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Rappahannock County To Get Markers, Join State Civil War Trails

By Deborah Fitts

- (November 2007) WASHINGTON, Va. - Tens of thousands of soldiers marched to and from battle along what are today the quiet byways of one of Virginia's most beautiful regions, but until now few have understood Rappahannock County's place in the Civil War.

That should be remedied next year. This remote and hilly landscape will get its own Civil War Trails (CWT) markers, joining countless other counties and municipalities on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line where the signs have sprouted to tell the local story of the war.

John Tole, a retired electrical engineer living in Rappahannock's Woodville neighborhood and a longtime student of the war, had noticed that a large CWT map in a tourism brochure not only indicated not a single sign in Rappahannock. It used the county as a handy spot to cover with the image of a flag.

Tole knew Rappahannock had a Civil War story to tell. He hatched the sign initiative, joining forces with the county government to seek a $130,000 grant from the state in federal transportation-enhancement funds. They were notified of approval in July, and now Tole must select locations, secure rights of way, and draft text for the markers.

He figures that Rappahannock has a rare advantage when it comes to attracting Civil War visitors. With a population of only 7,000, it still possesses remarkable integrity to America's rural past.

"It retains much of the feeling that it probably had in the 1800s," he said. "You can really get a sense that it's like it was many years ago."

Tole has proposed a dozen or more markers highlighting some of the key sites in Rappahannock. Among them is Ben Venue, the rural crossroads through which Lee's entire army passed on the march to Gettysburg, and where Gen. Richard Ewell's headquarters still stands.

Also, Battle Mountain, where on July 23, 1863, Union Gen. George Custer struck Confederates under A.P. Hill on their retreat from Gettysburg, only to be flanked himself and forced to skedaddle; Flint Hill, where Mosby partisan ranger Albert Willis was buried after being hanged; and Custer's headquarters house in Amissville, where slave Eliza Brown Davidson came into his service; she later accompanied him on the Western frontier.

County Administrator John McCarthy noted that Rappahannock is no stranger to tourism, thanks to being what he called "a small rural enclave relatively close to D.C."

"Our entire western boundary is Shenandoah National Park, so we get a lot of environmental tourism," McCarthy said. "We also get a fair amount of lifestyle tourism, with people spending a night at a B&B or coming here to dine." But touting local history was a new angle, he acknowledged.

"I think it's great," McCarthy said. "It's the way to go into the future. The county is eager to attract tourists, but not to grow."

Of the $130,000 total, the county must provide $42,000 in matching funds. This will include maintenance of the marker sites, map work by high-school students, administrative costs, and the planned installation of an information kiosk and parking area at a county-owned site just outside the town of Washington.

Meanwhile Tole works on a personal level to bring the spirit of the war alive. An admirer of Lee, he gives talks on the Confederate commander. As a "musical historian" he is also busy with his small group Evergreen Shade, which performs songs of the war.

During his research Tole made a pleasing discovery. He found that a great-great-grandfather, Solomon Clem, was with the 5th Virginia Infantry, part of the Stonewall Brigade. Clem was wounded at Cedar Mountain in August 1862 but likely made the march to Gettysburg the following year, Tole said.

"If he did, Solomon would have camped near Woodville, where we live," he said, "and also at Ben Venue. That makes that spot very special for me."

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