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WVSU students learn to dig history in Fort Scammon archaeology project

TOM HINDMAN | Gazette Mail photos
Looking for nails, coins and metal artifacts, archaeologist Stephen McBride uses a metal detector to scan an unearthed revetment area along a Fort Scammon wall during a recent West Virginia State University excavation of the Civil War fort.
West Virginia State University History Professor Billy Joe Peyton (orange shirt) oversees trowel work being done in a Fort Scammon excavation pit by students Ben Thompson and Mike Farris.
Civil War era artifacts unearthed in the dig include (at left) a large metal tool possibly used as a log splitter, an array of cut nails (center), the stem of a clay smoking pipe (top) and chunks of wood from the floorboards of the fort’s powder magazine.

Six West Virginia State University students, working with two history professors and an archaeologist, have spent the past two weeks on a hilltop overlooking downtown Charleston.

They’re digging into the task of learning more about one of West Virginia’s best-preserved yet least-known Civil War forts — despite the fact that two men who would later be U.S. presidents served together there.

Built in May 1863 by men from three Union regiments under the command of Col. Rutherford B. Hayes, who would go on to become the nation’s 19th president, Fort Scammon was named in honor of Hayes’ predecessor as commanding officer of the 23d Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Col. Eliakim Parker Scammon, who left the regiment in October 1862 after being promoted to brigadier general.

Hayes and his men from the 23rd Ohio had battled Confederate troops at Carnifex Ferry, South Mountain and Antietam prior to arriving in Charleston in March 1863. As they began the back-breaking work of building an earthen fortress with hand tools on a 1,000-foot promontory overlooking the town, they had no way of knowing that Confederate forces would not appear in the Kanawha Valley for the duration of the war.

Following a victory over a Union garrison in what would become West Virginia’s capital city during the Sept. 13, 1862 Battle of Charleston, Confederate troops occupied the city for six weeks before retreating southward, never to return to the Kanawha Valley, after a much larger Union force approached from the north in mid-October.

After establishing Camp White, home to the 1,500 to 3,000 troops under Hayes’ command, across the Kanawha from the mouth of Elk River on the site of the present-day Marathon bulk fuel storage tanks, Hayes ordered work to begin on Fort Scammon on a hilltop behind the camp “partly to occupy time, partly to be safe,” he wrote in a letter to his wife.

In addition to the 23rd Ohio Infantry, Hayes had command of the 5th and 13th West Virginia Infantry, several cavalry companies and a battery crew to maintain and fire the 13 cannons he had at his disposal.

“Building the fort took a lot of work,” said archaeologist Stephen McBride, a Lewisburg native who serves as director of interpretation and archaeology at Kentucky’s Camp Nelson Civil War Heritage Park. “They had to use picks and shovels and wheelbarrows, but with 100 or 200 soldiers at a time working here, they managed to get it built in a few weeks.”

McBride directed the WVSU students in archaeological excavations of several Fort Scammon features, including its powder magazine; a portion of an earthen wall to look for traces of a wooden revetment, or interior retaining structure; and an interior pit, to determine its dimensions and function.

The students, members of a three-week Archaeology of the Civil War course, spent one week studying the history of the Civil War in the Kanawha Valley and focusing on the 23rd Ohio Infantry’s role in it, with instruction from Michael Workman, the university’s program coordinator for history, and history professor Billy Joe Peyton.

The week of pre-dig study included a research trip to the State Archives, where the students “were exposed to new avenues of research and learned that three hours can pass very quickly when you’re researching something that’s of interest to you,” Peyton said.

Peyton said one reason the site for Fort Scammon was chosen was that Confederate artillerymen had used the hilltop to good advantage during the Battle of Charleston to dislodge Union troops from a defensive position on the west bank of the Elk and to disrupt an orderly retreat as federal troops fled Confederate infantry and cavalry.

Although there are no known photographs of the fort during its Civil War days, and written descriptions are few and sparse, the dimensions and basic alignment of the structure are easy to determine, since most of the redoubt remains clearly visible.

“It’s a very well-preserved site,” McBride said. “As far as we can tell, it suffered from the normal erosion you would expect over 150 years and not much more, although you can see places where kids like to ride their bikes through the fort.”

The fort takes the rough form of a triangle and is about 300 feet long by 150 wide at its widest point, and had seven firing platforms for cannons, a bunkered powder magazine and earthen walls that were originally seven to 10 feet high.

There is no apparent historic record indicating how many soldiers routinely manned the fort, but it is believed to have been a small fraction of Camp White’s troop roster.

”People went up and down the hill several times a day, probably following Ferry Branch, to relieve the men in the fort and bring water, unless it turns out there was a well up here,” Peyton said. “There once were more earthworks and gun emplacements down the hill from the fort, but they were destroyed when the Oakwood Road Interstate 64 interchange was being built” during the 1970s.

Hayes wrote that he expected Charleston “shall probably be visited by rebels while we are here, our force is small but perhaps will do. I have some of the best, and I suspect poorest, troops in service, scattered from Gauley to the mouth of the Big Sandy on the Kentucky line.”

While awaiting the predicted arrival of the enemy, “drilling, boating and ball-playing make the time pass pleasantly,” Hayes wrote. “You can stay on the opposite side of the river in Charleston for seven dollars a week, or in a comfortable tent on this side with better grub for nothing.”

Hayes’ wife and children spent several months visiting him in Charleston, arriving by riverboat from their Cincinnati home, and sometimes staying in a cottage near Camp White rented from the Quarrier family. During an 1863 visit, Hayes wrote in his diary, he and his wife and two sons “rowed skiffs, fished, built small dams, sailed little ships, played cards and enjoyed camp life generally.”

But on June 30, 1863, tragedy struck. The Hayes family’s youngest son, Joseph, was stricken with dysentery and died in the Quarrier cottage.

“Poor little darling!” Hayes wrote in his diary. “A sweet, bright boy. I have seen so little of him, born since the war, that I do not realize a loss” on the scale suffered by his wife, he wrote.

It was in Charleston that Hayes developed a relationship as mentor to a young lieutenant named William McKinley, who would go on to become the nation’s 25th president. McKinley enlisted as a private in the 23rd Ohio in 1861, but received a battlefield commission the following year after bringing hot food to Union soldiers facing heavy fire on the front lines of the Battle of Antietam.

“He is an exceedingly bright, intelligent and gentlemanly young officer,” Hayes wrote of McKinley in his diary. “He promises to be one of the best”

The two future presidents would sometimes ride horses together while off duty. On one such occasion in early 1863, the two Army officers rode from Camp White toward the Guyandotte Turnpike, crossing Davis Creek seven times each way.

While Fort Scammon was never attacked, men from the regiments under Hayes’ command left the fort and Camp White on several occasions to pursue Confederate forces, including those led by Gen. John Hunt Morgan in a raid of several Ohio cities in July 1863 that culminated in the Battle of Buffington Island, along the Ohio River near Ravenswood,

While not a shot was fired in anger either at or from Fort Scammon’s battery of cannons, the artillery pieces were not entirely silent. On July 4, 1863, salutes were fired from the fort to celebrate the nation’s birthday. Three days later, when word was received that Union troops had captured Vicksburg, Mississippi, Hayes authorized a 100-gun volley, he said in a letter to his wife.

The WVSU project included the first archaeological survey to take place at Fort Scammon since 1986, when Paul Marshall and Associates and archaeologist David Fuerst, now with the New River Gorge National River, did a preliminary excavation for the City of Charleston for use in interpreting the site. The city assumed ownership of the historic site in 1978 following a public awareness and fundraising drive led by Charleston attorney and state Sen. Paul Kaufman, a Fort Hill resident, and Charleston architect Robert Martens, to save the fort from destruction from residential development.

The 1986 survey established the fort’s dimensions, turned up a variety of buttons and buckles to indicate that the soldiers’ uniforms were not exactly uniform, while small arms ammunition — .58 and .69 caliber bullets — found at the site was of standard Union Army issue.

The WVSU crew succeeded in locating the floorboards of the powder magazine, along with wood believed to have once served as the structure’s walls and roof before they collapsed onto the floor, and a number of cut nails that once held them in place. They also found a pit feature inside the fort, the size and purpose of which has not been determined, and such Civil War era camp life artifacts as a ceramic pipe stem and a large metal wedge apparently used to split logs.

McBride said he would like to return to the site at a future date to determine the dimensions of the powder magazine through additional excavations to uncover the edges of the floorboards, and to find exactly where the firing platforms for the fort’s cannons are located,

“I’ve really enjoyed it,’ WVSU student Mike Farris of Charleston said of the dig. Farris, who was troweling in a powder magazine pit when the floorboards were found, said he liked “the anticipation and the uncertainty over whether I’ll find anything interesting” in telling the story of the fort, “which I never knew was here until I took this class.”

“A lot of what we’re doing is finding disturbances in the soil,” which can indicate the presence of features like pits, walls, or fire sites, said student Ben Thompson of Hurricane, who had also been unaware of the fort’s existence. “But I like finding artifacts, even if they’re not from Civil War times. And I’ve learned how to not destroy them.”

While city ownership of Fort Scammon protects the Civil War site from destruction, little has been done to promote its presence or tell its story to the few visitors who make their way to the top of Fort Circle Drive to walk through the grass-covered earthworks. At a small parking area that accommodates three or four cars, a sign informs visitors only that Fort Scammon is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, that the site is open from daybreak to dusk, and that drinking alcoholic beverages is not allowed.

“One of our objectives is to increase public recognition of the fort,” Peyton said. “We also need to have some interpretive signs in place so people interested in coming up here can learn something about the fort and the soldiers who served here. I don’t know of any other Civil War fort where two future presidents were stationed together.”

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-5169 or follow @rsteelhammer on Twitter.

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