Thursday, October 15, 2020

15 things that caught my eye at Brice's Cross Roads battlefield

At Brice's Cross Roads, an impressive monument honors both armies.

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On June 10, 1864, cavalry commander Nathan Bedford Forrest, a military genius but a loathsome human being, whipped a numerically superior force at the Battle of Brice's Cross Roads. Confederates inflicted 2,610 casualties (vs. roughly 500 of their own), captured 200 supply wagons and more than a dozen artillery pieces, and added the lead bullet point to Forrest's impressive Civil War resume. The U.S. Army wasn't blessed with anyone with the high military IQ of the "Wizard of the Saddle" -- nearly its entire supply train was parked in a field within easy range of Confederate gunners. 

Brice's Cross Roads scouting report: Fine interpretive markers but empty boxes for pamphlets. (Remarkably did not see mentions of "hail of fire" or "storm of lead.") Good walking trails. Battlefield visitors: Two. Hello waves by locals: Many. Rural Mississipians score high on "Blogger Friendliness Meter." Wildlife spotted: One dead armadillo, clawed feet pointing to the heavens.  

A MARKER NEAR THE CROSSROADS with the obligatory "battle-scarred" and "blood-stained floors" references. 

A MASS GRAVE for Confederate soldiers in Old Bethany Cemetery, near the crossroads. 

THESE WEATHER-WORN (AND PERHAPS BATTLE-SCARRED) GRAVESTONES in the cemetery, where fighting swirled, causing havoc in the then 11-year-old burial ground.  

FOUR GREAT WORDS ... on this stone on a ledge of the memorial for Reverend Samuel Agnew, whose church was destroyed during the battle. 

THE VIEW FROM LOG CABIN RIDGE. From here, on an oppressively hot late-spring day, Forrest's artillery shelled Yankees as they crossed the narrow bridge across Tishomingo Creek, yards ahead of the car about to cross the modern span in the near distance. 

A STATE HISTORICAL MARKER spelling out the awful result for the U.S. Army.

A FIELD where most of the 250-wagon U.S. supply train was parked. When the Federals retreated  across the rain-swollen creek, the wagons clogged the bridge, causing massive panic among the troops. "It was like a scene from Dante's Inferno," a Federal veteran recalled decades later. 

SHIMMERING LIGHT on Tishomingo Creek, near site of the bridge Union soldiers crossed in a panic. In 1953, locals discovered human remains in the creekbed -- probably from a Federal soldier -- along with a pocket watch and rusted remains of an army canteen. He was re-buried in Bethany Cemetery.  

WOODS ALONG THE CREEK, where frightened Yankees fled during the Confederate onslaught.

A LIGHT-BLUE CLUNKER beyond the historical marker denoting the Confederates' second battle line.

WELL-EARNED RECOGNITION for the 55th and 59th U.S. Colored Troops, who helped buy time for their retreating comrades. 

A WARNING that makes sense.


Life. Enjoy the journey.


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-- Vicksburg (Miss.) Evening Post, Oct. 22, 1906.

Thursday, October 01, 2020

Monumental decisions: How we can honor Blacks who served

Black troops, such as these 29th Connecticut Colored Infantry soldiers, played
a huge role in the restoration of the Union. (Samuel A. Cooley | Library of Congress)

A version of this essay will appear the November 2020 issue of America's Civil War, available soon in Barnes & Noble and elsewhere.

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ON AN UNSEASONABLY COOL summer morning in Franklin, Tennessee, Inetta Gaines and I sit on a park bench near the eye of a hurricane of history. Twenty yards away, in the public square, stands a controversial Confederate monument. “Towering over everything else,” she says ruefully.

At the old Williamson County courthouse, looming over our shoulders, slaves were auctioned through the outbreak of the Civil War. In November 1864, Union officers met in the two-story, brick building during the exceptionally bloody Battle of Franklin, fought less than a mile away, and from the second-floor porch in 1888, a Black man named Amos Miller was lynched by a White mob. In the very square in front of us, Whites battled Blacks two days after the Fourth of July during the 1867 “Franklin Race Riot.”  

