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Weeks before Philip Sheridan’s Shenandoah campaign, David Hunter added his own dark chapter to the Valley’s history.

For most of May, June and July 1864, smoke and ash filled the skies above Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley while burned and charred house timbers littered the ground below. Sherman’s march through Georgia may be the best known of the many fiery Civil War trails  left by Union armies, but the one blazed by Union Major General David Hunter seared deep scars that remain to this day.

In late May 1864, Union General-in-Chief U.S. Grant appointed Hunter to command a Union army of 16,000 men in western Virginia, replacing the inept Maj. Gen. Franz Sigel. Grant gave Hunter blunt orders: Clear the Valley of all enemy forces and all means of supplying the Confederacy, then go after either Charlottesville or Lynchburg.

The selection of Hunter came at an awkward time for the Union high command. The Army of the Potomac was hard at work attacking Lee’s still formidable Army of Northern Virginia, and Sherman’s army was battling far to the south. Sigel, a political appointee of President Abraham Lincoln, had commanded the Federal forces in the Valley since March 1864. But his tenure ended abruptly on May 15 at New Market when a patchwork Confederate army under Maj. Gen. John C. Breckinridge routed him with the aid of some 250 Virginia Military Institute cadets.

Hunter may not have been the ideal general to replace Sigel, but he was available, and both Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton were familiar with him. Grant also knew him— Hunter had been sent by Stanton in late 1863 to spy on Grant and report on his alleged problems with binge drinking. To Hunter’s credit, he had reported favorably on Grant.

However, Hunter’s combat record in the Deep South was less than outstanding. Further, he had embarrassed Lincoln in May 1862 by issuing a premature emancipation proclamation, freeing slaves in South Carolina, Georgia and Florida—a decree Lincoln had annulled because it was outside Hunter’s authority, and because the president had recommended that Congress endorse a plan for gradual emancipation. (It wasn’t until January 1863 that Lincoln’s own Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in the Rebel states.) On the plus side, Hunter was West Point–trained, albeit old for frontline duty at 62. He also was an ardent, even fanatical, abolitionist, something that made him politically correct for the time and attractive to the powerful Radical Republicans in Congress.

Once in command, Hunter made it clear to his men that they were going to live off the land. He also set the tone for treatment of civilians: Guerrilla attacks would be answered with the destruction of private property and other retaliation. Countless letters, diaries and postwar unit histories document the result. Sadly, much of the looting, sacking and reprisals that followed were totally unbefitting proper conduct by U.S. troops, and Hunter’s character must as a result be questioned.

Hunter may have had a slim bit of justification for some of his actions. Previous Federal ventures in the Valley had been constantly harassed by partisan ranger and guerrilla outfits, including those of John S. Mosby, Harry W. Gilmor and John H. McNeil. Hunter believed the way to end or at least curtail such acts was reprisal. Firing on his people from anyone behind his lines, he announced, would result in the burning of houses and property of any known Confederates as well as other property within a given radius.

The first such attack occurred just before the march began near Newtown (now known as Stephens City), a small village on the Valley Pike just south of Winchester. Hunter dispatched 200 troopers of the 1st New York (Lincoln) Cavalry to burn three houses to avenge a guerrilla raid. A citizens committee protested, and Hunter referred the men to Colonel David Strother, his cousin and chief of staff. Strother told the citizens to protect themselves by reporting the guilty persons. At that point they contended the raid had been carried out mostly by Marylanders led by a man from Winchester, not locals. They also explained that the home of a woman known as Mrs. Newton was being used as a rendezvous for guerrillas. That news was relayed to Hunter, who ordered the woman arrested. In the hearings that followed, it emerged that she did not own the house she was living in. The structure was spared, but her personal property was dragged out of the house and burned.

On May 26, the home of a farmer named Boyden was burned; it too had allegedly been used as a rendezvous for guerrillas. Five of Hunter’s men had been bushwacked and killed nearby. The next day Hunter sent Strother into Woodstock to try to learn the identities of some persons he said had attempted to mislead his column. “Find them and burn their houses” was the order. What Strother found instead was a peaceful village whose residents had mixed feelings about the war. Strother used his influence with the general to forestall the destruction that he felt would have been unwarranted.

