Category Archives: American Civil War

Lessons for the learning at Rutherford’s Farm

Yesterday I attended the Rutherford’s Farm 150th tour, one of the Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park’s “150 Years Ago… On This Day” programs highlighting the 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaigns.  This was, as with the Cool Spring tour on Friday, a convenient early evening two-hour tour.  After all, the battle was not that large – though it was significant in the scope of the campaign which followed.

The 150th tour was fairly well attended.  Not a large gathering, as seen at some other events.  But considering the subject, a few dozen attendees is about what one would expect.  Those of us attending were treated to a detailed discussion of the battle and a hands-on, in the ranks demonstration of tactical movements.  And this was an important aspect of the battle, as the Federal troops had to move from column to battle line at a critical juncture of the engagement.  Good for us to understand why “column of fours” was the march order and what it took to transform from that into a line of battle.

We were also treated to an object lesson in battlefield preservation… though probably not the type we preservationists would like to see.  The heart of the battlefield at Rutherford’s Farm is gone.  Well to be accurate, it is still there, but not in the sense of being an interpretable battlefield.  It’s a parking lot.


There is a pull off beside the old turnpike (now US Highway 11, and a divided highway at that point).  There are some waysides and state markers.  But there’s just nothing that visitors might point to with respect to the battlefield.


I tweeted, half-joking, that the 14th West Virginia rolled up the Confederate flanks, fighting through the woods where Target now stands.


I thought about taking a photo from inside the store. But thought better of it.   (And I do wonder why all of the ghosts which allegedly haunt so many Civil War battlefields are at peace with a store selling everything from lingerie to alcoholic beverages.   Then again, maybe that’s proof contrary to the paranormal activity premise….)

What little “green” appears in the photos is not long to remain green.


As the curb suggests, plans call for another store in this area.  Construction is ongoing to the south side of the road, which will completely blot out the heart of this battlefield.

Honestly, we must rate Rutherford’s Farm as a lost battlefield… a preservation failure.  It was just not to be.  The development potential of that ground, being so close to an interstate and bisected by a major highway, was too great for any idea of preservation to hold back the bulldozers.  And this happened in recent memory, as this photo I took in 2007 documents:

Winchester 14 Sept 001

I think, as related several times before, that we are the last generation which will even have the option to preserve Civil War (and other war’s) battlefields here in the United States.  The pace of development and practices of land use are simply forces too great for these sites to remain fallow if unprotected.  My son’s generation will be far more engaged over “view sheds” and defining complementary activity near battlefields.  They won’t have battlefields left to preserve.

We here at the 150ths of these events might look back at earlier times when the battlefields were intact.  That’s because we can, in many cases, actually remember what the fields looked like.  Fifty years from now, Civil War Bicentennialists will look back with envy upon us sesquicentennialists who walked some of these sites.  And they won’t have a memory of Rutherford’s Ford … or Rappahannock Station … or Chantilly… before the development.

“You can’t save it all” will be the response. But should that deter us from, fighting the good fight, saving all that we can?


July 20, 1864: Fort Sumter garrison loses a commander – Captain John C. Mitchel

On July 20, 1864, probably close to mid-day, Captain John C. Mitchel offered this routine report from Fort Sumter:

Seventy-one Parrott shots (19 missed), 175 mortar shells (53 missed) fired at fort.  Private J.A. Todd, Gist Guard, wounded in head and leg, not dangerously.  One negro killed; 2 severely wounded, 5 slightly wounded. Firing from Gregg at southwest angle with 8-inch Parrotts and with mortars from middle battery this morning.

The Federal’s Third Major Bombardment of Fort Sumter continued with this great display of firepower – mostly mortars at this time.  This would be the last report from Mitchel.

As mentioned earlier, Mitchel’s service at Fort Sumter had attracted favorable attention from his superiors. Such is particularly noteworthy as Mitchel was not a native-born southerner, but rather an immigrant from Ireland in a round about way.  Mitchel was the oldest son of John C. Mitchel, Sr. – an Irish patriot.  Briefly, Claudine Rhett described John, Jr.’s early life, in the Southern Historical Society Papers:

When he was eighteen years old his father was tried for “highs treason against the Crown” of England, and he asked and obtained permission to stand by his side in the dock, to show what he too felt and thought about Ireland’s wrongs and woes.

His father owned a beautiful estate, which was confiscated when he was condemned (along with Smith O’Bryan and General Meagher) for their brave words to their countrymen. His household goods were put up and sold at auction, the gates thrown open to the public, and the vulgar gaze and careless touch of strangers desecrated the most personal possessions of the family. Portraits of those who were gone, love-tokens, souvenirs of childhood, favorite horses, beloved pets, all went under the hammer. Their home treasures were dispersed to the four winds of heaven, and their fireside was given to the alien.

John Mitchel, Jr. followed his father into exile in Australia.  Then later he followed his father to America.  I must defer on the details of this bit of Irish and American history to my pal Damian Shiels, who is the web’s foremost authority on the Irish-American experience in the Civil War.  So for brevity here, I’ll add that John, Jr. and his two brothers volunteered to serve in the Confederate army.  While John, Jr. secured a commission in the 1st South Carolina Artillery, James Mitchel served as a staff officer in the Georgia Brigade of the Army of Northern Virginia and William Mitchel joined a Virginia regiment but was killed at Gettysburg.

