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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Sprig Dempsey and the Battle of Catherine Furnace

Catherine Furnace (National Park Service)

     A couple of years ago I wrote one of my most popular pieces, which described the fighting that took place at Catherine Furnace on 2 May 1863. New information has come to light this week which allows me today to solve one outstanding mystery and to add to what is already known about the foundry and the people associated with it.
     My earlier post described the crucial role of master blacksmith Absalom Herndon Chewning in the foundry's operation, as well as a highly entertaining account of the battle that occurred there during Stonewall Jackson's flank march. For those of you who have not already read it, now would be a good time to click here and enjoy this little known piece of Spotsylvania history. You won't be disappointed, I promise.
     The identity of Sprig Dempsey has remained a mystery until now. Thanks to the investigative talents of two of Spotsylvania's premier genealogists, Wil Bowler and Tom Myers, I can now share with you his name and his story.

1921 pension application of James Thomas Dempsey

     James Thomas Dempsey was born in the Mine Run section of eastern Orange County in June 1845, the son of John L. Dempsey and Susan Nash. In 1875 he married Ann Elizabeth Brown of Culpeper County, where he thereafter lived until his death in 1931.
     Late in life James "Sprig" Dempsey submitted two applications in order to obtain pension benefits as a disabled Confederate veteran. By this time he was suffering from rheumatism and heart disease and was no longer able to work. The first of these applications, dated 21 May 1917, was rejected due to a "misunderstanding of my service; papers being not clear." The second one, dated 23 December 1921 and shown above, provides us with much of what we now know. Dempsey did not enlist in one of the local regiments. Instead, he was detached from service in Richmond to work at Catherine Furnace. This makes me think that perhaps he was conscripted by Confederate authorities in June 1862 (not 1863, as he incorrectly remembers on his application). In any case, he notes that he "served faithfully."
     On his pension application Dempsey listed two comrades who served with him during the war. One, of course, was Absalom Herndon Chewning, with whom we are already familiar. The other was another teenaged boy impressed into laboring at Catherine Furnace, John Lewis Morris.
     John Morris was born in the Indiantown area of Orange County in 1848. He was inducted into the Confederate service in Spotsylvania on 1 September 1864 and worked at Catherine Furnace until December of that year, when he "left to join the regular Confederate army." Whether he was successful in doing so in unclear, as his name does not appear in any regimental roster that I can find. After his death in 1934 his widow filed for pension benefits as well. She cited his service in Company I of the 6th Virginia Cavalry, but I find no record of him there.
     The fact that Sprig Dempsey and John Morris worked together at the Furnace in the autumn of 1864 lets us know that at some point after his capture during the battle of Chancellorsville he had been exchanged. In 1865 Dempsey was "discharged at the close of the war after Lee's surrender and paroled from Fredericksburg."
Western Spotsylvania, 1863

     Both Dempsey and Morris mentioned the fact that their commanding officer was Charles Beverly Wellford (1829-1885).
     John Spottswood Wellford, C.B. Wellford's uncle, was responsible for establishing Catherine Furnace. Apparently named for his mother, the former Catherine Yates, the foundry was an integral part of the Fredericksburg Iron and Steel Manufacturing Company, incorporated in 1836. The company relied heavily on military contracts, thereby missing a good chance at long term profitability in the pig iron business while prices were high. By the time of J.S. Wellford's death in 1846, the furnace became inactive and ownership passed to his brother Charles Carter Wellford, father of C.B. Wellford.

Charles Carter Wellford (National Park Service)

     In addition to their house in Fredericksburg, the family of C.C. Wellford owned a home in Spotsylvania on modern Jackson Trail East. The nearby furnace which he owned can be seen in the center of the map detail above, just north of the unfinished Fredericksburg & Gordonsville Railroad.
     The coming of the Civil War brought new opportunities to both father and son. Charles Beverly Wellford enlisted as a private in Captain Pollock's Company Virginia Light Artillery. Meanwhile, in 1862 his father signed a contract with the Confederate government to produce 2,000 tons of pig iron at the newly reopened furnace. The determination was made that Private Wellford's talents were better utilized in his father's iron enterprise than with the army. Accordingly, on 4 April 1862 George Minor, Chief of Ordnance and Hydrography, petitioned Secretary of War George W. Randolph to release C.B. Wellford from active service in order to assume new responsibilities at Catherine Furnace (as a civilian Minor was a professional musician and he resumed his avocation after the war).

Petition of George Minor to G.W. Randolph, April 1862

     During the battle of Chancellorsville, at the time that Sprig Dempsey and Absalom Chewning were seeking to escape from Union forces probing the rear of the Confederate column, Charles B. Wellford acted as a guide for General Jackson, taking him through the country lanes leading to Brock Road.
     In 1864 Catherine Furnace was destroyed by Union cavalry commanded by General George Custer. It was rebuilt, however, and continued to produce iron for the Confederacy until 1865.

     A bizarre footnote to the Wellfords' wartime experience occurred during the Federal occupation of Fredericksburg in the weeks following Lee's surrender. From the 7 June 1865 edition of the Fredericksburg Ledger:


  1. Charles Beverly Wellford, son of Charles Carter Wellford, was the grandson of the first US Surgeon General under George Washington, Dr. Robert Wellford. Robert is buried in the Willis Cemetery at Maryes Heights, in Fredericksburg. Robert Wellford was a surgeon for Gen. Howe's British Forces during the Revolutionary War. One of the men that he saved was John Rowzi Spottswood of Flat Run, Orange, Virginia. Gen Fielding Lewis was instrumental in setting up a practice in Fredericksburg for Dr Robert Welford, 1753-1823.

    One of the great family stories in our area that seens to have been been forgotten.

  2. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.