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For two hellish days early in May 1864, the Union Army of the Potomac and the IX Army Corps locked horns with Robert E. Lee’s vaunted Army of Northern Virginia in the Battle of the Wilderness, the opening gambit in Ulysses Grant’s Overland Campaign. The fighting took place in a wretched tangle of second-growth forest adjacent to the Orange Turnpike and Orange Plank Road, not far from the site of the May 1863 Battle of Chancellorsville. Two farms, located along what today is Hill–Ewell Drive in the Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park, played prominent roles in the battle, and two widows—one with five children—found themselves at the center of that inferno.

The northernmost farm, known as both Spring Hill and Oak Hill, was home to Permelia Chewning Higgerson, 34 years old at the time of the battle, and her five children—four boys and a girl, ages 2 to 11. Her husband, Benjamin, had died of smallpox in December 1862, and a year later Benjamin’s son from an earlier marriage, James, died in a Richmond hospital, also from smallpox, which he had contracted while serving with the 9th Virginia Cavalry. Higgerson wasn’t wealthy, but his real estate was valued at $500, his personal property $1,370, and he owned two slaves. The Higgerson house was a small three-room, 1½-story frame structure that sat in a clearing about three-quarters of a mile south of the Orange Turnpike.

Permelia Higgerson’s mother, Permelia Chewning, lived about a mile to the south. Like her daughter, she was a widow, but she was considerably better off. Her husband, William, had died the previous June in a mill accident. In 1860 their 150-acre farm had been valued at $1,500 and the personal estate at a respectable $14,400. William also owned 13 slaves. The 72-yearold Widow Chewning lived with her daughter Jane and son Absalom in a 2½-story frame house known as Mount View, situated in a clearing atop a ridge. Their farm, which had a commanding view of the surrounding countryside, produced wheat, rye, corn, oats, potatoes and tobacco.

On May 5, Union Maj. Gen. Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps opened the battle with an attack on Confederate Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell’s lines. Brigadier General James Wadsworth’s 4th Division proceeded west through the thick underbrush, struggling to keep pace with the rest of the V Corps. Colonel Roy Stone, commanding Wadsworth’s 3rd Brigade, passed through the clearing around the Higgerson House as the Federals moved forward. Despite the owner’s loud objections, Stone’s Pennsylvanians tore down a fence and laid waste to her garden, earning the angry widow’s condemnation. She predicted the brigade would be defeated when it finally met the Rebels.

Just past her house, Stone’s men encountered swampy ground near a tributary of Wilderness Run. “That’s a hell of a looking hole to send white men into,” shouted one soldier, and another advised his comrades to “label” themselves, as death seemed certain. Soon the Pennsylvanians found themselves mired in waist-deep water, causing a gap to open in the Union lines just as Confederate troops launched an attack. After incurring heavy casualties, the Federals were forced to retire. As they poured back past the farmhouse, the widow again pelted them with taunts.

To the south, the Chewning farmhouse’s key position on high ground, where enemy positions were clearly visible, made it a focal point throughout the battle. At one point several Union soldiers took over the home, vandalizing it and preparing a meal for themselves. Permelia Chewning went outside and flagged down a relative, Markus Chewning, who happened to be riding nearby. Markus, a scout for Confederate Maj. Gen. Fitzhugh “Rooney” Lee’s cavalry, started galloping around the house, hoping to convince the soldiers they were outnumbered and should give up. The ruse worked—leaving their weapons inside, the Yankees surrendered to Markus.

Despite that small measure of success, the Widow Chewning realized that Mount View was sure to be a hot spot in the ongoing battle. She gathered up some belongings and left her home.

On May 6, Confederate Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill and his staff rode into the unoccupied clearing near Mount View. Soon after they dismounted, they heard Union soldiers breaking down a nearby fence. Hill remained calm, telling his men, “Mount, walk your horses, and don’t look back.” Although the Federals apparently realized that Rebels were within easy range, they held their fire while Hill’s men made their escape at a leisurely pace. A captured Yankee later told a member of Hill’s unit, “I wanted to fire on you, but my colonel said you were farmers riding from the house.”

Following that example of accidental chivalry, fierce fighting soon swept over the farm. After the battle, the Chewning House, and the farm as a whole, was a shambles. Absalom Chewning later testified: “Everything was gone— all the crops, all the stock, all the fences. Also, a tobacco house, a shop, and an ice-house were destroyed. I found some of the materials in the breastworks around the house.” The Widow Chewning filed a postwar claim with the Southern Claims Commission for just under $3,600, including compensation for lost fence rails, cordwood and livestock. The disposition of her claim is unknown. Fire destroyed the Chewning House in 1947.

In 1867 Permelia Higgerson married William Porter. She gave birth to two more children and moved with her family to Missouri, to a spot on the Mississippi River dubbed Higgerson Landing. It consisted of a house, a store and a one-room schoolhouse that survives to this day.

Permelia’s second marriage fell apart around 1871 when William Porter ran off to Louisiana and then Montana with his 16-year-old stepdaughter, Jacqueline. After fathering four children with Jacqueline, Porter deserted her as well.

Permelia Higgerson died in Missouri in 1897. The Higgerson House disappeared in the 1930s, but remnants of its chimney still stand today.


Thanks to Josef W. Rokus and Noel Harrison of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania NMP for their assistance with this article.

Originally published in the August 2011 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here