Union soldiers left mark at Stafford’s newest park
Piles of sandstone and depressions in the ground dot the edge of the short mulched path. Slightly downhill, a mound of dirt squats before the land becomes a drop-off.
For those not versed in Civil War history, they may look like naturally occurring earth formations. But they’re remnants of 150-year-old huts built by Union soldiers during a months-long stay in Stafford County. The rocks are fragments of hearths and fallen chimneys.
But more impressive may be the earthworks about a half-mile away, overlooking the Accokeek Creek valley. The fearful Union Army’s 11th Corps, 1st and 3rd Divisions, built earthen artillery batteries to protect themselves from Confederate attacks that never came. Three of the batteries still survive.
Until recently, little has been known about Civil War activity in the area off Brooke Road; these fortifications were made known to preservationists in the past 10 years, and share part of the story of the war in central Virginia told nowhere else.
“It really is incredible all that is out here, and it all survived by chance,” said Glenn Trimmer, executive director of the nonprofit Friends of Stafford Civil War Sites, who worked closely with fellow Friends members D.P. Newton and Terry Ferris on the project.
On Saturday, April 27, the new Stafford Civil War Park will open thanks to fundraising efforts and sweat equity from the Friends of Stafford Civil War Sites, other volunteers, donors and National Guard members. The value of the effort is estimated at $2 million. The county kicked in about $130,000.
“I really think we’re offering Stafford a first-class park at virtually no cost to taxpayers,” said Trimmer.
The grand opening of the park is set for 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturday, and will include tours, re-enactors and living historians, cannon firing demonstrations, a field hospital and period musicians. From then on, the park will be open daily from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Visitors can also see an 1830s bridge used by soldiers, a late-1700s quarry and sections of soldier-built “corduroy roads,” which were covered with logs to make them more passable.
The park is already gaining attention among history buffs.
“In my 40 years of work in Civil War history education and preservation, I’ve visited practically every Civil War site in the nation,” wrote Wilson Greene, executive director of Petersburg’s Pamplin Historic Park, in a letter to Stafford officials. “Believe me when I tell you that what you have done at the Stafford County Civil War Park is a gem.”
He’s rerouting an annual bus tour this weekend to include the park and two other Stafford historical sites, the White Oak Civil War Museum and Hartwood Church.
“I know our folks will be as impressed as I was,” wrote Greene, a former Stafford resident and historian at the Fredericksburg National Military Park.
SOLDIERS IN STAFFORD
From February through June of 1863, more than Fort135,000 soldiers in the Army of the Potomac made Stafford their home in what some scholars call the Union’s “Valley Forge.” They’d just faced a brutal setback in December in Fredericksburg and needed desperately to reorganize and recuperate.
But while the soldiers waited for an eventual battle at Gettysburg, a turning point in the war, the county of Stafford suffered. Homes were destroyed, residents fled and forests were felled.
“There’s a lot of sacrifice,” said Trimmer about both the military and the citizens. “And nobody’s done squat to recognize them.”
Mid-stay, in April, the soldiers traveled to Chancellorsville. On Saturday, re-enactors will march out of the park at the end of the opening day commemoration to recognize the army leaving for the Battle of Chancellorsville exactly 150 years to the day.
But after a Confederate victory, they returned to Stafford for another month.
The fortifications were constructed as protection from a Confederate attack. The earth was dug, shaped and mounded, and in some cases, the walls were 300 feet long, 30 feet thick at the base, and up to 10 feet high. Depressions in the walls indicate where gun barrels rested. In the center of each of the batteries is the site of a blockhouse, a heavily fortified building used as the last stand, with a foundation up to 8 feet deep.
In Battery No. 1, two model cannons will be placed on gun platforms made of solid oak from the park, guarding the old Potomac Church Road, a “corduroy road” that still has pieces intact, covered by years of packed earth. The two 3-inch ordnance rifles were purchased with a $34,000 grant from the Stafford Economic Development Authority.
Trimmer hopes the gun replicas will be a big draw.
No fighting ever took place in Stafford. Gen. Robert E. Lee instead drew the army out by heading north to Gettysburg.
BUILDING THE PARK
A 2009 agreement promised that if the Friends of Stafford Civil War Sites could do the vast majority of the work on the park, then the park would be taken into Stafford’s system and be open to the public free of charge. The land has been part of the Regional Landfill on Eskimo Hill Road, jointly owned by Stafford and Fredericksburg. When work began, the woods were so thick you couldn’t even see where the park would be, Trimmer said.
Three National Guard training exercises truly made the park an affordable reality, he said. The three 15-day “Innovative Readiness Training Exercises” provided about 85 percent of the total labor that went into the park’s construction, Trimmer estimated.
The Virginia Army National Guard’s 276th Engineer Battalion and the Virginia Air National Guard’s 203rd Red Horse Squadron cleared, graded and paved the roads and parking areas. This required the removal of more than 500 dump truck loads of debris, 720 hours of heavy equipment operations, 18,000 gallons of fuel and the transport of 6,000 tons of donated stone from Vulcan Materials’ quarry in Stafford. This equipment, labor and fuel came from federal training funds.
Other contributions include:
--A 54-inch culvert pipe, donated by Americast Hanover pipe factory, to provide drainage under the road, along with some smaller pipes.
--Asphalt provided at-cost by Virginia Paving. The county paid $48,000 forthe asphalt, which was then put down during one of the exercises it.
--A grant from the Archaeological Institute of America that paid for eight metal historical signs.
--Three Eagle Scout projects resulting in a major repair, clearing and construction of a split-rail fence by the picnic site.
--A $150,000 grant from the Civil War Trust.
Katie Thisdell: 540/735-1975
CIVIL WAR PARK PLANS OPENING DAY EVENT
The new Stafford Civil War Park will open Saturday, April 27.
The 41-acre park is the site of the 1863 winter encampments and fortifications of the Union Army’s 11th Corps,
1st and 3rd divisions. At least 130,000 soldiers were in Stafford after the Battle of Fredericksburg, before the battles of Chancellorsville and Gettysburg.
The park is located at 400 Mount Hope Church Road, off Brooke Road. Only those with physical impairments will be allowed to park here for the event.
Other visitors should instead park at the nearby Virginia Railway Express Brooke Station, 1721 Brooke Road. A free shuttle bus will run to the park 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Regular spring hours will be 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily, and the parking areas will be open to all then.
The Friends of Stafford Civil War Sites coordinated the project, valued at $2 million.
Find more information at fscws.org.