ECW Weekender: Battles of Mesilla

Sometimes juxtapositions grab our attention and draw us to see connections. On a recent trip to New Mexico to visit family, my thoughts turned to the Confederate invasion of what was then the Arizona Territory. Living close to the Confederate White House and Virginia State Capitol, it occurred to me how the decisions, plans, and policies enacted there reached the far flung and remote areas of the fledging nation, like Mesilla, New Mexico. In one day I left the heart of the Confederate government and visited perhaps its farthest outpost in Mesilla. In one location, amid the opulent Executive Mansion, decisions were made, and on the hot, dusty frontier, reality was on the ground.

Looking south from the Confederate position to the Union lines

At the time of the war, about 800 people lived in the village of Mesilla. The town stood not far from the Rio Grande, along a major north-south trade route that had been used for centuries.

After the Mexican War (1846-48), the territory remained part of Mexico, but was purchased by the U.S. in the 1854 Gadsden Purchase. This acquisition was made to allow for construction of a southern transcontinental railroad.

On November 16, 1854 the United States flag rose above the plaza in the center of town, solidifying the Gadsden Purchase. Located in the center of the village, the plaza was flanked by several important community buildings, including a church and an adobe courthouse.

Today, the town is an inviting place, with local shops, galleries, restaurants, and bars.  An imposing church stands at the north end of the plaza, and the old courthouse remains on the east side.

Fort Fillmore was established nearby in 1851 by Colonel Edwin V. Sumner, primarily for to protect settlers and traders traveling to California.  In the prewar years Captain George Pickett and Ambrose Burnside served here.

A Sons of Confederate Veterans’ marker stands in the plaza, explaining the battle

During the Civil War, Mesilla saw the beginning and end of Confederate rule in the Southwest. At the time, the northern part of modern New Mexico and Arizona was known as the New Mexico Territory, while south of the 34th parallel was known as the Arizona Territory. Thus, instead of two states side by side, at the time the territories were one above the other.

On July 24, 1861, as the first step in conquering what was then known as Arizona Territory, Lt. Col. John R. Baylor led 300 men from Fort Bliss up the east bank of the Rio Grande to Fort Fillmore. His force included two companies of the 2nd Regiment of the Texas Mounted Rifles, a Texas light-artillery company, an El Paso County scout company, and some civilians.

One of his men deserted to Fort Fillmore’s defenders and forced Baylor to cancel his planned attack. Instead, he forded the Rio Grande and entered Mesilla, which was strongly pro-Confederate.

On July 25, with 380 infantry and mounted riflemen, plus howitzers, Maj. Isaac Lynde approached Mesilla from the south. Baylor rejected his demand for surrender, and Lynde ordered his artillery to open fire. After an unsuccessful charge, Lynde retreated to the fort. The Confederates about nine, while Lynde lost around twenty. The site of the battle is now part of the modern town.

Lynde abandoned Fort Fillmore that night and headed northeast toward San Augustin Pass in the Organ Mountains. On July 27, at sunrise, Baylor discovered Lynde’s withdrawal and pursued, overtaking and capturing them at San Augustin Springs. Baylor proclaimed Arizona Territory, Confederate States of America, in Mesilla on August 1 and named himself governor.

The old courthouse still stands next to the square. During the War, it was the Capitol of Confederate Arizona.

The following spring General Henry Sibley led a Confederate force further north to invade and conquer New Mexico Territory. Following defeats to the north at Glorietta Pass in March, 1862, the Confederates were driven south, back the way they had come from Texas.

On July 1, 1862 local pro-Union guerrilla forces, defeated the Confederates in a small skirmish near town.  Three days later the including the California Column approached, and the southerners retreated back to Texas via El Paso, never to return.

Today, there is a historic marker in the town plaza noting the first battle which raged through the modern streets in 1861.  Nearby plaques discuss the American acquisition of the territory in 1854. The Old Courthouse, with its original 18- inch thick mud brick walls, still stands, now a souvenir store. The building was a jail and courthouse until 1882, and it was there that Billy the Kid was tried and sentenced in 1881.

Fort Fillmore is gone, now covered by one of the massive pecan plantations that flourish in the valley. (Yes, Pecans have become a major staple of the economy, grown primarily for export to China). A historic marker along Route 70 to the west notes the site of San Augustin Springs, where the Union garrison was captured.

Within a twenty four hour period, thanks to the miracle of flight, I went from the heart of the Confederacy’s government to its fringe, and discovered one of the first battles of the war in an unlikely place.

