History of Bluemont - Civil war

March 11, 2008

- Susan Freis Falknor


Civil war
Railroad days
Modern times

A harbinger of the Civil War in Virginia was the 1861 state-wide vote on the Ordinance of Succession. Fifteen Loudoun towns, including Snickersville, cast votes at the polls  on May 23.  The proposition for succession passed more than 2:1 county-wide, losing only in Lovettsville and Waterford.

“With the inception of actual warfare, the county divided along the lines forecast by the election of May 1861.  Those sections in which Quakers and Germans predominated, continued strong in their adherence to the Union; the remaining people of the country, with comparatively few exceptions were so deeply and unswervingly attached to the Southern Cause as to suggest the burning conviction of religious zeal.”

--Harrison Williams, Legends of Loudoun, p. 201

During the Civil War (1861–1865), Snickers Gap was a strategic pathway between the much fought-over Shenandoah Valley and Union-occupied Northern Virginia.  Both armies traveled back and forth using Snickers Gap.  Henry Plaster’s timeline of the Civil War around Bluemont gives an idea of the many crisscrossings of the opposing armies.

  “…There were skirmishes near Snickersville on the 21, 22, and 27 October.

“On 29 October 1862, the Army of Northern Virginia began its return to “middle Virginia” to counter [Union] General McClellan’s crossing the Potomac into Loudoun County during the period 26-39 October.  [Confederate General J.E.B.] Stuart began his engagement plan by leading Major General FitzLee’s horsemen and six of Captain John Pelham’s guns through the Blue Ridge via Snickers Gap.  The initial clash occurred on the last day of October, and the antagonists maintained violent contact for the next week.  Most of the fighting took place in the wedge of land between the Snickersville and Ashby’s Gap Turnpikes in and around Union (now Unison).  The Confederates got off to a ‘rousing start’ on the morning of the thirty-first as Stuart with the 3rd and 9th Virginia ranged east from Snickersville along the Turnpike to Mountville, surprising a 100-man detachment of the 1st Rhode Island Cavalry and capturing many.

 “On the 2nd, and 3rd of November 1862, the 91st Pennsylvania Brigade of the Union 5th Corps was bivouacked near Snickers Gap.  One of the Union soldiers shot a hog, which they had for supper.  On the 3rd of November, the 91st was ordered “to the top of the mountain,” where they observed Confederate infantry going through the Gap, apparently for reconnaissance.  When joined by the 2nd Corps on 4 November, they succeeded in driving the Confederates from the Gap.  However, on 7 November, a Yankee cavalry man was captured at the Gap.  On 12 November, after the Unison forces had moved south to near Warrenton, two troopers left camp to recover some company papers that had been left behind at Snickers Gap.  On 13 November they arrived at Snickersville, where they were captured by Major Elijah V. White, 35th Battalion.”

---Henry G. Plaster, “Snickersville During the Civil War,” p. 7

The “Battle of Snickersville,” October 22, 1862 was made known to the nation through an illustration in Harper’s Magazine: "The Advance-Guard of the Army of the Potomac Attacking the Rebels Near Snickersville."  The dramatic print shows two Union cavalrymen in the foreground chasing a rebel on horseback above a prostrate combatant (see Civil War Battles.)

An eye-witness Thomas Osburn of the town, then age fifteen or sixteen,  recalled “A Sunday Morning Fight in Snickersville” that took place March 6, 1864.

“Twenty-three New York cavalrymen were surprised by fifteen 6th Virginia cavalrymen under Lt. Joseph A. Gibson and including James Fleet of Snickersville resulting in twenty of the Union horsemen being either killed, wounded, or captured.  Sergeant Alfred Caine had been ordered by his Union captain in Hillsboro to take 4 corporals and 18 privates to meet at Purcellville a larger band pursuing a Confederate force near Waterford…  The Union dead were placed in the Snickersville church, that evening, to be retrieved by men from their unit.  The wounded were cared for by Snickersville women in their homes.”

-- Henry G. Plaster, “Snickersville During the Civil War,” p. 9

Union Captain John Carter recorded the details of this clash, which resulted in four Union killed, two wounded, and 10 taken prisoner; three Confederate killed, one wounded.

Southwestern Loudoun was the base for John Singleton Mosby (1833-1916) and his rangers, the Forty-third Battalion of Virginia Cavalry—with the rangers’ often-informal supply lines bolstered by the protection of friendly farm families and spoils of war.  Mosby was practicing law in Bristol, Virginia when hostilities began.  He became a scout for General J.E.B. Stuart and then received an independent partisan command.

