Bones, Bottles and Buttons, Oh My!

Archaeological Analysis of a Civil War Feature from City Point, Virginia

by Todd L. Jensen, John R. Underwood, David W. Lewes
William & Mary Center for Archaeological Research

[This paper was presented at Middle Atlantic Archaeological Conference, Virginia Beach, March 15, 2003]

From July through October 2002, the William & Mary Center for Archaeological Research investigated three properties within the City Point section of the City of Hopewell. This research was performed at the request of Hopewell’s city government to partly fulfill long-term goals of improving historical interpretation and enhancing the city’s planning abilities. A 0.5-acre study area along Prince Henry Avenue was subjected to systematic shovel test survey, evaluation through seven hand-excavated test units and two machine trenches, and data recovery excavation of selected features. Evidence of activity in the study area ranged from the earliest prehistoric periods through the present. An abundance of nineteenth-century artifacts was found, but a Civil War occupation yielded the most significant results. A cellar/trash pit that was filled at the end of the war included military artifacts and large quantities of animal bone from food refuse. Discussion and interpretation of this cellar/trash pit (Feature 8) will be the focus of this paper.

Historical Context of the Project Area

While the City of Hopewell is a relatively new municipality (established in 1916), it encompasses the much older community of City Point (annexed in 1923). City Point was formally established in 1826, but a small hamlet and port have existed there since colonial times. Since 1979, the historic core of City Point has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. While the official historic district extends less than 600 m south of the tip of the peninsula, the City Point neighborhood includes streets a few hundred meters further to the south and southwest. Until the early twentieth century (except for an intensive military presence during the Civil War), only the low terrace along the James River waterfront and the bluffs above were even sparsely developed. Beyond this village, the area now called City Point fell within a vast estate owned since the seventeenth century by the Eppes family. Their Appomattox Manor plantation house near the bluff edge commanded a view of both rivers and dominated a landscape of open fields with scattered agricultural buildings and slave quarters. In the early twentieth century, the agricultural landscape gave way to medium-density residential neighborhoods. A core of the old plantation grounds remains around Appomattox Manor, now managed by the National Park Service as a part of the Petersburg National Battlefield. Just southeast of the old port area along the James (now a park), the edges of Hopewell’s industrial district extend up to the City Point waterfront.

The Civil War

Early in the Civil War, a brief skirmish occurred at City Point between some Georgia infantry and Union naval officers and seamen. On May 19, 1862, the Union officers and seamen had gone ashore to give medical care at the request of some local residents. Approaching the village with white flags flying above several houses, the Union men came under fire and three seamen were killed. The navy gunboats responded with a brief bombardment which caused some damage to Appomattox Manor and Weston Manor a little further west. No further action occurred until May 1864 when the Army of the James headed upriver under Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler’s command (Calos et al. 1993:17–18). The first goal was to occupy City Point as a staging area. From City Point, Butler could attack Richmond and chase Lee’s army while Gen. George Meade’s Army of the Potomac attacked from the north. Commanding General Ulysses S. Grant hoped to trap Lee’s army and end the war. The plan did not materialize and the Confederate army became entrenched at Petersburg (Lutz 1957:170–172). For the next year, City Point would become a massive military installation as the Union army laid siege to Petersburg.

Numerous contemporary illustrations depict the scale of military activity at City Point. The deep anchorage received supplies of weapons, ammunition, and other provisions for the army. The scale of activity was staggering. Gazing over the water on a busy day, one might see “some forty steamboats, seventy-five sailing vessels, and one hundred barges”(Trudeau 1991:132). A large military hospital was also built along the Appomattox, stretching eastward from the current Route 10 bridge. Originally designed for 6,000 patients, the hospital housed as many as 10,000 sick and wounded in 1865 (Calos et al. 1993:29). Union facilities also included an abattoir for butchering livestock and a large bakery. This luxury must have lifted the morale of the Union troops considerably, especially as their Confederate enemy suffered near-starvation rations during the later stages of the siege. Much of this supply infrastructure appears on a detailed map made by the Union army in 1865. The busy rail terminal near the waterfront appears in several illustrations.

