Interpretation Update: Archeological Success at Malvern Hill
Malvern Hill is the most completely preserved battlefield among the sites comprising Richmond National Battlefield Park. For several years now the park has worked hard to protect this fabulous resource while broadening the options available to visitors. Recent improvements such as new walking trails, interpretive signs and cannon all draw attention to key spots on the field. Restoring the landscape to its historic appearance is an ongoing project. Now, a fresh development stands to improve the experience of visitors to Malvern Hill still more. Within the past few weeks archeologists have found the remains of two prominent structures in the middle of the battlefield.
The series of events that led to the discovery began tree years ago, when a series of photographs taken in the 1880's came to light. Nearly a dozen different views of the Malvern Hill battlefield included two long-range shots of the "slave cabins", a pair of wobbly-looking wooden buildings directly in front of the Union line atop Malvern Hill. Little specific information survives regarding those buildings, or even wartime activity on the farm, although it is believed the buildings were occupied by slaves in the 1860's. It was there, in the smoky twilight of July 1, 1862, that bold Confederate soldiers sought refuge, unable to advance the final few yards to the Federal cannon. "Dead bodies of our own men and those of the enemy were found in close proximity at and near these houses," reported General Semmes of the Confederate army.
Using the photographs and an 1860's map of the battlefield, park historians marked off a wooded section of the battlefield about 65 yards long and 30 yards wide, where they believed the cabins once stood. A work day brought together personnel from several divisions of the park to remove vines, brush and tiny trees at the site. That collaborative effort cleared the way for Dr. Bruce Bevan, a "geophysical surveyor." Dr. Bevan charted underground anomalies in the target area by using ground-penetrating radar--a device not unlike a floor-waxing machine in appearance. His subsequent report showed several areas of unusual disturbance.
The week of February 5, a team of archeologists led by Joseph Balicki of John Milner Associates excavated ten spots within the zone, guided by Dr. Bevan's findings. Within minutes they exposed a brick foundation--probably either the corner of a piling foundation, or perhaps the base of a chimney--believed to be from the slave cabins. Further investigation at nearby spots revealed other 19th-century artifacts, including pottery fragments and military objects from the battle.
This project has been successful in every sense. It brought together historical research, energetic maintenance work, technological wizardry, and on-target archeology. The result is the discovery of a very important landmark in the battlefield's cultural landscape. After further research into the history of the buildings and their occupants, the park plans to erect interpretive signs telling the story of the site, and will provide access by building a very short spur from the main walking trail that now follows the path of some of the Confederate soldiers in their doomed charge up Malvern Hill.