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Uncovering the past

Members of the Mingo Historical Society gathered at the Linwood Library on Sunday, October 11, to listen to Maria McKelvey present her research on John Augustine Washington III. Photo courtesy of C. Moore
Members of the Mingo Historical Society gathered at the Linwood Library on Sunday, October 11, to listen to Maria McKelvey present her research on John Augustine Washington III. Photo courtesy of C. Moore

Cailey Moore
Staff Writer

Soldier, rest! thy warfare o’er,
Dream of fighting fields no more:
Sleep the sleep that knows not breaking
Morn of toil, nor night of waking.
— “Soldier, rest” by Sir Walter Scott

One hundred and fifty-four years have passed since John Augustine Washington III fell during the Battle of Cheat Mountain, but thanks to the determination of Maria McKelvey, of Mingo, the story of his life will last through the ages.

On Sunday, October 11, members of the community and the Mingo Historical Society gathered at the Linwood Library for a presentation and discussion on Washington’s life.

When asked how she began investigating Washington’s life, McKelvey credited a bout of curiosity, an Englishwoman named Philippa Langley and [King] Richard III.

“The royal family denied this man until an intrepid, curious woman – not a historian, not a writer – started asking questions,” she explained. “She [Langley] said, ‘Wait a minute! What it?’ On that hunch, she got archeologists and historians involved, and they found Richard III’s grave under a parking lot in Leicester, England.”

Years later, it was Langley’s curiosity that influenced and inspired McKelvey’s own curiosity.

“We talked about how no one questions anymore – how we’re afraid to ask questions,” she began, “but if we don’t ask questions, how do we know if what we’re reading and hearing is the truth? It was because of so-called established truths that I became curious about this man.

“How did I get started on this in the first place? Where did my curiosity first get stirred up? By a [John Augustine Washington III] stone marker I passed every day when I was teaching in Randolph County and I had to drive up and down 219. If you’re quick, you can catch this. Some people do, and some people don’t, but I passed this going to and from Randolph County. Finally, I said that I was going to stop and read whatever it said. I found a safe place to park, pulled over, walked over to it and thought ‘What is a Washington doing out in the middle of nowhere?’”

It was that question that marked the beginning of her three year journey into Washington’s past.

Since that day, McKelvey – with the help of Washington’s descendants, including John Augustine Washington V – has traced Washington’s movements from Pocahontas County to Williamsburg, Virginia, to Mount Vernon and Alexandria, Virginia, and to the University of Virginia and Charlottesville, Virginia.

It was while she was visiting the University of Virginia that McKelvey made her first discovery – a folder of letters to Washington’s daughter, Anna Maria.

“I opened up the folder, and – I’m not kidding – the hair rose on the back of my neck,” she said. “I just about died. The letter was addressed ‘My dear Maria [which, at the time, was pronounced Mariah].” It was like a hand came out of one hundred and fifty years ago and grabbed the back of my neck. I thought, ‘Oh, this is weird. I not only live where he spent the last days of his life, but now, here’s a letter addressed to me.’”

In the letter, Washington detailed his journey from Monterey and Huntersville to Snowshoe and included several descriptions of the area. In one particular description, Washington talked of present-day Slaty Fork and a river that disappeared and reappeared a mile down the road.

“I’m not interested in a bunch of facts and stringing them all together,” McKelvey said. “I’m curious about the persons’ relationships. To me, I think a person becomes defined by their relationships, which are either accidental or on purpose, and/or you’re defined by events that happen to you, whether on purpose or by accident. I’m interested in those relationships and events. How does a person, in their life, get from point A to point B, and what’s all the stuff that happened in between that influenced their decision-making?

“That’s what I’m interested in. So, yes – I’m writing a biography of John Augustine Washington III, but I’m doing it in the context of the women in his life. Why? Because after reading about him, I thought ‘What an extraordinary man. He had these interesting relationships with four important women.’”

During her presentation, McKelvey stayed true to her word and took a deeper look into the women in Washington’s life.

The first woman she talked about was Washington’s mother, Jane Charlotte Blackburn Washington, followed by his wife, Eleanor Love Selden Washington, and his five daughters – Louisa, Jane, Eliza, Anna Maria and Eleanor.

However, it was Ann Pamela Cunningham who took the spotlight.

For generations, the Washington family had tried and failed to sell Mount Vernon to the federal government and the state of Virginia, but in 1858, the property finally traded hands. Purchased by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association – a group of well-to-do Southern and Northern wives – for $200,000, Cunningham obtained the Mount Vernon estate, which included the mansion, all outlying buildings and the Washington family tomb.

Following the sale of Mount Vernon, Washington and his family made their way to the Waveland plantation in Virginia in 1860.

“This was one of those things that I found by accident one day,” McKelvey explained. “I probably almost got myself arrested. I found this house, and nobody’s there. There weren’t any signs that said ‘No trespassing,’ so I had to stop. I got out of my car with my iPhone to take a picture, climb over the little chain, go up on the lawn, and as I’m snapping the picture, a Jeep pulls out from behind the house.

“There was a guy inside, so I told him who I was and why I was there. Now, we’re best friends. George is my benefactor. He owns [Waveland].”

It was while at Waveland that Washington joined the Confederate Army as a lieutenant colonel and served as Robert E. Lee’s aid-de-camp, alongside Walter H. Taylor.

“I haven’t figured out the exact relationship yet between Robert E. Lee and John Augustine Washington III,” McKelvey admitted. “I know they’re related, but I don’t know if they were second or third cousins or what.”

It was during the Battle of Cheat Mountain that Washington was killed by a Union bushwhacker on September 13, 1861 during a reconnaissance mission.

“The story is that they were ambushed,” McKelvey explained, “that Lee’s son, William Henry Fitzhugh “Rooney” Lee, was with them, that it John Augustine said ‘Let’s go capture that fellow down there,’ and Rooney tried to stop them. Rooney was twenty-one, and John Augustine was forty with seven kids. Think about it. Rooney was saying that John Augustine was the one who wanted to, that his zealousness got him killed. They were shot at by three guys from the 17th Indiana on the hill. Rooney escapes without a scathing mark on him, and John Augustine is shot – three bullets to the back. Now, if that isn’t ignominious enough. Three bullets to the back.

“I went up on Valley Mountain at dawn one September 13, one hundred and fifty years later – just to feel, hear, and see what John Augustine did.”

Following his death, John Augustine Washington III was buried in the Zion Episcopal Churchyard in Charles Town, West Virginia, and on October 11, 2014, the Shepherdstown United Daughters of the Confederacy Chapter 128 dedicated a Confederate Iron Cross at his gravesite.

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