Unison celebrates its ties to the past

On Nov. 7, 1862, Ellsworth Packer, of the Union Army’s 21st Connecticut Infantry Regiment, took a pencil and wrote an eerie poem on the wall of the old United Methodist Church in Unison, Va.

In some lone hour of bliss

When sorrows are forgot

Then cast a happy glance at this

And read forget me not

Packer was in the church in the wake of a Civil War skirmish thereabouts that was, alas, quickly forgotten, as were his words when they were painted over after the war.

But they remained just beneath the surface, like much of the war around the tiny Loudoun County village — unseen but eternally present in the unspoiled land and lore of rolling fields, stone fences and crumbling graveyards.

On Saturday, local preservationists, historians and residents gathered under snowy skies on slushy streets to toast the latest efforts to remember Packer’s plea and cherish the area’s ties to the past.

One group gathered in the 19th-century brick church, which served as a hospital after the skirmish, to dedicate three new historical markers around the area and to salute last month’s addition of the battlefield to the Virginia Landmarks Register.

Another group gathered in and around the old village store down the street to eat and drink and mark the community’s work to maintain its history.

The village’s link to the war comes via a nasty skirmish that unfolded over several days as a small Confederate cavalry detachment under Gen. J.E.B. Stuart tried to keep Union forces under Gen. George B. McClellan from getting between the Confederate Army and Richmond.

The fight, in which Stuart managed to delay McClellan, only involved about 5,000 soldiers total, with about 200 killed, wounded and captured, according to a National Park Service history of the battle by David Lowe.

The skirmish — Nov. 1, 2 and 3, 1862 — came shortly after the bloody battle at Antietam that September, and right before the slugfest at Fredericksburg that December.

So, even though it resulted in the firing of the hapless Union commander, local historians said, it was quickly forgotten.

“This was an unheralded battle,” Paul Hodge, founder of the Unison Preservation Society,told the group in the church. “There’s no such phrase as the battle of Unison. We invented it. It was a skirmish. It was something that happened between Antietam and Fredericksburg. Nobody had ever done much history about it.”

“The Unison battlefield is not on any list,” he said. “So we’re virtually an unknown battle on a virtually unheard-of battlefield.”

But as a result, the landscape was littered with untouched artifacts that have been unearthed over the years and the terrain is almost as pristine as it was 150 years ago.

“You can still discover history even at this late date,” Hodge said. “It’s considered the best-preserved battlefield in the United States.”

Buttons, knives and “bite” bullets — given to soldiers to bite on during surgery — have been found, according to local amateur archaeologist Larry Portch. Packer’s poem was uncovered several decades ago.

In one case, relic hunters found an officer’s mechanical pencil with a letter to his wife rolled up inside, said Portch, who brought a display of such items to the church Sunday.

“Unison stands in the midst of the pristine rural landscape that was often described in the letters and diaries of residents and soldiers,” Lowe wrote. “Many roads remain stubbornly unpaved and are lined by the stone walls remembered by the soldiers.

“Those who fought in 1862, could they stand here again, would recognize their battlefield today.”

On Saturday, local researcher and resident Mitch Diamond walked through the snow-covered old Quaker graveyard on the edge of the village. He noted that Union troops were stationed near one side of the walled-in graveyard and Confederate troops were not far off near the other side. The cemetery itself holds old tombstones, at least one of which dated to the late 1700s.

Diamond said soldiers who passed here in 1862 saw that same tombstone.

“You’re seeing what they saw,” he said. “History here is all around. It’s exciting.”

Mike is a general assignment reporter who also covers Washington institutions and historical topics.
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