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AAA World Article

Crossroads of the Civil War

Visitors to Culpeper County, Virginia, find preserved battlefields and a rich Civil War history.

By Theresa Gawlas Medoff

AAA World Article

Cedar Mountain Battlefield
Photo Courtesy of Theresa G. Medoff

Just on the other side of the railroad tracks from the still-active 1904 railroad depot in Culpeper, Virginia—the site as well of the town’s Visitor Center and its compact history museum—lies Culpeper National Cemetery. Like any cemetery, it’s a place for somber reflection. But this particular military cemetery, established in 1867, also proclaims the tumultuous and tragic role that Culpeper County played during the U.S. Civil War. An estimated 1,350 Union troops who died during the Civil War are buried here, including 902 whose names remain unknown. There is also one Confederate soldier buried in the cemetery; he had for many years been misidentified as being a Union soldier. Confederates who perished on local battlefields were reinterred after the war in private cemeteries in the region.

Cemetery
Culpeper National Cemetery
Photo Courtesy of Theresa G. Medoff

Located at the confluence of the Rappahannock and Rapidan Rivers about midway between Washington, D.C., and what had been the capital of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia—and with the railroad running straight through the county seat and linking those two capitals—Culpeper County was “the most heavily fought-over, fought-upon and camped-upon county in the entire country during the Civil War,” according to local historian Clark B. Hall, co-founder and former president of the Brandy Station Foundation, which seeks the preservation of the Brandy Station Battlefield. More than 170 skirmishes and battles were fought in this region between 1861 and 1865, including the Battle of Cedar Mountain, the Battle of Kelly’s Ford, the Battle of Brandy Station and the Battle of Culpeper Court House (then the name of what is now simply known as the Town of Culpeper).

Culpeper County also saw the largest encampment of the Civil War (an event that some local residents still call “the federal occupation”) when some 120,000 Union soldiers—the entirety of the Union Army of the Potomac—wintered here from December 1863 to May 1864, making it the largest city in Virginia that year. The size of the encampment overwhelmed a county that at the time had little more than 12,000 residents.

Much of the land in Culpeper County where the fighting took place was farmland at the time and was returned to that use after the war; some of it continues to be farmed to this day. Other lands have been developed over the last 150 years for residential or commercial purposes. A surprising amount of acreage, however, remained undeveloped and has been purchased eagerly over the past 15 years by the Civil War Trust, a nonprofit that seeks to preserve American Civil War battlefields.

Historic photos slideshow

The Trust, for example, acquired nearly 165 acres of the 5,000 acres on which the Battle of Cedar Mountain took place. More impressive, more than half of the 8,000-acre battlefield at Brandy Station is either owned by the Civil War Trust or is under conservation easement, privately owned but never to be built upon. It is the hope of an ardent group of Civil War historians, preservation activists and tourism development folks that these lands owned by the Civil War Trust will someday soon become a Virginia state park—Brandy Station and Cedar Mountain State Park—that will offer recreational and educational opportunities to residents and citizens while preserving these historic lands.

“We see the Brandy Station and Cedar Mountain Battlefields as being two of the jewels of the Virginia Piedmont from a tourism perspective,” says Jim Campi, spokesperson for the Civil War Trust. “There are incredible stories that can be told on these battlefields, but the best way to tell those stories is to get people out there to see them, to experience them, to see what the soldiers saw during the battles of 1862 and 1863. It’s just an incomparable experience.”

Conflict at Cedar Mountain

It was early August 1862 when the newly formed Federal Army of Virginia under Major General John Pope was deployed in an arc across Northern Virginia, seeking to advance into the central part of the state. Aiming to forestall their progress, Major General Stonewall Jackson’s Confederate force of 23,000, including a division under Culpeper native General A.P. Hill, marched north into Culpeper County to attack the Union troops. On August 9, in the midst of a heat wave that had temperatures hovering near 100 degrees Fahrenheit, the Confederates engaged with forces under Major General Nathaniel Banks in rural Rapidan, Virginia, seven miles south of Culpeper Court House.

The Battle of Cedar Mountain (also known as Slaughter’s Mountain and Cedar Run) occupied less than four hours that evening, but fighting was fierce. Outmanned more than two to one, the Union saw casualties of more than 20 percent of its forces and was forced to retreat. The Confederate victory set the stage for the 1862 Northern Virginia Campaign.

The Friends of Cedar Mountain Battlefield have built split rail fencing along a grass trail on the battlefield acreage they administer; two 120-year-old replicas of Civil War cannons mark the battlefield as well. Visitors are welcome to tour the battlefield on their own, or they can arrange a guided tour, as I had with Michael Block, local historian and vice president of the Friends of Cedar Mountain Battlefield.      

Men with guns reenacting a battle
Cedar Mountain battle reenactment
Photo Courtesy of Culpeper Tourism Department

Early in the tour, we stop in the woods as Block recounts a famous episode from the battle, when Confederate General Stonewall Jackson rode his horse into the midst of his discouraged men, who were losing at that point, and sought to rally them. A flag held high in one hand, he attempted to pull out his sword, but the sword had rusted in its scabbard. Undeterred, Jackson brandished the sword, scabbard and all.

“The moment was electric. Right there, the battle turned at that point,” Block says. “It also helps that there’s a brigade, five regiments of North Carolinians, right here, ready to step forward.”

Block, who is working on a book about the battle, colorfully recounts the events of August 9 and sprinkles in vivid stories about individual soldiers. And while some of his stories are lighthearted—he talks, for instance, about Sally the dog, the mascot of one of the regiments—he makes clear the battle’s toll.

“The federals lost 2,381 men. That is over 20 percent of those engaged—1 in 5 [men]. That is the highest percent of casualties to those engaged in the fight in the Eastern theater of war—bigger than Gettysburg, bigger than Antietam. More people died in those battles overall, but from a percentage point, [the Battle of Cedar Hill] was number one. That’s a story that’s not told,” Block says.

Many of those who died at Cedar Mountain—both Union and Confederate—were buried right on the battlefield, he adds. “There are soldiers still out here. Absolutely. This is hallowed ground. That’s why this is important, too. Not only is this a beautiful park setting, but this is hallowed ground,” he says.

On August 5 and 6, a Living History Weekend will be held at Cedar Mountain Battlefield to mark the 155th anniversary of the battle. Events will include drill and tactical demonstrations on hotly contested portions of the original battlefield. For more information about the event and about battlefield tours, visit friendsofcedarmountain.org. On August 9, Block will lead anniversary tours of the battlefield beginning at 4 p.m. Information can be found on the Cedar Mountain Battlefield Facebook page.

Graffiti House Images

Battle at Brandy Station

Today, a visitor could easily pass by Brandy Station without taking notice, for the village adjacent to Route 29 has a population of just a couple hundred people in scattered homes. It’s well worth a stop, however, for anyone with an interest in the American Civil War to visit the Graffiti House and the Brandy Station Battlefield.

“It is a fact,” emphasizes historian Hall, that practically every soldier who fought in the Eastern theater of war from both armies, Federal and Confederate, “visited Brandy Station, either while fighting here, marching here or camping here. It was the most well-known name, in both armies, throughout the war. Strategically and tactically, [Brandy Station] was a village of tremendous importance.” 

Google Brandy Station, and the top hits all relate to one day: June 9, 1863, the Battle of Brandy Station (also known as the Battle of Fleetwood Hill), famous not only as the largest cavalry battle of the Civil War—and, indeed, the largest ever on American soil—but also as the inaugural engagement of the Gettysburg campaign.

The Civil War Trust currently owns some 1,200 acres of battlefield at Brandy Station, much of it walkable, that is open to the public to tour on their own using interpretive signage as well as the Brandy Station Battle app. Guided tours also can be arranged through the Brandy Station Foundation (brandystationfoundation.com).

I received a guided tour from Hall, who is writing a book about the Battle of Brandy Station. So passionate is he about this topic that he camps out on the battlefield each June 8, awakening early on the morning of the 9th to mark the anniversary of the commencement of the first skirmish at 4:30 a.m.

We drive from spot to spot on the battlefield, with Hall describing the movements of troops, beginning with Union soldiers fording the fog-shrouded Rappahannock River in the pre-dawn and surprising the Confederate pickets on watch. The Battle of Brandy Station raged for 14 ½ hours; fighting was fierce and involved much hand-to-hand combat, Hall says.

“The Confederates claim victory; they control the battlefield, but it’s a Pyrrhic victory, clearly a dark and Pyrrhic victory,” Hall says. “The Federals fought them hard all day—that’s the first time that had happened—and the Confederates lose horses, and men, and officers, and they can’t easily resupply them. …The Confederate cavalry is beaten up badly here. They’ve lost prestige; they’ve lost men; they’ve lost material. You can track the decline of the Confederate cavalry and the Army of Northern Virginia from the day’s end of this battle because, inexorably, they go downhill thereafter.”

The Brandy Station Battlefield abuts the well-preserved and fascinating Graffiti House at 19484 Brandy Station Road, which had been a home, country store and post office before the war. Information and battlefield maps are available here, as is a guided tour of the house. The walls on the second floor of the Graffiti House are filled with charcoaled writings and drawings scrawled by Confederate soldiers who recuperated there when it was a field hospital and, later, by Union soldiers when it served as a Union hospital as well as a headquarters during the massive Union encampment of winter 1863/64.

Docents such as volunteer Jack Maher point out some of the many interesting remnants of history on display here. The most famous signature in the house, the letters J.E.B., undoubtedly belong to Confederate General “Jeb” Stuart, Maher says. “He was in charge of all these guys that are lying on the floor here, suffering, and certainly he would have come down here from his headquarters up on Fleetwood to visit these guys, give them a word of encouragement.”

There are drawings here, too, such as a sketch of Walt Whitman, who wrote in his diary about being in the Union hospitals at Brandy Station in December 1863. Another drawing is of a dandy in a top hat and fancy civilian clothes—probably a gambler, Maher explains, for he’s juxtaposed with a drawing of a vulture and the words “birds of a feather flock together.” Maher elaborates, “Both the gambler and the bird are vultures because the gambler takes the money off the men.”

Sponsored Video

Graffiti House and the battlefields of Brandy Station and Cedar Mountain are three major destinations in Culpeper County for tourists interested in learning more about the Civil War, but there are others as well. The Museum of Culpeper History at the Depot in historic downtown Culpeper covers the history of the region from dinosaurs to today, but much of the exhibit space is given over to the Civil War, as befits an event that so touched the town and the county.

Also downtown, at the corner of North Main and Davis Streets, stands the childhood home of Confederate General A.P. Hill; although it is now a commercial building, there are informational displays in a second-story hall detailing Hill’s life and his role in the war. Nearby is the 1821 St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, where the spire bells were saved from being melted down for ammunition when the minister’s young daughter was sent to the belfry to wrap its interior in black fabric to hide the shiny metal.

Small groups of eight or more can see these and other sights in Culpeper on a Civil War-themed walking tour given by a local historian, which can be requested by contacting the Culpeper Visitor Center. In addition, guided trolley tours of the region’s history and agritourism offerings, including wineries and distilleries, are given monthly April through October; some of those tours focus at least in part on Civil War history (visitculpeperva.com).

 

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2017 issue of AAA World.


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