‘Keeper’ of the Virginia Lincolns digs through forgotten pages of history to make connections

Phillip Stone, former president of Bridgewater College, sits in his Harrisonburg law office beneath some of his collection of Lincoln artifacts.

Editor’s note: This is the second in an occasional series about the Lincoln Homestead outside of Harrisonburg. You can read the first installment from Dec. 9, 2019, here.

By Bridget Manley, publisher

For decades, Phillip Stone and his wife lived next to the Lincoln Homestead — on the very land owned by John Lincoln, known as “Virginia John.”

So it seemed only natural that Stone would become an expert in all things Lincoln. Stone, who built a career as a prominent lawyer in Harrisonburg and served as president of both Bridgewater and Sweetbriar colleges, has spent the majority of his adult life collecting, documenting and teaching others about the 16th president and the president’s Virginia relatives. 

He tracked down and preserved documents and artifacts from descendants of long-dead figures, sometimes saving papers just before they were about to be tossed in the garbage. He’s researched the family and given presentations around the commonwealth. He’s tried and failed to raise the money to purchase the homestead, which seemed to all but dash his dreams of turning the property into a museum. 

Perhaps the word “expert” isn’t quite right after all.  Stone is more of a “keeper” — keeper of the stories of the Virginia Lincolns.  

He said he hoped one day someone might come along and breathe new life into the historic home. 

And now a couple has done just that, and Stone couldn’t be happier. 

The president and the Valley

Stone pieced together a puzzle showing Abraham Lincoln was trying to find connection to the Valley and learn about his Virginia relatives before he became president.  

There are two letters from Abraham Lincoln to a distant cousin, David. The letters are now part of the Lincoln Collection at Brown University. In them, Lincoln tried to understand the family tree and find out how the families would be connected.

Stone has researched these letters and believes that then-Senator Lincoln asked then Virginia Governor James McDowell if he knew any Virginia Lincolns. Stone believes that McDowell, who most likely would have stayed at the Lincoln Inn — owned by David — would have provided David’s contact information to Lincoln, who then wrote to inquire about his lineage. 

For Stone, these letters provided much needed information that Lincoln wanted to know more about his relatives in the Valley.  

Stone dug some more. He found a reference in local historian John Wayland’s history books that John T. Harris, a congressman at the time who represented the Valley, had met with Lincoln in Washington, D.C.  

That bit of history piqued Stone’s interest. He researched more and found one of Harris’s descendants, a retired heart surgeon living in Boston. Stone wrote him asking about any of the late congressman’s documents that might still be in the family.  

“He wrote me [back] and said, ‘it is fortuitous that you wrote me when you did,’” Stone recalled. “‘I have a box of family junk in the garage that I’ve meant to throw away for 20 years, and I’m getting ready to do it. I’ll send it to you instead.’” 

Incredibly, the box included Congressmen Harris’s handwritten diary, where Stone came across the description of Harris’s meeting with Abraham Lincoln in the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C. Harris explained how he mentioned the family farm in Rockingham County. 

The diary entry was dated the day before Lincoln’s inauguration. Stone couldn’t believe he’d been so lucky as to receive the diary when he did.

For Lincoln, though, his genealogical trek got quickly sidetracked after taking the oath of office. Soon after, southern states started seceding from the Union. 

Stone hung Lincoln-related pictures and documents on his office wall.

The Lincoln family divide

From the outbreak of the Civil War to his death, Lincoln never mentioned the family in Virginia again, Stone said. 

“My speculation, frankly, just speculation, is that he was so taken aback that Virginia would fight against the Union that they’d taken such an instrumental hand in creating…and that people in Virginia who were not slaveowners would fight for slavery…His sense of justice was just absolutely offended, and he could not believe they would fire on their flag,” Stone said.  

Members of the Lincoln family remained in the homestead until 1894. 

The Virginia Lincolns reciprocated the ill will during the war, Stone said. 

Stone recounted one story of a Lincoln cousin who lived in Linville Creek. Late in the war, after Union General Philip H. Sheridan’s 1864 campaign through the Shenandoah Valley that many locals dubbed “the burning,” someone approached Lincoln’s cousin and said “I know you’re a Lincoln. Aren’t you related to President Lincoln?” 

“And he said, ‘Yeah, I’d like to meet my cousin. I’d like to shoot the S.O.B,’” Stone said. 

Stone said the Virginia Lincolns stayed faithful to the confederacy, and just like most of the South, were resentful after their defeat. 

“People here were so bitter here, after the burning of the Valley in 1864,” Stone said. “There was really a lot of suffering. Wheat fields burned. People were on the verge of starving in several cases, and they were very bitter.”

They blamed Lincoln, Sheridan, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant — anyone associated with the Union. However, Stone said there is anecdotal evidence that during Reconstruction, a sense of sympathy for Lincoln began to seep into the south, although there was still lingering bitterness. 

Stone said he believes some of that sympathy might stem from southerners’ “sense of chivalry” in the wake of John Wilkes Booth shooting Lincoln in the head from behind, which many thought to be cowardly. And because Lincoln was a rags-to-riches story, it became inspirational to people trying to rebuild their lives after war, Stone added. 

These feelings led some of the Virginia Lincolns to begin to take pride in their distant relative in the early 1900s, Stone said.

