Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Battle of Buchanan (and other stuff)

Just having been in New York for a week or so, I noticed I was longing to go back to my new home in Buchanan, Virginia. Naturally, when I’m here, I miss New York. Humans are confusing. But, I thought I’d write a little about where I live now, including about the Battle of Buchanan which raged here in 1863. To tell the truth, it's all about the pictures.

When I moved this year to Buchanan, Virginia, I was attracted to three things about it. The Blue Ridge Mountains, the James River and the Mayberry RFD feel.

Buchanan bills itself as The Gateway to the Shenandoah Valley. I don’t think that is precisely accurate as this is clearly the James River Valley and the Shenandoah Valley starts pretty far north of here. It is sort of like calling Atlantic City the Gateway to New York City. But, “Gateway” sounds a lot better than “One River Valley South of . . .”. And Shenandoah has a pizzaz that the more important James River doesn’t.

Buchanan is, though, without doubt part of The Great Valley, which is one big super valley within the Appalachian mountain chain in which the Shenandoah and James River Valleys sit. The James runs right through Buchanan itself, just northwest of the main street, and cutting the town essentially in half. If I walked in a straight line from my home, the river is roughly 300 yards away. While no Mississippi or Hudson River, it is no brook either, and nearly 80 miles of the River is open to commercial traffic before it empties into the Atlantic (trust me; I've been planning a boat trip). It is roughly 50 yards wide passing through this little town.

Buchanan is surrounded by two separate strands of the Blue Ridge Mountains which parallel the Valley. This is made clearer than glass when you ride south on the Blue Ridge Parkway (aka Skyline Drive), just a few miles from my house, which runs along the very top of the ridge to the East of us. You can look blithely down on the valley from there and see our barely visible town.

Itself nearly 900 feet above sea level, Buchanan sits in the shadow of Mount Purgatory, a broad, furrowed and deep mountain just shy of 3000 feet at its peak, which is about as average a Blue Ridge Mountain as you can get (between 2,000 and 4,000 feet is as close to an “average” as I can find anywhere).

Purgatory dominates the town, towering above it, and is supposedly named after the feeling stage riders got when they rode alongside the river on its hilly edge (meaning you felt like you were in Purgatory until you finished the run).

When I look out my back windows, Purgatory is what I see, studded with trees, which even run along the upper ridge, and also some areas of bare rock due to fires. It is highly visible on I-81, the interstate that bypasses the town, at least 15 miles away in the right spots and perhaps much further in areas I can’t access. To my surprise, this wild looking and substantially undeveloped mountain is privately owned.

The George Washington and the Thomas Jefferson National Forests surround the town. Aside from the signs, it is difficult to tell when you are in the parks or outside them. The animals don’t care where the borders are and streams run throughout the town as they do inside the park.

In any direction, you find that you are also surrounded by these streams, interrupted with beaver damns, boulder fields and fallen timber. They cut through the landscape, mostly farms and ranches, and come from or lead to the James.

So far, I haven’t run into any bears, but a 20 something waitress told me they are here and she goes bear hunting herself. I met a divinity student/extreme kayaker (who sold me a kayak) that has one living on his property for years. He knows it is a she-bear because he has seen cubs on occasion. She leaves them alone and they her.

I have seen deer, wild turkey, beaver, heron, one buzzard (trust me, ycccch, and it was eating something on the side of the road), and the usual farm animals, including alpaca. I have read up on the Eastern cougars and bobcats that are rare around here and feel fairly confident I will not run into any on a hike (my guess is that they are extinct or nearly so).I haven’t heard any howling, but, apparently, we have coyotes too. Snakes are another problem. We have rattlers, cotton mouths and water mocassins. A week or so ago I walked past one sunning itself on a stone wall.

Hunting seems to be the main pastime around here. Quite a few of the men wear camouflage and hunting caps. Many also sport long thick beards, as if they just came from casting for a Civil War movie. Actually, although I don’t think this is why they do it, they have a re-enactment here, I believe every year, of their own Civil War battle.

The town is not named for the 15th president, but for early settler John Buchanan, who was consulted by the young future president when he was seeking troops here for the French and Indian War. Washington met Buchanan at Looney’s Ferry on Buchanan’s property, which crossed the James a short walk outside of the village as it exists now. I’m not sure where precisely Washington slept, but it had to be somewhere around here. I’m going to speculate it was on my property, just because it is fun.

They have found evidence of the ferry and an historical road sign now approximates where it was located. It must have been quite important as on a 1741 survey made by Thomas Jefferson’s father which now sits in the chapel where Robert E. Lee is buried, the map includes the ferry among the very few features on it.

As Buchanan has a river, it also has a bridge. The modern one crosses the James at the North End of town right on the main road, Route 11, which runs right through the town and keeps going on pretty much forever in both directions. The remainder of an old bridge is still there and part of it stands as a base for the flexible foot bridge which also crosses the river at the same spot. I crossed it, but it scared me. Felt like the whole thing would blow right off its pedestal. During the rare floods, the bridge can be covered.

Route 11 was once known as The Great Warriors Path, an Indian trail from Canada to Georgia, and then became know as the Great Wagon Road in colonial times. It parallels Route 81 for a long distance, but is much smaller and a little more rural looking. On either route, it is one long beautiful picture show.