City Point itself was never seriously threatened by the Confederates during the Petersburg campaign. In case of a counterattack, however, the Union built a series of earthworks and forts on the western limits of their vast depot. A map completed just after the war illustrates a two-tiered system of fortification. Forts Abbott, McKeen, Graves, Merriam, and Porter were connected by earthworks to form an outer line of defense about 2 mi. west of the City Point proper (Michler 1867). A reserve artillery captain from Maine reported in March 1865 that the four regiments manning these works had at least 22 field guns at their disposal (Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies 1895:275–276). East of these defenses was a line of earthworks connecting two forts. Roughly oriented east-west, the line converged eastward toward the terminus of the railroad.

Despite these measures, City Point’s defenses were not airtight. “Irregular operations” occurred on both sides of the front as scouts and spies passed back and forth. Even though the vast supply base at City Point seemed relatively secure for a war zone, two dramatic Confederate incursions illustrate its vulnerability. A swift surprise attack could overrun the small forces assigned to defend the inner line. During the so-called “Beefsteak Raid” of September 1864, Gen. Wade Hampton led his forces behind Union lines to the cattle corral at Cocke’s Mill, several miles east of City Point. The thinly guarded line in this area included only 1,400 men protecting a 15-mi. stretch of defenses. Once through the line, Hampton’s men quickly dispersed the forces tending the livestock and managed to herd more than 2,400 head of cattle back to the Confederate lines (Trudeau 1991:194–195; West 2001). Only a month earlier, on August 9, 1864, a pair of Confederate agents had devastated part of the port at City Point by exploding a time bomb on an ordnance barge. John Maxwell did not even board the vessel to set the device. He simply handed his “horological torpedo” to a laborer who carried it aboard for him. The explosion killed 43 people, wounded 126, and caused more than $2 million worth of property damage. Despite the heavy toll, the buildings and wharves were quickly rebuilt and the explosion had little long-term impact on the Union’s operations. Ironically, it was not known until after the war that the explosion was an act of sabotage rather than an accident (Trudeau 1991:134–141).

Following the Civil War, the military presence quickly dwindled. From a bustling military town, City Point was again transformed into a quiet village. Photographs of City Point during the late nineteenth century illustrate the return to a slower pace (Calos et al. 1993:40). Along the waterfront, only rotting pilings recalled the immense wharves that received supplies during the Union occupation. A small vestige of the federal military remained, however, as several Monitor-class ships were stationed along the Appomattox. Eventually, even the Monitor ships left City Point, bringing the Federal presence to a close.

Feature 8 Description

Feature 8 was exposed at the western end of Trench 2 after the mechanical removal of plowzone deposits. It was recognized by a distinctive clay lens, or cap, observed just below the stripped surface. The feature is rectangular and measures approximately 2.5-×-1.0 m in size. In addition to the clay lens, a dark charcoal and cinder-rich deposit was present, centrally located on the northern side of the feature. Within this deposit, several bricks were noted as well as charred wood and bone. The western half of Feature 8 was excavated in two levels. Its removal allowed for a more controlled excavation of the eastern half of the feature, where separate strata were identified. A total of 5,975 historic artifacts were recovered from the feature.

Data accumulated through excavation of Feature 8 and analysis of the recovered artifacts makes several initial observations possible. First, Feature 8 represents a pit that was filled during two separate episodes. The Lower Fill consists of Strata III and IV and represents the earlier of the two filling episodes. The Upper Fill (Strata I, II, and IIa) represents the later filling of the feature.

Feature 8 most likely represents the cellar or storage area within a tent or shelter constructed and utilized during the Union occupation of City Point. During the war or soon afterward, efforts were made to “clean up” remnants of the military depot and encampment. The Lower Fill of Feature 8 most likely resulted from a first stage of tidying the area near the feature. Highly organic soil indicates that recently discarded trash was dumped into the feature at this point. Other evidence of clearing the area of wartime camp debris includes military ration cans and large quantities of nails and animal bone. The Upper Fill of Feature 8 likely represents a “capping” event, where an effort was made to completely fill in the remaining depression. This would have involved scraping or borrowing soil from the surrounding area and depositing the soil over the trash initially deposited as the Lower Fill.

After integrating and evaluating the above data, four key factors emerge in support of this hypothesized stratigraphic sequence: soil/fill color and texture, artifact density, artifact type, and artifact preservation. Soil/fill color and texture provide a great deal of information as to how Feature 8 was filled. The Upper Fill, in general, consisted of a mixture of silty loam and clayey soil. This mixture would be exactly what one would anticipate if a borrow pit or small trench was excavated in order to use the soil for fill elsewhere. The Lower Fill consisted almost entirely of silty loam or fine silty loam, which differs substantially from the soils in the area of Feature 8.

