When shots rang out on the morning of August 21, 1864, the John Bainbridge Packett family was at their home Locust Hill. As the fighting ebbed and flowed around their home, the Packett family took refuge in the cellar while artillery shells screamed overhead and exploded in the yard. Volley after volley of rifle fire tore through the air, with many rounds finding their mark on the stout brick walls of Locust Hill. A Civil War officer’s after-action report provides a somewhat clinical analysis of what took place during the course of the battle. They carefully identify the forces involved, the movement of their troops, the number of casualties, and occasionally offer their opinion of the battle’s result. Vary rarely is there any mention of the battles impact on civilians.
On the day of the battle at Cameron’s Depot or Packett’s Farm, the Packett family included several children who spent part of the day penned up in Locust Hill while a storm raged outside its walls. One of those children, William Bainbridge Packette, then an eleven-year-old lad, had vivid memories of that day. Years after the battle, Packette put pen to paper and recorded his memory of the Battle of Cameron’s Depot. Our museum has a hand-written copy of Packette’s memoir of the Battle of Cameron’s Depot in its archive.
As he wrote, Packette first identified who was in the house during the battle:
“My Father, John B. Packette, and my Mother, Mrs. Lucy W. Packette, and the family which consisted of seven children, to-wit: my oldest sister, Louise Clemson Packette (afterwards Mrs. Thomas William Tighlman Buckey), and my sister Frances Hammond Packette (afterwards Mrs. Levi Montgomery Bond), sister, Lizzie B. Packette (afterwards Mrs. Dr. John Cardeza) next myself, William Bainbridge Packette, a brother, George Washington Packette, a sister Lucy M. Packette (afterwards Mrs. Foster Morss), a brother, Walter Harewood Packette, since dead.”
Note that in the 1920s when his memoir of the battle was written, William added a letter “e” to the end of his surname. In both the 1852 and the 1883 S. Howell Brown maps of Jefferson County, the surname Packett was still “e-less” as it was on the 26th of December 1895, when William Bainbridge Packett married Annie Gibson, the third daughter of Colonel John Thomas Gibson. Colonel Gibson commanded the 55th Virginia Regiment which captured John Brown.
The Packette children weren’t the only youngsters who were eyewitnesses to the battle. Colonel John Augustine Washington was killed at the Battle of Cheat Mountain in September (not August as William wrote in the paragraph below) 1861 and several of his orphaned children were living at Claymont. Packette identifies the Washington children there that day:
“And all that day of the battle there were some relations of our family, four cousins who lived at Claymont, a near-by place on a visit to our family who were Miss Louisa Fontaine Washington (afterwards Mrs. R. P. Chew), Miss Jane Charlotte Washington (afterwards Mrs. Nathaniel Willis) and Miss Elizabeth Clemson Washington (afterwards Mrs. George H. Flagg), Miss Eliza Selden Washington (afterwards the wife of Major Robert Hunter). Note: These are children of Col. John Augustine Washington last owner of Mount Vernon killed August 20, 1861.”
Packette also provided first names of the enslaved men and women who were in the house on the day of the battle:
“In addition to the above in the house were some colored people in numbers twelve or thirteen owned by my father, and whose names as far as I recollect were as follows: a colored woman named Mary, who had four children, Martha, Sam (alias Abe Lincoln), Mosby, and a fourth name I have forgotten; there were present also other slaves, whose names are a colored woman named Kitty, a colored man named Jim, and colored boys named, George, Guy and Sam, and some others whose names I have forgotten.”
From a position virtually in the middle of the Union encampment, William Packette’s memory of what took place in August 1864, provides a rare glimpse of the reality of war from the viewpoint of a non-combatant:
“Some week or ten days before the date of this battle the Federal troops under command of General Sheridan came into the neighborhood from the direction of Summit Point, seven miles West of our place, which place is within a mile of Cameron Depot, a station of the Winchester and Potomac Railroad, just a little northwest of our place; when these forces arrived there General Sheridan took a room in our house and the balance of his staff were camped in tents in the bottom of Locust Hill yard, other parts of the army along the Evitt’s run on the Davenport place and in the woods on the Davenport place to the East of our place, and on our farm.”
Packette continued by describing the scene as the Union soldiers first approached Locust Hill saying:
I can see them now as they came across the fields leading cows and using them as pack horses and took my father’s cows and fenced them in a pen, but afterwards he got them back and had to keep them in the garden as it was the only place that had a fence around it.”
With the scene and the characters all set, Packette described the commencement of battle on the morning of August 21st:
On Sunday morning, August 2lst, the Sheridan band was playing hymns on the lawn about 9 o’clock, and General Early came down the valley from the direction of Summit Point, and drove pickets of Sheridan in through our place. In a few minutes all was in confusion Sheridan’s tents were struck and Sheridan’s troops retired hurriedly through the cornfield towards the woods where the main forces were.
When Union troops retreated from their position at Locust Hill, Packette remembered that:
“The Confederate troops under Early then occupied our house and the yard.”
