An Aston Martin at the Battle of Cedar Creek

 

So what is the best way to check out a newly acquired 2007 Aston Martin V8 Vantage? In the immortal words of Otter from Animal House, “Road trip!” Accordingly, in early May I set off to do two of my most favorite things: go for an exciting drive, and look for historic, scenic, and otherwise-interesting places in the Mid-Atlantic area.

First, a word about the new Aston. It has 36,000 miles, has been carefully maintained since new, and appears to be in excellent condition. I’m the third owner, and I have to say that this car is stunningly beautiful.

I started off on the Interstate for 100 miles from my home in Catonsville, MD to the vicinity of Winchester, VA. The Vantage ran perfectly, although I noticed that on the highway the temperature gauge was hovering around the one-quarter mark, rather than one-half; the sure sign of a thermostat that’s stuck open. My first stop was the Monte Vista mansion on the outskirts of Middletown. This 3-story house was built in 1883 by Charles and Cora Heater and is considered one of the most beautiful residences in the Shenandoah Valley. Charles’ parents, Solomon and Caroline Heater, started a farm here in the 1840s. It had grown to about 600 acres by the time the Battle of Cedar Creek took place on and around their property. We’ll learn more about the senior Heaters by the end of this trip report.

Returning to the waiting Aston Martin, I was struck all over again by its gorgeous styling. Henrik Fisker really hit it out of the park with this design.

You know how everyone is aware of Porsche and Ferrari, but many fewer recognize Aston Martin? Well, it’s kind of the same way with the Civil War: everyone knows Gettysburg and Antietam, but not many know the significance of the Battle of Cedar Creek. Yet it was a critical point that almost produced a decisive victory for the South, which would have jeopardized the reelection of President Abraham Lincoln. Ultimately, it proved to be a major Union victory, sufficient to end the Confederacy’s potential to win independence and/or the right to continue the practice of slavery.

By early 1864, the Confederate Army was being outfought and outmaneuvered by Union forces with much superior numbers of troops, arms, ammunition, and supplies. Defeat looked inevitable—unless the South could capture Washington, D.C. and force a peace settlement that would establish the Confederacy as an independent nation. Toward this goal, Gen. Robert E. Lee dispatched Gen. Jubal Early’s forces to move through the Shenandoah Valley and attack Washington directly. Early and his men managed to attack Washington’s Fort Stevens—and even shoot at President Abraham Lincoln, who was unwisely observing the battle from the fort’s earthen walls—but they had to fall back and retreat. (See The Civil War, Slavery, and Abraham Lincoln for my visit to Fort Stevens. Historical photo of Gen. Jubal Early courtesy of the Library of Congress.)

Lincoln and Gen. Ulysses S. Grant were desperate to prevent Early from again attacking Washington, and they also wanted to destroy the ability of the Shenandoah Valley to produce food in support of the Confederates. After several minor engagements, Union Gen. Philip Sheridan’s massive forces inflicted severe casualties on Early’s army at the Third Battle of Winchester. The Confederates retreated, while Sheridan’s men carried out the infamous 13-day “Burning Campaign” that destroyed 100 gristmills, 2,000 barns, many thousands of acres of farm crops, and drove off 15,000 head of cattle. Gen. Sheridan commented that, “Now a crow would have to carry his knapsack to cross the Valley.” In October 1864, Sheridan’s forces were camped along Cedar Creek between Strasburg and Middletown, with Sheridan’s headquarters established at the Belle Grove Mansion. (Historical photo of Gen. Philip Sheridan courtesy of the Library of Congress.)

The Stickley Farm was one of many that suffered during the Burning Campaign. It’s doing all right today, but only ruins are left from the family’s mill. (Photo of the mill ruins in winter is courtesy of Beltway Photos[/url] on Flickr.)

