The Battle of Williamsburg

I have always been very interested in military history, and as a Virginian, the Civil War has always held a strong appeal to me.  With these interests, the Battle of Williamsburg obviously presents a very interesting topic for me.  Much has been written on the battle itself, so, while I will do some research on the actual fighting in order to provide background information, the focus of my research will be on how the battle is remembered (or not) and what role that plays in the construction of local history.

The Battle of Williamsburg was a critical piece of the early Peninsula campaign in which a force of Confederates led by General James Longstreet held off the advance of General George McClellan’s forces long enough to allow the Confederates to solidify the defenses of Richmond.  While this was not a major battle, the defense of Fort Magruder was critical in the eventual defeat of McClellan’s forces in Richmond.

However, this battle has been largely forgotten in the widely accepted history of Williamsburg.  With the construction of Colonial Williamsburg, much of the history of the City since the Colonial Era was largely ignored or, at the very least, placed secondary to the colonial story portrayed by the re-enactors.  For example, in 1908 the Daughters of the Confederacy erected a Confederate monument on the Palace Green.  However, once the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation began reconstructing 18th Century Williamsburg this monument became an anachronism in the newly created environment.  As such, after long debate, the monument was moved in 1932 to the new Courthouse a few blocks away, a much less prominent location.

In particular, I plan to look at how the Battle of Williamsburg is remembered in Williamsburg today, both by the few physical remnants and any reenactments done in the area.  In addition to the specific memory of the Civil War, I plan to use this topic to explore the larger impact of Colonial Williamsburg on the collective memory of Williamsburg between the Colonial and Modern Eras, or lack thereof.  Another major focus of this project will be the impact of the physical landscape on collective memory.  The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation has done some activities discussing the Battle of Williamsburg, but clearly does not represent that period in the physical landscape.  To study this impact, my research may expand some beyond Williamsburg to look at how other Civil War sites are preserved, but the focus of my project will be the memory of the Battle of Williamsburg.


The Williamsburg Documentary Project (WDP) strives to collect and preserve the rich past of Williamsburg, Virginia. By conducting oral history interviews, building physical and digital archives, and creating online exhibits, the WDP interprets Williamsburg’s recent past. The WDP works towards developing a better understanding of Williamsburg by bringing together individuals, local groups, Colonial Williamsburg, and the College of William & Mary.

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