Victory for Virginia Preservation Organizations and Civil War Trust

VIRGINIA PRESERVATION ORGANIZATIONS AND CIVIL WAR TRUST
SAVE UNIQUE CIVIL WAR SITE IN CULPEPER COUNTY

Foundation, state agency and national nonprofit work together to protect Hansbrough’s Ridge, an unparalleled historic and natural treasure in Virginia’s picturesque Piedmont region

(Brandy Station, Va.) – The Virginia Outdoors Foundation (VOF) and the Virginia Department of Historic Resources join the Civil War Trust today in announcing the preservation of a lofty, scenic ridge where 800 Confederate soldiers barred a Union cavalry division from the main fight at Brandy Station, the opening battle of the Civil War’s Gettysburg Campaign.

The 400-foot-high, mile-long ridge in Culpeper County, Virginia, whose profile one soldier said resembles “a giant sleeping,” sheltered more than 10,000 Union troops for five months during the winter of 1863-1864, before they began the war’s shocking, fiery Wilderness Campaign. It was part of the Union Army of the Potomac’s 120,000-soldier winter encampment, which dominated Culpeper County; Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia camped across the Rapidan River in Orange County.

The two organizations’ announcement culminates nearly two years of fundraising and decades of preservation activism for the 174-acre site, which historians say is unique in its landscape, significance and quality.

VOF, a public foundation, and the Virginia Board of Historic Resources accepted two conservation easements to forever protect the ridge east of the historic village of Stevensburg.  The property stretches from State Route 3 north to near Cole’s Hill, which is privately owned. The Foundation will hold one easement. The Board will hold the other, administered by staff at the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.

“We are proud to have helped save this rare place, which was both a pivotal battleground and a secure refuge where thousands of soldiers recuperated from the trials of the war’s Mine Run, Gettysburg, Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg campaigns,” Civil War Trust President James Lighthizer said. “There is nothing comparable to it anywhere in the nation. The site remains nearly as it was when the Yankees broke camp and marched east to cross the Rapidan River and battle Lee’s Confederates.”

VOF contributed $250,000 to help preserve the property, a $900,000 acquisition also funded by a $450,000 grant from the National Park Service’s American Battlefield Protection Program, a $150,000 noncash donation by the seller, and $50,000 in contributions by Trust members and private donors.

“Our easement not only protects this landmark from development, but also creates permanent public access for future generations to be able to visit and learn from the property,” VOF Executive Director Brett Glymph said.

“The Virginia Department of Historic Resources is pleased to partner with VOF in ensuring the perpetual preservation of this site so that it can be protected and interpreted for current and future Virginians and visitors to the state,” said Julie V. Langan, the department’s director.

Members of the 18th Pennsylvania Cavalry Regiment pose in their camp, with horse saddles and newly built winter huts, in February 1864 on Hansbrough’s Ridge east of Stevensburg in Culpeper County, Virginia. That month, Union Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick led the 3rd Cavalry Division—which included the 18th Regiment—on the Kilpatrick-Dahlgren Raid of Richmond, a controversial and ill-fated attempt to rescue Union prisoners of war. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

The ridge was home not only to infantry and cavalry troops but also to soldiers’ visiting family members and large hospitals where doctors, nurses and volunteers treated sick and wounded men. Their many letters paint vivid pictures of daily life in camp. But one example, written by Pvt. George Storrs Youngs of Waterloo, N.Y., describes what they saw.

“The view from our camp is magnificent,” Youngs, with the 126th New York Infantry Regiment, wrote his sister Louisa on Jan. 1, 1864. “We are on the top of an exceeding high hill from whence we can look down upon the canvas cities of the Army of the Potomac on almost every side. Off to the west, nestling among the hills, the city of Culpepper can be seen—its bright spires looking still brighter against the dark background of the Blue Ridge whose towering peaks and cliffs are now covered with snow.”

The site’s importance was recognized in 1991 when the Department of Historic Resources listed the Hansborough Ridge Winter Encampment District on the Virginia Landmarks Register, making it eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. It was later incorporated into the Journey Through Hallowed Ground National Heritage Area, a federally-designated 175-mile corridor that interprets and conserves nationally significant historic sites in Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

“As a Civil War site, Hansbrough’s Ridge is unique,” Lighthizer said. “It offers commanding views of the landscape in all directions, which made it the Confederate defensive line and the scene of hard fighting in the Battle of Brandy Station’s Stevensburg phase.”

Developers saw a chance to market the ridge’s views in 2015, when they bought the property, intent on subdividing it into residential lots. Reacting quickly, the Trust negotiated the land’s purchase before development occurred. A noncash donation from the landowner put the purchase price within reach.

