(Brandy Station, Va.) – The Virginia Outdoors Foundation (VOF) and the Virginia Department of Historic Resources join the Civil War Trust today in announcing the preservation of a lofty, scenic ridge where 800 Confederate soldiers barred a Union cavalry division from the main fight at Brandy Station, the opening battle of the Civil War’s Gettysburg Campaign.
The 400-foot-high, mile-long ridge in Culpeper County, Virginia, whose profile one soldier said resembles “a giant sleeping,” sheltered more than 10,000 Union troops for five months during the winter of 1863-1864, before they began the war’s shocking, fiery Wilderness Campaign. It was part of the Union Army of the Potomac’s 120,000-soldier winter encampment, which dominated Culpeper County; Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia camped across the Rapidan River in Orange County.
Members of the 18th Pennsylvania Cavalry Regiment pose in their camp, with horse saddles and newly built winter huts, in February 1864 on Hansbrough’s Ridge east of Stevensburg in Culpeper County, Virginia. That month, Union Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick led the 3rd Cavalry Division—which included the 18th Regiment—on the Kilpatrick-Dahlgren Raid of Richmond, a controversial and ill-fated attempt to rescue Union prisoners of war.
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The two organizations’ announcement culminates nearly two years of fundraising and decades of preservation activism for the 174-acre site, which historians say is unique in its landscape, significance and quality.
VOF, a public foundation, and the Virginia Board of Historic Resources accepted two conservation easements to forever protect the ridge east of the historic village of Stevensburg. The property stretches from State Route 3 north to near Cole’s Hill, which is privately owned. The Foundation will hold one easement. The Board will hold the other, administered by staff at the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.
“We are proud to have helped save this rare place, which was both a pivotal battleground and a secure refuge where thousands of soldiers recuperated from the trials of the war’s Mine Run, Gettysburg, Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg campaigns,” Civil War Trust President James Lighthizer said. “There is nothing comparable to it anywhere in the nation. The site remains nearly as it was when the Yankees broke camp and marched east to cross the Rapidan River and battle Lee’s Confederates.”
VOF contributed $250,000 to help preserve the property, a $900,000 acquisition also funded by a $450,000 grant from the National Park Service’s American Battlefield Protection Program, a $150,000 noncash donation by the seller, and $50,000 in contributions by Trust members and private donors.
“Our easement not only protects this landmark from development, but also creates permanent public access for future generations to be able to visit and learn from the property,” VOF Executive Director Brett Glymph said.
“The Virginia Department of Historic Resources is pleased to partner with VOF in ensuring the perpetual preservation of this site so that it can be protected and interpreted for current and future Virginians and visitors to the state,” said Julie V. Langan, the department’s director.
The ridge was home not only to infantry and cavalry troops but also to soldiers’ visiting family members and large hospitals where doctors, nurses and volunteers treated sick and wounded men. Their many letters paint vivid pictures of daily life in camp. But one example, written by Pvt. George Storrs Youngs of Waterloo, N.Y., describes what they saw.
Soldiers and volunteer nurse Cornelia Hancock (at right) staff the Union 2nd Corps hospital atop Hansbrough’s Ridge in Culpeper County, Virginia, having enhanced the facility for sick and wounded men with boardwalks, evergreen boughs and a flagpole. Famous wartime photographer Alexander Gardner recorded the scene.
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“The view from our camp is magnificent,” Youngs, with the 126th New York Infantry Regiment, wrote his sister Louisa on Jan. 1, 1864. “We are on the top of an exceeding high hill from whence we can look down upon the canvas cities of the Army of the Potomac on almost every side. Off to the west, nestling among the hills, the city of Culpepper can be seen—its bright spires looking still brighter against the dark background of the Blue Ridge whose towering peaks and cliffs are now covered with snow.”
The site’s importance was recognized in 1991 when the Department of Historic Resources listed the Hansborough Ridge Winter Encampment District on the Virginia Landmarks Register, making it eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. It was later incorporated into the Journey Through Hallowed Ground National Heritage Area, a federally-designated 175-mile corridor that interprets and conserves nationally significant historic sites in Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
“As a Civil War site, Hansbrough’s Ridge is unique,” Lighthizer said. “It offers commanding views of the landscape in all directions, which made it the Confederate defensive line and the scene of hard fighting in the Battle of Brandy Station’s Stevensburg phase.”
Developers saw a chance to market the ridge’s views in 2015, when they bought the property, intent on subdividing it into residential lots. Reacting quickly, the Trust negotiated the land’s purchase before development occurred. A noncash donation from the landowner put the purchase price within reach.
The ridge’s conservation easements complement the preservation of other Civil War battlefield sites in Culpeper County.
Ultimately, an alliance of officials, conservationists and local residents aim to incorporate already-saved acres on the Brandy Station and Cedar Mountain battlefields into a new state park that enhances their tourism, recreational and educational potential. The Virginia General Assembly is considering legislation that would direct the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation to study the suitability of preserved properties at these two battlefields for inclusion in the state park system.
The sweeping views and soldiers’ stories from Hansbrough’s Ridge will add different perspectives unequaled at other Mid-Atlantic historic sites. “From the top of the ridge, people will be able to read about the events of that period and survey the terrain as the soldiers did,” Lighthizer said. “It will be an amazing way to understand the history of this place.”
The Virginia Outdoors Foundation protects more than 800,000 acres in 107 counties and cities. A public foundation created by the General Assembly in 1966, VOF leads the commonwealth in land conservation.
The Department of Historic Resources encourages and supports the stewardship and use of Virginia’s significant architectural, archaeological and historic resources as valuable assets for the economic, educational, social and cultural benefit of citizens and communities. It administers interwoven and interdependent state and federal programs aimed at identifying, evaluating, recognizing and preserving Virginia's rich historic heritage.
The Civil War Trust is a national nonprofit land preservation organization devoted to the protection of America’s hallowed battlegrounds. It preserves the battlefields of the Civil War, the Revolutionary War and War of 1812, and educates the public about their importance in forging the nation we are today. To date, the Trust has preserved more than 48,000 acres of battlefield land in 24 states.
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