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  • Writer's pictureFoWB

Fourth Quarter Newsletter, October 1 - December 31, 2021

War Games in the Wilderness

(100 Years Ago Today)

by Daniel Sheron

The morning fog began to lift over the grassy ridges that dominated the local countryside. The air was crisp as was befitting a proper autumn morning and all was quiet except for the piping of a distant lark. Faintly at first, then growing in intensity, the whirl of a biplane's propeller was heard. All eyes were drawn to the sound when suddenly the horrifically rhythmic rat-a-tat-tat of a maxim machine gun distinctly burst upon the scene. With that, the command "over the top boys" was then heard prompting the multitudes forward.

While the above account could be taken from the 1918 Western Front in France, it could also be taken, surprisingly so, from the rolling fields of The Wilderness Battlefield, located a few miles west of Fredericksburg Virginia. As it just so happened, in the autumn of 1921, an event occurred on those rolling fields that brought the sights, sounds, and smells of war (without the actual carnage) back to a battlefield that had not witnessed such scenes since 1864.

The event was the brainchild of US Marine Major General Smedley Darlington Butler. Born in 1881 in West Chester PA (where one cannot shake a stick without hitting something, streets, libraries, etc., named Darlington), the son of a US Congressman, Butler joined the Marines at age 16. In what would become a 34-year tenure with the Marines, Butler worked his way up through the ranks, often distinguished himself serving in such diverse locations as Cuba

(Spanish-American War), China (Boxer Rebellion), and France (WWI). During his tenure with the Marines, Butler received two Medals of Honor, a distinction only 19 men have earned.

In 1921, Butler found himself in command of Marine Corps Base Quantico and was confronted with a problem which confronted all US armed Forces at that time, namely the inevitable downsizing following a war. Butler understood the reality of the times but wished to minimize the downsizing of his beloved Corps. Though a number of ideas crossed his mind, ultimately Butler decided what was needed was essentially a public relations coup. Something that would draw the attention of the media of the day as well as the decision makers in Washington DC.

What Butler envisioned and ultimately executed was a traditional military exercise, but with a twist. Instead of simply deploying troops within a military camp and performing what today would be called war games, Butler envisioned leading those troops from Marine Corps Base Quantico to The Wilderness Battlefield, some 50 miles away to then perform the war game exercises in full view of the local populace. And given the Wilderness Battlefield's proximity to Washington DC, it was hoped by Butler that a number of politicians, up to and including President Harding himself, might find reason to escape DC for a day or two to enjoy the Virginia countryside where the exercise would be taking place.

Over 4,000 Marines would participate in the event, and this assemblage would include two full infantry regiments plus supporting artillery, signal corps, machine gun, aerial, and engineer units. Butler would place limitations on the march, such as utilizing communications only available to active military units on the march, so that the effectiveness' of the marines, under "near-real" wartime conditions could be demonstrated.

The march, which began on September 25th, would take three full days to complete. The path followed what is essentially modern 1-95 from Quantico to Fredericksburg with a turn west down modern route 3 to the area in and around Wilderness Tavern.

Upon arriving, the marines encamped on three farms around Wilderness Tavern. One of these farms was the Willis Farm, location of Ellwood and at the time owned by Dr. Hugh Evander Willis. Dr. Willis made use of Ellwood as a summer retreat (he was a law professor at The University of Indiana nine months out of each year) while his father Evander Highland Willis managed the land around Ellwood as a working farm (cows being a particularly prized product).

The "exercise", planned for four full days, commenced on September 29th with the opening salvo of the day being a mock amphibious landing. Wilderness Run represented the dividing line between sea (the area west of Wilderness Run including Ellwood) and the land (the area east of Wilderness Run). Large artillery guns located near Ellwood fired smoke rounds, representing a naval bombardment, onto "the land." Once the marines successfully occupied "the land" (by simply splashing across Wilderness Run), the artillery was moved forward from Ellwood, also across Wilderness Run, albeit with bigger splashes, to provide support.

