Veteran of Two Armies

Fauquier County is known largely for the storied roads and preserved landscapes that witnessed some of the largest campaigns of the American Civil War, with narratives of these Piedmont soldiers spanning the region. Lesser known however are the experiences and lives of soldiers of the First World War who walked the same roads and lived on the same farms, but whose experience took them a world away from their homes. One such story is that of William Hemsley Emory IV. Emory is one of very few veterans of Fauquier County who served a period in not only the American Expeditionary Force which entered the war in 1917, but also the British Army, beginning his service in December of 1914. Descended from an impressive lineage of military and government leaders, William Emory IV is largely overshadowed in history but nonetheless navigated his own path through the tests and trials of the Great War.
                Very few in history have had to live up to the lineage of their ancestors like William Hemsley Emory IV. A fourth great grandson to Benjamin Franklin and great grandson to War of 1812 Veteran Major Thomas Emory who built Poplar Grove in the Eastern shore of Maryland, he also shares the name of two top military leaders in the Navy and Army of the United States. Emory’s grandfather served in the United States Army as a topographical engineer, fought in the Mexican American war, and served as a corps commander in the Army of the Potomac during the Civil War. Emory’s father was a graduate of the United States Naval Academy, and decorated Rear Admiral in the Navy in the 1890s.
                Simply to say, William H Emory IV had much to contend with in terms of legacy. William was born in Washington D.C. on March 4, 1886. He was of one of six children, three of which died in childhood. He attended West Point Military Academy in 1905, though not excelling at mathematics and was forced to leave the school. Following this setback, he spent a few years working for stockbrokers Saloman & Co in New York, and then for the B&O Railroad in Florida, leading a ditch digging team. After carrying on a few work positions, he moved to Warrenton in the early 1910s and spent much of his time engaged in the sport of horse racing and foxhunting. It would be only a short time later that the Great War would break out in Europe in 1914, and Emory would answer the call of duty much earlier than most of his former school colleagues and friends. 

William Emory’s 1914 Passport Photograph
(National Archives)

The United States was neutral in the first few years of the war, and if William Emory was to serve, it would need to be in the capacity of a foreign country. He quickly applied for a passport and sailed to England to enlist in December of 1914. There are a few claims that Emory served in the famed cavalry regiment of The Scots Greys, though records indicate his service was not in a combat regiment. Because of his extensive background with horses, Emory enlisted as a “rough rider” private in an Army Service Corps (ASC) Remount Squadron. While trucks, cars and trains were preferred for their ability to travel quickly, horses were still relied on heavily by the British Army, bringing troops, supplies, ammunition, and other necessary equipment to the front lines. As a result, the army put an ever-increasing reliance on soldiers with equestrian backgrounds to both drive the horses and train them at the front.

World War I Army Service Corps Remount Branch Recruitment Advertisement (Imperial War Museum)

The Army Service Corps, though exposed to many of the same privations and dangers of the front, was not a combat unit and would jokingly be referred to as “Ally Sloper’s Cavalry”, named after a foolish caricature in a British comic strip known for being as slothful as he was a scoundrel. Because of its role delivering both regular supply and food, the ASC would also be referred to by the regular infantry as “the Jam Stealers”. The common belief amongst the infantry was that ASC soldiers were removing more flavorful jams from the supply trains and leaving only plum and apple jam for the troops at the front. Despite these monikers, the ASC was an extremely vital asset to the soldiers in the trenches, keeping the wheels of war well-oiled as the stalemate on the western front developed. Emory was sent to France in early 1915 and was stationed at a remount station near the front. His experiences there are difficult to define, though he had reportedly described the fields of Flanders as “the worst hunt country I had ever seen”. Through his experiences he was exposed to heavy shelling, and in the summer of 1916 was hospitalized for wounds sustained at the front. It would be in a military hospital that Emory would meet Dr. Edith Nesbitt Green, army doctor. The two formed a friendship but were separated when Emory was deemed unfit for further service and sent back to the United States in late June, 1916. It would not be the last time Dr. Green and William Emory would meet. Little more than two weeks later, Dr. Green would learn that her husband, Captain John Leslie Green of the Royal Army Medical Corps, had been killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, July 1, 1916.

                Emory returned home struck with “shell shock”, a term used to describe soldiers affected by what we know to be today as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). While recovering with his family, it would only be a year later that the United States would enter the first World war. in 1917, despite all he had seen and experienced in Flanders in the British Army, Emory returned to service, this time commissioned as a 1st Lieutenant in the 321st Infantry Regiment, part of the 81st Division “Wildcats”.

Wartime photograph of William Hemsley Emory IV
(United States Military Academy)

                The 81st Division deployed to France in August, 1918, and served in the last major offensive of the war, at the Meuse Argonne. Emory and his regiment embarked for fighting on September 14, and shortly after arrived on the front at the Vosges. Here, Emory would relive the terrors of German artillery shelling, though miraculously his regiment would suffer no casualties. They became intimately close with the rigors of trench life over the next month, where their British and French counterparts had made their homes for the last four years.  The 321st was then sent forward to take part in a larger push in the Meuse Argonne, on the very last day of the war: November 11, 1918.

                Though discussion of the end of hostilities had commenced, the 321st was still destined to engage the German troops in an area east of the French village of Moranville. They were given the orders to depart their trenches and attack at 6am, a mere five hours before the war was to end. When the clock struck 11, the 321st was in the middle of taking a German trench line. An order was sent out for Emory’s company to vigorously attack a German defensive position. Luckily, the orders were never reached by company command, and the war was ended before more could be done.

William Emory is pictured second from left, in the Warrenton Hunt.
(National Sporting Library and Museum)


                Following the armistice, William found himself in the town of Chatillon, where he ran into Dr. Edith Green, who had cared for him while he was wounded in British service. Uniting once again, the two fell in love, and in 1919 were married. Following the deprivations and sorrow they both experienced in the war, they built a new life for themselves outside Warrenton, Virginia. The two built a home, now referred to as Sunset Hills, along modern-day Lees Ridge Road. This scenic farm overlooks the rolling fields of the Piedmont, with a backdrop of the Blue Ridge Mountains. In Warrenton, Edith became an active member of the community and president of the Fauquier Hospital. William again took up the sport of foxhunting and served as the head of the Warrenton Hunt for several seasons. The two lived in Warrenton until William passed away in 1965, and Edith in 1978. From their farm it can be easy to understand why after the trials of war, William and Edith would seek the tranquility of the Piedmont, living out the rest of their days in happiness. William Hemsley Emory and Dr. Edith Nesbitt Emory are buried in the Warrenton Cemetery.

Grave of William and Dr. Edith Nesbitt in the Warrenton Cemetery.

Lost at Sea

In some sense, the history of the Heritage Area is written directly on the map. Some place names stretch back to the area’s earliest native inhabitants. The Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers are a perfect example of Algonquian words adapted and used by later settlers. Native place names gradually gave way to names given by European settlers as they entered the Virginia piedmont in the 18th century. Some places were named for some natural attribute, like Goose Creek or the Blue Ridge Mountains. Others bear vestiges of colonial-era families in the names of places like Ashby’s Gap, Berryville, Rectortown, or Snicker’s Gap. The practice of naming geographical features and towns after local families continued through the 19th and 20th centuries, with locations as varied as Willisville (Henson Willis), Boyce (Col. Upton Boyce), and Warrenton (Dr. Joseph Warren).

One of the more prominent families to settle into the Virginia piedmont are the Kincheloes. By the beginning of the 19th century they were already well established in Fairfax, Prince William, and Fauquier Counties, and some local landmarks still bear their name. There is a Kincheloe Road near Manassas, which passes by the old Kincheloe family cemetery. One unexpected place where the name shows up on a map, however, is on the coast of Oregon at Tillamook Bay.

