Not many people get the opportunity to tour a safehouse that was used by Mosby’s Rangers during the Civil War, but thanks to the Piedmont Heritage Area, I had the opportunity to do just that.
The private home called Belle Grove was once the residence of Civil War diarist Virginia “Tee” Edmonds, whose brothers rode with the famous Mosby’s Rangers—commanded by Colonel John S. Mosby.
Background Of Mosby’s Rangers
I have been lucky enough to visit a number of houses that were used by Mosby’s Rangers while doing research for my novel Shades of Gray. There is nothing comparable to being able to walk in the footsteps of historic figures and getting to experience the same environment as they did more than 150 years ago.
Some of the other houses that I’ve visited that were used by or visited by Mosby’s men are Green Garden. home of Mosby Ranger Dolly Richards, and Welbourne, which is now a wonderful bed and breakfast. I also had the opportunity to go horseback riding at the historic Long Branch Plantation, which is open to the public for tours.
John Mosby started out with nine veteran cavalrymen “loaned” to him by General JEB Stuart. Stuart saw something he liked in Mosby, and increased the number to 15 just a few weeks later. Within six months Mosby became the commanding officer of the 43rd Virginia Cavalry, which was later known as Mosby’s Rangers.
As reports and rumors of Mosby’s successful raids began to spread, the ranks of his unit increased. Many of recruits were young (at least one being 14 when he joined), although there were older men from the region who would join in for some raids as well.
One soldier said that Mosby filled his ranks by recruiting equally between “young lads and men well silvered with the frost of age.”
Because of the nature of their raids, Mosby’s men stayed in the homes of local residents rather than in regular army camps. Since Tee Edmonds brothers served with Mosby’s Rangers, Belle Grove became a gathering place for the young soldiers.
Lucky Miss “Tee,” was in her mid-twenties — the perfect age to be looking for love.
Belle Grove: A Window To The Past
Located near Paris, Va., Belle Grove sits in a region that was strategically important to both the Union and Confederate armies. Built in 1812, the house commands an enchanting view of the Blue Ridge Mountains and its foothills, as well as the Winchester-Warrenton Turnpike (currently Rt. 17).
Albert Sydnor Edmonds, a descendant of the original family, described the features of the mansion house writing:
“The front door with its pilasters and stop-fluting and the fanlight above the door, is one of the finer doorways in Virginia. The interior has a complete stairway to the third floor, and fine carved mantels of different designs for each of the six fireplaces in the main portion.
Lucky for us, Tee Edmonds kept a diary between the years of 1857 and 1867, which gives great insight to the fun, fear, anguish and excitement that occurred before, during and after the Civil War. Instead of telling a story from the battlefield, her entries take readers into the parlor, reminding us of the ordinary people who lived during this tumultuous time.
Not shockingly, military men appear on almost every page from the years 1861 through 1865. Tee also kept an autograph album, which became the rage during the Civil War. Men from all over the Confederacy signed their names and commented on its pages, helping to document a uniquely personal war.
One entry in Tee’s diary says: “I can look back when the war is over and recall some of the happiest moments of my life—yes, even amid the terrible war with all its sorrow and grief. I have spent many happy days full of change, variety and romance…”
Mosby’s Rangers Safehouse
Thankfully, there have been few changes over the years to mar the beauty of the original house. The floors are of wide pine and the doors are walnut. The entrance double doors and the back hall door have brackets to hold a heavy wooden board to keep out intruders.
The room that is currently used as a dining room was the bedroom of Tee’s parents during the War Between the States. Every room has a fireplace and the floors and woodwork are exquisite.
A long porch runs all across the back of the main house, with a more formal front porch and a latticed porch across the front. The attic, with its hand hewn rafters, served as the spinning and weaving room.
In her diary, which was published as the “Journals of Amanda Virginia Edmonds,” Tee talks about using the large front hall and the parlor for dances, and I can imagine her sitting in what is still the library to write in her diary.
Updated Edition Of Tee’s Diary
A new edition of her diary has been released with annotated information. Edited by Lee Lawrence, the book is called “Society of Rebels” and I highly recommend it for a look at what ordinary people went through during the war.
(If you call having Mosby’s Rangers in your house, “normal”).
In any case, being in the house where Mosby’s men often congregated was the thrill of a lifetime for me.
Tee talks about using the large front hall and the parlor for dances, and I can imagine her sitting in what is still the library to write in her diary.
I can also imagine the Rangers who lived there thundering down the stairs and running to the trap door located in the old dining room at the sound of hoof beats echoing from the lane as Yankee troops approached.
The ‘Hidey Hole’ Used By Mosby’s Rangers
Because members of Mosby’s Rangers stayed in the house in between their cavalry excursions, it was necessary to have a quick way to escape if someone noticed the enemy riding in from the Turnpike at the end of their long lane.
Of course, many of the houses in Mosby’s Confederacy still have these “hidey holes,” but this one is especially interesting because it is mentioned in Tee’s diary.
Apparently, the three-foot cellar area under the dining room was the main hiding place at Belle Grove, accessed by a trap door under a rug. From the cellar, the Rangers would make their escape through a small door on the side of the house, strategically concealed from view by a stack of firewood.
Here is one account of an encounter with the Yankees in February of 1864, as told by Tee in her diary:
“Much to our surprise, mortification and sorrow the slumbers of the household were aroused by the rattling of swords and the clatter of horses, which fortunately made known to our dear soldiers that something was wrong. Bud jumped from his bed and there to his utter surprise were Yankees dashing up. Bud with Mr. Alexander and George dashed down the stairs to their secret hiding place followed by overcoats, pistol and everything I could grab up—for time was short. The Yankees were all around the house and every moment we expected them to bolt into the house. All was done in a moment, and now, when I look back, I shudder to think how narrow an escape they made.”
Romance At Belle Grove
There is no outright love affair written in the pages of Tee’s journal, but there are hints of one, which made my visit to the house all the more poignant.
Love and war. Although it occurred more than 150 years ago, it still seems almost close enough to touch when standing in that home.
I couldn’t help but thinking that I was standing on the same porch that Mathew Magner (always referred to as ‘Mr. Magner’) rode up on his horse Preacher, and invited Amanda to “come out and hear the birds singing praises to their Maker.”
And it was on the same porch in February 1864, that Tee defied Union officers as they searched all through the house for Mosby’s men. From this house, two loved ones were dragged away with no one knowing what the future might hold.
And from this house on October 2, 1865, Tee watched Mathew Magner leave Bell Grove for the last time on his way back home to Mississippi.
A letter written in July of 1866 from Mr. Magner to Tee is inserted in the back of the published diary. The letter ends with: “No, I have not forgotten our many pleasant rides nor ever will. Neither have I lost or thrown away the hearts. But one of them is very dilapidated.”
Unfortunately, Tee received a letter just a short time later that Matthew had died from Yellow Fever. She went on to marry another man, John Chappelear. They had five children together.
History Inside And Out
Of course, another interesting part of the property is the family cemetery, which lies a short distance from the main house. Tee is buried there, along with her husband, parents, and two of her brothers, who rode with Mosby’s Rangers.
I can’t begin to recall how many cemeteries I have walked through since I first began to write historical fiction. I love reading the names, and imagining the lives that were lived in those tumultuous times.
Although Belle Grove is private property, the adjoining property, which was also a Mosby Ranger safehouse and home to Amanda’s Aunt Mary and Uncle Abner Settle is now called Sky Meadows State Park. More than 1,000 acres was donated to The Commonwealth of Virginia in 1975 by Paul Mellon of Upperville to create the park.