Civil War Walking Tour at Site of the Raleigh NC Dix Hill Fortifications

A. Roy

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A few weeks ago, we attended a Civil War history walking tour on a Saturday at the grounds of Dorothea Dix Park in south Raleigh. Dix Hill was the site of a psychiatric hospital opened just a few years before the war, and is now being developed by the City of Raleigh as an urban park. I've been communicating with some of the folks involved with the park, because of my knowledge of the 1863 Raleigh entrenchments. Dorothea Dix Hospital was one of the key properties that lay inside the circle of entrenchments. The line of fortifications ran for about a mile across the current park property, and included a battery (a redan with a pan coupé) only 1,000 feet from the main hospital building.

The park developers are very interested in the Civil War history of Dix Hill. Besides the war-era hospital and the presence of fortifications during the war, Dix Hill was the encampment site of the Federal 20th Corps under Gen. Joseph A. Mower, after the surrender of the city on 13 April 1865. The story of the fortifications belongs to Raleigh's Black history as well, as state authorities conscripted between 200 and 300 free and enslaved Black workers to do the work. Some of us Civil War students think there is a good potential for historical and archaeological study at the park, and incorporation of Civil War-era history as a feature of the park as its development unfolds over the next several years.

The following map of the Raleigh entrenchments is in the possession of the U.S. National Archives. It was drawn by Lt. Col. Henry T. Guion, the engineer who designed the fortifications and supervised their construction between July and October of 1863. The detail map shows where the line of entrenchments ran across Dix Hill. The Dorothea Dix Hospital is the airplane-shaped structure marked "Insane Asylum":

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I've developed a Google Map that lays out the historic fortifications on the modern Raleigh landscape. Following is a detail showing where I believe the line of entrenchments ran across Dix Hill. The black lines are stretches of entrenchments dotted with angles. The red point is the location of the Dix Battery. This detail is from my newer (and more exact, I hope) Google Map, which is incomplete and still under development. However, you can see the preliminary version and play around with it via this link: https://www.google.com/maps/d/u/0/edit?mid=18wH-6qk3Uuwp6Lj3qWudsWGYiLY3Qae0&usp=sharing


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The walking tour was led by the excellent Ernest Dollar, director of the City of Raleigh Museum, accompanied by a group of companion living-history interpreters. Along the way, tour members enjoyed a spirited narrative by Dollar, who told stories of some of the psychiatric patients, soldiers, families, and fortification laborers associated with Civil War-era Dix Hill. Tour stops included a boulder with possible inscriptions by Civil War soldiers, the historic Dix graveyard, the Spring Hill plantation home, and the crossing of the Raleigh entrenchments. Along the way, the tour group passed by a 19th century family enjoying an outing in the park.


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Al Roy B.
 

A. Roy

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I thought this might also be a good time to post some of the photos I've taken of locations across the Dorothea Dix property along the line where I believe the historic fortifications ran. Here are side-by-side maps showing the approximately one-mile line of entrenchments running across the property. The red points are artillery emplacements, the northernmost one being the Dix Battery:

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Here are some shots illustrating the strategic location of the fortifications, commanding a view of some approaches to the west of Raleigh:

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Looking back northeast toward the center of Raleigh, you can see how close Dix Hill is to today's downtown, which is the same central area the Civil War fortifications were designed to protect. The proximity of this property to downtown also illustrates the value of this location as the planned "Central Park" of Raleigh. Park planners are showing an increasing interest in incorporating Civil War history into the plan and design for the park.

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As I mentioned before, the historic entrenchments stretched across almost a mile of today's Dix land. For about 1,000-1,500 feet, the line was intensively developed with hospital buildings and roads, now the site site of a state office campus. At some locations, though, the line runs across lawns and fields that might have had few or no structures on them since the war. Such areas could be good locations for geophysical study by archaeologists, who might be able to locate the path of the military trenches, even though they are underground now:

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Looking south. Mapping indicates that the line of entrenchments ran across this lawn, through or near the location of this building and into the woods beyond:

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In a number of areas around Raleigh, it appears that some of the 18 artillery platforms on the fortification circle were adopted as building sites post-war. My mapping indicates that this house (previously employee housing, now an office) and parking lot might be the location of the Dix Battery. However, another group studying the entrenchments places the battery 100-200 feet to the west of this location and a little farther downhill:

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In a number of locations along the entrenchment line, it's possible to see earth mounds and surface irregularities. These are interesting, but you always have to ask yourself whether you're looking at an earthwork remnant -- or just a dirt pile. The only way to know for sure is to have these locations evaluated and possibly studied by archaeologists. Unfortunately, construction and earth-moving are continuing to disrupt these sites. At least one of these mounds has actually disappeared just since I took these photos in 2019.

