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Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Furnace, the Rheumatism and the Yankees

Madora and Absalom Chewning

     It's one of those stories whose circumstances were not amusing to the participants at the time, but is very humorous in its retelling years later.
     In the far reaches of western Spotsylvania County, next to the sprawling plantation of Ellwood, was Mountain View. Built in 1825 by William V. Chewning (with substantial improvements and repairs made after the Civil War) the house stood until 1947, when it mysteriously burned after it was sold by Irvin "Mack" Chewning, William's grandson.

Mountain View

     William V. Chewning (c.1790-1863) married Permelia Henderson in 1813 and over the next twenty three years she bore him eleven children, including Absalom Herndon Chewning, born September 3, 1833. In the photograph below, Permelia is seated next to her husband, William V. Chewning. The original photograph was shared with me by Chewning descendant and researcher Diane Gray, who generously gave me permission to feature it today. Diane was present with Absalom's granddaughter when the photograph was discovered in the Chewning family Bible forty years ago.

William V. and Permelia Henderson Chewning 
     William Chewning was killed in a freak accident at Herndon's mill on Wilderness Run in 1863. Permelia and Absolom continued to live at Mountain View. The Chewning family's story at Mount View during the Civil War is one of high drama, including the near capture of a Confederate general and the single-handed capture of a group of Union soldiers by Marcus Chewning during the battle of the Wilderness. 
     Two circumstances prevented Absalom Chewning from serving in the Confederate army. Even as a young man Absalom suffered from rheumatism. So much so, in fact, that at times he could scarcely get around. Even had he not been so afflicted, Absalom would have been exempted from conscription by virtue of his skills as a master blacksmith. His knowledge and ability in forging iron was much too important an asset for the Confederacy to risk having him exposed to the dangers of battle.

Catherine Furnace

     This depiction of how Catherine Furnace may have looked, by artist Stuart M. Barnette, was generously shared with me by my friends at the National Park Service in Fredericksburg. Built in the 1830s, the iron works here had fallen into disuse before the Civil War. Once Virginia seceded it became immediately apparent that facilities such as this one would be vital to the war effort. During the war high quality iron was made at Catherine Furnace and shipped to the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond. Cannonballs were also manufactured in Spotsylvania. Absalom Chewning was in charge of the operations there.

From the story on Absolom Chewning, 1932

     The August 17, 1932 edition of The Free Lance Star featured a story about Absalom at Catherine Furnace which was reprinted from The Infantry Journal, USA. Local resident Jeter Talley told this story of Ab Chewning's dramatic experience during the battle of Chancellorsville to the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania Battlefields Memorial Commission:
     "Ab was not allowed to enlist in the Confederate army, first because he was needed at the Furnace to help turn out iron; second, because he had such a bad case of rheumatism they had to carry him in some of his spells and hoist him to places in a sling so he could check up on jobs.
     "One of Ab's chief helpers was Sprig Dempsey, who was a good-hearted big fellow and a great friend of Ab's. Well, Sprig told me himself Ab got cured of his rheumatism in a way that seemed to everybody at the time nothing short of a miracle. They were fitting a ventilator, or something, on the roof of a low building connected with the foundry. Jackson's men went marching by, but everybody was used to seeing troops moving, so they kept right on with their work. But hardly had Jackson's men gone and the wagons were passing at Welford's when here came a Georgia regiment [the 23rd Georgia Infantry], left by Jackson to guard the road up toward Hazel Grove, moving back to the foundry and moving fast. The woods were full of Yankees, they said, and they couldn't stand them off much longer. Well, that didn't phase anybody, because they were used to scares; and, anyhow, Ab and Sprig and the rest of the iron men had no doubt for a minute those Georgia boys could whip a woods full of Yankees anytime. So they just went on with their tinkering while the Georgians got into the foundry and spread out on both sides of it and fixed everything for a fight. A chance of them were on the bluff above the foundry, others were in those low-ground woods skirmishing like Indians.
      "All of a sudden up on the bluff there broke out such a racket of shooting and yelling that Sprig and Ab got uneasy and then--Whooee! Georgians began to pour over the bluff like a waterfall and the sky behind them clouded up and rained Yankees down into the Furnace hollow. Sprig and the rest of the iron men took out for Scott's Run yonder, the other side of which Posey's brigade was fortifying. The Georgians outside the foundry drifted back towards the railroad, jumping from tree to tree and shooting at the Yankees surrounding the soldiers in the foundry.
     "Sprig said he reached the bank of Scott's Run in what seemed three bounds and was just about to plunge across when he remembered poor Ab Chewning back there on the roof. He stopped short and was studying what he could do to help Ab get away when a man shot by him like a bat out of a barn and made a leap that carried him clear across Scott's Run, which was more than Sprig could do or had thought of doing.
     "It was Ab.
     "Ab had been completely cured of his rheumatism; and if you don't believe it you can go down to Scott's Run and look at the place, which is there just like in 1863.
     "Well, sir, Sprig Dempsey was so astonished he couldn't believe what he was looking at with his own eyes. He just couldn't. And as he stood gazing where Ab had vanished through the forest a parcel of Yankees that thought they were chasing Ab came running up and captured Dempsey.
     "To his dying day Sprig Dempsey said he had never seen anything like it in his life how those Yankees had cured Ab Chewning of that rheumatism, which even bee-stinging had failed to cure."

