Archeologists Study ‘61 Aquia Creek Land-Naval Battle Site
By Scott C. Boyd
(November 2011 Civil War News)
STAFFORD COUNTY, Va. – An archeological study at the site of the Battle of Aquia Creek failed to uncover any artifacts from the battle, but did find evidence of two wharves where there was a key logistical hub for the Union Army in Northern Virginia during the Civil War.
The May 29-June 1, 1861, duel between Union warships and Virginia land batteries on the Potomac River was one of the first naval actions of the war.
Data from the study will be used to nominate the site for inclusion on the National Historic Register of Historic Places. A 30-minute educational documentary will also be made.
Multiple state and local jurisdictions are involved where the 1861 battle was fought. Aquia Creek and associated Aquia Landing are in Stafford County in Virginia. The creek runs into the Potomac River, which marks the border with and is considered part of Maryland.
The principal land area for the battle is found in Stafford County’s Aquia Landing Park, established more than 30 years ago. The former railroad bed leading to the landing is now a paved road into the park.
The Stafford County Department of Economic Development sponsored the study which was directed by the county’s tourism manager, Margaret Clay “M.C.” Moncure.
“The entire project ran just under $80,000,” Moncure said.
The key to the funding was a $77,700 grant in 2010 from the American Battlefield Protection Program, the National Park Service program that channels funds to preserve significant battlefields on American soil.
“Without the grant, we couldn’t have done this for a long, long time,” Moncure said.
The project, including in-kind donations, had an overall value of $135,000-$140,000, according to Megan Orient, a county consultant who assisted Moncure.
Organizations donating time included the Maryland Historical Trust’s Maritime Archaeology Program and the Institute of Maritime History, both of which did underwater work. Hope Springs Marina gave use of the marina. Travelhost magazine donated the filming and production of the documentary.
Underwater archeologists made two findings, according to Troy Nowak, with the Maryland Historical Trust’s Maritime Archaeology Program.
The site of the wharf was already known, Nowak said. The tips of the old pilings can be seen at low tide. What they found, however, was evidence of at least two different wharves: one dating to the Civil War and one to the late 19th century.
Near the location of the Union warships during the battle, the underwater team found some “anomalies in the earth’s magnetic field,” according to Nowak. “We don’t exactly know what it represents.”
Further study would be required to verify whether those anomalies were iron shot and shell fired from shore, but Nowak said he considers that “unlikely.”
The terrestrial archeology was done by a team led by Joseph F. “Jo” Balicki from the Alexandria, Va., office of John Milner Associates. Balicki also served as project manager, coordinating the archeology on land and water.
He said that all the findings of the terrestrial archeology were negative. The battle site was largely destroyed by construction conducted there since the war. No evidence of Union ordnance was found.
One of the most interesting historical aspects of the battle was that the troops opposing the Union warships were still considered forces of an independent Virginia, according to Balicki.
The Old Dominion voted to secede from the Union on April 17, 1861, and ratified the Ordinance of Secession on May 23, but was still in the process of joining the nascent Confederate States at the time of the battle. The state’s army and navy were under the overall command of Robert E. Lee.
The terminus of the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad was at Aquia Landing, a peninsula that juts into the mouth of Aquia Creek at its confluence with the Potomac. A wharf provided a river link to the railroad.
Virginia troops occupied several positions along the Potomac to provide a forward defense of the state’s border with the Union. Troops under the command of Col. Daniel Ruggles fortified the landing with a four-gun battery. They were joined by Walker’s Legion from Tennessee.
On May 29, three ships of the Potomac Flotilla under Commander James H. Ward, USN, began the action against the battery at Aquia Landing. The steamers USS Thomas Freeborn, USS Anacostia and USS Resolute bombarded the battery for an hour, but neither side had much success due to the long range because of the low tide, according to Ward’s report (Official Records of the Navies, Series I, Volume 4, pages 490-491).
On May 30, Ward went downriver from Aquia Landing and took some men ashore to reconnoiter Mathias Point. It was an unoccupied, but superior, possible location for a rebel battery to interdict traffic on the river.
May 31 brought a resumption of the Aquia Landing bombardment, Ward reporting that he exhausted all his long-range ordnance. Ward noted that there was a battery on a hill behind the landing that his guns couldn’t reach. The USS Pawnee joined the Union flotilla that night.
June 1 brought a five-hour ship-to-shore duel, ending inconclusively, as before.
Virginia Navy Capt. W.F. Lynch, commanding naval defenses of the Potomac, took exception to Ward’s published characterization of the Southern troops as running from their guns under fire at the battle. He wrote a letter to the editor of the Fredericksburg News on June 9 to complain and give his version of events (ORN, Series I, Volume 4, pages 499-500).
Ward was later killed at the Battle of Mathias Point on June 27, becoming the first Union naval officer lost in the war.
Confederate forces withdrew from the Potomac defenses in early March 1862 as Union Maj. Gen. George McClellan moved the Army of the Potomac to Hampton Roads to begin the Peninsula Campaign.
Aquia Landing thereafter became a crucial link in the logistical chain for Union troops in Northern Virginia.
Balicki is putting together the final research report. Moncure said she expects it to be finished and ready for public release by the end of this year.
“We had absolutely excellent support from the Stafford Board of Supervisors,” Moncure said. She also praised the groups that donated their time and services, as well as the neighbors who showed a lot of interest in the project.
“Stafford County doesn’t have a lot of battlefield space. This will position ourselves to understand more about our own history and be able to interpret it to the visiting public,” Moncure said.
The project wasn’t finished in time for the battle’s 150th anniversary this year, Moncure said, and she isn’t sure yet whether the county will hold a big commemoration next year or fold it into the larger 150th commemoration of the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 2012.
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