In the Wake of Antietam

Last week marked the anniversary of the Battle of Antietam. In a single day over 20,000 men were killed, wounded, or went missing. It was the bloodiest day of the bloodiest war in American history. Lee had lost a large part of his Army of Northern Virginia, but managed to escape back across the Potomac to the relative safety of the Shenandoah Valley. Despite driving Lee out of Maryland, the Army of the Potomac under George McClellan failed to follow up with a decisive victory. In the days and weeks that followed the two battered armies took time to regroup and reorganize for the next campaign.

McClellan’s inaction through late September and early October was a source of great annoyance for President Lincoln and other members of the Union war department. General-in-Chief Henry Hallack wrote that “The long inactivity of so large an army in the face of a defeated foe, and during the most favorable season for rapid movements and a vigorous campaign, was a matter of great disappointment and regret.” For his part, McClellan countered that he desperately needed equipment and feared overextending his bloodied army. It wasn’t until October 26th that the Army of Potomac lurched into motion. Long lines of soldiers, artillery, and wagons moved across the Potomac at Berlin (modern Brunswick, Maryland) and into Loudoun County. The coming campaign would take them straight into the heart of the Heritage Area.

Pontoon bridges across the Potomac at Berlin, looking towards Virginia.

The bulk of Lee’s army was resting in the Shenandoah Valley, near Winchester when reports of the Union advance reached him. Fearful that a rapid movement might cut him off from Richmond, Lee rushed to get his troops out of the Shenandoah and east of the Blue Ridge. To delay the US forces as long as possible he called on his cavalry commander, JEB Stuart, to ride into the Loudoun Valley. The Confederate cavalry crossed the mountains on October 30th and prepared to fight.

Skirmishing between US and Confederate cavalry began the next day in the vicinity of Mountville and Aldie, as Stuart’s troopers drove the blue clad horsemen back. Fighting continued the next day near the village of Philomont. Men of the 8th Pennsylvania Cavalry were ambushed while crossing a ford across the frigid North Fork west of town. Soon reinforcements were pouring in on both sides, and for several hours the action raged back and forth. The fighting only dies down as the sun began to set, and the Confederates withdrew west towards the village of Unison.

Beaverdam Ford on modern JEB Stuart Road, site of the fighting on November 1.

Reinforced by infantry, the Union force continued their advance early on November 2nd. The band of the 6th US Cavalry played “Listen to the Mockingbird” as the men moved south in the direction of Unison. The pleasant morning was interrupted as they reached Dog Branch. Confederate troops controlled the ford across the stream, much as they had the previous day. The Union commander, Alfred Pleasanton, used his infantry to pin down the Confederate defenders, while his cavalry fanned out along the nearby roads and tried to flank the rebels. Outmaneuvered and outnumbered, the Confederates fell back to the outskirts of Unison.

JEB Stuart deployed nearly 600 men and six artillery pieces on a line through the village, intending to delay the US troops as long as possible. The open ground east of the village gave them a perfect field of fire as the Union force came into view. Soon the artillery opened up from the high ground near the Methodist Church. Federal guns replied in kind, and an artillery duel continued for an hour. Caught between the guns were the citizens of Unison who cowered in their cellars as the shells flew overhead.

The Unison Methodist Church, near the site of the Confederate artillery position.

The artillery fire did little to slow the Union advance, however, and within an hour Stuart pulled his men back once again. The next line of resistance was located on the high ground near the South Fork Quaker Meeting House and cemetery. Troops from both sides used the area’s numerous stone walls for cover, and Stuart later wrote that they “afforded the enemy as good shelter as ourselves.” By 2:00 PM, US infantry drove the rebels from the meeting house and on to Beaverdam Creek. Skirmishing through the wooded and broken ground continued throughout the afternoon, as the Confederates retreated past Welbourne and Crednal.

Fighting erupted again on the morning of the 3rd, as Stuart made his stand along Pantherskin Creek north of Upperville. Union forces advanced along Trappe, Green Garden, and Willisville Roads in an attempt to drive off the rebels. As the day wore on the Confederate line collapsed and fell back westward towards Ashby’s Gap. As they did they passed by Oakley, home of diarist Ida Dulany. She recorded the events of the 3rd in her diary, writing “For about an hour we watched the battery pouring out shells against our battery, which was planted in the vineyard. The shells from both batteries burst in full sight of us, frightening the servants nearly to death.”

Ida Powell Dulany, who recorded the fighting in her diary.

Although the Loudoun Valley Campaign and the Battle of Unison are often overlooked, the desperate skirmishing that took place would have an immense impact on the war. By the end of November 3rd, JEB Stuart and his men had been driven from the Loudoun Valley, but they had accomplished their mission. For three days they held up the Union advance, backing up the roads of Loudoun County with tens of thousands of soldiers and slowing McClellan to a crawl. Lee was able to move his infantry out of the Shenandoah Valley and in place to defend Richmond. The killing blow that Lincoln had hoped for was doomed.

