In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, a paramount chief, known by the English as Chief Powhatan, created a powerful organization by affiliating 30 tributary peoples whose territory was much of eastern Virginia. At the time of English settlement at Jamestown, this collection of tribes inhabited the area, and along this portion of the James River shoreline were three villages of the Warraskoyack.
In 1608, Captain John Smith went in search of food for his fellow colonists at Jamestown. The Warraskoyack were a friendly tribe and provided 30 bushels of corn for the famished settlers. However, as the Virginia colony grew and as Indian lands, both north and south of the James River, were encroached upon, relations between the two grew increasingly fragile.
By 1621, there were two settlements on this side of the James River – Bennett’s Welcome and Basse’s Choice. On March 22, 1622, an Indian attack on the Virginia colony claimed the lives of hundreds of settlers, including 52 settlers at these two sites. Following the attack, colonists were instructed by the House of Burgesses in Jamestown to construct a protected fort to serve as a lookout for future attacks. The fort, a triangular-shaped earthen structure, took approximately six months to construct and was originally christened The Castle due to its deep natural ditches, high elevation and steep embankment fronting the James River.
The Warraskoyack were largely driven from their lands as part of the reprisals for the 1622 attack.
A succession of fort owners ensued. Growth and expansion of the colonies saw more activity along the James River, which became England’s proverbial highway into Virginia during the colonial period.
As the Revolutionary War erupted in 1775, the decision was made to refortify The Castle. The moated, earthenwork fort was expanded in shape and size by the local militia. Once refortified, it was renamed Fort Boykin for Major Francis Boykin, a local who served with General George Washington. No engagements took place at the fort.
WAR OF 1812
During the War of 1812, cities and the shores of the counties along the rivers of Virginia were vulnerable. This created a need for a coastal defense system.
Fort Boykin was enlarged into an irregular five-pointed star shape, typical of the time period, to protect the James River from British gunboats. An attempt was made by the British to land near Fort Boykin. Local militia foiled the attempt, but for several months, the British man-of-war HMS Plantagenent threateningly anchored near the fort.
In 1861, Confederate State Engineer Andrew Talcott was assigned the task of surveying and designing potential defenses along the James River to protect against a Union naval assault upon the Confederate capital of Richmond, located 55 miles upriver.
This site was selected and designated suitable for gun batteries. Other fortifications along the James River included Fort Huger, Mulberry Island Point Battery, Jamestown and Drewry’s Bluff Battery.
In addition, a series of trenches, earthworks and forts extending from Gloucester Point and across the Virginia Peninsula to this side of the James River – all of Confederate Major General John Magruder’s defensive line against the Union - effectively blocked the Union’s land approach to Richmond and closed the York and James Rivers as supply routes for their armies.
Between June 1861 and May 1862, the Confederate Army cleared, refurbished and refortified Fort Boykin under the supervision of Captain T.M.R. Talcott and Lt. W.G. Turpin. Under their command were slaves and free blacks who were described as “a force of at least 1000 hands.” Free blacks manned and unloaded boats which brought in army stores, lime, bricks, lumber, timber, nails, paper, wagons and molasses. Wheelbarrows were in short supply, and the well was contaminated during this time.
On May 4, Magruder abandoned his defensive line in the face of the overwhelming Union forces. With the land route to Richmond cleared, the Union focused their attention on the Confederate forts blocking the James River.
On May 8, the USS Galena, USS Port Royal and USS Aroostook attacked both Fort Huger and Fort Boykin – with the worst of the fire directed at Fort Boykin. The Port Royal and Aroostook fired from the James River channel while the Galena moved in closer with raking shots. Both forts eventually ceased fire as their cannons were not powerful enough to damage the ironclad Galena or reach the two ships beyond her.
The bombardments convinced the Confederates that these forts were untenable, and they were abandoned. U.S. Marines landed and occupied Forts Boykin and Huger on May 17 and 18 to find most of the guns spiked, the carriages burned and structures within the forts destroyed. The reduction of both forts opened the James River for the Union fleet to head upriver to the strong Confederate position at Drewry’s Bluff, just eight miles southeast of Richmond. Later, the fort became a signaling station for the Confederacy.
INSIDE THE FORT
Venture inside the fort for a self-guided tour to learn more about the fort’s experience during the Civil War and several of the fort’s private owners. You can also enjoy the fort’s natural habitat and beach access.
LOCATION & HOURS
7410 Fort Boykin Trail
March - October 8:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.
November - February 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
For guided tours of the site, contact the Isle of Wight County Museum at 757-356-1223.