Inetta Gaines, the only Black on a Brentwood (Tenn.)
historic commission, stands at the old county courthouse
near the Confederate monument in Franklin's public square.

The nearly 38-foot high Confederate monument, topped with “Chip,” a statue of a Rebel soldier grasping a musket, was dedicated by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1899 on the same ground where Black men, women and children were sold at slave auctions in the 1850s. "No country ever had truer sons," reads an inscription carved into the marble monument, "no cause nobler champions."

Gaines, the only Black member of the 12-person Brentwood, Tenn., historical commission, prefers that the Franklin monument be placed in a museum. But if it and similar memorials remain on public land, she believes it is vital they are placed in the proper context.

Until 2019, when five markers were added by Franklin explaining African American history here, the full story of this turbulent place was untold. A full-scale statue of a U.S. Colored Troops soldier, another major effort to balance the scales, will be dedicated in the square in 2021 in honor of hundreds of Black men from Williamson County who served in the Union Army. 

“That day,” Gaines says, “will be etched in my mind forever.”  

And maybe that’s what’s missing from our often-ugly national debate over Confederate monuments: recognition of the immense contributions of Blacks during the Civil War. Thousands of memorials  —in town squares, cemeteries, parks, battlefields, and elsewhere — honor the sacrifice of White Americans, those who fought on both sides. Although monuments to the USCT were dedicated in recent years in New Haven, Conn., Vicksburg, Miss., and elsewhere, the public landscape remains embarrassingly deficient in its representation of African Americans’ Civil War experience

Sadly, it’s an old issue.

“Nowhere in all this free land is there a monument to brave Negro soldiers, 36,847 of whom gave up their lives in the struggles for national existence,” George Washington Williams, a Black Civil War veteran, wrote in 1888. “Even the appearance of the Negro soldier in the hundreds of histories of the war has always been incidental. These brave men have had no champion, no one to chronicle their record, teeming with interest and instinct with patriotism.”

So, let’s fully embrace the “fuller” story of the war. Learn the names of courageous Black soldiers. Celebrate them. Perhaps, like the city of Franklin, we can build rather than tear down. Here’s where we can start:    


From left: Powhatan Beaty, James Harris and Christian Fleetwood were among 14 U.S.C.T
who earned the Medal of Honor at New Market Heights.

TWENTY-FIVE BLACKS earned the Medal of Honor for action during the Civil War, 14 at New Market Heights in Virginia -- one of the war’s largely forgotten battles. Remember their names: William Barnes, Powhatan Beaty, James Bronson, Christian Fleetwood, James Gardiner, James Harris, Thomas Hawkins, Alfred Hilton, Milton Holland, Miles James, Alexander Kelly, Robert Pinn, Edward Ratcliff, and Charles Veal. 

Early on the morning of Sept. 29, 1864, while one wing of Gen. Benjamin F. Butler’s Army of the James assaulted Confederates at nearby Fort Harrison, another attacked near New Market Road. To slow the advance of five regiments of U.S.C.T., Confederates placed abatis — felled trees with intertwined branches -- between their earthworks and a swampy creek. A conclusive Union victory at New Market Heights could open the road to Richmond, eight miles away.

“Remember Fort Pillow!” 4th and 6th U.S.C.T soldiers shouted as their assault began about 5:30 a.m. – a reference to the Confederate massacre of Black troops in Tennessee five months earlier. 

Despite initial breakthroughs, the attack was stymied, and Confederates regrouped to protect their capital. But the valor of Black troops, who suffered 800 casualties, earned the respect of Butler and others.

“The good conduct of the colored troops, and especially the absence of all straggling, their uncowering advance in the face of terrific firing … have won for them the sincere admiration, without exciting any envy, of all the volunteers of the Army of the James,” wrote a Philadelphia Press correspondent. 

Benjamin Butler commanded Black troops
at New Market Heights.
(Library of Congress)
Many of the earthworks remain at New Market Heights. But a post-war, water-filled quarry occupies ground where one the major attacks by Black troops occurred. And the battlefield, largely owned by Henrico Country, is infrequently visited and poorly interpreted. Two state historical signs and a Civil War Trails marker denote one of the most significant battles of the war involving the U.S.C.T.  

