Grand Caverns Contains Civil War Signatures
The fields and forests of the Shenandoah Valley are silent, now. Long gone are the fierce battle cries, the tread of attacking armies and the reek of blood, sweat and gun smoke.
The war that divided a nation and killed three-quarters of a million people has passed from living memory.
Although no one can speak with Confederate or Union veterans today, not all links with them have been severed. Either out of boredom or a sense of history, more than 200 of those veterans left their signatures on the rocky walls of Grand Caverns in Grottoes, VA.
How Weyer’s Cave (Grand Caverns) Was Discovered
Grand Caverns was discovered in February 1804 by 17-year-old Bernard Weyer. Weyer was hunting and noticed that one of his traps had disappeared. He saw that an animal had dragged it into an opening in the ground. Weyer worked his way into the opening and found that he was standing inside a cave. He quickly realized that this wasn’t an ordinary cave, but a cavern of majestic proportions.
In 1806 Weyer’s Cave was opened to the public, and tours through the naturally carved passageways left visitors breathless as they viewed such marvels as the Antechamber, the Dragon’s Room and the Grand Ballroom, which alone covers 5,000 square feet. Founding Father Thomas Jefferson was a frequent visitor and was the first person to draw a map of the cave.
Civil War Soldiers Leave Their Autographs In The Caverns
People in those days thought nothing of defacing natural wonders, so thousands of visitors to the cave left their signatures and the dates of their visits penciled on the walls. Of these, the autographs of Civil War soldiers have drawn the most attention and are arguably the most historically significant.
During the war, thousands of troops of both armies quartered in or about Weyer’s Cave. Wall-signer George M. Neese, a gunner in the artillery unit of Roger P. Chew, wrote in his diary on May 4, 1862:
“Here nature was lavish in bestowing its wild charming beauties on the flower-bedecked wooded hillside, as well as its sparkling gems that flow and so profusely adorn the caverns inside, where the mystic goddess has been weaving her brightest jewels in silent gloom for thousands of years and is still at work putting delicate touches of lace-work as white as the virgin snow on every glowing ornament.”
After the battles of Cross Keys and Port Republic on June 8 and 9, 1862, the army of Confederate Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson camped near the entrance of the cave for five days while they recuperated, repaired their equipment and made forays in the cavern.
According to one of Jackson’s staff officers, the men borrowed candles from nearby homes so they could visit the cave and—perhaps only half-jestingly—suggested they could take refuge there “if hard pressed.” Some signatures of this group of men include Thomas Raines of the Virginia Volunteers, C.B. Wise of the 1st Maryland Regiment and Eugene West, a member of Turner Ashby’s 7th Virginia Cavalry.
Jackson himself is said to have visited the cavern but did not leave his signature.
Soldier Eloquently Describes the Grand Caverns
Nearly two years later, when Union incursions into the Valley were numerous, Elmer J. Barker, a member of the 5th New York Cavalry, visited the cavern, left his name behind, and wrote in his diary:
“General (Isaac) Duval invited several officers and men to visit Weyer’s Cave with him. He took a band and wagon with rations both wet and dry. On reaching the cave, the old man who owned it demanded one dollar from each of us to guide us through the cave. General Duval told him the officers would give him what he asked, but the privates he thought did not have any money. The old man was very obstinate, so was the general. They were both Virginians. It finally ended in the General drawing his gun and pointing it at the old man and ordering him to guide us through the cave, and telling him he would not get one cent for doing it either.
“We had plenty of candles and started taking the band with us. It was most interesting. I had never seen anything like it. We came to one small place where we could not get the bass drum through so we had to leave it. One room they call the dancing hall. It was sixty feet long and forty feet wide, with a level floor, the roof being about 100 feet high. Beautiful stalactites were everywhere about is, in some cases reaching from top to bottom of the chamber, and others hanging part way down or reaching from the bottom upward a ways. Our lights shining on the crystal surfaces made a very pretty effect. The band struck up and we all danced to the music. The men threw off their rubber coats and all those who represented ladies retained theirs so we could distinguish the difference. After going through the cave, over one mile in length, we returned to daylight, hungry and tired.”
Glimpsing Into The Lives Of The Civil War Signators
Thanks to surviving regimental records, personal diaries and the exhaustive, 113-volume Official Records of the War of the Rebellion produced by the government after the war, it is possible to glimpse into the lives of some of the people who left their monikers scrawled, scratched or chiseled onto the walls of the cavern.
One of them, for example, was “F.G. Gibson, V.M.I., Aug. 17, 1864.”
Gibson was born and raised in Lewis County, W.Va. His parents, both of Augusta County, sent him to V.M.I. when he was 18 years of age. Less than a year later, he was at the battle of New Market. The young cadet was hit four times by Union gunfire. Facing a blizzard of lead, Gibson was shot through the thigh; one musket ball shattered his leg below the knee; another hit him in the face, and a fourth bullet cost him two fingers. He visited the cavern while recuperating from his wounds in Staunton.
After the war, Gibson did well, becoming a professor of French and mathematics and a prominent lawyer, but he never married. We don’t know for certain, but perhaps his wounds had something to do with his never having taken a wife.
War Tales Are Also Part Of The Grand Caverns
Some of the signatures are attached to good tales. Capt. William W. Miles of the 14th Pennsylvania Cavalry left his bold signature in the cave on Sept. 26, 1864. The next day, Confederate forces under Gen. Fitz Hugh Lee attacked, and a sharp engagement ensued. The Federals retreated to Port Republic, leaving Weyer’s Cave in Southern hands once again.
Corroborating the story of the little-known battle at Weyer’s Cave was a diary entry by Henry Robinson Berkeley, a member of Confederate Gen. John B. Gordon’s cavalry:
“September 27, 1864, in battle at Weyer’s Cave. We encamped for the night on the west side of the river very near Weyer’s Cave but had no lights to visit the cave. Captain Kirkpatrick and some four or five of our boys, not having got hold of one little tallow candle, went a short distance into the cave, but the old guide refused to go very far.
“Yesterday they say, our cavalry came near bagging a big lot of Yankee officers while they were in the cave.”
Although the 14th Pennsylvania was defeated in that engagement, the unit performed so bravely that “Weyer’s Cave” was inscribed upon its flag. Less than three months later, Capt. William W. Miles was killed while serving on a scouting expedition near Millwood, Va., when his command was attacked by Confederates under the “Gray Ghost,” Col. John S. Mosby.
It is thought that the last Civil War soldier to visit Weyer’s Cave was Private Samuel B. Heape of the 2nd South Carolina Cavalry. He scratched his name on the cave wall and dated it March 22, 1865. Heape had been captured in July 1863 and was imprisoned at Point Lookout, Md., until his parole in February 1865.
Weyer’s Cave Name Changed to Grand Caverns
Weyer’s Cave was renamed Grand Caverns in 1926, and the site was declared a National Natural Landmark in 1973. It is the oldest continuously operated show cave in the United States. Thousands of visitors continue to pour into the cavern to this day; guides often point out the signatures of Capt. W.W. Miles and other Civil War soldiers. In the educational building, visitors can enjoy a detailed exhibit featuring copies of signatures and biographies of the signers.
Grand Caverns is, geologically speaking, still very much alive, with the drip-drip-drip of mineralized water serving as a backdrop to the tours that take place deep within its chambers.
In time, this slow but steady flow of limestone-rich water will obliterate the signatures on Grand Caverns’ walls, and nature will once again return the cavern to a pristine condition—provided that man doesn’t mar it again.