- The Washington Times - Friday, May 26, 2006

“A few miles from Oakland, on the side toward the mountain road and beyond the big woods, lay

a district of virgin forest and old field pines which, even before the war, had acquired a reputation of an unsavory nature. … No highway ran through this region. … The territory was known by the unpromising name of Holetown. … As time went by … Holetown became known to harbor a number of deserters … infesting the piny district … in considerable numbers.”

So Virginia author Thomas Nelson Page describes the area of western Hanover County near his childhood home of Oakland in “Two Little Confederates.” The novel, a highly romanticized account of two young boys coming of age during the Civil War that one critic has called a Virginian Tom Sawyer, portrays Holetown (which was actually “Helltown” until the editors changed it) as a notorious sanctuary for Confederate deserters. A great deal of time is spent in the book moralizing about the crime of desertion and embracing well-known elements of the Lost Cause.

Hanover County

Desertion was a plague to the Confederacy throughout the war, and contrary to popular myth, it was a problem that did not respect geography. As early as 1861, letters from central Virginia complaining about the lawless behavior of stragglers and soldiers “running the blockade” (or “running the block”) were pouring into the capitol at Richmond.

Western Hanover County, in spite of its proximity to the nation’s new capitol, was no exception. Soldiers who enthusiastically joined the cause soon were drawn home by the threat of Union raids against their homes, or easily became demoralized after a few months and quit. A few men never intended to serve long or feigned loyalty only until they could reach enemy lines.

Hanover County, then and now, was a county of split character. On the eastern side, there were Colonial plantations and broad plains hinting at the nearby Tidewater flats; on the western side, there were small farms and wide tracts of woods and wilderness, occasionally broken by a larger settlement or farm. The Oakland Plantation was situated between the old Mountain Road (mostly along the present Route 33) and the Courthouse Road north of Montpelier (presently State Route 608) in the heart of western Hanover.

The Helltown settlement — a ragtag collection of shacks and barns — was located in a large woods to the southwest of Oakland, near the New Found River, in the narrow southeast triangle at the junction of present-day Route 631 and Route 715.

On the map

The existence of Helltown in Hanover County has been considered somewhat apocryphal. Many modern Hanover residents familiar with the Helltown country store (at the junction of Route 631 and Route 674, near Oakland Plantation) have heard of the existence of a Helltown settlement in the distant past, but sometimes considered it a modern urban myth.

However, the existence of such settlements, presumably lost to time and often with elusive documentary evidence, is an established fact in Hanover County, particularly along the less populated stretches of the North Anna and South Anna rivers, where ruins of such settlements can still be explored and old maps show thriving communities.

Helltown is, in fact, historically documented. The well-respected Civil War cartographer Jed Hotchkiss drew “Heltown Road” on his 1871 map of the region, placing it exactly in the area Page described. Hotchkiss’ mapmaking skills and attention to detail were widely recognized. Rosewell Page, brother of Thomas Nelson Page, notes its existence in his history of Hanover County.

The Helltown Store is a vestigial landmark, as well, dating to nearly the turn of the last century, and is recognized as a historical location in the U.S. Geological Survey mapping system. The existence of Helltown is beyond question; that it was a haven for deserters during the Civil War is more difficult to document in primary sources.

Close to home

The greater Richmond area (including Helltown) was the scene of thousands of desertions during the Civil War. The Official Records document hundreds of these Rebel desertions in central Virginia through correspondence and intelligence reports collected from both sides. The reports indicate that soldiers had only two real choices once they decided to leave: They could head for home, or they could seek long-term shelter. Most sought a way to head home.

Most of the deserters in Helltown were likely natives of the area, since some cooperation from the locals was necessary to avoid detection. Units recruited from Hanover County (for which records exist) all reported varying degrees of desertion during the war, and it is likely that many of these men sought shelter somewhere close to home, particularly given Hanover’s proximity to the front lines during the four-year conflict.

Interestingly, the reported desertion rates for many central Virginia units were lower than those reported from other states. One possible explanation is that central Virginians were literally fighting for home and hearth.

Tough guys

Page was a teenager during the war, and he reported that during his youth Helltown was inhabited by rough-and-tumble types, transients who may or may not have been wanted by the law, fleeing from obligations, or otherwise averse to genteel community life.

In “Two Little Confederates,” Page clearly portrayed the area’s negative reputation. Later in Page’s life, as the legend of Helltown grew, both he and his brother Rosewell would somewhat facetiously claim that they were “from Helltown.”

The stereotype that persisted through the 20th century was that young men from Helltown were tough, proud of their locale and ready to fight. During the Civil War, the area was just the kind of rough and remote place that historian Ella Lonn described as attracting deserters and shirkers:

“To find the viper curled in the very bosom of the Confederacy is a shock. … Soldiers from both armies found their way to the mountains, swamps, or brush. … Shelter was sought, naturally, in remote places, difficult of access, where escape was easy and pursuit difficult: in the gorges and cliffs of mountain retreats, in marsh and swamp, in thicket and wood, in cane-brake and tight-eye thickets, in mesquite and brush, and where no other shelter afforded, in caves hollowed out from a low hillside or even under the level soil.”

The little creek

Page’s descriptions of Helltown (Holetown) in “Two Little Confederates” are quite detailed and often historically accurate in terms of known geographic references and events. To cite an obvious example, his descriptions of Oakland and the surrounding roads and landmarks are completely accurate. There is good reason, considering Page’s other books and the fairly well documented literary criticism of Page’s works, to believe that the vast majority of the biographical and historical material in “Two Little Confederates” is reasonably accurate in spirit, despite its overtly romanticized flavor. Page wrote a great deal about the war in his nonfiction writings, as well.

