A Thumb-nail Sketch of the Cool Spring Property
Prehistory: Excavations on the property by Br. James Sommers have uncovered an impressive collection of Indian artifacts–arrowheads, awls, scrapers, axe-heads and other tools. Br. James submitted his finds to an archaeologist from the Catholic University of America, Washington, DC and his finds have been identified and classified, representing work from 8500 BC to 1700 AD.
Evidently these implements were the work of migratory tribes who passed through the area in the spring to plant seasonal crops on the flood plain, hunt and fish before they returned to more sheltered locations for the winter. No evidence of dwellings or of waste dumps seem to have survived or, at least, have not been uncovered. The green stone, from which many of the tools have been flaked or carved, is not from this area but may have been transported, unworked, from elsewhere down the Valley.
There is a rumor that a hilloc in front of the present church is a native burial mound, but the site has never been disturbed and no one seems to know the origin of this tradition or rumor. Clearly, the land has been inhabited from before colonial times and, perhaps, it is not fanciful to say that the land has been considered sacred long before the monks arrived.
Cool Spring House: The Cool Spring property enters history with the young George Washington (1732-1799). Washington’s family was connected to Lord Fairfax through marriage; the Scottish Lord owned millions of acres of Virginia land and preferred to spend the hunting season in the colony. Like a fuedal Lord, Fairfax “awarded”–at a price–tracts of land to the up-and-coming gentry. He was a genuine aristocrat in the midst of yeoman colonists aspiring to up-ward advancement and they benefited from the Lord who legitimized their gentility by association. In 1748, still a teenager, George Washington was commissioned to explore and survey the Northern Neck of this territory and, effectively, surveyed what would become the Cool Spring property. By chance, Ralph Wormely (1715-1790) attended a land auction in Williamsburg and impulsively bid on a 13,000 acre tract in what is now Clarke and Berkely Counties. He asked advice from Washington who described the territory as plentiful and beautiful. It was Ralph’s sons, James and John, who actually settled the land, one building the Rocks, in Berkely County, the other, Cool Spring, here in Clarke County. Cool Spring House was built in 1784 and the central block, a two-story, five bay, hipped roof structure built of local lime stone, survives to this day. One of the out-buildings on the north side of the house, perhaps a kitchen or a laundry, also survives.
The Battle of Cool Spring: The Cool Spring property inevitably re-entered history during the Civil War when the strategically located Shenandoah Valley was the constant arena for the struggle between the Federal and Confederate troops. Harpers Ferry, Winchester and Berryville would, time and again, come under the control of either side before the hostilities were resolved. Late in the War, an unanticipated engagement occurred on July 18, 1864.
The Union army was in pursuit of the Confederate forces which had recently threatened to enter Washington, DC. The War Department of the United States wanted to insure that the Confederate forces were in retreat to Richmond, a hope-filled delusion that Major General Horatio Wright was too eager to read into any information communicated to him. Unfortunately for the Federal troops, their leadership had not learned anything from the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1862; the Confederate forces were on home territory which they knew inside out. The local topography afforded them quick get-a-aways and convincing concealment; retreats could be faked; ambushes could be skillfully planned. Added to all these advantages was the motivation of protecting their home-territory. Another advantage was the consistent incompetence of Federal Generals, complicated, in Wright’s case, by his incapacity to communicate.
Brigadier General George Crook, one of Wright’s subordinates, was in pursuit of Jubal Early’s army, pulling back from Washington, DC. Following the tracks of the Confederate army from Purcellville though Snicker’s Gap (Bluemont), the Federal force sought to insure that the Southerners would continue on to Richmond. However, the Snickers Gap crossing was well defended with artillery and the Northern troops moved northward along the Shenandoah across from the Cool Spring property where a significant portion of the Confederate troops was encamped. It’s worth noting that the weather was a typical example of an extremely hot, dusty July day in the Shenandoah Valley, to the disadvantage of the Northerners. The Confederate forces were regrouping, reprovisioning and recovering after their northern campaign, never expecting the Federal forces to pursue them into the Valley; in fact the greater part of the Federal army would remain with Wright, inactive, to the east of the River.
The Federal troops forded the Shenandoah at Parker’s Island in the hope of realizing a decisive intervention. The engagement was fierce but inconclusive since there was no back-up or follow-up by Wright’s forces. In the end the battle simply affirmed the status quo. Apart from the combat, Federal troops were lost in the retreat back across the Shenandoah, disappearing into the sink holes in the ford, weighed down my arms and supplies.
