The Last Civil War Battlefield: Plumb House
Today, nothing remains of the Shenandoah Valley’s last Civil War battlefield. A mixture of residential and commercial development in Waynesboro, Va., has obliterated where the Confederacy made its last stand in the Valley. The only surviving vestige of that battle is an attractive but unassuming two-story house at 1012 West Main Street.
In March of 1865, this structure—which is the oldest frame building in the city—sat directly in the line of fire between the armies of the blue and the gray. It’s called the Plumb House, so named after the family that lived there for five generations.
Now owned by the Waynesboro Heritage Foundation, the restored, circa 1804 Plumb House features period furnishings, a slave-built brick patio, a summer kitchen and other outbuildings. Bullet holes from the battle are still visible in its timbers.
The house, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and is a Virginia Historic Landmark, has often been a central part of Battle of Waynesboro reenactments and has also been immortalized in a print by famed Waynesboro artist P. Buckley Moss. It is located one block from the old Presbyterian Cemetery where 25 Confederate soldiers lay at rest.
Plumb House: The Last Battle in the Valley
After four years of savage warfare, during which the South had been bled dry by a materially well-heeled North, it is incredible that the Confederacy was able to muster a military presence in the Shenandoah Valley. But in March 1865, as the war was grinding to its bloody conclusion, a thin gray line of Confederates sprang up near Waynesboro in a final, hopeless attempt to exert influence in the Valley.
The Union was so confident it had full control of the Valley that Gen. Philip Sheridan was ordered south to assist in the Carolinas campaign. But as Sheridan moved from Winchester to Staunton, one of his cavalry officers – Brig. Gen. George Armstrong Custer – unexpectedly encountered a small force of Confederate cavalry that had appeared to threaten the Union rear. Meanwhile, 1,600 Confederates under Gen. Jubal Early had arrived at Waynesboro.
Custer made short work of the southern horsemen and then moved with his division towards Waynesboro.
The fighting began on March 2, 1865. As Custer approached Waynesboro, he was surprised to encounter formidable earthworks and a small, but determined foe. An artillery duel commenced, during which Custer discovered a weakness in the Confederate line. He attacked that weak point, and what ensued spelled the end of Confederate resistance in the Shenandoah Valley.
Custer—who was perhaps the best Federal cavalry leader in the Civil War— obliterated his opponents. Of Early’s 1,600 men, approximately 1,500 were killed, wounded, captured or disappeared. All of Early’s artillery, wagons, baggage, supplies, and colors were captured.
During the one-day fight, Confederate Col. William Harman—a Waynesboro native—suddenly found himself surrounded by soldiers wearing Confederate uniforms. Unknown to Harman, they were Federals.
When one of them grabbed the bridle of Harman’s horse, the colonel realized that they were the enemy. Years later, his son testified that his father was in the process of handing over his sword in surrender when a drunken Union cavalryman rode up and shot him to death.
In the same battle, Dr. Hunter McGuire, who had once been “Stonewall” Jackson’s physician, tried to escape by jumping his horse over a fence rail. He was thrown from the horse, and as a Federal soldier was preparing to shoot him, McGuire flashed the Masonic sign of distress. A Union officer, also a Mason, recognized the sign, and intervened on McGuire’s behalf, saving his life and taking him prisoner.
Gen. Early, with about 15 staff members, escaped through Rockfish Gap. Everyone and everything else under his command was lost. For the remaining month of the war, Early was given no further field assignments.
Plumb House Is A Rare Battle Survivor
While visitors to the city learn that the Confederate battle line was arrayed along what is now Pine Avenue and the Federals along Poplar Avenue, it is impossible to picture what the area might have been like in 1865.
Demolition and development have forever altered the landscape, which makes the Plumb House’s survival even more rare and remarkable in Waynesboro, which today boasts only a handful of antebellum structures.
But if only one house on the Waynesboro battlefield could have survived, there is perhaps no more interesting example than the Plumb House.
It is made of flat-hewn logs that were covered with siding. Most of the original framing and paneling remains as does the ornate Federal mantel in the parlor on the east side. The east chimney is original to the house and is an interesting example of early Shenandoah Valley brickwork. The ends of the bricks (called headers), for example, are glazed in an 18th-century manner.
The glaze was achieved by placing the ends of the bricks closest to the fire when they were burnt in the kiln. This use of glazed headers was extremely rare in early Valley construction and only a few examples are known to survive.
The site also features an original smokehouse/kitchen and shed.
The house was built between 1802 and 1804 and is the oldest intact dwelling in the city of Waynesboro, which was laid out in lots in 1797 and incorporated as a town four years later. It was erected for Thomas Wilson in one of Waynesboro’s first subdivisions. Alfred Plumb, who operated a tavern elsewhere in town, bought the property as his residence in 1838. Wilson’s son, Henry, fought for the Confederacy and was killed in 1862 at the second battle of Manassas.
The Battle of Waynesboro was, literally, fought in the backyard of the Plumb House. It remained in the Plumb family for five generations and represented the longest continuous family ownership and residence of any house in Waynesboro. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1991 and is today part of the Civil War Trails program.
Visiting the Plumb House Museum
The Plumb House Museum, which was established by the Waynesboro Heritage Foundation, is not open to the public on a regular basis, but information about its hours of operation may be obtained at the Waynesboro Heritage Museum at 420 West Main Street (the corner of West Main and South Wayne Avenue).
Here, in a renovated 1908 bank building, the Plumb House – and the city itself – are represented in exhibit galleries, artifacts, an audio-visual room and gift shop. Panels within the galleries explore Waynesboro’s history from its inception in 1797 to the present day.
The Waynesboro Heritage Museum is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. It may be reached at (540) 943-3943.
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