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Uncovering hidden history in Hampton Roads

By Airman 1st Class Jason J. Brown | 633d Air Base Wing Public Affairs | April 20, 2010

HAMPTON, Va. — Hampton Roads is rich in American history, home to the arrival point of our colonial settlers, some of the Civil War's greatest battles and the roots of American naval and airpower. While most of this extensive legacy is memorialized in parks, museums and monuments, some intriguing elements of Hampton's illustrious past rest unseen, tucked away on Air Force property.

On Big Bethel Road, across from Bethel Elementary School, there is a small, fenced cemetery, sparsely occupied by weathered headstones and markers. Those interred in the plots are members of families whose surnames local residents may recognize from road names in the area, including Saunders, Magruder and Morris.

Ryan Baie, 633d Civil Engineer Squadron community planner, said that while the cemetery is off-limits to the public, family members of the interred or those seeking genealogical information may request an accompanied visit.

"We've had family members call us to come see the cemetery in the past, as recently as summer of 2009," he said.

While some markers are damaged, most of the headstones are intact, revealing internments dating back to 1869.

Most visible from the road is a large obelisk, donated by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1961, commemorating the 100-year anniversary of the Battle of Big Bethel, which occurred at the site of the Big Bethel reservoir.

A quick trip west on Big Bethel road from the cemetery leads to the entrance of Bethel Park. The Battle of Big Bethel was the first land battle of the Civil War in Virginia, a clash which saw 1,200 Confederate troops stave off a poorly planned and befuddled Federal advance on the fortified outposts at Little and Big Bethel.

The first Confederate soldier killed in battle, Pvt. Henry Lawson Wyatt, fell at Big Bethel. A sign near the park gate commemorates the event.

In the woods beyond the sign is a large earthen mound. At first glance, the hill appears to be a natural landform; in reality it is the remnants of Confederate earthworks, manmade structures which housed gun turrets. These turrets helped outnumbered Confederate forces repel the 3,500-strong Union attack, killing 79 Federal troops. The Confederates lost only eight soldiers in the fighting.

The reservoir, created when Brick Kiln Creek was dammed in the early 1900s, covers a majority of the battlefield.

Across Big Bethel Road lies a fenced wooded area, inaccessible and off-limits to the public. Within the woods exists another monument donated by the UDC, memorializing the battle. To the south are several more earth mounds, presumed to be Confederate earthworks.

Langley Air Force Base acquired the land in 2006 from the Army. The 633 CES ensures upkeep of the grounds through maintenance contracts. In recent months, the city of Hampton has expressed interest in working alongside Langley to make the monuments and remnants of the battlefield accessible to the public.

"We're working on a plan that will relocate the park gate to allow the public access in to see the earthworks and markers," said Adanna Davis, 633 CES community planner. "We're discussing adding signage and depictions of the battlefield, giving visitors a look back in time."

For now, all plans remain tentative. Interested persons are reminded to obey federal trespassing limits, and signage is posted around the perimeter of the cemetery and Bethel Park. For information regarding the cemetery and the park, call Ryan Baie or Adanna Davis at 764-1493.