Keeping history alive at Droop Mountain Battlefield
Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park superintendent Mike Smith found a home 28 years ago when he moved from his duties at Bluestone Wildlife Management Area at Hinton to what he believed to be a stepping stone to somewhere else.
“When I came here I was highly concerned that I would get trapped in a small area,” Smith said. “I never realized how much I would enjoy it. New people make it interesting every day.”
Part of Smith’s duties at Bluestone was to oversee the 400 campsites, and now he preserves the history of encampments of the Civil War.
Smith began his duties at the battlefield December 15, 1984, and since that day he has devoted his time, energy and intellect to collecting and maintaining the stories and artifacts of the men who fought and fell in the November 6, 1863 battle there.
The history of that battle can be found in several books and publications including “History of Pocahontas County – 1981” and in the West Virginia archives. Excerpts are interesting, as read here:
“While twelve Confederate units, regiments and battalions were opposed to nine Federal units, regiments, and battalions, the number of men engaged was almost even. The Federal loss was 119 and the Confederates lost 275 killed, wounded and missing,” records the West Virginia Archives.
“On November 6, 1863, Union and Confederate forces engaged in a battle on Droop Mountain. The battle was a consequence of federal forces moving to clear eastern West Virginia of Confederate troops and to sever the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad link between Confederate armies in Virginia and Tennessee. The battle was a Union victory but the strategy failed in its immediate objective,” states the county history book.
But the written word pales in comparison to time spent with Smith, whose knowledge of that historic place and gift of storytelling transports visitors back to its painful beginning - eventually bringing the listener through time – to the peace of the park’s present day.
It was through the efforts of John D. Sutton that Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park was purchased by the state in January 1928 and dedicated on July 4, 1929 as a shrine to the casualties of the battle.
John Davidson Sutton Baxter was the first soldier over the line in the Battle of Droop Mountain. He was called back, but he ran to a fence and was shot in the belly, Smith said.
Baxter’s cousin, John D. Sutton, was nearby and history records that he felt like it was his own brother who had been brought down.
Sutton became a delegate to the West Virginia Legislature in 1927. And it was Sutton, along with others, who organized picnics at the site of the battle for 80-to-90-year-old veterans.
“He envisioned it as being the Gettysburg of West Virginia," Smith said. “He was so moved by his cousin being killed here, even though they were in larger battles. Nothing in their lives had the effect of their time in the Civil War.”
Sutton’s description of the view makes you want to be here,” said Smith. “I am tremendously privileged to have been allowed to stay here as long as I have.
“This is the granddaddy of state parks. There have been a lot of firsts here.”
The park, developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps, has the distinction of being the state’s first park. In addition, Smith said, the park also had the state’s first woman and first black superintendents.
“There is a constant flow of people with historical interest stopping by,” Smith said. “And there are people who want to know what happened here. The Civil War affected everyone who has any long genealogy.”
But one need not visit the battlefield to offer treasures of its history.
Smith recently received a phone call from a gentleman in Missouri who had purchased a box of books at auction for $1. Within that box was a book, “Don Quixote,” which once belonged to George W. Ralston, of the West Virginia 3rd Infantry, Company K.
“It turned out that Ralston was an enlisted man,” Smith said. “He survived the war, lived five years in West Virginia, then moved to Missouri, about 10 miles from where this man found the book.”
Ralston was captured during the Battle of Droop Mountain, and 145 years later his book, which contained the notation of his November 6, 1863 capture, was returned to the battlefield museum.
In late July of this year a Letter to the Editor of the Gazette was published in response to an article about Ralston’s book. That letter caught the attention of a gentleman in Elkins, who then contacted Smith to tell him that he had yet another book, “Rollins Work History,” which Union soldiers had taken from a Confederate soldier at the battle.
John Burgess was a 19-years old son of a Lewisburg carpenter. Father and son were building a house in Hillsboro. Burgess stayed there, Smith said, and joined in the battle, where he was captured and his book was taken.
“That’s another good thing about being here so long,” Smith said. “Things tie together, and there has been an accumulation of knowledge of the battle through the years.”
Smith admits that he has always had an interest in history and took West Virginia History and Civil War History as electives in high school. As a student of history he was so enamored with Teddy Roosevelt that his parents allowed him to name his younger brother Ted.
Smith recalls either reading about Roosevelt, or having a book read to him, when he was in first grade. He was fascinated by the fact that Roosevelt wrote or dictated more than 100,000 letters in his lifetime - far more than any other president.
“He had scribes,” Smith said. “He dictated letters - the range is incredible, long, elaborate letters on a multitude of subjects.”
And Smith, himself, is no stranger to the written word.
For 13 years, Smith collaborated with Charleston based author Terry Lowry on his book “The Last Sleep” A History of the Battle of Droop Mountain.
“Lowry was a researcher,” Smith said. “I had daily contact with people whose families were involved in the battle.”
Thereby, Smith had access to photos, stories and documents from family members to contribute to “The Last Sleep.”
“I’ve learned a great deal from people coming in,” Smith said. “They teach me more than I teach them.”
This year’s re-enactment of the Battle of Droop Mountain will bring in more people.
“The first year or two was tremendously huge,” Smith said. “Re-enacting is so wide-spread. We had as many as 350 re-enactors in the past, but that has dwindled to 150, with as many as 800 to 1,000 spectators.”
Over the past few years things have changed for the re-enactment, as there are now battles each day of the weekend, Smith said. When there was only a Sunday battle, there were too many people.
“We have a much better handle on it,” Smith said. “Members of the West Virginia Re-enactors Association do the bulk of the work now.”
There is a balance to the re-enactment weekend – some have a good time and some are historians. The battlefield state park must cater to both, he said.
Over time, everyone has found their niche.
Smith said at first he thought of the re-enactors as soldiers, then he found that they were park guests.
This year’s re-enactment will take place Saturday and Sunday, October 13 and 14.
But the pace will be stepped up in 2013 as the park celebrates the 150th anniversary of that event. That celebration will be held August 31 and September 1.
“There will be one or two Union hikes during that weekend,” Smith said. “As for the actual date, I can’t let it go by like another day. I had to do something. I want to have some of that tired feeling from pushing yourself to do something extraordinary.”
Pushing oneself to do something extraordinary will include a 30-mile, all-night hike from Lewisburg to Droop Mountain – the Confederate Night Hike, limited to 20 to 25 people on November 5, beginning at 2 p.m., just like General John Echols and his men.
There will be a two-hour break at midnight, and then the group will press on, reaching the battlefield at daybreak. In the afternoon there will be a celebration.
A celebration held in an area of the county with a view referred to by the first loggers as “a noteworthy spot.”
As the only north – south road, with an east – west crossing, it was a natural place of defense for that 1863 battle.
And for the past 84 years it has been an attraction for folks seeking insight into their ancestor’s involvement in the battle, a place for family reunions and it boasts, as well, a most impressive sliding board and swing set for the young.
But there is a higher calling for these immaculately kept grounds.
“The purpose of the park is to keep in mind the men who fought here,” Smith said. “It is right and good to honor them and to tell their story.”
In addition to being the superintendent of Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park, Smith is also superintendent of Bear Town State Park and oversees 15 miles of the Greenbrier River Trail – from Seebert to the Droop tunnel.
Jaynell Graham may be contacted at js firstname.lastname@example.org