Julius Kincheloe was born on January 28, 1831, and grew up at the family home known as Greendale, near Rectortown. He was the eldest child born to Brandt and Mary Rawlings Kincheloe. By the 1850s, however, Julius left his Virginia home and entered into service with the United States Coast Survey. Established by President Jefferson in 1807, the Coast Survey was vital to both the commerce and defense of the young nation, and in the words of one historian it “attracted the best and brightest scientists and naturalists.” Their duty was to complete hydrographic surveys along America’s coasts and produce navigational charts. In addition, they charted currents such as the Gulf Stream, and established observatories for precise geographic measurements.

Original Seal of the US Coast Survey

Julius found himself in Maine in 1857, building just such an observatory near the eastern town of Calais. While in Maine, he met and married Jennie Reed, the daughter of a prominent merchant and shipbuilder of Boothbay. The two were soon off to San Francisco, where Julius was to play a role in the charting of the Pacific coast beginning in 1860. Unlike some of his brothers who had remained in Virginia and served in the Confederate army, Julius remained out west and in the service of the United States government during the Civil War.

Remains of the Calais Observatory constructed in 1857 to determine the precise longitude of the Maine coast.

By 1867, one of the last segments of the coast that needed to be surveyed was a stretch in Oregon, near Tillamook Bay. Julius and Jennie had arrived in the area the previous year and he spent eleven months along the bay’s straits and inlets with a small crew in a small launch. As the survey neared its end, the last part of the bay left was a particularly dangerous stretch surrounding the sandbar at the entrance to Tillamook Bay. The bar was known for treacherous currents and rough, unpredictable waves, so the survey crew waited for good weather before setting out.

The waters were calm on the morning of May 20th, 1867, when Julius Kincheloe and his crew made their way to the bar and began their work. Coast Survey Assistant James Lawson describes what happened next:

Mr. Kincheloe had been engaged in the survey of Tillamook Bay for about eleven months. The work was practically complete, but Mr. K. desired to get some soundings on or near the bar in places where heavy breakers had hitherto prevented his reaching. On the 20th May, the bar appearing very smooth he approached the bar, and for a time all went well. Suddenly a sea broke into the boat (as occurred to me on Koos Bay Bar), filling her; a second sea upset her, and all were thrown into the water. The boat’s crew consisted of Charles West, Elias N. and Beveriah Steelcup, Samuel Lanagan, Henry Ballou, and James Steel. It is supposed that when the boat capsized the anchor fell to the bottom, and by its hold prevented the boat from drifting, and each sea in passing washed the men from her. Mr. K. was only seen once after the accident, and that was when Steel, the only survivor (and the only one who could not swim) caught the end of the boats mast, which was sticking out of the water, bringing Mr. K. to the surface, he having hold of the other end. He was then too exhausted to speak. A lad name Geo. W. Clark, living at the entrance of the bay, stripped, jumped into a small canoe, and put off to the rescue. He succeeded, however, in only saving the one man, Steel. On July 1st the bodies of Mr. K. and E. N. Steelcup were found; none of the others were ever recovered.

Jennie Kincheloe, pregnant at the time, could only watch in horror from the shore as her husband disappeared forever beneath the waves of Tillamook Bay. Emotionally devastated, she “went to bed and was prematurely delivered of a stilborn child.” The double tragedy of losing both her husband and child destroyed Jennie, and it was some time before she could even leave her home. She eventually made her way back to San Francisco and then east to her home and family in Maine. Julius’s body was also sent back east to Maine, where he is buried in the Wylie Cemetery in Boothbay. Jennie never remarried, and when she died in 1903 she was laid to rest alongside her husband.

A chart based on Julius Kincheloe’s survey of Tillamook Bay was first published in 1869, two years after his death. When the chart was updated and reprinted in 1887, the spit where Julius lost his life was labeled as Kincheloe Point, in memory of the fallen surveyor. A Coast Survey vessel and a survey control point also bore his name.

The 1887 Coast Survey chart of Tillamook Bay, showing Kincheloe Point (NOAA)

The mouth of Tillamook Bay remains dangerous to mariners to this day. Julius Kincheloe and his crew were the first of over 200 recorded deaths to have occurred there over the years. The treacherous bar where they lost their lives still retains Kincheloe’s name as well – a poignant reminder written on the landscape of a life lost far from his home in the Virginia piedmont.

Front Royal’s Rayon Factory

This week we welcome back our guest blogger, Niamh Connell. Niamh is a Sophomore at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. She is working towards a History major and Business minor.

In 1940, a rayon factory came to the town of Front Royal, bringing employment to an economy struggling to recover from the Great Depression. Behind the factory was the American Viscose Corporation, a thriving company till the late 1980s. Although the factory provided an employment surge and reliable jobs for nearly four decades, environmental concerns and major pollution brought the once booming plant to closure.

In 1909 a British rayon production company named Courtaulds decided to expand into the United States, with its first plant opening a year later in Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania.[1] This newly created American branch was named the American Viscose Corporation and became the largest producer of rayon in the United States. Rayon is a synthetic fiber that was often used as a cheaper alternative to silk as it has a similar look and lightweight feel. This cheap alternative for a regularly elite and pricey material was very popular among the working class. Its widespread popularity led to record production numbers in the American Viscose Factories. However, the company was hit hard by the Great Depression, as luxuries like new clothes and furniture, and thus rayon, became far less demanded. However, like many other industries, the American Viscose Corporation was revived by the onset of the Second World War. Due to England’s need for supplies, the Corporation was sold to American investment firms in 1941. However, a year before the sale, a new factory was created in Front Royal, Virginia.

The Front Royal factory, from a 20th century postcard

This new plant employed almost 3,500 people at its peak and continued to produce rayon, however this time for goods used in the war.[1] This artificial silk was used for parachutes and therefore was in high demand. After the war, production continued as rayon was incorporated into rocket engine nozzles as a source of insulation. Later, it was even used in the rocket boosters for the Space Shuttle.[2] Due to this continued demand, the factory was able to flourish and remained the town’s largest employer and the country’s largest producer of rayon.[3] In a relatively rural area, this new employment option allowed residents to expand from farming and gain a reliable hourly wage. However, in 1963 after the corporation endured another change of hands to the Food Machinery and Chemical Corporation (FMC), along with a name change to Avtex Fibers in 1976, production began to decline.

What was once a massive employer in Front Royal now created more cause for concern than celebration. The company’s disregard for environmental safety and the town’s key location on the Shenandoah River led to a myriad of pollution issues that eventually led to the closure of the once booming factory. Over 5 years the factory collected over 2,000 environmental violations. That, coupled with financial problems within the company, led to the Front Royal plant’s closure in 1989.  One of the factory’s most egregious environmental impacts was its emission of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) into the nearby Shenandoah River. PCBs are highly toxic compounds that are likely cancerous to humans and whose production was banned in 1978 under federal law, further sealing the fate of Avtex Fibers.[4] The mass amounts of PCBs being released and the danger they posed to both the surrounding natural and human environment led to the area being designated as a Superfund site by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1989, the largest in the state. Following the devastation caused at the Front Royal plant, Virginia revoked Avtex’s water permits for the area due to their disregard for the toxic pollution the factory produced. This, coupled with increased levels of international competition, led to the company’s declaration of bankruptcy. The factory site was abandoned with no effort on their part to repair or clean up the toxic waste. Since the plant’s closure in 1989, the EPA has headed efforts to revive the land and reverse the damage caused in conjunction with the FMC. One of the most drastic actions taken to ensure a full recovery was the total demolition of the plant in 1997. The demolition limited the amount of toxins being released into the air, slowing the continued damage.

