Battles and skirmishes fought during the Civil War didn’t always take place in open fields or on farmland. Homes and even entire towns would become the hotbed of some nasty firefights between 1861 and 1865. Some of these battles or at least components of battles are named after the place they were fought around. Some examples are the Peach Orchard, Devil’s Den, Lookout Mountain, Jericho Mill, West Woods, Saunders Field, etc.
During the battle over Chancellorsville, one such location is also mentioned. An iron furnace owned by Charles C. Wellford in Spotsylvania County played a vital role in the events leading up to Jackson’s charge on the Union right flank on May 2nd, 1863. Catharine Furnace was opened in 1837 by John Spotswood Wellford, brother to Charles Wellford and operated for a decade before shutting down after the death of its founder. Charles, who ran a dry goods store at the time, decided to reinstate it at the onset of the Civil War. The Wellford family had lived in Fredericksburg at what is today 1501 Caroline Street, but were flushed out by the heavy fighting in the city in December of 1862. Charles moved his family to a home in the middle of what was called The Wilderness.
Wellford’s operations consisted of a collection of six to ten buildings. Its purpose was to smelt good quality iron from the raw ore material. The furnace itself was a 36-foot tall, fieldstone structure that measured 30 feet at its base and 19 feet at the top. Workers with wheelbarrows of ore would push their load up a ramp to the mouth of the furnace and dump it in. With temperatures reaching 2,800 Fahrenheit, workers would then add lime to help separate the impurities from the ore. The unwanted material would be skimmed off and the iron extracted to be molded into bars called “pigs”. The bars were then transported for processing elsewhere.
On the Catharine Furnace property was the furnace, a blacksmith shop, coal house, boarding house for the workers, pattern house, and an office, just to name a few. Anywhere between 60 and 70 slaves worked at the furnace, along with a mix of skilled and unskilled laborers. For about five months out of the year, the furnace bustled with activity. When the furnace was cold, the slaves and laborers set their hands to farming. The Wellfords themselves owned 11 slaves, 600 acres of improved land, and 629 acres of unimproved land.
Part of operating a furnace required fuel for the fire to heat the ore. Wellford, along with many other furnace operators in the local area, cleared land throughout The Wilderness and used the timber to fuel their fires. Due to this increased deforestation in the previous century, the forest grew back even thicker than before, which attributed to both the location’s name and the horrific fighting that would take place there in 1864 during the Overland Campaign. It’s estimated that Catharine Furnace produced two tons of processed iron for every acre of timber it burned. Workers cleared an approximate 100 acres every year, and with the over 4,000 acres of property adjacent to the furnace, Wellford’s enterprise could have been supported for quite some time.
Unfortunately, the war came to his front door. Eveline Wellford, a niece of Charles, wrote to her sister about an incident on April 30th when Federal soldiers were foraging around the Wellford property. “The Yankees were down at the Furnace not a mile from us, indeed all around they were shouting and shooting, and we four unprotected females every moment expecting their appearance at the house. As soon as they came so near, uncle [Charles] and Charlie made their escape into the woods, as they certainly would have been captured had they remained.”
The men may have escaped, but about 20 Federals did descend upon their home, “searching the house for arms and Confederates, shooting the fowls, and stealing provisions, of which we had a scant supply. They seemed confident of success… of course we were amused at their boasting.”
Skirmishing around the house and furnace that night resulted in the casualty of Major Channing Price, J.E.B Stuart’s cousin and Assistant Adjutant General. He was brought to the Wellford home and died in the night.
Wellford’s support in providing an uncharted road for General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s troops to funnel down, provided the Confederate division the element of surprise upon the Union army. The road that ran south and west from the furnace was cleared recently to make transport easier for fuel and materials to the furnace. This road did not appear on any maps and ensured that the army could circumvent all Federal notice to launch a successful attack on their right flank.
One downside, however, was that as the Confederate army passed through the furnace, their position could have been given away to the Federals overlooking their position from Hazel Grove. Jackson ordered the 23rd Georgia Infantry to stay behind and guard their flank from any Union scouts who came poking around to spy on their movements.
