Silent Sentinel: Confederate Fort Stevens

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The roughly twenty mile segment of Interstate 95 that runs between Richmond and Petersburg, Virginia provides easy access to some of the most extensive Confederate earthworks remaining in America today. If one looks closely,  entrenchments can be seen nearly everywhere in the woods along this route. Many are from the Howlett Line that guarded Bermuda Hundred and include Battery Dantzler and Parker’s Battery. Additionally, atop nearby Drewry’s Bluff along the James River, stand the well preserved and foreboding ramparts of Fort Darling. Here, in May 1862, Southern artillerymen thwarted an attempt by the Federal navy led by the famous Monitor to ascend the James and capture Richmond.

Several sections of both the Richmond inner and outer defense lines also remain, including a hidden little gem of a fort that played a key role in the little known 1864 Battle of Drewry’s Bluff. This three-gun Condederate earthwork is known as Fort Stevens. It lies in a small park by that name in a quiet residential neighborhood just off the Willis Road exit of I-95. Back in 1864, Fort Stevens anchored the intersection of Richmond’s outer and inner defense lines south of the city. When Federal troops under General Benjamin F. Butler seized much of the abandoned outer line on May 14th, the earthwork assumed strategic importance. It soon became storm center of heavy Union artillery and sharpshooter fire as Confederate defenders sought to blunt further advances of Butler’s army.

A graffiti marked interpretive sign in Fort Stevens gives a good idea of its appearance on May 14, 1864.

A graffiti marked interpretive sign in Fort Stevens gives a good idea of its appearance on May 14, 1864.

Fort Stevens itself is a plump semi-circle of earth with a deep ditch in front and a traverse to the rear that does not completely enclose the work. Inside are two ground level positions for heavy guns and three elevated ramps for light field pieces. On May 14, 1864 the sand-bagged interior of the fort was manned by four guns belonging to Captain James D. Hankins’ Virginia battery, also known as the Surry Light Artillery. They were supported by elements of the 27th South Carolina Infantry of General Johnson Hagood’s brigade. That afternoon the Federals positioned portions of several batteries within fairly close range and attempted to reduce the bastion with concentrated artillery fire. They were unsuccessful despite the fact that two of the Surry battery’s limbers were exploded and the muzzle of one cannon struck. Additionally, Union sharpshooters concealed in the abatis of the abandoned exterior line made it difficult for the grey cannoneers to work the guns. Narrowly escaping a bullet in the head was QM Sergeant Servetus M. Williams, great-grandfather of your blog host. Another member of Hankin’s Battery opined: “Twelve hours under continued fire is enough to test the endurance of the strongest and hardiest of men.”

QM Sgt. Servetus M. Williams of the Surry Light Artillery. While resting against a cannon wheel in Fort Stevens a sharpshooters bullet took out the spoke above his head.

QM Sgt. Servetus M. Williams of the Surry Light Artillery. While resting against a cannon wheel in Fort Stevens a sharpshooters bullet took out the spoke above his head.

Surprisingly, the following day was quiet as Confederate forces under General P. G. T. Beauregard marshalled for an attack against Butler’s tentative legions, which seemed to be mostly content with making defensive preparations. In a dense fog on the morning of May 16th, Beauregard launched his expected counterstroke. Fort Stevens served a pivot for the two pronged Southern offensive led by North Carolina Generals Robert F. Hoke and Robert Ransom, Jr. Initially the fog produced considerable confusion among the two Confederate wings. Yet the assault was vigorous and persistant enough to convince the defending Federals to call it quits. Butler soon withdrew to his defenses at Bermuda Hundred and Richmond was saved. For many reasons however, it was not the stunning Confederate victory it might have been.

Fort Stevens saw no further combat during the war and slowly faded into obscurity. Thanks to fairly recent efforts The Chesterfield (VA) County Department of Parks it remains today preserved for posterity, along with several nice interpretive markers. While visitors other than recreational ones are few, it’s definitely worth a look by any serious history buff. And as an added enticement, there is a very good local BBQ place close by! Please left click on images for larger view.

By Bob Williams

The star on this interpretive marker shows the position of Fort Stevens in relation to other Confederate defensive works.

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