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Posts Tagged ‘civil war’

When you live in Virginia, seems like there’s a Historical Something-or-other everywhere you look: Jamestown, the Governor’s Palace, the State House designed by Thomas Jefferson, the Lee Chapel at Washington and Lee University. There are frequent signposts pointing out things like the battlefields at Manassas and Yorktown, and other sites such as the Natural Bridge, and the place where Mary Draper Ingles and her two children and sister-in-law were kidnapped and taken as slaves by Shawnee Indians from Ohio. And it seems Virginians are fairly proud of these things, although Lord knows that many of our historical occurrences we shouldn’t be proud of at all. If we put up historical markers for some of those significant places, they might read like this:

This is the county that was so incensed at the idea of our nice children sharing classrooms with black younguns that we refused integration. In order to keep that going, we refused to accept any state support for schools for years.”   (Prince Edward County)

This is where the first slave market was held in Virginia.” (I can’t actually find out the first place slaves were sold in Virginia, though slaves were part of the Jamestown settlement and Richmond had a large slave market)

This plantation boasted a lovely manor for its influential owner, with marble and inlaid wood, while its slaves lived in dirt-floored board huts 10 feet long by 8 feet wide.”  (Monticello, home of Thomas Jefferson)

Indians were massacred here.” (1622, near Jamestown)

Yeah. Why do we remember? When your history stretches back far enough to encompass such atrocities, the only thing to do is to learn from them. Which we cannot do, if we forget them.

Which brings me to this set of family stories. (They’re not, technically, my family stories; they happened to The CEO’s family, so they are my children’s family stories.) And I’ll start by telling you that The CEO’s ancestors, two brothers I’ll call the McWhatsits, came to this part of Virginia in 1795. Their parents had taken ship from Scotland a generation before, in the starving wake of the 1745 Rising, and these boys had been born in Pennsylvania.

Side note here: The CEO’s aunt and uncle visited Scotland about fifteen or twenty years ago, and while they were looking at a church window showing clan names, a Scottish man sidled up to Uncle R and asked – and here, you have to imagine his Scottish accent; Craig Ferguson’s will do – “So, are you Camerons then?” No, McWhatsits, Uncle R told him. “Ah. And you’re from America?” Uncle R nodded and explained that he and his wife were on vacation. “I see. I suppose you know that all the McWhatsits that went to America were sheep thieves, cattle rustlers, or wife stealers?”

But back to the brothers: All grown up, they traveled south down through the Valley of Virginia – good farmland there, but all spoken for – looking for a place they could farm. And they got to this part of Virginia, in the Ridge and Valley region, and pieces of it were still available. So they went about looking for a homestead, and they came across a family who was planning to sell part of their land. Richard looked at John and asked, “You think?” and John scuffed the ground with his shoe, nodded, and agreed, “I think.”

And so the McWhatsit brothers bought the Old Homeplace from the family who bought it from the family who stole it from the Indians, and they moved in. Old Jacob Harmon, patriarch of the family who settled here not realizing that the area was summer hunting grounds for Shawnee from Ohio, was actually killed by an attack not long before, and people were still a bit uneasy about Indians. The Cecils, who bought the farmstead from the Harmons, had worried about Indians. But the McWhatsits persevered, marrying and begetting nice little Scottish children, building on to the cabin to make a proper two-story house with a porch and turning the old cabin into the kitchen. They built another house just a little further down the road from the cabin for John and his family, while Richard and his family stayed in the original house.

At some point, John moved on to Indiana, but Richard stayed. He married a local girl, and had several children, including a son named William McWhatsit. Time marched on – the McWhatsits turn over generations slowly, on average every forty years – and at the time of the Civil War, William, in his late fifties, had one son. William Addison McWhatsit was twelve years old when the Federal Army came through in May of 1864, intending to cut the railroad bridge over the New River.

Unlike in other parts of Virginia, there weren’t many Civil War battles on this end of the state. It was far less developed (well, truth be told, it still is), and there really wasn’t much reason for an army to come through, except to forage – or to disrupt the other side’s supply line. The Battle of Cloyd’s Mountain took place about two miles from the McWhatsit farm, and never touched it directly, except in two incidents.

Up across the mountain, where their troops were camping on the Shannon farm along the Back Creek bottom, a Union sergeant was instructing his men to build fires with wood from the fences. The outraged homeowner came stomping across the field to pick a bone with the sergeant, shouting about the depredations of the troops amongst his livestock and the holes dug in his cropfields, adding, “And now you rascals have chopped up all my fence rails!” The sergeant, listening to the tirade, finally spat tobacco juice at the farmer’s feet and explained, “No, old man, those ain’t fence rails. Looks like you cut your firewood too long, and my boys is helping you out.” (Heard that story from my father-in-law, who heard it from, as far as I can tell, a member of the Shannon family.)

I won’t get deeply into descriptions of the battle, other than to say that it involved Union troops led by Gen. George Crook, made up of units from Ohio and Pennsylvania, with some artillery units from Kentucky, and two small Virginia units (the 45th and 60th) led by Brig. Gen. Albert Jenkins, along with Home Guard local troops generally made up of boys and old men. It was a rout. After about an hour of fierce fighting, most of it hand-to hand, the Union forces broke through and then had a clear path to the railroad crossing at the river. The Union plan was to destroy the bridge and disrupt supply lines from Tennessee.   Casualties were very heavy on both sides.   (If you want more information on the battle, you can check out the article at Wikipedia, or this detailed look at the battle, complete with modern photos of the site. Of further historical note: Future presidents Col. Rutherford B. Hayes and Major William McKinley both served under Crook in this battle.)

