Playwright's Civil War Tale Retold on Film

Stephen Beggs and Abigail Seymour play Lt. John W. Hutchinson of the Union and Lida Dutton in this scene filmed at Sunny Bank Farm in Middleburg.
Stephen Beggs and Abigail Seymour play Lt. John W. Hutchinson of the Union and Lida Dutton in this scene filmed at Sunny Bank Farm in Middleburg. (Courtesy Of Kimberly Haeringer)
By Arianne Aryanpur
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 3, 2006

Loudoun County playwright Meredith Bean McMath could not resist the subject: the story of three young Quaker women from Waterford who fought the Confederacy with their pens, writing a newspaper for Union troops that eventually caught the eye of President Abraham Lincoln.

McMath's 2003 play about the unlikely Civil War journalists -- "All for the Union in Confederate Virginia!" -- raised $10,000 toward the restoration of Grace Church in Lincoln, founded in the 1870s for Quakers and freed slaves.

Now she and the group seeking to reopen the abandoned church have teamed up on a bigger project: a movie about the underground Waterford newspaper.

Using McMath's screenplay, a crew led by local cinematographer Peter Buck began shooting "Waterford's War" in May 2005. The 80-minute independent movie will be shown to an audience of filmmakers at Leesburg's Tally Ho Theatre this winter, then sent back to the editing room for touch-ups, McMath said. It will be entered next year in local and national film festivals, where its creators hope to receive backing from commercial marketers or distributors.

Profits will benefit the Lincoln Preservation Foundation, which is trying to raise $350,000 to restore the church.

The movie, which had a budget of less than $50,000, was shot mostly at Clermont Estate in Berryville, with permission from the estate's trustees. Other scenes were recorded in Harpers Ferry and Boonsboro, Md. About 60 local actors were outfitted in period costumes.

The film follows the story of sisters Lida and Lizzie Dutton and their cousin Sarah Steer as they care for Union soldiers and maintain family farms and businesses in Confederate Virginia and, in the last year of the war, decide to launch the Waterford News, a newspaper for Union troops passing through.

"These girls were just normal people, but they stepped out of themselves during a difficult time and did this amazing thing," McMath said.

During the war, Southern Quakers often were harassed and deprived of food because of their opposition to slavery and allegiance to the North.

"These girls saw the Union troops come in, and they were always very discouraged-looking," McMath said. "They said, 'We need to do something.' "

They started the Waterford News in 1864. Its masthead read "Editors: Sarah, Lida and Lizzie," and it contained not only news stories but also poetry and humor. Regular features included a marriage column that was deliberately left empty. Once the paper reported in jest that Confederate Col. John S. Mosby had been arrested for stealing $35 worth of leather from the local tannery.

"This was something for the [Union] soldiers to sit and laugh their heads off over," McMath said.

The women, who ranged in age from 18 to 26, wrote the articles at home, then smuggled them across the Potomac River to Maryland, where the newspaper was published. They charged $1 a year for a subscription.

The women's enterprise was quite unusual, McMath said. "At that time, it was very rare for girls to have written a newspaper at all. There were no Southern women journalists."

It was their heroism that drew McMath to the story. "What I love about stories like this is it makes us believe in the human potential for good. It makes us wonder if we would do the same thing in their situation," she said.

The Waterford News would publish eight times before the war's end and would be read by Lincoln. Before the last edition was issued celebrating the North's victory, Lida fell in love with a Union soldier, Lt. John W. Hutchinson. That love story is also woven into the movie.

The Lincoln Preservation Foundation is producing the film. With revenue from the movie project and other sources, the group hopes to finish rebuilding the church in 2008, said communications director Andrea Gaines.

Grace Church was abandoned in the 1940s. The restored building eventually will house an African American museum and host community events, Gaines said.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company