War Clouds Over Belle Grove Plantation

Spectral evidence of past trauma and death lingers at Belle Grove Plantation. Its 225-year-old stone manor looks out over the Shenandoah Valley like a memorial to the slain.

In 1783, Revolutionary War veteran Isaac Hite, Jr. and his wife Nelly, sister to James Madison, fourth president of the United States, received 483 acres in the Shenandoah Valley as a wedding present from his father.

They constructed Belle Grove Manor House between 1794 and 1797 along the Valley Pike in Virginia’s Frederick County.

It was a symmetrical Federal-style home built from locally-quarried limestone, to which a west annex was added in 1815.

Hite’s holdings grew to encompass over 7,000 acres, several hundred slaves, and everything they needed for a self-sustaining community, including slave quarters, a general store, grist-mill, saw-mill, and distillery.

Hite had three children with his first wife and ten with his second, Ann. Though all but one lived to adulthood, Hite’s heirs sold Belle Grove in 1851.

During the American Civil War, it was owned by John and Benjamin B. Cooley.

Little is known about the Cooleys, but a shocking criminal trial brought them briefly into the spotlight.

On the 26th of February 1861, as war clouds gathered and Virginians debated secession, a free woman of color employed by Benjamin Cooley, named Harriet Robinson, attacked and beat his wife Hettie Ann with an iron shovel in the kitchen.

Harriet then dragged Mrs. Cooley’s bloodied body into the smokehouse, where she died, leading future storytellers to claim the murder weapon was a meat cleaver.

Folklorist L.B. Taylor, Jr. embellished even further, claiming she was partly burned, strangled, and mutilated.

Harriet was tried and convicted of first-degree murder, but her death sentence would never be carried out.

She surprised the court by revealing that she was pregnant.

The Frederick County sheriff could find no women willing to examine Harriet, so he refused to carry out the court’s orders.

The accused woman disappeared when the Union Army occupied that section of the Shenandoah, fleeing to parts unknown.

Others have speculated that Harriet died in prison.

Though its current caretakers are quick to deny any supernatural activity, for decades after Hettie’s murder residents witnessed an unusual white mist emerge from the basement fireplace, pass through the door, and float towards the smokehouse.

The Civil War brought more bloodshed to Belle Grove’s doorstep.

In the autumn of 1864, Union Major General Philip Sheridan established his headquarters in the limestone manor as his army carried out their campaign of destruction in the Shenandoah Valley.

Union tents and wagons dotted the surrounding fields.

On the fog-shrouded morning of October 19, 1864, Confederate Lieutenant General Jubal Early led a surprise attack on the federals.

Terrible fighting raged around Belle Grove, and the house still carries scars from that fateful day.

Late in the afternoon, Philip Sheridan rode south from Winchester and rallied his troops to victory. Nearly six thousand men of both sides were killed or wounded.

Twenty-seven-year-old Confederate general Stephen Ramseur was mortally wounded and died in the room Isaac and Ann Hite once used as a nursery.

Today, Belle Grove Plantation is a National Historic Landmark owned and operated by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Regular tours are offered, and although you can see a reconstruction of the basement kitchen, don’t expect to hear about poor Hettie Cooley’s murder. Perhaps, on fog-shrouded mornings, you can catch a whiff of gunpowder, or a glimpse of something transparent stalking the grounds.