Wilderness – A Tale of Two Permelias

6 05 2014

In honor of the 150th anniversary of the Battle of the Wilderness and The Overland Campaign, here’s the original version of my Collateral Damage article that ran in the August, 2011 edition of Civil War Times. For real time tweets of the tours this week, be sure to follow Sesqui tourist extraordinaire Craig Swain @caswain01 on Twitter and look for the Overland150 hashtag.

The Higgerson and Chewning Farms in The Wilderness: The Widows Permelia

The Battle of the Wilderness, fought in early May 1864, marked the beginning of Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign. For two days, the Union Army of the Potomac and the Ninth Army Corps battled Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in a hellish tangle of thick, second-growth forest along and between the Orange Turnpike to the north and the Orange Plank Road to the south, in Virginia’s Spotsylvania County. Two farms, today located along Hill-Ewell Drive in Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, were in 1864 situated at the center of the fighting; both were witness to singular events.

The northernmost farm, also known as “Spring Hill” and “Oak Hill”, was the home of Permelia Chewning Higgerson, 34. Her husband Benjamin, who was 20 years her senior, had died of smallpox in December 1862. One year later, Benjamin’s son from an earlier marriage, James, died in a Richmond hospital, also from smallpox, which he had contracted as a member of the Ninth VA Cavalry. Living with the Widow Higgerson were her five children – four boys and a girl aged two to eleven. In 1860, Benjamin Higgerson’s real estate was valued at $500, his personal properly was worth $1,370, and he owned two slaves. The house was a small, three room, one-and-a-half story frame structure which sat in a clearing about three quarters of a mile south of the Orange Turnpike.

Permelia Higgerson (umm, yeah, on the left)

Permelia Higgerson (umm, yeah, on the left)

About one mile to the south was the home of Permelia Higgerson’s parents, William and Permelia Chewning. Like her daughter, Permelia Chewning was a widow. William had died the previous June at the age of 73 as the result of an injury sustained in an accident at a local mill. In 1860, William Chewning’s real estate was valued at $1,500 and his personal estate at a respectable $14,400. He also owned thirteen slaves. The 72-year-old Widow Chewning lived with her 38-year-old daughter Jane and 30-year-old son Absalom in a two and one-half story frame house known as “Mount View”, situated in a clearing on a ridge on the 150-acre farm. The farm produced wheat, rye, corn, oats, potatoes, and tobacco. It also had a commanding view of the surrounding countryside.

Both farms played prominent roles in the battle. On May 5, Union general James Wadsworth’s division struggled westward through thick underbrush to keep pace with the rest of Union 5th Corps attack on Confederate General Richard Ewell’s lines. Colonel Roy Stone’s brigade passed through the clearing around the Higgerson house, tearing down a fence and laying waste to the garden despite the Widow’s loud objections and predictions of their impending defeat. After passing the house the men entered swampy ground near a tributary of Wilderness Run: “That’s a hell of a looking hole to send white men into”, shouted one soldier; another advised his comrades to “label” themselves, as death was certain. Soon they found themselves mired in waist-deep water, causing a gap to open in the Union line just as Confederate troops crashed into the isolated Pennsylvanians. Heavy casualties forced them to retire, and as they poured past the house, the Widow Higgerson again pelted them with taunts.

Higgerson HOuse

Higgerson HOuse

Farther south, the placement of the Chewning house on high ground from which enemy positions were clearly visible made it desirable to both sides, and possession changed hands over the two days. At one point, a group of Union soldiers had taken over the house and was inside vandalizing it and preparing dinner when Permelia Chewning flagged down her relative Markus Chewning (a scout for Confederate General Fitzhugh “Rooney” Lee), who was coincidentally riding alone along the road from Parker’s Store to the south. After the Widow Chewning filled him in about what was happening, Markus rode rapidly around the house to convince those inside that they were outnumbered and should give up. The ruse worked – leaving their weapons inside the Yankees surrendered to Markus. Nevertheless, the writing was on the wall: Mount View was soon to become a hot place. The Widow Chewning gathered some things and left the house soon after.

On May 6, Confederate General A. P. Hill and his staff rode into the unoccupied clearing. They dismounted and soon heard the sounds of a body of nearby Federal soldiers breaking down a fence. Hill remained calm, telling them: “Mount, walk your horses, and don’t look back.” Although the Rebels were within easy range, the Federals held their fire and the party made their escape at a leisurely pace. A captured Yankee later told one of the escapees, “I wanted to fire on you, but my colonel said you were farmers riding from the house.”

