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.





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





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.





Civil War Times June 2011

27 04 2011

Inside this issue:

Letters:

  • Correction of tables that were erroneously flipped in Edward Bonekemper’s article on U. S. Grant in the April 2011 issue.
  • Gregg Biggs disputes Gary Gallagher’s thesis on the importance of the Eastern Theory put forth in his essay in the February 2011 issue.

Blue & Gray

  • Gary Gallagher discusses the historiography of James Longstreet.

Collateral Damage

Your host this time looks at the “Squire” Bottom house on the Perryville battlefield. Thanks go out to author and Bull Runnings reader Dr. Kenneth Noe and to Kurt Holman of the Perryville Battlefield State Historic Site. I’m mortified that the acknowledgements did not make the final print version.

Field Guide

  • Bjorn Skaptason show us the Civil War sites of Chicago, IL – don’t laugh, there are more than you think.

Interview

  • Eric Campbell, for years a favorite interpretive ranger at Gettysburg NMP, talks about the challenges of his new job at Cedar Cree & Bell Grove National Historical Park.

Letter from the Editor

  • Editor Dana Shoaf introduces the features, and disputes (as do I) some of the monuments chosen as Gettysburg’s “worst” in one of them.

Features

  • Bread or Blood - Stephanie McCurry on female dissent in the Confederacy.
  • Immortals: Where to Find Gettysburg’s Best and Worst Monuments – Kim O’Connell’s text and Eric Forberger’s photos look at the arguably good and the arguably bad. Personally, I disagree with some choices on both lists, but then I’m one of those weirdos who believe fingers should be longer than toes.
  • Landscape of Remembrance – Philip Kennicott delves into the history of the Manassas National Battlefield Park, warts and all.
  • First Manassas Campaign Map – David Fuller has produced a very fine map, oriented with north to south running left to right, which gives a better overall picture of the movements of the troops, complete with an OOB and four inset maps. Nice! I’m trying to get a good copy to post here. Wish me luck!
  • Hell  in the Harbor - Adam Goodheart on the shelling of the Federal garrison at Ft. Sumter. Photo captions by Craig Swain.
  • Where is Meade? - Tom Huntington tells us “how Union General George G. Meade became the Rodney Dangerfield of the Civil War.”

Reviews





The Bensons of Sudley Church

1 03 2011

An edited version of this story ran in the April 2011 issue of Civil War Times.  I’m running it here with additional photos with permission of the publisher.  It is titled as it appears in the magazine.

Repaying a Debt of Compassion

Ruins of Christian Hill

Ruins of Christian Hill

Today a pile of rubble, hard by the cut of the still unfinished Manassas Gap Railroad and across the road from the impressive bulk of the Sudley Church, is all that marks the site of what tradition holds was the home of Amos Benson and his wife Margaret.  Precisely when the Bensons occupied the house is not clear, but it was not until after the war was over. By most accounts it was to the modest dwelling known appropriately as “Christian Hill” that John L. Rice, erstwhile private of the 2nd New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry, made his way on horseback from Washington, DC in October, 1886.  He had a debt to pay.  How he had incurred that debt and how he went about paying it is the stuff of legend, a story of compassion and reconciliation.

Amos Benson

The pre-war history of the Bensons is sketchy.  Amos was born in September, 1825, in Maryland;  Margaret Newman was born in May of 1821 and grew up in the vicinity of Sudley Springs.  The two were married sometime prior to 1850.  Census records and maps indicate that at the time of the Battle of First Bull Run the Bensons were living east – the “other” side – of Bull Run, in Fairfax County.  In March of 1862, Amos would leave Margaret to go to war with Company A of the 4th Virginia Cavalry, a unit whose roster was thick with names from the area.  He eventually rose to the rank of third corporal.

On Sunday morning, July 21, 1861, members of the congregation to which Amos and Margaret belonged made their way along roads and trails to the Sudley Methodist Church along the Sudley Road south of the fords over Bull and Catharpin Runs.  They were no doubt startled to encounter columns of soldiers marching down the main road.  The worshippers had run headlong into the advance of Union General Irvin McDowell’s army as it moved to turn the forces of Confederate generals P. G. T. Beauregard and Joseph E. Johnston from their positions along Bull Run.

John Rice

At the head of that column was Colonel Ambrose Burnside’s brigade of Col. David Hunter’s division, which included Rice’s 2nd NH.  Despite initial success in the morning, later in the afternoon McDowell’s forces were driven back from the Confederate position near the Henry house.  Prior to the retreat Rice was wounded, shot through the lungs by a musket ball.  His fellows carried him towards the rear and Sudley Church where Union surgeons had set up shop, but with the enemy closing in and Rice apparently dead, they laid him in under a fence and made good their escape.  Two days later, Rice recovered consciousness, still under the fence where his comrades had left him.  His wound had putrefied and become infested with maggots.

