Wednesday, September 20, 2017  

Shovels, Muskets and Cannons: The Story of Fort Nonsense


Fort Nonsense, one might say, is a strange name for a fort whose very existence is anything but nonsense. It brings to mind questions like why is it called Fort Nonsense? What happened there and why was it built where it was built?

During the Civil War or the “War against Northern Aggression”, as many folks like to call it, Mathews County was considered to be a very important location from a military point of view. Dating back to the American Revolution and the War of 1812, strategically it was the place to watch for the enemy arriving by water. Mathews was an important port for the Confederacy because it was especially well suited for blockade runners transporting desperately needed supplies across the Chesapeake from the Eastern Shore.

The Confederates thought, owning to its history, the Union would attack Mathews County by sending boats from the Chesapeake Bay. The thinking was the Union would attempt to then push inland toward Richmond and other strategically important locations. Fort Nonsense was designed to literally block the way of advancing Union troops. In 1861, 2nd Lieutenant William H. Clarke CSA, an engineering graduate of Virginia Military Institute, was directed to build massive earthworks. It is now, in hindsight, known the fort faced in the wrong direction. The fort was built to face east; experts agree it should have faced west.

Originally known as Smart’s Mill/North End Mill fortifications, the earthworks were a tremendous undertaking. Working under Lieutenant Clarke, Mr. W. Dawson Soles is believed to have been the overseer of several hundred slaves who completed the back breaking task of building what came to be known as Fort Nonsense. The Fort consisted of what are essentially huge mounds of dirt strategically placed so the soldiers occupying the fort could have a clear field of fire designed to turn back any attackers. To create this field of fire, trees had to be cut down and hauled. The logs would have been arranged to establish the outline of the fort. Fort Nonsense was laid out in a lunette pattern which, when viewed from above is shaped like an arrow heads. Wicker baskets called gabions were filled with saplings, vines and small trees and were then placed in position to hold the dirt in place to form and reinforce the parapet. A trench was dug to supply the dirt to create the parapet, an elevation of earth to protect soldiers. The idea was to create a high mound of dirt called an earthworks which would give the defending troops a clear field of fire from a high point while at the same time protecting them from most bullets which would either go over their head or lodge harmlessly into the dirt in front of them. Ahead of the parapet there were two trenches from which troops could retreat when the enemy came too close. Limbs from some of the trees cut down to clear the field of fire were used as abatis. An abatis is a limb or small tree with one end cut to form a sharp point and the other end buried into the ground at a low angle and facing the attacking force in a continuous line 60 to 80 yards ahead of the earthworks. This formed a frightening line of sharpened spears through which an attacker would have to move while dodging musket fire and cannon fire.

Researchers believe there were cannons mounted on wooden platforms also constructed on the sight.

Fort Nonsense Historical Park is a ruin. It is what is left intact of what once was a Confederate Fort covering an area of one quarter of a mile at what is now the intersection of Rout 3 and Route 14 near the Gloucester-Mathews border. It was likely to have been constructed in the shape of a lunette which is a style of building breast works where angles are anchored to natural obstacles. It is believed, that cannon platforms were constructed to concentrate the field of fire on the road from Mathews. There were infantry redans, which are wedge shaped mounds of dirt positioned to be used as advanced posts and to control the enemies’ approach.

Only a portion of the original fort remains. Souvenir hunters over the years combined with the ravages of highway construction crews and time have left what is still a remarkably intact remnant of the original fort.

It is important to note the work of finding the history of Fort Nonsense is an arduous job taken on by the Mathews County Historical Society to preserve the history of Mathews County. The fort has been the labor of love of several members of the society who have spent countless hours researching the obscure history of the fort and obtaining a designation for the site as a Historical Landmark. The Mathews Gloucester Gazette Journal reported on October 31, 2013 of the groundbreaking for Fort Nonsense Historical Park, “It was the culmination of 10 years of focused work for the Mathews County Historical Society and the group of members who conceived of the project and are seeing it through to its conclusion. Those members were Carlton Brooks, Frank Lansinger, Steve Whiteway, Pete Jennette and Earl Soles, said the society’s president, Reed Lawson, adding that the project was also guided by the efforts of the organization’s past presidents, Steve Wilson, Stu Allen, Terry Pletcher and Doug Wilton.”

The most important thing to consider before you visit the fort is the history of which it is a part. If you are taking a youngster, chances are they will be disappointed if they don’t fully understand the reason it was built, why it was built in the shape it was, and what might have happened there. It is an important ruin and a terrific example of how Civil War forts were built. Don’t go to Fort Nonsense expecting to see a fort like you may have seen at Jamestown or Fort Monroe. Go there with an open mind to absorb the history of what happened in Mathews County during the Civil War.

As to why it is called Fort Nonsense, some accounts credit the name to Mr. W. Dawson Soles. The fact is there are several forts around the country called Fort Nonsense named for various reasons, many of whose precise origins are lost in history.

In the case of Fort Nonsense in Mathews, the consensus seems to be the fort was intended to defend against troops attacking from Mathews. It ended up facing the wrong way because the Union captured Gloucester first via Yorktown and thus was able to move eastward toward Mathews. The Union troops then were able to approach from the rear.

Hopefully, this story will help you better understand what happened there. Read it to your children and explain what they are about to see. Once you are there, stroll along the original roads, graveled over to make walking easier. Take the time to read each of the historical markers placed there by the Mathews County Historical Society, the dedicated historians who made the creation of the historical park happen. Then find yourself and your family a quiet spot and sit down on one of the wonderfully built benches. Try then to imagine local Confederate Militia forces probably dressed in a variety of uniforms or civilian clothes carrying muskets or their own hunting rifles. The men were farmers, watermen and merchants who manned the ramparts when duty called to defend their own county against attacking Union forces. Some were African Americans slaves who actually built the breastworks. They were not professional soldiers; they were armed citizens defending their own. They were amateur soldiers against seasoned veterans. Yet they did what they had to do. They built the breastworks and put their bellies in the dirt ready to defend against what could have been overwhelming odds.

Allow your mind’s eye to play out what might have happened there and what did happen at hundreds of similar forts throughout the Civil War. Listen for the stomping of marching feet, the rattle of muskets, the cries of the wounded, the terrifying rebel yells, and the ear shattering blast of cannons. Imagine the smell of blood, the odor of black powder and the shrill trumpet calls to action. Despite there never having been a battle fought there, Fort Nonsense is a vivid physical reminder of a bloody and perilous war pitting brother against brother. It is a place where enslaved Americans were forced to build the very breastworks intended to stop the army whose mandate was to preserve a United States of America in which all men and women would eventually be emancipated and live the promise of Abraham Lincoln that all men are created equal.