“By fours, right about wheel” and a landscape lost: Loss of Hansbrough Ridge – 1863 and 2015

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been working up to what Alonzo Gray called the “shock action” of cavalry when using the saber, and occasionally the revolver.  Before breaking down this shock action, as described by Gray, in more detail, allow me to pull up one of his examples… as it is timely to events occurring this very day in regard to preservation.

Readers know well the events of June 9, 1863.  Often our focus is, for good reason, on the fighting that took place from Beverly’s Ford to Fleetwood Hill.  That is the heart of the battlefield.  But the fighting around Stevensburg was no less violent or deadly.   On the morning of the battle, Colonel Alfred Duffié led the Second Cavalry Division, about 2,000 strong, from Kelly’s Ford towards Stevensburg. His orders were to cover the flank of Brigadier-General David M. Gregg’s main force.

Contesting Duffié’s advance was Colonel Mathew C. Butler, with the 2nd South Carolina Cavalry.  To protect the road to Culpeper (and hold the screen in front of Confederate infantry), Butler initially placed one squadron on Hansbrough Ridge.  When Duffié’s force arrived at the ridge, Butler rushed forward Lieutenant-Colonel Frank Hampton, brother of Brigadier-General Wade Hampton, and a detachment of troopers.  When arriving at Stevensburg, Frank Hampton pushed out and posted dismounted troopers across the ridge in front of Salubria, a colonial era plantation house which still stands today.

The presence of this dismounted line, reinforced later by the 4th Virginia Cavalry, under Colonel Williams Wickham, caused some delay of Duffié’s already painfully slow advance. In spite of the cautious stance, the troopers in Duffié’s First Brigade gained a lodgement on the ridge.  (This occuring about the same time that Gregg’s column was closing on Fleetwood Hill.)  To blunt this push, the Confederates were about to reset their lines.   However, just as a column was wheeling to form, the Federals charged down the road and over the ridge with devastating affect.  Major Henry B. McClellan later wrote, in The Life and Campaigns of Major General J.E.B. Stuart:

Lieutenant Broughton informed Adjutant Moore that he delivered a message from Colonel Hampton to Colonel Wickham to the effect that he (Hampton) would close back upon the 4th [Virginia] regiment so as to make a charge in solid column.  At this moment the rear of the 4th regiment was emerging upon the road from the woods, and the order “By fours, right about wheel,” was heard.  Whether this command was given by Colonel Hampton to execute the movement contemplated in the message delivered by Lieutenant Broughton, or whether it was given by some officer of the 4th regiment so as to bring the faces of his men toward the enemy, is entirely uncertain.  The result was most unfortunate.  Captain Chestnut and Lieutenant Rhett, at the head of Hamtpon’s men, remained facing the enemy, to conceal, if possible, a movement which they felt must bring an attack upon them at once. But the enemy saw the wheel, and instantly ordered the charge.  Colonel Hampton again ordered the right about wheel, and placed himself at the head of his men; but it was of no avail.  In a moment they were swept to the side of the road, and the full force of the charge fell upon the 4th Virginia.  Colonel Hampton, while engaging one of the enemy with his sabre, was shot through the body by another, and was mortally wounded.  He succeeded in reaching the house of John S. Barbour, west of Stevensburg, where he died that night.

I would submit this as the “vetted” Confederate version of events, carefully reconstructed by McClellan after the war.  Though I would point out that others, particularly Wade Hampton, had more pointed views of the actions that took place along the road over Hansbrough Ridge.

However, let us set aside for another day the blame for Frank Hampton’s death.  Instead, for our purposes of discussing cavalry tactics, let us take this as an example submitted by Alonzo Gray of “shock action” by cavalry.  In this case, a charge by the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry landed squarely upon the Confederates and opened the road to Stevensburg.  Such offered a great opportunity for Duffié, which he never picked up.  Duffié might have uncovered the presence of Confederate infantry.  Or he might have rushed to support the attacks on Fleetwood Hill.  Or both!  The battle… if not an entire military operation, which we would later know as “The Gettysburg Campaign”…  might have turned on actions taken at that moment at that ground where the road to Culpeper passed over Hansbrough Ridge.

But it didn’t.

And for us to really take into consideration the particulars – the opportunities and beyond to why those opportunities were left on the ground – we need to head to that ground.  Unfortunately, this is what we have to consider today:

VA3 widening1

This view looks down Virginia Highway 3, to the west towards Stevensburg, as it passes over Hansbrough Ridge.  The area where Frank Hampton was mortally wounded is just past the telephone pole.  The exposed earth is the result of widening efforts by Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT).  I’ve mentioned (and complained) about this in earlier posts.  The widening was, unfortunately, pushed through.