Later that evening, as they were making their way back to their home from Sudley Church where they had been assisting with the care of wounded Union soldiers, the Benson’s found Rice in his dire state.  Amos went back to the church and returned with a Confederate surgeon.  The exhausted doctor dismissed Rice as a hopeless case and returned to his duties, but the Bensons were determined.  Margaret brought some food from their home and Amos stripped and washed Rice and cleaned out his wound.  He was too seriously injured to move, so for ten days the Benson’s clothed, fed, and cared for Rice under the fence, until he was well enough to move to a freight car in Manassas for treatment and eventual imprisonment in Richmond.

Rice was later exchanged and re-enlisted to serve again in the war, becoming an officer.  But even twenty-five years later he had not forgotten the Bensons and the debt he felt he owed.  In 1886 while on a trip to the nation’s capital he determined to revisit the site of his near-death experience.  He made inquiries in the area and found the Bensons.  They took him to the place where they had nursed him and visited the battlefield.  Rice learned of Amos’s service in the war and was surprised to realize that he had doubtless faced his benefactor on the battlefield.

Rice of course thanked the Bensons for their kindness and attention in his time of need, and they modestly said they were simply “obeying the dictates of humanity”.  Rice persisted in his efforts to find some way to repay the Bensons, and Amos hit upon a solution:

Rebuilt Sudley Church

“If you want to do that you can help us poor people here pay for our little church yonder.  We owe $200 on it yet, which in this poor country is a heavy burden.”

Rice determined then to not only contribute, but to return to his home in Massachusetts and raise the entire sum of the debt remaining on the rebuilt Sudley Church, which had been destroyed during the war.  On November 24, he told story of his wounding, the kindness of the Bensons, and the plight of the congregation in the pages of Springfield’s “The Republican”:

“I do not know what creed is taught in that church, but it cannot be wrong in any essential of Christian faith when it bears such fruit as I have described…There must be still living many Massachusetts soldiers who can bear testimony with me to the timely aid rendered by those people when so many of our wounded were left uncared for on that disastrous field.”

By November 28, Rice had received $235 from seventy-nine people, including twenty-seven veterans.  The donations ranged from $0.50 to $20.00.  In describing the religious and political backgrounds of the contributors to the Bensons, Rice quoted Alfred, Lord Tennyson:

“Saxon and Norman and Dane are we,
But all of us Danes in welcome of thee”

And in a letter of thanks to Rice, Amos said the value of the act was more than financial.  In fact, it had “converted” the previously un-reconstructed Margaret.  John Rice’s debt to the Bensons was repaid.

Amos Benson Headstone

Margaret Benson Headstone

A history of the Sudley Church states that once the war ended Amos and Margaret moved to Warrenton, and in the early 1880’s had come back to the area of the Springs and were living in a house located 1/8 mile south of Sudley Church and owned by Reverend Henry Cushing – probably Christian Hill.  Margaret died in 1898, and Amos followed her in 1901.  They are buried together very near the southern door of the modern Sudley Church.  The shared marker says of Amos: “He was a good man and full of faith”; of Margaret: “She was a child of God, lived a happy life and died in peace.”

As is often the case, there are some parts of the story of what happened after Rice’s wounding that are in doubt. See John Hennessy’s post here.





Civil War Times April 2011

28 01 2011

Inside this issue:

Letters:

  • Ron Soodalter disagrees with Stephen Budiansky’s take on George Custer

Blue & Gray

  • Gary Gallagher looks at The War’s Overlooked Turning Points and argues for the importance of the Seven Days’.

Collateral Damage

Your host writes about the Benson family and their compassion toward a wounded New Hampshire soldier at First Bull Run.  Thanks to a couple of readers who jarred my memory of this a while back.  Even though the house wasn’t and isn’t there (you’ll have to buy the magazine to figure that one out), it’s a great story that deserved retelling.  More on this in a later post.

Field Guide

  • Robert Behre leads us around Charleston, SC.

Interview

  • James I. “Bud” Robertson recalls the Centennial.

Letter from the Editor

  • The Sesquicentennial kicks off

Features

  • The Butcher’s Bill - Edward Bonekemper argues that U. S. Grant’s management of the war in Virginia wasn’t as bloody as represented.
  • Eye on Arlington – Kim O’Connell’s text and Robin Holland’s photos document the ongoing renovation at Arlington House.
  • First Blood at Big Bethel – John V. Quarstein on the June 10, 1861 battle in Virginia.
  • Last Letter Home – Dana Shoaf presents a poignant communique from a 14-year-old Third Class Boy aboard USS Galena.
  • Cradle of Secession - Joe Loehle photo essay on Charleston, SC.
  • ‘Black Jack’ at War - Paul Bradley sketches John Logan’s war career.

Reviews








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