That’s “a crying shame,” says Tim Talbott, who serves on the board of directors of the Battle of New Market Heights Memorial & Education Association. The non-profit group is in the initial planning stages for creation of a long-overdue monument on the battlefield to honor U.S.C.T. at New Market Heights.  

Talbott, who’s also director of education, interpretation, visitor services & collections at Pamplin Historical Park in Petersburg, pours his passion for New Market Heights into the association’s web site. His research revealed one of the more compelling soldier stories of the war.

In the charge on enemy breastworks, Miles James of the 36th U.S.C.T suffered a grievous wound in his left arm. While urging on his comrades, he remarkably continued to fire his weapon. At a field hospital, his arm was amputated. The 34-year-old corporal, whose pre-war occupation was listed as “farmer,” was sent to Fort Monroe to recover. James easily could have sat out the rest of the war. Instead, he chose to continue to serve.  

On Feb. 4, 1865, his brigade commander, Col. Alonzo Draper, wrote to the chief surgeon at Fort Monroe hospital: 

“Sir – Sgt. Miles James, Co. B, 36th U.S.C.I. writes me from your Hospital to urge that he may be permitted to remain in the service. He lost his left arm in the charge upon New Market Heights, Sept., 29, 1864. If it be possible, I would most respectfully urge that his request be granted. … He is one of the bravest men I ever saw; and is in every respect a model soldier. He is worth more with his single arm than half a dozen ordinary men.” 

On April 6, 1865, James received his Medal of Honor. Three weeks later, he was promoted to sergeant. He served in the Union Army through the end of the war. 

An immense crowd attended Andre Cailloux's funeral in Union-occupied New Orleans.
(August 29, 1863, edition of Harpers Weekly)


ALTHOUGH HE HAD NO DIRECT TIE to New Orleans, a monument to Robert E. Lee stood in Lee Circle in the city from 1884 until 2017, when the mayor ordered its removal. Yet no Civil War monument in the city has ever commemorated the vast contributions of Blacks to the Union war effort. That “borders on being shameful,” says Alan Skerrett, who maintains an impressive web site largely devoted to the African American Civil War experience. 

“If you are an African American going through that town,” he says, “you have no recognition of your history.” 

An 1863 illustration in Frank Leslie's Illustrated depicts 
the death of Andre Cailloux at Port Hudson.
Louisiana supplied more Black soldiers, and perhaps more African American officers, to the Union war effort than any other state. Remember this name: Andre Cailloux, who surely merits recognition on the landscape in the city he called home.

Born into slavery, Cailloux was a mulatto who served in the 1st Louisiana Native Guard. The 38-year-old captain was killed during an attack at Port Hudson on May 27, 1863 – one of the first Black officers to die during the war. That assault at Port Hudson, like one weeks later by the 54th Massachusetts at Fort Wagner, underscored the worthiness of Blacks as soldiers.  

“A revolution in sentiment toward colored troops took place upon that field of carnage,” wrote an Ohio newspaper, “which in itself was a glorious victory.”

Organized by occupying Union authorities, Cailloux’s funeral in New Orleans was described as “one of the most extraordinary exhibitions brought forth by this rebellion.” Immense crowds of free people of color and slaves lined the streets, and roughly 100 sick and wounded Black soldiers marched in the funeral procession.

“In Captain Cailloux the cause of the Union and freedom has lost a valuable friend,” a New Orleans newspaper wrote. “Captain Cailloux, defending the integrity of the sacred cause of liberty, vindicated his race from the opprobrium with which it was charged.”

Skerrett, who has a collateral ancestor who served in the U.S.C.T., highlights stories such as Cailloux’s on his website, “Jubilo! The Emancipation Century.” He believes the stories of Blacks during the Civil War – contrabands, civilians who aided the Union army and others – have gone unrecognized.

“There is a big need,” says Skerrett, who volunteers at the African American Civil War Museum in Washington, “to have these stories told in whatever way is possible.”

Skerrett sees a need, too, to tap the brakes on the removal of Confederate monuments from the public spaces. 