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Al Roy B.
 

A. Roy

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A very interesting tour. I hope some organization or committee can be formed to back an archaeological study.
Lubliner.

Thanks -- yes, there are some efforts in the works to initiate some preservation. Very little of the original fortifications still exist above ground, but some experts are considering ground-penetrating radar (GPR), shovel tests, and other means to investigate the 1863 works. It's an eight-mile perimeter and the sites run across a great variety of properties, so much depends on the interest and cooperation of owners. There's also a possibility of having these works named as a historic resource. This is all stuff that should have been done decades ago, but it's better to try it now rather than not at all. As you can see from this tour, the good folks at Dorothea Dix Park have a great interest in the Civil War history of the property.

Roy B.
 

connecticut yankee

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I congratulate you on the extensive and ongoing research you are doing on the little-known existing Raleigh fortifications. I am sure your work will be of immeasureable value to professionals and others who'll come long after you to explore and preserve this forgotten historical asset of the city. Your photos and maps, too, are exceptional and in a number of them where you question what is being depicted, I say "Yes", those certainly look like fortification remains to me.
 
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A. Roy

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Your photos and maps, too, are exceptional and in a number of them where you question what is being depicted, I say "Yes", those certainly look like fortification remains to me.

Thanks for the encouragement! I'm in an odd position in that I'm really just a writer working on a book. If there's to be a real study and preservation effort, it needs to be taken up by people with the knowledge and resources to do it right. That said, I've been trying to be a resource for interested folks. Later this month, I'm scheduled to meet with some of the park planners to walk across the ground and show them where the line of entrenchments probably ran, based on mapping studies.

Roy B.
 

bdtex

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Awesome pictures and commentary @A. Roy . You mentioned that you're writing a book. Any information on which troops, if any, manned those entrenchments and when? You mentioned archaeological studies. I would assume that also means relic hunting along where the entrenchment lines are believed to have been. Someone may have done that already.
 

A. Roy

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Awesome pictures and commentary @A. Roy . You mentioned that you're writing a book. Any information on which troops, if any, manned those entrenchments and when? You mentioned archaeological studies. I would assume that also means relic hunting along where the entrenchment lines are believed to have been. Someone may have done that already.

As far as I know, the only engagements around Raleigh during the war were at the very end, and they were really only skirmishes between the rear guard of Johnston's army and Kilpatrick's cavalry as Sherman's forces advanced. So any manning of these entrenchments would probably have been light and temporary.

The greatest documented activity around the Raleigh entrenchments is actually that of Union forces who camped all around the city after it was surrendered and while Johnston and Sherman were negotiating the surrender of Johnston's army. If you look at the living history interpreters who were on hand at Dix Park, you'll see they are wearing the red star of the 1st Division. It was the 20th Corps under Mower who camped around the Dorothea Dix property.

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Roy B.
 

bdtex

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As far as I know, the only engagements around Raleigh during the war were at the very end, and they were really only skirmishes between the rear guard of Johnston's army and Kilpatrick's cavalry as Sherman's forces advanced. So any manning of these entrenchments would probably have been light and temporary.

The greatest documented activity around the Raleigh entrenchments is actually that of Union forces who camped all around the city after it was surrendered and while Johnston and Sherman were negotiating the surrender of Johnston's army. If you look at the living history interpreters who were on hand at Dix Park, you'll see they are wearing the red star of the 1st Division. It was the 20th Corps under Mower who camped around the Dorothea Dix property.

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Roy B.
Thank you sir. Good information. I really don't know a lot about the action in NC during the war. I still have a lot of reading to do.
 

A. Roy

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You mentioned archaeological studies. I would assume that also means relic hunting along where the entrenchment lines are believed to have been. Someone may have done that already.

I realized you had also asked this question about recovering artifacts. It's a complicated question in a way, because these entrenchments consisted of a rough circle of about eight miles. Today that line of fortifications runs across a great variety of properties, some in private hands, some public, some non-profit; some commercial, some industrial; some single-family neighborhoods, some multi-family; some of the locations have been completely razed and built-over. I've been told that the state of NC used to allow relic hunters on the Dorothea Dix property, so I imagine that many artifacts within the range of metal detectors have already been extracted at that location. However, other locations along the eight-mile perimeter have been less-known until very recently, so there is maybe a greater potential for recovering historic remains in some locations than in others.


Roy B.
 
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