From 1863 to the spring of 1865, Mosby’s Rangers—about 2,100 in all-- carried out guerrilla operations in northern Virginia, the Shenandoah Valley, and in Maryland.  Relying on intelligence, quick movements, surprise, and sometimes ruses,  Mosby’s Rangers tied up a significant number of Union forces.  At the end of the war, Mosby and the rangers secured.  Mosby again took up the practice of law, serving as U.S. counsel in the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong (1878-1885) and as assistant attorney in the Federal Department of Justice from 1904-1910.

John Alexander, a Winchester teenager who joined Mosby’s forces in 1863, recalls a ruse that Mosby practiced after the Point of Rocks Raid of July 1864, when Union soldiers were about to chase the rangers across the Potomac and into Virginia:

“The day was spent in making such a demonstration of force as should deter them from coming over.  The presence of artillery with us and so many dismounted men may have suggested to them that we might be a detachment from Lee’s army and the Colonel had us execute some maneuvers that strongly fostered that illusion.  Our visible numbers were multiplied by a shrewd stratagem through which the Yankees were made to see more than double.

“The road rises out of a deep hollow at the foot of Dr. Mason’s meadow and passes up a high hill in full view at the Point of Rocks and a short mile south of the river.  It then turns at right angles to the hilltop and goes out of sight into the upper end of the same hollow.  That the dust in it was fetlock deep goes without saying.  The command was marched over this hill raising a cloud of dust which was dimly visible to the spectators across the river.  As soon as the head of the column got out of their sight it would gallop down the hollow through Dr. Mason’s and, falling in behind the rear, would march over the hill again.

“ It was a kind of endless chain business by which regiment after regiment was paraded across the stage.  And the amount of Confederate cavalry which was exhibited that day for the edification of those Yankees was limited only by the demands of the occasion.  Of course our commander had to refrain from overdoing the thing, and see to it that the program was duly varied lest the fake should be discovered.  At any rate, we did riding enough to keep the enemy on their own side of the river and to make us sleep soundly that night in somebody’s woods near Waterford.”

--John Alexander, Mosby’s Men: A First Hand Account

Late in the war Union forces took actions to render the rich Western Virginia farm country incapable of providing support for Confederate forces.  On November 27, 1864, General  Philip Sheridan sent the following order to Major General Wesley Merritt, commanding the first Cavalry Division:

“You are directed to proceed tomorrow morning at 7 o’clock, with the two brigades of your Division now In camp to the east side of the Blue Ridge, via Ashby’s Gap, and operate against the guerrillas… this section has been a hot-bed of lawless bands, who have from time to time.  Depredated upon small parties of the line of Army Communications.  On safe-guards left at houses, and on all small parties of our troops….  You will consume and destroy all forage and subsistence, burn all barns and mills and their contents and drove off all stock in the region….  This order must be literally executed, bearing in mind, however, that no dwellings are to be burned and that no personal violence be offered to the citizens…  The Reserve Brigade will move to Snickersville on the 29th.  Snickersville should be your point of concentration.”

--Cited in Jean Herron Smith, From Snickersville to Bluemont, p. 61

The war left deep scars on the Snickersville area, as described by Dr. George Plaster, an eye-witness.

Twice the vast hordes of the Northern army, sweeping along the eastern side of the Blue Ridge, camped here.  Each time for many days, forces were retained at this point to guard the great pass, for Lee tarried in the valley opposite, and much skirmishing and some rough fighting took place between the opposite forces....

At the end the wreck was appalling.  The farms adjacent were stripped of fences, barns were burnt, all livestock driven off, and means for providing for future wants exhausted.  For miles around extended a fenceless, prairie-like plain.

--George E. Plaster, M.D., “A History of Bluemont,” 1902

Henry Plaster calculates the personal toll.

“Robert Marshall, Company , 6th Virginia Cavalry, died on 4 March in the Elmira, New York, prison.  John A. Chew was wounded at Hamilton during the 20 to 22 March  [1865] movement of Union troops to Snickersville.  Major George Plaster, M.D., 6th Virginia Cavalry was captured on 1 April at the Battle of Five Forks (west of Petersburg).  He signed his oath of allegiance on 19 June and walked back to Snickersville from the Johnson Island prison in Ohio.  On 5 April, James M. Osborn, Company A, 6th Virginia Cavalry, was captured.  General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomatox on 8 April.  Of the 39 men from Snickersville who fought in the Civil War, 6 were killed, one died of wounds received in battle, and one died in prison.”

-- Henry G. Plaster, “Snickersville During the Civil War,” p. 9

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