Tuesday on the Trail

Conner House

Tuesday started out as many days ‘on the Trail.’ I was up and out early, before sunrise, and under caffeinated I hit the interstate. The podcast I had on wasn’t helping to wake me up and decided that latest Jane’s Addiction might be the ticket. I was halfway to my first appointment, when the coffee kicked in and I got giddy. I’d spend another day, talking, traveling, and finding Civil War sites. After dropping off interpretive signs at the historic Williams Ordinary in Dumfries Va., I set out for the Conner House in the City of Manassas Park. The City’s Parks and Recreation Department had recently signed on as members and the new panels were sorely needed. With the temperature hovering just at freezing, it took some creativity to keep the paint warm and I got to work. The landscape there, despite its changes over the last 150+ years hasn’t changed immensely. The sirens from the train crossing, school bells, and what sounded like John Legend blaring from the adjacent apartment complex would throw anyone off but standing there, it doesn’t take much imagination to see why this unassuming structure was the epicenter of several campaigns and smaller actions. Built on a hill, the brown uncoursed stone home was photographed during the war and its not hard to situate one’s self in the footsteps of the Union soldiers encamped around the home.

Hopping back in the truck, I made it to the ‘Stonewall Jackson Shrine’ by way of Fredericksburg and began my run through Caroline County. When we are on the road and not repairing the signs, we are trying to identify if the interpretive signs need work, or edits. We check the directional sign network and make notes on how to improve our maps. Its no small task. Near the Milford Depot, I pulled of to check out sign and was reminded of the May 21st 1864 action there which pit about 400 Virginians against over a brigade’s worth of Union cavalry- the advance of Hancock’s column as it sidestepped Lee’s Army in neighboring Spotsylvania County. As I left Milford I spied a lost puppy trotting down the road. We got in some licks, drank some water, inquired with the locals and, working with the County PD, housed her in the local shelter. After this brief (but not atypical) distraction I headed south—following in the footsteps of Grant’s army as it passed through King William County in the final days of May, 1864.

Mangohick Church was my next objective. Our map listed it was a ‘red star’ and our directional signs hadn’t failed me yet. I had the materials on hand to replace the insert and repaint the sign at the Church. I pulled into the parking lot trying to imagine where Grant’s HQ tent was pitched on the grounds on the night of May 27th, 1864. He has been reportedly suffering from a migraine or headache and had spent the night on the ground adjacent to this beautiful c.1730s brick church. Making a note and leaving a message for the Church I turned right onto Rt. 30, hot on the heals of the 2nd and 6th Corps.

As the afternoon wore on I was in search of my 8th sign of the day. Nelsons Bridge Rd was unmarked and wound through the countryside which by all accounts hasn’t changed much since 1864. Cell service was- well it wasn’t an option so I cracked the windows and almost blew right past the sign. It was one of those moments which are often so hard to describe in text or to friends over dinner. “Wyoming,” the Nelson home, stood on the bluff behind me, its red, standing seam roof lit by the colors in the now setting sun. The floodplain had a slight mist hanging just a foot or two above the fields of cut corn. Reading the sign (which I should add, is in need of a sponsor) I could not help but imagine tens of thousands of tired, broken and overheated Union soldiers flooding the banks to fill canteens and grabbing a few quiet moments in what proven to be an intense month.

Those quiet moments lasted not longer than an hour. As the sun rose on May 28th the engineers wasted no time in erecting a pontoon bridge of about 140 feet to span the muddy river. This was one of five crossings that the Union engineers would erect that day. Mrs. Nelson and her daughter(s) apparently operated a ferry there.

Theodore Lyman, on Meade’s staff commented that the 6th Corp “was passing rapidly, while the flat was full of batteries, and of wagons waiting their turn.” He went on to comment that, “These canvas pontoons are funny looking; they consist of a boat-shaped frame, which is wrapped in a great sheet of canvas and put in the water, this making a boat, on which part of the bridge-floor may rest.”

Nelson’s Crossing

Passing over the Pamunkey I checked the sign for Haw’s Shop. This interprets the nearby action in which Union troopers cleared the way for the waiting infantrymen to cross safely over the river. I proceeded along towards West Point and Eltham’s Landing, and mentally jumped back to 1862. Its never ceases to amaze me how the campaigns of 1862 and 1864 overlap here. Lyman puts it best when he says, “We now had struck a classic ground where the old McClellan men began to have ‘reminisces.’” After doing a drive by check on the two signs at Elthams Landing, I made it home. 318.6 miles and beyond pumped to wake up tomorrow and go “back to work.”

Nelson’s Landing

That floodplain below “Wyoming” had stuck with me. Surely, each of you reading this have had similar experiences. Arriving to a place where everything just clicks. It makes sense. Where all the diaries, OR’s, photos and accounts can be tossed aside for the timeless sites, smells, and sounds which connect you to these stories in a very innate way.

About Drew Gruber

Drew lives in Williamsburg with his wife, Kate and their two cats Milton (the Brown) and Graham (Spartacus). He enjoys reading but doesn't particularly relish writing. He enjoys oyster, never cooked- always raw, brown spirituous liquors and quiet.
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One Response to Tuesday on the Trail

  1. Rob Wilson says:

    Wow. What a day you had! An interesting story. You must be the Jack Kerouac of ECW. Your style reminds me of the way Kerouac wrote “On the Road” (the original scroll version, finally published 50 years after the edited and polished version published in 1957). Your last paragraph about tossing aside the archival info on the war for the “timeless sites, smells and sounds” of the trail and making sense of it all that way is pure Jack.

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