And there is a serious problem with this operation.  Under a Memorandum of Agreement, of which I retain an unsigned copy, VDOT operates this project with several stipulations in place.  One of which is:

In the event that a previously unidentified archaeological resource is discovered during ground-disturbing activities associated with the construction of the Project, the VDOT, in accordance with Section 107.16(d) of the VDOT’s Road and Bridge Specifications, shall require the construction contractor to halt immediately all construction work involving subsurface disturbance in the area of the resource and in the surrounding areas where additional subsurface remains can be reasonably expected to occur.  Work in all other areas of the Project may continue.

I’ve visited this site a couple times in the last few weeks.  Others I know have visited the site.  And each of us have made the same comment – there are artifacts being exposed, dug-up, and disrupted by the work.  I also hear that now “relic hunters” are now scavenging the work area when the contractor is not on site.  For that reason, I’m not going to pass along details of what I’ve seen.

You might counter that neither myself or the “relic hunters” are authorities in regard to archaeological findings.  Well that’s my point.  Implied with the MOA there is supposed to be an authority to determine what, if anything, is being uncovered.  This road has seen human activity since colonial times (and likely even before then).  Significant activity, in addition to what I’ve mentioned for June 9, 1863, occurred at this spot during the Civil War.  Indeed, it would be impossible for no artifacts lay by this road.  It’s even possible that human remains lay beside this road.

So why isn’t there an observer on site during work hours to determine what exactly the spades and shovels are uncovering?

One thought on ““By fours, right about wheel” and a landscape lost: Loss of Hansbrough Ridge – 1863 and 2015

  1. Craig, you may recall I served as a member of the “community advisory group” created to “work with VDOT to identify and resolve concerns about VDOT’s project to widen Route 3.”
    And after enduring and finally rejecting this blatant VDOT “rubber-stamp process,” I can report the devastation to Core Battlefield we lamentably witness today is just one more example of VDOT’s heavy-handed objective to do precisely what they want to do, no matter the impact on a landowner’s property; or, an historic resource.

    Just so your readers know:
    VDOT is presently engaged in the partial destruction of a designated “Virginia Historic Landmark” (1991), and a property, “Hansbrough’s Ridge,” correspondingly “determined eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.”
    And just to show you how flippantly VDOT approaches its responsibility to protect the Commonwealth’s unparalleled historic resources, VDOTs “District Preservation Manager” oversaw an earlier assessment that bizarrely concluded Rt. 3 road widening “would not have any adverse impact” on Hansbrough’s Ridge. That loopy VDOT study indeed concluded the vital Stevensburg Phase of the Battle of Brandy Station–occurring at the base of Hansbrough’s Ridge– was a “small affair,” and further suggested the site retained “little historic integrity.”
    After reading that profoundly insensitive (and inaccurate) conclusion, I wrote (Feb. 2011) this “District Preservation Manager,” that Rt. 3 widening through Hansbrough’s Ridge would of course constitute “an adverse effect on this historically 1000-yard section of Rt. 3, and it is ungenerous to assert widening will not have any adverse effect.”

    And here it is:
    If VDOT was at all vigilant and serious about protecting historic resources– and identifying potential human remains on a key section of Core Battlefield–the “District Preservation Manager” and a staff of professional archeologists would have been on hand when the huge bulldozer began ripping up the base of Hansbrough’s Ridge on October 6.
    As it was, I was there–not VDOT–and so asked the bulldozer operator who at VDOT authorized him to go forward with this destructive, unsupervised activity. His friendly reply, “I was just told to do this.” He added, “But, it is good you know the history, here.” (A reply that did not make me feel better..)

    So, as you can see, we who care about these things are in conflict with those who could care less. And their name, “VDOT.”

    And we are not the only ones who have been treated with cavalier high-handedness by VDOT.. One can go speak speak to nearby neighbors who have experienced their front lawns ripped to pieces by VDOT, absent satisfactory compensation–as the neighbors see it.

    And relic hunters have descended upon the scene while telling neighbors (at Salubria, etc.) that “Branch Highways” (contractor) “has given us permission to hunt here.” This is most probably a relic-hunter ruse–so typical of their ilk–but again, why is VDOT staff not on-scene to protect against this flagrant trespassing of their own legal ROW?

    VDOT created a Memorandum of Agreement (2012)–a profoundly legal document– that mandates VDOT do certain things.. We will follow VDOT compliance in this regard carefully, one of which is to prepare “an updated NRHP nomination form for the Hansbrough’s Ridge Historic District.”

    As one who amassed the data (1989-1990) underpinning the original NR nomination that helped result in Hansbrough’s present, “determined eligible for NR” status–and the “Virginia Historic Landmark” designation, I can report VDOT has not been in touch with me. So, if they are preparing such a nomination, they are doing so, “in-house.” Scary thought, huh?..

    Because in the end–far more so than any agency with whom this former federal and congressional investigator has interacted over many years–VDOT will do what VDOT wants to do.

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