The ridge’s conservation easements complement the preservation of other Civil War battlefield sites in Culpeper County.

Ultimately, an alliance of officials, conservationists and local residents aim to incorporate already-saved acres on the Brandy Station and Cedar Mountain battlefields into a new state park that enhances their tourism, recreational and educational potential. The Virginia General Assembly is considering legislation that would direct the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation to study the suitability of preserved properties at these two battlefields for inclusion in the state park system.

The sweeping views and soldiers’ stories from Hansbrough’s Ridge will add different perspectives unequaled at other Mid-Atlantic historic sites. “From the top of the ridge, people will be able to read about the events of that period and survey the terrain as the soldiers did,” Lighthizer said. “It will be an amazing way to understand the history of this place.”

The Virginia Outdoors Foundation protects more than 800,000 acres in 107 counties and cities. A public foundation created by the General Assembly in 1966, VOF leads the commonwealth in land conservation.

The Department of Historic Resources encourages and supports the stewardship and use of Virginia’s significant architectural, archaeological and historic resources as valuable assets for the economic, educational, social and cultural benefit of citizens and communities. It administers interwoven and interdependent state and federal programs aimed at identifying, evaluating, recognizing and preserving Virginia’s rich historic heritage.

The Civil War Trust is a national nonprofit land preservation organization devoted to the protection of America’s hallowed battlegrounds. It preserves the battlefields of the Civil War, the Revolutionary War and War of 1812, and educates the public about their importance in forging the nation we are today. To date, the Trust has preserved more than 48,000 acres of battlefield land in 24 states.  Learn more at Civilwar.org.

Great Weekender Ideas for May!

Our friends at the Civil War Trust sent along some great Weekender ideas for the month of May. If you happen to attend any of them, let us know! We’d love to hear from you.

May 5-6: Battle Reenactment at Fort Ticonderoga, Ticonderoga, New York
Examine the real story behind America’s First Victory by joining Fort Ticonderoga for a real-time battle reenactment of the capture of Ticonderoga in 1775. The British-controlled Fort Ticonderoga was attacked in May 1775 by state militia and held by the Americans until June 1777, when threatened Continental Army troops were withdrawn from the fort and its surrounding defenses.

May 19-20: “Thunder on the Bay” at Fort Gaines Historic Site, Dauphin Island, Alabama
Established in 1821, Fort Gaines is a pre-Civil War masonry fort best known for its role in the 1864 Battle of Mobile Bay during the Civil War. This May, visit the fort for an early celebration of the upcoming 154 th anniversary of the Battle of Mobile Bay. Sponsored by the 6th Alabama Cavalry and the Alabama Division of Reenactors, the event will include
reenactments and a surrender ceremony.

May 26-27: “First Siege 1813” at Fort Meigs, Perrysburg, Ohio
During the War of 1812, two victories at Fort Meigs ushered in a period of American successes that would secure the Ohio frontier. This May, reenactors portraying War of 1812 soldiers and civilians will reproduce authentic military camps and tactical demonstrations in commemoration of the First Siege. Visitors can enjoy musket and cannon demonstrations, battle reenactments, hands-on activities, and more.

ECW Weekender: Mary Todd Lincoln House

Heading south last weekend on I-75 from Cincinnati to Knoxville, I stopped with my family for lunch just outside of Lexington, Kentucky. Afterward, I finagled a second stop at the Mary Todd Lincoln House (MTL House) for a tour, and we arrived there around 1:15pm; the next tour was scheduled for 2pm. Now, if you’ve ever tried to entertain two young children for 45 minutes in an unknown place where they cannot touch anything, you can imagine that I was starting to sweat. I had already endured several rounds of “Mom, why does every trip have to include something related to history??” questions, so I tried to make the most of this lull in the plan.

Luckily, the grounds at the MTL House include a small area in the back that is surrounded by a brick wall featuring paths, hedges, a few signs, and some benches. We investigated every inch of that and also utilized four rocking chairs on the back porch, completed a survey from the local tourism bureau, and the kids found a fun way to play underneath the house. I’m sure this garden is beautiful in the summer when everything is in bloom. On our visit, we enjoyed the sunshine and passed the time (somewhat) patiently.

 

The family room

We were joined on the hour-long tour by two other visitors and commenced by examining the first floor family room. The tour guide was knowledgeable and pointed out which artifacts were authentic to the family and which were reproductions of period pieces. He also did a great job sharing anecdotes about various Todd family members. Mary was one of sixteen children born to Robert Todd by two wives; Mary’s mother, Todd’s first wife, passed away when she was six, and Mary did not enjoy an easy relationship with her stepmother. We came to understand however that Mary came of age with many of the modern amenities that wealth could buy at that time.

