“They hung the three men right about here,” says author Dana MacBean.
MacBean is standing in the parking lot of the new Clarke County High School just off of Business Route 7. It’s early May and cold and windy. Even so, MacBean is so intent in describing the events surrounding the hanging, which happened on November 7, 1864, that he doesn’t seem to notice the raw weather.
“It drives my love of history when I’m in the footprints of history,” MacBean smiles.
MacBean has spent years following not just the “footprints of history” made by Union and Confederate forces as they conducted hit-and-run battles throughout Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, but also recapturing the battlefield images sketched by one of the earliest known “embedded” war correspondents, James E. Taylor.
“Over the years, I’ve documented nearly all of the illustrations in Taylor’s Sketchbook,” MacBean said. MacBean’s goal is to create a new “then and now” book that retraces Taylor’s wartime path.
In August 1864, Taylor was hired by Leslie’s Illustrated Magazine to follow and record Union General Philip Sheridan’s army as it campaigned in the Shenandoah Valley. Taylor’s sketches of battlefield scenes were wildly popular when first published because the nation was starving for any information that it could get about how the war effort was proceeding. But when the war ended and citizens took up the monumental task of rebuilding the nation, Taylor’s sketches and reports were largely forgotten after being archived by Ohio’s Western Reserve Historical Society.
But in 1989 Bob Younger, owner of Morningside Press, rediscovered the drawings. Younger digitized the collection of diary entries and corresponding sketches and released them as the “James E. Taylor Sketchbook: With Sheridan Up the Shenandoah Valley in 1864: Leaves from a Special Artist’s Sketchbook and Diary”.
Unlike Taylor’s work, which was underwritten by a publisher, MacBean 400-page book, which will retell Taylor’s stories about the war using a contemporary photo wherever possible, will be self-published.
“Taylor’s book contains some of the best documented images of the Civil War that we have,” MacBean says. “Taylor had an excellent memory and many of his drawings were done from memory after the war. He was a very competent draftsman and was especially good at drawing people and horses, which is very difficult to do well.”
MacBean says that while Taylor’s Sketchbook is about the Civil War, it also documents the people of the Shenandoah Valley.
“The book is filled with details about the architecture, farming methods, commerce,” MacBean says. “As I revisit the sites that Taylor sketched I’m repeatedly amazed by how accurate he was.”
As we stand in the parking lot of the newly finished high school MacBean paints a verbal picture of the surrounding area that looked very different than it did when Taylor visited Berryville in 1864. MacBean says that in place of the current blacktopped parking lot and single family homes, a large wooded area known as “Beemer’s Woods” stretched along the north-side of Business-Route 7 to the outskirts of Berryville.
MacBean said that Beemer’s Woods played a key role in local Civil War activities.
“Jubal Early had sent Kershaw’s division east from Winchester to Berryville thinking that they had a clear route over the mountain into Loudoun County,” MacBean recounted. “But when they get to the outskirts of Berryville they encounter Sheridan’s Union army in Beemer’s Woods and in trenches across the road in the field.”
MacBean said that around 5:00 p.m., Kershaw attacked Colonel Joseph Thoburn’s division while they were preparing to go into camp. Kershaw routed Thoburn’s left flank before reinforcements came to the rescue. The fighting continued into darkness and both sides massed heavy reinforcements. But after seeing the strength of the Union’s entrenched line the next morning, Early opted to pull his forces back behind Opequon Creek.
MacBean said that guerrilla warfare expert Colonel John Mosby also made use of Beemer’s Woods, but in a different way. Macbean said that Mosby used three large trees at the edge of the woods visible from the road to hang three Union soldiers in place that the dead men would be clearly visible to the nearby Union lines. Although Taylor did not see the actual hanging, he sketched the area and used first-hand descriptions from people who witnessed the ordeal to recreate the scene for his readers.
Unlike the rules of engagement used in warfare today, Civil War battles were sometimes conducted under orders to “take no prisoners” which meant that opposing troops were killed on the battlefield even if they attempted to surrender. Subsequent execution of prisoners of war by the opposing force was often used in retaliation.
According to accepted accounts from the incident, Mosby’s men, also known as “Mosby’s Rangers”, came upon a contingent of Union soldiers burning the farm of Benjamin Morgan just southeast of Berryville in August, 1864. The Ranger’s attacked attempting to save Morgan’s farm but, according to a Union soldier who survived the battle, the Confederates were said to have yelled “Take no hostages!” during scrimmage.
Incensed by the no-hostage order, Union troops executed seven of Mosby’s men who had been captured during the battle.
On November 7th Mosby retaliated.
Mosby assigned Lieutenant Edward Thompson and a detail of men to escort seven Union prisoners into the Shenandoah Valley and to shoot four of the prisoners and to hang three, just as the Yankees had done.
Mosby directed the men to carry out the executions as close to the Union lines as possible. Thompson chose Beemer’s Woods, less than a mile north and west of Berryville, to carry out the order.
MacBean says that there are nine or ten scenes of Clarke County recounted in Taylor’s diary. Many of the locations will be visited this October when MacBean leads a field and walking tour of Taylor’s Sketchbook sites found in Frederick, Clarke and Warren counties.
“Because Taylor was as much a wonderful story teller as an artist, we are able to explore his insights ranging from day-to-day encounters with people and places as well as complex battles and strategies,” MacBean said. “I think that people will be amazed to find that many of the sites have changed very little over the years and still look very similar to the way that Taylor sketched them.”
For more information on MacBean’s October 4-7, 2012 guided tour, “Embedded with the Troops: Following James E. Tayloras He Sketches The Lower Shenandoah Valley in 1864: A Field & Walking Tour” visit http://www.cwea.net/2012tours/2012_James_Taylor_Revised.htm