“I think monuments are works of art, what people were thinking and feeling at the time,” the 65-year-old retired auditor says. “I don’t think they should be destroyed or defaced or vandalized.”

But the community landscape should be “fair, balanced and accurate,” he says. “If not, that’s a prima facie case that it should be changed.”

In this late-19th century lithograph, the 54th Massachusetts storms Fort Wagner.
(Library of Congress)

AS TWILIGHT ARRIVED on July 18, 1863, the nearly all-Black 54th Massachusetts charged with bayonets fixed toward Fort Wagner on Morris Island, at the southern entrance to Charleston Harbor. Hit by flanking fire, the soldiers slogged through a ditch filled with water before charging up the slope to the fort, where they slugged it out with the defenders. 

In the inky blackness, re-enforcements mistakenly fired into the 54th, perhaps causing as many casualties as the enemy did. But the bravery of the Black soldiers – famously depicted in the 1989 Academy Award-winning Glory -- was undeniable.

“On the whole, this is considered to be a brilliant feat of the 54th,” recalled Sergeant George Stephens. “It is another evidence that cannot now be denied, that colored soldiers will dare go where any brave men will lead them.”

Shortly after their failed assault, 54th Massachusetts soldiers proposed erecting a monument near where Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, their commander, fell.  They would even help pay for it themselves.

Shaw’s father had another idea.

"The monument, though originated for my son, ought to bear, with his, the names of his brave officers and men, who fell and were buried with him," he wrote. The memorial was never erected, the funds instead directed to the first free school for African American children in Charleston, named after Shaw.

In their local newspaper recently, Bernard Powers, an emeritus professor of history at the College of Charleston, and lawyer Robert Rosen advocated for a monument in Charleston to African American heroes of the Civil War. “Monuments tell a story,” they wrote in The Post and Courier of Charleston, S.C., “and we can begin to heal the wounds of generations by telling the forgotten stories of those who fought and died for the equality of all men and women.”

But no time is better for a monument to the 54th Massachusetts – the most famous Black regiment of the war -- in the very city where the Civil War began in 1861. And, as Shaw’s father suggested long ago, it should include the names of those Union men who made the ultimate sacrifice on Morris Island. 

Of 700 men in the assault, at least 100 died. Among them were privates Josephus Curry, a “bold, fearless and worthy soldier always ready for duty”; Joseph Johnson, a former slave who was the only means of support for his wife, Fairaby; George Henry Albert, a “good and faithful man”; Charles Hardy, who, before he enlisted, gave the $2.50 a week he earned as a waiter in a restaurant to his widowed mother in Philadelphia; and William Lee, a married father of four children under 8 years old.  

Remember their names.

At the Battle of Nashville on Dec. 16, 1864, Black troops assaulted Peach Orchard Hill.
But the two historical marker there don't mention their role.



On the morning of Dec. 16, 1864 – Day 2 of the Battle of Nashville -- the 13th U.S.C.T. private said goodbye to his wife and sister. "I never saw my brother again," recalled Sarah Walker, who, like James, was born into slavery.      

Later that unseasonably warm day, Thomas and his comrades and two other U.S.C.T regiments advanced up the steep, 300-foot Peach Orchard Hill into the teeth of strong enemy defenses near the crest. Canister and well-directed musket fire poured into them. And yet these ill-equipped and ill-trained soldiers charged on. 

“I never saw more heroic conduct shown on the field of battle,” recalled an Ohio officer, “than was exhibited by this body of so recently released slaves.” 

Disabled by a wound, U.S. Army officer Ambrose Bierce watched from afar the advance of the U.S.C.T. through intricate abatis of felled trees. “They did not hesitate for a moment,” he recalled decades later. “Their long lines swept into that fatal obstruction in perfect order and remained there as long as those of the white veterans on their right. And as many of them in proportion remained until borne away and buried after the action. It was as pretty an example of courage and discipline as one could wish to see."

Even Confederate commander James Holtzclaw noted the bravery of the Black troops. In his sector, the general’s men defended against soldiers in the 13th U.S.C.T. In its first, and only, major fight of the war, the nearly 600-man regiment suffered 55 dead among 220 casualties. Thomas was among those killed.

