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(Str.: dp. 17,000; ]bp. 471'2"; b. 59'2"; dr. 26'6"; s. 11.5 k.;
The first Rappahannock (Id. No. 1854) was launched in 1913 as SS Pommern by the Bremer-Vulean yards, Vegesaek Germany. A North German Lloyd Line ship, Pommern was voluntarily interned in the United States at the outbreak of World War I in Europe and was seized when America entered the war. She was then assigned to the Navy by the U.S. Shipping Board, converted, delivered to the Navy 7 December 1917; renamed Rappahannock, and commissioned 8 December 1917.
Assigned to the Naval Overseas Transportation Service as an animal transport, Rappahannock completed her fourth transatlantic run to France on 16 November 1918, 5 days after the Armistiee. Remaining in NOTS until transferred to Train Atlantic Fleet on 4 February 1919, she completed one more round-trip from New York to Europe before being assigned temporary reserve status at Portsmouth in the summer of 1919. She was returned to active status in June 1922 with the designation AF-6 and, for the next 2 1/22 years, carried cargo for both the Atlantic and Pacific Fleets.
Rappahannock decommissioned 10 December 1924 and remained in reserve at Mare Island until struck from the Navy list 19 July 1933. She was sold to the Luckenbach S S. Co New York City on 5 October 1933; was renamed SS William Luckenbach and operated under that name through World War II. Soid to an Italian firm in November 1946, she continued her merchant service under the Italian flag through the end of the decade.
In 1607, the Rappahannock were the dominant tribe of the Rappahannock River valley, maintaining thirteen villages along the north and south banks of the river named after them. Their capital town was Topahanocke (or Tappahannock). They were a peripheral group among the Algonguian-speaking tribes of the Powhatan Confederacy. In spring of that year, when news spread of explorers sailing on the James River, their weroance took a party and rushed there. They stayed with their cousins the Quiockohannock, and sent word requesting audience with the newcomers. The weroance and explorers met on May 4.
George Percy wrote a vivid description of the weroance, whose body was painted crimson, and face was painted blue sprinkled with silver. He wore a red deer-hair crown tied around his hair knot and a copper plate on the other side, with two feathers arranged like horns, and earrings made of bird-claws fastened with yellow metal. When the weroance came to the shore, he was playing a flute. He escorted the explorers to his camp following a tobacco ceremony. The settlers were confused about the native names, and referred to the Quiockohannock south of the James by the name of Tappahannock for some time.
After Captain John Smith was captured in December 1607, he was taken northward to the Rappahannock capital. He was told that they wished to see if he was from the same nation that had attacked them some years earlier (possibly the Spanish) however, they determined that he was not. In 1608 Smith returned to the Rappahannock and mediated a feud between them and their neighbors, the Moraughticund.
The Rappahannock seldom appeared in early English records. Colonists attacked them in 1623 in retaliation after the Great Massacre of 1622. When the Second Anglo-Powhatan War of 1644 broke out, the colonists seem to have viewed the Rappahannock as independent and outside the conflict, and did not attack the people.
In the 1650s, when colonists began settling along the river, the Rappahannock withdrew from the southern bank their weroance Accopatough deeded the land east of Totuskey Creek to settlers just before he died in April 1651. His successor Taweeren confirmed the deed in May. Their main town in 1652 was two miles up Cat Point Creek. By 1653, English were moving into the region in such numbers, that the colony assigned the tribe reserved land. They also committed to build Taweeren an English-style house.
Disputes between the two groups continued. In November 1654, colonists visited the tribe to demand restitution for damages, but a brawl ensued in which Taweeren was killed. Border disputes continued under his successor Wachicopa. In 1662, the Virginia Colony fixed the Rappahannock boundaries at Cat Point Creek on the west and Totuskey Creek on the east. The Rappahannock gave up trying to defend their homeland and moved away by 1669 they were settled at the headwaters of the Mattaponi River with 30 bowmen (and likely about 100 people in total).
In 1677, the Rappahannock joined the briefly resurrected Powhatan Confederacy of Cockacoeske, but broke away again in 1678. In 1684, the tribe numbered only 70 total, located on the ridge between the Mattaponi and Rappahannock rivers. The Virginia Colony ordered them to merge with the Portobago Indians on the Upper Rappahannock in Essex County, Virginia, supposedly for protection from the marauding Iroquois Seneca nation. The Seneca had invaded the area from their base in western present-day New York as part of the Beaver Wars.
Rappahannock descendants continued to live there. The Nanzatico (Nantaughtacund) lived across the river from them, until in 1705 the English deported the Nanzatico as slaves to the West Indies.
Today's Rappahannock Tribe consists of a few hundred descendants of the allied Algonquian Rappahannock, Morattico (Moraughtacund), Portobacco, and Doeg tribes, who merged in the late 17th century. Most live in Essex, Caroline and King and Queen counties.
To solidify their tribal government to seek state recognition, the Rappahannock incorporated in 1921 their first chief was George Nelson. The Commonwealth of Virginia officially recognized the tribe in January 1983. In 1998, they elected Chief G. Anne Richardson, the first woman chief to lead in Virginia since the 18th century.
Because they lacked reservation lands and had often lost their classification as American Indian in early 20th-century Virginia records, at a time of state enforcement of the one-drop rule, the Rappahannock had to work to demonstrate tribal continuity in seeking federal recognition. For more than two decades, persons who were mixed race were classified as black, despite identifying culturally as Rapahannock. But on January 12, 2018, federal status was granted to the Rappahannock Tribe through the passage of the Thomasina E. Jordan Indian Tribes of Virginia Federal Recognition Act of 2017.
Rappahannock - History
The natural beauty of Virginia’s Piedmont is at its most dramatic in Rappahannock County, where the majestic Blue Ridge gives way to rolling hills, rambling streams and rivers, pastureland with grazing cattle, birding and wildlife trails and the charm of historic villages. Visitors come to relax in Rappahannock — to enjoy the beauty of a sunrise or sunset, or the brilliant stars of a country-dark sky — or to seek outdoor adventures, including in adjacent Shenandoah National Park and Skyline Drive.
Add to this world-class classical, operatic, chamber, jazz and folk concerts and theater seasonal, family-friendly events sustainable farms and award-winning wineries a distillery vibrant art and artisans photography and antique treasures steeplechase races and an active hunt community and gourmet dining — including the historic Town of Washington, founded in 1796, which serves as the county seat and is home to the five-star, five-diamond Inn at Little Washington.
Geography and History
Rappahannock County is located in Virginia’s Piedmont Region, a destination rich in natural beauty, American history, farmlands, quaint towns and inns, wineries and fine dining.
With Shenandoah National Park and Old Rag Mountain in its backyard, Rappahannock County offers stunning Appalachian views from its scenic byways that traverse the rolling hills of its countryside. Country drives lead to the historic Town of Washington and to such quaint villages as Sperryville, Flint Hill, Woodville, Chester Gap and Amissville.
The Blue Ridge Mountains have always been an integral part of the county. In the 1800s, many families took advantage of its forests, minerals and fine highland grazing pastures to carve out distinctive lifestyles that are now part of the county’s heritage. Depletion of natural resources, shifting economic trends and the establishment of the Shenandoah National Park in the 1930s brought an end to this traditional mountain life. Families were moved to “resettlement” areas along the base of the Blue Ridge. Memories of the colorful past are treasured by their descendents.
Rappahannock County’s early settlers were small farmers, primarily of English descent, but also Scotch, Irish and German. Rappahannock was designated a distinct county in 1833 and took its name from the river that has its source in nearby mountain springs, and which flows east through Fredericksburg and into the Chesapeake Bay.
In July 1749, a 17-year old George Washington noted in his journal, “in the Blue Ridge Mountains . . . I laid off a town.” The young surveyor, assisted by two chainmen, laid out the Town of Washington in the same five-block by two-block grid that exists today. The town officially was established by the Virginia Assembly in 1796. Though there are now 28 Washingtons in the United States, this is “The First Washington of them All.” Today Washington serves as the county seat and is home to the famous The Inn at Little Washington, as well as country inns, shops and galleries.