Two days later one of Hunter’s officers, Colonel John Meigs, burned the house of a man who the colonel contended had assisted in capturing and killing Federal stragglers following the New Market debacle. A pattern clearly had been set: It seemed that even the most circumstantial of evidence would suffice as justification to burn houses and businesses to the ground.

But as Hunter’s antiguerrilla policy and attitude degenerated into patterns that were ruthless and, to many, unnecessarily harsh, he began to lose the respect of subordinates. Chief among these was Strother, who would become a noted diarist and artist. He quickly adopted a strategy of obeying orders but putting himself at a distance whenever possible, even trying at times to discourage his commander from carrying out some of the acts, as he had done at Woodstock.

Near New Market on May 30, Strother stepped in to prevent a hanging. Several Confederates had been captured, one of whom had a furlough note in his pocket. The man had allegedly entered Hunter’s lines to recover some lost horses. Hunter wanted him hanged immediately, presuming that he was a spy. Strother investigated at the urging of another officer and found that the prisoner and some other captives were actually elderly home guardsmen who had been mustered for emergency service but had then been sent home. Strother convinced Hunter to rescind the death sentence, with the proviso that the men take an oath of allegiance.

Hunter’s march brought him to the Port Republic area on June 3. Aware that his men had used up their rations, Hunter issued a requisition on the town for meat and flour—a perfectly legal action. Little was forthcoming, however, so the troops began foraging, causing Strother to note in his diary that the men were “plundering dreadfully.”

By June 5, Hunter had moved up the Valley to the village of Piedmont, some 10 miles northeast of the Confederate supply center at Staunton. There, he smashed a small Confederate army under Brig. Gen. William E. “Grumble” Jones, leaving that officer dead on the field. Discipline again deteriorated as the hungry Yankees searched for food.

From there Hunter tramped into Staunton, which was now defenseless. A delegation of fearful citizens appealed to the general for protection of civilian property. He again turned the matter over to Strother, who politely informed the group that Confederate military stores and equipment along with military manufacturing facilities would be destroyed, but private property, schools, charitable institutions and noncombatants would be left alone. Strother warned that there might be instances of abuse and tried to keep order—but as he had feared, there was widespread pillaging.

A few soldiers did try to save some homes adjacent to burning warehouses and factories. One of these was a carriage factory that Hunter ordered to be torched despite pleas from the owner that it was not used for any military purpose. Everything of any military value in Staunton was burned or destroyed, including the depot, railroad tracks, telegraph lines, bridges, culverts and quantities of food stores and munitions. From there, Hunter— incorrectly believing Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan’s men had reached and sacked Charlottesville (they would actually be thwarted at Trevillian Station on June 11-12)—decided to head directly up the Valley toward Lexington, Buchanan and Lynchburg. He marched out of Staunton contending that his troops had behaved admirably.

About that same time Brig. Gen. George Crook and his troops from West Virginia, who had been ordered to join Hunter, reached Staunton. While those men were on the march earlier near Lewisburg, a slave told Crook about a man named David Creigh who had shot and killed a Union soldier. Creigh contended that he had acted in self-defense when the drunken soldier looted his house, verbally abused his wife and attacked him. Creigh was put under arrest and carried along with the column for trial. With the base at Staunton now destroyed and some of his own shortages replaced from captured stores, Hunter renewed his march south toward his next target, Lexington. On the way, near the hamlet of Brownsburg, Creigh was hauled before a drumhead court and sentenced to be hanged. He was promptly executed.

On Monday, June 11, in front of Lexington, the Federal regiments skirmished with a 2,000-man cavalry command under Brig. Gen. John McCausland, a VMI gradate who now found himself defending his alma mater. Unable to do much more than delay the Yankees, the Confederates withdrew. Union Brig. Gen. William Averell initially placed guards at the VMI facilities and Washington College to forestall looting, but they were soon removed. Pillaging ensued on an incredible scale. Hunter ordered the VMI barracks burned, which was a legal act considering the school’s military function, but his troops did not stop there. Personal belongings were ransacked, baggage opened and pillaged and money was stolen. At both VMI and Washington College educational materials of every type were burned or stolen, including scientific instruments, mineralogical collections and other materials. Some 20,000 books in Washington College’s library, some of which belonged to VMI, were torched or seized by the looters.

