Sep 132018

On a winding back road in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, we discovered the tranquil remains of Laurel Hill, once a thriving plantation and the birthplace of one of the greatest heroes of the Confederacy, J.E.B. Stuart.

William and Elizabeth Letcher, the great-grandparents of J.E.B. Stuart, settled here in 1778, during the American Revolution. William Letcher was born in 1750 and was a staunch patriot and a member of the local militia, while the area was home to many Tories, who remained loyal to England. It was a dangerous time, and Letcher’s outspoken support of the Revolution made him many enemies. In 1780, he was murdered by a Tory sympathizer, whom history identifies only as Nichols. William Letcher was buried at his homestead, across the Ararat River from Laurel Hill, and his grave is the oldest marked grave in Patrick County.

Archibald and Elizabeth Stuart, who was the granddaughter of William and Elizabeth Letcher, built a handsome home at Laurel Hill in the 1830s and established a 1,500 acre plantation. They raised eleven children here, including James Ewell Brown Stuart, who was born at Laurel Hill on February 6, 1833. He would become famous for his dashing and bold exploits during the Civil War.

As a young man, J.E.B. Stuart was known as an excellent student who loved books and art, but one who was always willing to fight anyone who he felt had offended him. He earned high grades at West Point, but when he was told that his academic accomplishments would guarantee him a spot in the Army’s Engineer Corps, Stuart purposely began to slack off so that his grade would drop and he would be assigned to the Cavalry after graduation.

Commissioned a Second Lieutenant, Stuart was a key figure in the capture of abolitionist John Brown after his raid at Harpers Ferry, and then saw action in the Indian wars in Kansas and Nebraska. He was wounded on July 29, 1857, in a battle with the Cheyenne at Solomon River, Kansas, and later was promoted to captain, but he found garrison duty boring.

When the southern states began talking about secession, Stuart was opposed to the idea. But like most Americans of his time, he felt that his first loyalty belonged to his home state of Virginia, so he resigned his commission and volunteered to serve in the Confederate army.

Stuart presented a flamboyant image, often sporting a peacock feather on his rakishly tipped hat, and wearing a red lined cape and a yellow sash with his uniform. He quickly earned a reputation as a courageous cavalry leader, conducting raids behind enemy lines to disrupt their supply channels and to harass Union forces with surprise attacks. His accomplishments quickly saw him promoted to Major General.

Stuart participated in most of the major battles with the Army of Northern Virginia, including Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg. He was highly respected by Robert E. Lee and other Southern leaders.

J.E.B. Stuart had told his friends that he did not expect to survive the war, and that prediction proved correct when he was shot by a retreating Union soldier at the Battle of Yellow Tavern on May 11, 1864. Taken to his sister’s home in nearby Richmond, J.E.B. Stuart died there the next day. He was buried in Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery. When Robert E. Lee received news of Stuart’s death, he wept over the loss of his friend and trusted comrade.

Though a fire destroyed the family home in the winter of 1847-48 and it was never rebuilt, for all of his life J.E.B. Stuart loved Laurel Hill. In a letter to his brother William in 1863, Stuart wrote: “I would give anything to make a pilgrimage to the old place, and when the war is over quietly spend the rest of my days there.”

Today, Laurel Hill is administered by the non-profit J.E.B. Stuart Birthplace Preservation Trust. Visitors can take a free walking tour of part of the old plantation that includes the Stuart family home site, the family cemetery, and a slave graveyard. From Letcher Overlook, near the slave graves, you can see William Letcher’s grave, which is located a short drive from Laurel Hill. Except for the offices of the Preservation Trust and a small pavilion, there are no buildings left at Laurel Hill. It is interesting to follow the paths to the marked points of interest and imagine what life was like here when this was a working plantation and home to the Stuart family.

Laurel Hill is located seven miles north of Mount Airy, North Carolina, less than a mile across the Virginia border. From Mount Airy, follow Highway 104 north to the Virginia border, where the highway becomes Ararat Highway (State Route 773). Watch for signs for Laurel Hill on the left. The road and parking areas at Laurel Hill are best suited for passenger vehicles, and large RVs would be difficult to maneuver. The property is open daily during daylight hours, and brochures near the entrance tell the history of the property and include a map for the walking tour.

It’s Thursday, so it’s time for a new Free Drawing. This week’s prize is an audiobook of Big Lake, the first book in my Big Lake mystery series and the book that launched my career as a fiction author. To enter, all you have to do is click on this Free Drawing link or the tab at the top of this page and enter your name (first and last) in the comments section at the bottom of that page (not this one). Only one entry per person per drawing please, and you must enter with your real name. To prevent spam or multiple entries, the names of cartoon or movie characters are not allowed. The winner will be drawn Sunday evening.

Thought For The Day – I’ve discovered that strangers really don’t appreciate surprise kung fu.

Nick Russell

World-Famous, New York Times Best Selling Author, and All-Around Nice Guy!

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