Image showing the proximity of the factory to the town and river

Despite the harm done in the area, the town plans to move forward in an environmentally friendly way on the old plant’s property, to remediate for the earlier damage. After around $100 million dollars have been spent on the clean-up effort, revitalization of the area through new eco-friendly infrastructure is in the works. Town officials have developed plans for a green office space, soccer fields and conservancy park along the nearby Shenandoah River.[1] This new development will provide a wave of not just environmental revival, but new economic possibilities too.

The transformation of the Front Royal factory from a massive industrial plant that aided in both the Second World War and later the mission for space exploration to an area in desperate need of environmental care demonstrates the complexity and constant evolution of the state. The new positive direction at the factory’s site highlights the environmentally aware path that those involved with the plant have been working towards since the early 1990s.


[1] “Front Royal, Virginia,”


[1] “Front Royal, Virginia,” Wikiwand (Front Royal, Virginia), accessed January 11, 2022, https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Front_Royal,_Virginia#/google_vignette.

[2] “Avtex Fibers Site – a ‘Brownfield’ Success Story,” Avtex fibers site – a “brownfield” Success story, accessed January 11, 2022, http://www.virginiaplaces.org/waste/avtex.html.

[3] Peter Carlson, “Rayon Men,” The Washington Post (WP Company, February 12, 1989), https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/magazine/1989/02/12/rayon-men/422b9e6f-ec67-4890-9d60-491e59f1fd4d/.

[4] “American Viscose Corporation,”


[1] “American Viscose Corporation,” Wikipedia (Wikimedia Foundation, November 27, 2021), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Viscose_Corporation.

Marie Moton Medley-Howard

This week we welcome back our guest blogger, Niamh Connell. Niamh is a rising Sophomore at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. There, she is working towards a History major and Business minor.

During the 1950s and 60s civil rights movement, the Commonwealth of Virginia built an aggressive defense against much of the legislation aimed at equal rights for all Americans. One of the most contentious arguments revolved around school desegregation. Virginia legislators abused the wording of “all deliberate speed” put forth by the Supreme Court in their Brown v Board of Education ruling (which stated that separate was not equal and, therefore, public schools could not be segregated based on race). This legislative foot-dragging continued to harm African-American students by causing school funding to be cut and some schools to close completely in an effort to avoid an integrated student body. Although the fight for equality came to a head during these decades, it was nothing new. Marie Moton Medley-Howard, an African American Virginian, had been fighting for equal education practices for decades prior.

[1]                                               Marie Moton Medley-Howard

Born in Leesburg in 1900, Medley-Howard attended Madam C. J. Walker’s School of Cosmetology and opened her own beauty salon near her childhood home[2]. At the salon she   provided women not only with the usual beauty treatments, but also with lectures on how education was the key to gaining national equality. She passionately upheld that all schools should have equal funding and opportunities, as education was what would lead to forward momentum for the civil rights movement[3]. While Marie Moton Medley-Howard was promoting these ideas, the apex of the civil rights era was still decades away, meaning she endured most politicians and citizens being rooted in the racist notions of segregation and unequal school funding with limited outside pressure for reform. However, she did not let their prejudice stop her from continuing the fight. Around town, people came to know her as the well-dressed, beautifully put together woman that would speak her mind to anyone and was resolute in her desire to spark change[4].

Outside of her work at the beauty salon, she became an outspoken member of the neighboring counties’ NAACPs and the County Wide League,“a union of black parent-teacher organizations”[5]. She attended many of their meetings to promote the importance of education in the fight for civil rights. Since she was well-known among these groups, she received their support when she went head-to-head with Loudoun County Superintendent Emerick in 1940. The two clashed over the lack of an adequate secondary school for Loudon’s African American students. The current school, The Leesburg Training School, was in awful condition, did not provide students transportation and was underfunded to the point it was unable to earn state accreditation[6]. These shortfalls prevented the African American students from attaining the same level of education the white students received and, in the view of Medley-Howard, slowed the process of the local civil rights movement.

This school-funding debate ramped up when Charles H. Houston, a former Howard University Dean and active NAACP litigator, became involved[7]. In order to make their case even stronger, Houston suggested that an NAACP branch be formed in Loudoun. Because of her constant support and organization of much of the movement, Marie Moton Medley-Howard was selected as the branch’s first president. Supported by the new chapter, Charles Houston astutely argued that the school board’s unequal funding between the white and black schools was unconstitutional.  This argument prompted a settlement outside of court: The school board agreed to ensure proper accreditation for a new black school and transportation for all students[8]. This monumental change for the county would help black students earn an equal education to their white peers. In order to increase the pace of building the new school, the black community worked together to purchase eight acres of land and sold the deed to the school board for one dollar in 1941[9]. That same year the school was built, accredited, and named Douglass High School after the famous abolitionist Frederick Douglass. For Medley-Howard it was one step closer to ensuring civil rights for all by way of education.

[10]

                        Teacher training at Douglass High School in 1948

After their legal victory, the Loudoun NAACP used The Barrister Building, near Medley-Howard’s childhood home and the location of her beauty salon, where she first began to foster the movement, as their first office[11]. Through her and the NAACP’s continued dedication, the fight for desegregated schools and equal education and rights continued. In 1968, 14 years after the Brown v the Board of Education ruling, the school was finally integrated and became a middle school[12]. Currently it serves as a community center and alternative school for the Loudoun County school system. It is an important monument in the community, a visual reminder of the long fight endured for equality. 

[13]

Map of Medley-Howard’s shop location

After her Douglass School success, Marie Moton Medley-Howard continued championing the work of the NAACP and educational equality. After World War II, she became involved in a movement to encourage veterans to register to vote and cast their ballots[14]. Although she did eventually move away from Loudoun, she always inquired about how well the branch she once headed was doing. Her lasting mark on the county is impressive and she is remembered each year through the presentation of the Marie Medley Howard Award by the Loudoun County NAACP to an individual who “exemplifies the same courage, strength and deeds of its founder, Mrs. Marie Medley Howard[15]”. Her constant dedication to the improvement of education, and thus civil rights, has helped generations of Loudoun County students. Years before the large national movement for civil rights, Mrs. Medley-Howard  dedicated herself to the cause and used everything from her local salon to the NAACP to spread the message of how important fair education was to an integrated and equal future. 


[1] “Black-Owned Businesses in Leesburg: A Brief History.” Loudoun Museum, Loudoun Museum, 12 June 2020, https://www.loudounmuseum.org/post/black-owned-businesses-in-leesburg-a-brief-history. Accessed 9 August 2020.

[2] (“Black-Owned Businesses in Leesburg: A Brief History”)

[3] “Marie Moton Medley-Howard.” Essence of a People: African Americans Who Made a Difference in Loudoun County , Virginia, https://static1.squarespace.com/static/559ec31fe4b0550458945194/t/563d611fe4b0b512b1294829/1446863135259/Medley-Howard.pdf. Accessed 7 August 2021.

[4] (“Marie Moton Medley-Howard”)

[5] (“Black-Owned Businesses in Leesburg: A Brief History”)

[6] (“Marie Moton Medley-Howard”)

[7] Dellinger, Hannah. “Celebrating the ‘quiet tenacity’ that built Loudoun’s first black high school 75 years ago.” Loudoun Times-Mirror, BLOX Content Management System, 11 August 2016, https://www.loudountimes.com/news/celebrating-the-quiet-tenacity-that-built-loudouns-first-black-high-school-75-years-ago/article_24e5db18-c0ce-55bf-beb0-cdeb86fe6731.html. Accessed 10 August 2021.

[8] (Dellinger)

[9] Scheel, Eugene. “Timeline of Important Events in African American History in Loudoun County, Virginia.” The History of Loudoun County, Virginia, https://www.loudounhistory.org/history/african-american-chronology/. Accessed 9 August 2021.