The closing salvo on the 29th and likely the highlight of the day's activity was a mock aerial attack on a battleship, or rather a life-size outline of a battleship. The "battleship" resided north and west of Wilderness tavern. In 1921 there was much debate in military circles as to whether attacks from the air could sink battleships (WWII 20 years later would prove that indeed airpower alone could sink battleships). The aerial attack on the "battleship" was

intended to help decide this debate by demonstrating the effectiveness of such an attack. The result of the attack on the 29th was decisively in favor of the naval unit as the aerial attack was driven back (note: the final result of the attack may have been pre-determined as the predominant opinion of Butler's superiors was in favor of a battleship's survivability from aerial attacks).

Aerial attack demonstrations and continued marine land maneuvering filled the day on September 30th.

The exercise on October 1st would be boosted by the presence of President Harding to witness the planned activities. Harding in fact would spend the night on the "battlefield" lodging in a temporary tent dubbed the "Canvas White House." During his stay, Harding would be treated to local celebrities, including both Union and Confederate veterans of the Civil War, and local delicacies such as Virginia ham. The President witnessed a good part of the October 1st activities from Ellwood's orchard.

Sunday October 2nd was the last day of the exercise and consisted mostly of ceremonial events. A Sunday religious service took place as well as speeches by the President and other guests. Again, the area around Ellwood was the central gathering place for the Presidential party. Shortly after Harding's departure, the marine force began to decamp. They were again on the move on October 3rd and back at Quantico by the evening of October 4th.

The 1921 Wilderness exercise was a public relations success for Butler. He certainly drew the attention of DC politicians onto the Marine Corp and his effort made headlines across the country. He repeated his 1921 success with a Gettysburg version of the exercise in 1922 and a New Market VA version in 1923. Ultimately however, while successful in garnering positive media support for his beloved Marine Corps, Butler's efforts to prevent or limit downsizing

was unsuccessful (in Butler's defense, it's unlikely any effort could have prevented downsizing). Many of the units present at the 1921 exercise were reduced or eliminated by the late 1920s.

At some point, the Marines placed this brass marker on the cemetery monument in the family cemetery at Ellwood. It is no longer on the monument, but it is stored safely in the archives of the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.


Orange Street Festival

It's a great way to let people know who we are and what we do, plus it is a lot of fun! FoWB had a tent at the Orange Street Festival on Saturday, September 11, and volunteers Bob Lookabill, Bob Epp, and Ruth Pavlik visited with hundreds of people!

Our visitor attendance has increased quite a bit over the years because of our volunteers who are willing to get out and do these events!


Interpretation at Ellwood 2021

by Beth Stenstrom

We started out the season "on the landscape" again, and finally the pandemic restrictions lifted enough that we were allowed to interpret inside the house. Our visitors were delighted to be able to come inside and get the full tour of the house and see the wonderful displays. Everyone had to wear masks, but it was worth it to be able to share the beautiful house with our guests.

Hours currently are 10:00 AM - 4:30 PM Saturdays and Sundays only through November 7, when we will close down for the season. Hopefully, next year will allow us to resume Living History events and dinners with speakers, and all the other wonderful things we usually do when there is not a pandemic!


Membership Challenge

by Lynn McDonald

Let's give a round of applause to our wonderful members! As you know, FoWB is an all volunteer, membership based, non-profit organization whose primary focus is to Promote, Preserve and Protect the Wilderness Battlefield. Your continued membership helps make that possible. Do you have friends who are interested in the Civil War? Are they interested in helping to protect the Wilderness Battlefield? We encourage you to invite them to become a member of Friends of Wilderness Battlefield today. Our challenge is to increase our membership and we can do that with your help! Your friends can join via our website,, or you can print off a form and hand it to them! Then, bring them with you to the Annual Meeting coming up in November! (Please RSVP)


News from the Heritage Program

by Milbrey Bartholow

Even though the world has basically been shut down from COVID-19 for the past year, the FoWB Heritage Program has been busy. We have completed 4 applications and are working on several others. Please join me in welcoming our 4 new members to the Wilderness Brigade of the Heritage Program. The Wilderness Brigade is for people who had an ancestor who fought during the Battle of the Wilderness May 5 - 7, 1854, or who was wounded during the Battle of Chancellorsville April 30 - May 5, 1853, and was treated at the Ellwood Hospital site May - September, 1853.

