The Broce Plantation and the Civil War

  • The Broce plantation, established in 1843 in the then small business community of Blacksburg, holds its own unique history during the 1862 Union New River Valley Campaign, and more prominently—the 1864 Union Valley Campaign. 


    C.M. Broce came to town with a dream to start a noteworthy cattle sales business.  He commenced to build a two story, Georgia style stone plantation home atop a hill overlooking the slowly growing business town of Blacksburg.  Sitting upon 97 acres, entrepreneur C.M. Broce quickly compiled a herd of cattle to graze on the land and serve as his source of recognition and revenue at the estate.  In the Hill’s Business Directory of 1897-1898—he was claimed to be one of the only twelve cattle dealers in Montgomery County; however, it did not emphasize the girth of his business at the time compared to his competition. 


    During the early American Civil War, his business grew quickly in order to compensate for the consequent loss of livestock by crossfire and meal rations for the soldiers.  His dealings as a cattle herder begged of him to grow his herd size and quickly turnaround his cattle count.  C.M. Broce was one of few farmers that luckily evaded the thieving of deserter soldiers that couldn’t adapt to the difficult lifestyle during the war.  Dr. Harvey Black, a prestigious physician and local Blacksburg icon himself, wrote about a cattleman by the name of Dr. James Otey who had complained to the government of his cattle loss as food to these passerby deserters.  However, Broce’s troubles were just approaching in the years to follow. 


    Early 1864, U.S. ‘Supreme Commander’ General Ulysses S. Grant developed a plan to defeat Confederate ‘Supreme Commander’ General Robert E. Lee by severing his main supply line—the Virginia & Tennessee Railroad, which coincidently had only one weakness crossing the New River just on the outskirts of Blacksburg.  A 700ft railroad bridge crossing the New River at Central Depot (known as Radford) was Grant’s target. Serving under Major General George C. Crook—Brigadier General William W. Averell, commanded a 10,000 Union infantry army and a strong 2,000 soldier cavalry brigade that was ordered from Charleston, WV to destroy any Confederate resources along the way to Blacksburg and wait to rendezvous with Union Major General Crook and his army of only 6,567 soldiers and artillery after he had destroyed the New River Railroad Bridge. 


    On May 9th, 1864, Major General Crook met strategic opposition by Confederate Brigadier General Albert G. Jenkins as they moved across Cloyd’s Mountain on their way to Central Depot.  A truly bloody battle ensued, commonly compared to Antietam due to its casualties observed during its quick timespan.  The Union victors continued through Dublin to the bridge, successfully destroying it before continuing to Blacksburg for rendezvous.


    May 11th, 1864, Major General Crook arrived in Blacksburg and found a capable shelter for his men, wounded and fatigued from the previous two days of battle, at Mrs. Edwin Amiss’ Mountain View home (located then on the grounds of the Blacksburg Middle School).  Her husband, an adjutant general at A.P. Hill and Mrs. Amiss herself pleaded to the army that they didn’t use their house as a headquarters and field hospital.  Granted by Colonel Rutherford B. Hayes (later president), the army then orderly dispersed to neighboring lands.


    The majority of the wounded soldiers of Crook’s army were sent to the northwestern side of town, many coming to C.M. Broce’s Farm near Tom’s Creek.  His two-story estate was transformed into a bustling hospital, in which his family and slaves cared for and dressed the wounds of the hostile Union soldiers until the army’s departure early May 12th, 1864.  Later that day, General Averell and his troops arrived in town, completely battered and hungry; in an aggressive sweep through the town, the army robbed the Blacksburg families of much of their rationed food and property.  After the hardships the Blacksburg residents went through, many families were left destitute, robbed of food as their husbands and/or sons were away fighting in the 4th Virginia Infantry, 21st Virginia Calvary or the 54th Virginia Infantry. 


    One of several iconic figures that seized the opportunity to help his fellow townsfolk was C.M. Broce, who herded a large stock of cattle, which could certainly ease the worry of those left destitute.  C.M., and his son Jacob, personally mined coal from the surrounding mountains of his ranch; they had reportedly mined enough coal for all their neighbors to use to heat their homes during the harsh winters of the Shenandoah.  Montgomery County was one of the leading coal and saltpeter providers to the Confederate States of America during the war, a majority coming from the Merrimac Mines (Named so because it was burned on the CSA Merrimac).  C.M. Broce was a gregarious and honest cattleman during the hardships of the Civil War and the remainder of his hard worked life. 


    After C.M. Broce’s passing, the estate was handed down to his son Jacob Broce.  The estate was passed down to his ancestors Beulah Broce Murrill and Ashby Broce in 1943, and then sold by Archie C. Broce to John Barringer for $15,000 in 1951.  The estate was again sold to Thomas Daniel Frith for $14,000 in 1966 and to the Virginia Tech German Club in 1973.  After two years of living in the house, the German Club of VT broke ground on the construction of their current manor, and sold the house to its current inhabitants—Alpha Gamma Rho, Beta Eta Chapter of Virginia Tech. 


    Currently the Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity happily resides in the historic estate, adding a 40’ by 40’, three story addition to the rear of the original house.  The original edition of the estate built in 1843, is standing 2 stories high with an underground basement serving at the time as a kitchen, furnace and living quarters for the slaves.  As you travel west on Tom’s Creek Road from Virginia Tech campus, the iconic house will come into view across the 460 bypass and on an adjacent hill on the left. 


    Upon swinging open the front double doors, you will be welcomed by a sitting room clad with wood floors and ornate Jefferson trim.  Three rooms stem off the first floor hallway and an ornately etched wooden staircase leads you to a second floor with four large rooms and a bathroom (which was added recently).  The sub-ground basement with the retired furnace room opens up to reveal a welcoming gateway to the recent addition in the rear of the house that has a fully furnished kitchen and a large dining/social space for the current residents and guests to share.


    Although the history of this house has just been revealed to the members of the long-time fraternity residents of the Broce plantation, easing the wonder of its historic relevance, I question why the town of Blacksburg hasn’t marked the estate as exhibiting historical significance.  One current inhabitant stated his interest in some of the artifacts uncovered in a ‘potato room’ in the basement beneath the first floor of the house. 


    In response to reading the history of the house and family that built it, he exclaimed, “I am surprised this house has been sitting on a gold mine of history, most of it related to the Civil War battles that occurred in this area.  I am relieved that we have effectively preserved a house such as this in this time of ‘tear down the old, build the new.’  It is also just surprising that none of this information has been organized and filed in the history of Blacksburg, and it took so much digging around to reveal.” 


    Ideally, the historical references of the US Civil War would have thought to have been archived and the iconic properties from the war would be heralded for the public.  Quite ironically, no one has ever thought the Broce Platnation (currently the Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity house) had such a relevant and shocking role in early Blacksburg’s success and growth.  The Broce family isn’t remembered for its selfless duties carried out during Blacksburg’s time of trouble, neither its impact on the economies of the cattle and coal industries of the area. May the Beta Eta chapter of Alpha Gamma Rho preserve this historical memory for future generations to enjoy.