The Chewning house and farm was in a shambles after the battle. Absalom later testified: “Everything was gone – all the crops, all the stock, all the fences. Also, a tobacco house, a shop, and an ice-house were destroyed. I found some of the materials in the breastworks around the house.” The Widow Chewning filed a post-war claim with the Southern Claims Commission for just under $3,600, including lost fence rails, cordwood, and livestock. The disposition of the Chewning claim is unknown. Fire destroyed the Chewning house in 1947.

The younger Permelia – Higgerson – remarried in 1867. She and William Porter had two children, Cyrus and Ann, and moved to Missouri on the Mississippi River to a place they called “Higgerson Landing”, consisting of a house, a store, and a one-room schoolhouse that survives to this day. Permelia’s second marriage eventually fell apart. About 1871 William Porter ran off to Louisiana and Montana with Permelia Higgerson’s 16-year-old daughter, Jacqueline. After fathering four children with her, Porter deserted Jacqueline as well. The Widow Higgerson passed away in 1897 in Missouri. The Higgerson House disappeared in the 1930s, but remnants of its chimney survive today.

Higgerson House Chimney

Higgerson House Chimney

Thanks to Josef W. Rokus and Noel Harrison of Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania NMP for their assistance in preparing this article.





A Tip for Anyone Thinking of Writing About the Civil War…

12 11 2013

on-writing-stephen-king…and for just about everyone who has written about it and is thinking of writing more. If you read – or skim – many books or articles on our peculiar interest, it shouldn’t take very long before you realize most of it is crap. Not necessarily from a strict “history” sense, though there is a lot of that. But it seems to me that even really good history work is presented in a less than readable, not to mention entertaining, style. Come on. Admit it. You agree with me. Wholeheartedly. I know, you’re probably thinking that what I write here could be a whole lot better. You’re right.

OK, let’s cut to the chase. If you’re one of the folks to whom I’m referring in the lead-in, and haven’t done so already, get yourself a copy of Stephen King’s wonderful book, On Writing. Yeah, I know – he’s a novelist. It doesn’t matter. The lessons and tips in this book can’t help but positively affect what and how you write, regardless of genre. I won’t give examples because just about every page is gold, but you can go here to find some nuggets. And don’t think that because you’ve been published you don’t need any help – from what I’ve seen the odds against that are overwhelming. I beg this not as a writer, but as one of untold thousands of long suffering readers.





Updates

15 07 2012

Once again real life has infringed upon my hobby, and I haven’t been able to come up with any posts lately. If you’re not already doing so, please be sure to follow me on Twitter and Facebook, as I frequently put stuff up on those outlets (look in the right hand margin of this page and make the appropriate clicks to follow.)

I’ve been notified that my regular reviews in brief column (it’s been known by several names over the years) in Weider History Group’s America’s Civil War magazine has run its course. These things happen, in fact have happened before, and will continue to happen in the magazine business as formats change. I’m thankful for the opportunities editor Dana Shoaf has provided. On a happier note, I have been asked to write reviews on single titles, and my first one will appear in the issue of Civil War Times that will be in process in August.

I also mentioned earlier that I’ll be speaking to the Central Ohio Civil War Roundtable in 2014. I’ve been putting together a few notes for that presentation and am really pleased with how things are going. We’ll be covering a lot of assumptions that are generally accepted as fact concerning the campaign that may not be quite accurate. OK, make that flat out wrong. It should be fun, and if your group is interested you can contact me at my email address to the right or send me a message on the Book Me, Danno! page.





Bull Run “Historian’s Forum” Available Online

10 08 2011

The forum in which I participated for Civil War History and which I mentioned here can now be read in its entirety here.





Doors Are Closing and Opening All the Time

27 07 2011

It is my sad duty to inform you of the demise of Collateral Damage, my regular column in Civil War Times. Stonewall’s Winchester Headquarters, a story on the Lewis T. Moore house in the just shipped October 2011 issue of the magazine, is the last in the series. Editor and (still) friend Dana Shoaf informed me of the decision after he bought me lunch at Tommy’s Pizza in Gettysburg last month – I should have known something was up when he picked up the check!

It was a good run, starting with a piece on Gettysburg’s Widow Leister house in the June, 2010 issue, when the column (or department) was called In Harm’s Way - a title I liked better. All told I profiled a total nine homes and their owners: short of the twenty-four I would have liked to put together for a book, but nine more than I otherwise would have published had I not engaged Dana in a Facebook chat over the Christmas 2009 holiday. I thank Dana and the good folks at Weider History Group for the opportunity. I hope I added a little something to the record in the process.