[10] (Dellinger)

[11] (“Marie Moton Medley-Howard”)

[12] (Dellinger)

[13] (“Black-Owned Businesses in Leesburg: A Brief History”)

[14] (“Marie Moton Medley-Howard”)

[15] “The Marie Medley Howard Award GUIDELINES and NOMINATION FORM.” NAACP – Loudoun County Branch, November 2020, https://naacploudoun.org/resources/Documents/Marie%20Medley%20Howard%20Award%20Nomination%20Form-2020.pdf. Accessed 10 August 2021

The Waterford News

This week we welcome back our guest blogger, Niamh Connell. Niamh is a rising Sophomore at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. There, she is working towards a History major and Business minor.

The heading of each edition of the Waterford News [1]

During the 1850s, tensions between the Northern and Southern states of America began to grow as people throughout the country were faced with the reality of deciding which side best fit their ideals. For most, the decision was easy, as it fell along geographic boundaries: Southerners remained loyal to the South while Northerners were committed to the North. However, throughout the nation small groups of people disagreed with the consensus of their local community or state. One such group was found in the Quaker town of Waterford, located in northern Loudoun County. Prior to the Civil War, their ideals differed from many of their non-Quaker neighbors, as their religion had denounced slavery in 1776, while the rest of Virgina was still heavily committed to the institution[2].

Shortly after Abraham Lincoln was elected in 1860, the secession of Southern states began. As the debate to leave or stay with the Union began in Virginia, Waterford, fueled by its Quaker residents, voted 221 to 30 to remain with the Union[3]. When war broke out, many in the religious community wanted to stay as neutral as possible, as their faith instructed them to be pacifists, but three young women, devoted to the Union’s cause, took a vocal stand.

Photos of the Dutton sisters [4]

Sarah Steer (age 26), Lizzie Dutton (24) and her sister Lida Dutton (19) were the brave Quaker women that protested the actions taken by the Confederate Army and those that supported the Confederate cause. Despite frequent skirmishes that erupted in and around their town, fear of being caught in the crossfire or directly targeted, and suffering caused by the North’s Potomac River blockade (a strategy that attempted to diminish Southern supplies), the women not only remained staunch Unionists, but decided to do what they could to help the Northern cause; publishing a newspaper that would inform Union troops of the war’s progression. Thus, they created the Waterford News in 1864 to “cheer the weary soldier, and render material aid to the sick and wounded”[5]. Being associated with a Unionist paper, no matter where, made a person an even greater enemy to the Confederates. Doing so in a rebelling state, in an area that was already heavily surrounded by those they spoke out against, demonstrated how committed these women were to the success of the North and its ideals.

Along with condemning the Confederacy, the paper appealed to the North to lighten or remove the Potomac River blockade. Frequently they described how happy they would be to have certain items again, and how long they had gone without them. The plea was apparent in their first publication in a section entitled “Local Items.” They wrote that the blockade prevented the  women in town from getting new “bonnets, dresses and wrappings”[6]. A section in a later publication called “Shopping Under Difficulties” expanded on just how hard the barricade made life for those in Waterford when it came to shopping for necessities like flour and sugar[7]. The first hand account provided readers of every era- both Civil War and modern -a clear look into how difficult the times were and how desperate people were to go back to their pre-war life and have things as simple as new shirts be affordable and acceptable to purchase.

The newspaper article “Local Items” [8]

Although the paper addressed tough subjects like the war’s toll on soldiers and civilians, it was contrasted with more lighthearted, comical and witty sections. One of the most continually entertaining columns in the paper was on marriages. In the very first issue of the paper, this column listed no marriages but did pointedly suggest that the lack of weddings could be remedied if the young men reading it took action. As the publications continued, the column remained vacant of marriages but did contain the women’s satirical take on the dwindling hope of future marriages. Eventually the column read that it was going to be removed since they believed the war was preventing it from being filled. However, the following issue revealed that they received many promises from young men committed to filling the section and that it must stay. This hope did not last long and the next marriage column simply read “Words are inadequate to express our feelings on this subject,” followed in the next issue with “There’s many a true word spoken in jest, and so we’ll just say this column’s a pest.” written in tiny letters at the bottom of a large blank space[9]. Eventually the area had marriages for the women to write about, but not till much closer to the war’s end. Although this continual section is humorous to modern readers, and was clearly enjoyed by those in the 1860s, it again shows how unprecedented the times were for everyone. The women’s writing displayed the desperation for things that were so common before the war like a marriage section full of names and dates.


Two of the eight “Marriages” sections from the newspaper [10]  [11]

Despite the witty remarks throughout the paper, the heart of it was an informative and detailed account of how the Civil War was impacting a small town in an unusual situation. Sarah Steer and the Dutton sisters were able to write, edit and publish a newspaper during unprecedented times that educated and entertained a large audience and provides current readers a clear look into what their life was like. Once the war concluded, they each went on to live fulfilling lives. Sarah Steer appealed to the Freedmen’s Bureau, the Philadelphia Meeting and local Quaker groups to attain funds for a school to teach local African American children[12]. During the school’s construction she taught children in her yard and was named Loudoun’s “first teacher of black children”[13]. Lizzie Dutton eventually married and moved to Indiana with a Union veteran after her fiancé was killed in the war[14]. Lida Dutton also married a Union veteran, a man she had known during the war, and the couple moved to New York[15]. These brave women’s contribution to the Unionist cause has largely been forgotten, but that does not make it any less impressive.


[1] Dutton, Eliza, et al. “Local Times.” Waterford News, no. 1, 28 May 1864, p. 4.

[2] Chamberlin, Taylor M., et al. The Waterford News: An underground newspaper published by three Quaker maidens in Confederate Virginia 1864-1865. Waterford, Waterford Foundation, Inc., 1999.

[3] (Chamberlin et al. i)

[4] (Chamberlin et al. iv)

[5] (Chamberlin et al. iii)

[6] (Dutton et al. 2)

[7] (Dutton et al. 2)

[8] (Dutton et al. 2)

[9] (Dutton et al. 4)

[10] (Dutton et al. 3)

[11] (Dutton et al. 4)

[12] “Waterford News: A Pro-Union Newspaper Published by Three Quaker Maidens.” The History of Waterford Virginia, https://www.waterfordhistory.org/history/waterford-news/. Accessed 21 July 2021.

[13] (“Waterford News: A Pro-Union Newspaper Published by Three Quaker Maidens”)

[14] (“Waterford News: A Pro-Union Newspaper Published by Three Quaker Maidens”)

[15] (“Waterford News: A Pro-Union Newspaper Published by Three Quaker Maidens”)

John Binns: Agricultural Pioneer

VPHA is pleased to welcome our summer intern and guest blogger Niamh Connell! Niamh Connell is a rising Sophomore at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. There, she is working towards a History major and Business minor. In her free time she loves playing Ultimate Frisbee and visiting historic areas and museums. This post is the first in a series that she will be working on this summer.

During the second half of the 18th century, Loudoun County farmers had more and more trouble maintaining their crop production. Their constant use of the land was rapidly depleting the soil’s nutrients, causing yields to shrink each year and making it harder for farming families to maintain a livelihood. Many farmers gave up on their land and moved to less farmed areas of the state to try their luck there. This depopulation, along with the lack of crop production, hurt the economic and social success of the county and its residents.  However, one man, John A. Binns sought a solution to the crisis. His dedication to sustainable farming revitalized the county and provided other farmers with solutions to their ever-shrinking harvests.

