Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Belle Grove

In the summer of 1885, veterans of the Union Army of the Shenandoah returned to a Virginia plantation called Belle Grove for a somber reunion. Twenty-one years earlier, at dawn on October 19, 1864, Confederate General Jubal Early led a surprise attack on Sheridan's encampment at Belle Grove, routing 7 Union infantry divisions into ignominious flight. The Battle of Belle Grove was one of the Confederacy's greatest victories....until later that day.

Early's planning was brilliant - as were his generals Pegram, Evans and Ramseur - but he stopped too soon. He would later claim he had no choice. The sight of all those Yankee backs persuaded his hungry troops to abandon fighting in favor of looting. Sheridan's scorched earth campaign had laid waste to the rich Shenandoah Valley. What the locals called "Red October" had been a Union tactic to deny the Confederate army food. Gen. Sheridan was 6 miles north at Winchester when the attack on Belle Grove began. He galloped south on a famous ride, rallied his fleeing troops, descended on Early's disorganized forces, and drove them out. 900 men died that day; 5500 were wounded; over a thousand were simply "missing."

Among the dead at Belle Grove, besides Jubal Early's career, was Major General Stephen D. Ramseur, a 27-year-old West Point graduate whom Robert E. Lee had promoted to Major General only 4 months earlier. Ramseur, a frequently wounded veteran of Chancellorsville, Spotsylvania Courthouse, Malvern Hill and Monocacy, was an educated man and, at least to judge from his picture, a sensitive one as well. The day he died was also the day he learned of the birth of his first child. Shot through both lungs, he was carried to Belle Grove where his captors, unlike the despicable combatants we hear of today, made him as comfortable as possible. He died the following morning surrounded by former West Point classmates.

A notable survivor of this bloodbath was Belle Grove itself. Built in 1797 for Major Isaac Hite (1758-1836), it had been a showplace until 1860 when Hite descendants moved out. After miraculously surviving Sheridan's burning of the upper Shenandoah Valley, it limped through the rest of the 19th century in progressively declining condition. Of its postwar owners, my favorite, only by virtue of his name, was J. Wilson Smellie.

In 1907 things looked up. Andrew Jackson Brumback (1849-1912), a man about whom I can discover very little, bought Belle Grove and embarked on a program of long postponed repairs and upgrades. By 1922, Brumback's son Herbert was running it as popular country inn, interestingly, without benefit of electricity. In 1928, the Brumbacks dispensed with candlelight, electrified the house, and sold it the following year to a frequent guest named Francis Welles Hunnewell.

Mr. Hunnewell, a Boston brahmin of taste and resources, was enchanted with Belle Grove, although not with its condition. In 1930 he hired Washington DC architect Horace Peasley to install central heat, a new bathroom, more bedrooms, and replacement windows. Peasley carefully researched the paint colors, replaced crumbling stonework, and restored the house to a close approximation of its antebellum condition. Hunnewell died in 1964 and willed the house on 100 acres to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The image below shows the 1967 ceremony dedicating Belle Grove as a museum.

Time appears to have stood still on the approach to Belle Grove. You'd never guess Interstate 81 is less than a mile away.

The main pavilion, built of limestone quarried on the plantation, hasn't changed much in over two centuries. The wing on the left, added between 1815 and 1820, has been jiggered around quite a lot. The first view below shows the south, or entrance facade.

The columned porch on the north side of the house is almost identical to the one on the south. The door beneath it opens into what we'd call - or at least what I'd call - the drawing room. At Belle Grove it's called the parlor.

By the time the west wing was completed, Major Hite and his second wife were on the way to a 12th child. They must have hung like bats before the wing went up.

If like me you love to look at floor plans, you can track Belle Grove's evolution on the ones below. Interesting fact: Besides having no electricity, guests at the Belle Grove Inn shared a grand total of one bathroom.

Belle Grove was riddled with bullets during the Civil War. A century plus of weather has softened wounds in the limestone walls, but accumulated paint has only partly filled this graze on one of the porch pillars.

Belle Grove's plan and interior finishes are redolent with 18th century restraint and elegance, but not much grandeur. Grandeur, of course, is relative. When built, Belle Grove was an outpost of high civilization surrounded by exceedingly provincial countryside and no doubt seemed grand at the time. Every room in the original house opened onto a sensible, but not very dramatic, T-shaped hall. An interior stair from the piano nobile to kitchen and pantries in the raised basement below wasn't added until 1930.

The library, located immediately to the right of the front door, strikes a note of well bred antique simplicity that pervades the entire house. Major Hite was a well connected man, rich from family and land, a friend of the great, and married to James Madison's sister. Thomas Jefferson himself offered advice on this house, or at least was solicited for it. Madison urged Hite to visit Monticello for ideas.

Here's Francis Hunnewell, relaxing in his Peasley-restored library, probably, judging from the plus fours, sometime in the 1930s. The bookshelves are hidden by cabinet doors on either side of the fireplace. The library paneling has been stripped, a look I frankly prefer to today's historically accurate paint palette and provincial faux bois finishes.

What would have been the reception room in a house of a later era is here called the day sitting room. Federal ladies in the country didn't have boudoirs, but many did have a lot of business related to the running of a big plantation house. Both Mrs. Hites conducted theirs from here, as well as welcoming travelers, mediating child disputes, doing hand work, etc., etc.

At the north end of the T-hall, on axis with the front door, is the entrance to the parlor or drawing room. To the left of this door, the hall leads west to the dining room and plantation office; to the right, it heads toward the owners' bedroom, a children's nursery, and a tiny staircase-in-a-closet that leads to the attic. During the Hite era, attic stairs were the only stairs, and the Hites themselves lived in symbolic as well as literal isolation from their slaves in the basement.

Maybe Thomas Jefferson did design this room...or maybe he didn't. It speaks to his aesthetic, true enough, but this was aristocratic America's prevailing aesthetic in the late 18th century. The parlor has beautiful proportions, a blank door on the west wall to insure compositional balance, and expertly carved details copied from popular pattern books. It is a room, we might say, in which to put one's best foot forward.

Isaac Hite Jr. (1758-1836), the man on the parlor wall below, was the descendant of German Protestants hounded out of Europe by the ISIS of their day, Louis XIV. Hite's grandfather grew rich in America, enabling Hite's father to send his son to William and Mary College at Williamsburg. Hite Jr. was among the first 100 men elected to the newly formed Phi Betta Kappa society. After soldiering in the revolution, young Hite was made a Major in the Frederick County Militia by Gov. Patrick ('give me liberty, or give me death') Henry himself.

In 1783, Hite married Nellie Conway Madison (1760-1802), sister of the future president. Her father made the newlyweds a wedding gift of 15 slaves; his father made them a present of 483 acres south of Middletown, VA. For the next 11 years, Hite planned a new house for his bride, finishing it 14 years after they were married and 5 years before she died. Evidently people didn't hurry back then, which is odd since they didn't live so long. A troubling footnote: Why weren't our ancestors a little better looking?

Among the well-wishers at Isaac and Nellie Hite's wedding in 1783 was a certain Rev. Maury, who presented his year-old baby girl for the newlyweds to kiss. Mr. Maury was something of a tactless jokester, it would seen, because he then allowed as how the child might someday be Mr. Hite's second wife. In 1803, a year after Nellie Hite died at age 42, the former infant became exactly that. Ann Maury Hite (1782-1851) gave her husband 10 children and outlived him by 15 years.

The midpoint of the T-hall's east-west axis is right outside the parlor. Let's now go east (to the right in the image below) for a look at the the owner's bedroom, nowadays rather grandly known as the Gold Bed Chamber.

Why "Gold Chamber?" I have no idea, and my reference materials finesse the point. This is the best bedroom in the house, but also the farthest from the bathroom. What is going on with the bedroom door? Answer: paint analysis.

Across the hall is a nursery where a slave/nanny tended the youngest Hites until they grew big enough to be billeted elsewhere. The crowding caused by a brood of 12 children is what led to the (again very leisurely) construction of the west wing. How did they survive with all those kids, and all those slaves on top of them? Better them than me. The nursery has a sink in the closet, a modern-ish intrusion from the days of the Brumbacks' inn.

Also on the east hall is the stair to the attic, a profoundly forgettable space but for fascinating graffiti that covers the plaster walls. Everybody from Confederate soldiers to bus riding day trippers is represented.

On the other side of the house, at the end of the western hall, is Mr. Hunnewell's bathroom. It is sandwiched between the original plantation office and a formal dining room. When the house operated as an inn, the Brumbacks had their own bathroom in the west wing. That means there were exactly 2 bathrooms in the entire house, 3/4 of which was a public inn.

