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White Oak museum tells Stafford's story
The White Oak Civil War Museum offers a local perspective on the war

Date published: 11/24/2009

BY JONAS BEALS

The turkey has been picked clean and the "good" china is back in the cabinet, but your in-laws are still camped on the pull-out in the living room and they aren't leaving until Sunday. No worries. Take the family to White Oak.

Southern Stafford's rural enclave is home to the White Oak Civil War Museum--an overwhelming labor of love built by native son D.P. Newton.

Newton and his father started hunting for relics in the 1950s. While most Civil War historians focus on Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania because of the battles there, Newton and his dad stayed close to home.

Stafford may not have had as much bloodshed as its neighbors, but for nearly a year it was home to more than 120,000 Union soldiers. They ransacked much of the county, denuded the landscape and built temporary tent cities.

"It's not something historians usually write about," Newton said. "People don't understand how vast it was. If you could have looked at the scene from a satellite, it would have looked like a bunch of ants working every day."

Those soldiers left a lot behind. Judging by the size of the museum's collection, the Newtons found a lot of it.

Display cases are filled with heaps of bullets. Shelves are lined with liquor and medicine bottles. An entire wall is devoted to belt buckles. From shoes to muskets to railroad ties, the museum reveals the magnitude of the Union operation in the area.

"People don't realize how much work these soldiers did," Newton said. "People look at letters and diaries and see soldiers writing home that they're bored. Maybe it was raining or snowing that day. It wasn't that they didn't have enough to do."

Newton points to the massive infrastructure projects undertaken by the Union army. The Potomac Creek railroad bridge--80 feet high and 400 feet long--was rebuilt three times in two years. Soldiers built Youbedam Landing (or Burnside's Wharf) in the Potomac River to bring in supplies. Aquia Landing became a major shipping point. Forts popped up. Soldiers planted small trees to beautify their campsites.

All of those projects are represented by actual artifacts in the museum, highlighted by a faithful re-creation of three life-size Union huts. Viewed alongside photos and drawings, they show a Stafford that no one would recognize today.

Newton is a highlight himself--a Stafford Civil War expert willing to share stories and explain how the war affected the county. He's still piecing it all together, one relic at a time.

"Every bullet is a different one. Every button is a different one," he said. "Somebody's always finding something that nobody knew existed."

The White Oak Civil War Museum is closed Thanksgiving Day, but will be open Friday, Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. For information, visit whiteoak museum.com.

The museum will sponsor a living-history encampment Dec. 4--6. The highlight will be a Saturday evening period candlelight Christmas service held at the adjacent White Oak Primitive Baptist Church. The free service starts at 7 p.m.

Jonas Beals: 540/368-5036
Email: jbeals@freelancestar.com