The Loudoun Valley Campaign would prove to be the last for George McClellan. Frustrated by another blown opportunity, Lincoln decided to act. Late on the night of November 6-7th a courier from the War Department arrived at McClellan’s headquarters tent outside of Rectortown. He carried a copy of General Orders No. 182, stating:

By direction of the President of the United States, it is ordered that Major- General McClellan be relieved from the command of the Army of the Potomac, and that Major-General Burnside take the command of that army. By order of the Secretary of War.

Many of the sites where the fighting occurred that fall are much as they would have been over 150 years ago. The road network around Unison is largely unpaved, giving the modern traveler a way to experience the area as the soldiers did. The Virginia Piedmont Heritage Area also works to encourage preservation of the battlefield landscape through the The Bondi Family Land Conservation and Battlefield Preservation Fund, which helps cover administrative costs for landowners looking to place battlefield land in the Unison area in permanent conservation easements.

Crednal, “a small brick house with a yard”

Completed by 1820, the DeButts’ 5 bay brick mansion became the home of Virginia statesman John Armistead Carter and his son, cavalry commander Richard Welby Carter. The legacy of this estate was made during the antebellum years and the Civil War, but it endures in communities across the Virginia Piedmont Heritage Area, including the historically black villages of St. Louis and Willisville.

The property now called Crednal, and long associated with the Carter family, has its beginnings in the 18th century as a tenant farm owned by Benjamin Tasker Dulany, Jr. Like many tracts in southwestern Loudoun, it was leased to a farmer who improved the plot using forced labor. By 1785 about a dozen enslaved workers were at the property, owned and overseen by a white man living in a small, one and a half story stone residence. A generation later, Richard Welby DeButts and his wife Louisa Dulany expanded the residence to the brick edifice we see today. A sizable and well-furnished home on some 1,000 acres, a wealthy Tidewater visitor rather dismissively described it as ‘a small brick home with a yard’ when he came to the area in 1866.

Crednal as it appears today, with later additions flanking the c. 1820 home

Richard Welby died a few years into his marriage to Louisa Dulany, who then lived in the home with her second husband, Edward Hall, and their children from both marriages. Richardetta DeButts, daughter of Louisa and Richard, married Virginia statesman and Fauquier resident John Armistead Carter in 1834. They probably moved into the home around 1845, and the estate was likely named ‘Crednal’ during this time. The name is an homage to the Carter roots in Credenhill, Herefordshire, England. John Armistead Carter is perhaps best known as one of Loudoun’s two delegates to the 1861 Virginia Secession Convention in Richmond, alongside Convention President and Leesburg resident, John Janney. Carter was steadfast in his refusal to vote for secession. A lawyer and former member of the state legislature, Carter believed that states did not have the authority to secede from the union. Still, as a Virginia native and an enslaver, Carter supported the Confederate cause during the Civil War.

An 1881 commemorative medal and miniature watercolor of Richard Welby Carter. Possibly a gift from his wife Sophie for the 1881 reunion in Luray, Virginia

Carter’s VMI graduate son, Richard Welby Carter, organized a cavalry company in Spring 1861, which became Company H of the 1st VA Cavalry. The young Carter was already an accomplished horseman, having won a number of the prizes at his cousin R H Dulany’s inaugural Union Colt & Horse Show in 1853 (later renamed the Upperville Colt & Horse Show.) Carter served throughout the war, having a horse shot out from under him, being imprisoned multiple times, and rising to the rank of Colonel. Crednal itself saw action during the war, notably during 1862’s Battle of Unison, and 1863’s Battles of Aldie, Middleburg, and Upperville. The Civil War’s most lasting scars are evidenced by what we don’t see at Crednal. In December 1864 General Wesley Merritt’s infamous Burning Raid claimed mills, barns, stables, corn cribs, and fields across Loudoun Valley. Determined to smoke out Mosby’s Rangers and destroy the livelihood and morale of the residents, the raid is most likely responsible for the destruction of the antebellum outbuildings.

One remaining feature is the Carter family cemetery, which includes the graves of John Armistead Carter, Richardetta DeButts Carter, and several others. The enslaved cemetery lies about 50 yards away.

There are, however, other important hallmarks of Crednal’s past and its dissolution as a plantation following the Civil War. In 1860, John Armistead Carter is listed as owning 26 enslaved people at Crednal, most of whom were probably field hands. Together with the enslaved populations of nearby Welbourne and Catesby, about 100 people lived in bondage in the immediate area. These families were as intertwined as the Dulanys, Carters, and DeButts were. They knew the landscape, they survived the clash of warring nations, and on the other side of war they began to build anew.

