Preserve what you can: Five Mile Fork earthworks

On Saturday, while returning from a terrific hike out on the Fredericksburg battlefield, I drove down the “Plank Road,” better known as Virginia Highway 3 now days. As the city began to turn into suburb, I made a stop in the Five Mile Fork area at the Harrison Crossing shopping complex… for what else? Markers.

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We’ve had these markers in HMDB for some time. And I’ve visited the location before. But I always like to check on the markers and any look for any new interpretation on site.

These are part of a set of five which interpret a string of trenches attributed to the Confederates in the opening phases of the Chancellorsville campaign. The works crown a spot of high ground just north of the highway. The works are inside the tall trees in the far center of this view:

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The trenches are access from a short hairpin trail up the rise in the left center of view. The earthworks themselves are not impressive. The sort of trenches constructed in haste, and often eroding rapidly with time.

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But they are there today, perhaps a figment of what was built in anticipation of a clash of arms. These would be easy to overlook, if you didn’t know to look for them.

While there, I turned around to look back down the trail towards the highway.

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I started thinking again about the back-and-forth between preservation and development. Some might substitute “progress” for development. But we can take that in several directions. Preservation is progress from one – my – perspective. From that of others, development is progress. Progress is subjective, so let’s opt for a neutral description.

I don’t know the full story of how this all worked out at Five Mile Fork’s Harrison Crossing shopping complex. But I can guess at the story line. With attention drawn to the earthworks at the site, a developer opted to set aside a portion of land – an easement – to preserve the works. Maybe the preservation was in the face of some pressure from preservationists. Or maybe the developer was simply sympathetic to the notion of preserving the works (UPDATE: Which was the case.  See John Hennessy’s comment below). Or maybe there were incentives, such as tax breaks, offered. Result is the same. A ribbon of ground left undeveloped with some interpretation and the ubiquitous snake rail fence.

But the ground around ends up disturbed. The lay of the land is cut through with the need to level out parking areas and building foundations.

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What artifacts not found by the metal detector armed “diggers” have long since departed for some fill pit. One wonders what earthwork remains might have extended beyond, either across what is now parking lot or to the other side on the grounds of Riverbend High School.

What happened at this site in 1863? If the interpretation is correct (no “if” involved – see comment below), Confederate troops constructed hasty works and then sat waiting for a fight. That fight would not occur here, but rather a few miles west. The big story line did not play out here, but rather there.

So what happened on this site in 2006 (guessing when the development took place)? Someone opted to set aside a small section of ground upon which a small, somewhat boring, portion of the Civil War occurred. The site was marked with interpretation to engage and educate visitors.

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A section, if not the whole, of the works are there for consideration. Few visitors to the nearby stores will venture up to the trenches. But how many would visit if there were no hard-packed trail, parking spots, and interpretive signage? How many of those are then drawn to consider the bigger story just a few miles down the road?

Can we call this a “preserve what you can” solution?

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

4 thoughts on “Preserve what you can: Five Mile Fork earthworks

  1. Craig: In this case, the preservation of these works came about because 1) we knew they were there, 2) the Corps of Engineers is energetic and thoughtful about enforcing the requirements of Section 106 as they relate to the permits the COE issues hereabouts, 3) the developer knew all that in advance and offered preservation of these works out of the gate. No wrangling involved. Eric Mink of the park’s staff worked with everyone involved to identify the full extent of the resource, and ultimately he even wrote the text on the wayside exhibits.

    There have been dozens of such slivers of history quietly preserved in the Fredericksburg region through the same process. No question the results are imperfect, but it is also true that the outcome is often the best that can be had. Last I counted a couple years ago, something over 800 acres have received some form of preservation at the collective hands of the Corps, the park, and developers working within the system. I think it’s one of the park’s quiet, unseen successes, due largely to the efforts of Eric, his predecessor Noel Harrison (who pioneered the process), and local COE representative Hal Wiggins, who is as committed to good and fairness as anyone I know. John Hennessy

  2. I have a continuation of this line of entrenchments on my property to the south of what is now Wye Oaks Ln. Working on pulling together a summary of the history in advance of the 150th anniversary this spring. The best reference I’ve found to date is in John Bigelow’s “The Campaign of Chancellorsville” published in 1910 which can be found on google books:

    See Map 12 which is on p279 of the PDF. The part I own is just below the “8am” in this map and it appears that Wofford’s brigade (2/2.1 in this map) may have been positioned here. Will post again when I get a good summary put together.

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