The Army of the Potomac's winter camp blanketed Stafford County in 1862 and 1863, turning miles of rural land into a vast city of tents, cookhouses, horse corrals, supply dumps and earthen redoubts armed with cannons to protect as many as 200,000 soldiers. The troops drilled daily, grumbled about army life and marched off to fight the Confederates at Chancellorsville and twice at Fredericksburg.
Then the camp, the temporary home for eight corps, was abandoned as the fighting moved to Gettysburg. In the decades that followed, trees grew on the denuded land, and farmers reclaimed their fields.
Little thought has been given in the past century to preserving such camp areas; most preservation efforts center on battlefields. But Tom Mountz of Stafford has made preservation of one of three redoubts built by the roughly 21,000-man 12th Corps his personal crusade.
To preserve the site, he bought it in 1991.
"Civil War fort for sale," said the ad in a local paper. Mountz moved quickly to close the $35,000 deal, which included six acres.
The retired Navy captain, who bought a house with his wife, Elaine, in Stafford in 1989, is a life-long enthusiast of the war. When he was growing up in Ohio he heard family stories about relatives who fought in it.
He delights in owning a fort, shown on Civil War maps as Redoubt No. 2, and researching details about the 12th Corps, which lived there for about six months.
"People talk about owning artifacts such as buttons and bullets," he said. "You can't find an artifact any bigger than this."
His artifact is about a mile from his house, off a two-lane road and down a gravel drive. He keeps the location secret to prevent uninvited visitors from clambering over the fragile walls and to discourage relic hunters.
The driveway ends in a small parking area. Off to the left is a replica of a soldier's hut that Mountz built. Beyond that, the fort rises above a deep trench. He cautions visitors to enter only from a ramp on the far side. He believes photographer Mathew Brady's photograph of hundreds of soldiers' tents stretching off to the horizon was taken from that vantage point.
Where those huts once stood, a farmer now grows hay.
The interior of the fort is packed earth with a few trees Mountz left in place when he and some friends stripped away more than a century's growth of vines and briars. As with many Civil War sites, there is little to see, but Mountz's enthusiasm for the fort, coupled with his interest and his knowledge of the men who camped there, makes a visit worthwhile.
He is equally enthused about living in Stafford, located about 55 miles south of Washington, even as the rural landscape near Interstate 95 is overtaken by housing developments. There are still large sections of the county that look much as they did in the 1860s, when soldiers wrote home about the beauty of their surroundings.
Sgt. James Porter Stewart of Knap's Battery E, Pennsylvania Light Artillery, was among the soldiers who camped at Redoubt No. 2. He wrote to his mother that the place was "the most beautifullist camp we have ever been in yet. I can see for miles up and down the Potomac."
In an 1863 letter written for publication in the New York Sunday Mercury from a nearby camp, a soldier who signed himself "J.J." said, "There is considerable fishing done in this Potomac Creek, and we have had some good feasts of the finny tribe."
In another letter that year to the Mercury, a 12th Corps soldier who signed himself "A -- , Color Guard" said that when the troops arrived the previous December, "I thought the [wood] supply around here was inexhaustible. Now, for miles around, scarcely a tree stands. . . . Virginia is certainly shorn of its natural value and ornament."
Mountz has applied to the state and the federal government for official recognition of the fort as a historic site.
"We owe it to future generations to safeguard the fort," he said. "Sometimes people think because there wasn't a battle here, it is not as important as a battlefield. But I tell them the troops lived here and died here, and their families need to know we are caring for the place."
To round out a visit to Mountz's fort, head about 10 miles away to the White Oak Museum, an old schoolhouse where a rare and extensive collection of camp artifacts has been assembled and expertly displayed by D.P. Newton. Newton, whose family has lived in the county for generations, had spent years with his father searching the fields for things left behind by soldiers and found artifacts such as buttons, buckles and bottles as well as some rifles and handguns.
Newton has documented where each regiment camped, even if for only a few days, as it awaited orders to march. Many of his visitors have Union relatives who spent time in the county, and he is pleased to help them find the exact places those soldiers lived during the war.
The museum (www.fredericksburgvirginia.net/white_oak.asp?parent_name=attractions) is at 955 White Oak Rd. in Falmouth, where Routes 218 and 603 cross. Newton usually opens the museum from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, but check first by calling 540-371-4234. There is an admission fee.
Mountz doesn't intend to open his fort to the public but is willing to show visitors around by appointment. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Linda Wheeler can be reached at 540-465-8934 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Troop shelters like this replica surrounded Redoubt No. 2. One Union soldier who stayed at the fort wrote that it was "the most beautifullist camp we have ever been in yet."