by Cliff Page
On an abnormally warm early Spring day, I took a 150-mile motorcycle ride from Portsmouth to Stony Creek, Va. That’s where my Great Great Grandpa was captured by federal forces in 1864. He rode with the South Carolina 6th Insurgent Calvary (Aka: the Dixie Raiders), which fought in nearly every major engagement in Virginia from 1862 until the surrender.
Before visiting Stony Creek I had no idea of the importance of the place. I presumed that it was just an outlier to the defense of Petersburg. But from talking to some old timers who live there today, I learned that Stony Creek was a critical logistical hub for the Army of Northern Virginia and a focal point of the lengthy siege of Petersburg, the loss of which precipitated General Lee’s calamitous retreat towards Appomattox and the end of the Civil War.
Stony Creek lies to the west of Interstate 95 between Emporia and Petersburg. During the siege of Petersburg between June 1864 and March 1865 nearly all the supplies to the Confederate defenders — including those from Wilmington, N.C., the only Confederate port not blockaded on the East Coast at the time — came up the Petersburg and Weldon (now CSX Railway) into the Stony Creek depot. Goods were offloaded from the trains and put onto wagons and hauled on plank roads through the back woods and swamps to Petersburg, 25 miles to the north.
During the siege of Petersburg, a largely static affair, a series of engagements were fought over Stony Creek. In June, the Confederates turned back a Yankee cavalry foray, but not until the raiders had torn up 60 miles of railroad track. General Grant ordered another raid in December, which the defenders likewise repulsed. But the attack disrupted the vital supply line, doubling the distance supply wagons had to travel and exacerbating the Army of Northern Virginia’s shortages of ammunition, food, and medical supplies.
By March it was clear that Lee could no longer hold on. After a series of reversals, he evacuated Petersburg. In full retreat, the Army of Northern Virginia would fight only a couple more engagements before being forced to capitulate at Appomattox Court House on April 3rd.
I don’t know exactly where my Great Great Grandpa Randolph Page was captured at Stoney Creek, or where he was imprisoned. Many Confederate Calvary POWs were incarcerated on the Eastern Shore. But one thing is recorded – he was given ten dollars in gold, at discharge and walked on foot back to Landrum, S.C. Upon arriving at his log cabin and farm, he stripped off his lice-infested uniform, burned it, shaved off his hair and scrubbed his body down with lye soap in the creek. Thereafter he returned to the plow and put the war behind him.
Today Stony Creek is a little rural community in sad shape, and hanging by a thread. Cars and trucks whiz by on I-95 and and pay no mind. The BBQ pit and little antique shop, once easily accessible on old I-301, are off the beaten track. The billboard next to the BBQ displays the rust of over 50 years, as worn sign paper and gauze wisp gently in the breeze like curtains to the past.
The town’s history is being forgotten as those who remember get older. But the rail that brought in supplies and ammunition is still there, as are the winding roads where muleskinners ported supplies from the depot to Petersburg. A cannon abandoned in the swamp rests on the main street. The one-room Sappony Baptist church — where Confederate infantrymen fought off a company of Yankees before friendly cavalry ran them off — still stands. The church bears the scars from where a Yankee cannon ball punched through the front wall and a bullet hit the church Bible. Today, the wall’s hole is patched with tin and the church is sided with vinyl.
A wealth of knowledge about the Civil War resides in small communities like Stony Creek, but it is dying. I talked to the locals and encouraged them to print a flyer with a brief history of Stony Creek and a map showing the battlefields and the plank road routes that channeled supplies to Lee’s defenses. Virginians in communities across the state should do likewise, and put up materials on a common statewide History and Tourism website. Tourists could download and print these maps and history as guides or view them on their smart phones.
This would be a great project for the Sons of Confederate Veterans, indeed a project in which all Southern states could participate. Creating a platform for small communities to tell their story of Virginia’s defense and the Confederate cause would lift local spirits and stimulate tourism. History could be brought to life for a new generation, as folks discover the little places, now forgotten, that played significant roles in history.
Stony Creek is a great day trip on a motorcycle or an open convertible on a warm sunny day. I encourage Virginians to visit the place and learn about the history of which we all are apart.
Cliff Page, a sculptor, lives and maintains his studio in Portsmouth.