Historic villages include Woodville (1803), which thrived until the 1920s when a tornado destroyed much of the town. Today, it is a beautiful but smaller version of its original self. Amissville (1810) and Sperryville (1820) lie near the eastern and western boundaries of the county. They were originally important waypoints on the series of turnpikes that ran across the Blue Ridge and eastward to the port at Alexandria.
Flint Hill (1820s), lies astride the historic Richmond Road, once a major thoroughfare from the mountains to the state capital. On the same road at the northern edge of the county is Chester Gap. This mountain passageway offers panoramic vistas of the Piedmont on one side and the Shenandoah Valley on the other.
The Civil War in Rappahannock
While there were no large-scale military actions in Rappahannock County, several dozen skirmishes and many troop movements occurred here. As a gateway to the northern Shenandoah Valley, the county was a major thoroughfare for Union and Confederate forces on a number of occasions. It was also on the southern edge of the territory known as (Col. John) Mosby’s Confederacy. Three important regional roads, the north-south Richmond Road and Sperryville-Thornton Gap Turnpike and the east-west Warrenton-Rappahannock Turnpike would witness the passage of most or all of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in the campaigns of 2nd Manassas, Antietam and Gettysburg. The fords near the headwaters of the Rappahannock River would play important roles in each of these movements.
In the most notable military encounter here, Gen. George Custer would be lucky to escape with his life following an attack on the Confederate Army at Newby’s Crossroads during the army’s retreat south after Gettysburg. Confederate Gen. JEB Stuart lost half of his mustache (and nearly his life) during a sharp exchange with Union forces at Corbin’s Crossroads near Amissville.
The Union Army of Virginia under Gen. John Pope occupied the county during the summer of 1862, bringing with it the deprivations of “total war,” a strategy designed to inflict pain upon civilians supporting the rebel army. Many residents left the county to find refuge away from the war zone. Pope’s army had its own difficulties. Many hundreds of cases of typhoid fever occurred within its camps between Sperryville and Gaines Crossroads (BenVenue).
Of the roughly 6,000 white residents in the county in 1860, more than 1,000 men served in the military during the war. Most joined Rappahannock-based units (e.g., Flint Hill Rifles, Sperryville Sharpshooters, etc.) in the regular Confederate army.
Others became members of Mosby’s partisan rangers. Although Southern sentiment dominated residents’ reasons for service, several Rappahannock natives joined the Union army and several were members of the United States Colored Troops. More than 100 county soldiers were killed in action and at least another 80 died from wounds or disease. Rappahannock units participated in many of the important campaigns of the war including 1st & 2nd Manassas, The Seven Days, Antietam, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Spotsylvania and Petersburg. A few were present at Appomattox.
In 1860, there were some 3,520 slaves and 312 free blacks in Rappahannock Country. A number of well-preserved slave quarters provide stark reminders of the lives and circumstances of these forgotten people who played a major role in county history.
For more information, visit our Civil War in Rappahannock County website, where you will find a complete list of the Civil War Trail Markers in the county, along with descriptions and a comprehensive map.
African American Heritage
Prior to the Civil War, slavery was a part of most of the farms and estates in Rappahannock County, and descendants of those slaves make up a large part of the current African American population. After emancipation, many African Americans were engaged in farming, while others were blacksmiths, stonemasons and bricklayers. When jobs were at a premium during various periods, some family heads moved north and/or west to find work to support their families. Local black churches formed during and after reconstruction became not only houses of worship but also cornerstones of social interaction and strength.
Two major foundations encouraged the education of African Americans. The Anna T. Jeans fund of 1908 was designed to aid in making shop work, homemaking and vocational skills part of the curricula. In 1917, Julius Rosenwald, president of Sears Roebuck, created a foundation to donate funds for erection of schools for African American children.
Scrabble School students in 1924
Rappahannock County had three Rosenwald schools: Flint Hill, Amissville and Scrabble. The Scrabble School, opened in 1921 and closed in 1967, is the only remaining Rosenwald School. Abandoned and nearly forgotten after it was closed, Scrabble School re-opened in 2009 after an extensive restoration. The building is now the home of the Rappahannock Senior Center at Scrabble School. It also houses the Rappahannock African-American Heritage Center, which features an exhibit that tells the story of the school, the community it once served, and its place in local, state, and national history. Please visit scrabbleschool.org for more details.
Some Key People and Events
Guide My Feet, Hold My Hand by Mary Goins Gandy is the story of Goins’ great grandmother Kitty Payne, who was emancipated, kidnapped, enslaved again, jailed and freed. In Beyond The Rim, James Russell relates the legendary oral history he learned from former slave Caroline Terry, his great grandmother.
John Jackson, born in the county in 1924, became a noted blues musician and took his talent to the White House. Daniel Russell taught himself to read and write while enslaved and became a teacher in the county in 1871. Anna Green and Julia Boddie were responsible for educating many and instilling the highest of values in those they touched.
In I Stretch My Hands to Thee, James Wilson Kilby, born in Rappahannock County in 1917, recounts his life and activism during the civil rights movement in Warren County. Most notable was the suit he filed in 1958, Betty Kilby et al. vs Warren County Board of Education, seeking to eliminate segregation.
Isaiah Wallace, who was born in Rappahannock County in 1876, loved learning from an early age and worked tirelessly to organize people to obtain Rosenwald funding for schools both in Rappahannock and Culpeper counties.
Our Sustainable Way of Life
Experience our sustainable way of life in Rappahannock County, where traditional agriculture has given rise to specialized organic farming, orchards, vineyards and artisanal wineries.
Organic meats and produce are available directly from local farmers or at farmers’ markets in the county and in Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C. Rappahannock’s artisanal wineries offer wine-tasting events as well as opportunities to work alongside owners in the vineyard at harvest time. Local food markets are also great sources of products from the county.
In addition to practicing sustainable agricultural practices, preserving the natural landscape and its inhabitants comes naturally to residents in Rappahannock County. Our local conservation organizations (see below) invite you to join them for workshops and volunteer efforts — a great way to learn, contribute to and experience the beauty of the countryside.
Community involvement is a way of life in Rappahannock County, where volunteer organizations offer opportunities to contribute to every walk of life, from supporting the senior residents of the county to enriching the lives of students, fostering the arts and protecting the environment. Enrich your getaway experience in Rappahannock County by participating in community events sponsored by these organizations.
Rappahannock Food Pantry — The Rappahannock Pantry is an all-volunteer nonprofit with the mission to assist all Rappahannock residents who need food. Opened in June 2009, the Pantry has been stocked since with fresh fruits and vegetables, canned and non-perishable foods, deli items, breads and bakery goods, frozen foods, and pet foods. Stop by during hours of operation to make donations or ask questions of Pantry manager Mimi Forbes or the rest of our dedicated volunteer staff. Hours are 9 to 11:30 (drop-off) and noon to 4 (pick-up) Tuesdays and Thursdays, and 9 to 10 (drop-off) and 10 to 2 (pick-up) Saturdays. 603 Mt. Salem Avenue, Washington VA 22747.
Rappahannock County Lions Club — “The power of organized good” is the Lions’ goal worldwide, and for 51 years, the Rappahannock Lions Club has been the predominant community service organization in the county. The club’s fundraising efforts help finance a wide range of scholarships and community programs and its volunteer efforts are felt throughout the county. By using the Lions website, citizens are able to shop at Amazon.com and other stores, knowing that a portion of their purchases come back to the county and are donated in total to the local fire and rescue squads. The Lions meet at the Sperryville fire hall at 6:30 pm on the second and fourth Thursdays of each month. Information on joining the Club is available at the Lions website. Spots Williams, President. PO Box 132, Washington, VA 22747.
Rappahannock Friends and Lovers of Our Watersheds (RappFLOW) — RappFLOW volunteers help to preserve, protect, conserve and restore water resources and watersheds in the county. They monitor the quality of water in streams and ponds, learn best practices for managing land to protect and conserve storm water and help to educate landowners and assist local government in protecting watersheds. RappFLOW, Box 132, Sperryville, VA 22740.
