Archaeologists at the College of William and Mary have uncovered what's believed to be a Civil War-era well and other artifacts, a discovery that opens a window into a part of history largely overshadowed by the school's close association with the Colonial era.
Crews doing archaeological studies ahead of a planned utility project on the oldest part of the Williamsburg campus recently uncovered the well, as well as minie balls, or lead bullets first used in the Civil War. They also found remnants of what could be a brick wall, along with pieces of bottle glass and pottery that date to the period when federal troops occupied school grounds.
"The Civil War is definitely a period where there was concentrated activity," said Joe Jones, director of William and Mary's Center for Archaeological Research.
William and Mary was among many Southern colleges that closed during the 1861-1865 war. In the war's run-up, William and Mary students overwhelmingly supported Virginia's secession, thinking doing so could help create a new nation where their state would be at the forefront, said historian Sean Heuvel, a leadership and American Studies instructor at Christopher Newport University.
All but two of its 63 students returned home to enlist with Confederate regiments, and the college was forced to shut down, Heuvel said.
Williamsburg became a strategic military location during the 1862 Peninsula Campaign in southeastern Virginia. The college was at the front lines, with the division between Union and Confederate territories going through the campus and earthen fortifications crossing school grounds.
While it wasn't unheard of for soldiers to use colleges during the Civil War, troops found William and Mary an especially good place to build encampments because it was in the heart of Williamsburg, near main roads leading in and out of town, Jones said.
"The archaeology also suggests there was a focused destruction of buildings on campus, changing things on campus to suit the military's needs in the near term," Jones said.
After Union forces took over Williamsburg, about 1,500 troops occupied William and Mary, using school buildings for soldier barracks and hospitals. Confederate cavalry members would periodically skirmish with federal troops but never retook Williamsburg.
Among other damage, the Sir Christopher Wren Building — which was built between 1695 and 1700 — was burned by troops in September 1862, just three years after a fire in 1859. It ultimately was returned to its original 17th-century appearance in the early 20th century as part of a restoration of Colonial Williamsburg.
Researchers believe the well they discovered is among several federal troops dug for drinking water because of the high density of people and horses living on campus. The structure was lined with bricks and dressed fieldstone scavenged from buildings and other structures. Archaeologists are studying the artifacts found in the well.
Founded in 1693 and the nation's second-oldest college, William and Mary is most closely tied with its Colonial history. But the recent discoveries show the campus bears the marks of many historical periods.
"If you were able to excavate the whole campus at one time, a lot of questions would be answered," Jones said.
After the war, William and Mary President Benjamin Ewell and faculty members returned to find ruined buildings and a worthless endowment because school officials had invested in Confederate treasury bonds. Ewell tried for several years to secure reparations from the federal government, but was unable to get much money to rebuild the campus, Heuvel said.
The school closed in 1881 because not many could afford to attend college after the war. It reopened in 1888 to train teachers, then became a state-supported school in 1906.
Heuvel said much of William and Mary's Civil War history has been lost, taking a backseat because of the college's strong identification with its colonial history — which was reinforced by the massive Colonial Williamsburg restoration project in the 1920s and 1930s.
"Also, as humans, we don't like to think of painful things," he said, and the Civil War was among the darkest periods during the school's history.
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