The Herald-Mail ONLINE
Sunday May 21, 2006

Group wants to preserve battle site

The area includes a house built in the 18th century by the grandfather of Davy Crockett.


MARTINSBURG, W.VA. - Some soldiers knew it as the place where they first experienced hostile fire, but today, little remains to recall the spot where Confederate troops clashed with Union soldiers in what would become the earliest Civil War battle fought in the Shenandoah Valley.

Begun early on July 2, 1861, the Battle of Falling Waters was fought in country of "rolling hills and valleys" with "ripening wheat fields ... and here and there ... scattered buildings," according to an article in the February 1977 edition of Civil War Times.

That vista is fast losing a fight of its own to encroaching development, said Falling Waters Battlefield Association President Tom Ressler, who wants to preserve some of the land for a park to commemorate the battle.

"This area is growing by leaps and bounds, and the history is being lost at a rapid rate," Ressler said during a recent driving tour of the area.

The battleground site covers a wide sweep of land. It includes such notable locations as a small unmarked triangle of grass and gravel west of Interstate 81 where Lt. Col. J.E.B. Stuart obtained the surrender of part of a company of resting Union soldiers, as well as a spot along U.S. 11, now commemorated by a small plaque, where gunfire failed to alarm Col. Thomas Jackson as he was preparing a dispatch to another officer.

For Ressler, the effort to preserve what remains of the battlefield hinges on the recent listing for sale by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston of a 14-acre parcel on which a house sits that historical accounts show saw some of the battle's heaviest fighting.

"If we can't preserve anything else, that property needs to be our top priority," Ressler said. "It's essential to save that property."

That house - part of which was built in the 18th century by the grandfather of Davy Crockett, and once was part of a larger tract owned by William Porterfield - was put up for sale last month by the diocese for $1.6 million, said John Edgar, a broker for Hometowne Realty.

Edgar said the church, which purchased the property in the mid-1990s, has abandoned plans to construct a church building on the site, largely to avoid having to raze the house. He said church officials were unaware of the structure's historical significance when the church purchased the property.

Not many people are, said Ressler of the nondescript aluminum-sided two-story house on the crest of a slight incline along U.S. 11 not far from the road's intersection with Hammond's Mill Road (W.Va. 901).

Ressler, who moved to Berkeley County in 1979, said he doesn't think the community has done a very good job remembering its history.

The site "hasn't been given the accolades that this was the first battle fought in the Shenandoah Valley because the people in the area haven't been given the education that they should have been," Ressler said.

It hasn't helped that the battle has been known by different names, including the Battle of Hainesville, for a small settlement to the south, which now is called Bedington's Crossing, and the Battle of Hokes Run, for a small rivulet of water that runs through a culvert beneath U.S. 11.

Ressler said Berkeley and Jefferson counties should be included in the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields National Historic District and Commission as a way of qualifying for federal funds that could be used to preserve historical properties.

The first step toward getting that much accomplished fell short this year after each chamber of the West Virginia Legislature introduced its own resolution requesting that both counties be recognized as part of the historic district, but failed to take up a version approved by the other house. Last year, both the Senate and the Berkeley County Commission approved resolutions recognizing the preservation efforts of the battlefield group.

Ressler said he envisions turning the Crockett-Porterfield house, which is reported to have sustained some damage in the firefight, into a visitors and interpretation center, and restoring the house to the way it looked during the Civil War. He said he would like to use part of the parcel for a branch library, which could contain a Civil War research center that would display artifacts from the battlefield.

Edgar said the church is willing to sell the property to the organization, but is not in a position to sell it for less than market value.

"If they give this away, where are they going to come up with money for replacement land?" Edgar said.

That's going to take both awareness and fundraising work, said Ressler, who indicated he sees himself as a peddler in his efforts to preserve some remnant of the quickly disappearing battlefield site.

"I guess I'm going to have to be a salesman of sorts to tell people of the history of this site because it's not been publicized the way it should have been," Ressler said.

"I'm selling them something that there's only one chance to get," he said. "If they lose it, they cannot ever buy it back."

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From I-81 take Spring Mills Exit 20, then proceed West on Hammonds Mill Road (WV 901).  T.J. Jackson Drive is the first road on the left (south side) approximately 300 yards west of I-81.  The library is on the corner, next to, but set back from the CNB Bank, across the street from the Shell Gas Station & Convenience Store.  Library Phone Number: (304) 274-3443.