Rappahannock League for Environmental Protection (RLEP) — RLEP strives for environmental protection of open space and the rural character of Rappahannock County and the preservation of natural and historic places, wildlife, ecosystems and farm economy. In addition, RLEP provides information and education on environmental issues and assists the community planning efforts of local governmental bodies. 291 Gay St., PO Box 94, Washington, VA 22747. 540-317-1449.
Rappahannock - History
the map produced by John Farrer in 1651 placed the James and Rappahannock rivers at the center - settlement of the Roanoke and Potomac watersheds came later
Source: Library of Congress, A mapp of Virginia discovered to ye hills, and in it's latt. from 35 deg. & 1/2 neer Florida to 41 deg. bounds of New England (1657 revision by Virginia Farrer of 1651 map by her father John Farrer)
In 1607, the first English colonists arrived in Virginia. They could have settled at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, at modern-day Norfolk and Virginia Beach. However, their instructions were to find a spot far enough upstream to provide warning if Spanish, French, Dutch, or others chose to attack the new settlement.
Rather than turn north after entering the Chesapeake Bay, Christopher Newport continued to sail west and followed the large James River upstream. He explored all the way to the falls where Richmond is now located, before the colonists determined to settle on Jamestown Island. As a result of that decision, English settlement in the colony of Virginia grew outward from Jamestown, up the James River to the Fall Line and down the river to the Chesapeake Bay. Significant settlement on other Tidewater rivers occurred only after the colonial population growth exceeded the supply of unappropriated land along the James River.
The early colonists stuck close to Jamestown for convenience. As the population grew, new communities were developed at places along the James. The first General Assembly, held in 1619, included delegates from 10 "plantations" - and all were on the James River (James City, Charles City, City of Henricus, Kiccowtan, Brandon, Smythe's Hundred, Martin's Hundred, Argall's Gift, Flowerdieu Hundred, Captain Lawne's plantation, and Captaine Warde's plantation). 1
The English did not stick to the James River valley out of ignorance. They knew other suitable lands were available on additional rivers. In 1608, John Smith mapped the Chesapeake Bay and its major tributaries in two separate voyages. His men sailed and rowed upstream to the Fall Line on the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers, discovering boat-stopping rapids comparable to what Smith had seen on the James River when he first arrived a year earlier.
Smith's first encounter with the Rappahannock River was on his first journey - and it was a painful one, when a jab from a stingray tail made him think he was going to die. (Ever since, the location at the mouth of the Rappahannock River where he was stung has been known as Stingray Point.) On Smith's second exploration of the Chesapeake Bay in 1608, he returned to the Rappahannock and maneuvered upstream.
A pair of Maltese crosses on his map of Virginia marks where Smith and his fellow explorers reached the Fall Line at modern-day Fredericksburg. At the head of navigation on the Rappahannock River, Smith was constrained to just looking to the west, beyond the Fall Line. He was unable to get his shallop past the rapids and explore further upstream to find a path to the Pacific Ocean.
According to one account, on August 22, 1608 Smith stood on the riverbank at Belmont and again on top of Fall Hill, just as he had found vista points on the falls of the James and Potomac rivers earlier. 2 .
Smith had to rely upon the accounts of the Native Americans that he met regarding the geography of Virginia west of the Fall Line. In addition to the communications challenge of translating between the Algonquian and English languages, Smith also had to wonder how complete and honest were the reports he received about the lands upstream. On his way up the Rappahannock, he was welcomed by the Moraughtacund tribe at Lancaster Creek, attacked by the Rappahannock tribe near modern-day Tappahannock. While at the falls on August 22, his party was attacked by Siouan-speaking Mannahoacs who lived west of the Fall Line, but Smith ultimately made peace and quizzed the Mannahoacs regarding the reports of mountains to the west of their town. Similarly, he made peace with the Rappahannock tribe and created the opportunity for future trade, bypassing Powhatan's control.
The second fort developed by the Virginia Company, after Jamestown, was Henricus. It was located 30 miles further up the James River - further away from the Spanish, at a location thought to be easier to defend against European attack. Obviously the expectation was that Virginia would be centered on the James River.
Henricus was destroyed in 1622, and it took decades before enough English had arrived to occupy the good lands along the James upriver from the Chesapeake Bay and downriver from the falls. When enough settlement developed to justify creating counties so residents could handle basic legal matters without traveling to Jamestown, the central significance of the James River was obvious in the location of the county boundaries.
In the second decade of the 18th Century, a century after Jamestown was settled, much of the property adjacent to Tidewater rivers had finally been claimed. When Governor Spotswood assumed office in 1710, it was clear that future plantations would develop west of the Fall Line. Shipping costs would be significantly higher west of the rapids, but roads could be built to bring tobacco, corn, wheat, deer hides, and other valuable trade products to the ships that connected Virginia to the international markets.
The obvious place for new settlement was on the James River, above the falls that had blocked ships ever since Christopher Newport sailed up the river in 1607. Since the destruction of the Henricus settlement in the Native American uprising of 1622, no population center had developed at the upstream end of the James River. Population growth had occurred in the middle of the peninsula between the James and York rivers. The colonial capital moved from Jamestown to Williamsburg - further away from the river, but not further upstream - in 1699.
Governor Spotswood tried to steer where the new development in the Piedmont would occur. Encouraging new settlement in the James River watershed above the Fall Line might have made sense to him. Ships sailing up the James River had access to more wharves than on any other river. Settlers upstream of the falls on the James River could build roads to connect inland plantations to the great number of ships already using the James River below the rapids.
Encouraging new settlent in other watersheds made less sense:
- There were fewer plantations and less shipping on the lower Rappahannock. In comparison to the James, ships would need more time to sail upstream to the Fall Line on the Rappahannock.
- Governor Spotswood had no opportunity to offer free land to spur development in the Potomac River watershed. King Charles II had issued a proprietary grant for the Northern Neck in the 1660's, and Lord Fairfax claimed the right to sell all land between the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers. The north bank of the Potomac River was controlled by the separate colony of Maryland.)
- South of the James River were large areas not densely settled by the English in 1710, but close to the James River. Spotswood could have steered population growth to that area, but it lacked water access to the Chesapeake Bay. South of the watershed divide, all the shipping from new settlements would float downstream to Albemarle-Pamlico sound, which was under control of the North Carolina colony. Governor Spotswood had no intention of encouraging economic development in a rival colony.
Spotswood choose to push for new settlement in the Rappahannock River watershed, probably because he mixed opportunities for personal economic gain with his official responsibilities. A rival in Virginia, William Byrd II, had already acquired patents to the land around the falls of the James River. As described by one writer 4 "The Rappahannock did not lack shipping facilities, but its course, lying to the north of the James, was not so near to the center of population. It was this stream however which Spotswood undertook to develop as the first avenue to the West, and it is a reasonable assumption that he did so because Byrd had preempted the strategic commercial position at the falls of the James."
Spotswood acquired significant amounts of land near the Rappahannock River. He built his own iron production facility, the Tubal Works, in the county named after him - Spotsylvania. In 1714, he arranged for supposedly-abandoned immigrants from the German Palatinate and Swiss cantons to be settled on lands he controlled at Germanna. Spotswood disguised their primary activity, to develop his iron deposits, by describing the settlers as defenders of the frontier. When he decided to assess the threat of French invasion through the gaps in the Blue Ridge, he combined the 1716 military-oriented trip with a real estate tour and the route of the "Knights of the Golden Horseshoe" expedition took the travelers into the headwaters of the Rappahannock River.
possible settlement paths up Rappahannock and James rivers
(as drawn by Joshua Fry and Peter Jefferson in 1751)
Source: Library of Congress, A map of the most inhabited part of Virginia containing the whole province of Maryland with part of Pensilvania, New Jersey and North Carolina
Spotswood was not successful in steering growth up the Rappahannock. William Byrd chartered cities at the falls of the Appomattox River and the James River, and they developed into Petersburg and Richmond. Turnpikes, canals, and railroads directed trade to those two port cities, and Fredericksburg never grew into a significant economic rival.