Unbeknownst to the Yankees, Early had received reinforcements and was positioned at Hupp’s Hill, just north of Strasburg and near the Stickley Farm. Moreover, the Confederate soldiers were incensed by the destruction of their beloved Shenandoah Valley, and they badly wanted revenge. On October 13, 1864, the Confederate batteries rained shells on the startled Union forces camped along Cedar Creek. The Union cannons returned fire, and an exploratory force under Union Colonel Joseph Thoburn crossed Cedar Creek and the Stickley Farm, and skirmished with Early’s men, who then retreated to Woodstock. This encounter set the stage for the Battle of Cedar Creek, 6 days later. (The drawing of the Battle of Hupp’s Hill was done by James E. Taylor, who accompanied the Union Army and recorded the fighting for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. Drawing courtesy of the Hupp’s Hill Civil War Museum.)

This museum, by the way, was a great place to visit, with hundreds of artifacts from the Shenandoah Valley battles and a very friendly and informative tour guide.

The museum also features an impressively long mural depicting the various stages of the Civil War. Remarkably, it was painted by two local high school art teachers in only two months.

Outside the museum, a trail leads past several “lunette” fortifications built in October 1874 to protect Early’s artillery and crews.

On October 18, as it happened, Gen. Sheridan was returning from a meeting in Washington and was spending the night in Winchester. Early’s forces traveled circuitously through the night and at daybreak on the 19th attacked the unsuspecting Union forces at Cedar Creek. Although outnumbered two-to-one, the Confederates managed to drive all seven divisions of the Union forces into a chaotic retreat, capturing many of the soldiers, cannon, and supplies in the process. It was an astonishing victory for the Confederates. Absent further action, the stunning defeat could have jeopardized Abraham Lincoln’s chances of reelection in less than 3 weeks, allowing Gen. George McClellan to win—with the almost certain result that the Southern states would be allowed to continue the practice of slavery.

When I bought the Aston Martin Vantage, its owner told me that he had never driven the car in the winter and almost never in the rain. I vowed that I would bestow equal treatment on the car, and, in addition, I would avoid dirt roads. I soon learned, however, that a tour of the Cedar Creek battlefield involved several dirt roads. I duly proceeded at about 5 mph, to keep the small stones from kicking up and defacing the beautiful finish on this car. (Yes, the tour took quite a while…)

This is Cedar Creek, where Confederates under Gen. Joseph Kershaw forded the stream as they crept into position to attack the Union forces on the eastern side.

Fortunately, there’s now a low-water bridge over Cedar Creek. After all, it wouldn’t be proper to subject an Aston Martin to an actual water crossing, like some common jeep!

Other Confederate forces marched by Long Meadow. The South’s surprise attack was greatly aided by a heavy fog in the morning that hid their movements. They were able to approach so closely that they could hear conversations among the early risers on the Union side.

The Confederate attack was highly effective, and it sent most of the Union forces in retreat. However, a division of 2,400 Union soldiers led by Gen. George Washington Getty held a defensive position at the Mt. Carmel Cemetery for 1½ hours. They repulsed two Confederate charges, using the gravestones for cover, but had to retreat at the third. Their action significantly delayed their opponents.

This brick house marks the farthest-most advance of the Confederates. By now, many had stopped to rest or make off with Union supplies. About this same time, Gen. Sheridan arrived from Winchester and was rallying his flailing army back into a fighting force. The tide was about to turn.

Throughout this tour, I just had to take more photos of the Aston at every opportunity. Even without its outstanding driving dynamics, it would still be an extraordinary automobile.

Leaving the battlefield tour temporarily, I found the Hupp House in Strasburg, the original part of which (on the left) was built in 1755. It was known as the “Frontier Fort,” designed to withstand attacks by Native Americans. As a result of its position on a steep bank, the front portion of the house is a single story but the rear is three stories. A nearby spring was diverted to run through the basement, providing a source of water in the event of a prolonged siege. Hupp family descendants lived here for at least 245 years. (For more information on such homes, check out my visits to Virginia’s Fort Valley and Fortified Houses (Part 1) and (Part 2).)

