The Tale of The Civil War Hoodoo Spell Bottle

By Aunt Carla | Instagram

The William & Mary Center Archaeological Research (WMCAR) team recently announced the discovery of a Civil War-era “witch bottle” near the site of The Battle of Williamsburg. The Virginia Department of Transportation was planning to widen their Interstate highway, and brought in the archeologists to study the area before starting work on the roadway.

It was during this project that a glass bottle full of nails was found. Aside from a broken bottle neck, the bottle and most of the contents were still there. It was originally assumed that the nails had been used to repair forts, but a couple of members of the WMCAR team suggested that it was a “witch bottle” placed by a Civil War soldier. After researching the historical context further, I believe that it is a hoodoo spell bottle left by runaway slaves. 

Photo courtesy of Carla Lynne Hall

At the beginning of the Civil War Confederate General Robert E Lee gave the order for forts to be built in Williamsburg, VA, in order to protect Richmond, which was not only the capital of Virginia, but the capital of the Confederacy.

The spell bottle was found at Redoubt 9, one of the 13 Confederate forts that had been built to support Fort Magruder, the mother fort in Williamsburg, VA. 

The Virginia archeologists studied the artifacts to put together a story of what happened at Redoubt 9, and interestingly enough, the archeological story was that this Confederate fort had been occupied by Union troops. 

I immediately went into research mode, to try to figure out how the witch bottle got there. Over 200 witch bottles had been found in Great Britain. Filled with nails, hair, and urine, many of those found there had been created with pottery jugs. Of the ones found intact, they all tested positive for urine. However only a handful of witch bottles had been found in the United States. 

The Williamsburg bottle was a clear blue bottle filled with nails that had corroded into a ball. Because the neck was broken, they were unable to test for urine. This artifact was a clear blue bottle, and marked with the name of the bottler, Chas. Grove from Columbia, PA.

So how did this bottle get into a Civil War fort?

How did this Confederate fort get occupied by Union troops?

First, I’ll explain the difference between witch bottles and hoodoo spell bottles.

The earliest discovered glass bottle spells are English witch bottles, dating back to the 1600s. When anti-witchcraft sentiment was especially strong in Europe and the American colonies, a homeowner would typically create a witch bottle around Halloween. A pottery jug would be filled with sharp objects such as pins and bent needles, in addition to hair and urine. The idea was that a witches’ evil energy would be confused by the hair and urine in the bottle, and avoid the people living in the home.

Photo courtesy of Carla Lynne Hall

Similar to a witch bottle, a hoodoo spell bottle is a bottle filled with nails, filled with urine, and buried under a doorstep of an enemy. This placement incorporates African “foot track magic”, which symbolically poisons people who step over it. 

So when a hoodoo spell bottle is planted where an enemy is, they become cursed by walking over it. Both magickal traditions incorporate nails and urine in a bottle, but the intentions are different.

Because there wasn’t a proper garbage disposal and recycling system in place during the Civil War, I wasn’t sure if the source of the bottle was important. There were merchants who followed the war, and sold provisions such as soda and liquor to the soldiers, so there were many ways that the bottle could have gotten from Pennsylvania to Virginia.

But researching who handled sanitation for the Civil War led me to finally ask the question: “Who built the forts where the bottle was found?” The answer to that question turned my research on its head.

In May 1861, Confederate General Robert E. Lee tasked Lt. Colonel Benjamin Ewell, former William & Mary President (and fellow West Point graduate) with building the 13 satellite forts for Fort Magruder, named for Gen. John B. Magruder, who was commander of the Army of the Peninsula.

Being accustomed to having slaves wait upon them, Confederate soldiers had a strong distaste for physical labor, which they saw as beneath them, as white men. As little progress had been made on the Williamsburg forts by June 1861, Magruder replaced Ewell with another General, and began an aggressive plan of forcing upwards of 20,000 slaves and free Negroes into building the entrenchments. 

Enslaved African Americans and even free blacks were brought in and forced to build these entrenchments, “under severe penalty”. In other words, they would be whipped if they refused. 

Check out Carla’s video on the Civil War Hoodoo Spell Bottle!

So the hoodoo spell bottle that was found tells the story of magickal resistance by enslaved African Americans. While running away was one method of resistance used by slaves, performing hoodoo folk magic was another. By burying this hoodoo spell bottle in the fort that they had built, the slaves used magic to foil their Confederate captors.

It is quite possible that this hoodoo spell bottle enabled slaves to escape, and find freedom behind Union lines. Slaves knew that their freedom was at stake, and they sought to help their masters’ enemies. They informed Union generals that some of these forts were empty, and that there were fewer Confederate troops than they anticipated. The military intelligence that the slaves provided led to the Northern troops attacking the Confederacy, which started The Battle of Williamsburg.

And as a result of that hoodoo spell bottle, over 12,000 enslaved African Americans found their freedom, and escaped Confederate oppression.

About the Author: Carla Lynne Hall is an eclectic witch and rootworker with over 30 years of magickal experience. Sign up for her free spellcrafting course at

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