Hansbrough’s Ridge winter encampment site WILL be preserved!

Last week, Fredericksburg’s Free Lance-Star ran an article by Clint Schemmer, and concurrently run on their website, detailing efforts to preserve a Civil War site on Hansborough’s Ridge, in Culpeper County:

The Virginia Outdoors Foundation, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, the Civil War Trust and others are working to save Hansbrough’s Ridge, a commanding rampart near Stevensburg that sheltered a big part of the Army of the Potomac in the bitter-cold winter of 1863-64. The site is a Virginia Historic Landmark.

The VOF board voted Thursday to give the trust a $250,000 grant toward preserving the 174-acre site, contingent on a conservation easement being placed on it. The property, which stretches from State Route 3 north almost to Cole’s Hill, includes incredibly well-preserved remnants of soldiers’ camps, field hospitals, defensive trenches and a signal station.

In addition to the VOF grant, a pledge from the American Battlefield Protection Program and the seller leave the Civil War Trust and other preservationists within a short reach of closing this deal.  Clint’s article states around $50,000 would be needed to reach the sale price.

Hansbrough’s Ridge is one of those “lesser known” and “off the beaten path” sites where one can actually SEE history in situ.  Specific to its “battlefield” status, significant action played out across Hansbrough’s Ridge during the battle of Brandy Station.   Later in the same year of the war, the ridge became the winter home for portions of the Army of the Potomac’s Second Corps.  From late December, 1863 through the first days of May, 1864, soldiers lived on the Hansbrough’s Ridge.  When they broke camp there, they marched southeast towards the Rapidan River and the infamous Wilderness of Central Virginia.  Those steps down Hansbrough’s Ridge were the first of the Overland Campaign.

What makes Hansborough’s Ridge so remarkable is, in part due to remoteness from populated sections of the county and also in part due to geology of the ridge, the campsite was left unchanged for decades.  As the article notes:

Virginia historians say they know of only one surviving place from the war’s Eastern Theater that is somewhat comparable. It’s the 41-acre Stafford County Civil War Park, which holds three earthen forts and the remains of winter huts that Union troops built to warm themselves in the winter of 1862–63, a transformative time that many called their army’s “Valley Forge.”

Similarly, the following winter was important to resting and refitting soldiers of the Army of the Potomac who had been fighting for two years, and to drilling new recruits.

“Pristine” is a word often overused, in my opinion, in regard to Civil War sites.  There are precious few sites that are, by definition, pristine.  I can say that Hansbrough’s Ridge is absolutely the closest I’ve seen to pristine in my forty years of visiting Civil War sites.  In my visits, I’ve seen hut sites … not rock piles that were hut sites… but the actual hut sites with the walls as clearly defined as the day the soldiers left.  Some of these localities were captured in wartime photographs, offering vital context to what we see on the ground today.

I’m hesitant to post a lot of photos of the site, pending closure and firm security of the site from trespassing.  But allow me to offer one:

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We know, based on accounts of the soldiers who stayed on Hansbrough’s Ridge, were those bricks likely came from.  But that’s just the “thread” to follow here.  It will bring us to the larger story of how those soldiers lived; what they experienced; and most importantly, why they spent a cold, lonely winter on a ridgetop in Virginia.

That story is not just one of artifacts or rock-piles, but the context of their presence.  There are other reminders – in place, mind you – that speak of the haste as the soldiers broke camp that spring.  All of which is why this is an important site to preserve.  This site needs to be studied – properly and professionally – not looted by those who would “relic hunt” thus removing context from the artifacts.  You see, it is the RIDGE itself, and not some solitary button or dropped musket ball, that will tell this story.  The whole RIDGE.

And with a broader vision, we consider the efforts to preserve Hansbrough’s Ridge in light of efforts to create a state park for Brandy Station and Cedar Mountain Battlefields.  I can see a time when visitors can contemplate both battlefield and encampment while touring Culpeper’s Civil War sites.

Brandy Station Battle App now available for download

Civil War Trust has added another Battle App to their menu. The latest focuses on the battlefield at Brandy Station:


The Brandy Station Battle App includes the features we’ve grown to enjoy with the earlier selections in the series.  But, as we’ve seen with the other apps, there is a need to tailor the content presentation to meet the requirements of the field.  For instance, Brandy Station has a larger map than many of the earlier Battle Apps:


We’ve seen larger maps – say for the Overland, Petersburg, Appomattox, or Atlanta Campaigns.  But those are “campaign” maps.  As single “battles” go, this is a large map.   That’s because the movements at Brandy Station cover far more ground than most “larger,” in terms of numbers engaged, battles of the Civil War.  That is actually an interpretive point I impress upon visitors when leading tours of Brandy Station.   The opening action of the Gettysburg Campaign was fought over a larger area than the three day battle in July 1863.

