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:
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.