Twelve years before Gen. George Armstrong Custer led the U.S. Army’s 7th Cavalry to its slaughter at the Battle of Little Bighorn, the officer the Crow Indians called “Son of the Morning Star” fought in Jefferson County at the Battle of Smithfield Crossing.
That battle took place in August 1864 between Opequon Creek and Childs Road with fighting occurring throughout the village of Middleway, said Matt Borders, an historian with the National Park Service’s American Battlefield Protection Program, who enthralled an audience of more than 40 Middleway area residents recently with stories of Custer and his cavalry at the battle during a presentation. at the Middleway Community Center . The talk was sponsored by the Jefferson County Historical Society and the Middleway Conservancy Association, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary.
The battle, which resulted in some 300 casualties, was significant as the opening encounter between Confederate Gen. Jubal Early’s retreating forces and Union Gen. Philip Sheridan’s troops in the final Shenandoah Valley campaign. The outcome of the battle is considered a draw but allowed Union forces to regain control of the Opequon Creek crossing on Bunker Hill Road after having been driven back towards Charles Town.
The action was preceded by two days of skirmishing between the two divisions of Confederate infantry and Gen. Wesley Merritt’s Union cavalry division around Leetown and west of the Opequon. Merritt sent Custer’s brigade of cavalry across the Opequon on Aug. 26 to reconnoiter. On Aug. 28 and 29, the Confederate troops drove Custer’s men and cannons from their positions west of the Opequon back across Smithfield Crossing to Merritt’s position. The Union cavalry division of three brigades was then forced back through Middleway, which was formerly known as Smithfield. The Confederate advance was stopped at Child’s crossroad and driven back over the Opequon when a division of Union infantry arrived from the direction of Charles Town to reinforce the Union cavalry.
The battle, according to Borders and his colleague, archaeologist Kristen McMasters, ranked in the top 3 percent of the more than 16,000 recorded armed encounters in the Civil War. The ABPP has undertaken studies of the battlefield and places it in the 383 sites nationwide that should be preserved if the community is willing to do so. McMasters noted that very little development has taken place on the battlefield and in Middleway, which retains the village character it had in the 1860s.
The ABPP is required by Congress to study all battlefields on American soil. When the community or landowners are willing and wish to preserve a battlefield through land acquisition or viewshed conservation easements, the ABPP has been able to provide 50 percent matching grants. For battlefield projects involving archaeology, cultural landscape inventories, cultural resource documentation, GIS mapping, national register nominations, and preservation plans developed by local communities or organization ABPP can provide grants without matching funds from $5,000 to $70,000.
The Middleway Conservancy, as part of an effort led by William Chappell and Bill Schultz, is studying the history of the Battle of Smithfield Crossing with a view toward commemorating its 150th anniversary in 2014. History tourism is an important factor in local economies and battlefield conservation would lead to job creation and community benefits.
— Peter Fricke is a member of the
Middleway Conservancy Association