Hole in our history

Another Mud Season is upon us. As I’ve mentioned before, this is a good time to study the landscape and find its hidden treasures and secrets. With its drabness and fickle rains, that’s about all that it is good for and it is thus very difficult to write about. So, to begin our story, let’s go back to the beginning — way back to Sept. 24, 1862 (1 did say way back, didn’t 1?).

About 4 1/2 miles northwest of Romney, W.Va. (then Virginia), the Civil War battle of Hanging Rock was ending. The victory strongly favored the Confederates who had ambushed the Union troops from atop a high cliff. The Union troops fled to the west. The Confederates, instead of pursuing the Yanks more than a token distance, were ordered to march to Frenchburg, W.Va. (then Virginia), in the opposite direction.

Col. Angus McDonald gave the order. The objective was to protect and defend some wagons hidden there. Surely, wagons were difficult and time consuming to build and thus very valuable — but how valuable? Were they so valuable that they needed to be defended by the bulk of the Confederate forces after the enemy had retreated in the opposite direction?

The wagons were headed for Winchester, Va., in the Shenandoah Valley, nicknamed “The Breadbasket of the Confederacy,” and because they were going to pick up supplies, they were presumably empty. The reason for Col. McDonald’s order doesn’t seem clear to historians, and various theories have been put forth, including that he was simply confused. In fact, much mystery has surrounded Romney’s significance in the Civil War, with gaps and contradictions at every turn.

Col. McDonald somehow wound up fighting in the battle of Manassas. When he reported for further duty at Staunton, he found orders from Gen. Robert E. Lee to return at once to Romney and “resume his duties” there. To explain sending Stonewall Jackson and a huge force to repel Union troops from Romney, General Lee said, “There is a necessity for repelling the enemy, and it must be done.”

What was Gen. Lee’s “necessity?” What were Col. McDonald’s “duties?”

The “Romney mystery” would persist until the Mud Season of 2006. No, you haven’t previously read about the discovery that fills the gaps in the town’s Civil War history. You are about to now.

As a traveling mechanic, I was called to Crystal Valley Ranch, a shoestring horse operation north of Romney and very near the site of the battle of Hanging Rock. I was there to fix an ailing 30‑year‑old Kubota and, in general, bring it back to life after a long period of neglect. The owner of the ranch had acquired the necessary parts and had locked them in her personal tack room. She had the only key and was away on a horse‑related matter of some urgency. I would have to wait for her to return before I could complete the job.

I was well within my rights to charge the full hourly rate for my waiting time. In most rural communities, however, there are some circumstances that one customarily doesn’t charge for. Some of these include rounding up escaped livestock (the first time, anyway) when even passing motorists are expected to stop and help. Other examples are fighting fire or assisting an elderly farmer who climbs onto his tractor for the first time after a stroke and finds that he can’t get off again. My current situation was borderline. I would have to get the details and then decide.

That’s kind of how it goes here in West Virginia. Sometimes not a lot of effort is given toward punctuality. Whether you consider it laid back or just inconsiderate, some regional characteristics are what they are. The surest way to go broke and embarrass yourself in the process is to try to change them. Just ask the state’s economic development people.

While I was waiting, I found myself in the company of a rather attractive woman mucking stalls — I’d never seen anyone make messy rubber boots look so good. I would like to have helped her just to pass the time, but I find that pitching in with mundane chores sends a confusing message to the customer. Even on a farm, the professional needs to remain at least slightly aloof except in the previously mentioned circumstances.

In my continuing effort to become a writer who fixes tractors rather than a tractor mechanic who writes, I had put together a column for an emerging publication largely dedicated to Civil War history. Because at home and in my travels, I’m constantly at some significant Civil War site or another, I came up with a column entitled “Steppin’ In It.” It was intended to be about humorous and unusual circumstances in our area during that period.

I’m not much of a Civil War buff. A photo of Patty, Maxine and LaVerne under the wing of a B‑17 Flying Fortress does a whole lot more for me than a faded daguerreotype of a bunch of whiskered geezers standing around a six‑pounder. Trying to get into the right frame of mind and to appear halfway knowledgeable, I borrowed a few books from the local library about our area’s Civil War history.

Because I was north of Romney, part of a report that I had read in my studies by Union Col. Lew Wallace kept coming to mind: “four regiments of Rebels in and about Romney under a Col. McDonald, what their particular object is, I cannot learn.”

I imagined a scattered bunch of Confederate soldiers clambering over the nearby hills and pastures — doing what? I decided to take my camera for a walk. The woman working in the stable suggested that I see an old mine on the property. After following her directions, I soon found myself at the edge of the property, standing at a barbed wire fence, reading the neighbor’s “No Hunting” sign.

I re‑traced my steps and finally found the tiny opening in the hillside. A pool of water was just inside. I didn’t try to enter. The manner in which my weight is proportioned would have landed me facedown in the water.

Back at the barn, I mentioned this small, natural cave‑like entrance and asked how this hole qualified as a mine. She told me that the interior was quite a bit higher and wider and even had steel tracks for rolling a cart. The mine extended in this manner for more than 200 feet into the mountain. It had been a saltpeter mine during the Civil War. Saltpeter is an ingredient in old‑fashioned black gunpowder. My imagined Rebel soldiers who had so bewildered Col. Wallace suddenly had a purpose.

“What was the name of the folks who had the farm before you bought it?” I asked.

She replied with a name that I didn’t recognize.

“And before that?” I persisted.

“McDonald.” she replied.

History was speaking to me across a 140‑year void. The little mysteries that surrounded Romney started to make sense when this mine was factored in. One could easily reason that the minerals extracted from this mine near this cold, rocky, insignificant little mountain town fueled Confederate rifles and cannons at such significant engagements as Fredericksburg, Antietam and, likely as not, Gettysburg.

The Kubota was responding well to my efforts. In most cases, a long‑neglected Japanese tractor just won’t come back. The ranch’s owner was quite satisfied and I had gotten in a good day after all. I waived on the additional charge for waiting.

The foregoing is one example of how things go around here; go out to fix a Japanese tractor and make an important historical American discovery. An overly serious editor nixed “Steppin’ In It,” and though I pitched the story of the mine to the usual publishers, it just couldn’t get traction. Locally, historians are devoted to the theory that Romney’s significance was due to its location in relation to the railroads. This has often been questioned and this supposed advantage was never fully exploited during the Civil War.

I wondered how this information eluded history for more than 140 years. My guess is that being sworn to secrecy meant something in those days, and the term “declassified” hadn’t yet entered our vocabulary. Recently, my wife talked to an elderly hunter who was searching near Crystal Valley for an old road that he remembered as a child. It went back to a stone foundation that they then called “the old powder house.” So, the story isn’t over, but my adventure as a Civil War historian is. I’m passing along my notes and photos to a West Virginia History class at a local middle school. Hopefully, they’ll continue the research.

Rather than this mine, I would have been just as happy to find an old tractor, truck or crawler. After all, what can you do with a dang old hole in the ground?

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