Page describes Helltown as the boys Frank and Willy set off on an erstwhile attempt to catch a deserter: “The track led off through overhanging woods and thick underbrush of chinquapin bushes. … The further they went, the more indistinct the track became, and wilder became the surrounding woods. … They could hear dogs barking … in the pines, and knew they were approaching the vicinity of the settlement, for they had crossed the little creek which ran through a thicket of elder bushes and ‘gums’ and which marked the boundary of Holetown.”

Such a “little creek,” unnamed on most modern maps, runs right through the Helltown triangle region and directly into the New Found River. It is also noteworthy that no roads (even logging tracks are scarce) run through the triangle in the present time. Instead, the area is largely wooded, overgrown and inaccessible. In short, Helltown remains the perfect place for someone to avoid attention.

Moral dilemmas

Soldiers often deserted from their commands when debarking at train stations. In western Hanover, the Virginia Central passed eastward through stations or villages at Beaver Dam, Hewlett, Noel’s Turnout, Verdon, and terminated at Hanover Junction, where the tracks met those of the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac, the primary north-south railroad in central Virginia. Soldiers frequently availed themselves of the opportunity to desert when they unloaded at the station, or shortly thereafter.

During the Civil War, desertion bred a plague of related social problems, affecting everyone from local families and constables all the way up to the Confederate government in Richmond. The effects of desertion spawned political wrangling and civil unrest. Soldiers who were illegally absent from the army typically had no food or money, and were very likely to steal or beg to get it. If they were recognized, family members might be tempted to harbor them illegally. Complex moral dilemmas unfolded, and loyalties often became clouded.

A few miles from Hanover in Richmond, the political authorities made no bones about it — desertion was high treason. When Virginia Gov. John Letcher addressed the General Assembly in September 1863 and spoke in memory of the recently deceased Stonewall Jackson, his speech quickly took a bitter turn: “He has passed from life, but his example is still left to encourage and stimulate. … The cheeks of the deserters and stragglers and laggards should burn with shame when contemplating his devotion … and [they] should return to the path of duty.”

The Senate passed a bill shortly thereafter requiring local justices of the peace, constables and militia officers to arrest all deserters (essentially any soldier without an authorized pass) and send them to the nearest military base.

Hunter and hunted

Page, in “Two Little Confederates,” also describes in detail how the local system of enforcement worked: “The country was … left almost wholly unprotected, and it would have been entirely so but for the ‘Home Guard,’ as it was called, which was a company of young boys and the few old men who remained at home, and who had volunteered for service as a local guard, or police body, for the neighborhood of their homes. Occasionally, too, later on, a small detachment of men, under a leader known as a ‘conscript-officer,’ would come through the country hunting for any men who were subject to the conscript law but who had evaded it, and for deserters who had run away from the army and refused to return.”

He later describes what happened in “Holetown” when the conscript-officer and his men arrived: “There would be a rush of tow-headed children through the woods, or some of the women about the cabins would blow a horn lustily, after which not a man could be found in all the district.”

This description, on the surface quite humorous, was more of a reality in many Confederate regions than most casual students care to acknowledge. Compounding the issue in the Helltown area was the fact that central Virginia was the largest armed military camp anywhere in the Confederacy. Combined with the fact that Virginia mobilized more than 90 percent of her eligible males for service, areas like Helltown in Hanover County that had little viable policing were attractive escape zones for stragglers and deserters.

Lee’s plea

The origin of the name “Helltown” probably came from a combination of sources. Several frontier towns in Colonial days carried the sobriquet as a direct reflection of the raucous behavior that took place there. The best known of these is Front Royal, Va., which was known as “Helltown” until it was officially incorporated in 1788.

Helltown in Hanover no doubt bears a similar pedigree, with the additional detail that a crossroads tavern dating to Revolutionary days may have been the original focus of the rowdy activity. According to local accounts, the so-called Helltown Tavern was closed down by the end of the Civil War. If true, it is likely that the local conscript officials were the party responsible.

Late in the war, as Gen. Robert E. Lee watched his lines around Petersburg melt away due to sickness and desertion, he appealed to President Jefferson Davis to tighten enforcement of the conscription act, which in theory would pull all available men into service. In actuality, even the harshest measures failed to stem the tide of desertion.

Twenty-two men missing from Gen. R.F. Hoke’s Brigade were executed after they were “recaptured” wearing the uniform of the enemy. The Rev. John Paris, who addressed the brigade after the executions, attempted to reinforce the insidious nature of desertion: “I hold, gentlemen, that there are few crimes in the sight of either God or man that are more wicked and detestable than desertion.”

Near the end of the siege of Petersburg, men were walking away from the Confederate lines by the dozens each day. Under such circumstances, events in the western portions of Hanover County meant little to desperate Confederate officials. Marauding Union deserters became more of threat than returning Confederates as civil authority collapsed.

Local memory

After the war, Helltown slid into relative obscurity, and the focus shifted nearby to the Helltown Store, a crossroads general store and post office. Few people spoke about a deserter community having lived near there during the war, although the tough and unsavory neighborhood reputation persisted. Attention shifted instead to local baseball games, selling white lightning and fighting boys from neighboring Louisa County.

“Where is Helltown?” longtime resident Sumpter Priddy asked rhetorically. “It was always ‘just a mile up the road.’ ” No one actually wanted to live there; they took pride, however, in living close to there.

Perhaps no one will ever know with absolute certainty, but all of the evidence seems to indicate that Helltown was, indeed, an area that harbored Confederate deserters. Local memory dies hard anywhere, and in this case the memory is alive and well. Just ask anyone who lives “near” Helltown today.

Jack Trammell works at Randolph-Macon College and is finishing his Ph.D. at Virginia Commonwealth University. He is a frequent speaker at Civil War events and can be reached at [email protected]yahoo.com.

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