In addition to the fifteen stop tour, the app includes a number of nearby Points of Interest.  These speak to the intensity of activity in Culpeper County during the Civil War.  If the armies were not fighting over Brandy Station and Fleetwood Hill, then they were camping on it:


And there is much more that couldn’t be included in the app.  But some day in the future, there will be ample interpretation to describe the numerous actions and activities across Culpeper County.

Campaign 1776: Towards preservation of battlefields from other wars

Yesterday the Civil War Trust made a major change with their organizational focus.  Though the name does not change, the Trust’s efforts extend to preservation of Revolutionary War battlefields.  In the web announcement (on the Campaign 1776 web site), the Trust said:

Nearly 240 years after the “shot heard ‘round the world” signaled the beginning of the journey toward American independence, historians and preservationists gathered in Princeton, N.J., to launch the first-ever national initiative to protect and interpret the battlefields of the Revolutionary War. The new effort, titled ‘Campaign 1776,’ is a project of the Civil War Trust, the nation’s most successful battlefield preservation advocate. Campaign 1776 will employ the same proven strategy of harnessing public-private partnerships to permanently protect hallowed ground that has made the Civil War Trust one of the country’s top charitable land conservation organizations.

The efforts will soon extend to War of 1812 battlefields.

The first preservation target for Campaign 1776 is 4.6 acres at Princeton, New Jersey.  The Trust is calling for $25,000 in donations.  That’s a low jump for an organization which has preserved thousands of acres and routinely calls for millions of dollars for Civil War sites.  You will see from the campaign page, the Trust is taking its familiar and very successful format from Civil War projects and applying that to these new targets… with a little adaptation, of course.

Adaptation?  Yes, let me offer examples.  A one page summary of the American Revolution… but before you give me the rolling eyes treatment, thing about it.  We all know about the dearth of knowledge about history among the general American population.  I don’t need to play back some “in the street” interviews or a compilation of political gaffes to demonstrate that.  And lets face it, if one mentions “the war” in conversation here in the U.S., very likely that is one of two – the Civil War or World War II.  Those have gotten the most print and film play.  So in most cases, convincing someone that Revolutionary War battlefields are important enough to put money on, the discussion has to start with “what was that war about?”  How many out there will understand “Southern Campaign” outside of the context of Richard Nixon?  So, I’d not give the eye-roll to what you might think a “introductory-level” opening.

Adaptation?  Yes, for new allies.  The Trust has long worked with the National Park Service (through the American Battlefield Protection Program) and with other organizations in the ranks, such as National Trust for Historic Preservation and Journey Through Hallowed Ground at the national level. Likewise the Trust has partnered with local organizations, too many to list here, to bring the “small” preservation efforts to the fore.  There are some local organizations already focused on Revolutionary War and War of 1812 preservation.  Crossroads of the American Revolution (Revolutionary New Jersey) is one highlighted with the Princeton effort.  At the national level, while many of the “Civil War” allies apply, there are other organizations to bring into the conversation, such as the Society of the Cincinnati.  These new alliances will only add to and strengthen the conversation about preservation.

I see the Trust’s additions as a natural evolution towards a broader discussion of battlefield preservation. But I’m sure there are some out there who will voice concern that these battlefields from other wars will detract from the core mission focused on the Civil War … or maybe just be a token effort suffering in the shadows of those established preservation efforts.  If I may offer a counterpoint to that, consider this:

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That Civil War Trails marker is located on the Yorktown Battlefield.  While everyone (we hope) would identify Yorktown as a Revolutionary War battle of great importance, few would pause for the Civil War events at the same location.  Certainly the same things that brought the colonists to the Peninsula, brought soldiers to Yorktown… again and again.  And that is just a handy example, as I could well cover several pages here on the blog with sites with some Revolutionary War and Civil War connections. It’s a common theme with history.  Our physical world has layers upon layers of history.  We just have to know how best to view that.  And it helps that, in the case of the site above, different organizations have preserved and interpreted.

At the same time, we in the Civil War-centered discussions need to recognize that “our” great chapter of the history book is but one chapter.  It is a part of this great story arc that is the American experience.  Unfortunately, in our progress driven existence, a lot of things get recycled.  Particularly places where history happened.  I think of it this way:  If some of my preservation budget goes to help a Revolutionary War site, then it is not just the “matching” donation I’m banking on, but rather in the longer sense the “matching” interest that such encourages.  The more people that are sensitive in the interest of historic preservation, the healthier our knowledge of history becomes.