Peninsula Campaign commemorated at three Newport News sites

Lee Hall Mansion was built in the 1850’s. The Italianate mansion was the home of affluent planter Richard Decatur Lee. It served as headquarters for General John B. Magruder and later for General Joseph Johnston during the Peninsula Campaign.

The Civil War had been raging for a year. America was engaged in a vicious struggle with itself. The Peninsula Campaign was just the beginning.

In the years to come, the bitter conflict would generate appalling violence and horrifying numbers of dead.

General McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign began in the spring of 1862. McClellan’s plan was simple. He would amass a huge army at Fort Monroe, march up the Peninsula, and seize the Confederate capitol of Richmond. The war would quickly be over.

Confederate defenses along the Yorktown-Warwick Line were the first major obstacles on the Peninsula that General McClellan and his Army of the Potomac faced as it advanced toward Richmond.

For 20-plus years, Newport News has hosted battle re-enactments at Endview Plantation and living history programs at Lee Hall to commemorate the Peninsula Campaign – as well as other Civil War oriented programs.

“This is the first time we’ve incorporated living history at Lee Hall, Endview Plantation, and at Dam No. 1 into a weekend program,” said Michael Moore, curator at Lee Hall Mansion and Endview Plantation.

Dam No. 1 was the site - now in Newport News Park - where the Battle of Dam No. 1 was fought on April 16, 1862.

“It was in the middle of the Warwick-Yorktown Line that was constructed by enslaved labor from 1861 to early 1862,” said Moore. “It was a 12-mile defensive front that was designed by Major General John Bankhead Magruder.”

At Endview Plantation, the home of Dr. Humphrey Harwood Curtis who had organized the Warwick Beauregards (Company H, 32nd Virginia Volunteer Infantry Regiment), visitors to the historic farmhouse caught a glimpse of the consequences the war posed for the civilian population as the Union army advanced on the Peninsula.

Endview Plantation and Lee Hall Mansion were located between Fort Monroe and Richmond. When the Federal army began its advance, civilians – fearing for their safety – packed up and left, taking whatever they could carry or throw on a wagon.

“At that time the Curtis family who lived here relocated to Danville, Virginia, and then to a farm on the outside of North Carolina. They remained there for the duration of the war,” said Laura Willoughby, historical site coordinator at Endview and Lee Hall.

Confederate troops were stationed at Endview and across the road at Lebanon Church Church. At some point, Union troops occupied the Endview farmhouse.

“There’s an original carving upstairs in the occupied rooms. A mounted rifle company from New York came and carved their company information on the mantle upstairs,” said Willoughby. “The house stood vacant for a while. After the Civil War, the Curtis family was allowed to come back after they signed an oath of allegiance to get their property back.”

During the Civil War, there were 175,000 to 200,000 refugees within the Confederacy according to Willoughby. People were forced to accept mobility and left their homes for safer ground – the wives of Confederate officers in particular. There was a good deal of movement. After the Emancipation Proclamation, there was an increased degree of movement among the enslaved population.

At Endview Plantation, volunteer interpreter Debbie Sifford briefed visitors on food preparation and preservation and traced some modern prepared food products back to their Civil War era counterparts.

“Some foods of the Civil War we still eat today. The foods are a little bit different,” said Sifford. “Most definitely look a little different, but some haven’t changed at all.”

Hasty pudding – a mixture of cornmeal and water – hasn’t changed at all. If you add butter and salt, it tastes like grits according to Debbie Sifford. For soldiers, it was easy to carry on the road. When there’s nothing else to eat, it “fills you up” said Sifford. Cornmeal is boiled in water for 15 minutes and it’s done.

“It looks the same today, yesterday, and tomorrow,” said Sifford.

Fish cakes – salt, minced fish with potatoes added, “morphed” into modern fish sticks over the last century and a half. It’s the same concept with an adaptation in presentation.

Cold spiced ham loaf inspired Spam, the canned delicacy. In the 1860’s, it was being made from minced ham and spices – cloves, cinnamon, ginger, and allspice. And according to Sifford, the Civil War era version “tastes much better” than what comes out of the can although not a lot different.

Bits of salt-based ham - scraps - were chopped up and the spices were added. A little bit of mashed potatoes and an egg would serve as a binding agent to hold the loaf together.

“People had to preserve food because they didn’t always know when they were going to have it,” said Sifford. “They would pickle and preserve food in any way that they could. Fish was preserved in salt brine. Vegetables and eggs were pickled. Pork and beef were salted,” she explained.

Chicken pie was the forerunner of modern chicken pot pie. In the 19th century, it consisted of chicken, broth and gravy covered with the pastry. There were no vegetables added.

Eggs were boiled and pickled to preserve them when they were not eaten fresh. The acidity in the vinegar would keep them from going bad for long periods of time.

“The thing about eggs is that if you never refrigerate them, you never have to refrigerate them,” said Sifford. “They will stay fresh until you eat them within two or three days. They never refrigerated eggs in the 1860’s, and they ate eggs every day.”

As the war went on, coffee and tea became scarce. Coffee substitutes were made of chickory and sweet potatoes. When southern ladies had no tea for their tea party socials, they hosted “water parties” and drank water from their teacups rather the give up their society.

