‘Til death do us part.
Mary Jane Arnott Smith took that portion of her wedding vows to the extreme when she traveled some 120 miles from Monroe County to Lexington and back in the midst of the Civil War to retrieve the remains of her beloved husband, Ralph, a casualty in the 1864 Battle of New Market.
Mary Jane’s epic journey is chronicled in “Mary Jane’s War,” a Civil War novel based on a true story by Joe B. Roles, a native of Monroe County who lived at Salt Sulphur Springs. Roles died on Aug. 20, 2019, at the age of 86 and is buried at Green Hill Cemetery in Union, W.Va.
Alleghany County was still in its infancy when the War Between the States erupted. It had been carved from portions of Botetourt, Bath and Monroe counties and was formed by an act of the Virginia General Assembly on Jan. 5, 1822. Roles expertly describes the hardships of rural farm and family life in those days, the challenges presented by travel, the influence visitors to the various springs had on the area and the impact the war played on everyday life in these rural communities. He also mentions in his book many landmarks and areas of Alleghany County that the reader will immediately recognize.
Roles dedicated his book to Malcolm McKinley Weikle (1925-2002), a local historian who was born and raised in Lillydale, W.Va., and perpetuated the story of Mary Jane for years.
Ralph Smith was wounded on May 15, 1864, when he was hit in the leg by a minnie bullet. The lead ball was removed, and he was taken to a hospital in Harrisonburg, but the swelling and gangrene persisted. His leg was later amputated, but Ralph would not recover, and he died on June 9, 1864.
Ralph’s remains were shipped to Lexington and stored in a burned-out gymnasium at VMI. A notice was sent in June notifying Mary Jane that Ralph’s body could be claimed no later than Jan. 31, 1865. The letter did not reach Mary Jane until Sept. 27.
Although she had never traveled outside Monroe County, which before the Civil War was a part of Virginia, Mary Jane announced during a church service that she would go to claim Ralph’s remains, because he deserved a proper burial on the hill near their home in Lillydale. Planning for the trip took several months, and on Jan. 2, 1865, Mary Jane, accompanied by three of her sons and a freed slave, embarked on an 18-day round-trip journey to Lexington.
Mary Jane’s journey took her through Alleghany County, and several well-known landmarks are mentioned in the story. They planned to spend their second night near Callaghan’s Tavern but changed their plans because the tavern was packed with numerous unsavory characters and a squad of Yankees. Instead, they decided to brave the sleet and snow, traveling another mile to the east and spending the night on Humpback Bridge, its cover providing protection from the wintry weather.
Humpback Bridge was also relatively new when the war started. The unique and iconic structure, still considered perhaps Alleghany County’s most recognizable landmark, had been built in 1857 to accommodate travelers on the Midland Trail. The design of the nearly 110-foot bridge was covered and arched to increase its longevity and keep the midpoint above the Dunlap Creek floodwaters.
Mary Jane and her party were challenged with fording the Jackson River at Covington and again as they made their way toward Selma. With heavy snow on North Mountain limiting travel on the Lexington-Covington Turnpike, they decided to follow the James River to Buchanan and then turn north to Lexington.
South of Clifton Forge, they saw a train for the first time that had been damaged by Union troops and was inoperable. One of the cars was half full of cannon balls that had been made right there in Clifton Forge. That night, they found a vacant house and spent the night in Iron Gate.
On Day 12, they finally picked up Ralph’s body and began the trek homeward, this time navigating the Lexington-Covington Turnpike over North Mountain. They again stayed in Selma and cleared the hurdle of crossing the Jackson River at Island Ford.
Because of the scarcity of food during the war, starvation was an issue. On several occasions during their journey, Mary Jane bartered food and other resources for lodging and other needs.
On Day 18, their journey was complete as they made their way down Lillydale Road toward home, accompanied by a group of about a dozen well-wishers at their side. Burial arrangements were made for Saturday afternoon, Jan. 21, 1865, and it was only appropriate that the same wagon which brought Ralph home was used to carry him to the cemetery on the hill. A wounded soldier played “Amazing Grace” on a trumpet as Ralph’s body was lowered into the ground.
Mary Jane went on to raise her seven children by herself and operated the family farm until her death in 1914. Lillydale, with a population of less than 100 residents, gained a church and a school. It also had a post office and store. One of Mary Jane’s great grandsons, Lt. Samuel Ralph Smith, was killed 80 years after his great grandfather when a plane he was testing exploded over New Guinea during World War II.
Although “Mary Jane’s War” is based on a true story, it is considered a work of fiction because the facts are very limited, and all the characters and events portrayed in the novel are used fictitiously. The book was written in 2002 by Roles, a storyteller born in Union, W.Va. Roles was a graduate of Concord College, now Concord University. He served in the U.S. Army and was an amateur genealogist.
It’s hard to fathom that a trip which would only take the better part of an afternoon today took nearly three weeks back in 1865. But Mary Jane persevered to win her one small battle during an epic conflict to bring her beloved Ralph safely home.