The Lacey Spring Lincolns

Not far up the road near Broadway, there was a line of Lincolns that lived and prospered. 

“The Lacey Spring Lincolns” were an offshoot of the original Lincoln family, and they were doctors, innkeepers and businesspeople who were respected in the Valley. 

David Lincoln, who corresponded with Abraham Lincoln before the Civil War, was an innkeeper. One bit of regional lore was that the president once stayed at the inn.  But Stone said that’s unlikely. 

“He never was there,” Stone said. 

The bottle from the Lincoln Inn shows the 16th president’s image.

The Lacey Spring Lincolns never tried to change their name during the war, and they prospered after the war ended, Stone said. 

“As they realized he was so important and so famous, they took pride in it,” Stone said. 

The Lincoln Inn even advertised the famous lineage. Stone has, as part of his collection, a glass bottle from the inn that’s engraved with a silhouette of Lincoln in his top hat and riding a horse. The words “Lincoln Inn” circle the top and bottom. 

The Lacey Spring Lincolns have all moved away, except one gentleman who still resides in the area. He’s the last living Lincoln residing in the Valley. 

The Annual Lincoln Day Ceremony

About 45 years ago while Stone was beginning his research into the Virginia Lincolns, he was having coffee one day with a local judge. 

Talking about the importance of the homestead to the Valley, he and Judge John Paul decided to hold a ceremony on Lincoln’s birthday, Feb. 12. They didn’t know exactly what they should do, but they knew they should do something. 

“He said, ‘what kind of ceremony?’ I said, ‘we will go down there, you bring something to read, and I’ll bring something to read. And that’ll be the ceremony,’” Stone said with a smile. 

What started with just the two of them over coffee has now turned into an annual ceremony that’s run for nearly half a century. Stone will continue his annual Lincoln day ceremony but with a new twist this year now that the Homestead has new owners. The annual Lincoln Day ceremony will be held at the Lincoln cemetery on the homestead property at 2 p.m. Feb. 12.

Some years they have drawn big crowds from across the country. Other years it is just the two of them. 

Sleet. Rain. Thirty-five inches of snow. Stone has seen it all during past ceremonies. One time there was so much snow, it was just Stone and his dog. 

“We’ve had weather that I’ve called Stonewall Jackson’s revenge, it’s so bitter,” he said with a laugh.

Another year, as they were holding the ceremony in a whiteout, they looked into the distance and saw an apparition of a tall, black figure in a stovepipe hat and cape coming up the hill. Standing in the cemetery, they both immediately began to feel quizzically nervous. 

“I said, ‘John, do you see that?’ He said ‘yeah, I’m relieved you do,’” Stone said chuckling. 

It turned out to be a man who played the president, and he had heard about the annual ceremony and decided to make an appearance unannounced. 

Other years they invited impersonators of Mary Lincoln and President Lincoln. 

Stone’s interest and teaching of Lincoln around Virginia has also received some pushback over the years. 

“I would get hate mail —not from Virginians usually, but from other states saying, ‘You must be a carpetbagger. Lincoln was a killer. Lincoln started the war’…this or that,” Stone said. “The reception here has almost been uniformly positive. There are a few neo-confederates who don’t like that you honor Lincoln because they think you are putting down the chivalry of the South. I don’t see them as mutually exclusive.” 

The Lincoln Cemetery on the homestead’s property includes a lot of grave markers that say “Lincoln” but also stones memorializing the family’s slaves. 

Plans and dreams fade as the home 

As the years went on and the home fell further and further into disrepair, Stone began entertain the idea of a museum on the property.  He believed the home could serve a greater purpose — to highlight the ways that the country was torn apart at the time and brother fighting brother. 

“It seemed to be almost a metaphor for what was going on with the country. One family: the president and the confederates. The Emancipator and the slaveowners,” Stone said. 

The Lincoln Society had been collecting the papers and the artifacts for many years, hoping for a home. The handkerchief embroidered by one of the daughters, the invoices, the diaries.  Stone saw a place for them all inside, preserved and displayed as an important part of Valley history. 

According to Stone, the previous owner had farmed then leased the land for farming, but no one had lived in the home for decades. When the owner died, his heirs decided to sell it. 

The heirs gave the Lincoln Society the first option to buy the homestead, and they started to raise the money. But it was 2008. The stock market crashed. As people lost their homes and retirements, there were no grants, no gifts and no money to be found. 

“I even met with Steve Spielberg when he was filming ‘Lincoln’,” Stone said, adding that he didn’t want to ask him for the money but was hoping the conversation might trigger the director’s interest. “I got a chance to tell him about the homestead, and he sounded just fascinated.”

After the heartbreak of realizing they would not be able to raise the money, Stone hoped someone would be interested enough to purchase the property and restore it. 

“It’s been painful, because we thought that the house was such an important landmark,” Stone said. 

In the last ten years, Stone talked with several interested parties. They all fell through, however, until Sarah and Benjamin Bixler closed on the property in November

“When the Bixlers came along, I got pretty excited,” Stone said. “They have the passion. They know what they are looking at, and they have the background in fixing up an old house.”

He was even more excited to know they wanted to work with him and the Lincoln Society to teach and share the history with anyone willing to listen. 

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