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Locust Hill

History Matters: An 1864 battle left Locust Hill occupants terrified

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William Packette tombstone

Packette would always remember the day in 1864 when his family home in Jefferson County came under Confederate attack. U.S. soldiers, fearful that young William, his siblings and cousins were in danger, first sent all of them to the cellar of the family home.

“On Sunday morning, August 2lst, the Sheridan band was playing hymns on the lawn about 9 o’clock, and General [Jubal] Early came down the valley from the direction of Summit Point, and drove pickets of Sheridan in through our place.”

Years later, that is how William Bainbridge Packett would remember the day in 1864 when the Civil War engulfed both his home and his family. The Packetts lived at Locust Hill built in 1840 by William’s parents, Lucy Washington Packett and John Bainbridge Packett.

Their home was constructed on land which Lucy Washington inherited from her father Samuel Walter Washington (the grandson of Samuel Washington, brother of George Washington). Locust Hill was one of several houses built by descendants of Samuel Washington on land that was part of his Harewood tract.

In the summer of 1864, Union commanders in the Lower Shenandoah Valley were under specific orders from Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. In Grant’s words: “If the enemy has left Maryland, as I suppose he has, he should have upon his heels veterans, militia men, men on horseback, and everything that can be got to follow to eat out Virginia clear and clean as far as they go so that crows flying over it for the balance of this season will have to carry their provender with them.”

Grant followed with these orders to Union Gen. David Hunter, “If Hunter cannot get to Gordonsville and Charlottesville to cut the railroad, he should make all the Valley south of the Baltimore and Ohio Road a desert as high up as possible. I do not mean that houses should be burned, but all provisions and stock should be removed, and the people notified to move out.” Grant intended to place the Lower Shenandoah Valley, the so-called Breadbasket of the Confederacy, under control of the Union Army.

In August 1864, Grant tapped Gen. Philip Sheridan to accomplish the mission of controlling the Shenandoah Valley. Sheridan’s Confederate opponent in this struggle was Jubal Early.

On the morning of Aug. 21, 1864, Early’s troops were searching for the Union Army when they slammed into Sheridan’s forces roughly 3 miles west of Charles Town. As William Packett recalled, Union troops were in line along a ridge which ran roughly north to south on both sides of the Middleway Pike. The Packett’s home, Locust Hill, was located near the center of the Union line. The Packett children, William Packett, his sisters Louise, Fannie, Lizzie and Lucy and brothers George and Walter, were hosts that Sunday morning to “some relations of our family, four cousins who lived at Claymont, a near-by place.”

The cousins included Louisa Fontaine, Jane Charlotte and Eliza Selden Washington whose father, John Augustine Washington III, the last private owner of Mount Vernon, had been killed early in the Civil War while serving on the staff of Confederate Robert E. Lee.

Another cousin present was Elizabeth Clemson Washington, the daughter of Richard Scott Blackburn and Christian Maria Washington, making a total of 11 children that day.

As the battle ensued, Union soldiers, fearful that the children were in danger, sent all of them to Locust Hill’s cellar, literally out of the line of fire.

At about one o’clock in the afternoon, the shelling on the house commenced. Packett later recalled that “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.” To the terrified children, “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.”

Finally, Sheridan’s men, now fearful for the youngsters’ lives, “took us out of the house, through the front yard [the front of Locust Hill faced east] into the cornfield and the woods East of that and out of danger through the Federal lines.” The children eventually found refuge at the “home now known as ‘Altona’ farm of Colonel Henry B. Davenport about two miles from our place on the Smithfield [now Middleway] Turnpike and a mile from Charles Town.”

At day’s end, Early’s troops had forced Sheridan to withdraw from their position west of Charles Town. They eventually settled on the ridge between Halltown and Harpers Ferry under the protection of the Union artillery in position on Maryland Heights. The Battle of Cameron’s Depot, sometimes referred to as the Battle at Packett’s Farm, resulted in about 1,000 casualties. However, the Confederate success on Aug. 21 would gradually be reversed by Sheridan and his men, and by year’s end, the Lower Shenandoah Valley was under Union control.

The Packett house sustained extensive damage, and according to William, “from the attic to the cellar that the floors were torn up by shells and there were clots of blood all over it.”

Locust Hill would survive a Civil War battle, but it was no match for fire. On the night of Jan. 11, 1973, a blaze broke out at Locust Hill, and the house was completely gutted. Six people lost their lives and four others were hospitalized. Years later the property, including the remains of the house, was sold, and for several years portions of the brick walls of the house stood as a silent reminder of the past. It was recently reported that the remaining wall had fallen, a victim to time and the weather, and with it the last memory of Locust Hill.

– Doug Perks writes regularly for the Spirit of Jefferson. He’s the historian at the  Jefferson County Museum in Charles Town

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