Battlefield Visits: Northern Virginia

Three years ago today, I took my boys on a day trip to Northern Virginia to check out some battlefields that we’d never seen before. It turned out to be a really cool experience and set many of our road trip traditions. Let’s dive in to the battlefields!

Aldie – Civil War Battlefield #34

One of the gaping holes in my list of battlefields had been the three cavalry actions that led up to the Battle of Gettysburg, so they were the fields I wanted to see most on this trip. Aldie was the first of these small battles, and I wrote a post about it a few years ago.

Aldie is a VERY small town. There is a cool-looking mill there, though it was closed when we visited. The fighting took place west of town, and there are markers and waysides there that do a good job of explaining the action.

Middleburg – Civil War Battlefield #35

The second of those closely-clustered, pre-Gettysburg cavalry engagements, the Battle of Middleburg has also been covered before on this blog.

The town itself is quite nice. In fact, it is the kind of place where you pass polo fields on the way in. The center of town has a few boutique-type shops and restaurants. It really seems like the kind of place that you could have as a destination with your significant other.

On the downside, I couldn’t find any signs discussing the battle action. It turns out of course that I just wasn’t looking in the right place. I’ll be making a return trip to the area one of these days.

Upperville – Civil War Battlefield #36

The third and largest of the cavalry engagements I wanted to see was the Battle of Upperville.

The fighting took place east of the town in a large, bowl-like area. It’s quite pretty there. The Goose Creek bridge is well-preserved and serves as the visual hallmark of the battlefield. A small park on Vineyard Hill has a wayside explaining the action and a great view.

Thoroughfare Gap – Civil War Battlefield #37

One of the actions leading up to the Second Battle of Manassas, the Battle of Thoroughfare Gap took place in the area where modern-day Interstate 66 crosses the Bull Run mountains.

There is not much here – a few roadside markers sit beside State Route 55 near the Broad Run Post Office and across the highway from the Chapman’s Mill ruins.

Buckland Mills – Civil War Battlefield #38

Not much of the field for the Battle of Buckland Mills is accessible though the Civil War Trust bought up some land here. It appears to be in a decent state of preservation. A small portion of the mill town still exists as well.

There is a marker explaining the battle along a small road right off of US 15 / 29 near Manassas. George Armstrong Custer fought here, which seems to account for at least some interest among history buffs.

Bristoe Station – Civil War Battlefield #39

The largest and best-preserved of the fields I saw that day was for the Battle of Bristoe Station. This was one of those forgotten battles (along with Mine Run) that took place in the autumn after Gettysburg. This offensive movement by the Confederates resulted in a small Union victory.

A park has been created out of the preserved land and it appears to be well-used by the community. There is also an audio tour that can be followed from your cell phone, and it really helps to explain Bristoe Station and the other area actions that led up to it. Since that first trip, I’ve been back to Bristoe Station a couple times and it is always nice.

Battlefield Visits: Small Actions in Maryland

While there were many important events happening in Maryland concerning the War of the Rebellion, the Civil War Sites Advisory Commission identified only seven “official” battlefields here in my native state. There are a few that you may know of (and that I’ve covered here already – Antietam, Monocacy, and South Mountain) but some of the smaller ones remain under-the-radar for most folks (and even for some #CivilWarNerds). Today, I’ll be writing about those.

Boonsboro – Civil War Battlefield #24

The battlefield as seen from where the wayside markers are. - <i>Photo by the Author</i>
The Boonsboro battlefield as seen from where the wayside marker is. – Photo by the Author

After the Battle of Gettysburg, the Confederates started to pull back toward Virginia. The weather was bad, and it took a long time for them to retreat across southern Pennsylvania and through Maryland. Several small actions took place along the way – mostly involving cavalry units fighting each other. The Battle of Boonsboro was just such an action.

There is a wayside marker in the parking lot of Boonsboro Antiques and Collectibles that explains the action that took place mostly across the road. This rather messy engagement wasn’t much more than a delaying action for the Confederates.

The Washington Monument on South Mountain is just <i>barely</i> visible from the battlefield, as it would have been in 1863. - <i>Photo by the Author</i>
The Washington Monument on South Mountain is just barely visible from the battlefield, as it would have been in 1863. – Photo by the Author

Williamsport – Civil War Battlefield #25

Not really a single battle as much as a drawn-out series of small pokes and prods, the Battle of Williamsport was the final piece of the Confederate retreat following Gettysburg.

The bridge that carries modern-day Route 11 is roughly in the location where the Confederates crossed the Potomac in Williamsport. - <i>Photo by the Author</i>
The bridge that carries modern-day Route 11 is roughly in the location where the Confederates crossed the Potomac in Williamsport. – Photo by the Author

There are numerous markers surrounding Williamsport that discuss the various stages of the combat there. With no major action taking place, it is hard to direct you to any one place. I found a walk along the C&O Canal to be quite nice when I visited, as it affords an opportunity to learn about a little more than just the Civil War history of the area. One of the major visitors centers is located near the site of the Confederate crossing.

