Sunday, April 12, 2015

Fort York

The first time I'd heard about York Hill was probably about 30 years ago. As a newly transplanted Yankee, I'd recently attended some gatherings of the Davidson County Civil War Round Table and had learned that a minor action had occurred there late in the war — April 12, 1865, to be exact —and was told that some pretty nice field works still existed.

So one day, on our way back home from a trip to Salisbury, my wife and I decided to stop and see what the fuss was about.

Keep in mind that I'd already seen preserved earthworks at places like Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, Petersburg and Richmond and was suitably awed and impressed.

But I was not quite prepared for what I found at York Hill. Although worn down some by the passage of time, the fortifications were in remarkably pristine condition. Almost 150 years later, you could see clearly defined rifle pits and artillery locations.

Leaf-covered earthworks at Fort York remain in remarkable condition.
What? In Davidson County? Holy smokes.

Why wasn't this area a state park?

The land back then was private property, probably in the hands of the Berry family, who made serious efforts to protect the land from looters and scavengers. Right now, The LandTrust for Central North Carolina is close to purchasing nearly 13 acres of Fort York, tying it in with the Wil-Cox bridge restoration project that spans the Yadkin River.

Fort York isn't all there anymore. The construction of Interstate 85 did more damage to the sprawling encampment than any Yankee incursion did 150 years ago. It is estimated that perhaps 50 percent of the original site still exists. But, oh, what a wonderful 50 percent it is.

The LandTrust opened the site for visitors yesterday and today, getting some spot-on history from guides Chris Watford, Lee Crook and Jimmy Myers (all who happen to be Round Table buddies of mine — see here). So Kim and I went back and took an impressive tour of the area, this time with subtitles.

The battle that occurred there (the fort was designed to protect the railroad bridge there, which was a vital asset to the crumbling Confederacy) was essentially an artillery barrage. The Union horse artillery, brought to the position (on heights near the current North Carolina Finishing Company property), withdrew after several hours of ineffective shelling, and the York Hill defenders claimed victory in one of the last battles of the war.

Ironically, the battle occurred several days after Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox, but all that had done was take Lee's Army of Northern Virginia out of the war, thus preventing a hoped-for linkup with the remnants of Joseph Johnston's Army of Tennessee in the Raleigh area, fresh off its battle at Bentonville. The surrender was not between governments, but only with armies, one at a time.

I was pleasantly surprised by yesterday's turnout. The tour, which was free and lasted about an hour, saw our original group of 20 or so expand to about 50 or more tromping over the hill by the time we headed back to the car. To me, that's a good sign. Our history is alive and well.

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