Willisville residents Adolphus Hampton (1860-1912) and his wife Mary Florence Jackson Hampton (1869-1929)

The Jackson and Evans families bought small acreage to the west of Crednal alongside Henson and Lucinda Willis, ‘near Clifton.’ The community, which named itself Willisville, asked John Armistead Carter for support to build the 1868 schoolhouse. George Evans was the village’s first pastor. His wife Julia was likely born at Crednal and was buried there as well. While she was born into slavery, she was buried a free woman. Hers is the only carved headstone in the enslaved cemetery. To the east of Crednal, St. Louis boasted 14 families, many formerly living in slave quarters on nearby plantations. Though modest, these villages show the prosperity and opportunity of postwar life. Both Willisville and St. Louis are active communities to this day and are well worth a visit.

“I Am Now No Longer Your Commander”, The Disbandment of the 43rd VA

Reminiscing about his time with Mosby’s Partisan Rangers, John Munson recalled that after March 1863’s successful kidnapping of Gen. Edwin Stoughton, “To get his men out of the trouble into which it had been so easy to get, was now Mosby’s care, for he always looked after that part of his exploits.” In two years of operation, including 1 year, 9 months, and eleven days as the official commander of the 43rd Battalion of Virginia Cavalry, John Singleton Mosby got his men into and out of plenty of trouble. On April 21, 1865 he performed his last duty to lead the men in his command from harm, which was to disband the unit and give Mosby’s Rangers a free choice to surrender to the United States.

The decision to disband did not come lightly. On the same day that General Lee surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse, a newly-formed company of Rangers was on its first raid against Union supply lines. Mosby himself first learned of the surrender through a copy of the Baltimore American, and his first correspondent about surrender was from United States Major General Winfield Hancock, stationed in Winchester. On April 11th he relayed a message from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton that cavalrymen of the 43rd were to be offered the same generous terms of surrender as the men in the Army of Northern Virginia, with one caveat: “The guerrilla chief Mosby will not be paroled.”

John Singleton Mosby, photographed shortly after his promotion to Colonel, 1865

John Mosby stalled for time, agreeing to an armistice but no surrender until he had clearer instructions from General Lee, via scout Channing Smith. Lee’s weary advice to Smith and the 43rd was to “go home . . and help build up the shattered fortunes of our old state.” A dutiful (if irregular) soldier, Mosby prepared to do just that when he rode into Millwood on April 20th. Tensions were high in Clarke’s Hotel, where nearly forty men, both Union and Confederate, crammed into the parlor. Before Mosby could make a decision to sign the terms, a young and uninvited ranger burst into the room, declaring that the Yankees had a thousand cavalrymen stashed in the woods ready to capture them. Mosby stood, ready for any action but with his characteristic steely nerve, and led his men out of the Hotel and eastward back over the Blue Ridge. The phantom Yankees never appeared.

Clarke’s Hotel, Millwood, VA

The Colonel knew his time was up. He had been given a chance to surrender his command and the offer wasn’t likely to come again unless forced on the end of a bayonet. Thinking again of the men in his command and not his own status as an outlaw, he penned a final farewell to those who had fought with him in numerous hair raising adventures. About 200 riders of the 43rd Virginia gathered just outside of Salem Virginia on April 21, 1865. Mosby did not recite his farewell aloud, instead company officers read the letter to the men assembled. Many, including the Colonel, wept openly at his words:

Soldiers! I have summoned you together for the last time. The vision we have cherished of a free and independent country, has vanished, and that country, is now in the spoil of a conqueror. I disband your organization in preference to surrendering it to our enemies. I am now no longer your commander. After association of more than two eventful years, I part from you with a just pride, in the fame of your achievements, and grateful recollections of your generous kindness to myself. And now at this moment of bidding you a final adieu accept the assurance of my unchanging confidence and regard. Farewell.

Jno. S. Mosby, Colonel
Glen Welby, the Confederate safehouse where Mosby penned his farewell message to the 43rd battalion.

While most of his Rangers surrendered and paroled, Mosby first intended to join General Johnston before learning of his surrender to Sherman. After that point he lived with relatives, living under the radar of the $5,000 bounty on his head. On June 13, with assurances from his brother William, he tried to surrender in Lynchburg, Virginia, but was denied parole there. Finally, with the help of a personal plea from his wife Pauline Mosby, the Colonel was granted parole from Ulysses S. Grant. The Gray Ghost never regretted his actions in the Civil War, nor did he regret the tortuous decision to disband the 43rd VA. He went on to serve his state and country as a consul in Hong Kong, an agent in the General Land Office, and as an assistant attorney in the Department of Justice.

Want to learn more about John Mosby at the end of the Civil War? Want to see the sites for yourself? Enjoy this Driving Tour, or visit the Mosby Heritage Area Association website for more!

Reading Questions: In your own words, please answer the following questions.

  1. Why did John Mosby stall for more time when General Hancock asked for his surrender?
  2. In what ways did John Mosby demonstrate leadership? Give at least two examples.
  3. Who is a leader that you respect? What makes him or her a good leader?