The kitchen eating space, roped off from the formal dining room.

In the dining room and kitchen, we discussed various features of the furniture and tableware and learned about the ways that 19th century families captured and reflected light prior to electricity. My daughters loved this part of the tour and listened carefully.

Across the hall in the formal parlors, we heard about how they could divide the room in half to separate men and women for entertaining. The guide elaborated on the difficulties that the Civil War caused in the Todd family, as it split the family along Union/Confederate lines based on their views about slavery. We learned too about Mary and Abraham Lincoln’s visit to the MTL House in the late 1840s and listened to some speculation about what they would have seen and heard there. The guide made sure to tell the children that the original hand rail that they used to walk up the steps was surely used by Lincoln as well.

The MTL House has done a wonderful job of continuing to seek family heirlooms, and several that we saw on our visit were acquired in the past few months. As we moved upstairs, we saw four large bedrooms, plus a nursery and a smaller bedroom off of the master. The house really is quite spacious and features furniture and other items that complement the stories that the guide told about the family and their prewar lives. They show the home without indoor plumbing and with English and French wallpaper from the era.

The painting above the fireplace is of Mary Todd Lincoln. The guide pointed out that most images portray her with dark eyes and hair but she actually had blue eyes and light blond/brown hair.

In the final bedroom, we heard about Lincoln’s assassination, Mary’s later incarceration in an insane asylum, her years abroad, and her eventual death. The house had fallen into disrepair at some point in the 20th century and was being used as a warehouse until the 1970s. It was scheduled to be torn down to make more parking spaces for the University of Kentucky’s Rupp Arena when it was saved by the efforts of the governor’s wife. Now, it is a functioning nonprofit historical landmark that adds much to our understanding of Mary’s background and life in Lexington in the mid-19th century. One of the guides told me at the end that a good day counts around 80 visitors; there were about 50 on the day we toured. They also have a gift shop on site.

In all, it was worth the slight detour in our trip. As we loaded back into the car to finish our drive to Knoxville, my older daughter said, “I liked that a lot more than I thought I would.”

Ah, victory.

 

Julie Mujic is a Scholar-in-Residence at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio. She also owns Paramount Historical Consulting, LLC. Dr. Mujic can be contacted through her website: www.juliemujic.com.

“Battlefields Mean Business: Economic Benefits of Battlefield Preservation”

Many of our readers are familiar with heritage tourism. In fact many of us would say we are heritage tourists! Historic sites and the communities they reside in can mutually benefit from the visitors that they receive. The Civil War Trust recently released a detailed report of the benefits for these communities as they play host to our nation’s history and the many visitors that come to see it each year.  

The Civil War Trust released a report detailing the economic benefits that battlefield preservation can provide to U.S. communities. After investigating geographically diverse locations across the United States, the study found that historic sites support jobs, attract visitors, create opportunities for local business, and contribute to state and local coffers. Revealing what enhances the economic benefits of battlefields tourism, the report demonstrates that when more land is preserved, sites can become an even more powerful economic engine.

ECW Weekender: Spot Where A.P. Hill Was Killed

It’s a bold claim to set in stone that you are on the exact spot of a historic event. In 1912 the Sons of Confederate Veterans felt confident enough in their research on the death of Lieutenant General Ambrose Powell Hill to make that statement. I’ve recently written a couple articles sharing new accounts about Hill’s death, discoveries I made after devoting a chapter of Dawn of Victory: Breakthrough at Petersburg to the story of the Third Corps commander’s final ride. Everything I’ve found since 2015 has built on that current accepted interpretation. For all I know Corporal John Mauk’s minie ball did strike Hill at the exact location that is claimed, but it can be a tricky place to find.

The thirty-nine year old Virginian began the morning of April 2, 1865 at the home of James M. Venable, a local mill owner, where Hill kept his personal quarters with his pregnant wife Dolly and two young children. Today the site is a Pepsi plant at 1501 W. Washington Street on the city of Petersburg’s western end. Kept awake by the sound of an overnight artillery barrage, Hill dressed at about 3 a.m. and crossed the road to the Third Corps headquarters at the widow Isabella Knight’s residence, “Indiana,” marked now by an Exxon gas station.

