Monday, February 4, 2019

February 2019

Saving Monticello: The Newsletter
The latest about the book, author events, and more
Newsletter Editor - Marc Leepson

Volume XVI, Number 2                                                         February 1, 2019

The study of the past is a constantly evolving, never-ending journey of discovery.” – Eric Foner

THE CIVIL WAR AT MONTICELLO: It’s difficult to throw a rock in the Commonwealth of Virginia and not hit a spot where some sort of Civil War event took place. Virginia was the scene of four years of troop movements and scores of battles and skirmishes, including the first and last significant engagements of the war—at First Manassas and Appomattox Court House. Virginia saw more than its share of the largest and bloodiest battles: at Chancellorsville, Cold Harbor, the Crater (at Petersburg), Fredericksburg (twice), Manassas (twice), Spotsylvania Court House, and The Wilderness.

Luckily for its preservation—and as I noted in Saving Monticello—no fighting of consequence took place near Monticello during the war even though Charlottesville played an important support role for the Confederate Army. In a city in which the white citizenry was solidly behind the southern cause, several Charlottesville businesses provided clothing, supplies, and weapons for the Confederate Army. There was a 500-bed military hospital in the city and large shipments of supplies came through town via the railroad.

Gen. Philip Sheridan and staff, including Geo. Armstrong Custer (right)

Near the end of the war, Gen. Philip Sheridan’s Union troops, with some 5,000 cavalrymen under the command of George Armstrong Custer, occupied the city briefly, arriving on March 3, 1865. There were fears that the conquering Union troops would wreak havoc in the city, including burning the University of Virginia. That did not happen.

Instead, University and city officials met the Union leaders as they entered Charlottesville, and “surrendered the town with medieval ceremony,” Sheridan wrote in his memoirs, “formally handing over the keys of the public buildings and the University of Virginia.” Custer’s men went on to burn a mill in the city that made Confederate uniforms, destroyed several railroad bridges, and did some relatively minor confiscating of food (and beverages). As Sheridan put it in his after-action report: “Forage and subsistence were found in great abundance in the vicinity of Charlottesville.”

He had stopped in Charlottesville, Sheridan wrote, “for the purpose of resting, refitting, and destroying the railroad.” He sent raiding parties “well out toward Gordonsville to break the railroad, and also about fifteen miles toward Lynchburg for the same purpose… A thorough and systematic destruction of the railroads was then commenced, including the large iron bridges over the North and South Forks of the Rivanna River, and the work was continued until the evening of the 5th….”
When Sheridan’s men left town on March 6, 1865, they headed south toward Scottsville. Among other things, they took with them a significant number of formerly enslaved people who took advantage of the opportunity to free themselves.

African Americans, fleeing slavery, crossing the Rappahannock River in 1862.
 (Library of Congress photo)
The Union troops did not make a detour to Monticello, heading eventually to Petersburg, and then to take part in the surrender at Appomattox, about sixty miles south of Charlottesville on April 9. 

Starting in the fall of 1861, Confederate soldiers recuperating from their wounds in C’ville did journey up the mountain and had picnics at Monticello. I didn’t go into detail about those rest and recreational visits in Saving Monticello, other than to say that it wasn’t uncommon for visitors back then to write their names on the walls of the upstairs dome room and to take souvenir chippings from Jefferson’s tombstone in the family graveyard.

I recently came across a description of a Confederate troop Monticello picnic in the fall of 1863, one I had not seen when doing the research for the book. The day on the mountain included a “tournament,” according to Louise Wigfall Wright in her 1905 book, A Southern Girl in ’61: The War-time Memories of a Confederate Senator’s Daughter.

“Some of the Knights—with only one arm to use—[held] reins in the teeth and dash[ed] valiantly at the rings with wooden sticks, improvised as spears for the occasion,” she wrote.

Wright—whom one observer described as “a wealthy young woman on the highest rungs of Southern society” and a proponent of the “Lost Cause” theory—noted that a “gallant colonel” who lost an eye “in his country’s service” was in attendance, wearing an “unsightly” black eye patch as a “badge of honor.” She also described a “boy captain” at the picnic wearing an “old ragged faded jacket” with a hole in it where a “minie ball had just missed the brave heart beneath it.”

EVENTS: Three of my four February events include talks on Saving Monticello. They will take place at:
  •         the annual meeting on Saturday, February 9, of the Potomac Hundred DAR chapter in Rockville, Maryland
  •          the Winter luncheon of the D.C. chapter of the Society of Mayflower Descendants on Sunday, February 10 in McLean, Virginia
  •          the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia, in Fairfax, Virginia, beginning at 12:30 on Tuesday, February 26. That talk and book signing is part of the “Founding Fathers and Their Homes” series and is open to the public. For more info, go to email or call 703-537-3068
  •          On Tuesday, February 12, I will be doing a talk on the history of the American flag, based on my book, Flag: An American Biography, at the Lincoln’s Birthday luncheon in Alexandria, Virginia, following the official ceremonies at the Lincoln Memorial.

There’s always the chance that I may be doing a last-minute talk or signing. For the latest on that, or to check out my scheduled 2019 events, go to the Events page on my website at

If you’d like to arrange an event for Saving Monticello—or for any of my other books, including Ballad of the Green Beret—please email me.
For info on my latest book, Ballad of the Green Beret, go to

GIFT IDEAS:  Want a personally autographed, brand-new paperback copy of Saving Monticello? Please e-mail me at  I also have a few as-new, unopened hardcover copies, along with a good selection of brand-new copies of my other books: Flag: An American Biography; Desperate Engagement; What So Proudly We Hailed: Francis Scott Key, a Life; and Ballad of the Green Beret: The Life and Wars of Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler.