The Bests

A group of farm buildings surrounded by green farm fields.
Built around the same time as the main house in the 1790s, the secondary dwelling at the Best Farm may have served as David Best's retirement home when he turned management of the farm to his son John T. in 1863.

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Map showing outlines of Best Farm and L'Hermitage
After John McElfresh's death in 1841, the Hermitage was divided into the North Hermitage and the South Hermitage. David Best leased the North Hermitage before moving to the southern property in 1852.

The Bests were leaders in the Frederick County agricultural community. The Best Family never owned the farm that today bears their name at Monocacy National Battlefield, three generations of Bests worked the land from the mid- to late-19th century and lived there during the July 9, 1864, battle. From 1835 until the National Park Service acquired it 1993, the Best Farm belonged to John H. McElfresh and his descendants. In the years before emancipation in Maryland, David Best relied on enslaved individuals for both their labor to produce crops and as collateral to secure loans. Following the war and the switch paid labor, John T. Best was at the forefront of the transition to dairy farming in the county.

David Best

Born in 1804 in Adams County, Pennsylvania, it is not clear when David Best moved to Maryland; but in 1831 he married Ann(a) Mary Lentz (Lantz) in Frederick County. After their marriage, the Bests lived in Frederick County. The 1840 census lists David Best residing in Frederick County with a household of eight free, white people and no enslaved persons. In addition to David, Mary, and three of their children: Elizabeth (1832), William (1837), John T. (1839), the household included two white males aged between 10- and 20-years-old and a white female between the age of 15- and 10-years-old. These additional household members may have been relatives, but more likely were hired laborers. The Bests' last child Simon was born in 1841. While the 1840 census does not record enslaved individuals associated with Best; it is possible, even likely, that David Best claimed ownership of enslaved people in 1840 that resided somewhere other than his residence.

David and Mary Best began farming the South Hermitage property (today's Best Farm) in 1852. Records indicate David Best's business relationship with the McElfresh/Trail family extends back until at least 1842 and that he appears to have leased the North Hermitage from John and Theresia McElfresh before moving to the southern property. In 1843, David Best secured a loan from Theresia McElfresh (John McElfresh died in 1841) for $1,189. He used his share of the crops "now growing on that part of the Hermittage [sic] farm in my occupancy," to secure his loan repayment. Since David Best and family did not move to the South Hermitage until 1852, this implies that he was farming the northern portion of the property.

David Best used the enslaved people he claimed ownership of to raise money, both through selling them and using them to secure loans. In 1842, David Best borrowed $811 with interest from Theresia McElfresh. To secure the loan, David Best offered an enslaved woman named Diana Combash and her three children Charity (age eight), Nelson (age six), and Eliza Ann (age four). In 1846, he again mortgaged the Combash children (Charity, ten; Nelson, nine; and Eliza Ann, seven) and Elias Washington, age three. In 1860, David Best sold a 22-year old "negro man named John N. Combash" to John Linn for $200. The sale included the stipulation that John Combash only serve until 1866. In September, Best purchased Ann Eliza Combash from Joseph Thomas for $250. Best then sold Ann Eliza and Elias W. Combash (18-years old) to John Linn for $660. Like John Combash, both Ann Eliza and Elias had limits placed on their years of service in the contract. Ann Eliza was to serve unil February 1, 1868, and Elias until 1872. The Combash children, born into enslavement by David Best, had been mortgaged twice (and Ann Eliza sold and re-purchased before being sold again) within the first twenty years of their lives. None of the three people sold to John Linn in 1860 served out the terms listed in the contracts. Their freedom came in 1864 when Maryland abolished slavery.

Between 1850 and 1860, David Best modernized and expanded his farm operations. In the 1850 Agricultural Census, David Best was farming 315 acres valued at $12,700. He had 10 horses, 9 cows, 5 cattle, and 40 swine all valued at $772. He had farm implements valued at $225. In the 1860 Agricultural Census, after the move to the South Hermitage, David Best was farming 375 acres valued at $25,500. He had 12 horses, 9 cows, 3 cattle, 20 sheep, and 40 swine valued at $1,265. His farm implements were worth $600. David Best also had a blacksmith shop in operation in the 1860s. In April 1860, David Best constructed a new barn on the South Hermitage. A neighbor, Simon Cronise, was seriously injured while helping build the barn.

 
A cannon sits in a green field with a small two-story house in the background. The sky is pink and blue.
During the Battle of Monocacy, Confederate artillery on the Best Farm target Union troops in the railroad cut and on the other side of the river.

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Civil War Impacts

The Best Farm was heavily impacted multiple times by the Civil War. Its location close to strategic transportation routes (Georgetown Pike and B&O Railroad) meant that both Union and Confederate troops passed through and occupied the area throughout the war. The B&O Railroad bridge over the Monocacy was a frequent target of Confederate attacks.

During the first Confederate invasion of the North in September 1862, Confederate and Union troops camped on the Best Farm on their way to Sharpsburg, Maryland. While encamped on the Best Farm, General Robert E. Lee issued his Special Order 191. On September 9, 1862, David Best received a receipt for $4 payment for a cord of wood used by Confederates. As Confederate troops departed, they burned the B&O Railroad bridge over the Monocacy. Days later, the Best Farm was again the site of a military encampment, but this time the soldiers were Union. On September 13th, members of Company F, 27th Indiana Volunteer Infantry discovered Lee's orders in an envelope with two cigars.