Laura Elizabeth Keel Castro of Dayton, VA, joined on the record of her 2nd Great Grandfather, Joseph John Renn. Joseph was from Warren Co, North Carolina and a member of Co C, 12th NC Infantry, Johnston's Brigade, Early's Division, Ell's 2nd Corps, CSA. During the Battle of the Wilderness, he was wounded, captured by 5th Corps troops, USA, treated at Wilderness Tavern, sent to Washington D.C., and on to Elmira, NY. He was released in June, 1855, and returned to Warren Co, NC. He later became a Methodist minister.

Janet Pamella Wadley Fulton of Davis, CA, joined on the record of her 3rd Great Grandfather, Samuel Fales Dunton. Samuel was from Camden, ME, and a member of the 5th Mounted Battery, Tidball's Artillery Brigade, Mott's 4th Division, Hancock's 2nd Corps, USA. During the Battle of the Wilderness, the 5th Battery was positioned near the intersection of Brock and Orange Plank Roads and held off General Lee's Attack. After the war, he returned to Maine, moved to Michigan and Ohio, and eventually to California. He passed away in the Sawtelle Veterans' Home in Los Angeles.

James Munsey Hays of Bailey's Island, ME joined on the record of his 2nd Great Grandfather, Brevet Major General Alexander Hays. Alexander was from Pennsylvania and began his Civil War career in the 53rd PA Infantry. He later became the commander of the 2nd Brigade, Birney's 3rd Division, Hancock's 2nd Corps, USA. During the Battle of the Wilderness, his brigade was positioned on Brock Road near Orange Plank Road, where he was struck and killed by a Confederate bullet. A statue stands at that spot today. He was buried in Pennsylvania.

Susan Kay Snedeker Trunzo of Fredericksburg, VA joined on the record of her 2nd Great Uncle, Charles Ashley Willis. Charles was from Barnwell District, SC, and joined Co A, 1st SC Infantry, McGowan's Brigade, Wilcox's Division, Hill's 3rd Corps, CSA. During the heavy fighting on Brock Road and Orange Plank Road on May 5, 1864, he was wounded. He dug the bullet out with his pocket knife and continued fighting. The wound became infected, and he was sent to a hospital in Lynchburg, VA. His mother got word of this and immediately travelled to see him. He died in her arms June 2, 1864. Soon after the war ended, a Negro man arrived at the Willis home in SC with a coffin containing Charles's body. The Negro man was the servant that Charles' father had provided to be with Charles during the war. Charles was buried in the family cemetery.


Volunteer Appreciation Picnic Canceled due to Covid Concerns

The Annual Volunteer Appreciation Picnic was scheduled to be held on Saturday, September 18, at Chancellorsville Visitor Center, but was canceled due to Covid concerns. We hope to have a really awesome picnic next year!

2021 Annual Meeting

Please join us for our 2021 FoWB Annual Meeting on Saturday, November 13, at the Wilderness Baptist Church.

Check in starts at 10:30 AM, and the Business Meeting will begin promptly at 11:00 AM. A delicious hot lunch will be catered by Bella Cucina following the business meeting, and our guest speaker is the former Chief Historian with the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, John Hennessy. Recently retired, John is enjoying life and still likes to hang out with us. Watch for your invitation and be sure to RSVP right away. We are looking forward to seeing you there. The address is 9701 Plank Road , Spotsylvania, VA 22553 and the church website


Fourth Quarter Oct 1 - Dec 31 2021
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