Both historic and modern transportation infrastructure show the relative economic development of the James River vs. the Rappahannock River watersheds. No canal was ever completed upstream of Fredericksburg. The narrow-gauge Potomac, Fredericksburg and Piedmont Railroad extended west from Fredericksburg to the Piedmont, but it was shortlived. No interstate highway provides east-west connections for Fredericksburg, in constrast to I-64 in Richmond.
modern transportation infrastructure - James vs. Rappahannock watersheds
(dotted black lines are railroads)
Source Map: USGS National Atlas
the 1755 Fry-Jefferson map of Virginia shows the relative lack of development south of the James/Appomattox rivers, in the watersheds of the Blackwater and Nottoway rivers that did not flow to the Chesapeake Bay
Source: Library of Congress, A map of the most inhabited part of Virginia containing the whole province of Maryland with part of Pensilvania, New Jersey and North Carolina (by Joshua Fry and Peter Jefferson, 1755)
Rappahannock County Genealogy, Wills, Estates, Marriages, Indexes to Probate Records
Rappahannock County was first founded in 1656 from part of Lancaster County. Many of the first colonists resided in the area and records exist back to the sixteen hundredths. This old county became extinct in 1692 when it was separated to form Essex and Richmnd Counties. In 1833, the Virginia General Assembly created the currently existing Rappahannock County, taking land from Culpeper County. It was named after the old Rappahannock River which separates it from Fauquier County. The county seat is Washington, Virginia.
Historical Tidbits: In 1669 Thomas Butler of Rappahannock County bound himself to deliver to George Brown, the captain of the Elizabeth of London, three hogsheads of sweet-scented tobacco belonging to the choicest portion of his crop. Brown was to carry this tobacco to England and there to dispose of it for money sterling. After having laid aside twenty-two pounds for his own use, the amount of a claim which he held against Butler for goods previously sold to him, Brown was to employ whatever remained in buying linen and woollen cloths, shoes and stockings to be conveyed to Butler in Virginia.
Sources: Records of Rappahannock County, original vol. 1668-1672, p. 291.
The Rappahannock Hunt is young measured by the standard of recognition of the Master of Foxhounds Association of America (MFHA). The Hunt was formally established in 1926 and recognized by the MFHA only in 1939. However, the tradition of foxhunting and hound breeding is very old in The Rappahannock Hunt country. It goes back to the beginnings of foxhunting in the United States. According to Alex Mackay-Smith, in his The American Foxhound: 1747-1967, &ldquoThe Upper Rappahannock Valley (which includes today&rsquos Rappahannock Hunt territory of Rappahannock, Culpeper and Madison counties) is the cradle of the American Foxhound.&rdquo
Although it is known that foxhunting flourished in the area during the 18th century (avid foxhunter George Washington was a frequent visitor), the earliest existing records show that Col. Charles Green (1807-1881) of &ldquoThe Shade&rdquo maintained a pack of hunting hounds through the Civil War. Col. F. G. Skinner was another well-known hound breeder of the period. He lived with his father-in-law, Dr. Philip Thornton, at &ldquoMontpelier,&rdquo near Sperryville.
One of the most famous hound breeders in America was Burrell Frank Bywaters (1848-1922) of Olive in Culpeper County. His hounds were the foundation stock for many modern hunts. His son, Hugh L. Bywaters (1872-1952), carried on the family tradition of breeding and selling hounds.
Farmers&rsquo packs were common in the territory during the first part of the 20th century. Jack Bruce (later to be a huntsman for The Rappahannock Hunt) began his own pack with three or four hounds in 1926. During the week, Jack would go out alone on horseback with his hounds. He would climb to the top of Pickerel Ridge and blow his father&rsquos ram&rsquos horn, and soon, some of B. R. Miller&rsquos hounds and some of William &ldquoBill&rdquo Sisk&rsquos hounds would come to him. Now he had a pack and a-hunting they would go. Most often, their quarry was the gray fox, which outnumbered the red by two-to-one at the time. When they put their fox to ground, Jack would dig it out, put it in a sack and carry it home. Sunday, when all the neighbors got together, Jack would turn out the bagged fox and off they would go on a five- or six-hour hunt.
In 1926, Hugh Bywaters and Joseph B. Johnson of Sperryville founded The Rappahannock Hunt as a farmers&rsquo pack. They were Joint Masters and hunted their own hounds for nine years. They remained Joint Masters until 1938, when Robert Mercer Menefee and Oliver Durant, II, took over for the 1938-39 season.
A banner season for The Rappahannock Hunt was 1939-40. Hugh Bywaters and W. A. Miller were Joint Masters of the hunt when it was officially recognized by the MFHA. Bywaters and Miller remained in their leadership posts until 1943.
The hunt went inactive during the WWII years, 1943-46, and, as a result, lost its recognized status. In 1946, Curtis Campbell paid the registration fee to the MFHA and so preserved the hunt territory. Campbell had come to the Rappahannock in the late &lsquoteens. He was a construction engineer who built most of the bridges for the paved road system that was begun in the early 1920s. He was an enthusiastic foxhunter and always ready to pitch in.
That same year, Campbell, J. E. Keyser, W. F. Moffett, Jr., and John R. DeBergh reactivated the hunt with Arthur W. A. Miller as Master. Keyser and Miller were Joint Masters from 1947-9 renting their hounds from Bywaters. Earl Yancey was huntsman.
J. W. Fletcher and Keyser became Joint Masters in 1949 and served together until 1950. From 1950 until 1972, Fletcher and DeBergh served as joint Masters. They continued to hunt Bywaters&rsquo hounds with Yancey through early 1951, when Clifton Clark, a farmer and hound breeder, and Weldon Burke became huntsmen and hunted Clark&rsquos hounds for the 1951-1952 seasons. Clark barely rode and Burke did not ride at all. They would truck the hounds to the meet and turn them out to hunt. Then Clark, on a gray mare named Pepsi Cola, would walk to the top of the nearest hill listen to the chase. He would follow from hilltop to hilltop, never once jumping a fence.
Rappahannock&rsquos first kennel was built at Fletcher&rsquos &ldquoThornton Hill&rdquo in 1952 to house a gift of several hounds from Fletcher Harper, MFH of the Orange County Hunt. They were the foundation of the hunt&rsquos own pack.
Rappahannock regained its recognized status in 1953. Fletcher cared for the hounds during the season at &ldquoThornton Hill,&rdquo while DeBergh took charge of care and breeding at his farms, &ldquoPleasant View,&rdquo and later at &ldquoIvy Cliffs,&rdquo for the summers. But DeBergh had no kennel and hounds were left to wander at will. They stayed pretty close to the trough most of the time but, being foxhounds, they took to hunting on their own, often giving chase all the way to the Shenandoah River at Browntown, a day&rsquos journey, returning a day or two later.
Some farmers were worried the hounds might be chasing and killing sheep. To acclimate the hounds to the little darlings, Fletcher moved a lamb into the kennel. One day at a joint meet with the Blue Ridge Hunt, Ollie Dodson, the huntsman, led hounds on parade from the kennel with a very dignified sheep in the center of the pack giving tongue in mournful &ldquobaas&rdquo for all assembled to hear.
One of the most spectacular performances by The Rappahannock Hunt hounds occurred while Dodson was huntsman and it wasn&rsquot in the hunt field. The hunt had been asked to participate in the Town of Culpeper Bicentennial Parade of 1959. The crowd was enormous. Spectators lined the streets. There were brass bands and steam locomotives. The noise was terrific. But the hounds ignored it all and marched proudly up the street packed tightly together, amazed riders following closely behind.
The hunt held its first point-to-point races in 1951 at Mr. and Mrs. Leon T. Greenaway&rsquos &ldquoLeeway Farm.&rdquo They were successful from the start, with the hound race and the farmers&rsquo race being big crowd pleasers. The only glitch came when, in a snow squall during the hound race, the contestants took off on a live fox and were not seen again for a couple of days. Not one finished the race.
