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Locust Hill: 135 years after the battle, a weary brick shell stands as the only monument

Neighborhood children call it the haunted house. Golfers use it as a pit stop. History buffs consider it a real shame. Worried parents think it’s downright dangerous. The Locust Hill mansion ruins stand dilapidated and ghostly, yet still elevated, strangely juxtaposed above a sprawl of freshly built golf course houses just outside of Charles Town.

It was 135 years ago this month that the Battle of Cameron’s Depot was fought on the grounds of the home between the Union forces under the command of General Philip H. Sheridan and the Confederate forces under General Jubal A. Early. The Washington home survived being pummeled by gunfire and cannonballs only to be relegated to its current level of deterioration one hundred years later when fire ravaged the historic property.

It now stands precariously positioned with a future that is unsure, unplanned and for now, unprotected.

“I remember the house extremely well,” said Dolores Steeley, who lived in the house between the ages of six and ten during the 1950’s. “It was exquisite, beautiful and huge.” Steeley now lives in Locust Hill again, but this time in a modern brick home in the development. She returned here six years ago seeking a little of the peaceful serenity that she remembers from childhood.

Glory days

The Locust Hill property was originally surveyed by Lord Fairfax and George Washington and became part of the Harewood estate of Colonel Samuel Washington, brother to George. Dr. Samuel Washington, Col. Washington’s grandson, and his wife, Louisa Clemson, gave the Locust Hill portion of the property to their daughter Lucy Elizabeth Washington.

The large brick house was built in 1840 by Lucy and her husband, John Bainbridge Packette. The first floor had a large center hall and four rooms. The two rooms at the rear of the house were used as a drawing room and dining room and were connected by nine-foot tall double doors that could be opened to provide a large space for entertaining.

The second floor was a similar layout, with the upstairs hall used as a sitting room.

The house had porches on three sides at different points in time. The south porch was enclosed during the 1870’s when the pantry and kitchen were moved there from the basement. The east porch had a double columned portico and was at one time the entryway to the home. The north porch had four columns and extended the full depth of the house. Some of the outbuildings on the property included a smoke house, carriage house and barn, and later a bank barn, double corncrib and machine shop.

The battle

August 21, 1864 - According to an account by William B. Packette (see sidebar), the house was occupied at the time by the Packette family, several visiting Washingtons and about a dozen slaves. Some sources say that the Federals would not allow the civilians to leave until the fighting got too serious, keeping them under guard for quite some time. The Federals, however, gave a different account.

“The Vermont Brigade in the Shenandoah Valley” by Col. Aldoe F. Walker quotes Thomas C. Cheney:

“He now authorized us to occupy with sharpshooters the house above mentioned, known as the Packette House, and which had been hitherto under the care of a safeguard. Among the inmates were several young ladies, one of whom, tall and beautiful, dressed in mourning, and especially noticed for all her bravery in the trying scenes that followed, was understood to be a daughter of Col. Washington, the vendor of Mount Vernon, who had been killed in the rebel service. These people were all at once notified to leave, and could have done so with perfect safety, but they were overcome by the perversity of fear and could not be induced to go; though urged, reasoned with, and entreated, they insisted upon taking refuge in the cellar of the house. Still, as the fight was with musketry alone, there seemed to be no danger for them behind the heavy basement walls.”

“Continual efforts were made to induce the owner of the premises and the women to retire to our camp, but in vain.”

“Twice the interior of the house was set on fire, but the flames were extinguished by our men. Several shells reached the basement, fortunately exploding in different compartments from those occupied by the trembling citizens who now ran from the house to the rear weeping and shrieking. I have understood that the rebels, with their well-known tenderness, censured us for subjecting these females to such danger. It is certain, however, that our occupation of the house was absolutely necessary, and even decisive of the days’ operations, and that everything in our power was done to save this family from the weapons of their friends. None of them were injured.”

That evening, General Sheridan withdrew his troops and retired to Harper’s Ferry, pursued by General Early’s army.

Federal troops in drag:

A humiliating chapter for the Yanks

or the Rebels’ last laugh -- a little southern comfort?

A local legend lingers adding a little color and lightness to the bloody skirmish. It is said that some of the Federal soldiers occupying the house dressed in the women’s clothes and presented themselves in all their pageantry in front of the windows -- an effort to fool the Southern forces into thinking that the family was still in the main part of the house.

William B. Packette recounted, “I was informed that during the shelling of the house there were several Union soldiers in the east room of the house who had dressed themselves in women’s clothes and paraded before the window to keep Early’s troops from shelling the house. When Early discovered the subterfuge he proceeded to shell the house and in the northeast room of the house five of these soldiers so dressed were killed.”

Federal accounts mention none of this.

The devastating fire

In the early 1970’s, a family was renting the home as a residence and elderly care home. A fire of unknown origin destroyed the house; six people were killed in the blaze, including four teenagers and a nine-year-old girl.

Much of the debris was removed, but the brick shell stood strong, stubborn, still unwilling to yield.

Now what?