John, Jr. served through the war at Charleston.  Initially at Fort Moultrie then later moving over as part of the garrison manning Fort Sumter.  When Lieutenant-Colonel Stephen Elliot left the fort for higher command in April, John, Jr. received the position commanding the fort’s garrison.  By July, he’d lead the garrison through several minor bombardments, and now was directing the efforts to sustain the position.  Just “being” with a visible presence every day at Fort Sumter was a victory of sorts for the Confederates by this stage of the siege of Charleston.  John Jr.’s duties during the Third Great Bombardment required that he survey the Federal activity on Morris Island and afloat, assess the damage done, and shore up the walls where needed to sustain that presence.  He was performing those duties on July 20, as his engineer, Captain John Johnson, later recorded:

On the fourteenth day of the bombardment, being the 20th of July, 1864, Captain Mitchel ascended the stairway of the western angle of the gorge, about 1 o’clock P.M., to examine the movements of the fleet and land force of the enemy, preparatory to writing his daily report for transmission to the city by dispatch-boat that night. Arriving at the head of the stairs and passing out upon the level of the original terreplein of the fort, he found the sentinel there at his post well protected by breast-high shelter within the massive parapet of earthwork necessary to secure the safety of the stair-tower beneath it. Stationing himself near the spot, but not within the sentry-box, he rested his arm and glass on the parapet and began his observations.  Before him, in the sea-view, were the low hulls of the monitors lying at anchor off Morris Island, the wooden gunboats and blockaders resting also at their appointed stations outside the bar, and father out, in the offing, a despatch-boat going North.  No movement in the fleet at all that day, except among the tugs and tenders. The sea was smooth, the sky bright, and the sun blazing with midsummer heat.  Not work in the Union batteries of Morris Island close by, their rifle and mortar-shelling keeping their gunners as busy as they could be; hottest time of all at the battered ruin of a fort taking daily transformation into an indestructible earthwork.

The commander was not unduly exposing himself, but while engaged with his glass a mortar-shell of the largest kind rose in the air, and, descending well to the westward of the fort, as if about to strike the wharf, burst at an altitude of some eighty feet above the water. The bursting of a mortar-shell so high in the air and somewhat outside the walls was no more to the garrison than a matter of ordinary occurrence, scarcely noticeable in the climate of the fort.  The commander continued his observation through it all, his eye fixed to the glass, until suddenly struck to the ground by a large piece of the shell, wounding him with great laceration on the left hip.  Had he been in the sentry-box, he would have escaped all hurt, for that was protected on the rear as well as the front.

Taken down from the parapet, Captain Mitchel received attention of the fort’s surgeon.  But at 5 P.M. he died of the wound.  According to Rhett, his last words were, “I die willingly for South Carolina, but oh! that it had been for Ireland!”

That evening, Captain Thomas A. Huguenin arrived at Fort Sumter to replace Mitchel.  The bombardment, and the war, would continue at Fort Sumter.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part I, Serial 65, page 226; Southern Historical Society Papers, Volume 10., edited by Reverend J. William Jones, Chapter 5.48, page 268-72; John Johnson, The Defense of Charleston Harbor: Including Fort Sumter and the Adjacent Islands, 1863-1865, Walker, Evans & Cogswell Company, 1890, page 227.)


Big crowd for Cool Spring 150th

Cool Spring was a small battle in the middle of a season of war.  But the July 18, 1864 engagement was the largest fought in Clarke County, Virginia (in terms of casualties).  Just one of a string of fights in the Shenandoah that summer, coming as General Jubal Early withdrew from his “scare” on Washington. All told, around 13,000 troops engaged.  The result was a Confederate victory and just over 800 casualties.

But it was deserving of a sesquicentennial observance.  Yesterday afternoon I drove over the Blue Ridge for Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park’s “150 Years Ago … On This Day” program at Cool Spring.  Nothing better than a quick Friday afternoon tour of a battlefield.  Icing on the cake was a timing coinciding, nearly to the hour and minute, to events 150 years in the past.

I expected, this being a smaller event of the war, the attendance would be somewhat smaller than other 150ths I’ve attended this season.  Not so.  At the start point, on the Cool Spring Farm and Holy Cross Abby, parking was at a premium.  And the crowd was much bigger than I expected.

CoolSpring 166

Ranger Shannon and Jonathan Noyalas were our guides for the tour.

CoolSpring 167

The battle straddles the Shenandoah River, so after an overview orientation, we walked across the Abby grounds to overlook the site where most of the fighting took place.

CoolSpring 169

The site of the battle on the west side of the river is still much the same as 150 years ago.

CoolSpring 172

After that, we drove over to the east side of the river to Shenandoah University’s Shenandoah River Campus.

CoolSpring 184

Here we took stopped down at the river for a view of Island Ford, and discussed the closing actions of the battle and aftermath.

CoolSpring 189

This portion of the battlefield was only recently transferred from golf course to campus.  Now it serves a different purpose – as a “hands on” classroom for environmental studies.  The long range plan calls for continued rehabilitation towards a landscape closer to what it was in the 1860s.  Not only is this portion of the battlefield now preserved, but it will serve as a laboratory for those learning how to work the environmental aspects of preservation at other locations.

The site is open for visitors and boasts a couple of Civil War Trails markers:

CoolSpring 152

I got in a few tweets and Facebook posts while out.  What impressed me the most was the crowd.  Not some 20-30 folks.  Easily over 100.  Not overwhelming, but plenty of evidence that the “big” events this season have not played out us sesquicentennialists.

Be sure to follow Cedar Creek and Bell Grove National Historical Park on their Facebook Page.  They have several of these “150 Years Ago … On This Day” tours scheduled.  Next up… Rutherford’s Farm… beyond the parking lot!