The old Strasburg railroad station was hard to miss. It started out as a steam-powered pottery in 1890 but was converted to a passenger and freight depot in 1913. In May 1861, Confederate Col. Thomas Jackson attacked and destroyed the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Works at Martinsburg, VA. Extraordinarily, 14 of the locomotives and almost 100 rail cars were partially disassembled and moved by horse and wagon to Strasburg, where they were reassembled, set on rails, and sent to Richmond for use by the Confederacy. (A month later, Col. Jackson earned his nickname “Stonewall” at the First Battle of Bull Run. Two years later, Martinsburg was part of the new state of West Virginia. Historical photo of the station courtesy of the Strasburg Museum. Mort Künstler painting “Heavy Traffic on the Valley Turnpike” courtesy of http://www.mortkunstler.com.)



Support for the theory that “change is continuous” is offered by The Hotel Strasburg. It began in 1782 as a small inn and pub, was replaced with a hospital in 1895 (the 2-story portion of the current building), gained the 3½-story addition in 1902, was converted to a boarding house in 1912, and finally became the hotel in about 1925. It still operates as such today.

The Eberly House was built in the late 1700s. Although it looks like a frame construction, the building has log walls covered by weatherboard siding.

There were 15 major battles and 45 smaller ones in the Shenandoah Valley during the Civil War. Caring for the wounded from these fights, as well as from others including Antietam and Gettysburg, overwhelmed the southern towns, and churches, houses, barns, and many other structures were pressed into service for this purpose. The 1830 Strasburg Presbyterian Church treated both Confederate and Union casualties throughout the war. (Historical photo courtesy of the Strasburg Presbyterian Church.)

During the first Valley Campaign in 1862, a young Union Army doctor named George Loring Porter was captured and assigned by Stonewall Jackson to treat the wounded at the Presbyterian Church. Dr. Porter performed heroically and was much admired by both his patients and the townspeople at large. Interestingly, he later was the only officer present at the secret midnight burial of John Wilkes Booth, and he also served as one of the doctors certifying the deaths of Mary Surratt, Lewis Powell, George Atzerodt, and David Herold after they were hanged for their roles in the conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. (Photo of Dr. Porter courtesy of his great-great-granddaughter, Marcia Loring Maloney.)

The Walnut Hill mansion was built in 1867, across from the church’s cemetery. Four sisters (Nettie, Kate, Sallie, and Annie Forrer) bought the house in 1884 and operated the Strasburg Female Seminary here for many years. In 1890, The Missionary Weekly wrote, “The course of study is full, the discipline is wise and healthful, and the moral atmosphere of the institution not often equalled, rarely surpassed.” Today, Walnut Hill is again a private residence, and the Forrer sisters are buried together in the cemetery under a single headstone.

A few years back, I did a Virginia tour of Mineral Springs, Sanatoriums, & Dirty Dancing: “Then and Now”, discovering that these hot springs resorts were dotted all over the state. However, I missed the modest Chalybeate Spring Hotel in Strasburg. It operated from 1881 to the 1930s, offering healthful and curative benefits from the concentration of iron salts in the spring’s waters. It became an apartment building thereafter, probably because “consumption” (tuberculosis) became a severe problem during this period, and many such resorts went out of business since they were thought to spread the disease. As best I could tell, the building is now abandoned. (Postcard image courtesy of the Shenandoah County Library.

After putting around Strasburg, it was time to get the patient Aston Martin back out on the open roads before winding up my tour of the Battle of Cedar Creek. Fortunately, Fort Valley Road was just a few miles outside of town, and it always offers a terrific mix of winding roads, elevation changes, and beautiful scenery. I covered its 20 miles in seemingly no time at all and—amazingly for me—did not stop even once to take pictures. (A really good car and a really good road have that effect on me.) The V8 Vantage had more than enough power, excellent handling, and the best brake feel of any car I’ve ever owned, with minimal pedal travel and a direct response to the slightest variation in pedal pressure. What a car!