Accompanied by several couriers, of whom I’ve finally found better source material, Hill rode to Robert E. Lee’s headquarters at the William Turnbull house, “Edge Hill,” (the Walgreens at 26036 Cox Road, North Dinwiddie). Along the way he was alerted to the Union breakthrough of his corps’ lines (at today’s Pamplin Historical Park). Upon reaching the Turnbull House, Hill met briefly with Lee and James Longstreet before riding due south toward the Thomas Whitworth house (on the grounds of today’s Central State Hospital). That structure, “Mayfield,” still stands but was relocated further to the east as the psychiatric facilities expanded.

Hill then rode southwest along Cattail Run, shedding his companions as he traveled until only Sergeant George Tucker remained as an escort. He hoped to reach the division headquarters of Major General Henry Heth at the home of Zadok Wilson Pickrell, the “Century House.” That renovated structure still stands as a private residence on the south side of the intersection of U.S. Highway 1 and Virginia Highway 671 (today the latter is called Brownwall Road but its brief stretch follows the original bed of the historic Boydton Plank Road).

The two mounted Confederates remained hidden in the woods along Cattail Run until they reached a point nearly due north of Sheriff John W. Harmon’s house (burnt down postwar) at the intersection of Duncan Road with the plank road. They broke for the open and were intercepted at the end of a small meadow by Corporal Mauk and Private Daniel Wolford. Hill’s objective, the Century House, was still about nine hundred yards further southwest, though Heth had long since vacated the headquarters and Federals milled throughout the yard. Further brashness by Hill and Tucker placed them into a showdown where they were outgunned by the Pennsylvania infantrymen. Nevertheless, Wolford shakily began to lower his rifle musket when the Confederates demanded their surrender. Mauk refused to capitulate in the hour of ultimate Union triumph at Petersburg. The pair fired and Mauk’s bullet struck Hill, instantly killing the commander. Wolford’s aim was not as steady and Tucker survived to inform Lee (and the now-widowed Dolly) of Hill’s death.

Tucker’s escape also offered historians the opportunity to utilize primary accounts of the event from both perspectives. The Sons of Confederate Veterans relied on the descriptions of Mauk and Wolford when gathering evidence in the early twentieth century to place two markers to note the site of Hill’s death. (Newspaper articles from 1888, 1890, and 1903 all say the site had been marked in each of those years, but the SCV undertook an extensive study in 1911 to confirm and properly designate the location.) In the tradition of placing markers along areas of high transit, the A.P. Hill Camp, Sons of Confederate Veterans placed their memorial to Hill at the intersection of Boydton Plank Road and Duncan Road. Hill’s widow and children attended the unveiling ceremony in April 1912.

The memorial’s text is not favorable to Mauk and Wolford. Though the two Pennsylvanians charged and broke through the Confederate fortifications that morning, personally pried up several rails of the South Side Railroad (a designated secondary objectives of the assault), and evenly matched Hill and Tucker in number during their standoff, the SCV inscribed them in history as merely “a small band of stragglers.” The stone still stands at the intersection. Visitors can turn onto Duncan Road and then park in an unpaved lot behind the marker.

Site of A.P. Hill’s death, click on image for full size (map by author)

Across Route 1 is a sign first placed in 1929 by the Virginia Historical Highway Marker Program denoting “Where Hill Fell.” As parking along the highway or crossing the road from the SCV memorial is not advisable, the text reads: “In the field a short distance north of this road, the Confederate General A.P. Hill was killed, April 2, 1865. Hill, not knowing that Lee’s lines had been broken, rode into a party of Union soldiers advancing on Petersburg.” (Every reliable firsthand Confederate account I’ve read acknowledges that the commanders at Edge Hill were aware of the Breakthrough when Hill departed to learn just how bad the situation had deteriorated on his front.) The worn sign was most recently replaced in 2015.

Thanks to the preservation efforts of the Civil War Trust who acquired the property, visitors have the ability to continue on to the actual location according to the SCV who placed an additional small granite marker in 1912. From the Route 1 marker, turn south onto the highway and then immediately turn right onto A.P. Hill Drive into the Sentry Woods subdivision. Turn right onto Sentry Hill Court and then drive to the back end of the neighborhood. Visitors may park on the shoulder next to the Civil War Trust boundary signs and follow the short trail downhill to the “Spot Where A.P. Hill Was Killed.”

As the map indicates, development is starting to sprawl down the Route 1 corridor from Petersburg into Dinwiddie County. The once rural landscape may one day contain only pocket battlefield parcels as the county modernizes. Nonetheless, in their own way, the three markers note Hill’s death in the immediate aftermath of the Breakthrough at Petersburg on April 2, 1865. Did I mention there are three burial sites as well… for another weekend trip.