First Contact at Gettysburg

We can’t say with certainty how many men from the Heritage Area were present at the Battle of Gettysburg, but it is undoubtedly in the hundreds. Men from the region filled the ranks of the 8th and 49th Virginia Infantry Regiments, which both saw heavy fighting during the three day battle. Others served in the 35th Battalion of Virginia Cavalry or the 6th Virginia Cavalry, guarding Lee’s flanks and protecting his army’s retreat. Untold others served as individuals or small groups scattered throughout the Confederate Army. On the other side, several dozen men from Loudoun and the neighboring counties were serving in the 1st Maryland Potomac Home Brigade Infantry, Cole’s Maryland Cavalry, and there are undoubtedly more in other regiments that have yet to be uncovered. The presence of men from the Heritage Area fighting on opposite sides of the battle provides us with personal stories of communities that were divided during the war. It also calls attention to a little-known prelude to the battle that saw two Loudoun County residents facing off against one another.

Luther Slater was born near Lovettsville in 1841. As a young man he worked towards a future as a clergyman, studying first at Roanoke College and then at the Preparatory Department of Pennsylvania College at Gettysburg (now Gettysburg College). His intention was to enroll at the now well known Lutheran Seminary there, but the coming of the Civil War interrupted his plans and set him on a new path.

A photo of Luther Slater taken later in life (FindAGrave/Edward Spannus).
The Lutheran Seminary in Gettysburg, where Slater planned to attend. The building now houses the fantastic Seminary Ridge Museum.

Slater returned home to Loudoun County, and in late June, 1862, he was one of dozens of local unionists who enlisted in a newly formed cavalry unit known as the Loudoun Rangers. Although only 21 years old at the time, he was elected 1st Lieutenant of Company A. The company was still assembling and new recruits were training two months later, when Slater and his command would endure their baptism of fire.

Early on the morning of August 27th, 1862 Slater and around 20 of his men were surprised and surrounded in the Waterford Baptist Church by Elijah White’s 35th Battalion of Virginia Cavalry. In the ensuing firefight that lasted several hours, Slater was wounded severely – shot in the head, shoulder, arm, and hand. When the outnumbered Rangers finally surrendered to White’s force, the Confederate commander is said to have told Slater “I am sorry to see you so dangerously wounded, Lieutenant.”

Maryland born Elijah V. White commanded the 35th Battalion of Virginia Cavalry, and was a frequent opponent of Slater and the Loudoun Rangers.
The Waterford Baptist Church, site of the August 1862 fight and Luther Slater’s terrible wounding.

With his life in the balance, the badly wounded Lieutenant was sent away to recover among friends that he had met while studying in Gettysburg. He became particularly attached to one of his caregivers, Mollie Yount. Luther remained in Gettysburg for several months, before returning to the army as a provost guard at Point of Rocks. It wasn’t a combat role, but his arm injury caused him repeated problems, which led to his resignation from the army in February, 1863. He returned to Gettysburg (and to Mollie), where it was hoped he would be far from the seat of the war.

That summer, the war came to Luther Slater as the Army of Northern Virginia marched into Pennsylvania. The state’s governor called for emergency militias to be raised in an effort to slow the Confederate advance. Not one to forgo his duty, Luther Slater volunteered, despite his old wounds. The young Lieutenant, arm still in a sling, was soon at the head of a company of Gettysburg college and seminary students that became part of the 26th Pennsylvania Emergency Militia. On the morning of June 26th, this militia regiment, along with some local farmers mounted as cavalry, stood along the banks of Marsh Creek, just west of Gettysburg. Bearing down on them was a strong force of veteran Confederate infantry, with the horsemen of Elijah White’s 35th Battalion leading the way. The Confederate cavalry “came with barbarian yells and smoking pistols” and easily brushed aside the inexperienced militia, capturing many and routing the rest. Later that same day the militia attempted to regroup north of town, but was again driven off.

The Skirmish at Marsh Creek (Battlefield Trust)

Slater survived his second brush with Elijah White, and remained with the militia for the next month. He was detailed to the signal corps, and according to some sources he also served in the hospital corps as well. In November 1864, he married Mollie, and at the end of the war he and his bride moved back to Lovettsville. From there he had a distinguished career in politics and civil service – first as a constable and postmaster in Loudoun County, then as a 40-year career employee with the Federal government. His greatest contribution was with the Record and Pension Office, where he assisted with the organization of military records following the war. He was also a founder of the Washington, DC chapter of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States.

Slater’s gravestone in Lovettsville’s Union Cemetery (FindAGrave/Edward Spannus)

The story of Luther Slater is one of a man committed to service, whether it was to his faith, his community, or his nation. It’s also an example of two men from the same community – Elijah White and Luther Slater – who happened to face off against one another on the eve of the greatest battle of the Civil War.

