Farm buildings give way to land’s Civil War past
The southern part of the Fredericksburg battlefield is starting to look more like it did in 1862.
Not as in mid-battle, but in a pastoral way.
Some of Slaughter Pen Farm’s post-Civil War buildings are being razed to give the property, held by the Civil War Trust, a more authentic feel.
Skyline Enterprises LLC of Culpeper County got to work there on Monday, putting up signs and yellow “Caution” tape and closing the tract’s walking trail to the public.
The nonprofit trust, based in Washington, ordered the demolition to make the historic site—open on a self-serve basis since 2008—a better place to visit, said Jim Campi, its spokesman.
Though the farm fields are still well-tended, planted in corn and soybeans, Slaughter Pen’s last resident farmer—owner John Pierson—died in 2005. His heirs sold the 208-acre spread in 2006 for $12 million, making it the single most expensive land purchase in the trust’s history.
The property, in Spotsylvania County along Routes 2 and 17 east, comprises much of the ground where the Union army broke through Confederate commander Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s defenses on Dec. 13, 1862, before being repulsed in fierce, seesawing combat. It is the largest and least-altered piece left of the Fredericksburg battlefield.
The close-order fighting on its plain along the Rappahannock River was so costly that Union soldiers called the area “the Slaughter Pen,” according to historian Frank A. O’Reilly, author of “The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock.”
The buildings’ demolition should be complete by the end of April, just prior to the 150th anniversary of the war’s Overland Campaign, Campi said in an interview Tuesday.
Three barns, a rustic house in midfield and Pierson’s turn-of-the-century farmhouse will stay, Campi said in an interview Tuesday. Several sheds, the milking parlor, and two concrete silos will go.
“We’ve got an enormous investment in the property, with the intention to preserve the site to reflect its wartime appearance,” he said. “We want to give visitors the feeling that they’re stepping onto an 1862 battlefield, and so we attempt to restore the landscape as much as we can. You can’t completely turn the clock back, but we certainly try.”
Visitors’ safety is also an issue, Campi said.
“Though there are signs indicating people should not go in the structures, people do from time to time,” he said. “That is another reason to remove the buildings.”
For now, the trust intends to maintain the structures that will remain. “But we are considering removing them at some point, too, since they are not wartime buildings,” Campi said.
The Virginia Department of Historic Resources reviewed and approved the trust’s plan and Spotsylvania County issued a demolition permit, he said.
On Monday afternoon, Skyline’s men and a diesel-powered excavator pulled down one small outbuilding and made headway on a concrete-block milking shed.
Contractor Marvin Jenkins was pleased with the first day’s effort, and is hoping that dry weather will speed the demolition, which is risky and involves a lot of handwork.
He lives on part of Culpeper’s Cedar Mountain battlefield, where Jackson defeated Union general John Pope on Aug. 9, 1862, and said he appreciates the region’s Civil War history.
So, early Monday morning, when two busloads of Army soldiers arrived unexpectedly at Slaughter Pen, Jenkins didn’t have the heart to bar them from the site’s walking trail—though he can’t make that exception for any others now that demolition is underway.
“They’d come all the way from Fort Bragg [N.C.],” he explained. “It seemed a shame to have to turn them away, and they kept clear of our equipment.”
In the meantime, for those eager to taste the farm’s storied places, the trust’s website has an animated map of the battle and a virtual tour at bit.ly/1mItIXd.
Clint Schemmer: 540/374-5424