“Placing a negro brigade in front,” Holtzclaw wrote in his official report, “they gallantly dashed up to the abatis, forty feet in front, and were killed by hundreds. Pressed on by their white brethren in the rear they continued to come up in masses to the abatis, but they only came to die.”

In an affluent suburb about five miles south of downtown Nashville, only slivers of ground remain undeveloped on Peach Orchard Hill, where the 12th, 13th, 100th regiments fought courageously in their first battle of the war. Two historical markers there highlight the fighting, but neither mentions the Black troops’ role in the battle. 

The Confederate monument in the public square in Franklin, Tenn.

TWENTY MILES SOUTH, in Franklin, a discussion with Inetta Gaines drifts from the 19th century into the 20th – RFK, MLK, Black Panthers, 1960s Mississippi and Alabama – before landing back in the 21st. Perhaps, she says, this city’s handling of its Confederate monument issue can serve as a model for the South. 

Before we part, Gaines mentions a date she has mentally circled: June 19, 2021. That’s Juneteenth, a holiday long embraced in the Black community as the day in 1865 many enslaved found out about their emancipation.

It’s also the date “Chip” finally may get company.

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-- Pension files for 54th Massachusetts privates Josephus Curry, Joseph Johnson, George Henry Albert, Charles Hardy, William Lee, National Archives & Records Administration, Washington, D.C., via Also: Widow's pension file for James Thomas of 13th U.S.C.T.
-- New York Tribune, June 3, 1863.
-- Philadelphia Press, October 1864.
-- San Francisco Examiner, June 5, 1894. (This is source for Bierce comment about worthiness of black soldiers.)
-- The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate ArmiesVol. 45, Part 1. This is source for James Holtzclaw's comments regarding U.S.C.T. attack at Peach Orchard Hill.
-- Voice of Thunder. A Black Soldier’s Civil War. The Letters of George E. Stephens, edited by Donald Yacovone, University of Illinois Press, Urbana, Ill., 1998.
-- Williams, George Washington, A History of the Negro Troops in the War of the Rebellion, 1861-1865, New York, Harper & Brothers, Franklin Square, 1888.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Potty talk: Hey, who leaked this messy Nashville story?

The two-story outhouse here during the war was not ideal.

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Sometimes history is, ah, a little weird. It's often quite messy, too. During the U.S. Army’s occupation of Nashville, the First Presbyterian Church (now Downtown Presbyterian Church) was used as a military hospital. Next to the church, the Federals built a two-story outhouse. It was suboptimal. 

During the Civil War, the U.S. Army
used Downtown Presbyterian Church
 as a military hospital.
According to James A. Hoobler’s Cities Under The Gun, Images of Occupied Nashville and Chattanooga
 “The two-story outhouse built by the Federal army was an attempt to solve the sanitary problem presented by a twenty-six-hole latrine in the side yard of the church. Although the latrine was closed in January of 1864, the solution was even worse. The two-story outhouse had four holes upstairs and four holes downstairs. The elbows in the drains were made of leather — and leaked. It did contain a stove for warmth, however.” 
Not sure who leaked this story. 👊 In any case, I chuckle every time I walk past this spot.

In a more serious vein, here's a post on my blog about a visit to the church by Union veterans in September 1895 and another on a gift given to an assistant surgeon who worked there in  Hospital No. 8 in 1865.

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Friday, September 25, 2020

Buried with comrades under an elm near Crampton's Gap

The American Battlefield Trust has saved some of the old Jacob Goodman farm, where
3rd New Jersey Private Charles Hamilton Bacon was originally buried.

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I have driven Mountain Church Road, near the beautiful, forever-in-a-19th-century time caspule village of Burkittsville, Md., scores of times. Now that drive near Crampton's Gap will be even more meaningful.