John Binns was born in 1761, the son of Loudoun county’s first clerk, Charles Binns[2].  In 1782 his father gave him 220 acres of land to farm[3]. Like many of his fellow farmers, he began his career by constantly planting the same crops year after year on the same pieces of land, unaware of how it depleted the soil. As his harvests got smaller and smaller, he began to search for ways to aid his farming techniques. He decided to try out a method he heard of being used in Philadelphia- applying gypsum and clover to the land [4]. He also planned on manipulating other aspects of farming, such as plowing and fertilization. Once he bought the necessary materials, he and his enslaved workers plowed the fields more deeply than usual, added gypsum to the soil, planted clover plants throughout the fields, utilized more manure and rotated which crops were planted on each area of the land[5]. The deep plowing helped break up the land and the added gypsum provided much needed nutrients and moisture to the soil, helping the growing crops. The use of gypsum in an agricultural setting adds calcium and sulfur along with helping the soil better absorb and retain moisture[6]. The clover provided additional calcium to the soil, and the crop rotation allowed time for nutrients that had been depleted by the previous crop to be restored. For example, a field that produced oats one year might alternate with wheat the following year, as they employ different minerals from the soil. Although the changes Binns made to his farming were small, they drastically helped increase his yields and replenish the soil that had been so damaged and depleted.

Many farmers were rooted in their traditional farming techniques and therefore were skeptical of Binns’ changes. However, as more and more began to use the sustainable techniques, they began to attest to their larger harvests and overall increased success in farming. As this farming technique was adopted throughout the area, it came to be known as the “Loudoun System”[7]. In order to try and spread his ideas on sustainable farming even further, Binns published a guide on how to implement his method in 1803. The book was called “A Treatise on Practical Farming”.

The cover of Binns’ Treatise [8]

The text detailed how a farmer could apply the methods Binns used to improve crop yields and help sustain the life of the farmland. It also introduced new ways of livestock farming in order to best collect manure to be added to crop fields. He encouraged farmers to fence-in some of their livestock, limiting the number of free-range animals, for easier collection of their manure. Even though the book inspired some to start trying the new techniques, still not all farmers were convinced. Binns published a second edition the following year. It included the testimonials of those who employed the ideas and saw a clear improvement in their crop production.

One notable fan of Binns’ treatise was Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson wrote to his friends involved in agriculture about the techniques Binns was promoting and how interesting and, in a way, entertaining he found them. In a letter to Sir John Sinclair, the head of the English Board of Agriculture, Jefferson described, in an impressed tone, the surprising success Mr. Binns had as a “plain farmer who understands handling his plough better than his pen”[9]. He went on to describe the state of the land in Loudoun before Binns’ technique became widespread as “exhausted and wasted by bad husbandry.” The poor state of the county’s fields was clearly well known throughout the area and had been a persistent issue for its farmers. However, Jefferson stated that the use of Binns’ ideas had caused the county to “become the most productive in Virginia”, a 180-degree shift from just a few decades earlier, thanks predominantly to one man’s dedication to his ideas [10]. Land in the county was now sought after, not abandoned like it was by earlier generations. The letter continued to say that if Jefferson were still an active farmer, he would certainly be using the methods that helped revitalize Loudoun. He informed Sir Sinclair that the man he leased his land to had adopted the system, under his instruction, and that the farmer was seeing positive results[11].  Surprisingly, the response letter from Jefferson’s friend stated that the knowledge on the use of gypsum in agriculture was nothing new to farmers in other areas of the world. Sir Sinclair went on to explain that gypsum was not used in England due to its water-retaining property, a characteristic not needed there since their climate was so wet already[12].

The letter from Jefferson to Sir John Sinclair discussing Binns’ success [13]

The letter shows that gypsum was nothing new to others throughout the world, but that it took the strong suggestion of an everyday Virginia farmer to get it to really take hold in the county and surrounding area. Jefferson’s direct mention of John Binns gave him and his system some recognition and notoriety. Unfortunately, despite his importance in Loudoun county’s agricultural revitalization, he and his efforts are rather unmentioned in the discussion of the state’s history today.

Today, far more research on the proper ways to sustain soil and prevent massive nutrient depletion has been conducted, but much of it revolves around the system Binns promoted. Crop rotation, fertilization, deep plowing and ways to make the most of water have become important topics in the preservation of land, not just in Loudoun, but throughout the country.


[1] “John Alexander Binns: Increasing Crop Yields.” Loudoun Heritage Farm Museum Blog, Loudoun Heritage Farm Museum, 4 May 2020, https://heritagefarmmuseum.org/blog/f/john-alexander-binns-increasing-crop-yields. Accessed 22 June 2021.

[2] “John Alexander Binns: Increasing Crop Yields”

[3] “John Alexander Binns: Increasing Crop Yields”

[4] “John Alexander Binns: Increasing Crop Yields”

[5] Stevenson, Brenda E. “Life in Black and White.” The Washington Post, 1996, https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/style/longterm/books/chap1/lifeinblackandwhite.htm. Accessed 23 June 2021.

[6] Fisk, Susan V. “Gypsum as an Agricultural Product.” Soil Science Society of America, Soil Science Society of America, 6 Febuary 2019, https://www.soils.org/news/science-news/gypsum-agricultural-product/. Accessed 23 June 2021.

[7] “John Alexander Binns: Increasing Crop Yields”

[8] “John Alexander Binns: Increasing Crop Yields”

[9] True, Rodney H. “John Binns of Loudoun.” The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 2, no. 1, 1922, pp. 20–39. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1921481. Accessed 24 June 2021.

[10] True

[11] True

[12] True

[13] Thomas Jefferson to John Sinclair, with Copy. -06-30, 1803. Manuscript/Mixed Material. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/mtjbib012539/>.

In Ruins: Every Place has a Story

For National Historic Preservation Month, we have a guest post from VPHA President Jennifer Moore

As May is National Historic Preservation Month, I offer my recent trip down a rabbit hole in tribute. Many a historian’s career was launched, as mine was, by exploring the woods or by Sunday drives and stumbling upon the ruins of a once grand home or a formerly thriving farm and wondering who lived there, why is it abandoned, and what is the story of this place?  Well, for once, I actually followed up and found out the story.

Hiking along the Shenandoah River east of Berryville, I noticed an I-house in the woods that got under my skin. I couldn’t shake it, so I did the research and found that, yes, there was a story there.

Using maps, census records, and Clarke County Historical Association’s archives, I learned that this house was called “Waterloo.” It sounds quick and easy; it wasn’t. The Waterloo house was located on a large farm, Cool Spring, belonging to the McCormick family, and it was rented out to different farmers during the 19th- and 20th- centuries, making land records confusing. So, was this some military leader’s own personal Waterloo? I knew this house wasn’t Cool Spring itself or the McCormick family’s home – that was a much grander home built in the 18th century by the Wormeley family. So, what is this I-house in the woods, also on the Cool Spring property, yet records indicate it is not a McCormick home? This house was too elegant to be an overseer’s cabin, for example. This was built to impress river traffic, as it faced the Shenandoah and had formal parlors and dining rooms and stairways.

Volume IV of the Annals of Clarke County reports that Waterloo was built by Angus William McDonald. From census records, Major Angus and Elizabeth McDonald lived at Waterloo by 1870, while Angus and his brothers, Major Edward H. and Captain William Naylor McDonald rented the Cool Spring property. Reportedly, Waterloo was built from lumber repurposed from flat river boats that hauled grain from Clarke County to mills in Harpers Ferry. This may explain why components of the house seem older than Angus McDonald’s tenure.

The three McDonald brothers were the sons of Colonel Angus William McDonald, Sr., who raised the 7th Virginia Cavalry in Spring 1861. The 7th Virginia, also called “Ashby’s Cavalry” and later, the “Laurel Brigade,” was first under the leadership of Angus McDonald of (now) West Virginia, who was appointed as Superintendent of the construction of the Northwest Turnpike (now US 50 from Winchester out to West Virginia) in 1832. The 7th Virginia was next under the command of Turner Ashby, when Colonel Angus McDonald resigned, and then after Ashby’s death, Colonel Richard Henry Dulany took command.  Colonel McDonald died after imprisonment in 1864 and is buried in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond.