Locust Hill today, tomorrow

The tired-looking vestige presently serves as the only tangible monument to its past since battle marker number 20 that once stood outside the house has disappeared. Lee Steeley, a former member of the corporation that owned the golf course when it was known as Tuscawilla West, and brother of Dolores Steeley, remembers the marker very well from when he lived there as a child. As an adult owner of the property, Steeley had given much consideration to somehow spotlighting the home’s historical value. “We were thinking about going to the historical society to see what could be done to make (the remains of the house) some sort of permanent monument.” The golf course soon fell into other hands.

Although the new ownership renamed the golf course after the historic property, Craig Kastle, General Manager of the golf course, said that it would take too much money to restore the building and that there are no plans for the site. “We’re not doing anything to the house. Personally, I’d like to tear it down -- it’s a liability. It’s quite honestly a snakepit. I would be happy to level it and let the Sons of the Confederate Veterans put a marker there.”

The porous brick walls are crumbling inward creating the “snake pit” of debris in the old basement, below the manicured grounds of the surrounding golf course.

Dolores Steeley worries about losing local history, brick by brick, and that tearing down Locust Hill would extinguish yet another link to the past. “It doesn’t even need to be re-built to be a significant piece of property; it just needs to be protected. People don’t even know that it’s there.”

She keeps an artist’s sketch of the original house hanging on her wall, captioned, “Locust Hill: built in 1840, picture circa 1950.” To Steeley, the picture and the ruins of the house are symbolic not only of the county’s early history, what she refers to as “an era of serenity and elegance,” but also of the family values of the 1950’s, a time when life in Jefferson County was “simple, uncomplicated, safe.” This is what brought Steeley back to the county six years ago, and this is what she’s afraid the county is losing.

Civil War memories from the eyes of a child

A 1928 recollection of a Locust Hill resident

(Excerpts from the original)

“I, William B. Packette, hereby undertake to recall my recollections of the Battle of Cameron Depot, which occurred on August 21st, 1864. At LOCUST HILL now the residence of William B. Packette and George W. Packette, where marker No. 20 stands, built out of concrete (by Jefferson County Camp U.C.V. No. 123).

“On Sunday morning, August 21st, the Sheridan band was playing hymns on the lawn (of Locust Hill) about 9 o’clock, and General Early came down the valley from the direction of Summit Point…”

“Then Sheridan’s forces took possession again of our house and the yard breaking the doors and used it as a fort, sent the family and guests to the cellar under two guards in a room on the east side to the front of the house, using back windows to shoot from them, all the firing seemed to center on the house, then about 12 o’clock all firing stopped, Early sent Sheridan word I was afterwards told by Lieut. Nichols of Sheridan’s forces, present at the time if the family was in the house send them out as they were going to lower their guns on the house, but the family not knowing of it at the time was not allowed to go out, then about 1 o’clock the shelling commenced on the house which had been going on for some time over the house, shells knocked off the chimneys and went through the roof and the bricks from the chimneys and pieces of shells came down the chimney in the room where the family were located under two guards. The chimneys in the basement rooms where we were confined under guards were large and had large fireplaces and some of the colored boys had retreated into those fireplaces in their fright and when the bricks and shells came down the chimney it looked as if the house was falling down and the colored boys, especially Abe Lincoln and Mosby retreated to another part of the room and joined us.

“It appeared to us that the house was falling down and as a matter, of course, we were in a state of fright and consternation and didn’t know what to do, rushed into another room which was used as a kitchen and on the west side in our efforts to get out.

“The guards drove us back to the east room from which we had come from at the point of bayonets, we had scarcely gotten out of the kitchen room when a shell came through the west wall in the rear of the house and exploded in the kitchen room tearing the stove and room to pieces.”

(At this point the civilians were taken from the house to the nearby Altona Farm for safety.)

“The next morning we left Colonel Davenport’s house (Altona) and went back home as the respective armies had moved away. General Sheridan that night having fallen back toward Halltown and Harper’s Ferry, and General Early’s army having removed. When my father left us in the woods on August 21st, and went back to the house he told me that when he reached the house he found it on fire, and going up stairs he looked into the room at the top of the steps and just then a shell came in and killed a man whose head came rolling back toward the door, and he rolled all the way down the steps to get out of the way.

“When we returned the next day to the house we found from the attic to the cellar that the floors were torn up by shells and there were clots of blood all over it. My recollection is that seven or eight Federal soldiers were killed inside the house.

“There were at least forty Federal soldiers who were killed in this battle on and about our place who were buried at the foot of our yard at Locust Hill, and after the war was over they were disinterred and their remains taken to the Federal Cemetery at Winchester. These forty men included two officers, but I do not know their names.

“Sometime after the war an elderly lady from Connecticut came down looking for her son whom she had been informed had been killed in that battle, and was present at the dis-interring of the bodies and recognized her son by his teeth and dentistry work and then claimed him and took his body away. I have forgotten her name.

“There were seven shells passed through and exploded in the house which marks show. One unexploded shell is still lodged in the wall under the eve of the roof; two knocked off the chimneys and five went through the shingle roof which set the house on fire making in all fourteen that struck the house. There are also thousands of minnie balls show their marks in the hard brick. Thousands of marked bullets, pieces of shells, broken swords and guns also army cups and canteens gotten off the battle field are shown at Locust Hill today.”

-- as witnessed by Susan G. Gibson, 1928