I’ve come to Rectortown, Virginia, looking for one end of the war, but I’ve unexpectedly found several. (The anniversary of one of them is today, April 21, as it happened.)
Thick puffs of clouds that look like smoky cotton balls hover over rampant hills, but abundant sunshine somehow spills through. The morning had been rainy, but the front had passed through, pushed by strong winds. My original hope to film a couple videos for the ECW YouTube page are pretty much blown away because my microphone, in this wind, would be useless.
My main reason for coming here is to find the area where George B. McClellan made his headquarters starting on November 5, 1862. The corps of his army fanned out to the south of him, closer to Warrenton, while McClellan seemed content to bring up the rear. His headquarters at Rectortown put him along the Manassas Gap Railroad, which supplied his men—a key concern of McClellan’s that underlaid his long foot-dragging following his win at Antietam a month and a half earlier.
McClellan’s glacial pursuit of the wounded Army of Northern Virginia, and his unrelenting bickering with Abraham Lincoln, led the president to finally relieve McClellan on November 7. Brig. Gen. Carthinius Buckingham arrived by train in an early winter snowstorm and first sought out IX Corps Commander Ambrose Burnside, to whom he offered command of the army. Burnside had been asked on two previous occasions, and like those times, he demurred. Only the threat of giving the army to Burnside’s rival, Joe Hooker, caused Burnside to reconsider.
From there, Buckingham visited McClellan to pass along the order that the Young Napoleon had been relieved. McClellan, writing a letter to his wife and confidante, Ellen, paused his correspondence to receive his visitor. “[A]s I read the order…” McClellan relayed to his wife when he resumed the letter, “I am sure that not a muscle quivered nor was the slightest expression of feeling visible on my face….” He admitted to her that he must have “made many mistakes” but did not see “any great blunders.” Mostly, he expressed disappointment. “They have made a grave mistake—alas for my poor country—I know in my innermost heart she never had a truer servant.”
McClellan would stay with the army a few days to ensure a smooth transition for Burnside, and after many hearty huzzahs from his men and teary farewells from his officers, he bid his adieu on November 10. Several supporters intimated support for a march on Washington, but McClellan tamped them down, urging everyone to remain true to their duty and their service to the civilian government. It was, arguably, McClellan’s finest moment as commander. “Nothing in McClellan’s tenure of command became him like the leaving of it,” says historian James McPherson.
I find a Civil War Trails sign that marks the location of the old Rectortown depot, and following directions spelled out by Rob Orrison and Kevin Pawlak in their great Maryland Campaign guide To Hazard All, I follow Lost Corner Road along the series of hills and ridges where—somewhere—McClellan had pitched his tent. “The several hills on the right side of the road ignite debate among local historians about which was the location of McClellan’s headquarters tent,” the book says.
The day is bright and pretty, and the wind through the long field grass sends long ripples as if across a pond. I stop and get out, picking the hill I would choose had I been McClellan, and admire the view. I can understand why he chose the location, if not for the convenience of the railroad than for the beautiful view, even in November. For Little Mac’s sake, I hope he pitched his tent in one of the swales instead of atop one of the hills, because when the storm came on November 7, the wind and foul weather must have certainly been unpleasant.
Reading the Civil War Trails marker, I discover this was the same location where partisan ranger John S. Mosby held his infamous lottery on November 6, 1864. On September 22, Federals had executed seven of Mosby’s captured men, claiming they were spies. Mosby retaliated by randomly selecting seven Federal prisoners in his possession and ordered them executed in retaliation. Through various circumstances, only three men met their “end of the war” as a result of the lottery, but Mosby made his point. Union Maj. Gen. Phil Sheridan soon struck a deal where Mosby’s men would henceforth be treated as prisoners of war—with all attendant rights—rather than as spies.
Mosby’s own end of the war came not far from here in a town that was then known as Salem but is today called Marshall. On my way to Rectortown, I passed through Marshall, just four miles or so back down the road near the intersection with I-66. I noticed a roadsign historical marker that read “Mosby’s Rangers Disband.” I later discover there’s a small monument to the event in town, too.
On April 21, 1865, Mosby assembled his men in Salem (Marshall) for one final time. Following Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Mosby’s band had been labeled as guerrillas, not soldiers. Unwilling to surrender under those conditions, which promised harsh punishment, Mosby instead disbanded his rangers. Subsequent negotiations allowed them to travel into Winchester, turn in their horses, and receive their paroles.
Mosby, though, struck off to the south with several of his officers in an attempt to find the remnants of Joe Johnston’s army and join up with them. When he received word of Johnston’s surrender, he realized the jig was up. Although several of the men with him urged a continuation of guerilla tactics, Mosby demurred. “We are soldiers, not highwaymen,” he said.
It took more than a month of continued negotiations before Mosby himself surrendered, during which time he evaded a $5,000 bounty. Finally, on June 17, Mosby turned himself in—one of the last Confederate officers to surrender.
After the war, Mosby led the way in reconciliation, becoming a Republican and going to work for the Grant administration. He served in government until forced into retirement, at age 76, during the Taft administration. His postwar writings made him as controversial then as he’d been in life, contradicting many of the ascendant “Lost Cause” narratives. “I’ve always understood that we went to war on account of the thing we quarreled with the North about,” he told one correspondent. “I’ve never heard of any other cause than slavery.” Mosby lived until May 30, 1916.
As often happens in my Civil War explorations, I set out looking for one thing and ended up finding a bunch of others. Perhaps it was coincidence, or perhaps the blog series just primed me to think in such terms, but I found several “End of the War” threads that all came together in Rectortown. But as also happens with history, the threads that all came together all led away to new stories of their own. The end of the war was just the beginning of something else.
I did manage to pull together a video on McClellan, BTW. You can see it at ECW’s YouTube page: