Descendents of Captain Joseph McKendree Kennerly gathered on a bitterly cold and windy Clarke County, Virginia hilltop last week to honor both the patriarch and patriot nearly 120 years after his death. The gathering provided a time to both consider the legacy of a family that has shaped Clarke County for over 200 years and to reflect on the military conflict that still haunts and shapes America today.
On April 12, 1861, at 4:30 a.m., Confederate batteries opened fire on Fort Sumter marking the commencement of the Civil War. Three short days later on April 15, President Abraham Lincoln called for troops from all states still in the Union to respond to the Confederate capture of Fort Sumter. On April 17, the Virginia convention voted to secede from the Union.
The very next day, April 18, 1861, Joseph McKendree Kennerly of Clarke County responded to Virginia’s call by enlisting as a Corporal in the 1st Virginia Calvary, C.S.A. (Confederate States of America).
In less than a week’s time Kennerly’s life had been transformed from that of a husband, father and farmer tending livestock and fields while raising his family at Greenway Court near White Post, Virginia to that of soldier and defender who would travel the lengths of Shenandoah Valley fighting for his beloved Virginia until battlefield wounds would finally force him to return home three long years later.
Kennerly’s life exemplifies the military service and love for Virginia that was shared by so many Virginians when the War Between the States erupted. Many brave farmer-soldiers from across the Commonwealth, not unlike Kennerly, traded their pitchforks and plows without hesitation for rifles and canons to defend Virginia’s cause.
Many gave their lives on the field of battle defending what many saw as the North’s attempt to destroy their homes and agrarian tradition.
“One of the important causes of the Civil War was that the North was attempting to dictate its will to the South” said Susie Digges of White Post, Kennerly’s great, great grand daughter. “Slavery was one of the issues but it wasn’t the only issue. They were fighting to defend their homes. ”
Susie Digges was one of nearly a dozen of Joseph McKendree Kennerly’s direct descendents who gathered at her family’s small knoll-top cemetery with sweeping views of Clarke County and the Great Blue Ridge. The family gathered to place an iron cross at Kennerly’s gravesite to commemorate and honor his Civil War service.
For many unsung heroes on both sides of the Civil War, the nearly 150 years of elapsed time combined with now long-forgotten memories has cast a sentence of anonymity on many who served and died in America’s bloodiest war. But anonymity is not the case for Kennerly thanks, in part, to Pam Digges, the wife of Thomas Frederick Digges, Kennerly’s great, great grandson.
“Genealogy is my passion” said Pam Digges as she waited in the warmth of her vehicle before the ceremony commenced. Kennerly’s Civil War service was already well-known to family members but Pam Digges extensive historic research served to verify and document much of her husband’s family history and also uncovered some lesser known stories.
For example, family member Marge Jones Digges said that the railroad crossing near the family farm in White Post was known as “Kennerly Crossing” because so many Kennerly’s were killed there in horse and buggy days.
But Pam Digges’s research also revealed some of the more personal and poignant aspects of Kennerly’s life.
In a letter to John Opie dated March 12, 1893, written from his home at Greenway Court in Clarke County, Kennerly recalls Opie’s performance on the battlefield:
“Your letter of the 7th was received yesterday. I am proud to say that I rode at the head of from fifty to one hundred as game young bloods as ever Virginia produced; [â€¦] How vividly this recalls to mind the wild and dashing manner he rode ahead on his fours, falling upon the enemy like a cyclone! I do not know what you propose to make of this letter, but, without prevarication or undue flattery, I do say that you were as good a cavalryman as there was in the army.”
Digges research also revealed that Kennerly was a large slaveholder before the war. According to the Clarke County Virginia Death Register, two deaths and three births of enslaved people were associated Kennerly’s farm in the 1850’s and 1860’s. As was the practice of the day, names of the enslaved were not recorded nor were their plights after slavery was abolished in 1865.
Many of Kennerly’s family who attended the ceremony still live in Virginia, traveling from as near as White Post and far as Charlottesville and Norfolk. Kennerly’s out-of-state descendants traveled from as far away as Phoenix. Captain Edward Dudley Digges, a member of the U.S. Navy stationed in Norfolk, Virginia, said that he saw the gathering as a chance to reaffirm his family’s connections between the past and present.
“Each of my sons is a namesake of someone buried in this cemetery” Captain Digges said gesturing to the many graves in the graveyard. “Today is a great opportunity to strengthen our bonds with Joseph McKendree Kennerly by learning more about our family legacy and history.”
Joseph McKendree Kennerly, was born March 23, 1826 in White Post at Greenway Court in Clarke County, Virginia and was later educated at Dickinson College, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. After his college courses he farmed extensively until the outbreak of the war in 1861. Kennerly was married to Josepha Beale of Fauquier County, Virginia. The couple’s marriage produced four children.
Kennerly was transferred to the Clarke Cavalry, Co D, 6th Virginia Cavalry in September of 1861. In April of the following year Kennerly won a battlefield commission to 2nd Lieutenant from his Confederate unit members in recognition for his battlefield worth and gallantry. Less than two weeks later he was promoted to 1st Lieutenant. Kennerly fought at Gettysburg and many of the Shenandoah Valley campaigns before being promoted to Captain in consequence of wounds received at Stone Creek, near James River.
Kennerly’s graveside ceremony included the John S. Mosby Camp# 1247 Color Guard and commemorative remarks by Camp Commander David W. Silek. SIlek told the family members that Kennerly and his fellow soldiers served not for fame or reward, but rather out of obedience to duty as they understood it.
Although Captain Kennerly survived for many years after the war at Greenway Court, he never fully recovered from his war injuries. Kennerly’s July 26, 1893 obituary in the Clarke Courier reads as follows:
Capt. J. McK. Kennerly, of “Greenway Court,” near White Post, died on Wednesday, July 19th, aged about 67 years, and his remains were deposited in the family burying ground on Thursday evening. Capt. Kennerly’s military title was not the gift of a Governor but was conferred upon him by brave Confederate comrades, who knew his worth and gallantry, and the cause for which he fought did not contain a truer or more devoted defender. He loved his men and they loved him, and they would brave with him the greatest dangers. As a citizen he was greatly respected, and as a neighbor no one was more kind or warm-hearted. He entered upon his last sleep robed in the esteem of a community that knows and appreciates true worth.
The following descendants of Joseph McKendree Kennerly were present at the graveside ceremony:
Kennerly Hite Digges – Charlottesville, VA
Great Great Grandchildren
Barbara Hart Digges – Phoenix, AZ
Cathy Digges Arthur – Phoenix, AZ
Captain Edward Dudley Digges, U.S. Navy – Norfolk, VA
Nancy Digges Specht – Bunker Hill, WVA
Susan May Digges – White Post, VA
Thomas Frederick Digges – Manassas, VA
Great Great Great Grandsons
Edward Madison Digges – Norfolk, VA
Jordan Churchill Digges – Norfolk, VA
Kyle James Dudley Digges – White Post, VA
Michael Kennerly Digges – Norfolk, VA