     Absalom Chewning survived the war and his near capture by Union soldiers. He married Madora Ann Spicer in 1869 and together they raised ten children at Mountain View. Absalom died on February 23, 1923 and is buried at New Hope Baptist Church in Orange County.

Absalom Chewning, about 1920



  1. Great story Pat, I probably fished right where Ole Ab went leaping.

  2. Great story about wonderful Aunt Mildred Stephens Jones is the Gr. Granddaughter of Absolom & Permelia.....I recently spent the week in Virginia and had the chance to see Aunt Mildred.....she's a blast to speak with, the last of her generation....I think she's 82 yo. Anyway, she's told me many the stories you mention in the post, funny thing about it she speaks as if it happened just yesterday......
    While I was in Virginia doing all kinds of Battlefield topography and Cemetery exploration I stopped at the old Chewning farm, which is now owned by the Parks Dept. and was horrified by what I saw......the old family Cemetery at the top of the hill behind where the old house would have stood has been severely damaged by the Millers farming crew that's been farming the property under contract through the Parks Dept.
    There's a small patch of woods (about 40' X40') that depicts the resting area of at least 2 Chewning family members and possibly 1 Slave. But someone over the past year has damaged much of the trees inside the area.....piling up much of the debris from the surrounding area.
    I've been going to this Cemetery for about 7 years now documenting its history and condition and I have earlier images of it (3 + years ago) where it's well maintained and there were still 3 of the 4 Parks Dept. corner markers designating the it as a historical spot.......but now they been torn up by a bulldozer, bobcat or some other type of heavy equipment........trees have been damaged and there's a pile of junk 7' high 40' square.......I've been in touch with the Parks Dept. and they say they will get to it.......but I'm not certain they will......I'm in Florida, if I were closer I would work on cleaning it up.....I'm extremely disappointed that no ones caring for the Family Cemetery.....the parks dept. did tell me that they don't own the cemetery only the surrounding area and it's up to the family to maintain it........Aunt Mildred is just to old and I'm not a blood relative of the Chewnings (my grandfather was Moses Joses) so I only have a voice.......but it seems like no one is listen........breaks my heart.

  3. Love this story. With some hints from Wil bowler, I was able to determine the identiy of Sprig.

    James Thomas "Sprig" Dempsey was born on July 10, 1846, in Mine Run, Orange County, Virginia. His father, John L Dempsey, was 33 and his mother, Susan Ann Nash, was 21 lived on what is now part of the Wilderness Battlefield. During the Civil War, he served as helper at Catherine Furnace for Master Blacksmith, AB Chewning. He married Anne Elizabeth Brown on August 10, 1875, in Lignum, Virginia. They had four children during their marriage. He died on May 12, 1931, in Lignum, Culpeper County, at the age of 84, and was buried beside his wife at Lael Cemetery, Lignum, Virginia.

  4. These Dempseys must be kin to Moses Dempsey somehow. Does anyone know how?

    1. Sprig and Moses Dempsey were first cousins, once removed.

  5. Hi, Cousin Pat! Thanks for sending me the info re NPS. I just wrote re the Wm V Chewning cemetery. Will let you know what I learn. Also, I didn't notice you had a book for sale until I saw it in this blog, so I just ordered it from Orange Hist Soc. Looking forward to receiving and reading it. I know I'll enjoy it.

  6. I'm a blood relative through one of Absolm Chewning. I went up there and it still look the same of what you describe. Such a shame though, Gene. I ever knew that about Ab. Such a good story though.