The site of Virginia’s last battle in the first year of our Civil War is rarely visited. Camp Alleghany is near no interstate, metropolitan area, or even a paved road. Put another way, you need good directions to get there.
Indeed, this battle of Alleghany Mountain … or Camp Alleghany …or Alleghany Summit … (and we acknowledge there are at least a dozen ways to spell that mountain!), is not on many radar screens. It’s not part of the National Park System, not even a state park. And it’s never been reenacted. Thus, it’s unlikely to attract many visitors on its upcoming sesquicentennial, 13 December 2011.
Yet future author and satirist Ambrose Bierce, then a 19-year-old private in the 9th Indiana, left us a most vivid incident concerning the Union defeat and aftermath. In the North’s retreat from this freezing, mountain top fight, Bierce watched soldiers shoot at some rooting hogs near some of the Union dead killed in the battle’s first encounter. To his horror, the bodies
had altered their positions. They appeared also to have thrown off some of their clothing, which lay near by, in disorder. Their expression, too, had an added blankness—they had no faces.
Remembered Bierce, the swine
had eaten our fallen, but—touching magnanimity!—we did not eat theirs.
On the Confederate side, outnumbered three to one, Col. Edward Johnson and his 1,200 men grabbed notice across the South with their victory, especially Johnson who turned the fight around with a brazen act of valor. Recalled a member of the 52nd Virginia,
I saw him at one point, where his men were hard pressed, snatch a musket in one hand and swinging a big club in the other he led his line right up among the enemy, driving them headlong down the mountain.
“Old Alleghany” Johnson would survive the war—although later captured twice and wounded once—and is today remembered for commanding two of Robert E. Lee’s bloodiest fights: Gettysburg’s Culp’s Hill and Spotsylvania’s Mule Shoe, battlefields that thousands tour each year. Yet few know of his audacious acts atop Alleghany. Even fewer visit the site.
But Ed Bearss, our Chief Historian Emeritus of the National Park Service will tell you it’s the most pristine battlefield he’s seen in North America. And Ed’s been to just about all of them.
To get there from the nation’s capital—it’s 4.5 hours one way, so check the weather before you venture forth—head west out I-66 to I-81 and go south to Staunton. Take Exit 225 west 4 miles to Rt. 250. Follow Rt. 250 west over four mountains to Monterey, then onwards on Rt. 250 to the West Virginia state line. When you get to the line, you’ll see a historic roadside marker entitled “Camp Alleghany.” Take the winding gravel road to your left for 1.5 miles through the relatively level, wooded mountain top until you break out into a broad meadow.
There are no monuments to direct you to the entrenchments and still preserved hut sites, just a modest parking pull off to the left with a single battlefield sign. Nothing else has changed except the grassing over of the trenches, and if you look up, the occasional con trail of a jet plane. But next week the air will carry the same December chill Ambrose Bierce felt 150 years ago.
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 Bierce, Ambrose, Ambrose Bierce’s Civil War, William McCann, ed, (Chicago: Henry Regnery Co. 1956), 8-9.
 Robson, John, How a One-Legged Rebel Lives, (Charlottesville, VA: Chronicle Steam Print Co., 1891), 16.