Emerging Civil War has chosen D.P. Newton of the White Oak Civil War Museum in Stafford County, Virginia, as the recipient of its 2018 Award for Service in Civil War Public History.
Emerging Civil War’s Award for Service in Civil War Public History recognizes the work of an individual or organization that has made a significant impact on the field of public history in a way that better helps the general public connect with America’s defining event. “We have a strong public history mission at ECW, and we want to recognize—and offer our gratitude to—the work of others who share that same mission,” explained ECW Editor-in-Chief Chris Mackowski.
Newton is the owner and operator of the White Oak Civil War Museum. “DP Newton is not a name that is probably very well known beyond central Virginia,” said ECW Chief Historian Chris Kolakowski. “Yet through his decades of tireless research and field work among the Army of the Potomac’s campsites in Stafford County, we have an incredibly detailed understanding of that army and its Valley Forge winter of 1862-63.”
That winter, said the late historian Al Conner, was the war’s single most important non-combat military turning point. Conner laid out his argument in Seizing Destiny: The Army of the Potomac’s Valley Forge and the Winter that Saved the Union, co-written with Mackowski. “Much of our modern understanding of that winter can be traced back to D.P.’s work,” Mackowski said.
Newton established the museum in 1998 in a former schoolhouse that both he and his mother attended. Six rooms feature tens of thousands of artifacts on display. Outside, a reconstructed set of winter huts offer visitors a glimpse of camp life.
Kolakowski pointed out that the White Oak Museum is one of the only places one can study Civil War winter quarters. “Soldiers spent the majority of their time in quarters, punctuated by a few brief but intense episodes of battle,” Kolakowski explained. “As a result, the key to understanding life in the army is to understanding life in the camps.”
According to Kolakowski, Newton has devoted his life to studying the camp sites and founded the museum as a way to share his findings and his knowledge. “D.P. has been selfless in sharing his knowledge,” he said, adding that the museum’s collection “priceless.”
But Newton’s wife, Bonny, said the value of the collection isn’t monetary. “The value is that D.P. was the first person to touch items that some 16 or 20 year old Yankee soldier last touched,” she added. “He knows many of those soldiers were far away from home and some took their last breath right here in Stafford, Spotsylvania or Fredericksburg. He treasures every bullet or button that those soldiers carried around on their person. He believes he’s simply the caretaker of those soldier boys’ relics that they left behind.”
Bonny called her husband an “unassuming country fellow” with “a gift for organizing and building the right case for the set of objects it contains, all of which tells a piece of a very important story in our country’s history.”
Newton was also instrumental in the establishment of the Stafford Civil War Park, which preserves part of the winter encampment site of the Union Eleventh Corps during the winter of 1862-63. Historians in the region have also tapped his expertise on a variety of other projects, as well.
“When we received Cockpit Point from a developer to be preserved as a historic park, we began to research the Potomac Blockade,” said Rob Orrison, historic sites supervisor for Prince William County, Virginia. “The first place we went and the first person we contacted was D.P. Newton. Though focusing mostly on Stafford County, D.P. knew the places and stories along the Potomac River in 1861-1862. His knowledge and vast collection of items related to the blockade were a window into the past that gave us a great starting point in exploring this much-overlooked part of history.”
In 2017, the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust honored Newton with its Dr. Mike Stevens Preservation Award. Newton’s museum has also been featured in The New York Times.
The White Oak Civil War Museum is located at 985 White Oak Road, Falmouth, Virginia.