At the head of the column rode the young Charles Wellford – son of the elder – and served as a guide for Jackson and cavalry commander J.E.B Stuart. Not far along was the Wellford family. Evelina wrote, “In expectation of some trouble the carts were waiting at the door and our trunks and some other valuables being put in, and sent off, we hurriedly took our departure for the woods, making as good time as you might imagine under the circumstances.” Other families, like the Chancellor family to the north, were not so lucky to escape and were forced to host Union commanders during the battle.
Reports of the Confederate movements reached Major General Dan Sickles of the III Corps, who then pressed his superior, Joseph Hooker in command of the entire Union army, for permission to move against them. After a few hours (a few hours too late) Hooker gave his permission. The 23rd Georgia commander, Colonel Emory Best, was about to get barraged by the 1st and 2nd US Sharpshooters, along with a full brigade from the III Corps under Samuel Hayman. By then, Jackson’s troops were already clear of the furnace and on their way west.
The Georgians held the intersection just north of Catharine Furnace until the long line of Jackson’s column had fully passed. Only then did they fall back and engage in heavy fighting around the ten or so buildings around the furnace. Support from Confederate artillery also aided in their efforts, but the position was no longer tenable.
One – possibly false – story that arose out of the battle around Catharine Furnace was told by a neighboring family. The wife of a Confederate soldier had supposedly taken refuge at the furnace just before the fighting began. The problem was that she was going into labor. Lieutenant John Morgan came upon the woman and realizing that she couldn’t be moved or evacuated during the coming battle, posted six men with white flags around the home and ordered them to stay there until the fighting was over. In honor of his chivalry, the woman named her new baby Morgan Lieutenant Monroe.
The Confederates, finding their position couldn’t be held any longer, fell back to the railroad cut that fringed the north boundary of the Wellford farmlands. This was the very same railroad cut that Confederate General James Longstreet would utilize to inflict an attack on the Union army near the Brock Road in May of the following year.
Federal troops and artillery moved to fill the vacuum around the furnace. Evelina wrote, “The shells came whizzing by, bursting apparently near us, and you may judge that our feelings were not of the most comfortable kind.”
It wasn’t all too comfortable for the Georgians either. Sharpshooters hammered their right flank, pinning them to the railroad cut. Their commander, Emory Best, called for them to fall back even further, but the order didn’t reach many of his men. Best abandoned his men and about 269 of the regiment were captured by the Federals. For his apparent desertion of troops in the heat of combat, Best was court marshalled and drummed out of the army. Meanwhile, Jackson sensed the trouble in his rear and sent two brigades under Edward Thomas and James J. Archer to further mask his movements.
“I think it is a retreat,” Dan Sickles remarked. This statement was made, regardless of what the Georgians bragged about after they were captured. “You may think you have done a big thing just now,” they said, “but wait till Jackson gets ‘round on your right. You’ll catch hell before night.”
In a move that proved the undoing of the Union army during the battle at Chancellorsville, Sickles requested more reinforcements be sent to his portion of the line around Catharine Furnace. Elements from the XI Corps under Oliver Otis Howard did so, leaving a three-mile gap on the Union right flank that Jackson was about to exploit.
But as the fighting would rage on north of the furnace and around the Chancellor’s home, the Wellford family could never forget that May of 1863. “We lost a great deal by their occupation,” Evelina wrote, “but not as much as we expected. Uncle C he has lost nearly all his clothes, aunt Mary too, but his books are saved and the Furnace too, so we have still have much to be thankful for.”
In May of 1864, Catharine Furnace was destroyed by the infamous Brigadier General George Armstrong Custer. The Wellfords rebuilt and continued to provide the Confederacy with iron until the close of the war. Today, all that remains of the furnace is the stone furnace itself, poking out of the earth to remind all who visit it of what happened there.
“That Furious Struggle: Chancellorsville and the High Tide of the Confederacy, May 1-4, 1863” by Chris Mackowski and Kristopher White