Whenever I find myself driving through Virginia on US Rt. 15 – usually on my way to visit the homes of the 3rd, 4th, or 5th Presidents – I always want to make a stop at the site of the largest cavalry battle that ever took place in the Western Hemisphere: the Battle of Brandy Station.
In addition to just being a beautiful piece of ground in the rolling hills of Virginia, this was the first battle of the Gettysburg Campaign, so it has a special place in my heart for that reason. Confederate cavalry commander Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart was caught with his pants down here (perhaps even literally) by a newly-rejuvenated Federal cavalry. In total, over 20,000 mounted soldiers charged back and forth here for the better part of the day on June 9, 1863, leading to over 1,400 casualties.
The central feature on the field is Fleetwood Hill. This is where Stuart had his headquarters, and the Confederates ended up rallying on this key high ground as a defensive position. When I first started visiting the field about a decade ago, there were a few large, modern houses along the ridge, and the entire hill was private property. You would never know that today. Fleetwood Hill has since been acquired for preservation and masterfully restored with numerous wayside markers arranged along a trail that tells the story of the battle. There are other interpretive trails in the area of the St. James Church, and the Beverly Ford Road that help give a more complete picture of what took place here.
One of the nice things about the place where I work is that we usually get extra time off around Thanksgiving – normally the day before. Most years it ends up being a free day for me with no other responsibilities, so that means that it’s an excellent time to do some battlefield stomping! Back in the fall of 2018, it specifically meant that I got to visit a few battlefields in the area of Eastern West Virginia that I’d never been to before. This post is made up of my edited notes from that day.
Battle of Shepherdstown (or Boteler’s Ford) – Civil War Battlefield #68
The battlefield is right along the Potomac River. There are a few of the large, metal Antietam / South Mountain / Harper’s Ferry-style wayside markers that tell the story pretty well.
The terrain is the story (isn’t that always the case with these battlefields?). High cliffs along a river. There’s one gap, so obviously that’s where the attack was made. There are also some old cement mill ruins there. It was reasonably serene on this day.
Battle of Hoke’s Run (or Falling Waters or Hainesville) – Civil War Battlefield #69
This battlefield was marked better than I thought it would be. I was able to find a few waysides on the Historical Marker Database, and they tell a thorough story. There’s some “Stonewall” Jackson lore at this field, so that must be why so much attention has been paid here. Terrain seems like it hasn’t changed *too* much, but the Valley Pike (modern-day US Rt. 11) is clearly more built-up than it was during 1861.
Battle of Smithfield Crossing – Civil War Battlefield #70
The fighting at this battlefield seems to have occurred about where WV Rt. 51 crosses Opequon Creek. There are no markers of any kind that I could locate – not even a good place to pull over at the site. Sadly, it was one of the rare battlefields that I couldn’t do much with.
Battle of Summit Point – Civil War Battlefield #71
Not a *battlefield* per se, but any #CivilWarNerd worth his salt has to visit this site that was part of the story leading up to our bloodiest conflict.
The spot where John Brown was executed for murder, inciting a slave insurrection, and treason against the State of Virginia is now located in someone’s yard in the middle of a Charlestown, WV neighborhood. During the Civil War, this part of Virginia would break off and rejoin the Union as a new State of West Virginia, but in 1859 there was still some slaveholding interest here.
It seems like the story is that this area was completely open at the time the gallows were constructed, but the local militia commander later built his house on this spot on purpose. Talk about holding a grudge! There is a nice wayside marker and roadside tablet here. Part of me wonders if having this infamous event happen in your yard increases or decreases your property value.
Back in 2013, Shenandoah University took over ownership of the Union side of the battlefield (it was formerly a golf course) and they are doing their best to rehab it. They had a walking trail with some interpretive markers in place when I visited. Across the Shenandoah River – where the fighting actually happened – is also well-preserved, though not quite as accessible to the public, since that property is owned by the Holy Cross Abbey. I think that there are tours given in the springtime, so it may be worth another visit for that event.
During the Civil War, the Shenandoah Valley was both the breadbasket of the Confederacy, as well as a key transportation corridor used by both sides for their respective invasions. There was almost constant conflict in the region for the duration of the war, and large areas destroyed in actions like “The Burning”. A few summers ago, I toured many of the battlefields in this very important theatre of the war.
Just before the town of McDowell, the Civil War Trust has a small parking lot with markers showing the start of the trail they laid out on their property on Sitlington’s Hill. The signs mention a blueblaze trail, but I couldn’t find any blazes. Combined with the fact that it had just rained, was approaching dusk, and I had no cell phone service, I decided not to venture up the hill. The town was nice, though, and I was able to see the house that Stonewall Jackson used as a headquarters during the Battle of McDowell.
Battle of Cross Keys – Civil War Battlefield #61
A relatively small fight during Stonewall Jackson’s 1862 Shenandoah Valley campaign, Cross Keys is not far to the southeast from Harrisonburg. There’s a wayside marker – a series of them actually – near the cemetery on Battlefield Road. The terrain is very rolling. The Union line was more-or-less along modern Cross Keys Road, and the view to the southeast of the mountains was beautiful. The southern peak of Massanutten Mountain was clearly visible from here.
Battle of Port Republic – Civil War Battlefield #62
Initially, I had some trouble finding the battlefield itself. There is a set of markers near “The Coaling” east of town. The battle took place mainly between that spot and the town. The terrain was basically flat farm fields that are bordered on the north by the south branch of the Shenandoah River.
Battle of Piedmont – Civil War Battlefield #63
More rolling terrain at this battlefield. It is fairly difficult to get a sense for where the lines were. But there are a few markers, and one wayside in the parking lot of the local community center that includes a map.
Battle of Waynesboro – Civil War Battlefield #64
This battlefield – the site of the last fighting in the Shenandoah Valley – has been entirely overtaken by the modern development of the town. I found one marker on W. Main Street near the Masonic Lodge, but there are no waysides here, so there are no maps to orient you to where the action took place.
Battle of New Market – Civil War Battlefield #65
The VMI-run Virginia Museum of the Civil War was fairly sparse during our visit. I got the impression that they were in the midst of re-arranging the exhibits. It’s nice to see them involved at the battle where the most famous aspect is the charge of their cadets. There is a sizeable collection of small arms downstairs which is probably the main attraction. $10 admission seemed a little steep for what it is, though my son was free. He really wanted to get a hat, so I bought him a super-FARBy, cotton kepi with (*UGH*) crossed rifles in the gift shop. It’ll be a fun souvenir for him, nonetheless.
The field itself is small. There is a trail that takes you along the path of the VMI cadets’ attack, and a few reproduction artillery pieces. There’s also a spot where you can get a nice view of the north fork of the Shenandoah River.
Battle of Tom’s Brook – Civil War Battlefield #66
There’s a marker for the Battle of Tom’s Brook along Route 11 in the town where the action took place, and a nice wayside that is deep in the nearby Shenandoah County Park near a storm water pond. A large patch of woods there means that the Valley Pike can’t be viewed from the wayside, so it’s a little hard to really see and appreciate the terrain. Some imagination is required.
Battle of Fisher’s Hill – Civil War Battlefield #67
There are a few markers along Route 11, but that’s not all. A totally separate section of the battlefield – Ramseur’s Hill – has been preserved on the northwest side of I-81. There are a few waysides and a walking trail there. During my initial trip, I didn’t get out to explore too much, as my son was already pretty burned-out on battlefields for the day, but I was lucky enough to come back for a special tour that was given on the 155th anniversary of the Battle of Fisher’s Hill, and the views are amazing from the top of the hill.