Colonel Angus William McDonald, Sr.

In 1865, while renting the Cool Spring property, Colonel McDonald’s son, Captain William Naylor McDonald, opened the Cool Spring School, after having pre-war success as public school superintendent in Kentucky. Following this school, William McDonald opened the Shenandoah University School on Church Street in Berryville which he ran until his death in 1899. Newspaper advertisements claimed the Shenandoah University School prepared boys for college or business and that there were two dormitories, a four-acre garden, and abundant water supply. The headmaster who succeeded William Naylor McDonald was Dr. Richard Kidder Meade of Clarke’s “Lucky Hit,” and formerly of General Stonewall Jackson’s staff.

The Shenandoah University School, Berryville. William McDonald, headmaster.

After William Naylor McDonald’s death, his brothers formed a committee to oversee the publication of his biography of his father’s famous unit, “The Laurel Brigade,” (1907). William was the ordinance officer of Mahone’s Division in the 2nd Virginia Regiment or “Stonewall’s Brigade” and his two brothers were also Confederate veterans, Major Angus W. McDonald also of the 7th Virginia Cavalry and Major Edward H. McDonald served in the 11th Virginia Cavalry. This explains the fine architectural features of the Waterloo house; the well-respected McDonald family would have entertained fellow veterans and school supporters. Angus William McDonald, son of Colonel McDonald, and builder of Waterloo, was an attorney who practiced in West Virginia and then in Berryville from 1870-1890. In the 1870 census, he is reported to be living at Waterloo as a farmer. He obviously took a decade off practicing law full-time to try his hand at farming while his brother William ran the Cool Spring School. By the 1880s, while living in Berryville, Angus was law partners with Ammishaddai Moore, and they later famously were tasked with auctioning off the Old Shenandoah Valley Railroad from Roanoke to Hagerstown when the railroad executive, Colonel Upton Boyce, died in 1907. This partnership would line up the next family to farm Waterloo, that of Ammishaddai’s son, Nicholas Moore and his large family. The Clarke Courier reported in November 1909, “In the presence of large numbers of relatives and friends at ‘Waterloo,’ near Berryville, yesterday at high noon, Miss Fannie LaRue Moore, the beautiful and accomplished daughter of Mr. Nicholas Moore, and Mr. Archibald Thweatt, a prominent merchant of Petersburg, Va., were married by Rev. Edward Wall. The bride was charming in a raisin-colored cloth traveling suit with picture hat to match and carried chrysanthemums. A large and bounteous repast was served in the spacious dining room.”

Was this Waterloo’s spacious dining room for the wedding repast?
Nicholas Moore from Clarke County Historical Association Collections

Waterloo tenancy passed into other families in the early 20th century, including the family of William Travers Lewis, Commonwealth’s Attorney for Clarke County, and some farm dependencies were built mid-century including a dairy barn and silo, but the home and all farm buildings are long past their prime.  It is plain ghostly to look inside and see animal droppings where a bride once in a raisin-colored suit had her big day amongst family and friends. Nevertheless, living in the Virginia Piedmont Heritage Area allows people to find forgotten gems on the landscape, and utilize the many resources in the area that record and inventory our history and heritage, and find out the story behind the ruins. Storytelling is after all a revered tradition.

From French Agent to Virginia Planter: John Holker of Springsbury

The Old Chapel Cemetery in Clarke County is a who’s-who of some of the most prominent families in the Virginia Piedmont and lower Shenandoah Valley. Among the burials there are statesmen, planters, soldiers, and religious leaders who defined the region for more than two centuries. One of the most fascinating individuals to be interred there, however, is buried in an unmarked grave. Although he is largely forgotten today, John Holker lived a long and remarkable life, making a name for himself in both Europe and America as an industrialist, diplomat, and planter. Without his efforts, it’s possible that the United States might not have even won independence.

John Holker: Industrial spy, French consul, Clarke County Planter.

John Holker was born near Manchester, England in the early 1740s. His father (also named John) was an up-and-coming industrialist involved in textile manufacturing, and was at the cutting edge of the industrial revolution. This promising career was derailed in 1745 when Charles Stuart’s army entered Manchester during the last Jacobite rebellion. Seeking to dethrone George the Second and restore Stuart control of Great Britain, the rebels found some support among the Catholics of Manchester, including the elder John Holker. The Jacobite rebels soon turned back from their invasion of England and returned to Scotland, where they were crushed the following year at the Battle of Culloden. The elder Holker was arrested for his role in the rebellion and may possibly have faced execution had he not escaped across the Channel to France. His wife and young son soon joined him there, where they settled in Rouen.

As John grew older, he worked alongside his father as he rebuilt the family fortune using his knowledge of the textile industry, and together they established Rouen as the epicenter of French cotton milling. As a young man John returned to England, where he toured textile mills and secretly recorded the latest in manufacturing technology. One of the more notable inventions that he took notes on was James Hargreaves’s newly invented “spinning jenny” that dramatically increased the volume of thread machines could produce. Upon his return to France his notes were used to modernize his father’s manufactory. The father and son pair also got involved in the manufacturing of chemicals for the processing of fabric.

The Holkers laid the foundation for the booming textile industry in Rouen through their knowledge of advanced English manufacturing technology. (Musée de la Corderie Vallois)

The younger John Holker would have remained in the textile industry alongside his father had it not been for the coming of the American Revolution. Desperate for foreign aid, the Americans were quick to approach France. The French, being longtime rivals of the British, were receptive, but initially their support would have to be unofficial. Weapons, uniforms, ammunition, and funds were funneled to the American cause through a network of shell companies and backchannel deals. The Holkers soon became involved in providing clothing for the American army from their textile mills. As part of these business dealings, young John became acquainted with the American diplomatic mission to France, and formed a strong friendship with Benjamin Franklin.

The French government was eager to weaken the British Empire, but was hesitant to commit wholeheartedly to the American cause as long as the rebels seemed unable to sustain their rebellion. Franklin and his fellow diplomats provided the French with an optimistic view of American arms that did not always match the reality on the battlefield, where Washington’s army suffered repeated setbacks in the war’s early years. Needing a more honest appraisal of the situation, the French sent John Holker to America to serve as their “eyes and ears” on the ground. Holker’s positive reports home are said to have helped turn the official opinion in France towards an open alliance with the Americans.

Signed in 1778, the official French alliance with America transformed a colonial rebellion into a much wider world war. Holker remained in America as the official French consul and as an agent for the French Navy. From his office in Philadelphia he arranged for contracts to supply the French fleets operating off North America, and he also acted as a go-between for the French Navy and their American counterparts. He even corresponded directly with George Washington, providing valuable information on French naval movements.

Letter from John Holker to George Washington, June 7, 1779. (Library of Congress)

During his time in Philadelphia, Holker made many valuable contacts among American business leaders which would serve him well in the post-war years. He remained in America, and invested heavily in the new nation. Holker was involved in land speculation on the frontier, buying up tens of thousands of acres in Kentucky and Illinois. He was one of the founding investors of the Alliance Iron Works in western Pennsylvania, which would be the forerunner of the industry that put Pittsburg on the map. He invested heavily in saw mills, salt works, and distilleries.

