On a lonely stretch of backcountry road in southeastern Stafford County, on a site where tens of thousands of Union soldiers camped during the winters of 1862 and '63, a small, nondescript Civil War museum has opened to pay testament to the Northern and Southern soldiers who made the woods and plains of Stafford their home during the nation's bloodiest conflict.
The White Oak Museum is an extensive collection of artifacts that were destroyed, ransacked, shot, dropped or in some other way discarded by the legions of soldiers who hunkered down in Stafford prior to the two battles of Fredericksburg and several other local campaigns.
Virtually all of the relics -- including about 90,000 bullets and more than a hundred belt buckles -- were simply plucked from the grounds of Stafford by a dedicated group of local Civil War enthusiasts over most of this century.
"From everything I can tell, it's an unmatched collection of material remains of the Civil War," said Bob Krick, an official with the National Park Service in Fredericksburg. "It's a stunning museum. I am really, really impressed."
Indeed, it would be easy to outfit a soldier or re-create a typical Civil War day from the supplies that are in the museum.
The uniforms on hand could be dressed with any of hundreds of buttons, largely from Union outfits, with insignia marking the state or unit each soldier represented. Scores of metal shoulder protectors, belts, belt buckles, hats and about anything else a soldier would need also are on display.
On the supply side, in addition to the rifles, bullets, bayonets and other mechanisms of war, the museum displays complete cutlery sets -- including the 19th century equivalent of a Swiss army knife -- cooking pots, surgical tools, match cases (with matches) and whetstones. Several displays show a wide array of soda, pickle, mustard and whiskey jars, all of different sizes, shapes and thicknesses, depending on what they held. There is even the charred remnants of a block of "hard tack," a Civil War era conglomeration of flour and water biscuit that soldiers ate.
Two of the more unusual displays include fragments of Northern naval artillery shells that were fired from the mouth of the Potomac Creek at Rebel forts and a gold identification ring from Pvt. John Tobin, a Union soldier from Company C, 20th Maine Regiment.
Some things from the war, however, are not so easy to find, so they have been re-created. A replicated 19th century cannon with real artillery shells and cannonballs shows one of the era's more sophisticated and deadly weapons. And three kinds of tiny wood and canvas cabins, complete with fireplace, have been re-created to show the conditions the soldiers lived in.
The museum and the collection of its artifacts have been a community effort from the start. Before World War II, six White Oak residents -- Pat Newton, George Sullivan, Cliff English, Frederick Stevens, Frederick Bullock and Lou Curtis -- started collecting Civil War remnants in the woods around White Oak, and later in other parts of Stafford and the surrounding area.
In the 1950s, when the metal detector was invented, their efforts markedly increased, and the men were able to find hundreds more relics buried underground. All six men are dead now, but the tradition they started has been continued by Pat Newton's son, D.P., who owns and runs the museum.
"This museum is dedicated to the memory of those old-time relic hunters that are no longer with us," said Newton, who used to scour the county with his predecessors but does not search for artifacts anymore. The museum also "exists to remember and honor the common soldier who suffered both in battle and in the camps," he said.
D.P. Newton bought the museum, which is in the same building as the old, single-door White Oak elementary school, five years ago from the county for $63,000. Since then, with the help of numerous people from the area, he has repaired the schoolhouse and rearranged it to house the artifacts that he, his father and their friends found. (A handful of the museum's remnants were donated by local residents, and a few were purchased at flea markets.)
"He's done a terrific job," said Ferris Belman, a longtime county supervisor and friend of the Newton family. "We're really proud of him. It's good for the county, and I think people will go there. I had no idea all that stuff was in Stafford County."
The museum has been open for three weeks, and so far about 75 people have paid the $3 admission price. Most of the visitors have been from the surrounding area, but a few have been from as far away as Texas and New Hampshire.
In addition to examining the relics, museum visitors are sure to learn about the central role that Stafford County played in the war.
After the first Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862, as the temperature began to drop, tens of thousands of Union troops holed up across the Rappahannock River in Stafford.
The county was mostly wooded then, as it is now, and the troops picked campsites and then chopped down all the trees around the sites for heat and shelter until it was too far to haul the wood. By the end of the war, virtually all of the county was denuded.
The largest of those central sites, where 23,000 Union troops erected a home, is on the spot where the White Oak Museum now stands. Across the road from the museum is another Civil War relic -- the White Oak Church.
The church, which was built in the 1830s and looks more like a barn than a church, alternately served as a supply depot, strategic headquarters and house of worship for the soldiers.
Today, the church still stands and houses a regular Baptist service, while visitors to the museum can catch a glimpse of photographs of it during the war.
Respect for the war and its soldiers is what Newton hopes visitors will leave his museum feeling.
"Here many would die of both wounds and disease," he writes in the museum brochure. "To give proper remembrance to those brave soldiers this museum has sought to exhibit both military and personal items."
CAPTION: White Oak Museum visitor Patrick Bailey dons Civil War era boots, below, so that even the footprints will be authentic as he walks around a display that has carefully reproduced the winter camps that soldiers established in the woods of Stafford County during the Civil War.