In 1876, Charles E. Trail and David Best made a claim for $3,249.85 to the Quartermaster General for damages caused by troops in September, October, and November 1862. Most of the amount was for fences, gates, trees, and crops taken by McClellan’s troops on the way to South Mountain and Antietam. Both David and John Best testified that most of the fencing along the Georgetown Pike and B&O Railroad were used by troops for cooking. In addition to swearing their loyalty to the Union, both Best and Trail had to prove that the items claimed were taken and used by Union troops, as well as the value of the items. After a lengthy claims process, they were eventually awarded $1,230.22 in damages.

The loss of fencing created additional problems for Best and his neighbors. In February 1863, David Best advertised in the Frederick Examiner looking for the owner of a red steer that he found on his property. He requested that the owner come collect his steer and pay for damages. Best had to readvertise again in March and May 1863. In April 1863, David Best joined with neighbors to place an advertisement in The Examiner. Along with John T. Worthington, J.H. Gambrill, C.K. Thomas, and others, Best gave notice that they would begin impounding livestock found trespassing on their lands. As a result of the armies destroying their fences, they were unable to fully secure their fields and therefore advised their neighbors to secure their stock.

In the Spring of 1863, blockhouses were constructed on each side of the Monocacy to protect the bridges at Monocacy Junction. The blockhouse on the north side of the river was constructed on the South Hermitage property near the railroad station. Union troops were a regular presence at Monocacy Junction for the rest of the war.

On July 9, 1864, the Best Farm was center stage during the Battle of Monocacy. It is unclear where the Best Family took shelter during the battle. Unlike the Thomas and Worthington families, no accounts from the Best family have surfaced. It is possible that, like the Worthingtons, John Best and his enslaved laborers were busy trying to harvest the crops in the fields or hiding livestock when the first Confederate troops arrived around 8 am. It is also possible that the Bests sought shelter at a neighbor's house further away from the Monocacy Junction as early as the day before the battle.

From 8:30 am until the close of the battle around 5 pm, Confederate troops led by General Stephen Ramseur clashed with Union troops on the Best Farm. Confederate sharpshooters used the Best's barn to target Union troops that took cover in the railroad cut. In retaliation, Union troops trained their artillery on the barn and set it on fire. Just four years after the Bests built it, the barn was gone.

The complete amount of damages sustained by the Bests is unknown, since neither the Bests nor the Trails ever submitted a claim for the July 9th battle. By the end of the day, however, the Best's barn, the road bridges over the Monocacy and railroad cut were destroyed. The next day Confederates took aim at the B&O Railroad bridge over the Monocacy before they headed to Washington, D.C.

On November 1, 1864, voters in Maryland approved a new state constitution that ended chattel slavery in the state. In the 1860 Frederick District Slave Schedule, David Best claimed six people as property. The schedule does not record names, just sex, age, and color. The ages of the individuals listes range from 20 to 4 years old. Two are female. All are listed as mulatto. The new Maryland constitution granted freedom, but not equality.

 
Two photos: John Best on left and Margaret Joanna Best on the right.
John T. Best took over farming South Hermitage in 1863 when his father David retired.

John T. Best

In 1863, David Best retired and his son, John T. Best, Sr. took over managing the farm. David Best continued to live on the property, but appears to have had a separate residence since both David and John are listed as heads of households in the 1870 census. Like his father, John Best was a progressive farmer and a leader in the Frederick County agricultural community.

John T. Best married Margaret Joanna Dorsey on April 7, 1864, at the German Reformed Church in Frederick, Maryland. John and Margaret had six sons. On November 9, 1866, John T. and Joana Best christened their first son Charles Edward Trail Best in honor of their landlord. The names chosen for their other sons reveal close ties to family and neighbors: William H. (1868), John Thomas (1874), Oliver David (1876), James Henry Gambrill (1878), and Frank Lawrence (1880).

Despite the losses that he suffered during the Civil War, John Best continued to innovate and prosper on the South Hermitage. In June 1869, John hosted an exhibition of mowing machines for the Frederick County Agricultural Society. The 1870 Agricultural Census records that John Best farmed a total of 425 improved acres,had $600 in farm equipment, and paid $3,000 in wages. He produced wheat, corn, oats, wool, potatoes, butter, milk, orchard products, hay, and clover seed. The census reflects a significant increase in dairy production. Where as his father only listed 550 pounds of butter in 1860, John recorded producing 800 pounds of butter in 1870. The size of John's herd grew from 12 in 1870 to 40 in 1880. Close proximity to the B&O Railroad provided opportunity for John to easily ship perishable goods like butter and milk to the markets in Baltimore and Washington.

John Best continued farming the South Hermitage until 1888. Like the earlier years of his tenancy, the last decade included great loss and successes. In 1878, his barn burned. It was a $10,000 loss. This barn was most likely the one built to replace the barn destroyed during the 1864 battle. Even with this financial loss, John was prosperous enough to acquire his own property and construct a new home. His house was described as "a magnificent modern home" erected "at a cost of $17,000." John Best's departure from the South Hermitage marked the end of a half century tenancy by the Bests on McElfresh/Trail land.

 

Last updated: September 23, 2020

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