In 1956, the Masters believed they had a pretty darn good pack, so entered two hounds at the Virginia Hound Show at Mrs. Marion D. Scott&rsquos &ldquoMontpelier&rdquo in Orange County and, lo and behold, those hounds&mdashBounty and Brilliance&mdashgot a first and a second in the &ldquobrood bitch&rdquo class against some stiff competition.
The pack grew dramatically in size and quality in 1979 when the New Market Hounds of Maryland went inactive and the MFH-cum-huntsman, Gilmore Flautt, III, gave his entire pack to The Rappahannock Hunt when he moved to Texas. DeBergh retired as Master in 1972 and Fletcher became sole MFH. He continued in that capacity until 1981, serving for 31 years.
During Billy Dodson&rsquos term as huntsman, Fletcher introduced technology to foxhunting, equipping himself and Billy with two-way radios. Billy just could not adjust to these gadgets. When he complained that it rattled around too much at the gallop, Fletcher had a special pocket sewn into Billy&rsquos scarlet coat. Fletcher liked calling Billy, but Billy did not like talking into that unnatural device. Besides, Billy still contends that the radio&rsquos range was so limited in the hills and mountains of The Rappahannock Hunt territory that he could hear further than it could broadcast. Technology&rsquos day was short-lived&mdashjust two seasons&mdashas CB radios became so popular there were no longer clear channels available.
J. A. Bernard Dahlgren and Larry LeHew became joint Masters in 1981 and served together until Dahlgren&rsquos tragic and untimely death in an automobile accident in 1985. LeHew served as sole Master until 1999, when Huntsman Oliver L. Brown was elected Joint Master. They served together until 2000. Janet Payne O&rsquoKeefe became the hunt&rsquos first lady Joint Master in 2002 and served until 2009. The current Joint Masters are Brown, R. Augustus Edwards, III, (2005) and Oliver&rsquos son, Michael O. Brown, (2017) who is the Huntsman.
Today, The Rappahannock Hunt territory is about 20-by-30 miles, comprised of approximately 384,000 acres in Rappahannock, Culpeper and Madison counties, making it the one of the larger hunting territories in Virginia and in the United States.
Rappahannock - History
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Civil War in Rappahannock County
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Civil War in Rappahannock County, Virginia
While there were no large-scale military actions in Rappahannock County, several dozen
skirmishes and many troop movements occurred here. As a gateway to the northern Shenandoah Valley,
the county was a major thoroughfare for Union and Confederate forces on a number of occasions.
It was also on the southern edge of the territory known as (Col. John) Mosby’s Confederacy.
Three important regional roads, the north-south Richmond Road and Sperryville-Thornton Gap
Turnpike and the east-west Warrenton- Rappahannock Turnpike would witness the passage of most
or all of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in the campaigns of 2nd Manassas, Antietam
and Gettysburg. The fords near the headwaters of the Rappahannock River would play important
roles in each of these movements.
In the most notable military encounter here, Gen. George Custer would be lucky to escape
with his life following an attack on the Confederate Army at Newby’s Crossroads during the
army’s retreat south after Gettysburg. Confederate Gen. JEB Stuart lost half of his mustache
(and nearly his life) during a sharp exchange with Union forces at Corbin’s Crossroads near Amissville.
The Union Army of Virginia under Gen. John Pope occupied the county during the summer
of 1862, bringing with it the deprivations of “total war,” a strategy designed to inflict
pain upon civilians supporting the rebel army. Many residents left the county to find refuge
away from the war zone. Pope’s army had its own difficulties. Many hundreds of cases of typhoid
fever occurred within its camps between Sperryville and Gaines Crossroads (BenVenue).
Of the roughly 6,000 white residents in the county in 1860, more than 1,000 men served
in the military during the war. Most joined Rappahannock-based units (e.g., Flint Hill Rifles,
Sperryville Sharpshooters, etc.) in the regular Confederate army.
Others became members of Mosby’s partisan rangers. Although Southern sentiment dominated
residents’ reasons for service, several Rappahannock natives joined the Union army and several
were members of the United States Colored Troops. More than 100 county soldiers were killed in
action and at least another 80 died from wounds or disease. Rappahannock units participated in
many of the important campaigns of the war including 1st & 2nd Manassas, The Seven Days, Antietam,
Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Spotsylvania and Petersburg. A few were present at Appomattox.
In 1860, there were some 3,520 slaves and 312 free blacks in Rappahannock Country.
A number of well-preserved slave quarters provide stark reminders of the lives and circumstances
of these forgotten people who played a major role in county history.
For Further Historical Information, Please Contact:
Rappahannock Historical Society
328 Gay Street
Washington, VA 22747
Rappahannock County Visitors Center 3 Library Road Washington, VA 22747 540.675.3153
Pressured by Washington to make another attack on General Robert E. Lee’s army in northern Virginia, and perhaps enjoying the success of his partial victory over Lee at Bristoe Station three weeks earlier, Maj. Gen. George G. Meade ordered an assault against Lee’s infantry along the Rappahannock River on November 7th, 1863. A single pontoon bridge at Rappahannock Station was the only connection between Lee's army and the northern bank of the river. The bridge was protected by a bridgehead on the north bank consisting of redoubts and trenches. Confederate batteries posted on hills south of the river gave additional strength to the position. As Lee anticipated, Meade divided his forces, ordering Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick to the bridgehead and positioning Maj. Gen. William H. French five miles downstream to engage a Confederate line near Kelly’s Ford. To counter this move, Lee shifted a force under Maj. Gen. Robert Rodes to Kelly’s Ford, where they were overwhelmed by French. At Rappahannock Station, Sedgwick’s men skirmished with Maj. Gen. Jubal Early’s Confederates before launching a brutal nighttime bayonet attack. The Federals overran Early’s bridgehead taking more than 1,600 prisoners. Defeated, Lee retreated into Orange County south of the Rapidan River while the Army of the Potomac occupied the vicinity of Brandy Station and Culpeper County. Later in November, before the winter weather ended military campaign season, Meade would attempt one more offensive against Lee at Mine Run.
Baseball Legend Walter Johnson and His Historic Throw Across the Rappahannock River
Well-known American tales depict the first U.S. President, George Washington, doing admirable feats that showed off his virtuousness and wholesomeness. They included cutting down his father’s beloved cherry tree and then confessing to his misdeed and throwing a silver dollar that cleared the entire wide expanse of the Rappahannock River in Virginia. In retrospect, these stories were all but certainly made up (silver dollars didn’t exist when Washington was a boy), yet they became part of the country’s lexicon and inspired many, including pitching legend Walter Johnson, who set out to duplicate the river throw in 1936.
At that time, Johnson had just finished up the second of two professional baseball careers. He had spent 21 years with the Washington Senators, dominating the big leagues with a powerful right arm that produced a devastating fastball and earned him the nickname of the “Big Train.” With his heater estimated to be in the upper 90s or faster, batters did not enjoy seeing him peering in from the mound. His 417 wins and 2.17 ERA landed him in the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s inaugural class, as voted on that year.
Most recently, he had spent the previous seven years managing the Senators and Cleveland Indians. While he boasted a .550 winning percentage, none of the teams under his direction ever finished better than second — thanks to the New York Yankees and Philadelphia Athletics, who rode strong squads to the majority of pennants at that time.
Fredericksburg, Virginia was where Washington grew up as a boy. February 22, 1936 marked his 204th birthday and the city decided to go all out in celebration. They asked Johnson, who was not only the probable best living pitcher of all time but also spent his entire playing career in nearby Washington D.C., to recreate the Rappahannock River throw.
Although Johnson was 48 and about to settle into the life of a farmer, his reputation of possessing the greatest fastball in the history of the game gave his selection even more appeal. Upon accepting the challenge, he began training in earnest, reportedly practicing throwing silver dollars on his farm. He sent a message to Fredericksburg updating them of his progress in a humorous manner. “I am practicing with a dollar against my barn door. Arm getting stronger, barn door weaker.”
