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WVSU students scrape up knowledge about Charleston Civil War fort

Members of a West Virginia State University history class have spent the past two weeks digging up more clues about the appearance and capabilities of Charleston’s largest and best-preserved Civil War relic, Fort Scammon.

Their work follows efforts made by a similar class in 2016, when a portion of the fort’s powder magazine was unearthed. During that session, students discovered some of the magazine’s floorboards and cut nails used to hold them in place.

“Last time, we found part of the powder magazine but none of its edges,” said Steve McBride, a Lewisburg native and an archeologist who serves as director of interpretation and archeology at Kentucky’s Camp Nelson National Monument, and who has directed excavation activities at both WVSU events. “This year, we wanted to find more edges so we can see just how big the magazine is.”

As of Wednesday, the WVSU crew had located all but the north wall of the powder magazine, including a rock structure that made up a section of one wall, and sawed, flat boards believed to have covered at least one of the interior walls.

The powder magazine was located in a hole dug near the center of the fort that was supported with boards and covered with an earthen berm.

“The powder magazine was built to protect the fort from an explosion caused by incoming fire setting off the gunpowder, or from a spark originating from inside the fort,” McBride said.

The special topic summer history course included one week of classroom work which involved a review of the history of the Civil War in the Kanawha Valley.

The WVSU students then spent a week surveying an industrial site in Fayetteville’s Wolf Creek Park in an effort to determine its purpose. While printed information is available to trace the ownership of the land, no record could be found about what was produced at the site, which includes a 700-foot tunnel and a masonry wall.

The students spent last week at Fort Scammon, and planed to wrap up their archeological work there Thursday.

The fort was built on the site of a former Confederate artillery position that rained fire on Union soldiers fleeing the Kanawha Valley during the Battle of Charleston in September 1862. Located atop a 1,000 foot bluff now known as Fort Hill, the fort provided Union gunners a commanding view of Charleston, its Kanawha River waterfront, the mouth of Elk River and roads leading to Parkersburg and Point Pleasant.

Its construction, accomplished with the use of picks, shovels, wheelbarrows, and the muscles and sweat of Union troops under the command of Col. Rutherford B. Hayes, was completed in May 1863. Hayes would later serve as the nation’s 19th president, while William McKinley, a young lieutenant in his command whom he mentored during his time in Charleston, would become the 25th president.

The triangular-shaped fort was about 300 feet long by 150 feet wide at its widest point, and featured 10-foot-high earthen walls supported by interior planking. The fort also included seven cannon emplacements and an interior powder magazine. The fort and the 1,000-foot promontory on which it was built give Charleston’s Fort Hill its name.

While the earthen walls of the fort have remained undisturbed, except for natural erosion, since the war ended, no photographs or detailed drawings of Fort Scammon are known to exist. The fort was named in honor of Hayes’ predecessor as commander of the 23rd Ohio Infantry, Gen. Eliakim Scammon.

Hayes and his Ohio infantrymen had seen combat during the Battle of Carnifex Ferry in 1861 and the Battle of South Mountain, in Maryland, in 1862, before arriving in Charleston in March 1863.

There was a lull in combat in the Kanawha Valley in the months following Hayes’ arrival here, prompting the future president to order construction of the fort.

“We are fortifying partly to occupy time and partly to be safe,” Hayes wrote in a May 1862 letter to his wife. “We have built a tolerably good fort which we can hold against superior forces perhaps for a week or two or more.”

As it turned out, Fort Scammon never had to withstand a siege or even fire a shot in anger, as Confederate forces vacated the Kanawha Valley for the duration of the war after briefly savoring their Battle of Charleston victory.

The only cannon fire produced at the fort was a brief volley fired to observe the 4th of July in 1863, followed by a 100-round celebratory discharge sent skyward three days later when word was received that the Union Army had captured Vicksburg, Mississippi.

“It’s cool to be working at a place where two presidents once worked,” said Zachary Crouch, a WVSU senior from St. Albans. On the other hand, an archeological excavation turned out not be be as exciting as those portrayed in movies. “It’s a lot of work,” Crouch said.

“It’s good to have the chance to do field work,” said senior Al Williams, as he brushed trowel scraping from the base of an excavation pit into a dust pan. “It’s hard, but it’s interesting.”

The class was taught by WVSU history professors Dr. Michael Workman and Dr. Billy Joe Peyton.

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

Funerals for Sunday, July 21, 2019

Bly, Betty - 4 p.m., We're Family Park, Exchange.

McBrayer, Doris - 1 p.m., Chapman Funeral Home, Teays Valley.

Morrison, Jo - 2 p.m., Elizabeth Memorial United Methodist Church, Charleston.

Morrison, Sheldon - 2 p.m., Casto Funeral Home, Evans.

Nichols, Anna - 2 p.m., New Hope Baptist Church, Morris.