Civil War earthwork is natural treasure
STAFFORD — It’s a rare occasion when a mound of dirt turns out to be a treasure and even rarer when the treasure is buried beneath household trash. But that’s exactly what Tom Mountz found.
For years, the Stafford County resident had his eyes on a large pile of busted bottles, corroded metal and broken appliances in central Stafford County. He knew there was something special under that old heap of junk and dead oak leaves.
“It was probably the trash that saved this,” said Mountz, pointing to the Civil War earthwork on the six-acre plot he purchased eight years ago. “I wanted to own a fort since I was a 6-year-old kid in Ohio.”
Mountz, 58, acquired his lifelong dream after answering a newspaper advertisement that read, “Civil War fort for sale.” But the large mass of dirt measuring nearly 100 feet long on each side is not really a fort in the traditional sense.
It is a redoubt — one of four temporary artillery fortifications constructed to protect Aquia Landing during the Union occupation of Stafford County.
“It’s probably the largest manmade artifact in this county,” Mountz said.
Mountz’s research shows his redoubt was constructed during bitter weather in February 1863 by federal troops — the Army of the Potomac’s 12th Corps.
“One thousand men built it in three days,” Mountz said. “It was only supposed to last three months.”
Today, the tall earthen walls and surrounding deep trench vary in size due to some erosion. Mountz has re-enforced the outer walls with cedar logs to prevent further damage.
But during the Civil War, sharpened sticks were implanted around the structure to prevent entry, except through a gateway. Up to 50 men remained inside the redoubt, where at least two cannons were aimed toward Fredericksburg, even though the fortification never saw a battle.
A magazine indention in the ground where hundreds of muskets were stored is visible inside the redoubt and the French terra cotta pipe-drain system is still functional.
National Park Service historian Eric Mink said several redoubts were built in the Fredericksburg area by Union and Confederate troops, but Mountz’s redoubt is a rare find.
“There are so few in existence that have survived the bulldozer or the plow,” Mink said. “It’s especially rare to find one in Stafford.”
Thousands of huts and tents once surrounded the redoubt, which Mountz said is the highest point in the county.
“There were no trees in Stafford County. The Union soldiers had cut them all down for firewood and other uses,” Mountz said. “From here, they could see from Madison to the cupola of Mount Vernon.”
However, Civil War soldiers are not the only humans that frequented the area. According to Mountz, an ancient trail used by the Potomac Indians cuts thorough the property and leads to the ancestral village of Pocahontas on Potomac Creek.
“Because of the height of the redoubt, I wonder if it was originally an Indian mound,” Mountz said.
After the Civil War, a group of freed African-American slaves from Texas moved to the property and built two houses, now dismantled. The foundation of one house was built using Stafford’s famed Aquia stone that was also used to construct the White House and U.S. Capitol.
With so much history in one place, Mountz’s restoration efforts have yielded some interesting relics, including an 1860s bottle still filled with whiskey and an embossed, brass-oval compact containing a lock of blond hair wrapped with lavender and a ribbon.
“If a man died in the Civil War, his possessions were not usually sent back to his relatives,” Mountz said. “For example, suppose in the case of the compact, the wife had brown hair.”
A retired Navy captain who now works for the government, Mountz often re-enacts history by appearing as Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. He plans to involve school children in his presentations, offering them a chance to live history by spending time at the redoubt, living as a Civil War soldier once did.
Mountz’s preservation efforts are especially important since his redoubt is the only one in the county that has not succumbed to development or major erosion.
He said a pole barn was built on a second nearby redoubt; another redoubt was bulldozed this year for residential development; and a fourth redoubt near Aquia Landing is slowly eroding.
Houses and other buildings have also cropped up near his redoubt and a cell tower may soon block the pastoral view from atop the redoubt’s ridge. But a steadfast Mountz said he will continue to protect his redoubt and is considering placing a preservation easement on the property.
“Someday,” he said, “somebody is going to look at this place and say, ‘Wow, what a place.’ “
Carol Thomas Horton writes for the Stafford County Sun.