“They would do water parties and have great fun at water parties,” said Sifford. “Each lady would bring her favorite china cup. No one had a big service for everybody,” she noted. “Everybody brought their own cup and they would have an afternoon of socializing.”

Marilyn Iglesias, portraying Mariah Curtis of Endview, was in an upstairs bed chamber hastily packing clothing for her exodus. Mrs. Curtis – her husband absent and fighting with the Warwick Beauregards – was preparing to leave her home for Richmond where she would board a train bound for Danville. Eventually her family would find refuge on a farm in North Carolina.

Mariah Curtis had quite a bit on her plate. She has to decide what belongings to take and what people to take. She only had a wagon – maybe two – to carry her clothing and family treasures. She has no idea where she’s going or when she’ll be back – if ever. Would the house even be there if she returned?

Mariah had just lost her second child and was barely pregnant with her third. Her husband had put together a company for the 32nd Virginia Infantry Regiment. She had been left alone on her farm with her children as so many women were at the time. She had just received word that the Union army is advancing. They were up to the Warwick River and soon they’d be in her front yard.

“Here what we’re talking about is the whole refugee thing,” said Iglesias. “Families that were wealthy all of a sudden found themselves with nothing but the food that they could pack in their wagon and whatever papers they could take.”

Volunteer interpreter Aggie Pettyjohn stood in the parlor at Endview soaking up and charm and enjoying the atmosphere.

“This is a nice old plantation house. It was almost 100 years old before the Curtis family moved in 1858. It has colonial charm,” said Pettyjohn. “I can picture the family living here. The kids playing marbles on the floor after dinner. Mariah teaching piano lessons. Just family life.”

Mariah Curtis’ piano was in the parlor when she fled Endview. She simply couldn’t take the beloved instrument with her. By the time she reached Williamsburg, Mariah received word that her home had been ransacked and her piano was gone.

“To have a piano out here at that time was very special. It was a symbol of their status,” said Pettyjohn. “Mariah Curtis was a very patriotic woman before and after the Civil War. She set up Sunday brunches for veterans who returned after the war,” she noted. “I think I would have liked her.”

Lee Hall Mansion, a couple miles distant from Endview on Yorktown Road, was owned by Richard Decatur Lee before the Civil War. The Italianate mansion built between 1851 and 1859 served briefly as the headquarters of General John B. Magruder early in the war and during the initial stages of the Peninsula Campaign.

“General Magruder had a monumental task to try to take 13,000 men and cover the whole area. He had to figure out how best to defend the Peninsula,” said Tim Greene, educational coordinator at Endview Plantation. “He somehow made it work. It wasn’t ideal and there was probably more that could’ve been done.”

Soon after his arrival on the Peninsula, General Magruder met with Richard Lee to survey the area along the Warwick River and learn what could be done to defend it.

“His main defensive line became the Warwick River Line that started just outside of Yorktown and ran all the way to the James River,” said Greene. “They fortified about 12 miles. They had three mill dams and added three more dams to make the water harder to cross,” he explained. “Magruder fortified the dams, connected those fortifications. re-dug the [Rev War] British fortifications around Yorktown and connected all of that together.”

In the parlor at Lee Hall, Tim Greene and his interpreters portrayed some members of Magruder’s staff who were charged with seeing that the Confederate soldiers in Magruder’s command received adequate rations and necessary equipment.

Interpreters offered visitors an explanation of the duties of the quartermaster, commissary, and ordnance departments as well as the engineers who were fortifying and protecting the Peninsula along the Yorktown-Warwick Line.

“My job is to make sure that soldiers are equipped with what they need,” said Quartermaster Justin Brewster. “I transport munitions, equipment, and foodstuffs and make sure the soldiers actually get it – blankets, canteens, and haversacks to carry food.”

In Newport News Park – at the site of the Battle of Dam No. 1 – re-enactors representing Confederate defenders with the 15th North Carolina Infantry Regiment – awaited the Union attack near the monument that honors the 3rd Vermont Regiment.

“The footbridge that goes across the reservoir today is the proximate place where the dam was located,” said Barry Davis, a living historian portraying an infantryman with the 15th North Carolina Regiment.

In April 1862, Union troops gathered at the site to launch an attack on the Confederate fort across the dams. Federal artillery fired toward the fortifications in support of the impending infantry attack.

“It was the 3rd Vermont Regiment that assaulted the fort. They sent three companies across the water – the dammed up river – to assault the fortifications,” said Davis. “They just waded across. The assault was repelled by Georgia and North Carolina regiments.”

After they waded across the dammed river, the Vermonters held up in some vacated rifle pits that are still visible in Newport News Park - along with the vestiges of an earthen fort.

“The Vermonters held up in those rifle pits for about an hour,” said Davis. “They were forced to retreat because a lot of their ammunition got wet while they were trying to ford the river.”

While living historians at Endview Plantation, Lee Hall Mansion, and Newport News Park offered visitors an interesting and informative program at three sites, inclement weather provided an apt additional history lesson.

“It’s cloudy. It’s cool, and it’s raining. Mother Nature is giving us a good dose of what the Peninsula Campaign would’ve been like 157 years ago,” said Curator Michael Moore. “Imagine being in your shoes and standing in water for a couple of weeks and not really ever drying out. Dry clothes and socks would’ve been at a premium in those days.”