Walking in their Shoes: Mike Smith’s Sesquicentennial Hikes at Droop Mountain

June 20, 2014 |

In 2013, park superintendent Mike Smith organized a series of four memorial hikes to the top of the top of Droop Mountain to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the battle. In June and July, Dan Schultz and I joined the hikers as they made their way up Droop Mountain on the first two of these memorial hikes.

Park Superintendent Mike Smith, pointing to the valley of Hillsboro on the 1st hike on June 20. Photo by Drew Tanner.

Park Superintendent Mike Smith, pointing to the valley of Hillsboro on the 1st hike on June 20. Photo by Drew Tanner.

June— A marching convoy of feet—black boots, white sneakers, and brown leather hiking shoes—shuffling towards pastures of cows and thickets of flowering rhododendron.

As we begin the first of the memorial hikes up to the Droop Battlefield, we learn that the routes used by Civil War Soldiers were also used as hunting paths by Native Americans for 10,000 years.

“Up that finger ridge and along the top of Droop was a shortcut, used by the Indians even before the white people were here.” Our guide is Droop Battlefield State Park Superintendent Mike Smith. “It’s not a race, it’s not a big exercise hike. It’s just a way to go along and remember the some of the individuals who did this hike 150 years ago.”

1st Droop hike in June, 2013. Photo by Dan Schultz

1st Droop hike in June, 2013. Photo by Drew Tanner

Smith explains the history leading up to the battle, standing atop the Droop lookout tower and looing down into the Little Levels Valley as he speaks. “The battle of Droop Mountain was fought on November 6th 1863, halfway through the war. The new state of West Virginia had just been formed, but large portions of the new state were still controlled by the Confederate army, and people by Confederate minded citizens.”

Standing beside Smith are three young cubscouts, Allen, Cage, and John, natives of Pocahontas County. “Oh I love the Civil War,” says Allen. “I’ve been here a few times, but I’ve never gone on a hike like this,” says John.

The boys admit they’ve learned about the fighting that went on in many of the Civil War Battles through video games. “All of my video games are Civil War,” says Cage.

The young boys, about nine years younger than many of the soldiers who fought in the Droop Battle, know they are literally walking in the footsteps of men who lost their arms and legs by musket fire. That the battle at Droop Mountain lasted about six hours, and a total of 394 men lost their lives.

A majority of the hikers, like Chad Morrison, have ancestors who fought in the Civil War. For Morrison’s family the violence of war raged on beyond the battlefield. While his great-grandfather was fighting on Droop, Confederate-siding guerilla fighters from Southern West Virginia swept through the state, bringing hatred and violence to those who sided with the Union army. “In Braxton County, bushwhackers pillaged his house, took his animals, and raped his wife. That was my great-grandmother. The men of my family were all here fighting together, and they couldn’t do a thing about it,” says Morrison.

After the battle at Droop, many homes throughout the Little Levels valley were used as temporary hospitals for the wounded soldiers. West Virginia had only been a state for five months, and many families were still making sense of what it meant to suddenly be forced into the Union, separated by Confederate Virginia by a mere few miles that lay over the Allegheny ridge to the East.

Women were most needed after the battle, when the wounded lay scattered throughout the woods. Nurses who worked on the battlefields of the Civil War were sometimes referred to as Angels of the Battlefield. Freddie Hammons, of Marlinton, says his great-great grandmother, who probably was of partial Cherokee descent, was one of the women who became a nurse for the wounded at Droop Mountain. Her husband, Freddie’s great-great grandfather, was wounded in the battle. She rode a grey mare horse to the battlefield, carrying herbs to heal him and some of the other wounded soldiers.[1]


Hillsboro. Photo by Drew Tanner.

Hillsboro. Photo by Drew Tanner.

July—The four hikes each follow in the footsteps that Union or Confederate soldiers took one hundred and fifty years ago. But, as Mike Smith points out, Indians traveled and lived here too. Along the way, he sometimes stops to pick out arrowheads in the dirt.

A few years back, Smith discovered four arrowheads beside his house on the battlefield lawn while digging postholes for one of the new Civil War plaques. One of the arrowheads was bright blue, stuck down in the bottom layer of dirt. That arrowhead was confirmed by an archeologist to be 10,000 years old. “Right there was thousands of people living right in my front yard. Our time here is so brief, so transitory, that we often just don’t always get the whole picture,” says Smith.

Today, most of the land surrounding Droop State Park is either National Forest or working farms. The owner of one farm, Sherman Beard, shows us a huge 70-foot sinkhole, called Bluehole. His uncle drowned down there in the 1920s, when he was trying to catch a lost sheep. Not 500 feet away from the sinkhole is the site where the Union General William Averell made his camp as he launched his raid up Droop Mountain.

From the Bluehole cave, we travel through the farm of Moffett McNeel. “Moffett died just a week ago. He made his entire living on this farm here on Droop Mountain. Just a wonderful man. Everybody misses him,” says Smith. “He was very happy to let us come and do the hikes here. I hate we didn’t get to meet him.”

As Smith leads us through the woods, we enjoy a meandering pace, quite slower and more reflective than that of the charging soldiers as they climbed this mountain for battle. We pass hundreds of cows and dozens of freshly rolled bales of hay.

Smith then leads us beneath the earth into a small, dark and misty cave with a little waterfall at the opening. He pauses to linger beside flowering wood mint, wild ginger, cucumber trees, and a few 300 year-old oak and red maple trees, which were here well before the Civil War.

“So even though the virgin forests are all gone there’s still individual trees that the Indians saw.”

Nearing the last steep climb, we refill our water bottles from natural spring water and then push on and up, stepping through sodden leaves and gushing mud, and sometimes listening to an underground creek that passes below our feet at the hollows of Droop Mountain.


Music that was featured in the audio story:

“Hard Times”, by the Rich Mountain String Band

“Shenandoah”, and “Dixie” by the McDowell, VA Choir.

[1] Hammons, Freddie. Interview with Roxy Todd. May 2012.

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