Belle Grove in early days was an apotheosis of Jeffersonian democracy, a world of educated landowners who prospered through agriculture, governed with enlightenment, and owned slaves. Contrary to what many of us Yankees think, not all southern plantations raised cotton. For almost 40 years, Isaac Hite grew wheat, rye, oats, corn, operated flour and timber mills, even distilled his own whiskey. Plantations like Belle Grove were big operations, the administration of which was done in the room below. At the time of Hite's death Belle Grove's fields and forests covered 7,535 acres. Its rich harvests, together with those of neighboring plantations, would one day be called the "breadbasket of the Confederacy."

Across the hall from the office is the dining room...

...which connects to the parlor on the east...

...and in the other direction, via a diminutive kitchen beyond the door below, to the oft-altered west wing.

The west wing has housed Hite children, Brumback innkeepers, a public dining room, Hunnewell guests, historic site caretakers, and more recently National Trust site offices.

Belle Grove's basement, unlike the upper floor, shows the hand of modern times throughout - in handicap accessible bathrooms, gift shop, and media presentation room.

Also in the basement is the winter kitchen, where slaves tended cooking fires for 24 hours a day, until summer came and hot cooking moved outdoors. It is a vivid museum of inconvenience that makes the most historically unreconstructed among us grateful for GE and SubZero.

While it is not really to my taste - that taste running unashamedly to the Edwardian - Belle Grove is splendidly preserved, cleverly interpreted, and altogether instructive. Besides regular house tours, it is the site of Civil War reenactments, private weddings, business meetings, children's programs - have I forgotten anything? Probably. Belle Grove is located in Middletown, VA, 80 miles due west of Washington D.C. The link is


  1. John, you are a master storyteller: one can hear the sounds of battle, the squeals and yells of 12 children, the cooks moving pots in the kitchen, the day trippers' bus chugging to a stop, and then the Boston accents: "At least one more bath is absolutely essential..."

    This place has a sweet, clean atmosphere, unlike most ante-Bellum sites cursed by history. Especially in the library, where one can smell the Murphy's Oil Soap for wood, no doubt liberally and loving utilized by today's occupying army of trained staff and dedicated volunteers.

    The set of portraits with coordinating draperies is oddly intriguing. Please let me recommend that on your next venture to the Midwest you explore the Taft Museum (splendid pictures and objets d'art in a Taft home similar to Belle Grove) in Cincinnati. Vas you ever in Cincinnati?

    1. I recently went to the Taft Museum for the first time to see the Antique Christmas Exhibit. It is a beautifully preserved home, although we could only tour the public rooms of the house, I would have loved to have seen then kitchen, bedrooms etc. John, I'm interested in knowing if you've ever toured the Schraft Estate in Winchester, Mass?

  2. Definitely not my favorite period/style either (I too prefer Edwardian though my interests extends to WWII) but certainly an interesting tour from a history buff point of view. The name certainly piqued my interest as my living room is painted in a very lovely shade of golden yellow called "Belle Grove Amber" - supposedly a National Trust color, according to the paint manufacturers...interestingly I did not see said color anywhere in your photos! Thank you, my weekly visit to your blog is always a pleasure.


  3. Doesn't seem like much after the perfection last week but still a lovely house. Love the paint color on the trim in the front hall.

  4. The original owners of this property don't seem like the uber wealthy of the South. This house appears to be one of the more modest southern plantation mansions. It's modesty is it's overall appeal.

  5. You do a great job. Thank you for the information, the tour and the inspiration to visit this place on my own. Ann

  6. What a wonderful overview of Belle Grove. I really enjoyed it. I am a descendant of the Smellies. Mr. J. Wilson Smellie who bought Belle Grove after the Hites is my paternal great great grandfather. He came over from Scotland, from what I've been told, and his daughter, my great grandmother, actually went to live in Scotland for a time as an adult, so there were still relatives back there in the late 1800s. My father said J. Wilson was not a very nice man, but he did father my great grandmother whom my father adored. Her name was Annie and she married Albert Wade, who I believe was from Winchester. A crocheted bedspread made by Annie was donated to Belle Grove some years ago by her daughter, Margaret Hickerson. I would love to see it some day. I believe it's been archived.

    Anyway, I'm so glad the house has been preserved, and my husband and I have visited a couple of times. Incidentally, I now live in a house that was part of the Gettysburg campaign (and was bought by my husband's third great grandparents from the original owners in 1899), which came after the Battle of Cedar Creek (Belle Grove). It is a blessing and an honor to be part of this history of our country.