; and my suggestions on this supposition are intended mainly as explanatory.

You can best determine whether the faults referred to are so and provide the remedy, and you are desired to give the subject you earliest attention (ORN 1862:6).

Fort Huger Civil War Encampment in Virginia

Fort Huger Civil War encampment in Virginia

By the latter half of April, Captain J. M. Maury had taken command of the battery at Fort Huger. He found the garrison to be too small and poorly trained. To remedy the situation and prepare the men for battle, Captain Maury wrote to Lieutenant Colonel Archer on April 21, 1862 asking that the garrison be relieved of battalion duty to completely focus on drilling. Lt. Colonel Archer did not comply with Captain Maury’s wishes. Five days later Captain Maury dispatched a letter to General George W. Randolph asking for some assistance.

However, time for improving the defenses at Fort Huger was running out. In less than two weeks following the dispatch of Captain Maury’s letter to General Randolph, the artillery companies at Fort Huger would be put to the test. Union warships attacked Fort Huger on May 8, 1862. Commander John Rodgers of the Union Ship Galena sailed up the James River and shelled Fort Boykin at Burwells Bay and then turned to Fort Huger. In a letter to L.M. Goldsborough, Flag Officer and Commander of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadrons, Commander Rodgers wrote “Sir: We fought two batteries yesterday, each about a dozen guns. We silenced the first (Fort Boykin) at Rock Wharf but finding that we were expending too many shells upon the second at Mother Tynes’ Bluff (Fort Huger) I put the Galena abeam of it as close as the pilot could take her, in good 5-second range and disconcerted the aim of the rebels while Arrostook and Port Royal ran by” (ORN 1862:7). This communication indicates that the obstructions placed in the James River between Fort Huger and Mulberry Point were not effective.

Fort Huger Civil War Encampment in VirginiaCommander Rodgers requested the aid of the Monitor and a supply of ammunition to “silence the battery at Harden’s Bluff.” A more substantial Union fleet that included the U.S.S. Galena and the U.S.S. Monitor attacked the fort again on May 16th. Following this attack, Union forces reported the Confederate abandonment of Fort Huger. In a report to U.S. Navy operations command, from Flag-officer Goldsborough of the U.S.S. Susquehanna dated May 18, 1862, it was noted that “…at Harden’s Bluff the guns were spiked, carriages burned and magazines blown up, but a little below it a solitary gun remained intact, and this we put out of use” (ORN 1862:7).

The following day, Lieutenant John Waters, commander of the U.S. Minnesota, sent a letter to Al Ludlow Case, Captain of the fleet. In this letter, Waters describes the reconnaissance of his men at the fort and provides a detailed description of the fort itself and its condition immediately following its abandonment. Water’s letter indicates that a number of the fort’s weaknesses discussed just months before the attack had been addressed. The wooden structures inside the fort had been removed, construction of traverses, bomb proofs, storage areas had been completed, and the woods had been cleared at the rear of the fort. Unfortunately for the Confederates, none of these steps insured the invulnerability of the battery or of the James River approach to Richmond.

Read More about Fort Huger Data Recovery Investigation:

Recent Investigations
Data Recovery Methods
Results of Investigation
Feature 602
Feature 603
Additional Features
Discussion – Site Location
Discussion – Encampment Layout
Discussion – Camp Architecture
Discussion – Material Culture
Data Recovery Excavations and Future Research
History of Fort Huger