The width of the spot in the river where Johnson was to make his throw was measured at 372 feet — roughly the distance of a throw from home plate clearing the wall in left-center field in a standard baseball stadium. Other portions of the river measured from a couple of hundred feet to a mile or more wide, so the location that was chosen needed to be difficult, yet also somewhat reasonable. Odds were set at 20–1 against Johnson being able to place a silver dollar on the far riverbank.
In the days leading up to the spectacle, it was reported by the Associated Press that eager locals were trying themselves to see how possible or impossible it was going to be. “Citizens are trying to settle the matter among themselves — but with iron washers, not silver coins. All tries have fall short.” Only a few years removed from the Great Depression, it’s no surprise that people weren’t keen on throwing money across a river.
The day before Johnson’s stunt, New York Yankees’ star first baseman Lou Gehrig attempted to make his own similar headlines. He threw five silver dollars across the Hudson River. Only one of the throws made it to the other side, but that one was estimated at 430 feet, which was well past the about 400 feet he needed to get the job done.
Winter was still in full swing when the eventful day arrived, with snow, ice and temperatures below the freezing point making throwing conditions less than optimal. About 1,000 spectators gathered on the side where Johnson prepared to throw, along with CBS Radio, who broadcast the event live nationally. It was estimated at least 3,000 people waited on the other side, hoping to catch the silver dollar should it make its intended destination. Some had already publicly offered sums ranging from $5 to $25 for whoever retrieved the historic coin, which was a specially minted dollar from 1796. There is no record if there was much concern for a small metal projectile hurtling into a large crowd.
Johnson, nattily attired in a suit, was given three silver dollars. Two were for practice throws while the third was for his official heave. Only removing his coat, it didn’t seem like optimal conditions for success. Although his first attempt came up short, the second made it across, as did his third and official throw. It was estimated that it landed 386 feet way, comfortably clearing the water by about 14 feet. He told reporters, “Gosh, I didn’t think I’d do it!”
The official coin was retrieved by 30-year-old stone mason named Pietro Yon. He initially scooped up the dollar and started to quietly walk away, but a horde of reporters descended upon him and escorted him to nearby Ferry Farm, where he had an opportunity to meet Johnson.
Yon was almost immediately offered $200 for the coin by Vaughn-Cocke-Carpenter Motor Company, but he held on to see if he might receive a larger offer. He explained, “Unless someone wants it bad enough to pay a good price, I might as well keep it as a souvenir. I don’t need the money especially and may keep the coin myself. Of course, if somebody really means business, I guess I will sell.” Originally from Italy, he was hoping to use any significant proceeds to visit his mother back where he had emigrated from in 1922.
Following the successful throw, Johnson attended a luncheon with Virginia’s governor and a host of other dignitaries to celebrate Washington’s birthday. Oloshira Kuroda of the Japanese Embassy presented 200 cherry trees to be planted at Ferry Farm, where Washington had allegedly chopped one down centuries before. The gift was bestowed along with the sentiment that they were “a symbol of the goodwill which will reflect the enduring friendship and everlasting goodwill which Japan has for America.” Sadly, this display of affection and national bonds was dashed just a few years later with the advent of World War II.
With Johnson’s feat making national headlines, there was continued buzz for the next several days. A Congressman from Mississippi even traveled to Fredericksburg and attempted to match the throw on his own, but his coin came up woefully short. His failure inspired one wiseacre to quip that “it’s not the first time a politician has thrown our money away.”
The throw was perhaps Johnson’s final national headline-making baseball feat. He passed away in his sleep a decade later in 1946. Compared to all of his mighty accomplishments, his tangle with the Rappahannock River is but a minor footnote in his illustrious athletic career yet embodies his greatness and the mesmerizing hold all things baseball once had on the country.
America’s Civil War: Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock
During the Civil War the oft-reported tales of brave little drummer boys became symbolic of feats of soldierly virtue and noble, selfless sacrifice. The best known of those young men was Johnny Clem of the 22nd Michigan Infantry, who is said to have inspired Samuel Muscraft’s popular play The Drummer Boy of Shiloh. There were others, however, who also claimed honors due to their wartime service. One of them was Robert Henry Hendershot, a Jackson, Michigan, boy.
War fever had gripped Jackson after the fall of Fort Sumter, and like many others Hendershot longed for the glory of battle. His widowed mother may also have hoped that military life might instill some discipline in her delinquent son. He was a frequent runaway, and his aversion to school was such that he could not even sign his own name. He claimed to be 10 that summer of 1861, but like many aspects of his life, that is in dispute, as various documents give birthdates ranging from early 1846 to 1851, and no less than four different birthplaces, from Michigan to New York City.
When he enlisted, Hendershot was a slight-framed boy, 4 1/2 feet tall, with fair hair, hazel eyes and a ruddy complexion. He bore a deep scar under his right eye that he would submit as his first badge of courage. He soon dropped his implausible claim to have received that scar as the result of a severe wound at Shiloh. (At the time his regiment had been camped more than 600 miles away.) By the end of 1862, though, events at Fredericksburg would give him another, more believable opportunity for fame.
In the fall of 1861, Hendershot was a fixture in the camp of the Jackson County Rifles. There, he incessantly practiced his drum calls, an activity that caused at least one recruit to call him ‘a perfect little pest.’ He apparently accompanied the Rifles to Fort Wayne, outside Detroit, where the unit became Company C of the 9th Michigan Infantry. Robert claimed to have enlisted along with the others, but said that the mustering officer rejected him because of extreme youth. In any case, he boarded the train that carried the regiment south, either as a stowaway or as a servant to Captain Charles V. DeLand, the commander of Company C and editor of Jackson’s American Citizen.
Robert formally enlisted in the 9th in March 1862, when the regiment moved from Kentucky to Murfreesboro, Tenn. He remained with Company C, which was posted at the Murfreesboro courthouse as provost guards. He was there on July 13 when Confederate Colonel Nathan Bedford Forrest launched a pre-dawn raid on the town. During the battle, Robert claimed that he fearlessly exposed himself to enemy fire, a claim later substantiated by several 9th Michigan soldiers.
The courage demonstrated by Hendershot and others proved useless, however. By the end of the day Forrest had captured the entire Union garrison. (See March 2002 ACW for an article on the raid.) Afterward, the enlisted men were paroled and sent to Camp Chase, Ohio. Soon after, on July 31, 1862, Robert was discharged, either because of wounds or for extreme youth, he would say. In fact, Hendershot was medically discharged because he suffered frequent and severe epileptic seizures, which had plagued him since early childhood.
Although his parole forbade him to fight against the Confederacy, in early September Hendershot appeared at a Detroit recruiting office. Because of the parole, he signed on with an alias, ‘Robert Henry Henderson.’ His critics would call that despicable, while others would say that it had been a common practice. Hendershot claimed he had done so at the urging of the recruiter, Lieutenant Michael Hogan.
At first there seemed little chance that Hendershot would find himself back on the battle line, for Lieutenant Hogan decided to retain him as his personal servant and aide. And so he remained for over two months, until the arrival of Chaplain George Taylor. Taylor developed a fondness for Robert and gained permission to have Hendershot placed under his care.
The two traveled south to Taylor’s assigned Army of the Potomac unit, the 8th Michigan Infantry. At the Washington depot Taylor rescued Hendershot after he suffered a seizure and fell in front of a locomotive. He had another a few days later while standing at dress parade. It was then that Hendershot told Taylor of his discharge from the 9th Infantry and his use of an alias. Although Taylor kept Hendershot’s confession secret, the boy began to suffer from his affliction so frequently that the acting regimental commander, Captain Ralph Ely, ordered him off duty and applied for his discharge.
It was then December, and while Hendershot awaited his discharge, the Army of the Potomac stood on the banks of the Rappahannock River opposite lightly defended Fredericksburg. There they had waited for more than three weeks for the engineers and material necessary to build pontoon bridges. The delay enabled General Robert E. Lee to move his Army of Northern Virginia into position. Thus, when the engineers arrived, Rebel sharpshooters thwarted their efforts. On December 11, the 7th Michigan Infantry volunteered to cross and drive the sharpshooters from their nests.