Folck’s Mill – Civil War Battlefield #57

The Battle of Folck’s Mill was a very minor action near Cumberland, Maryland. Mostly an artillery duel, it was fought by local militia protecting the city of Cumberland from a Confederate raid late in the war.

Sadly, what is left of the field is extremely difficult to access. The mill itself still exists – at least as ruins – but it is surrounded by highways and private property. You would never know it was there. There are some wayside markers located on the grounds of the Ali Ghan Shriner’s Hall that discuss the action, but the terrain has been completely changed by the modern highways and interchanges in the area. The approaches and artillery positions have been completely obliterated, so a fair amount of imagination is needed on a visit.

Hancock – Civil War Battlefield #58

Surprisingly, this is the ONLY “official” battle of Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s Bath-Romney Campaign in the winter of 1862. Hard to believe since there was really no combat during the Battle of Hancock. Jackson showed up on the Virginia (present-day West Virginia) side of the Potomac and hurled some artillery rounds at the Union troops in town. After a couple of days, he moved on. Simple as that.

There are markers explaining some of the action on the Maryland side of the river, along the C&O Canal. The town itself has some character, and if you’re there on a day they’re open, the Hancock Town Museum is worth a visit.

Harry Gilmor

Colonel Harry Gilmor
Colonel Harry Gilmor.

The first Civil War burial that I discovered at Loudon Park was Confederate Col. Harry Gilmor. He was present at the Battle of Gettysburg as a Major in command of the 1st MD Cavalry Battalion (CSA) – part of Fitzhugh Lee’s brigade – though they did not participate in the action at the East Cavalry field.

After Gettysburg, he continued his service in the cavalry, serving most notably under Lt. General Jubal Early during his campaign through Maryland which culminated in the Battle of Monocacy in July of 1864. I actually found out about his burial in Loudon Park from the book I read about that campaign recently. He didn’t fight to the end of the war though; he was captured by Union troops in February of 1865 while on a raid in West Virginia.

After the war, he wrote a book about his experiences, and went on to serve as the Baltimore City Police Commissioner for 5 years.

Col. Gilmor is buried in the Confederate Hill section of Loudon Park. A very prominent headstone marks his gravesite:

Location of Confederate Hill
Location of Confederate Hill. Map by Apple Maps.

Harry Gilmor's Monument
Harry Gilmor’s Monument. Photo by the author.

Detail on the front of Harry Gilmor's Monument.
Detail on the front of Harry Gilmor’s Monument. Photo by the author.

Detail of the left side of Harry Gilmor's Monument.
Detail of the left side of Harry Gilmor’s Monument. Photo by the author.

Detail of the rear of Harry Gilmor's Monument.
Detail of the rear of Harry Gilmor’s Monument. Photo by the author.

Detail of the right Harry Gilmor's Monument, marking his wife's burial.
Detail of the right side of Harry Gilmor’s Monument, marking his wife’s burial. Photo by the author.

As you may guess (with a whole section named “Confederate Hill”) there are certainly a few more prominent leaders with Gettysburg connections buried at Loudon Park. In the next installment, we’ll show the grave of one of the infantry commanders from that battle.

Gettysburg Live 150 – 4:30pm – South Cavalry Field

After the failure of Pickett’s Charge, the Union cavalry decided to try their own flanking movement just about now, 150 years ago.

The brigades of newly-appointed Generals Elon Farnsworth and Wesley Merritt, under the over-all command of Brig. General Judson Kilpatrick, would probe to find the Confederate right flank.

Merritt’s men would be on the left of the advance, fighting dismounted up the Emmitsburg Road. Determined fighting from the Confederates of Law’s division, and sufficient reinforcements on their side, meant that this attack stalled.

On the right, Farnsworth’s men were in the woods on Bushman’s Hill. They would charge through the rocky forest on horseback – not the best choice. The attack would become disjointed, and the young Brig. General Farnsworth would pay for Kilpatrick’s poor plan with his life.

The Confederate flank would not be turned, and with no frontal assault coming from Cemetery Ridge, the Confederates were safe for the night.

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With the failure of this Union attack, the combat at Gettysburg was over. In 3 days, nearly 170,000 men had fought here, and 51,000 became casualties. It is the bloodiest battle ever fought by Americans in any war, and the largest and bloodiest ever to take place in the western hemisphere.

The massive numbers of dead (over 8,000) will lead to the creation of the first National Cemetery here in the coming months. On November 19, 1863, at the dedication ceremony for that cemetery, Abraham Lincoln will give one of the greatest speeches in American history. His “appropriate remarks” will bring meaning to the devastation, and a purpose to finishing the war.

Gettysburg Live 150 – 2:15pm – East Cavalry Field

When J.E.B. Stuart fired off those cannons to signal Lee, the alarm was instantly raised.