For more information on Luther Slater, visit the Lovettsville Historical Society!

Class Activity: In your own words, please answer the following questions:

  1. What military units did Luther Slater serve in during the Civil War? How would you describe his military career?
  2. Name three ways that Luther Slater served the public.
  3. Using what you can research about the Civil War in the Heritage Area, why do you think Elijah White and Luther Slater chose to fight on different sides of the war? Visit the Mosby Heritage Area, the Loudoun Museum, and Loudoun History for more information.

“My Own Darling Magee”, A Leesburg Love Story

Mary “Mollie” Lack was just 15 years old when she met Tommy Magee. Born in Loudoun County, VA, “Mollie” was the only child of British-born William and Mary Lack. The small family lived a comfortable life in a house on North King St. in downtown Leesburg. Mr. Lack was a wealthy gardener, and the family were active in the St. James Episcopal Church community. When war came to Northern Virginia, lives of Leesburg residents were turned upside down. Along with war came thousands of young men from far-off places. Young men like Thomas Magee.

Magee enlisted in the Confederate Army in 1861, signing up with Company E, 18th Mississippi, in Corinth., Mississippi. Company E was mostly composed of students from Mississippi College, and they became known as the ‘Mississippi College Rifles’. In Fall of 1861 three Mississippi regiments fought alongside local battalions in the October 21 Battle of Balls Bluff, only a couple of miles from Leesburg. Magee and the others stayed near town over the winter, encamped at Oatlands and Morven Park.

Winter at Morven Park. Image from

Many soldiers came into town to socialize and go to church services. Truth be told, many church visits were made in order to flirt with the locals. In return, Leesburg belles ventured to camp to watch the young men drill and parade. By the close of 1861, Mollie and Tommy Magee were pen pals and visited as often as they were able. It wasn’t long before they declared their love for one another. On February 14, 1862, Mollie wrote in her diary that she and her “beloved Magee” sent each other Valentines. She went on to write,

“He was here [last] Wednesday evening. When he was going, he put his arm around my neck and kssed me, and said “I love you Mollie, you need not be uneasy.”. . I hope I may never be unworthy of his love.  He is so dear to me, my darling.”

From Harper’s Weekly, 1864

The two lovers were soon parted by the war. In March the 18th Miss. marched out of Leesburg towards Richmond, but not before Tommy and Mollie shared a tearful goodbye. “He cried fit to break my heart” Mollie declared. Almost exactly six months later Magee came back, as the Mississippi College Rifles with the Southern Army marched to Antietam. On Thursday, September 4, Magee came to call, and Mollie wrote,

“I knew his voice the minute I heard it. He has not changed one particle. . . He came out to where I was and put his arm around me and pressed a kiss on my lips . . . Next day he came and staid all day and all night and Saturday morning he left me for Maryland and O! how I love him. I love him ten times better than I did before. God protect him!”

Sadly, Mollie Lack and Tommy Magee were parted again. We don’t know if they met afterwards, no known correspondence survives. Mollie died, likely of consumption, on July 27, 1864, only a few weeks shy of her 18th birthday. Magee later deserted the Confederate Army and faded into obscurity. The only recorded words of Tommy Magee were his pledges of love to his sweetheart, Virginia’s Mollie Lack.

Class Activity: In your own words, please answer the following questions

  1. How do historians know what Molly was thinking and feeling?
  2. Examine the above image from Harper’s Weekly, “Valentine’s Day 1864.” Using examples from the picture, describe how people celebrated Valentine’s Day during the Civil War.
  3. Why don’t we know more about Tommy Magee?

The Long Reach of the Battle of Ball’s Bluff

Within the larger scope of the American Civil War, October 21 1861’s battle at Ball’s Bluff near Leesburg, Virginia, is hardly a footnote. Often summed up as a scouting mission gone awry, the dramatic fight along the banks of the Potomac nevertheless loomed large in United States culture and politics.

Ball’s Bluff Battlefield today (from

One of the clearest effects of the battle was the formation of the Joint Committee of the Conduct of the War, formed on December 9, 1861. In the intervening weeks since the battle, Northern newspapers and politicians clamored that the decided defeat at Ball’s Bluff must be the fault of someone, rather than a sum of problems including lack of information, too few resources to move troops across the Potomac, and poor communication. Radical Republican Senators Benjamin Wade and Zachariah Chandler formed the Joint Committee to investigate the defeat at Ball’s Bluff, but the ‘investigation’ quickly determined that Brigadier General Charles Pomeroy Stone would be the battle’s scapegoat. Stone was an ideal target. His aristocratic manners made him distant from otherwise loyal soldiers and he was a West Pointer with relatively few political friends. Even better, accusing Stone of gross disloyalty would also absolve the rash decisions and poor leadership of Col. Edward Baker, a well-liked politician and the only sitting U.S. Senator to die in combat.