A father of five, Charles H. Bacon
was killed at Crampton's Gap
on Sept. 14, 1862.
(Historic Days in
 Cumberland County
 New Jersey
Late on the afternoon of Sept. 14, 1862, VI Corps troops swept across Mountain Church Road in hot pursuit of vastly outnumbered Confederates retreating toward Crampton's Gap. Among those soldiers was 3rd New Jersey Private Charles Hamilton Bacon, a father of five and a "consistent Christian" from Bridgeton, N.J. Sometime during the attack -- perhaps at Crampton's Gap on the mountain or near Mountain Church Road below it -- the 32-year-old soldier in Company F was fatally wounded in the abdomen.

When I returned from my weekend trip to Antietam and beyond, I found a note from a Bacon descendant in my in-box. "I am obsessed," she wrote, "with trying to find any information I can about him." Serendipitiously, the final image I took during my  Burkittsville excursion was of the very farm on Mountain Church Road where Charles was buried under an elm tree with eight other comrades. I forwarded the photo and other information on Private Bacon to her.

The descendant also shared with me this heart-rending condolence letter -- published in the West-Jersey Pioneer on Sept. 25, 1862 -- from regimental chaplain George R. Darrow to Bacon's widow, Ann: 

            GOOGLE STREET VIEW: View of old Jacob Goodman farm and ground upon
    which VI Corps advanced near Burkittsville, Md., on Sept. 14, 1862. (Battlefield map)

Mrs. Charles Bacon

The papers, 'ere you receive this, will have announced to you the sad intelligence of the death of your husband. Amid the carnage of the battlefield he fell, having with his regiment charged on the enemy and while pursuing them in hot haste and pouring a deadly fire upon a routed foe. He went into the fight with unusual vigor, his health having greatly improved recently, faltering not until a ball passing through his Testament, which he always carried with him, entered his abdomen and caused his immediate death. His captain was wounded at the same time, and while I was assisting in getting him to the rear where a surgeon could be found, he told me of Bacon's fall.

I went immediately in pursuit of him and found him dead. His diary, Testament and purse I took from his person and handed them to his Lieut. [Charles F. Salkeld], who will forward them to you [at] the earliest opportunity. I buried him with eight of his comrades, who fell in the same fight, under an elm tree in the same field where the regiment charged on the enemy, on the estate of Jacob Goodman, north of the village of Burkittsville, about half a mile distant. We had our funeral on Monday afternoon, the drum corps and comrades of the deceased assisting in the burial of our brave dead. 

Brother Bacon was a good man, a consistent Christian, and I feel that his loss to me is very great. But what an affliction to you, his companion. May the God of all grace abundantly sustain you in your loneliness and sorrow -- you know how to trust Him. Let your faith take hold of the Everlasting arm and you shall be borne up a little while longer when all our sorrow shall end.

Yours truly, 

G. R. Darrow, Chaplain 3d N.J. Volunteers, Franklin's Army Corps

In the 1860 census, Charles Bacon's occupation was listed as "roller." He probably was
a factory worker. (National Archives via

On Nov. 8, 1862, the West-Jersey Pioneer wrote that "perhaps our sadest duties as a journalist is to chronicle the decease of the brave hearts who go forth to battle for their country," And it singled out Bacon, noting the "stern worth, intelligence and patriotism" of the private "entitles him to more than a passing notice, and will long keep green the memory of that brave, true man." 

The remains of Bacon and his comrades probably were disinterred from the Goodman farm shortly after the war. Charles' final resting place is unknown. 

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Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Battlefields, a bear and ugly pumpkins: Driving Old Valley Pike

Let's go trippin' on the Old Valley Pike! (CLICK ON ALL IMAGES TO ENLARGE.)

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Lightning-round Civil War quiz, Virginia battlefields version: 

When visiting Shenandoah Valley Civil War sites, you should mainly travel on ...

a.) I-81, risking your life playing "bumper cars" with semis. 
b.) The Old Valley Pike (Virginia Rt. 11), where history abounds. 
c.) Neither. View battlefields and historic sites via a drone.
The correct answer is B.

The loudest Civil War battlefield is ...

a.) Anywhere living historians fire lots of artillery.
b.) Anywhere living historians shoot hundreds of muskets at the same time. 
c.) Cedar Creek, where National Park Service rangers should offer noise-canceling head phones.
The correct answer is C.