Another unsubstantiated story The CEO tells (no idea where this one came from, other than from his father, but at least partially borne out by official descriptions) is hilarious. Gen. Crook intended to completely destroy the bridge over the New River at Radford, VA. The troops were able to dismantle the rails at the Dublin depot, and they did indeed burn the railroad bridge – but that was because they’d made a big mistake. You can imagine it:

The Union troops have finally dislodged the small group of rebel defenders here on the west bank of the New River, and they’re all standing around the railroad bridge, digging their boots in the dirt and spitting curses, when General Crook comes riding up on his horse. “Well, boys, what’re you waiting for? Light the fuses, blow it up!” He looks closer. “Wait a minute. All I see there on the bridge is hay. Where are the explosives?”

Nobody answers. He asks again, eyes narrowed, voice dangerously quiet, “Where’s the gunpowder?”

A red-faced colonel gets up the courage to raise his face to the general and explain, stammering, “Well, sir – I’m sorry, sir – we seem to have left it in West Virginia.”

And this starts the shouted recriminations: He left it! No, you were supposed to have packed it! We thought they were getting it. Well, it was on the wagon last time I saw it, so where’s the dang wagon? Not my responsibility… well, it weren’t for dang sure my lookout!

And General Crook smacks his forehead and drags his hand down over his face, thinking, “This has got to be the dumbest thing that has ever happened to me…”

Poor guy. Apparently, no heads rolled and nobody got demoted or court-martialed, so you wonder what actually did happen to the explosives. No official account I’ve read has ever mentioned this story, but since the wooden bridge was burned while the stone supports were left standing, that’s at least some small amount of confirmation.   Armies were certainly using explosives to destroy bridges at this time.  However, the Confederates were able to rebuild the bridge and replace the rails within weeks, and continue running the railroad, at least through this area.

The McWhatsits come in here in the aftermath of the battle (and this story is family lore, passed down without any outside corroboration): some Union foragers rode by looking for whatever edibles and valuables they could find, and what they found was a small farm by a spring, with a few mediocre horses standing around under the trees. The soldiers started to round up the horses in preparation for commandeering them, but two teenage girls came out on the porch of the house and begged them not to take the horses. “There’s nobody here but us and an old man and a little boy, and if you take the horses, we’ll starve.”

Such a predicament would hardly have swayed Billy Butcher Sherman, he of the Scorched Earth policy that devastated so much of the South, but these Federals were fresher from home. Likely they had sisters, too, and they must have taken a good look at the weathered house and the sunbrowned girls with their homespun dresses and sharp-bladed Scottish noses, and been struck with pity. The soldiers tipped their hats and rode on, leaving the horses behind.

Not long after that – probably the same day, and this is acknowledged fact – Union medical officials commandeered the house as a hospital, and pressed the McWhatsit girls into service as nurses. Most of the wounded were taken to the larger Cloyd house, closer to the battle, but the wounded Confederate officers were taken to the McWhatsit house. General Jenkins of the Confederate army was among the wounded brought into the house, and Union surgeons amputated his damaged left arm. More acknowledged fact: after most of the Union forces withdrew from the area in the next day or so, having accomplished their objective and gotten wind of Confederate reinforcements coming their way (this news being merely a telegram full of bluff), Confederate cavalry burst into the house and attempted to take the Union surgeons prisoner, and it was only General Jenkins’ insistence that they be allowed to finish treating the Confederate officers that made the cavalry back down.

The family story, handed down from William Addison McWhatsit to his son, William Crockett McWhatsit, and to his son, William Meek McWhatsit, and to his son, The CEO McWhatsit, was that young Add had been handed a grisly package all wrapped up like a joint from the butcher shop and told to bury the general’s arm. So he did.

Back to the corroborated fact: after a few days, General Jenkins was moved to a more commodious home-hospital in the nearby Belspring area, where he seemed to be recuperating well for several days, even beginning to work on his official report of the battle for General Lee. Then an orderly accidentally knocked his ligature loose with some rough handling, and the general bled to death in a very short time.

And once again to the family story: the general’s family was dreadfully upset at the prospect of burying him without his arm, and so young Add was bidden to go disinter Gen. Jenkins’ arm, so that the general could be buried whole. As a grown man reminiscing to his son, Add was wont to shake his head and observe that the weather had been quite dry for some weeks, the ground was extremely hard, and it was no picnic digging up the general’s arm, which was of course in a state of some decay.

The Old Homeplace is still standing, though no one has lived there since the late 1960s. There’s no trace of the Civil War left behind, no bullets in the dooryard or bloodstains on the wood floors, but people keep coming by to look at it. As far as we know, it’s one of the few historical sites still owned by the family that was living there at the time.

Top image was taken by The CEO from our back deck, looking over the farm.  Just a little to the left is the battle site.  Image of the railroad bridge is from the Virginia Tech special image library.  Images of Gen. Jenkins and of his grave were taken from rootsweb.  Note the inscription on the tombstone stating that Gen. Jenkins died at Dublin Station.   We have several pictures of the Old Homeplace, but  none digital.  I could go down there now and take one, but it’s kind of muddy and I’d rather not right at the moment!

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