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Tour gives peek at Culpeper’s Civil War past
BY CLINT SCHEMMER
THE FREE LANCE-STAR
Fleetwood, Richard Hoope Cunningham’s home in Culpeper County, was the epitome of gracious antebellum living, remarked many a visitor.
Resting in its well-furnished rooms, travelers savored their hosts’ ice-cold lemonade and genteel conversation.
Neither guests nor the Cunninghams, though, spoke of those who made the farm such a productive and welcoming place: its 60-some slaves.
That’s what people learned Saturday during a daylong first-of-its-kind program devoted to all aspects of the county’s Civil War history. It was but one contrast drawn during the special event hosted by two nonprofit groups, the new African American Heritage Alliance and Friends of Wilderness Battlefield.
The day blended military maneuvers, wartime politics and civilian hardships to set the stage for August’s 150th anniversary of the Battle of Cedar Mountain.
Four nationally known historians kicked things off with a morning symposium, “Anguish and Freedom: The Yankees Descend Upon Culpeper,” at Germanna Community College’s Daniel Technology Center. It drew a diverse crowd of 136 people who came from as far away as Ohio to get a feel for the forces that thrust Culpeper into the national spotlight in the summer of 1862.
John Hennessy, chief historian of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, author James K. Bryant II and Daniel Sutherland, history chairman at the University of Arkansas, examined Culpeper’s experience from many angles. Clark B. Hall, top expert on the Battle of Brandy Station, moderated the discussion.
Zann Nelson, president of Friends of Wilderness Battlefield, said organizers sought to provide an overview of how the war affected Culpeper, weaving in stories of African–American refugees, self-emancipation and black soldiers’ service that haven’t been part of the usual Civil War narrative.
“This is African–Americans’ history, too—a big piece of it,” she said.
Hennessy described how the Lincoln administration sharply shifted Union policy after the disastrous Seven Days’ battles near Richmond, bringing Gen. John Pope from the West to take command in Northern Virginia and wage the “hard war” urged by its critics.
Pope ordered his troops to live off the land and arrest all disloyal men, moves intended to break Confederate civilians’ spirit. His orders, secretly orchestrated by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and President Lincoln, were polar opposites of the policies pursued by Gen. George B. McClellan, strategist of that year’s failed Peninsula Campaign.
“We must commence to realize the dreadful horrors of war. We are making Virginia a wilderness,” Edward W. Whitaker of the Union’s Harris Light Cavalry wrote on July 31, 1862.
But when, that August, Confederate commander Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson outwitted Pope at Cedar Mountain and Jackson and Lee outfoxed him again in the Battle of Second Manassas, Lincoln made Pope the scapegoat, Hennessy said.
Bryant, a former associate professor at Shenandoah University who has written books on the battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, outlined how Lincoln came to add slavery’s abolition to the aims of what had been strictly “a war for the Union.”
But slaves living south of the Rappahannock River didn’t wait for government action. They carefully gauged their chances. Some emancipated themselves, Bryant explained.
Sutherland detailed Culpeper before the war, noting that it was a mixture of town, rural villages and farms—home to 12,000 people, half of them white and half black. Among its notable residents, he said, was the Rev. Thornton Stringfellow, a Baptist minister who taught that slavery was God’s will.
Sutherland wrote “Seasons of War: The Ordeal of a Confederate Community,” which chronicles Culpeper in the Civil War.
Hall led a sold-out afternoon bus tour dubbed “The Rappahannock, A River to Freedom” that ranged across eastern Culpeper to follow the Yankee army, fleeing slaves and advancing U.S. Colored Troops along the boundary between Union and Confederate territory.
At Brandy Station, Hall’s rapid-fire talk blended battle narrative, social history and historic preservation. He noted that its Cunningham plantation was the county’s third largest farm, with 1,500 acres, when war came.
But despite Richard Cunningham’s relatively benign treatment of his slaves, every one of them left once the Union army marched into Culpeper County in August 1862, Hall said.
Clint Schemmer: 540/368-5029