One site, multiple angles for interpretation

Posted on December 19, 2010 by


One of my favorite historic sites in Page County, Virginia is Catherine’s Furnace.

Catherine Furnace, as of November 2010

Because of efforts made in the early 2000s, the site has one Virginia Civil War Trails marker. I was fortunate to be involved in deciding that the site merited a marker, and I also wrote the text and provided images for the marker (sad to see how the marker has been abused… but…). Though the site could tell a number of tales, from multiple angles, regretfully, the amount of space and text for one sign is limited.

Depending on your interest, you may enjoy hearing about…

The Operational Angle

I’ll provide a couple images to give you some perspective on this…

Descriptive drawing, giving a rough overview as to how the pig iron was produced. From Page: The County of Plenty (1976)

To the left, you can see part of the furnace, and to the right, the rocks built up against the hill, from where, once there was a "bridge" whereupon the raw ore was wheeled to the top of the furnace. Compare this image with the drawing above to give you a little more perspective. The area of the billows operation seen in the drawing above isn't covered in this image.

Slag gathered from the creek bed next to the furnace. Typically, the slag appears as a olive green, somewhat heavy rock, but occasionally there are lighter rocks, such as the porous-looking one seen in the lower right of this image... and much lighter. There was a time when slag was easily found, all around the site, but it has become increasingly difficult to find over the years.

But, let’s start looking at the site, as relating to the Civil War, starting with…

The Confederate Angle

Catherine was one of three furnaces in Page County to provide pig iron for the Confederacy. In prewar years, pig iron was shipped from the furnace, on flatboats down the Shenandoah River t0 Harpers Ferry, but as could be expected, the war changed things. During the war, pig iron was shipped by wagons across the Blue Ridge to Gordonsville, Virginia, and then, from there, by rail to Richmond, where it would be used at Tredegar Iron Works. Not only was pig iron produced for Tredegar, but shells were made on-site… and perhaps one or two cannon tubes that, while given to the local artillery unit upon their organization, never saw service (too primitive for war service, and more fitting for the 4th of July celebrations in years prior to the war).

Colonel (later general) Powell

As can be expected, the furnace was a site of interest to Union forces in the area in May 1862, but, because of lack of success in a nearby engagement, the furnace was not destroyed. Over two years later, the site (and apparently the other two furnaces as well) escaped destruction once again. I have never been able to figure it out, but Union troops during the “Burning” never mentioned the furnaces. The only explanation that I can offer is that it may have been that, Col. William H. Powell, commanding forces in the Page County leg of the Burning, spared the sites only because he, himself, had been affiliated with the iron ore industry prior to the war.

During one of these “Yankee invasions”, the iron workers are said to have fled into hiding… well, all but one of them… Noah Foltz, the ironmaster at the furnace, “remained at the Furnace a week and continued to feed charcoal into the furnace until all the iron ore had been melted and was safely drained from the furnace. Had the half melted iron and slag been allowed to remain in the furnace until it cooled, the furnace would have required rebuilding.”

That’s one angle, but perhaps you would prefer…

The Southern Unionist Angle

Noah Foltz, in years after the war.

… which leads us back to Noah Foltz. Despite his interests in saving the furnace, and despite his sympathies, Foltz is well-known in local history for his Unionism. Yes, he continued to operate the furnace that produced iron ore for the Confederacy, and fortunately, because of his position at the furnace, he was also exempted from Confederate military service… at least for most of the war. It may be that his diligence at the furnace was his best chance not to fight against
“the old Flag”. In fact, Foltz also found time to operate an underground railroad for Union soldiers, leading them “through the trails up the Massanutten and into Fort Valley.” Local Confederate sympathizers, however, caught-on to his secretive operations, and, according to local history, after leading the way for two men dressed in Union uniforms, the men “removed their coats and revealed themselves as being Confederate officers”. Foltz was then arrested, and “bonded” to continue work at the furnace. “His conduct was guaranteed by the bond and the danger of trouble for his relatives if he again operated such an underground railroad for any purpose.”

This image is of the upper iron support beam, just inside the furnace opening seen in the first photo above. It might be hard to make out, but there is an impression of a hand in this beam. Local legend says that Foltz was forced to put his hand in an iron casting as a reminder of his actions against the Confederacy. I don't think you can see it at all, but there is, what appears to be a rat's tail, underneath the hand. While I seriously doubt they made him put his hand in hot iron, I think the image was made in a mold, in which iron was poured. Whether it is Foltz's hand impression... well, we may never know.

Foltz became eligible for military service in the spring of 1864 (thanks to the third Confederate conscription act), but evaded service by joining the local 8th Battalion Virginia Reserves (it’s complicated… and I’ll discuss in an upcoming post some interesting information about this unit and why some “joined” for reasons other than an interest in the Confederacy or “the Cause”). Ultimately, most men in this unit never really saw military service.

While he evaded service, the third conscription act also impacted Foltz’s family. His youngest son, Andrew Jackson Foltz (also, see here), became eligible for military service in 1864. To evade service in the Confederate army, and before the act was enforced, in February 1864, A.J. Foltz partnered with another local, Frederick Amos Alger, slipped out of Page County, and making their way to the Virginia peninsula (near Williamsburg), enlisted in the 11th Pennsylvania Cavalry.

But, maybe you would prefer another angle… one that focuses on…

Slave Labor at the Furnace

Yet, this isn’t so much a wartime angle. In fact, with the coming of the war, the slave labor, mostly hired from slaveholders east of the Blue Ridge, had returned to those slaveholders. While somewhere between 77 and 100 slaves worked the furnace in pre-war years, an incredible void in the labor pool formed immediately after the war opened. not to fret, however… as, it seems quite a number of men found interest in work opportunities… and weren’t so much interested in fighting for a “cause” in which they did not believe. The following comes from Adam Poe Boude’s (1835-1919) “Historical Sketch of Milnes”, which appeared from June-August 1885 in the Page Courier:

Soon after the war began, the labor question became a serious one.  Slave labor that had been obtained from Eastern Virginia, which had been a considerable factor in the iron operation, was withdrawn, and a great portion of the available white labor had enlisted in the Confederate armies, so, in the contract with the Confederate government, it was stipulated that the labor for working of the furnace and supply the stack for it, should be detailed from the army for that purpose.  After the first ebullition of patriotic ardor had somewhat subsided, and the conscription laws had been passed, and were being everywhere enforced by military authority, applications for details to make iron were so numerous that half of them could not be considered.  Men who had rarely ever performed a day of manual labor sought details to keep out of the army.  Some were even willing to work for nothing and board themselves.  So the labor question was solved.

I could offer a few more angles, but I think that will do for now.

In retrospect, not only does this site offer many different interesting angles pertaining to local history, I think it also offers an opportunity to revisit the dynamics of Southern history.

Sure, the history of this site is a local history, but local history (… and Page County IS in Virginia) is part of Southern history… and therefore, it is without doubt, part of the history of the area that became known as the Confederacy. Southern history = many angles. Why is it then that many continue to see Southern history as one-dimensional… and can’t seem to appreciate the many angles that are right before their eyes?