Civil War Times August 2011

11 06 2011

Inside this issue:

Inside cover – a picture of John David Hoptak’s great big giant head.

Letters:

  • Praise and criticism of Kim O’Connell’s photo-essay of monuments at Gettysburg in the June 2011 issue.
  • Praise and criticism of Gary Gallagher’s article on James Longstreet in the June 2011 issue.
  • A little more artillery info provided by Craig Swain and prompted by David Schneider’s article on “Lee’s Armored Car” in the February 2011 issue.

Blue & Gray

  • Gary Gallagher asks, Did the Fall of Vicksburg Really Matter?

Collateral Damage

Your host discusses the stories behind the homes of two Pemelias - Higgerson and Chewning - on the Wilderness Battlefield. Thanks again to Noel Harrison of F&SNMP and author Josef Rokus for all their help.

Field Guide

  • The staff show us the Civil War sites of Frederick, MD.

Interview

  • Repeat Lincoln impersonator Sam Watterson (I like to think of him as Michael Moriarty’s fill-in on Law & Order).

Letter from the Editor

  • Editor Dana Shoaf says let’s refer to the observance of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War as something other than a celebration. Commemoration sounds good to me.

Features

  • The Winter that Made the Texas Brigade - Susannah Ural and Rick Eiserman on Hood’s Brigade and the winter of 1861-62.
  • Yankee Super GunCraig Swain wonders if the big guns of the 1st CT Heavy Artillery could have ended Pickett’s Charge before it began.
  • The Boy Brigadier – Iconoclast William Marvel challenges the long recognized answer to a favorite Civil War trivia question – Who was the youngest general of the war?
  • WWII Comes to Gettysburg – Jennifer Murray on the ‘Burg in the Big One.
  • “The South Was My Country” - Douglas Gibboney gives us a glimps of John Singleton Mosby’s life after the war.

Reviews





Civil War History, Vol. 57, No. 2

10 06 2011

Inside this issue are two essays:

  • “Living Monuments”: Union Veteran Amputees and the Embodied Memory of the Civil War - Brian Matthe Jordan
  • The Loyal Draft Dodger? A Reexamination of Confederate Substitution - John Sacher

Also inside is the journal’s first “Historians’ Forum”, this on The First Battle of Bull Run. Two historians, Ethan Rafuse and John Hennessy, and yours truly opine on various questions regarding the campaign and its legacy.

The experience was fun and informative for me. Editor Lesley Gordon started things off by sending us three questions. Emails were exchanged and things started to roll – good discussions were had. I learned a lot, and think I made one good point, at least. Thanks to Prof. Gordon for giving me the opportunity to participate in an unfamiliar forum. I think she has some really good ideas for the journal and am looking forward to what she comes up with next.

For mor information on Civil War History see here. Follow them on Facebook here.





Hittin’ the Road…

5 06 2011

…to our nation’s capital – and Capitol.

In a few hours I’m heading to Washington, DC where I’ll be presenting my program on Peter Hains to the Capitol Hill Civil War Roundtable. Tomorrow I plan on doing some sightseeing, starting off by paying a visit to All Not So Quiet on the Potomac host Ron Baumgarten, who works in town in the Winder Building, home today of the U.S. Trade Representative. I hope then to hit Ford’s Theater and the National Building Museum, which is a beautiful structure and originally housed the Pension office. For monuments I’m taking along my paperback copy of Testament to Union to help guide me about – lots of walking.

The meeting starts at 7 PM in the Rayburn House Office Building., and runs until about 8:30.

On the way home on Tuesday I hope to stop by Manassas National Battlefield Park, and will proceed to Winchester for some field work on my upcoming Collateral Damage article and to hopefully meet up with e-quaintance Robert Moore, aka Cenantua.

So, a busy couple of days ahead.





Slow Here, I Know

1 06 2011

Sorry for the lack of posts. Lots of stuff going on. I have RT programs to present on June 6th and June 14th, and the Gettysburg College tour on June 29, and possibly another engagement on July 2nd or 3rd (you can check out the details on those appearances here). As I get time, I’ll post some articles on the new Civil War Times and my Collateral Damage column, as well as the new Civil War History and my participation in a roundtable discussion in its pages. Bear with me for the next few weeks.





Bull Runnings on Civil War Memory

25 05 2011

Kevin Levin has some nice comments on the new issue of the journal Civil War History and the inaugural Historians’ Forum in which I participated.

As I write this I realize that I haven’t mentioned the publication of this article yet here on the blog, so look for that as well as the contents of this issue of the journal in the days ahead.

Thanks Kevin! Check it out on Civil War Memory.








Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 836 other followers