Analysis of artifact density and type by fill layer further supports this stratigraphic scenario, with much denser concentrations of material recovered from the Lower versus Upper Fill episodes. The assemblage from Upper Fill consists of 1,121 historic artifacts and 100 prehistoric artifacts, while the Lower Fill contained 4,854 historic artifacts and 80 prehistoric artifacts.

Since the focus of this paper is the historic function of Feature 8, the prehistoric artifact assemblage will not be discussed. In general, most of the historic artifacts from Feature 8 belong to the three dominant groups: kitchen, architectural, and arms/military. Kitchen items consist primarily of refined earthenwares (whiteware, ironstone, and yellowware), bone china, and other porcelains for food serving and presentation, and a variety of utilitarian stonewares (Albany slip, Bennington, and Bristol) for food cooking and storage. Kitchen glass items were also quite plentiful and include tableware settings with pressed decoration and molded and faceted glass tumblers, colorless, molded bottle glass, including a Lea & Perrins condiment bottle from the Upper Fill dated to pre-1880, and jar glass. The faunal assemblage was predominately cow and pig but also included remains from sheep/goat, chicken, turkey, and rabbit. Biomass percentages, the type of cuts, and the size of the butchered pig and cattle bones suggest that the occupants who utilized Feature 8 were eating high-quality cuts of pork and beef.

Such a large concentration of architectural remains suggests a substantial structure near Feature 8. Historic construction debris and hardware include several fragments of window glass, a variety of wrought, cut, and wire nails, and handmade brick. Military paraphernalia includes ammunition, buttons/uniform insignia, and metal tablewares and food containers. Metal kitchenwares, while also present in domestic settings during the nineteenth century, more commonly reflect Civil War food ration can remnants and accouterments. Ammunition consists of Confederate bullets such as .45-caliber Pickett and .56-caliber Sharps and more generic types such as minié bullets and lead shot (Thomas and Thomas 1996). Other arms/ammunition items include copper alloy percussion caps, cannonball fragments, and a lead cleaning plug. Diagnostic military buttons and other uniform insignia include a domed, General Service type dated to pre-1902 and a U.S. Army General Service type dated to 1854–1902; both are made of copper alloy and have a molded eagle decoration. Other buttons were made of such varied materials as bone, copper alloy, ferrous material, composite copper/ferrous material, and porcelain.

Discussion of Feature Function

This assemblage conforms to expectations if large amounts of domestic or architectural debris were deposited in a small pit and then covered over with nearby soil, especially considering the history of occupation at City Point, particularly on this property. Following this line of reasoning, the Upper Fill, or “capping” deposit, would contain a mixture of artifacts contemporaneous with but also more recent than the period in which the hole was capped.

The difference in the preservation of artifacts from Upper and Lower Fill deposits also lends to our understanding of the stratigraphic sequence. This is most evident in the preservation and condition of faunal remains from Feature 8. Animal bones recovered from Upper Fill contexts are small and relatively friable compared to the largely intact and well-preserved animal bones and shell from Lower Fill contexts. This disparity in the integrity or preservation of faunal material suggests that the animal bones and shell recovered from these two contexts were disproportionately exposed to weathering and agricultural activities. In other words, faunal material from Upper Fill contexts does not exhibit the same level of preservation as those from Lower Fill contexts because the Upper Fill assemblage was exposed to the elements for a longer time and were subjected to crushing or trampling.

Two preliminary interpretations can be derived from the characteristics of Feature 8, its associated artifact assemblage, and evidence from historical maps. The feature could represent a root cellar or storage pit within a Civil War shelter associated with the Union occupation of City Point prior to and during the siege of Petersburg. On the other hand, Feature 8 may have served as a root cellar/storage area beneath a tavern, saloon, or sutler’s store catering to the soldiers and civilian workers during the Union occupation.

