- The Washington Times - Friday, June 9, 2006

From the Mississippi River to the dramatic promontories of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the most famous natural landmarks of the antebellum South all played prominent roles in the Civil War and were physically impacted by the violence of conflict. In Part 1 of an occasional series, the war story of Natural Bridge in Virginia is examined.

Formed millions of years ago by seismic uplift, running water and the erosion of an underlying carbonate layer, Natural Bridge has been a source of geological wonder dating back to prehistory and the native cultures of the region.

The great 215-foot-high arch of Paleolithic limestone is in a region filled with other karst features (caves, caverns, underground rivers, arches, sinkholes, etc.) at a mountainous junction between Southside Virginia and the upper (southern) end of the Shenandoah Valley.

A Monacan legend tells of the miraculous appearance of the bridge as the tribe was fleeing from certain destruction at the hands of enemies and how the Monacans were able to rally using its advantageous defensive features. In a similar vein, the bridge served as a funnel for Union forces facing defeat at Lynchburg in 1864.

A work of ‘art’

From the earliest records, visitors have been awed at the sight of the bridge.

“The most sublime of Nature’s works,” wrote Thomas Jefferson, the first private owner of Natural Bridge.

“Natural Bridge is nature like art … on the very spot where art would otherwise have been required for the construction of a bridge,” said Henry Howe, a 19th-century Virginia historian.

“Look at that coloring. Does it not appear like the painter’s highest skill, and yet unspeakably transcend it?” a 19th-century European traveler asked.

Herman Melville compared the tail of the great white whale in his novel “Moby Dick” to the widespread opening on the arch.

In addition to its beauty, the bridge also has served as an important transportation feature for hundreds, possibly thousands, of years. Below Natural Bridge runs Cedar Creek, a rushing, tumbling waterway that cuts through a sharp gorge for several miles in each direction and was inhabited originally by numerous native trout. Natural Bridge provides the only reasonable means of crossing the creek in the area.

The Great Path

The Monacans, and other natives before them, referred to the great north-south pathway that ran through the Shenandoah Valley and crossed over Natural Bridge as “Great Path.”

Before the Civil War, the Great Wagon Road (present-day U.S. 11, parallel to Interstate 81) ran over the same path, originating in Philadelphia and carrying settlers west and then south through Maryland and the Shenandoah Valley. During the war, the Great Wagon Road was the single most important means of transportation in the valley and figured prominently in all of the campaigns fought there, including Stonewall Jackson’s famous 1862 Valley Campaign, which made his reputation.

In fact, Jackson’s campaign headquarters was just a few miles north of Natural Bridge, at the Inn at Narrow Passage. Jackson undoubtedly visited the site before the war and encouraged his wife, Ellie, to take rest there periodically while he finished end-of-the-year duties at Virginia Military Institute in Lexington. During the war, many of Jackson’s men passed over the bridge while moving back and forth in the valley.

In 1750, one of Jackson’s personal heroes, George Washington, was the first to formally survey the Natural Bridge. Washington carved his initials in the bridge, where they still can be seen today. Jackson surely had seen the famous initials and perhaps even added his own (although those historians who know him well might argue that he was much too serious most of the time to engage in such triviality).

Tourist attraction

The bridge’s strategic importance during the war was not limited to the critical road that ran over it. Beneath it and all around it were caves that were mined for saltpeter, an essential element in the production of gunpowder. Remnants of saltpeter operations are still evident in the rocks and caverns that dot the Cedar Creek canyon.

The creation of a domestic gunpowder industry was of such importance to the fledgling Confederate nation that liberal subsidies were offered to any private citizen who could produce any amount. Soldiers badly needed on the most active military fronts were often siphoned off frontline duty to guard and supervise niter (saltpeter) production.

The bridge also continued to be a major tourist attraction during the war, comparing favorably to another popular destination, Niagara Falls. Stagecoaches traveling the Great Wagon Road, also called the Great Valley Road, regularly stopped at Natural Bridge for passengers to enjoy the views.

In many publications of the Civil War era (and still today), Natural Bridge was identified as one of the seven natural wonders of the world. Following in the tradition of Jefferson, who bought Natural Bridge for 20 shillings and set up a cabin for friends and visitors, many soldiers from both sides couldn’t resist the temptation to stray from their march on the Great Valley Road to see the bridge from below.

Many attempted to carve their initials into the rock, as Washington had done. Some attempted to climb the bridge, though reportedly just two persons had done so successfully before the war, and each had nearly lost his life in the attempt.

Hunter’s raid

The bridge saw the most activity in 1864, during Union Gen. David Hunter’s valley campaign. As part of a grand Union strategy to attack Confederate forces simultaneously on several fronts in June 1864, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant ordered Hunter’s army to conduct a raid down the Shenandoah Valley and seize, if possible, the communication and transportation center of Lynchburg.