Brig. General David McMurtrie Gregg brought his men – two brigades under the command of Col. John McIntosh, and newly-appointed Brig. General George A. Custer – up the Low Dutch Road to meet the threat to the Union rear. By this time 150 years ago, they were in position to do something.

It began with an artillery duel. The well-trained Union gunners were able to overpower Stuart’s horse artillery. J.E.B. would need another trick to get past them.

He decided on a flanking movement, but he was blocked by troopers from the 5th Michigan Cavalry. Just as he had them breaking, the 7th Michigan counter-attacked, personally led by General Custer himself.

Fighting would swirl around these fields for less than an hour. Charge and counter-charge happened again, and again General Custer and his Michigan boys made the difference.

The struggle came to a head when Col. McIntosh’s brigade was able to flank the Confederates, wounding Confederate Brig. General Wade Hampton in the process. In mass confusion, and nearly surrounded, the Rebel horsemen had no choice but to retreat.

While relatively light on casualties for both sides, this little-mentioned action represented another step up for the Union cavalry, and another missed opportunity for J.E.B. Stuart and the Confederates. The tides were slowly turning.

Gettysburg Live 150 – 12:30pm – Confederate Cavalry in the East

While the fighting resumed on Culp’s Hill early in the morning, General Lee came up with his strategy for the day’s action.

Originally, he wanted to repeat the attacks on the left and right from yesterday, hoping that more ground could be gained this time. Lt. General Longstreet convinced him that the Union left was well-situated on the ridges south of town. Lee changed his strategy – he would launch an attack that would become famous against the center of the Union line, and his cavalry would have a part to play this time.

The Confederate artillery would break up the Union defenses, the infantry would push the Yankees off Cemetery Ridge, and the cavalry would be waiting to mop up the remains.

J.E.B. Stuart was to go around the Union right, probing for the rear of the enemy. Once he found it, he should signal General Lee to let him know that the cavalry was in position.

150 years ago right now, four cannons fired off on Cress Ridge near the Rummel Farm – one blast in each compass direction. This was the signal. Unfortunately for Maj. General Stuart, his commander wasn’t the only person to hear it.

Gettysburg Live 150 – 6:00pm – J.E.B. Stuart at Carlisle

While the main battle has raging all day, Confederate cavalry commander, J.E.B. Stuart kept finding ways to distract himself from the task at hand, namely, finding the rest of the Confederate army.

When he reached the outskirts of York, he found out that, while Lt. General Ewell’s men had been there, they weren’t any longer. They had been ordered to the west, to join up with the rest of the army. Stuart got back on the road to look for them.

Just about now, 150 years ago, the Confederate cavalry arrived at Carlisle expecting to find Ewell’s Corps, but once again, Stuart just missed them. Instead, he found Union militia troops under the command of Brig. General William “Baldy” Smith. Unlike some of the other militia commanders, Smith was determined to defend the town.

Stuart sent a messenger into town demanding surrender. Smith refused. After an hour or so of back-and-forth, Stuart had had enough. He brought up his artillery and shelled Carlisle, causing few injuries and starting several fires in the process.

Gettysburg Live 150 – 11:00am – Buford Arrives at Gettysburg

150 years ago right now, Union Brig. General John Buford’s 1st Cavalry Division arrives in Gettysburg.

The folks in town are very happy to see him. Only a few minutes before, a Confederate scouting force – a brigade of infantry under the command of Brig. General J. Johnston Pettigrew – came near the town in search of supplies. He is told that they moved to the west along the Chambersburg Pike, toward Cashtown – back the way they came. Buford decides to go have a look.

Pettigrew left in a hurry because he saw the Union cavalry coming. His orders were to scout, not to start a battle, so he decided to go back to headquarters to let his superiors, Maj. General Henry Heth and Lt. General A.P. Hill, know what was going on. The Union army was north of the Potomac, and closing in on the rebels.

Neither Heth nor Hill believed Pettigrew’s story. You see, Pettigrew was not a West Point-trained, professional soldier like they were; he was a college professor from North Carolina who had spent most of the war in coastal defense duties, not in battle. How could he know the difference between the Army of the Potomac and the inexperienced local militia that General Early’s men had brushed aside a few days before? These had to be those same troops back for more punishment. Heth, new to his division command and looking to gather glory to his name, asked for and received permission from A.P. Hill to take his full division to Gettysburg the next day to rough-up these home guards.

By mid-afternoon, General Buford had a feeling that Pettigrew’s “retreat” was not for real. Though his subordinates disagreed, Buford knew the rebels would be back in force. Gettysburg had a superb road network, and good high ground all around the town. If a battle was to be fought, this would be a good place to do it. Buford wanted to retain control of this excellent position, so he dug in for a defense. He sent word of his plan to General Reynolds, commanding the western sector of the advance, in the hope that he could bring the 3 corps of infantry that were with him down in Emmitsburg, up to Gettysburg by morning.