Brigadier General Charles Pomeroy Stone

Stone was arrested shortly after midnight on February 9, 1862, though he was not told of the charges against him. The Brigadier General was imprisoned for seven months without trial or court marshal, and though he was eventually released and restored to the Army, his reputation was never the same. Charles Stone was the Committee on the Conduct of War’s first casualty, he was by no means its last.

During the weeks and months after the Battle of Balls Bluff, the encounter was discussed publicly in art and literature. It seems odd that a minor engagement would capture the Northern zeitgeist, but its occurrence right at the end of the campaign season (and the lack of subsequent action) gave the public little else to chew on through the winter. There is also something hauntingly compelling about the scene of cornered United States troops being forced off the high ground and into the cold dark waters of the Potomac. Dozens of soldiers drowned that night, and their bodies were pulled from the river days and weeks later at places like Great Falls and in Washington D.C. itself.

Federal soldiers driven into the river. Note the makeshift and capsizing rafts. (Library of Congress)

One unfortunate 2nd Lieutenant of the 15th Mass., John William “Willie” Grout, was shot while swimming to the Maryland shore. His body was pulled from the river two weeks later and was only identified by the name stitched into his clothing. Henry S. Washburn wrote a poem, “The Vacant Chair”, about Willie, and the words were set to music and quickly became a Civil War standard.

Colonel Baker’s death also became a point of fascination. The four shots to his heart and brain and the scramble to save his body from the grabbing Confederates inspired artists and poets. In fact, 10 year-old Willie Lincoln submitted a poem, “Lines on the Death of Colonel Baker” to the National Republican.

Death of Col. Baker at Ball’s Bluff (near Leesburg, Va.), Steel Engraving, c1862.
H. Wright Smith after drawing by F.O.C. Darley (Library of Congress)

The longest reach of the Battle of Ball’s Bluff can be found through the lives of its survivors. Many United States soldiers engaged in the fight were on the battlefield for the first time, including 20 year-old Lt. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. of the 20th Mass., the “Harvard Regiment”. During a fierce exchange with the Virginians and Mississippians, Holmes was shot almost completely through the chest. The bullet was removed and Holmes went on to fight in significant battles including Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania Courthouse. Holmes and others felt that they had discovered their duty in war, and that their service was at once heroic, horrific, and vital for the preservation of the Union. Even years later the mindset held true. In an 1895 address at Harvard affirmed the nobility of the idea of war, “For high and dangerous action teaches us to believe as right beyond dispute things for which our doubting minds are slow to find words of proof.” Oliver Wendell Holmes would take this outlook and dedication to philosophy to the Supreme Court, where he sat as an Associate Justice from 1902 to 1932. (Learn more about Holmes on November 21 with author Stephen Budiansky)

For many years the battlefield at Ball’s Bluff was confined to 76 acres and the 3rd smallest National Cemetery in the nation. An expansion of the battlefield was approved in 2017, confirming over 3,000 acres in Loudoun County and across the Potomac as historically significant. As part of the Mosby Heritage Area, Ball’s Bluff occupies not just physical space in our beautiful landscape, but also serves as a reminder of the small battle that disproportionately captured the attention of a Nation.

Class Activity: In your own words, please answer the following questions

  1. After the United States lost the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, who became its scapegoat? Why?
  2. Examine the image above, “Federal soldiers driven into the river.” What made the battle of Ball’s Bluff so horrible for United States troops and their families?
  3. How do you think the Civil War affected young Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.?

“There was a want of vigilance”: Intelligence in the Bristoe Station Campaign

The Mosby Heritage Area is a wide landscape of historic rivers and turnpikes crisscrossed by rail lines. Our location in between the Potomac River and Richmond was crucial to United States and Confederate forces during the Civil War, even though relatively few large-scale battles were fought here. The Heritage Area did see a number of fast-moving campaigns as armies attempted to out-flank, out-smart, and out-maneuver each other along essential travel and supply lines. The Bristoe Campaign in October 1863 falls under this category. Much of this campaign was colored by scant information, leading to close shaves on both sides before A.P. Hill’s decisive action on October 14th.

Fall 1863 found Generals Meade and Lee apparently deadlocked in central Virginia on opposite sides of the Rapidan River between Orange Courthouse and Culpeper Courthouse. Both Union and Confederate commanders learned hard lessons on the road from Gettysburg, and both recently sent supporting corps to the western theater. By October, Meade and the Federal Army seemed prepared to make winter quarters. The United States position at the fork of the Rapidan and Rappahannock controlled not only the Rappahannock crossing, but also the crucial supply line of the Alexandria & Orange railroad.

Culpeper Courthouse (center building with cupola) during the Civil War

Plans for a peaceful fall were thwarted when the Federal signalmen on Pony Mountain intercepted a message on October 7. Lee was on the move. Not knowing the Confederate codes had been broken, Lee urged his commanders to be careful and quiet as they skirted the Federal line, attempting to cut off Meade’s rear route along the A&O. But since receiving the decoded message, Federal scouts were primed to notice graycoats moving on the right flank, and campfires missing from the Confederate main body by night. With the signal towers going silent as armies began to move, they would have to rely on traditional intelligence- namely their cavalry- for information during the rest of the campaign.

