On May 8, 1862, Stonewall Jackson's Army advanced to Sitlington's Hill above Union-occupied McDowell in the remote and rugged Alleghany Mountains of western Virginia. The Stonewall Brigade climbed Sitlington's Hill with their artillery and commenced firing on Union troops from the hilltop. The Federals sought control of the Shenandoah Valley - nicknamed 'The Breadbasket of the Confederacy' - because it's fertile farms were feeding the Confederate Army. The Union had advanced toward Staunton and The Valley through West Virginia. West Virginia had split from Virginia and remained Unionist after Virginia voted for secession. The Virginians who fought on opposite sides during the battle knew each other and called each other by name even as they fired shots. Despite repeated charges against the hill, the Confederates held their ground, and the Union retreated.
Visiting the McDowell Battlefield
Your best bet to tour McDowell Battlefield is to start at the Highland County Museum. The Museum serves as the McDowell Civil War Orientation Center, and the village of McDowell is truly a step back in time as it appears much as it did 150 years ago. The Museum and Presbyterian Church served as field hospitals during the Battle of McDowell, and the church cemetery is the resting place of soldiers killed during the Battle.
The Civil War Trust Trail at Sitlington's Hill - the site of the heaviest fighting - is a short drive from the town center of McDowell. The trail is a 2-mile round-trip hike on a wide, mowed grass track with a rather steep and sometimes rocky climb to the top. This is a beautiful, remote area, so bring water and snacks and don't expect your cell phone to work here. (There is a phone booth that takes quarters outside the grocery in McDowell.) Begin the trail at the blue blaze near the interpretive signs in the car park on Route 250. Follow the trail to the next blue blaze, then turn left and scramble under the barbed wire. Continue on the trail to a T intersection, make a left, and begin your climb to the top. There are interpretive signs along the way with spectacular views of the Alleghany Mountains when you reach the summit.
WARNING: This hike will take you into bear country. While black bears exist throughout most of The Commonwealth, their population has the highest concentration in the Blue Ridge and Alleghany Mountains and the Great Dismal Swamp. The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries Living With Black Bears in Virginia offers black bear facts and safety information.
Pictured at the top: Located on Route 250 on the way to McDowell if you are coming from the east, the Fort Johnson Overlook offers splendid year-round views of Highland County. This old fort built to defend the Shenandoah Valley has facilities and picnic areas and features a Confederate Breastworks Trail.
This little guy is one of two black bear cubs spotted foraging in the undergrowth near the top of Sitlington's Hill.
On the left, the Confederate Breastworks Trail at Fort Johnson is an easy, half-mile loop that shares letters written home by Lt. Shepherd "Shep" Green Pryor of the Georgia Volunteer Infantry during the winter encampment of 1861-62 at Fort Johnson. On the right, Confederate troops climbed Sitlington's Hill through a ravine to the right of the Civil War Trust trail and may have actually used the trail to climb the hill.
The Highland County Museum serves as a Civil War Orientation Center and features a film and Civil War artifacts.