02/14/14

A Dam Fine Park

image064The only engagement worth noting during General George McClellan’s so called Siege of Yorktown, VA in 1862 occurred on April 16th along the banks of the Warwick River, several miles southwest of the old Colonial port town. Known variously as the Battle of Lee’s Mill or Dam Number One, this spirited skirmish was instigated by four companies of the 4th Vermont Infantry making a bold probe of Confederate defenses along the dammed up river. Taking advantage of shallow water just below the dam the Federals waded across at a point where the defensive lines were incomplete, initially scattering working parties of the 16th Georgia. When the nearby 15th North Carolina came to the Georgians defense, they too were manhandled and their young Colonel Edward McKinney killed.

Sensing the upper hand, local Federal commanders turned the supposedly limited incursion into a broader attack. They added the remaining companies of the 4th Vermont along with the 6th Vermont Infantry to the assault force. The breach of the Confederate defense line was widened, but not for long. After about an hour the Vermonters found themselves hard pressed by a number of revenge seeking Confederate units who poured a vicious converging fire into the erstwhile attackers. The beleaguered New Englanders had no choice but to recross the swampy river under a scathing fire and seek the safety of their own lines. In the end, the gallant Vermonters lost 44 men killed and 148 wounded. They gained nothing. Soon the minor skirmish at Dam Number One and the Siege of Yorktown passed to nothing, remembered only by locals and close students of The War. One participant called it a “Dam Failure.”

View of Confederate works captured by the 3rd Vermont after crossing dammed up river in background.

View of Confederate works captured by the 3rd Vermont after crossing dammed up river in background.

Fortunately for us the locals did something to memorialize the site of this unique little battle. Back in the 1960s the City of Newport News, VA found itself taxing its water supply. To alleviate the problem the city purchased several lakes in the Lee Hall/Warwick River area and established a watershed. The preserved area, which became Newport News City Park in 1966, included not only the site of the Battle of Dam Number One but miles and mile of some of the best preserved Civil War earthworks remaining in America today. Thank you Newport News City fathers!

Including over 8000 acres, the park is one of the largest city parks in the U.S. In addition to the usual recreational amenities considerable effort has been put into marking and identifying key historical sites. The intricate Confederate trenches for miles along the dammed up Warwick River are wonderfully preserved. Trails allow the visitor to see where the Vermonters crossed, where Colonel McKinney fell, and generally follow the course of the battle of April 16th. Another trail leads to the extensive fortifications guarding Wynn’s Mill, a key Confederate strong point during the Yorktown siege. Additionally, the park’s interpretive center offers a wonderful display of battle relics, including some rare Confederate buckles, uncovered within the park’s boundary under the direction of historically minded rangers. Relic hunting is not allowed. To paraphrase the battle participant cited above, it is a “dam fine park!” Give it a visit.

Colonel McKinney of the 15th NC was killed in this area while rallying troops to resist the Federal incursion.

Colonel McKinney of the 15th NC was killed in this area while rallying troops to resist the Federal incursion.

The extensive Confederate fortifications near Wynn's Mill remain heavily guarded to this day!

The extensive Confederate fortifications near Wynn’s Mill remain heavily guarded to this day!

By Bob Williams