Hendershot had wandered to the riverbank that morning, and he tried to tag along with the regiment by climbing aboard a boat, but slipped and made the voyage across clinging to the gunwale. Newspaper accounts related stories of ‘a drummer boy, only 13 years old, who volunteered and went over in the first boat’ and who battled the Confederates and had his drum smashed by a shell. A correspondent for the Detroit Advertiser and Tribune wrote that the nameless boy belonged to the 8th Michigan Infantry.
Two weeks after Hendershot allegedly crossed the river, he was again discharged, for epilepsy. He was away from the regiment for more than 10 days. Right after the battle he traveled first to New York, then to Baltimore and Detroit, staking his claim to the title ‘Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock.’
His first stops in Detroit were at the offices of the Advertiser and Tribune and the Free Press. Both published his’strange and romantic’ story. For several days he appeared at a local theater, where the crowds enthusiastically applauded the young hero’s drum solos. Then he returned to Jackson. The editors of Jackson’s newspapers, perhaps already familiar with the young man’s propensity for self-promotion and exaggeration, chose not to repeat his tales.
In other parts of the country, though, many did believe his story. Among them was Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune, who summoned Hendershot to the city and presented him with a silver drum. Winfield Scott, the retired general-in-chief of the U.S. Army, was on hand for the event, as was P. T. Barnum. For the next eight weeks Hendershot performed at the showman’s museum, and the youth was also rewarded with a scholarship to the Poughkeepsie Business College.
Hendershot did not remain long at the college, but did learn to write and signed his own name when he enlisted as a first-class boy aboard USS Fort Jackson, at Hampton Roads, Va., on April 1, 1864. From his naval service arose more tales of heroism with a shore party that destroyed a salt works near Fort Fisher. More likely was another story, that he fell overboard while in a seizure and a watchful shipmate saved him from drowning. And while Hendershot claimed to be discharged from the Navy on June 26, 1864, the ship’s log listed him as a deserter.
The next few months were hectic, if Hendershot’s tales are to be believed: He went on a grand tour of England, served as a Treasury Department page and undertook dangerous missions as a Union spy. Whatever the case, by war’s end Hendershot had collected an impressive portfolio of letters from Maj. Gens. Ambrose Burnside, George Meade and others recommending him for an appointment to West Point. One notable endorsement came from President Abraham Lincoln, who wrote, ‘I know of this boy, and believe he is very brave, manly and worthy.’
Hendershot claimed he was denied admission to the academy because of his wounds or his inability to pass the entrance exams. No application exists for him, however, in the academy’s records. Instead, Hendershot returned to Poughkeepsie Business College for a brief time, during which he married Alice Blanchard, a fellow student. In 1867 he collaborated with a writer, William Sumner Dodge, who produced a 200-page biography, Robert Henry Hendershot or, the Brave Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock. Around the same time, he moved to Omaha, Neb., and began working for the Union Pacific Railroad. In 1870 he applied for and received an appointment as postal clerk on the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern Railroad. From his office in Chicago, Hendershot then labored in relative obscurity for another decade.
His name once again became familiar to the public in 1881, when the Grand Army of the Republic newspaper, the National Tribune, sponsored a ‘youngest soldier’ contest. The first man nominated was Robert Henry Hendershot. With unusual modesty, Hendershot did not refute the claims of many other, younger men to the title. Another five years would pass before he would emerge from the shadows.
In 1885, after his retirement, Hendershot took out his silver drum once again. Thereafter, the now self-promoted ‘Major’ Hendershot toured the country with his son, Cleveland, who played the fife. Although they principally performed at GAR functions and other patriotic gatherings, their tour also took them into Canada, and to the Kingdom of Hawaii, where they entertained Queen Liliuokalani.
By July 1891, the month Hendershot posted a letter to the National Tribune restating his claim to the title Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock as well as that of ‘youngest soldier,’ he was one of the best known veteran drummer boys. He was invited to lead the Michigan Department in the GAR parade during the organization’s annual national encampment in Detroit that August.
There were certain old soldiers, however, who were not pleased by the fame and honors Hendershot enjoyed. One of them was the 7th Michigan’s former drum major, Wilbur F. Dickerson. In a letter to the encampment’s organizers, Dickerson pronounced Hendershot a fake and asked them to remove him from his place of honor. In other letters Dickerson asked members of the 7th Michigan to help him spearhead a campaign to discredit Hendershot.
More than 60,000 veterans paraded before 200,000 spectators to open the encampment. Hendershot marched at the head of the Michigan vets, tapping the cadence on his silver drum with sticks carved from the spear of an ancient Hawaiian warrior, a gift from Queen Liliuokalani. It was an auspicious moment for Hendershot, but disgrace would soon follow. Dickerson’s efforts to discredit Hendershot began to pay off on the day following the parade at the reunion of the 7th Michigan Infantry, when Hendershot found himself the subject of an inquiry during which he was asked to tell his story and lay out his evidence. Members of the 7th Infantry who had crossed in the boats at Fredericksburg were questioned, and Hendershot was cross-examined. In the end, the members of the regiment concluded that Hendershot’s claims were false and stripped him of his title.
On August 8, the day after the 7th held its reunion, the 8th Michigan Infantry met. Its agenda also included a debate on Hendershot’s claims. Hendershot, who was present at first, quickly departed when he realized the course upon which his comrades were headed. The 8th’s judgment was even more severe than the 7th’s: The regiment found him guilty of ‘fraud, imposition, and construed forgeries,’ as well as deserting his flag under fire. The members of the 8th formally drummed Hendershot out of the regiment.
But if Hendershot was not the Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock, then who was? The names of several former drummer boys were submitted for consideration. The men of the 7th Michigan Infantry tendered the names of two of their former drummer boys, John T. Spillaine and Thomas Robinson. The men of the 8th Michigan Infantry claimed the title rightfully belonged to Charles Gardner, who had died in 1864 from wounds received during the siege of Knoxville. The 31st Ohio Infantry nominated Avery Brown, who already bore the sobriquet ‘Drummer Boy of the Cumberland.’
Although Brown may have legitimately challenged Hendershot’s claim to the ‘youngest soldier’ title (he was said to have been only 9 years old when he entered the Army), his hold on the other title was seriously weakened by the fact that he had not stepped east of the Alleghenies during the war. Among the other nominees who had been present at Fredericksburg, Spillaine had the stronger case, since of them all only he was still living, and he won the title. The residents of Detroit awarded Spillaine a gold medal upon which was an embossed figure of a drummer boy and the inscription ‘Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock.’ Spillaine proudly wore the medal for the rest of his life.
Hendershot mounted his first appeal in the local media with a narrative of his heroic actions at Fredericksburg. His heroism had been widely reported in the press of the day, he said. He claimed that either Harper’s or Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly had printed his image. He quoted letters and cited historian Benson Lossing’s The Pictorial Field Book of the Civil War, which included an account of Hendershot’s heroics. To those who said he had deserted, he claimed that he had been wounded and sent to a hospital in Washington and then to Providence, R.I., where he continued his recovery in General Burnside’s home.
Drum major Dickerson and others soon sent in rebuttals to the newspapers. Dickerson repeated his claim that Hendershot had not crossed the river, but had been ‘found in a creek near camp, feigning a fit,’ and that he later deserted and began ‘traveling with a 10 show, telling great stories of his heroism.’ A nameless correspondent wrote that Hendershot had not served in the Federal Army at all, but had spent the war as a member of band in Poughkeepsie. His fame was the result of a ‘reportorial accident,’ another said, ‘perpetuated by well-intended but hasty acts of kindness…and by Hendershot’s shrewdness at working the opportunity for all it was worth.’
Many reports of a drummer boy crossing the Rappahannock had appeared in the press immediately after the Battle of Fredericksburg, writers asserted, but Hendershot’s name had not been connected with the incident until many days later. As for Lossing, one column stated that he ‘was a weak judge of evidence’ who had written his history 20 years after the war. Its many errors included assigning Hendershot to the 7th Michigan Infantry.