By now a number of Federal officers looked askance at such actions, including Strother, Captain Henry Du Pont, an artillery officer destined for Congress, and Colonel Rutherford B. Hayes, the future U.S. president. Du Pont refrained from shelling VMI and the village, firing only a token salvo to satisfy orders. Hayes was later quoted as saying that “Hunter will be as odious as Butler or Pope to the Rebels and not gain our good opinion either….”

In Lexington Hunter continued his individual targeting. Because former Governor John Letcher had recently issued a proclamation extolling all citizens to resist the invaders, Hunter ordered his home to be burned. Mrs. Letcher was given five minutes to evacuate the premises. Initially she had been told her house would be spared, and she had been polite to some Union officers who had sheltered there. But Hunter, upon learning of the proclamation, flew into a rage and demanded revenge. The stunned woman raced upstairs to grab her sleeping baby from its crib before the torch was applied. Her home and all her belongings went up in smoke. Close by stood the home and stable of the governor’s 78-year-old mother. Within minutes the outbuilding was in flames. Only the efforts of a Union officer who defied his commander’s intent spared the old lady’s home. He formed a bucket brigade of soldiers to keep the structure wet and prevented its destruction.

Major William Gilham, a professor at VMI, was not so lucky. Mrs. Gilham was given only a few minutes to remove some of the belongings and furniture before their home was set ablaze. Several officers, including another future president, Captain William McKinley, assisted Du Pont and Mrs. Gilham in moving her possessions. That done, the troops turned to the nearby home of VMI professor Colonel Thomas Williamson, reducing it to ashes.

The home of VMI Superintendent General Francis Smith, fronting the parade ground, was initially put on the burn list, probably on the basis that it had been used several times for the transmission of orders between Smith and Confederate authorities. It was occupied by Smith’s wife, their daughter and her two-day-old baby. The baby is generally accepted to be the only reason Hunter spared the building.

Hunter gave some thought to burning Washington College as well, but more rational officers pointed out to him that destroying a monument to the father of the country might not be well regarded in the North. He wisely accepted their recommendation. But some soldiers began throwing rocks at a statue of Washington atop one of the buildings under the misunderstanding that it was a statue of Jefferson Davis. Strother arrived in time to save it from destruction. The sword of one of Lexington’s most famous residents, Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, survived the looting only because it had been carefully hidden in his wife Anna’s piano. The bronze statue of Washington that stood in front of the VMI barracks was seized as a war trophy. It was pulled down, damaged in the process and hauled off. The statue was taken to Washington, D.C., but was eventually returned to VMI, where it stands today facing the barracks.

Captain Du Pont would later write that while he believed the destruction of the VMI barracks was a legal act, the destruction of libraries, “philosophical apparatus, the large and extensive mineralogical collection and other objects used solely for educational purposes was entirely unnecessary, besides being contrary to the conventions of civilized warfare….” Many years later, while serving as a U.S. senator from Delaware, he encouraged the Federal government to atone for these acts. He played a key role in having an indemnity paid to VMI. The funds were used to build VMI’s beautiful Jackson Memorial Hall.

Hunter’s men carried out another execution in Lexington, this time of Confederate Captain Matt White, who had admitted to shooting one of Hunter’s scouts who was clad in a Confederate uniform. Some troops also looted Stonewall Jackson’s grave. Contemporary accounts tell of a number of Union soldiers visiting the gravesite out of harmless curiosity. But one vindictive party, including an officer, saw fit to pull down the flagpole erected by the local citizenry and then drag away the head and foot boards from Jackson’s grave. A few days later, when Hunter’s troops reached the outskirts of Lynchburg, that act of desecration came into public view at a home Hunter had requisitioned as his headquarters. An officer gleefully showed off a slab of wood from the grave’s headboard. An account of that scene published in the Lynchburg newspaper did nothing to enhance Hunter’s reputation.