Meade’s first requirement was to find out where exactly the Confederates were headed. He sent John Buford’s cavalry division to scout the Federal right flank for more signs of Lee, but recalled him after not hearing for two days. Meanwhile, Stuart’s Confederate cavalry harassed Gregg’s and Kilpatrick’s Federal cavalrymen in the vicinity of Brandy Station, resulting in erroneous reports that the Confederate forces were concentrating in Culpeper. By the time the Federal forces caught wise, Ewell’s and Hill’s divisions were closing on Warrenton, having swung wide to catch Meade’s rear on the A&O. Meade acts swiftly to outmaneuver the rebels, benefiting from a direct route up the A&O towards the fortifications at Centreville. The race was on.

“Castle Murray”, Auburn, VA, 1863

With both armies moving quickly, reconnaissance was done on the fly, leading to fighting at Auburn on October 13th when Stuart tried poking around the Union supply train and found himself surrounded by the Federal Second and Third Corps. He his own men, supplies, and artillery in a ravine during the night, a mere 300 yards from his foes. The following morning Stuart surprised a regiment of breakfasting Yankees with a volley from his artillery. His bluff succeeded in unseating Gouvenor Warren’s Second Corps, which marched quickly along the A&O and by early afternoon had reached Bristoe Station.

Historical markers near the site of Coffee Hill

The afternoon of October 14th found A.P. Hill scouting for an attack. From his position the Confederate Second Corps could just make out the Federal Third and Fifth Corps moving from eastward over Broad Run. If the rebels moved quickly (without reconnaissance), they just might catch them. Instead Hill’s North Carolinians under Cooke and Kirkland were caught by Warren’s Second Corps, which had been recuperating from the morning fighting at Auburn, taking shelter on the southern side of the high railroad embankment. Unseen until the last moment, Federals sprang up and fired, cutting down waves of gray-clad rebels. Over the next couple of hours about 2,000 men fell, effectively putting an end to Lee’s devices on Meade’s supply route.

The Union Second Corps position under Gouvenor Warren fired on Confederates from behind this embankment. Photo by Douglas Ullman, Jr.

While Gouvenor Warren earned some praise for his action at Bristoe Station, the United States press was reluctant to call the battle a Union victory. There was even talk of Meade’s replacement. In the Confederacy, there was little doubt that Bristoe was a blunder and a loss. Hill was lambasted as a fool for making an attack with so little information. Confederate President Jefferson Davis critically pointed out, “There was a want of vigilance”.

Though much of the area surrounding Bristoe Station has been developed, preservation efforts have ensured that large sections of the battlefield are open to learn and explore. For more information about the battle and ongoing preservation, visit our friends at the Bristoe Station Battlefield Park!

Class Activity: In your own words, answer the following questions

  1. What are different ways Civil War officers gained intelligence or communicated with each other? Describe at least two.
  2. Examine the image above, “The Union second corps position.” United States troops sheltered behind this railroad embankment during the battle. What made it such a good position?
  3. Why do you think we should preserve historic landscapes like the battlefield near Bristoe Station?

Tracing the steps of a Civil War veteran: James Lewis of Waterford

The Mosby Heritage Area is home to a number of historic villages, and none perhaps is better preserved than Waterford. Waterford today is much as it was at the close of the 19th century. Storybook houses line shaded avenues, brick storefronts are festooned with flags, and the residents’ commitment to living in a historic town makes Waterford feel very American, but at the same time very Old World.

In a town once populated by secessionists, abolitionists, slaves, and patriots, it’s no wonder there are fascinating stories behind every corner. One such story is the life of James Lewis, who was born into slavery in Waterford around 1844. At this time, Waterford was home to a large Quaker population and at least 10 free black families. The free blacks lived in the same neighborhoods as the white folk, but slave auctions still took place on the main street. By 1860 James, his mother, and his siblings were freed and living in Waterford. And then the Civil War came.

This sentinel stands along the route James Lewis may have walked to and from his home on Butcher’s Row

Waterford was one of only two districts in Loudoun to vote overwhelmingly against secession, but when Virginia left the Union, several Waterford men fought under the Confederate stars and bars. Early in the war black Americans were not eligible to become soldiers, but as soon as black soldiers were approved to join the U.S. military, thousands flocked to enlistment stations. Teenage James Lewis from Waterford was one of them, and he enlisted in the 55th Massachusetts Infantry. From 1863 he served further south on the battlefields and picket lines of Florida and South Carolina. At least seven other enslaved or freeborn black Americans from Waterford enlisted with the Union Army, either with state outfits like the 54th and 55th Massachusetts, or with the nation’s first U.S. Colored Troops regiments. After the war many southern black soldiers settled in Ohio, New York, or even Texas, but James Lewis came home to Virginia.