On my side of the river sits the commercial area, mostly mom and pop shops, including, a pizzeria, a larger Italian restaurant and a few other restaurants, two banks, town hall, an auto parts store, a pharmacy with a grill, a movie theatre showing second run and art movies, a medical office, an insurance office, several antique shops, an art gallery, a furniture store, a used book store (excellent) and a library among a few other shops. Near the bridge is a gas station, and they a mini-market, within which there is a window which Burger King, smaller and much less conspicuous than any BK you have ever seen, operates. I will be greatly disturbed if a typical fast food place or chain store opens here. Perhaps, it is inevitable and this quasi-BK is just an opening gambit.

Within the few hundred yards that makes up the main part of town there are four churches, three of which sit within a stone’s throw of each other. I haven’t been inside any of them yet, but they are all quaint on the outside and exactly what you would expect as you drive through the town.

Houses surround this part of town on both sides of the river. Two railroads also parellel it (one at the end of my backyard – you quickly learn to sleep through it). I live one block up from the main street on the other side of the tracks, which I cross to get to just about anywhere. There is a good seventy-five yards to the next house on my right and two hundred to the one on my left. When I go outside, I can see a good part of the town, including a cemetery I have investigated, a short way up Purgatory.

Small towns dot the valley at distances of ten to twenty miles. Sometimes, depending in which direction you go, the distances are much greater. I have visited many of the nearby ones. Although I had little time to pick one of them to live in before I moved, Buchanan was a great choice as it is almost devoid of the franchises that plague the other small towns (rendering them ugly in my mind), and, although the houses and buildings here are old, they are better kept than most every other town I have seen so far in the near vicinity. Perhaps I shouldn’t let the world know about this gem. Then again, perhaps I don’t have to worry. Not too many people want to move to a town too small for Barney Fife to consider living in.

A half hour north of here is a larger town, Lexington, created a few years after the namesake battle in Massachusetts. It is where Stonewall Jackson lived. His home is still there and you can take a tour, which I did years back when I first wandered through here. Lexington retains some of its Civil War character in the historic part of town. Washington & Lee University, where Robert E. Lee is buried in a chapel (his horse, Traveler, is buried right outside) sits side by side with Virginia Military Institute, dominating the historic part of town. Students kindly leave apples and carrots on the campus for Traveler’s ghost.

The City of Roanoke, a half hour south of here, sits in a broad valley which separates the northern and southern parts of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It has everything larger cities have, a nice downtown area, beautiful hotels, shopping centers with every chain store you can imagine from Dick’s Sporting Goods to The Olive Garden. It too has a river, but it is small, worn out and kind of dirty looking. It was my disappointment with the housing there that led me to look into Buchanan in the first place, which I only knew then as the small mountain town without a McDonald’s sign that I had passed by on the Interstate.

Mill Mountain overlooks Roanoke and bears a hundred foot metal star on its top which they light at night. From there you can overlook the entire city which is ringed with mountains and is actually its own mini-valley.

One sight which must not go unmentioned, out of the endless beautiful sites within a few minutes of my home, is the Natural Bridge, about ten miles from my home. It is a natural phenomena, a tall narrow loop in a 215 high rock with a river running through it. Pictures do not do it justice and it has to be seen in 3D and in perspective to be truly appreciated. The river walk, about three quarters of a mile long is just as spectacular and ends in a picturesque waterfall I can’t stop photographing.

Jefferson actually bought the bridge and the land around it just before the Revolutionary War from King George. Presently, Route 11 runs right over the top of it, although they block the view for safety's sake.

On June 13, 1864 Union General David Hunter was moving south on the orders of Grant to capture an important southern hub. He had come down the Great Wagon Road through Staunton, Lexington and Natural Bridge. When he came to the town of Buchanan he was met with a burning bridge. It had been set fire with straw and oil by the confederate Brigadier General John McCausland, who had been playing cat and mouse with Hunter and his generals for the entire raid. It didn't stop the northerners but slowed them considerably. The Union cannons wreaked havoc on the town, shelling Oak Hill, a mansion still standing high on a above the river banks and the canal (which is no longer there). Sparks flew back across the river and set fire to Pattonsburg (the part of the town on the north side of the river).

The northern troops were easily able to ford the river slightly upstream. They tried to help save the bridge for the townspeople, but to no avail. However, something like 15,000 troops briefly stayed over in the small town, quickly bleeding it dry. When troops are hungry they beg, borrow and steal whatever they please. Hunter burned the home he stayed in while fording the river and hung a man who shot a soldier defending his property.

The victory did the Union little good. They hurried on down to the target of the raid, Lynchburg, another James River town (now better known as the city of Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University) and the rebels turned the tables and defeated Hunter there, sending them running.

The pictures I attach here tell the story better than I can. Here's some other images to take home with you (click to enlarge).


  1. Anonymous7:35 AM

    Very cool Dave, I liked the last picture the best.

  2. Thanks for the comment. I can't make up my mind which I like best. If I forgot to say so, you can click on the pictures and they should fill your screen.

  3. Anonymous8:07 AM

    David, this is your best blog to date. It says more about you than anything you've written so far. I can say, being one of the few people that's been to Buchanan, that your pix do it justice. They are fabulous. Appreciate the tie-in to the Civil War, and the references to Washington and, yes, Jefferson, the great benefactor of your cherished natural beauty. Yet another debt of gratitude we owe him, but let's leave that aside for now. Think your bookstore deserves its own blog. Give that some thought. Good work, dude.

  4. Well, shucks. Thanks (although you couldn't help giving me a Jefferson shot, could you?). Ironically, to me, the article was a throwaway because I had less time than usual last week to write it and I try to make the blog about what interests me, but not so much about me. But, that just goes to show you. One mans throwaway blog is another man's best blog to date.


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About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .