Battle of Hanging Rock put Salem on Civil War map

Photo by Meg Hibbert
Alex Burke, assistant director of the Salem Museum, discusses details of a map on “The Engagement of Hanging Rock” with luncheon guest Arlene Cheeseman of Hollins at a Richfield Living talk on March 20.

The Battle of Hanging Rock put the Salem area on the Civil War map.

It wasn’t a big battle, as the War Between the States went, but it was the most active engagement for the area between Federal and Confederate forces. Alex Burke, assistant director of the Salem Museum, talked about what happened during his lunch talk at Richfield Living on March 20.

“It was really small. It’s Salem’s footnote in history books,” he told the 35 people gathered for the talk in Alleghany Room of The Oaks building.

A Confederate soldier statue in the community of Hanging Rock in Roanoke County marks the area of the clash which started at 6 a.m. and lasted most of the day, Burke said. The statue was placed by the Fincastle Rifles Camp of the Sons of Confederate Veterans to mark the historical significance. A stone obelisk was placed on Rt. 311 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

“Most Civil War historians don’t know of the engagement at Hanging Rock,” Burke told his audience.

Hanging Rock has cultural importance, he explained. It has a trail that interprets the battle and allows students of history to engage with the battle.

Burke used two maps. One showed Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s plan for capturing towns. The idea was to destroy the bread basket of Virginia, Burke said, including Lynchburg, the second largest town in Virginia and seventh in the Confederacy.

By the time Union and Confederates met at Hanging Rock, Federal soldiers had already made two attacks on Salem, destroying the railroad depot, storehouses, horses and supplies, Burke pointed out. Young Roanoke College students helped defend the town when Gen. William Averill destroyed the depot the year before. The college had already sent 95 percent of its students to war. “No one was left to defend Salem,” Burke pointed out.

On June 21, 1864, retreating Federal forces were heading toward West Virginia. They had marched to the Williams-Brown House – now the Salem Museum – where Mrs. Brown shoed them away with a broom when her daughters talked with the young men – so the story goes. The troops turned right onto Craig Avenue, and went on to Hanging Rock, with the town of New Castle their immediate destination, Burke said.

The Confederates captured four cannons – some sources say ten – started a small fire and looted the Union’s supply trains, Burke said. Ten or 12 or the Union soldiers died on the trek to West Virginia, and between 40 and 200 were taken prisoner.

McCausland’s name is known in other places, too. Ultimately, he followed Gen. Jubal A. Early – who is credited with saving Lynchburg, by running trains up and down the track all night and getting local citizens to cheer to sound like 11,000, Burke said, causing Gen. Hunter to withdraw his army.

McCausland made it all the way to the gates of Washington, D.C., becoming the closest general to capture the Union capital,” Burke said.

McCausland also accompanied Gen. Robert E. Lee to Appomattox, received a presidential pardon, Burke said, and was the last Confederate general to die, in 1927.

Burke noted “The Battle of Hanging Rock did nothing to turn the tide of the war. Hunter made it to the gates of his goal but was unable to achieve it. He was given a promotion and command as superintendent of Maryland, West Virginia and Tennessee,” Burke said.

“Grant made it clear to Hunter that Gen. Philip Sheridan was to do all the planning and fighting,” he added.

“After the war, Gen. Early fled to Mexico, then Canada, returning home to Virginia in 1869. He went on to become the leading Civil War historian,” Burke said. “He said the Union beat the Confederacy because the Confederacy didn’t have enough supplies.”

Several people in the audience had questions. “It fascinates me how they were able to stay in touch with one another,” said Scotti Hartman, director of community and provider relations at Richfield Living, who coordinated the lunch speaker series.

Burke explained that the Union used telegraph wires, and the Confederates sent scouts and runners.

Another person asked what happened when people were captured. Burke said in Gen. Averill’s raid December 1863 when he went up against Roanoke College schoolboys, they were intended to be marched to a camp or paroled – exchanged for other prisoners.

Burke, who admits being totally fascinated by the War Between the States, is 24 and has already been to more than 30 battlefields and 50 Civil War sites. He will be giving a lunch talk open to the public at Richfield this summer on the impact of the first World War on the world.

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