In 1790 he turned his attention to agriculture. John Holker purchased over 1,000 acres of land along the Shenandoah River in what became Clarke County, naming his property Springsbury. The property was ideally suited to wheat production, and Holker also acquired ownership of a nearby grist mill and distillery. During his time in Philadelphia, he became acquainted with millwright Oliver Evans, inventor of a revolutionary automated milling design. Holker invited Evans to install his new design at his mill, making it one of the most productive in the region. Unfortunately for Holker, it appears that he was a far more successful at textile manufacturing than he was at planting and milling, and by 1799 Holker was forced to mortgage his property in Virginia. By 1814 he was looking to sell Springsbury, and there was even a rumor that Joseph Buonaparte – the emperor’s brother – was a potential buyer. Despite his financial woes Holker never ended up selling the property, and he remained in Clarke County until his death in 1822. The property was retained by his widow until 1839 and was eventually purchased by John Holker’s son-in-law, Major Hugh Nelson of nearby Long Branch in 1842.

The “Holker Mansion” and “Holker Mill” on an 1834 survey map. (Library of Congress)

In the subsequent decades Springsbury passed through several prominent Clarke County families, including the McCormicks and Taylors. In the early 20th century, it was purchased by the Greenhalghs, a family of northern industrialists drawn to the piedmont by the region’s equestrian culture. During their time at Springsbury the Greenhalghs undertook a major renovation of the home, retaining the prestigious Boston architectural firm Perry, Shaw, and Hepburn to oversee the alterations. Today, the home stands at the heart of the Casey Tree Farm, a 730-acre facility that serves as a nursery for Casey Trees. This non-profit organization promotes environmental stewardship and sustainability in the District of Columbia.

The main house at Springsbury, the core of which was built for John Holker in the 1790s (Casey Trees)

John Holker’s legacy in Clarke County can also be seen at his former mill along the Shenandoah River. Known as Holker’s mill through much of the 19th century, the mill is now more familiarly named after its 20th century owners, the Locke family. Locke’s Mill has been restored to working condition, and visitors can see the mill in operation and buy stone ground grains.

Locke’s Mill as it appears today.

Those interested in Holker can also visit his final resting place at the Old Chapel Cemetery, not far from Locke’s Mill. When he died in 1822 John Holker was originally buried at the Catholic cemetery in Winchester, alongside his daughter Maria, who died at the age of 10 in 1794. By the time of the American Civil War, however, the cemetery fell into disrepair, and the church and graveyard were terribly damaged in 1864 when the location was used as a Confederate artillery position during the 3rd Battle of Winchester. In 1904 the descendants of the Holker-Nelson families moved both John and Maria to the family plot at Old Chapel. Maria’s gravestone lies near that of her half-sister, Anna Adelaide Nelson. Although no stone remains for their father, it is likely that he lies nearby.

The Nelson family plot at Old Chapel. Anna Adelaide Nelson’s stone is second from the right, while her half-sister Maria’s stone is the flat one to the left and rear.

A Christmas Eve Escape

The holiday season is a time of togetherness and community. In the Heritage Area, for centuries the Christian holiday of Christmas has been celebrated with good cheer, good food, and traveling to see relatives. During the antebellum years these holiday traditions transcended economic class and social station. While white enslaving families hung stockings and boiled puddings, the households’ slaves were often allowed several days to visit friends and families on nearby farms. This period of limited scrutiny temporarily lifted the burden of slavery. Families sang and played music, laughed, ate, and made merry, sometimes for days at a time. With so much traveling and hubbub it may not be a surprise that enterprising freedom seekers might try to slip away during the Christmas season. On Christmas Eve 1855, six young Virginians did just that.

Barnaby Grigsby, his wife Mary Elizabeth, his sister-in-law Emily Foster, and Emily’s fiancé Frank Wanzer may have planned their escape for months. Two other men who accompanied them may have been part of the planning phase as well. One can imagine that coordinating the getaway took careful and quiet forethought, as the group were enslaved on at least 4 different properties between Aldie, Middleburg, and The Plains, straddling the county border of Loudoun and Fauquier. It seems the six freedom seekers already had a route in mind when, on December 24th, they absconded with one of Edwin Conrad Broun’s mercantile wagons and four horses and made for Edward’s Ferry. The Potomac River was the first obstacle, and their first real risk for discovery. But the group had come up with a simple ruse. Frank Wanzer, described as a mulatto man with pale hair, played the part of a white man transporting a group of enslaved workers across the countryside. Casual observers must have taken the scene at face value, especially since so many (white and black) people were bustling from here to there for Christmas. Another mark in their favor was that the ferryman, a free black man, was a suspected agent along the Underground Railroad.

By Christmas Eve night, the group had successfully crossed into Maryland and struck out North, following the B&O railroad. Their goal was to reach Canada by way of Columbia, PA, but there were still many miles to go and the route became much more treacherous. In the early hours of Christmas morning, Townsend McVeigh and William Rogers (who enslaved the sisters Mary Elizabeth and Emily, and Barnaby Grigsby, respectively) discovered that at least part of the group had gone missing, and quickly published a runaway slave ad.

Later Christmas Day in the vicinity of Hood’s Mill, Maryland, four of the freedom seekers were accosted in the road by six armed white men, who demanded to know their business. Frank Wanzer tried to deescalate the situation using his role as a white man, but to no effect. To the Marylanders’ surprise, the freedom seekers revealed weapons of their own, brandishing pistols and long knives. Even Emily and Mary Elizabeth were armed! One of the white men cocked his gun at the passengers of the wagon. Emily Foster, unafraid, shouted “Shoot!” at him, daring the group to fire on them. It was clear that this band of slaves was willing to fight and die in their bid for freedom. Deciding that discretion was the better part of valor, the six men let them pass. However, two other men from the freedom seekers’ party were too far behind to have heard the ruckus. One was shot and killed, the other captured and presumably sent back to slavery in Virginia.

A drawing of the encounter at Hood’s Mill, later published in William Still’s book

From here Barnaby, Mary Elizabeth, Emily, and Frank continued their flight north, this time without the wagon. They rode hard through the rest of Christmas Day. At night they slept outside. Though the men laid on top of the ladies’ feet, Emily and Mary Elizabeth reportedly suffered frostbite. The next day, December 26th they reached the first milestone of their goal: Columbia and Underground Railroad agent William Whipper. Whipper, a free black businessman, owned industrial railcars that doubled as secret passenger cars for freedom seekers. On New Year’s Day the group were sent via railroad to Philadelphia and UGRR agent William Still. Still took the time to interview the group before sending them to Syracuse, and by the end of January 1856 they were all employed and living free in Toronto. Still’s interview and Wanzer family history ensured that their amazing story is preserved for future generations. Notably, Still also asked each of the four what made them want to escape in the first place.

Frank Wanzer described how his mother and two of her children were sold South a few years ago, probably never to return. His enslaver, Luther Sullivan, was a mean man and apparently owed a lot of money to some creditors. It is implied that Frank was concerned about being sold out of state himself if the creditors came calling. By the outbreak of the Civil War Luther Sullivan was living in Washington D.C., having lost most of his land and enslaved workers. For his own part, Frank returned to Loudoun County in August of 1856 to free his sister, her husband, and a friend.

Emily Foster and her sister Mary Elizabeth Grigsby stated that Townsend McVeigh himself was not a cruel man, but that his wife Mary Thrift McVeigh made him mean. The young women also accused him of being a drunk. According to Mary Elizabeth and Emily, enslaved people on the McVeigh farm were not permitted to raise chickens (usually slaves were allowed to supplement the meager food supply by raising crops and fowl), and were not given enough clothing.

Barnaby Grigsby did not have a long list of grievances against his former master, William Rogers. His response was a more philosophical one. Grigsby stated that what he really wanted was “to live by the sweat of his own brow”, to which interviewer William Still added, “all men ought to live so.” William Still’s Still’s Underground Rail Road Records was first published in 1872.

