Privy holds Civil War artifacts

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Privy holds Civil War artifacts

December 12, 1996 
by Pamela Cressey

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A map made in 1865 recorded the buildings and walkways around an octagonal structure in the United States Military Railroad Station. Although many of the surrounding buildings were destroyed, the eight-sided privy survived intact until its recent discovery.

I received a wonderful surprise holiday present on the first day of Hanukkah. What is the perfect gift for an archaeologist--a sharp trowel? dirt? a whole teapot, instead of a broken one? A laser transit? All great gift ideas, but this present was the best of all. My gift, and actually a gift to all Alexandrians and lovers of Civil War history everywhere, is a new archaeological discovery. It is one of the most exciting finds ever made in Alexandria. It is hard to top some of the fabulous discoveries made here over the last 35 years, but this new archaeological find is unique.

Archaeologists with Thunderbird and Associates have been working for the last few months in the old Norfolk Southern rail yard to unearth its buried history before a new development. Old Town Village is slated to start construction in 1997, and Thunderbird has been hired by the developer Eagan/Youngentob to preserve all significant archaeological information before that time.

Thunderbird archaeologists uncovered hundreds, if not thousands, of artifacts associated with Union personnel stationed during the Civil War (1861-1865) at the United States Military Railroad station. The artifacts were buried about six feet underground in an octagonal-shape privy. The objects are tantalizing and can be specifically related to a highly significant time of Alexandria’s history.

Although you have to be willing to go through a bit of trouble to recover the artifacts (e.g., meticulously examine wet human waste material by hand), the discomfort is well worth the trouble. The artifacts instantly transport you back in time. The boot with a hole on its sole, the teapots, patent medicine bottles, buttons, and syringe let us see and touch Civil War daily life. The fact that you have to water screen to find all the artifacts adds to the thrill of discovery. You don’t want to miss anything, because these artifacts have not been seen for 130 years!

This gift of the past was even wrapped beautifully. The artifacts were buried in an interesting engineering feat, an eight-sided privy lined with 16 foot long pine boards, which can still be seen. We do not know yet who designed this industrial-size outhouse, but it probably served the soldiers, rail workers, and possibly the hospital patients and personnel in the USMRR compound.

When I talked to reporters about the find, everyone asked two questions: "How did you know it was there? How do artifacts get underground?" Archaeologists can use a variety of methods to find sites, ranging from digging small test squares systematically across an area to more sophisticated remote sensing equipment. In historical archaeology, we are blessed with maps to guide our inquiries. The USMRR left a highly detailed map of the entire 12 block area it occupied for four years. The octagonal structure can be clearly seen, but the scale of the map required quite a bit of digging to locate the exact location. In this case, the artifacts actually were thrown down into this deep hole. Later the railroad company filled up the hole and created a flat surface.

Alexandria was the hub of Union activity during the Civil War. More than 30 hospitals, four forts, batteries, scores of barracks, cemeteries and at times up to 20,000 soldiers were here. Yet, what is left for us today? Unfortunately, very little. When the federal troops left, they tore down what they had built for the war. The occupied buildings returned to the citizens and churches, and gradually the war memories associated with them faded away. As the forts were lost to subdivisions, the public saved the northwest bastion of Fort Ward.

To give yourself and family an historic holiday gift, visit Fort Ward Museum and Historic Site for a Victorian Christmas celebration on December 14 from 1-4 P.M. See the new exhibit on toys inspired by the Civil War, visit with Union and Confederate reenactment soldiers, talk to the 19th century Santa and enjoy refreshments. Kevin Rawlings, author of "We Were Marching on Christmas Day" will lecture at 11:30 A.M. Call 703-838-4848 for information.