It is worth noting that the Northern army was aided, at least in terms of refuge, by local Unionists who opened their property to them. The city of Winchester, too, had its identifiable Unionists, hopeful for the presence of the Federal army. It is part of the complexity of this War, and perhaps incomprehensible to an American of the 21st Century, that these Unionists were not restrained or charged with treason for giving such hospitality to the invading army. Likewise, the Federal forces, at least until the burning and pillaging of Chambersburg, on August 4, 1862 respected local property–apart from raids on farmyard or barn. After the Battle of Cool Spring, local women turned out with food and bandages, their time, energy and expertise to attend to the dying or nurse the wounded of both sides. It can even be disconcerting to read accounts of the polite social calls of Federal commanders to local relatives in between battles. This was a society, with its veneer of gentility, inflexible values and uncompromising principles, very different from our own.
For those interested in more information, Shenandoah University’s relevant page includes maps of the battlefield. Shenandoah University has undertaken the preservation of most the riverfront across the river from our monastery. It is open to the public as a recreational area–from dusk to dawn–but will primarily function as an educational, historical and environmental site.
Holy Cross Abbey: Almost one hundred years later, the Cool Spring property returned to public notice when the Trappists arrived in 1950. The Monastery of our Lady of the Valley in Valley Falls, Rhode Island, was already in the process of relocating to Spencer, Massachusetts when the original Monastery burned to the ground. Rather than repeat the story here, you may read the background in full in the history of Holy Cross Abbey.
The Cool Spring House and one surviving out-building to the northwest became the central block of the new monastery. Cool Spring House served as Chapel, dormitory, Chapter Room and Superior’s Office. The out-building was reworked as the brothers’ dormitory (upstairs) and Chapter Room (downstairs). The first buildings to be added was a cinder block dormitory of two stories to the northeast of the main house, an office for the superior to the west and a refectory joining that office to the brothers’ outbuilding. Eventually a range of buildings would extend westward (infirm kitchen, Scriptorium, monastic kitchen, Refectory, washroom and laundry below; Chapter Room, Sacristy and Church above).
After this construction, Cool Spring House served as speaking rooms outside the monastic enclosure and the visiting families of monks were still fed there into the early 1960’s. The tailor shop for the monastery was located in the cellar of Cool Spring accessible by stairs originating in the enclosure. A house tradition maintains that during an entertainment in the late eighteenth century, George Washington banged his head on his way down these stairs to sample the wine and spirits kept there. Given his impressive height, he would have to; a hobbit could hurt his head on the great beam intruding into that low space.
The monastic terms for the Abbey’s rooms require some explanation. The Chapter Room is where the monks assembled every day to hear a chapter of the St. Benedict’s Rule chanted by the cantor and commented upon by the Superior; after that the day’s work was assigned. The Scriptorium was where each monk had a place to sit and do his sacred reading. According to the usages at that time, any gap in the schedule with neither prayer, work, meals, chapter or sleep was labeled “lectio” or “reading”. The monk was supposed be at his place in the Scriptorium reading some sacred text. In this house both the Chapter Room and the Scriptorium doubled as library space but one was not free to browse the shelves and take whatever one wished. Books were requested from the librarian and might be specified by the Novice Master or some other superior rather than by one’s own choice.
The monastic kitchen was where the community’s strictly vegetarian meals were prepared. These meals were eaten in the Refectory, from the Latin root meaning a place where one is “remade” or “refreshed”. When one was ill, or if a monk needed a supplement to his diet as stipulated by the infirmarian, his meals were taken from the infirm kitchen and eaten there–as meat or chicken broth would contaminate the monastic kitchen or unduly tempt the other monks in the refectory.
You can read in the history of Holy Cross Abbey about the other additions to the monastic buildings from the late 1970’s through the 1990’s. Cool Spring House, under the influence of monastic life, has generated a complex of buildings, rambling out from it like a series of pavilions. In fact it is not unlike its function as the plantation it had been built to be, supporting a self-enclosed way of life.
Shenandoah University has undertaken the preservation of most the riverfront across the river from our monastery. It is open to the public as a recreational area–from dusk to dawn–but will primarily function as an educational, historical and environmental site.
They have a website dedicated to the River Campus of Shenandoah University, which includes the following page on the battle, with helpful maps:
Archived reflections from Fr. James