- The Washington Times - Friday, September 29, 2006

The wartime diary of Catherine “Kate” Carper of Dranesville, supplemented by numerous letters from family and friends in and out of uniform, Official Record excerpts and explanatory notes, opens a window into the lives of Northern Virginia families who survived the terrible War Between the States. It also gives considerable military information not published before.

While the Carper diary chronicles the lives of many of the original families whose descendants were still living in Great Falls, Dranesville, Herndon and Leesburg and in the rest of Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties, it also has a lot to say about military operations.

The Carpers lived in a brick plantation house known as Bloomfield that still stands across the road from the Dranesville Tavern. They were right along Leesburg Pike, a main road repeatedly used by both armies.

The Carper diary was published late in 2004 and is available through the Friends of the Fairfax County Library. After each diary entry, most of which are brief, the editor has supplied very thorough information about each name mentioned, whether of a person, a military unit, or a battle or skirmish.

Correspondence, mostly from or about the soldiers, is interspersed throughout, and historical passages by the editor give very useful context. These insertions, though not free of occasional errors, are based on impressively thorough scholarship about the military and political history of the Civil War period.

The Carpers were eyewitnesses not only to the battle of Dranesville on Dec. 20, 1861, but also to the incredibly daring exploits of South Carolina scout Capt. William Downs Farley, who, along with Kate’s brother Philip and two other soldiers, took on a whole Union battalion that had come to arrest Dranesville area civilians on Nov. 27, 1861.

As the war dragged on, the family saw Union and Confederate units moving up and down their road almost daily. As strong and unrelenting Confederate sympathizers, they often were harassed by Union soldiers.

Many of the letters are from or about Kate’s brother Phil, who served with Elijah White’s famous 35th Battalion, Virginia Cavalry (later known as “the Comanches”), but spent most of the war in Union prisons. He was captured in the Dranesville episode, again after being severely wounded during the Battle of Brandy Station, and a third time as he took Christmas dinner in 1863 at the home of a Leesburg relative known as Jane Austin.

Members of the Carper family (most notably Kate’s great-nephew Richard Meade Hammond) deserve enormous credit for preserving Kate’s diary and the many wartime letters from her friends and relatives. Many of the letters are from Confederate soldiers because Kate was so popular before the war that a number of young gentlemen wrote to her, some with marriage proposals.

After the war began, she soon made it known that the correspondence that would remain welcome would be from those in uniform. Letters from the many Confederate soldiers who wrote to Kate and her family, whether from camp or from Union prisons, reveal much about military operations as well as about camp and prison life. There is an entire chapter of “Letters From Battlefields” and another of “Letters From Federal Prisons.”

Stonewall Jackson’s troops camped at Bloomfield in October 1862 (leaving four wounded soldiers needing care), and the Union Army camped there the next month. Brother Phil was away in the Confederate army, and sister Frances soon married the circuit-riding Rev. William Hammond and moved farther south.

As it became obvious that Dranesville would be within the Union lines, friends and relatives urged the Carpers — now just the widow Carper and Kate and the servants — to move. Yet they stayed. They struggled to plant crops without horses, traveled to Washington to visit Phil in prison and kept up a steady (but now underground) stream of correspondence.

Many of the letters are from Hammond, as he and Frances courted and married during the war. He served as chaplain to a number of Confederate units and as a civilian minister. One long letter, addressed to him from his brother Lt. Theodore Buchanan Hammond of the 11th Virginia Infantry, is an eyewitness account of the First Battle of Manassas. Letters from their brother Mayberry Hammond, a private in the Confederate army, include one from September 1861 written from within sight of Washington that refers to a skirmish near Chain Bridge and pickets at Munson’s Hill and Mason’s Hill near Alexandria.

In 1862, Kate’s Leesburg cousin Betty Meade wrote about a raid by the Loudoun Rangers (a unit of Union cavalry raised in Loudoun County by the Waterford miller Samuel Means) and the timely arrival of a group of Confederates from Rappahannock County who chased the Yankees away. “They arrived just in time to see some of Sam Means’ brave boys … strike Samson (a trusted Negro servant) in the mouth.”

On March 31, 1863, Kate wrote, “Capt. Mosby and a squad of men entered our village this evening.” On April 1, 1863, she wrote, “We have the pleasure of seeing the Yankees flying down the road with Mosby’s men at their heels. Captain Mosby captured about 100 men and horses and put the others to flight.”

“Journey to Bloomfield” is filled with such colorful observations and specific, localized detail. Its 242 pages of small type are a rich resource for the Northern Virginia Civil War historian.

Richard Crouch is a lawyer in Arlington and the author of “Brandy Station: A Battle Like None Other,” published by Willow Bend Books.

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