Built in 1866, the Second St. School was the first school for blacks in Waterford. It also hosted church functions

Together with their Quaker neighbors, the black community built a one-room school house to teach black children and to serve as a church. They saved money for decades to establish the John Wesley African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1891.

Visitors to Waterford can trace Lewis’ steps from the church up a long lane to his home, a route he would have taken while he and the other congregants were building the house of worship. Because free blacks at this time often worked at day labor, he and the other laborers would have built the sanctuary at night, by lantern light. The John Wesley Methodist Episcopal Church served the black community in Waterford until 1968.

By the turn of the century James Lewis was an old man. His wife Mary passed away in 1901, but James remained at his two story home on Butcher’s Row. James left no account of his life or his military service, it’s possible he never learned to read or write. However, his handiwork as a stonemason is evident throughout the village. Both the stone wall next to his home (below left) and the stone foundation of the John Wesley African Methodist Episcopal church (below right) were built with his hands. It’s unknown how many other homes, shops, or walls were laid by James Lewis in Waterford and the surrounding area.

Lewis passed away sometime after 1910, and his remains rest in the colored section of the Waterford Union of Churches Cemetery. Here neighbor rests by neighbor, enslaver rests by freedman, and Confederate rests by Federal. Among the humble and worn graves of his black countrymen, James Lewis’ small but proud headstone reminds us of Virginia’s sons who served their country and community during enslavement and into freedom.

Waterford contains a treasure trove of fascinating characters and stories, and we look forward to sharing more of them here. Once you See Waterford, be sure to Save it and Pass it on!

*For those interested in learning more about black soldiers from Loudoun County, we recommend reading “From Loudoun To Glory: The Role of African-Americans from Loudoun County in the Civil War” by Kevin Dulany Grigsby.

Class Activity: In your own words, please answer the following questions

  1. What different kinds of people lived in Waterford before the Civil War?
  2. Why do you think enslaved and free black Americans fought for the United States?
  3. How did James Lewis help his hometown after the Civil War?

A (Cool) Spring afternoon in the Heritage Area

Last week staff went to survey one of the tour sites MHAA will highlight during the Civil War Conference this fall. Cool Spring Battlefield is a newly preserved historic site, until 2013 it operated as a golf course along the Eastern bank of the Shenandoah near Bluemont, Virginia. Now it is the River Campus of Shenandoah University, a landscape dedicated to environmental and historical stewardship.

Native shrubs are quickly reclaiming the area

Paved golf cart trails make the park an easy and fun walk for history buffs, cyclists, and nature lovers. Although most of the fighting on July 18, 1864 happened on the opposite bank (now privately owned by Holy Cross Abbey), the paths are dotted with interpretive signposts describing the crossing made by Union forces under Crook and Thoburn. Attempting to chase down Jubal Early’s Army of the Valley after probing the defenses of Washington D.C. at Fort Stevens, the Federals began crossing the Shenandoah River just north of Castleman’s Ferry.

The southernmost crossing point, forded by Thoburn’s Federals

By skirting around the ferry, Federal troops were able to cross without heavy opposition and form a battle line along a stone wall bordering the river’s edge and Cool Spring Farm. When Confederate General Breckenridge heard of the advance, he sent Wharton’s and Gordon’s divisions to push them back down towards the river, while Rodes’ division punched through the Union right flank. The Federals retreated back across the river, allowing Early’s rear guard to continue up the Valley unimpeded.
Want to know more about Jubal Early’s 1864 Maryland Campaign? Come to our 22nd Annual Conference on the Art of Command in the Civil War!

Today’s visitors will enjoy following the battlefield with on-site guides (Photo 1), exploring the heights near the 1st Rhode Island artillery position (Photo 2), admiring the river and crossing sites to Parker Island (Photo 3), and learning about The Retreat, home to Judge Richard Parker (Photo 4).

Did you know?

  • Union forces knew to cross north of Castleman’s Ferry thanks to Confederate deserter John Carrigan
  • The Retreat was first built and inhabited by a Revolutionary War veteran Thomas Parker, who was also called to service as an officer in the War of 1812.
  • John Singleton Mosby’s 43rd VA used Snickers Gap and Castleman’s Ferry for frequent access to the Shenandoah Valley, including on October 14, 1864’s “Greenback Raid“.


The battlefield at Cool Spring is a great day time experience without the crowds of larger Civil War sites. If you’re looking for a bite or beverage afterwords, nearby Dirt Farm Brewing offers spectacular views of the Heritage Area looking east across the Loudoun Valley. Once you See it, be sure to Save it and Pass it on!

On a clear day like this, you may be able to see up to 20 miles of the eastern Heritage Area from Dirt Farm in Bluemont, Virginia.