Monday, September 12, 2016

Stumbling into Civil War History in Shenandoah National Park

We've made efforts to preserve parts of our history through monuments, interpretive markers, historic houses, battlefield parks, and museums. Yet our preservation and commemoration efforts are often narrowly selective. Sometimes the past remains hidden in plain sight, obscured but not erased from our more modern landscapes. With a little work, intrepid history lovers can discover these forgotten stories. And living in Virginia, I love the constant opportunities for stumbling across Civil War history.

Over the Labor Day Weekend, my wife and I met some friends and camped at Big Meadows in Shenandoah National Park. During our stay, we set off from the campground on a round-trip hike that took us up to Fisher's Gap, down a hiking trail to Rose River Falls, and looping back along the Rose River Fire Road and the Appalachian Trail to our campsite. It was a beautiful, somewhat strenuous hike. We made the trip down to the falls along a rocky and steep trail, and the terrain on our climb out provided additional challenges, at least until we hit the Rose River Fire Road. This well-maintained gravel road eased our travel considerably, not the least because its ascent back to Fisher's Gap proved much more gradual than our previous trail.

Google Maps shows the Rose River Fire Trail today, along the remnants of the 19th Century Blue Ridge Turnpike.
Today, Shenandoah is wilderness; but for centuries before it became a national park, many people made their homes and utilized the Blue Ridge Mountains. In the 19th century, various roads, turnpikes and byways crossed the mountains to connect the Shenandoah Valley with Eastern Virginia. As we hiked, I thought about the many times both United States and Confederate soldiers crossed these very mountains during the Civil War. But I did not realize that for part of our hike, we tread one of the frequent paths they used. That discovery awaited my return home, when I looked up the history of the various fire roads in the area, and came upon the story of the Blue Ridge Turnpike.

Chartered in 1848 and opened in 1853, the Turnpike ran 56 miles from Gordonsville across the Blue Ridge to New Market. The private toll road opened a vital connection for agriculturally rich areas of the Valley to what was at that moment the closest railroad link - the Virginia Central Railroad - in Gordonsville. The 1851 Report of the President and Board of Directors of the Blue Ridge Turnpike Company declared the turnpike:
One of great value and importance, penetrating as it does into such a rich and fertile portion of the Valley, over mountains deemed heretofore almost impassable, and affording as it will the easiest and shortest communications with the markets of Eastern Virginia.... The industrial wealth of the Valley will be poured into Richmond; or, when the Alexandria railroad, now in progress is completed, they will have a choice of markets, and will have the benefit of that competition for their trade.
The company macadamized portions of the turnpike crossing the Blue Ridge to improve the firmness of the road, and envisioned creating "an excellent road of easy grade." After only eight years though, war disrupted the operations of the turnpike. Along with the agriculture riches of the valley, the turnpike now saw the movement of thousands of soldiers.

Map showing the Turnpike completed by Confederate Chief Engineer Jeremy F. Gilmer during the Civil War.
Library of Congress.

The road through Fisher's Gap was sketched by Confederate cartographer Jedediah Hotchkiss, He later wrote to his wife of the experience riding through the pass:
Monday was a fine day, and I had a nice ride across the Blue Ridge, by the crookedest road I have ever seen -- 19 miles across -- but the road is a fine one -- I stopped for the night at the foot of the Mt. Tuesday I came on to New Market...

Stonewall Jackson utilized the turnpike during his Valley Campaign in the spring of 1862. Later that year, following the conclusion of the Maryland Campaign, Jackson's Corps again used the Blue Ridge Turnpike in November to pass through Fisher's Gap (sometimes called Millam's Gap during that time). They marched to rejoin the rest of the Army of Northern Virginia at Fredericksburg. Captain James Cooper Nisbet of the 21st Georgia recalled the march:
The pike road leading across the Blue Ridge to Madison Court House winds up the mountain by easy grade. It was a cool November afternoon, the brandy warmed the boys up, and made them hilarious. They sang corn-shucking songs. One of my men, Riley Thurman, who had a remarkably fine voice, led. The whole Brigade joined in the chorus; which they could do well, as the leading Regiment was often close to the rear of the Brigade, on account of the windings of the road. General Jackson caught up with us, and in trying to pass on was caught in the jam; and had to listen to some very risque couplets. The austere Presbyterian Elder could not hide his amusement at the cheek of the fellow leading. He did not seem to be worried that his twenty thousand veterans felt happy and light hearted.
Seven months later, at the end of July, 1863, portions of the Second Corps again passed through Fisher's Gap during Lee's retreat from Gettysburg. This time Sam Pickens, a soldier from the 5th Alabama, traveled through the pass with the sick, wounded, and those unable to walk from Robert Rodes's division. He left the following diary entry:
Started at 6 yesterday evening and had a very rough ride. Went through Luray, a pretty large town, & turned to the left & traveled till 12 O'clock--having made 12 or 15 miles. This morning John C. & I walked on ahead & soon came into the New Market & Gordonsville Turnpike wh. we traveled last Fall, & wh. crosses the mountain at Fisher's Gap. The Divis. train came around this way too, & when we got tired John & I got into Maj. Adams' wagon & rode & slept. J. & I got out on top the mountain & walked on all the rest of the day. There is a stream of cold--pure water that dashes down the side of the Mountain & crosses the road [the Dark Hollow Falls of Hogcamp Branch]. Here we stopped & drank & washed our faces & hands. The road is very winding; so that by cutting across & going straight down the mountain a few hundred yards you cut off a mile or more in some places. The distance over the mountain is 14 ms., & I suppose we traveled about 20 in all to-day. 
The war put a premature end to the Blue Ridge Turnpike Company. By 1867 the toll gates were no longer maintained, and the road itself had fallen into disrepair from the constant passage of troops. Pursuant to state laws, abandoned turnpikes became the property and responsibility of county governments. The turnpike continued on well into the 20th Century, remaining in use into the 1940s. In an interview conducted in 1977 as part of the Shenandoah National Park Oral History Collection, Ralph Cave--a local who grew up along the turnpike in the early part of the 20th century, recorded some reminiscences of the road:
Interviewer: ....It must have taken him a while to get there.
Cave: Well, we'd always just walk down there and tell him. Have to - or ride. Ride horseback. A lot of 'em ride horses in there, you know.
Interviewer: Uh-huh.
Cave: We'd ride a horse or sometimes they had what they call a buckboard or a spring wagon or something like that.
Interviewer: Was that a pretty rough road? That Gordonsville Turnpike?
Cave: Well, it wasn't that bad. They kept it up - the State kept it up pretty good.
In the era of Shenandoah National Park (1935), the road over the mountain closed to public transportation. Today, the old Blue Ridge Turnpike is marked on trail maps of Shenandoah as the Rose River Fire Road east of Fisher's Gap, and as the Red Gate Fire Road west of the gap. Many tourists come each year to hike along these fire roads and the interconnected trails and foot paths in the vicinity. They seek out the Dark Hallow Falls or the Rose River, and perhaps hope to see some wildlife along the trail. The wilderness experience they crave was a 20th century creation, but the 19th century toll road at their feet still speaks to Shenandoah's earlier story.

Sources for further reading
The History of Millam's / Fisher's Gap - Great info on the Turnpike, the Gap, and the families that called the area home.

Voices from Company D: Diaries by the Greensboro Guards, Fifth Alabama Infantry Regiment, Army of Northern Virgina, Edited by G. Ward Hubbs.

Four Years on the Firing Line by Colonel James Cooper Nisbet.

Shenandoah National Park Oral History Collection - James Madison University Libraries

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