Lincoln and Grant could not have chosen a more unpopular leader to subdue the valley. Hunter was an abolitionist and a Virginia native who had remained loyal to the Union. He had aroused great indignation in Richmond earlier in the war when he had conscripted and freed blacks without authorization in South Carolina.

There were standing orders that he was a “felon to be executed if captured.” Hunter advanced toward Staunton, incorporating several other Union forces in the area into his army along the way.

Opposing Hunter was Confederate Gen. William E. “Grumble” Jones, renowned for his austere dress (the opposite of his former superior, J.E.B. Stuart) and unpredictable temper.

On June 5, 1864, Jones prepared to make a stand near the village of Piedmont, and Hunter obligingly attacked at the crossroads. An untimely gap along the Confederate right and the sudden death of Jones as he led a counterattack in the center turned what had been a stalemate into a Confederate rout.

Breadbasket in peril

The road to Lynchburg (and over Natural Bridge) was open to Hunter. For Gen. Robert E. Lee, fighting Grant in Virginia, it was an unmitigated disaster. The breadbasket for his Army of Northern Virginia — and much of the upper South — was in danger of being lost permanently. He rushed a division westward and then, a few days later, an entire corps, to try to stem the bleeding. Considering the perilous state of affairs around Petersburg, it is amazing that Lee thought to send nearly a third of his army.

In the meantime, Hunter played havoc with the upper valley. On June 11, his combined army of 18,000 men occupied Lexington without firing a shot. The next day, he ordered the Virginia Military Institute (whose cadets had contributed to a dramatic May 15 Confederate victory at New Market) burned to the ground. A famous statue of George Washington was “liberated.”

Civilian homes in the area were destroyed, including the private residence of former governor John Letcher. The local citizenry was appalled but left defenseless. A few days later, Hunter’s army began the arduous journey over the mountains toward the military target of Lynchburg.

Initials in stone

On June 15, Confederate scouts reported Union forces at and around Natural Bridge. Their myriad campfires dotted the landscape that night. The Union soldiers were arrogant and confident and spoke boldly of Lynchburg’s coming fate.

The local militia in Rockbridge County was called out, but the remnants of Jones’ Confederate force remained disorganized in its retreat to the lines around Lynchburg. Very little resistance was offered, and the isolated bands of resistance that did crop up were quickly pushed aside, and dozens of Confederate soldiers were captured.

Many Union soldiers reported their visit to the bridge as they moved southwesterly toward Buchanan on the way to Lynchburg. Some tried to pause long enough to carve their initials into the stone.

“We will pass the Natural Bridge [tomorrow] and that is a sight I should like to see.”

“We passed near the Natural Bridge.”

Confederates near the bridge, on the other hand, had little time or energy for sightseeing.

“In all my experiences of war I have never been so chased, pursued, dogged,” Capt. A.J. Tynes wrote to his wife on June 13 near the bridge.

A young Rutherford B. Hayes and William McKinley passed over or near the bridge with Hunter’s army. Years later, as president of the United States, McKinley would return “under so much more agreeable circumstances,” and pay his respects to the arch.

The marks of war

On June 14, Hunter’s force proceeded to Buchanan, and under circumstances similar to Willliam T. Sherman’s in Georgia later in the year, broke all contact with the North as he headed over the mountaintops. Confederates under Gen. Jubal Early scrambled to prepare the defenses at Lynchburg, and the stage was set for a dramatic confrontation. On June 17 and 18, Hunter’s army was defeated at Lynchburg, ending the immediate crisis in Lee’s rear.

Events at Natural Bridge returned somewhat to normal. Sometime later in the year, two bushwhackers were apprehended by Confederate soldiers in the vicinity. One was shot and the other released when it was determined that the captive was a woman in male costume. Some locals returned to the work in the saltpeter caves above Cedar Creek. Traffic, as always, flowed over the bridge along the Great Valley Road.

When the war ended, tourist traffic picked up, and later the road, as U.S. 11, became one of modern Virginia’s busiest highways. Today, Natural Bridge remains a popular tourist destination, drawing roughly 300,000 visitors per year. But the marks of the war remain on the bridge — the initials carved in stone, the saltpeter caves (where in some cases rusting equipment still lies) and the ghosts of thousands who came by and paused to marvel at one of nature’s most incredible works.

Next: War comes to the Outer Banks

Jack Trammell works and teaches at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va. His works include 10 books and numerous shorter works of fiction and nonfiction. He resides with his wife and seven children in central Virginia and can be contacted at jacktrammel@yahoo.com.

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