The Autograph Seekers of Bel Air
Gen. Lee, Front Royal, Va., July 22, 1863
by Michael Aubrecht
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For three bloody days in July of 1863, the Army of Northern Virginia battled the Army of the Potomac in the rocky hills and wheat fields of Adams County in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. This engagement marked a significant turn in the Civil War; many historians refer to this as the high water mark of the Confederacy. After failing to gain the high ground on any front, the rebels suffered nearly 28,000 casualties, approximately one third of their entire army.

On July 4th, the remainder of Lee's ranks began an excruciating retreat back toward the Potomac River and Virginia. The Confederate wagon train of wounded men stretched for nearly 17 miles. Adding to their misery were harsh weather, treacherous roads and periodic harassing from the Federal cavalry. Fortunately, the victorious Union Army, commanded by General George G. Meade, failed to launch a significant attack on the limping Confederates, who managed to cross the river back into the Old Dominion on the night of July 13th. By July 22nd, Lee's army had reached Front Royal and began to cross the Shenandoah River on pontoon bridges.

A local merchant named William M. Buck met the commander and his staff at the crossing and extended a personal invitation to share refreshments at his nearby estate. Christened "Bel Air," the stately home had been built in 1795 by Buck's great-grandfather. Always a gentleman, the general accepted the offer and traveled to the home for a much needed reprieve.

The Bucks' daughters entertained the general by playing the piano and singing. One of them, Lucy, would later publish an account of the event, writing, "I shall never forget the grand old chief as he stood on the porch surrounded by his officers; a tall commanding figure clad in a dusty, travel-stained gray, but with a courtly, dignified bearing." Before departing, the two young ladies asked for his autograph. General Lee graciously took a moment to give his signature to the two young ladies who had gifted him with song.

Mort Künstler's Comments:

It seems hard to believe that ten years have gone by since I last painted a Civil War scene in Front Royal, Virginia. 'Covered With Glory' was painted in 1999 and showed the 26th North Carolina marching up Chester Street past the office and residence of Dr. Bernard Samuels (a building still standing, restored and maintained). Front Royal is a lovely town nestled in the Shenandoah Valley, and I have longed to do another painting located in Front Royal for some time.

Recently, my office was contacted by Larry LeHew, the owner of Bel Air, a beautiful mansion overlooking Front Royal. He invited me to tour the home and grounds with the idea of it being the subject of a future painting. I visited Bel Air for the first time on March 20th, 2009 and learned from my gracious host, Mr. LeHew, that it had been built in 1795.

In spite of the fact that it had undergone a number of renovations and does not look today exactly like it did during the Civil War, I became intrigued with the history of the place and the numerous possibilities for a painting. Fifty yards in front and to the right side of the house, and at the base of a sloping and grassy hill, runs Happy Creek. The name itself was enough to inspire a painting!

Sad Hearth, Sweet Heaven, the diary of Lucy Rebecca Buck, revealed all the facts I needed. Lucy was the oldest daughter of the Buck family, the owners of Bel Air during the War Between the States. She was nineteen in 1861, and kept a meticulous and extensive diary of what went on at the home. On July 22, 1863, after the battle at Gettysburg, the Army of Northern Virginia retreated through Front Royal. Late that afternoon William Mason Buck, the father of Lucy and her sister Nellie, returned to their home with none other than Robert E. Lee and his staff!

The following is an excerpt from that diary:

"… and just as they were leaving, the old gentleman hoped we would not be troubled much more by our enemies and bade Nellie and me by all means not to 'let any of those fine young Yankee officers carry us off.' We replied that we depended upon him to prevent such a possibility. Before leaving he enriched Nellie's autograph book and mine with his name at the same time protesting that he knew we would much prefer having our sweethearts' there rather than his. Dear old General! - how I've always admired and loved him…"

At this time Nellie, Lucy's younger sister was 19; Lucy was 21.

Lucy continued her diary through to April 15, 1865 when it abruptly ended. Lucy started her diary again, years later. Neither she nor her sister ever married. She died in 1918 and is buried in the same cemetery she visited so many times in Front Royal - Prospect Hill.

Image courtesy of Künstler Enterprises Ltd. For more information, visit mortkü




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