Throughout the encampment, the Reverend George Taylor had resisted those who wanted him to make a statement, lest it ‘disturb the harmony of the occasion,’ he claimed. Now that it was over, in a letter published in the Detroit Tribune on August 13, Taylor recounted the events of that day, and stated his ‘firm conviction’ that Hendershot was the Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock. That only added fuel to the fire and launched the controversy into the National Tribune.
The first volley came from Major Charles W. Bennett, historian of the 9th Michigan Infantry, Hendershot’s first regiment. An examination of the evidence had convinced Bennett of the truth in Hendershot’s claims, and in the Tribune he laid out his case. Captain Henry A. Ford, Grand Army editor for the Detroit Evening Journal, responded that his ‘thorough inquiry into the facts of the case’ had convinced him Hendershot was a fraud. Dickerson also continued his attack, while William Brewster, a drummer who had served with Hendershot, joined in and called him a camp follower, a scoundrel and a thief. Others soon joined the fray and kept the storm raging for months.
It was still raging at the GAR’s 1892 meeting in Washington, D.C. There, the membership reaffirmed Spillaine’s right to the title. Hendershot did not attend the encampment, the National Tribune stated, ‘as it was clearly shown at the Detroit encampment that he was not entitled to this honor.’
But Hendershot was not going to let what he considered to be a ‘black-hearted attack’ pass without fighting back, and he called on the comrades in the first of his old regiments, the 9th Michigan Infantry, which passed a resolution supporting Hendershot’s claims. He then attended the annual reunion of the 8th Michigan Infantry, the organization that had so recently drummed him out. Before he left, the regiment completely reversed its stance and passed unanimous resolutions that restored Hendershot into the 8th Michigan and supported his claim to his title.
Hendershot then rattled his way from coast to coast, from GAR posts to regimental reunions, winning back the support of veterans, one old man at a time. By the time of the national encampment of 1893, in Indianapolis, he had won his fight. There his title was reinstated to thunderous applause, after which former President Benjamin Harrison presented him with a diamond-studded, solid-gold medal inscribed ‘Robert H. Hendershot, Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock, from G.A.R. and W.R.C. comrades, Indianapolis, 1893.’ Soon afterward, Hendershot strengthened his claim with another biography, Camp Fire Entertainment: The True Story of R. H. Hendershot, Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock. Although Spillaine also continued to claim the title, and used it as a springboard to commander of the Michigan Department of the GAR in 1912, Hendershot apparently felt no further need to defend his title.
Was Hendershot a hero or a clever liar? How could he convince many of the great men of his day of his sincerity and worth while the citizens of his own hometown viewed the tales of his spectacular exploits with extreme suspicion, if not outright disbelief? His first captain, Charles DeLand, made no mention of Hendershot in his History of Jackson County, though he wrote with pride of many of Jackson’s other Civil War heroes. Hendershot’s absence was also conspicuous in Michigan in the War, the official history of the state’s part in the Civil War.
Many newspapers did publish reports about a drummer boy crossing the Rappahannock however, the initial reports were vague. They only told of a drummer boy, 13 years old, who belonged to either the 7th or the 8th Michigan Infantry. Although Hendershot could claim that only he fit the correspondents’ description, in the weeks that followed many of these same correspondents began calling the tale a myth.
Too many high-ranking individuals endorsed Hendershot’s claims to make them entirely spurious. Among his supporters was General Burnside, who only days after the battle wrote, ‘He served under me faithfully…and at the battle of Fredericksburg displayed most distinguished courage.’ Many who endorsed his claims, however, had not actually witnessed Hendershot’s actions.
The same can be said of those who criticized Hendershot. They disbelieved his story because they had not seen him cross the river or perform his heroic deeds. In fact, they had not seen him at all. During the 1891 debate, most who crossed in the boats could not recall any drummer boy among them.
Only one man claimed to have seen Hendershot on the day in question — the Reverend George Taylor. How did he remember that day? Hendershot had frequently strayed from his camp during the previous 10 days, Taylor recalled, but December 11, 1862, was different. Stimulated by the occasion and the excitement, Robert had wandered much farther afield.
Taylor, alarmed by Hendershot’s prolonged absence in the midst of battle, went to find him and came upon Hendershot coming back across a pontoon bridge. ‘I met him with a bundle of clothes under his arm,’ Taylor wrote. The story Hendershot then told Taylor was in many ways the same as the one the drummer would continue to tell for years. He told Taylor he had crossed the river by clinging to the stern of a boat, and that with others he had gone into deserted houses. He claimed to have set fire to a building, and that he had found a Rebel soldier hiding in a cellar ‘to escape being forced back to the confederate camp.’ The deserter asked Hendershot for help. ‘So carrying his gun he assisted him and gave him up to our men.’
In another building, Taylor wrote, Hendershot said he found ‘a beautiful clock’ and started to bring it over to me.’ Startled by a shell bursting nearby, Hendershot dropped it and it broke into pieces.
Taylor remembered, ‘In all he told he did not seem [conscious] that he had done any very meritorious act, nor was there in his manner the least element apparent of anything that is necessary to constitute a hero.’ Hendershot gave his account ‘within the hearing of a number of persons, among them representatives of the press,’ Taylor recounted. ‘I have no doubt but that either from a misunderstanding of his statement, or designedly for the sake of making a sensation, the whole story originated.’
Thus, with the embellishment of war correspondents, a foraging expedition became a battle, a deserter became an armed adversary, and a shattered clock became a young hero’s drum, burst by a shell. Soon after, Horace Greeley had summoned Hendershot to New York and presented the boy with the silver drum and honored him with his famous sobriquet.
Taylor argued that ‘Boy that he was, being irresistibly borne upon the wave of fortune to the embrace of so many and such distinguished friends and to such privilege and honors, [it is not surprising that Hendershot] concluded that there must have been something in his exploits heroic and meritorious.’ But, said Taylor, Hendershot was not the author of the story it had originated with the press. Nor had he sought the title bestowed upon him by Greeley. Since ‘the bearing of his title can injure no one,’ Taylor continued, ‘I would advise that he be allowed to depend upon it for his future success. ‘In the words of our nation’s most honored hero,’ Taylor concluded, `Let us have Peace!’ And let all the earth keep silent when I say that Robert Henry Hendershot is the genuine Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock.’
Taylor was undoubtedly right when he said that a good share of the story had been the fancy or embellishment of battlefield reporters, further embellished by Hendershot. His critics were most probably wrong when they claimed that another had performed the deeds. In their quest to shift glory, they forgot the times in which the story arose, the historical context that Taylor tried to bring out in his testimony.
‘The battle was a disastrous one for our arms,’ Taylor wrote, ‘and while ‘fire in the rear’ papers were gloating over our calamity and pronouncing the war a failure, the loyal press found but little to cheer the heart of the despondent.’ It was to ‘divert the minds of the loyal from brooding over the disaster’ that prompted Greeley, who ‘[seized] upon this report and sent it flying over the land in the columns of the Tribune,’ Taylor wrote.
From a historic perspective, the story might be characterized as a media-created epic of heroism, inspired by an unremarkable episode at the Battle of Fredericksburg. Then, from out of the tale, Greeley plucked a boy and made of him a Northern icon. It was little more than mythology, but it served more than the sensationalist bent of the press it also promoted patriotism and supported a cause. If propaganda is a legitimate weapon of war, then the worth of the Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock as a soldier may have equaled that of a regiment.
Hendershot was almost certainly the anonymous boy whose unremarkable deed inspired the story. He is without a doubt the boy on whom Greeley bestowed the title. It was he, then, who brought a brief moment of cheer and hope to a war-weary North in the dark days of late 1862.
Hendershot’s self-promotion was harmless, and led to a legend that ultimately enriched American folklore. History would have undoubtedly buried the story and the title if Hendershot had not kept them alive. For that reason alone, he deserves to be remembered as the original Drummer Boy of the Rappahannock.
This article was written by Anthony Patrick Glesner and originally appeared in the January 2004 issue of America’s Civil War magazine. For more great articles be sure to pick up your copy of America’s Civil War.