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A path through the trees at Williamsburg Battlefield

Williamsburg Battlefield, Va.

Robert James

Help Preserve 245 Acres at Williamsburg with an Unheard-of Match!

The Opportunity 

We have an amazing opportunity to save the 245-acre property that includes the James Custis Farm, part of the 1862 Battle of Williamsburg — making this the second-largest private-sector transaction in the history of the battlefield preservation movement!

Back in 2006, the Trust saved the Slaughter Pen Farm at Fredericksburg for an astounding $12 million — but to do so, we carried millions of dollars in debt for more than a decade, which we’re close to paying off. The difference today is that with Williamsburg, our debt will be $0! 

This is possible thanks to an historic confluence of opportunities: 

  1. The American Battlefield Protection Program, our federal partner, awarded the largest-ever grant in its history to the Trust — $4.6 million — because they recognize the significance of this land and the threat of losing it to residential or commercial development; 
  2. The Department of Defense awarded a grant to the Trust because the land we seek to preserve is adjacent to a Navy base and will help secure a buffer zone of safety around it; 
  3. The Commonwealth of Virginia awarded two grants to save this property in recognition of both its historical and environmental importance.

All told, these grants and other commitments to the Trust total over $9 million, making this a $163-to-$1 match of your donation dollars and enabling us to secure the largest number of acres ever preserved at the Battle of Williamsburg. Nearly a decade of hard work has gone into bringing this deal together.

The History

The Battle of Williamsburg, the first pitched battle of the 1862 Peninsula Campaign, was fought in almost unceasing rain, turning roads into streams of mud, and rivers and creeks into bottomless swamps.  

Union forces, led by McClellan’s second-in-command, Edwin V. Sumner, and aided by General Winfield Scott Hancock, attacked Confederates as General Joseph E. Johnston withdrew his southern army from their Yorktown defenses to Richmond.  

The opposing forces met near Williamsburg, the old historic Virginia capital and college town, where 14 redoubts (or field forts as they were sometimes called), constructed across the Virginia peninsula bolstered the city’s defenses.  

The James Custis Farm witnessed some of the most desperate fighting during the battle. The farm made up part of the left flank of a three-mile-long Confederate line defined by the 14 redoubts. A significant and important part of the history of this land are the redoubts that were built by African American slaves and their role in fighting for their freedom. 

“This land desperately needs to be preserved because it tells a largely neglected story in American history. Namely, the role that African Americans played in winning their own freedom during the Civil War, even before they were allowed to serve in the United States Army.” - Dr. Glenn Brasher, historian, University of Alabama 

Redoubt 11 and a second similar earthwork, Redoubt 12, were the focus of a bold effort to outflank the Confederate defenses of Williamsburg on May 5, led by General Hancock, and accompanied by none other than Lieutenant George A. Custer, a “volunteer aide” of Hancock’s, who kept notes about the battle. 

The morning before, two enslaved individuals told Hancock that the Confederates left Redoubts 11 and 12 completely unoccupied. Hancock and five regiments moved cautiously, cutting their way through woods, to cross a mill dam and occupy both redoubts. From Redoubt 11, Hancock’s artillery began shelling the Confederate’s flank and rear. 

Hancock knew a sharp attack could turn the Confederate line and capture Fort Magruder. His superiors promised reinforcements for the task but, instead, he received orders to fall back. Dumbstruck, Hancock sent couriers back to confirm this puzzling order. 

Finally, at 5:10 p.m., as he was about to begin his withdrawal, Hancock saw enemy reinforcements arriving. Soon, regiments from Virginia and North Carolina, under the command of Confederate generals Jubal Early and D. H. Hill, launched a ferocious, gallant, and, ultimately, doomed charge against the Union line. 

According to Glenn Tucker, author of the notable biography Hancock The Superb: “Custer observed Hancock as the enemy advanced. He rode along the line saying, ‘Aim low, men. Aim low. Do not be in a hurry to fire until they come nearer.’ … When the action was joined, [Hancock] galloped along the line, his hat off, indifferent to the hail of bullets.” 

In the face of fierce Federal fire, the Confederates’ assault stalled. Sensing this, Hancock ordered a counterattack. 

What began as an organized Confederate retreat turned into a rout. Early’s men suffered some 500 casualties, while Federal losses numbered about 130. The wounded languished in the Custis barns, which served as field hospitals. The dead were buried in the field where they fell meaning that this ground is truly sacred for those who fought there. 

General Hancock’s effort became legendary. His determined stand at the two redoubts, along with his brilliant counterattack, earned him the sobriquet “Hancock the Superb.” In the end, both sides claimed victory with the casualties numbering 1,703 for the South and 2,239 for the North. 

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“[The James Custis Farm] witnessed some of the most desperate fighting during the Battle of Williamsburg. While much description of the battle centers on Fort Magruder on the Williamsburg Road, the Custis farm was arguably where the battle was won by the National Army.”
Civil War Fortification Study Group

Preserve the property that includes the James Custis Farm

245
Acres Targeted
$163-to-$1 Match
$57,000

Williamsburg

Our Battle of Williamsburg page includes battle maps, history articles, facts, recommended books, and the latest preservation news for this 1862 Civil...