From there, it was up Edinburg Gap Road, across the North Fork of the Shenandoah River, and into Edinburg itself. I found the Christian Hockman House, but trees blocked any reasonable view. (The image below is courtesy of Wikipedia.) The mansion was built in 1868 in the Italian Villa style for Dr. Hockman and his wife Laura. It’s for sale, by the way, in case you have a spare $359,000 handy…

The Picadilly House has been around since 1850, serving as an inn and boarding house. The lower level also houses shops. It is now the Renaissance Bed & Breakfast.

The old Edinburg Hotel was conveniently situated right alongside the Manassas Gap Railroad tracks. It was built in 1900 and is used now by the local VFW. (The railroad eventually evolved into what is now Norfolk Southern, but this branch was abandoned about 10 years ago.)

I neglected to mention that most of my travel route came from RoadRunner Magazine[/url], which is a motorcycle touring publication that never fails to deliver outstanding rides. As I continued along their route, I remembered that the article included this caution: “Zepp Road follows a winding, steep path up and over Little North Mountain. If riders misjudge a curve, the road’s guardrails offer scant protection, if any, from a precipitous fall.” It was not a road for charging madly into blind corners, but the faithful Vantage did just fine, and there was plenty of interesting scenery along the way.

I stopped to admire this little stream and was surprised to learn later that it is Cedar Creek, far upstream (and up-mountain) of where the battle took place.

I stopped again by this mountaintop meadow, ostensibly to look at some brilliant purple flowers—but really to get another photo of the car.

Oh all right, here are the flowers as well:

By now the afternoon was drawing on, and I was still hoping to return to Middletown in time for one more tour. The Vantage didn’t need any additional encouragement to make speed—but of course I had to stop to look at the old Living Waters Church…

…and to get another photo of The World’s Most Beautiful Automobile…

…and to try to figure out what this oddly shaped old building might have been (without success, I might add).

Eventually, I made it back to Middletown and the site of the battle. If the Confederate attack had continued, the Union forces would have been thoroughly routed, with the South gaining many prisoners, munitions, and supplies. Their attack halted, however, as Early’s men were exhausted and nearly starving. They eagerly dug into the captured Union supplies, allowing the bulk of the Union soldiers to escape. Meanwhile, Gen. Sheridan heard of the battle and famously rode the 15 miles from Winchester at a gallop, rallying his troops along the way. He and the other officers reorganized the army and late in the day launched a decisive counterattack, retaking the lost ground and nearly destroying Early’s army entirely. Early was reassigned to command a small unit of men and was never a factor again during the remainder of the war. It was the beginning of the end for the Confederacy: the South was never again able to threaten Washington, D.C. or invade any of the Northern States. (“Sheridan’s Ride” by Thure de Thulstrup courtesy of the Library of Congress.)

Remember Solomon and Caroline Heater, back at the beginning of this report? Well, Solomon was a southern sympathizer, having been born and raised in Virginia, but Caroline was from Pennsylvania and was an impassioned abolitionist and supporter of the Union cause. In contrast to many other farmers in the Valley, the Heaters owned no slaves and worked the fields themselves along with their 3 sons. Caroline also welcomed Sheridan’s officers to use her home, and she helped treat the wounded Union soldiers during and after the battle. This was the Heaters’ farmhouse:

The couple’s 2 older sons both joined the Confederate Army at the outbreak of the Civil War. John was wounded in a skirmish and died in January 1864. Henry was taken prisoner and died at the Union prison at Fort Delaware. On the morning of the Battle of Cedar Creek, Gen. Jubal Early’s artillery units set up position on the Heaters’ farmlands and fired on the retreating Union soldiers. By dusk, their farm was again overrun, this time by Gen. Sheridan’s forces as they counterattacked and routed the Confederates.

After the battle, the Heaters’ house and farm were in ruins, with soldiers having taken all their livestock, crops, food, and fences. Caroline’s request for restitution from the Federal government went unanswered until 1901, a full 9 years after her death. (“The Gathering Storm” painting, by Dorothy Henkle, is courtesy of the Cedar Creek Battlefield Foundation.)