When you go on a Civil War journey, it's vitally important to pack ...

a.) Top-notch reading material.
b.) Dozens of PB&Js in a massive cooler. 
c.) A belt if you have loose-fitting shorts and plenty of underwear.
d.) All of the above.
The correct answer is D.

And so on Friday afternoon, I drove down the history-rich Old Valley Pike, tramped upon by thousands of soldiers during the Civil War. "The race course of armies," the Times-Dispatch of Richmond called it in 1932. Route: New Market to Stephens City. Miles traveled: 45. Hours allotted: five. Constant companion: one fabulous Blue Ridge Mountain range looming to my right. Gun stores observed: Hundreds. (They like firearms here.) Stops: Many. Dead bear carcass warned about: one. Cares in the world: zero. 

Here's what I saw, heard and smelled during my Shenandoah Valley journey:

Katie's in Woodstock, Va. Damn, why didn't I get a custard?!

Barrels of fun at the Filibuster Distillery in Mauertown, Va.
Unattractive pumpkins for sale in Mount Jackson, Va.
You can get one of these big, bad birds at Tractor Supply in Woodstock, Va. 

The humble green walnut:
What a smell.

Quick observations: Unlike the Union Army, Joe Biden will not conquer the Valley ... the best smell on a Civil War battlefield is a walnut ... the official bird of the Valley View Motel (plenty of vacancies!) apparently is a large, intimidating rooster. ("You can get one at the Tractor Supply in Woodstock," a local told me.) "You're not going to steal my rooster?" the proprietor asked. "Oh, no," I said with a laugh before driving off ... You're traveling too slowly when you get passed by a tractor hauling hay. 

Masks make National Park Service rangers look intimidating ... I was in a traffic jam in Stephens City, Va. (pop, 2,400)! Sheesh, where did all these people and cars come from? ... Civil War Trails signs are everywhere -- and they are excellent. ... They sell really ugly pumpkins in a field off Apple Drive in Mount Jackson. ... Gosh, I wish I had time to grab a custard at Katie's in Woodstock. ... What's with the combo Confederate/U.S. flag look? That's cool? Stop it. It's ridiculous... If you can't make time to stop at the Filbuster Distillery in Mauertown, you're doing something wrong. 

At New Market, a monument for the 54th Pennsylvania, dedicated in 1905.
Whooshing along I-81, you can (briefly) see the New Market battlefield from your car. But there's more to check out along the Old Valley Pike. Interesting battlefield: Field of Lost Shoes, VMI cadets go into action, Bushong Farm. Another visit here was memorable for me not for the history but for the cold -- the temperature was about 10 degrees. Yikes. 

Markers for a post-Appomattox tragedy compelled me to stop here. 

Spot where two Confederate horse thieves were executed without a trial. 

Sergeant Newton Koontz, a 7th Virginia Cavalry vet, was executed here on June 27, 1865.

Ah, more history -- and sad history at that. On a knoll astride the pike between New Market and Mount Jackson, two young Confederate veterans were executed without a trial on June 27, 1865, weeks after they and two compatriots robbed Federal cavalrymen of their horses near Woodstock. In 1893, this marble monument was placed here in remembrance of  Captain George W. Summers and Sergeant Isaac Newton Koontz. 

The condemned men found time to write farewell letters. “Very much to my surprise, we must soon leave this world to try the realities of a new one…,” the 22-year-old Summers told his family. In a note to his fiancee, the 20-year old Koontz wrote: "They are now ready to shoot me. Oh, Emma, dearest in the world to me, how can I leave you but I must…Try to meet me in Heaven where I hope to go.”

Love old Virginia state historical markers like this one from 1927 at Rude's Hill ...

... and the look of these state historical signs (although this one needs a paint job).

Sucked in by a half-dozen markers, I stopped at Rude's Hill, near Mount Jackson. OMG, what history! Stonewall Jackson camped here in April 1862 -- his dispatches from this spot included the dateline "Rude's Hill." Jubal Early and Sheridan faced off on Rude's Hill in November 1864. Nearby, Turner Ashby's beautifiul horse, Tom Telegraph, was killed. "As Ashby reached the safety of the Confederate batteries atop Rude's Hill," the terrific Civil War Trails marker here notes, "his faithful charger was unsaddled and led away to die."

