Experiencing Civil War Battles: The Action at Wilson’s Wharf

Growing up, it was a joke in my family that every good vacation included a fort tour.  Year after year, I rolled my eyes in boredom at battlefields and battleships, a sign that even then I preferred sightDOING to static walk-throughs.

But now that I live in Richmond, revolutionary and civil war history is a big piece of the city.  And surprisingly, it’s interesting.  I’ve been to some cool places in and around the city, but I hadn’t taken the plunge beyond casual visiting until this year’s sesquicentennial events.

Exactly 150 years ago, #Richmond lost its strength as capital of the South. The Confederates deliberately set fire to city warehouses storing tobacco and other goods late at night on April 2, 1865 so the North would not claim their value.  Unfortunately, the fire got out of hand. Before long, the great fire had spread over twenty city blocks, destroying property and structure. Tonight, the city of Richmond and the national park service are commemorating this piece of #RVA #history with illuminated “flaming” buildings meant to represent this historic event and living history actors telling the story of Richmond’s evacuation. More events pertaining to the sesquicentennial of the war and emancipation will continue all weekend.

A photo posted by Becky (@thegirlandglobe) on

One hundred fifty years after the end of the Civil War, I decided to re-live history and attend a Civil War reenactment at Fort Pochahontas.  The fort is about an hour east of downtown Richmond on the north bank of the James River, halfway to Norfolk and the Atlantic Ocean.  This strategic location was intended to protect Union shipping on the river, so construction of fortifications was started in spring 1864.

On May 24 of that year, the fort was still incomplete when about 2500 Confederate cavalry initiated an attack here at Wilson’s Wharf.

The attack began with a mounted charge on Federal pickets, followed by a dismounted attack on the fort.  As a reenactment spectator, I had a front row seat to watch the Confederates attempt to cross the clearing and bring a full-scale attack on Union soldiers.

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Confederates approaching the clearing
civil war battles action at wilson's wharf
Unions defending Fort Pochahontas

The reenactment quickly picked up momentum to tell the tale of the six-hour battle.  Lines of skirmishers were deployed to attack the eastern side of the fort while other Confederates charged the center clearing.

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Late in the afternoon, two gunboats in the James River, in addition to Union troops, repulsed all attacks.  The Confederates eventually surrendered, with estimates of 150 casualties (as well as 27 Union casualties).  At the time, they said it was their most humiliating defeat, though the battle was quickly forgotten.

Despite this, the battle has huge historic significance.  General Wild’s 1st and 10th Regiments of US Colored Troops did most of the fighting — and winning — and proved black soldiers would stand and fight bravely.

For me, this civil war battle became real in a way I otherwise couldn’t imagine.  Seeing the reenactment, in such a professional manner and with narration throughout the hour-long spectacle, made Virginia’s Civil War history come alive.  I may not have been actively participating, but it was still a more involved way to visit Fort Pochahontas and Wilson’s Wharf.

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9 thoughts on “Experiencing Civil War Battles: The Action at Wilson’s Wharf”

  1. I’ve always wanted to go to a Civil War reenactment. What a wonderful experience – there’s nothing like seeing major historical events unfold right before your eyes…even if it is a reenactment. Awesome!

  2. My daughter loves history, in fact we were just on Boston last week. Virginia is on our list for another trip, lots of history. Would love to to see this!

  3. Civil War reenactments have always made me curious, but I haven’t had a full desire to attend one yet. Your photos certainly make them alive for me, and maybe the next time I’m in Virginia, I’ll check one out.

    1. @Natasha, I’m not sure I would have gone if it hadn’t been so convenient for me (only an hour drive). But now that I went, I kinda want to see another!

  4. I have never been to a reenactment, but have always wanted to. This looks really fascinating. My husband is a huge history buff, and has gotten me hooked.

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