During the Civil War it was typical for soldiers, when encamped for extended periods, to improve their Government Issued tents with various amenities (Jensen 2000). One of the more frequent improvements made to shelters was the incorporation of a dugout cellar, or pit, for storage. Most Civil War shelters were impermanent in nature and leave little if any archaeological evidence. However, because of the duration of the encampment at City Point and the “provisioning” nature of the troops stationed there, construction of this type of shelter would be more substantial. The general dimensions of Feature 8 suggest that this cellar or pit was most likely within a wall tent. Wall tents came in several sizes, the smallest measuring about 8 × 8 ft. Feature 8 is approximately 3 × 8 ft. in size and would have fit nicely within this type of tent. The wall tent was mainly used by officers. Lower-ranking officers would share a wall tent with up to three other officers of similar rank. Higher- ranking officers would normally occupy a single wall tent but often had two at their disposal (Jensen 2000:42). In cases where an officer had access to two wall tents, one served as a bedroom and the other as an office or for cooking and entertaining guests.


Because of the type and nature of the artifacts recovered from Feature 8, it is likely that this storage pit/cellar was within a tent utilized predominantly for food preparation, cooking, or dining. The floor of the excavated feature was uneven, with the western side of the feature being at least 20 cm deeper than the eastern side. This would suggest that the western side might have had board flooring, although no evidence of such an arrangement was exposed. It is also possible that the entire base of the feature had board flooring and that the western side was slightly deeper to provide more storage.

The second possibility—that Feature 8 represents a root cellar/storage area beneath a tavern, saloon, or sutler’s store—is suggested by City Point’s function as a supply depot. According to McBride et al. (2000), military depots and large encampments often had several sutlers, and an occasional tavern or saloon. Furthermore, the 1865 map points to the study area as a likely area for these types of structures. Even though the map does not clearly identify the structures in the vicinity of Feature 8 (perhaps labeled “Stor.” for storage or store), two rows of sutlers’ stores appear to the northeast of present Prince Henry Avenue.

Taverns, saloons, and sutlers’ stores are differentiated by the types and quality of the services provided and the social and economic classes they served. Taverns, for the most part, offered a variety of services such as lodging, food service, banquets, as well as activities associated with drinking alcoholic beverages, such as smoking and gaming. Somewhat lower on the socioeconomic scale, saloons often only served alcoholic drinks and a limited array of foods. In contrast to these two groups of establishments, the sutlers’ store was associated with the lowest socioeconomic status. The sutlers’ store offered, at times, a large selection of goods and wares to the soldiers and civilian occupants of any given military encampment or depot. “As an independent operator, the sutler could provide a broader range of food and drink than was available elsewhere. These products included dried and fresh fruits and vegetables (especially onions and potatoes), canned fruit and and tea, beer, wine, and whiskey” (McBride et al. 2000:108). Given the composition of the Feature 8 Lower Fill artifact assemblage (e.g., tin cans, animal bones, bottles, etc.), the interpretation of Feature 8 as a sutler’s store seems more plausible. Thank you. back to top

References Cited

Calos, Mary M., Charlotte Easterling, and Ella Sue Rayburn
1993    Old City Point and Hopewell: The First 370 Years. The Donning Company Publishers, Virginia Beach.

Jensen, Todd L.
2000   “Gimmie Shelter”: Union Shelters of the Civil War, A Preliminary Archaeological Typology. Master’s thesis, Department of Anthropology, College of William & Mary, Williamsburg, Virginia.

Lutz, Francis Earle
1957  The Prince George-Hopewell Story. The William Byrd Press, Inc., Richmond.

McBride, W. Stephen, Susan C. Andrews, and Sean P. Coughlin
2000  “For the Convenience and Comforts of the Soldiers and Employees at the Depot”: Archaeology of the Owens’ House/Post Office Complex, Camp Nelson, Kentucky. In Archaeological Perspectives on the American Civil War, edited by Clarence R. Geier and Stephen R. Potter, pp. 99–124. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.

Michler, Nathaniel
1867  Map of Bermuda Hundred. Copy on file, Virginia Historical Society, Richmond.

Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies
1895  The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Vol. 46, part III. U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C.

Thomas, James E., and Dean S. Thomas
1996  A Handbook of Civil War Bullets and Cartridges. Thomas Publications, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

Trudeau, Noah Andre
1991  The Last Citadel: Petersburg, Virginia, June 1864–April 1865. Little, Brown, and Company, Boston.

West, Neal
2001  “Wade Hampton and the Great Beefsteak Raid.” The Unknown Civil War. <>