But the Confederate occupation of Packette’s house was short-lived:
Thereupon Sheridan attacked these advance guards or troops of Early, drove them back recapturing the house and yards and Early’s troops retreated back to a stone fence west of our farm and dividing line between the Cedar Lawn farm of John R. Flagg, now part of “SULGRAVE” farm of Forrest W. Brown.
At the time of the battle, Cedar Lawn was owned by the children of John Thornton Augustine Washington; John Ranson Flagg owned Richwood Hall; and Sulgrave was owned by Annie Steptoe Washington Brown and Thomas Augustus Brown.
Packette then described the Union counterattack:
“Then Sheridan’s forces took possession again of our house and the yard breaking the doors and used it as a fort, sent the family and guests to the cellar under two guards in a room on the east side to the front of the house, using the back windows to the west to shoot from them, all the firing seemed to center on the house, then about 12 o’clock all firing stopped.”
The pause in fighting, as described by Packette, was to afford the civilians an opportunity to escape. According to him:
Early sent Sheridan word I was afterwards told by Lieut. Nichols of Sheridan’s forces, present at the time if the family was in the house send them out as they were going to lower their guns on the house, but the family not knowing of it at the time was not allowed to go out, then about 1 o’clock the shelling commenced on the house which had been going on for some time over the house, shells knocked off the chimneys and went through the roof and the bricks from the chimneys and pieces of shells came down the chimney in the room where the family were located under two guards. The chimneys in the basement rooms where we were confined under guards were large and had large fire places… and when the bricks and shells come down the chimney it looked as if the house was falling down.
Panic-stricken as the debris from the chimney cascaded into the cellar:
It appeared to us that the house was falling down and as a matter, of course, we were in a state of fright and consternation and didn’t know what to do, rushed into another room which was used as a kitchen and on the west side in our efforts to get out.
But the room where the children sought refuge was already occupied, and they did not receive a warm reception:
The guards drove us back to the east room from which we had come from at the point of bayonets, we had scarcely gotten out of the kitchen room when a shell came through the west wall in the rear of the house and exploded in the kitchen room tearing the stove and room to pieces.
As it seemed that the house was about to come down around their ears, 2nd Lieutenant Henry J. Nichols came to their aid. Nichols was with Company M, 1st Artillery, 11th Vermont Volunteers which was posted near the Packett house and as William Packett recalled:
Lieut. Nichols told me some years afterwards that he went to Sheridan, who was sitting on the front porch out of all danger and he told him he ought to let the family go out, as they would all be killed. Then General Sheridan sent Lieut. Nichols down with instructions to take us out and Lieut. Nichols came and he and the guards took us out of the house, through the front yard into the cornfield and the woods East of that and out of danger through the Federal lines.
While we were thus being escorted through the cornfield- the shelling was going on and the cross firing continued, and shells were dropping in the cornfield as we were going along and as Lieut. Nichols guided us away from the firing and the shells in our retreat, and fortunately none of us - neither our family nor our guests nor our colored people got a scratch on us.
Escorted to safety, the Packett’s stayed the night at Altona with the family of Henry Bedinger Davenport. The following day, both armies were gone, and the Packett family felt that it was safe to return home. Not unexpectedly, the house had taken a beating, and William Packette described the damage:
“There were seven shells passed through and exploded in the house which marks show. One unexploded shell is still lodged in the wall under the eve of the roof; two knocked off the chimneys and five went through the shingle roof which set the house on fire making in all fourteen that struck the house. There are also thousands of minnie [sic] balls show their marks in the hard brick. Thousands of marked bullets, pieces of shells, broken swords and guns also army cups and canteens gotten off the battlefield are shown at Locust Hill today.”
The c. 1900 photograph which accompanies this article shows the back of Locust Hill and the pock marks caused by bullets can be easily seen. Although difficult to see in the photograph, in the foundation window on the left is a display of eight artillery shells found near the house after the battle, a musket propped against the house, and a sword under the window.
Rather than viewing the battle through the eyes of a trained military officer, William Packette puts the reader inside of a house which was directly in the line of fire during a Civil War battle. Just when it seems that the family finds refuge in the cellar, an artillery shell strikes the chimney causing its collapse and sending debris cascading from the cellar fireplace out onto the floor. Packette added to the lore of the battle when he related an oft-repeated apocryphal account of Union soldiers who sought refuge in Locust Hill. Troubled by the frequent strike of artillery shells, the soldiers “dressed themselves in women’s clothes and paraded before the window” in an effort to prevent Confederate gunners from firing on the house. Whether or not Union soldiers donned actually dresses to re-direct cannon fire is unknown, but it is a fact that Lieutenant Nichol’s concern for the Packett family most certainly saved them from harm and perhaps death.
Doug Perks, a retired history teacher and Shepherdstown resident who serves as the historian at the Jefferson County Museum in Charles Town, is a contributor to the Spirit of Jefferson