At 4:45 PM, I arrived at the Belle Grove Plantation, hoping to get a quick tour of the historic mansion that was in the very center of the battle before they closed for the day. The guide told me I was too late, since the tours take 45 minutes, but after some cajoling, pleading, whimpering (and a donation), I received a very informative jiffy tour! Belle Grove was built in 1794-1797 for Isaac and Nelly Madison Hite (the sister of future U.S. President James Madison), with design input from another future President, Thomas Jefferson.

With the Battle of Cedar Creek having raged all around the manor house, it’s not surprising that it received a fair amount of damage. There are still many bullet marks and shell damage in evidence. (James E. Taylor drawing courtesy of the Library of Congress.)

The front porch of Belle Grove offers a view of the Massanutten Mountains in the distance, with Signal Knob (its highest elevation) in the center. The Confederates used Signal Knob to keep an eye on the Union troop movements and to send flag signals to their other units. One of those signals notified Confederate Gen. Stephen Dodson Ramseur that his wife had just given birth to their first child. He hoped to obtain a furlough after the Battle of Cedar Creek so that he could return home and see his new son or daughter.

“Dod” Ramseur was from North Carolina and graduated from West Point in 1860. He led his men courageously and effectively in a number of battles, earning the respect of Robert E. Lee and receiving rapid promotions—culminating with becoming a Major General at only 27 years of age. His bravery and daring led to his being wounded at the Battle of Malvern Hill, again at Chancellorsville, and a third time at Spotsylvania. (Photos of Gen. Ramseur and his wife Ellen courtesy of Wikipedia.)

During Gen. Sheridan’s counterattack at Cedar Creek, Ramseur’s division defended the center of the Confederate line for 1½ hours. His horse was shot out from under him, and a second was killed just as he was climbing into the saddle. As he mounted a third horse, he was hit by a bullet that passed through both of his lungs. Mortally wounded, Ramseur was carried by Union captors to Belle Grove and laid on a bed in this room, with a view of Signal Knob in the distance. Three of his classmate friends from West Point—Union officers George Armstrong Custer, Wesley Merritt, and Henry DuPont—came to stay with him until he died. Ellen never remarried and wore mourning clothes for the rest of her life.

Gen. Ramseur’s story is tragic, as are the stories of the other 620,000 Confederate and Union soldiers who died in combat or from disease during the Civil War. The war was fought primarily over the issues of slavery and states’ rights, and the tragic stories among the 4,000,000 enslaved African Americans were legion. Like all of the large southern plantations, the work at Belle Grove was performed involuntarily by slaves, who, tragically, were owned and treated much like cattle. Belle Grove generally had about 100 such individuals, although by the time of the Civil War, the plantation had declined substantially and may have had as few as 4 remaining slaves.

About 200 yards behind the manor house, there is a field that is empty, save for some small limestone rocks here and there. The ground also shows numerous depressions, and researchers have determined that this is one of the slave cemeteries on the plantation. (The location of the others is not yet known.) This somber view, with its rudimentary gravestones and a lone, damaged tree that yet manages to bloom, seemed to evoke both the sadness of the past and the promise of the future.

With that last look, my tour was complete. It was a fascinating observation into U.S. history—and a timely reminder that a nation’s divisions, if left unaddressed and allowed to build and deepen, can lead to unmitigated disaster for all. Yes, the practice of slavery absolutely had to end. And the delicate balance between State and Federal rights had to be clarified. But could these goals have been accomplished through other, peaceful means, without the tragedy and horror that affected virtually every person in the country?

As I mulled over these thoughts, it was time to climb back into the Vantage and return home. All told, my “shakedown” tour amounted to 336 miles, during which the car ran perfectly and lived up to my high expectations. It’s hard to imagine a better conveyance for searching out our nation’s history, scenery, and exciting roads. I can’t wait for the next opportunity!

Rick F.

Rick

Written by Rick

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