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NEWS | April 29, 2022

The Pumpkin Ash Battlefield

By Cecilia A. Boyd & Ryan S. Collins 633d Air Base Wing Public Affairs

Within the confines of Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia, lay a rare, old growth forest. This sacred ecological island has been nurtured by American history and cultural heritage. Though this forest has been long spared from metal axe and saws seeking timber, blood was shed and the ground hallowed in the immediate vicinity of the cleared woodland that now rest below the reservoir itself. On the heels of the Battle of Spencer’s Ordinary near Williamsburg, Virginia, near Waters Creek on the James River, the Elizabeth City county militia consisting of around 30 – 40 men engaged with a small portion of 300 – 400 British Regulars which had landed on the Poquoson River on March 8, 1781. Under command of then Lt. Col. Sir David “Old Pivot” Dundas, The British Regulars made their way southward where the militia patriots pursued the foraging party and engaged in a running battle until both parties reached Newport News Point. The British suffered two men lost and two wounded while the militia endured seven lost and four wounded.

Capt. Francis Edward Mallory, who was named in other sources as the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and Colonel, led the Elizabeth City militia and hastened with around 80 patriots from Waters Creek to sabotage Tompkins Bridge and trap the British in the marsh. This action would delay Dundas and allow Mallory’s brother Edward, a fellow patriot, to lead his force of 250 militia there and ambush the group. Mallory was recently released by the British under a prisoner exchange and had been warned to remain a non-combatant, a warning he did not heed.

Mallory arrived at Tompkins Bridge only to find the British were already. Unstifled by this, Mallory ran headlong into the forward elements of the Redcoat army. The militia held their position and traded volleys for an hour, but the numbers were not on the patriot’s side. Despite overwhelming odds and even being offered the chance to escape by Jacob Wray, Mallory refused to retreat. Wray served the patriot cause as an intelligence officer for Thomas Jefferson on the Virginia peninsula. It is reputed that the British forces recognized Mallory amidst the carnage and were aware of the terms of his prisoner release. The Royal Dragoon Guards, an armored cavalry regiment, targeted him, shot him from his horse, trampled him and ran him through with sabers and bayonets. In the aftermath his vest contained eleven holes.

Seven decades later, near the Tompkins Bridge site, blood would spill again in Hampton Roads. In March 1861, Gen. George B. McClellan planned the Union Army advance towards their ultimate goal of Richmond, Virginia. Union Forces controlled Fort Monroe between the York and James Rivers, enabling occupation of Hampton and Newport News, Virginia. On the night of June 9, a force of 3,500 personnel led by Gen. Ebenezer Pierce departed Newport News churches in two columns at night and marched towards their target, a confederate position at Bethel Church.

In the darkness, the two regiments mistook each other for the enemy and several Union personnel fell from friendly fire. The groups reorganized and pressed forward. The trees bore witness to a double battery of Confederate cannons, a single cannon across Back Creek to the north and another protecting the bridge.  These native lowland trees included Red Maple, Swamp Tupelo, Green Ash and the rare Pumpkin Ash Tree. Union forces would advance and take the outer defenses at Big Bethel, only to be repulsed by the confederates.

The double battery fired 98 rounds forcing the Union soldiers into nearby farmhouses and into the woods for protection. By noon, Union forces were forced to initiate retreat concluding one of the first, if not the first battle of the American Civil War. The Confederacy would not hold the position, but rather abandon it for a strengthened posture at Yorktown, Virginia. In total, 19 Americans lost their lives that day with another 60 wounded. The trees and their progenitors withstood the blistering cannon and rifle fire of the American Revolution and the Civil War, yet now find themselves under siege once again. This time from the invasive Emerald Ash Borer, a beetle responsible for the death of hundreds of millions of Ash Trees across North America since its detection in 2002. In 2021, this beetle was detected at Bethel after their characteristic D-shaped holes were found in several tree trunks; far smaller than bullet holes but much deadlier to the giants. The larvae of this glistening beetle chew labyrinth paths in the wood as they feed, disrupting the ability of the host to transport water and nutrients through the trunk and branches. The larvae’s feeding weakens the tree until their ultimate death.

Big Bethel reservoir was created in the 1920s by damming Brick Kiln Creek. This covered a part of the battlefield in water. In 1937, Langley Field acquired the 10.5 acre tract known as Big Bethel from Fort Monroe, preserving a portion of the battlefield and woodland. Over the years, the base acquired much more land in the area. The total area spans 227 acres of land and 266 acres which lay under the waters of the reservoir. Here, the Pumpkin Ash at Bethel Manor have remained. Today, the United States Air Force utilizes a portion of the area as Bethel Manor military housing, a recreation area, a chapel and a portion as a water reservoir. The remainder of the area remains untouched. Preservation of the Pumpkin Ash trees is a testament to American history. Not only do they provide aesthetic appeal, but due to their erosion control, unique habitat requirements, and the size of these trees despite the species’ relatively slow growth and maturity, they are a cultural treasure. The largest Pumpkin Ash trees in Virginia reside on JBLE. One Pumpkin Ash stands a gargantuan 111 feet tall and has a circumference of 91 inches! Environmental specialists from the 633d Civil Engineer Squadron and the Virginia Department of Forestry are racing to preserve the historic woodland and critically endangered Pumpkin Ash trees by use of cutting-edge injectable pesticides and bio-control applications of parasitic wasps.

The largest trees will benefit from systemic injection of pesticides that make it inedible to the Emerald Ash Borer larvae, but not every tree can be individually treated and the large trees will eventually die of old age. When it became obvious that Emerald Ash Borer had entrenched themselves in the battlefield for ash across North America, researchers began seeking long-term solutions to reduce damage instead of prevent it so that our ash trees can co-exists with the invaders. Insect predators of the beetle from their natural range have been researched and released as bio-control across infected forestlands with the hopes that they can keep the population of emerald ash borers low enough for the trees to live in their presence.  If our native Ash trees are unable to hold their position in the battlefield, then the Emerald Ash Borer may scorch the resource they depend on and sign their own demise. As a last resort, seeds from our unique Pumpkin Ash have been collected and saved in a seed bank. Their mother trees that have stood for centuries may become history, but their genetic lineage may still find some small victory in the future.

We have the opportunity to protect not just a rare forest, but a marvelous embodiment of the spirit that characterizes the whole habitat of Hampton. That spirit which called out during the American Revolution, that spirit which withstood the fire at Big Bethel and that same spirit which has proven to be so instrumental in national defense, in both the 20th and 21st Century. The Pumpkin Ashes at Big Bethel have remained against incredible odds, and the Emerald Ash Borer is their next grueling campaign. This time, airmen from the 633d CES, naturalists from the state of Virginia and American citizens are fighting for the trees with appreciation of their heritage and demand they keep a place in our World.