“to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next” The Civil War and Modern Thanksgiving

Is there any holiday more uniquely American than Thanksgiving? Each year we set aside the last Thursday of November to celebrate with family, food, and football. It’s a holiday that hearkens back to the early days of European colonization, with the story of the Pilgrims and Wampanoags’s meeting at Plymouth told and retold every year – although Virginia, Maine, and Florida all have strong claims to the country’s first Thanksgiving as well! For a holiday with such deep historical roots, however, the nationwide observance is much more recent, and it is deeply intertwined with the American Civil War.

Fanciful depictions of the Thanksgiving at Plymouth, like this image, came to dominate the popular conception of the holiday in the 19th and early 20th century.

Autumn harvest festivals have existed in some form or another for thousands of years. Various Native American nations celebrated the seasonal bounty long before Europeans ever arrived in the Heritage Area. In the colonial era immigrants from the British Isles and central Europe brought their own traditions to the region, including the practice of setting aside days of thanks. These holidays were usually scheduled after a period of particular hardship, as a way of showing their gratitude for divine deliverance. Unlike today’s celebrations they typically involved church services and fasting rather than celebration and feasting.

During the hard years of the American Revolution both Congress and General Washington declared days of Thanksgiving to honor the sacrifices made by the army or to celebrate military victory. One such proclamation was made by Congress in the fall of 1777, during the dark days after the capture of Philadelphia. The act stated that “It is therefore recommended to the legislative or executive Powers of these UNITED STATES to set apart THURSDAY, the eighteenth Day of December next, for SOLEMN THANKSGIVING and PRAISE” Private Joseph Plumb Martin, serving in the Continental Army, wasn’t too impressed with the words of Congress. In a particularly sarcastic passage in his memoirs he recalled the event as follows:

“While we lay here there was a Continental thanksgiving ordered by Congress; and as the army had all the cause in the world to be particularly thankful, if not for being well off, at least, that it was no worse, we were ordered to participate in it.  We had nothing to eat for two or three days previous, except what the trees of the fields and forests afforded us.  But we must now have what Congress said—a sumptuous thanksgiving to close the year of high living, we had now nearly seen brought to a close.  Well—to add something extraordinary to our present stock of provisions, our country, ever mindful of its suffering army, opened her sympathizing heart so wide, upon this occasion, as to give us something to make the world stare.  And what do you think it was dear reader?—Guess.—You cannot guess, be you as much of a Yankee as you will.  I will tell you: it gave each and every man a half a gill of rice, and a table spoon full of vinegar!!  After we had made sure of this extraordinary superabundant donation, we were ordered out to attend a meeting, and hear a sermon delivered upon this happy occasion.”

George Washington continued the tradition during his presidency, announcing a nation-wide day of Thanksgiving in 1789. Subsequent presidents, however, let the holiday lapse. Through much of the early 19th century it was seen as a local or regional holiday, occasionally celebrated by state proclamations and rarely on the national level. There were reformers who pushed to reassert the holiday as a nation-wide celebration. One of the most vocal proponents was the Massachusetts writer and abolitionist Sarah Hale, who lobbied various presidents for almost two decades to nationalize the holiday. As a New Englander, she was also responsible for the now inextricable link between Thanksgiving and the Pilgrims of Massachusetts. Her cultural and political bent, however, made the holiday an object of suspicion in the antebellum South, even as observance became more widespread in the North. In 1849 Frederick, Maryland diarist Jacob Englebrecht recorded that “Yesterday was set apart by the Governor of Maryland as a day of Thanksgiving & Prayer” and that the holiday was observed “by 7 or 8 other states in the Union.” Just seven years later he noted that the Thanksgiving of 1856 was celebrated by Maryland and “about 20 other states.”

As the nation plunged into Civil War, the establishment of a national day of thanks was again seen as a way to promote unity and to remember sacrifice, just as it had been during the American Revolution. For an entire generation of young men the fall of 1861 was their first time away from home, and Thanksgiving became a way for them to recall and reflect on the comforts of home and family life. In a letter written from Camp Griffith, near McLean, Virginia, Vermont private Zebina Bickford echoed some of the sentiments shared by Joseph Martin nearly a century earlier:

It is Thanksgiving Day and I have not much to do but write and thinking perhaps you did not hear
from Virginia any oftener than you wished to I thought perhaps a few lines from some of us cousins
would be very acceptable… It is just about the time that Vermonters are taking their thanksgiving supper and I have no doubt you are enjoying it first rate. Well so are we soldier boys…Thanksgiving supper is over you cant imagine what a lot of fine things we had for supper, so I must tell you. In the first place we had a piece of sour bread and salt pork. This is what we usually have although the bread is not always sour. We generally have good bread and of late enough of it, but when we first came here we were kept pretty hungry we did not have half enough to eat and our meat a part of the time was not cooked at all.

Nearby, in camp across the Potomac in Maryland, the soldiers of the 1st Massachusetts Infantry had a much more enviable Thanksgiving. Soldiers received packages from home containing stockings, mittens, and other cold weather gear, and also enjoyed a day of games including a greased pig race. The holiday was topped off by a feast that caused one soldier to remark that “very few were the Massachusetts tables spread with food greater in abundance or variety.”

A sketch depicting Thanksgiving in a Union Army camp in 1861 by Alfred Waud (Library of Congress)

Thanksgiving was also celebrated in the Confederacy in 1861, although in a manner more akin to the holiday’s colonial era antecedents. In October Jefferson Davis issued the following proclamation:

Now therefore, I, Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States, in view of impending
conflict, do hereby set apart Friday, the 15th day of November, as a day of national humiliation and
prayer, and do hereby invite the reverend clergy and the people of these Confederate States to
repair on that day to their homes and usual places of public worship, and to implore blessing of
almighty God upon our people…

Throughout the southern states families gathered to give thanks for the year’s military victories and religious leaders preached for continued success. As with their northern counterparts, it was also an opportunity for southern soldiers to reflect on those they had left behind at home. In Loudoun County religious services were held throughout the winter encampments surrounding Leesburg.

Thanksgiving continued to be celebrated somewhat haphazardly in 1862. President Lincoln announced a day of thanksgiving in April of that year to celebrate the Union victories at Forts Henry and Donaldson, while Jefferson Davis declared “the 18th day of September inst., as a day of prayer and thanksgiving.” Soldiers, particularly those in New England regiments, observed days in mid or late November, and their celebrations began to closely resemble those of today. On November 26th a soldier in the 9th Maine Infantry wrote home to lament missing the family dinner, declaring that “Pumpkin pies is what I love.” The following day, a New Yorker stationed in Virginia wrote “Well father I wish you and the rest of the folks a happy Thanksgivin for I am a getting one my self of rost turkey, chicken pie and oyster pie and everything good.”

Thanksgiving 1862, as depicted in Harper’s Weekly.

November 1863 marked the establishment of Thanksgiving as a national holiday. The twin victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg had turned the tide of the war in the favor of the United States. Eager to mark the occasion and to commemorate the sacrifices of the previous year, President Lincoln firmly established Thanksgiving as a national holiday, and issued a declaration authored by Secretary of State William Seward to that effect:

It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged, as with one heart and one voice, by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving and praise…

With this declaration, the modern national holiday of Thanksgiving was born. Since 1863 it has been celebrated annually on the last Thursday of November. In the decades after the Civil War the holiday spread into the reconstructed South, and was seen as yet another way to bind up the nation’s wounds and transcend sectional differences. Many religious aspects of the holiday fell away (as did the fasting!) as the holiday took on a greater focus on family celebrations and the bounty of the season.

This year we have much to be thankful for at the Virginia Piedmont Heritage Area. Despite a difficult year we have celebrated preservation victories, expanded our educational offerings, and enjoyed creating hours and hours of digital content with our friends and colleagues. Most importantly, though, we are thankful for all of our supporters out there! Your generous donations make our mission of “Preservation Through Education” possible. From all of us at VPHA we wish you and your families a safe and happy Thanksgiving!