Did I mention Stonewall once slept here?

This cool, bronze plaque depicts a Confederate hospital in Mount Jackson.

Mount Jackson Confederate Cemetery ... and a sign of the times.

At Mount Jackson, the western terminus of the Manassas Gap Railroad during the war, the Confederate Medical Department built a large hospital. Three two-story buildings accommodated as many as 500 sick and wounded soldiers. Some of the unfortunates who didn't survive are buried across the road, in Mount Jackson Confederate Cemetery. (The "recent unpleasantness" prevented an up-close inspection.) After the war, the 192nd Ohio tore down the hospital, using the lumber for a courthouse, guardhouse, gallows ... and a ballroom on Rude's Hill. 

The Battle of Fisher's Hill was fought Sept. 22, 1864.
At Fisher's Hill, I once was stared down by a herd/gang of angry cows, apparently mourning a loved one. (It's a long story.) Parts of this battlefield are preserved by the excellent Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation. 

A room will set you back from $145 to $185 a night at the Inn at Narrow Passage.

Nerd alert! Nerd alert! It was here, at the Stover-McGinnis House near Edinburg, that Stonewall Jackson famously ordered Jedediah Hotchkiss to make him a map of the Shenandoah Valley "showing all the points of offence and defence." The historic house is now part of the Inn At Narrow Passage, a bed and breakfast.

Check out the neat museum on Hupp's Hill.

A young bear fell into the cave in the background ...

... and rangers used lime to cover the decomposing remains to blunt the awful smell. 

In 1862 and 1864, both armies fought to control strategic Hupp's Hill, near Strasburg. Phil Sheridan's boys built trenches that remain visible. Nearly 400 casualties resulted in a battle fought here on Oct. 13, 1864 -- six days before the much more bloody battle nearby at Cedar Creek. Visit the nice museum and walk the excellent interpretive trails if you have time. 

But I was lured in by the sign for a dead bear. Short story: A yearling slipped to its death into one of the many caves throughout the area. The unfortunate animal could not be removed. In a cover-up that should not produce any conspiracy theories, the bad news bear was sprinkled with lime. Dead bears smell when they decompose. 

Ooooooh, where's that smell? I wondered. Carefully, I glanced into the cave. No carcass. No smell. But I spent nearly the rest of the trip singing this song

At Cedar Creek, Confederates charged across I-81 during their assault. I kid.
The interstate is quite a bummer.

The importance of terrain: On a foggy morning, Confederates attacked
unsuspecting Yankees  beyond crest of this hill at Cedar Creek on Oct. 19, 1864. 

Sit on a bench near the 8th Vermont monument and contemplate the regiment's bravery.

Cedar Creek battlefield scouting report:
Vastly underrated battle that's super-memorable to me because it falls on my wife's birthdate: Oct. 19, 1864. Ah, the date, NOT the year. Let's be perfectly clear. ... Unfortunately, gawd-awful I-81 cuts through the field, making Cedar Creek possibly the loudest battlefield in the world. Where's my noise-cancelling headphones?! I suggested to a National Park Service ranger that they might want to remove the replusive strips of concrete. He smiled. Sort of ... Be sure to walk the two outstanding NPS loops -- that's where undermanned Confederates surprised the Yankees early on the morning of Oct. 19. The terrain is revealing ... There were no braver soldiers than those in the 8th Vermont, which suffered 110 casualties (including three color-bearers) among 164 soldiers at Cedar Creek ... Green walnuts sprinkled the field. Pick up. Sniff. Enjoy. Repeat. Such a great smell. ... And be sure to visit the "quiet" part of the battlefield, especially the Belle Grove mansion. (Here's a "Then & Now" of that impressive place.)

Some travelers on the Old Valley Pike are not as fast as the rest of us. But there's nothing wrong with viewing history from the slow lane. 

Remember: Life. Enjoy the journey (but sometimes slowly). 

(Pssst! Want to see photos from my 1977 family vacation to Ocean City?)

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