Smoke lingered over Lexington for the next two days. Hunter had decided to await the arrival of a large supply train en route from Staunton. It was not until 2 a.m. on the 13th that Averell’s cavalry command headed up the Valley toward Buchanan, where it was to seize its bridge across the James River. At about 9 a.m. Averell’s lead troopers smelled smoke. As they approached the river, they saw that McCausland’s men had beaten them to the punch—the bridge was on fire. McCausland was among the last of the graycoats to flee the near bank and reach the safety of Buchanan.

Late that same day Hunter arrived with his main force as Averell’s men were scouring the countryside and destroying a number of iron furnaces, a warehouse and a foundry that had been supplying the Confederates. Once again hungry Union soldiers took to looting as they searched for food, this time in Pattonsburg, the small hamlet just across the river from Buchanan. The shocked citizens looked on in amazement. One lady allegedly commented that “General Hunter had no feeling for the people, but the other two generals [Crook and Averell] were gentlemen.”

The next day Hunter led his men across the James and headed for a pass over the Blue Ridge Mountains at Peaks of Otter. But McCausland had blocked the narrow mountain roadway with downed trees and rockslides. Scouts told Hunter of a less-used road about a mile south of Buchanan, so the Federal commander headed his columns in that direction. A fine home called Mount Joy, the residence of retired Colonel John Anderson, stood along the way. Both the colonel and his wife were elderly, but the colonel had the misfortune to be the brother of General Joseph Anderson, who ran the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond, a main source of arms for the Confederacy. Turning to a nearby officer, Hunter directed him to burn Mount Joy, then rode on. The shocked officer waited until Hunter was out of sight, then ordered that only the outbuildings should be torched.

Later that morning Hunter looked back and saw that the house was not on fire. He was outraged and ordered the place burned immediately. Dejected, the subordinate who had tried to spare the house saluted, turned his horse about and led his men back to Mount Joy. He regretfully told Mrs. Anderson that he had been ordered to destroy her home but would delay the order one hour to allow her to save what she could. Soon, however, there was an outbreak of looting and destruction. The family’s silver service was stolen, precious china smashed and clothing destroyed.

Hunter crossed over the Blue Ridge at Peaks of Otter and headed for Liberty (now Bedford). En route he came upon another home called Fancy Farm, nestled in the foothills on the eastern side of the Blue Ridge. Hunter stopped there for the night and spared the house. Just outside Liberty was a community known as Centerville, home to B.E. Owens, whose business was tobacco. Learning of Hunter’s approach, he and his free black workers fled to the hills along with his livestock. The Union troops broke into the barn, confiscated tobacco for themselves, then put the rest to the torch. Then they broke into the house, allegedly insulting Mrs. Owens in the process. She watched helplessly as her home was looted, but the house was not burned.

Troops ransacked homes in the village, with much of the looting again triggered by hunger. There is some uncertainty whether any homes were burned, but one contemporary letter alleges such an incident. A man who lived in a home known as the Leftwich house supposedly told Union troops that the Confederates had just won major victories in the Eastern and Western theaters. Hunter became irate and ordered the house burned, turning a woman and child out into the street. Strother and several other officers were so disgusted that they rode away rather than watch the ordeal. Strother was so embarrassed that he would write in his diary, “Our troops, I fear, are plundering the town and misbehaving terribly as women and children are besieging the General’s door for protection….”

The Liberty depredations were Hunter’s grand finale in the Valley. The next day his troops headed toward Lynchburg. There, he encountered a small garrison that had been reinforced by men of Breckinridge’s Division sent back from Lee’s command. They would be followed shortly by the Second Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia, now under Lt. Gen. Jubal Early. Believing he was now vastly outnumbered (in fact he still had several thousand more troops than the defenders), Hunter made a weak assault, then turned and retreated—into virtual obscurity. The looting pattern continued when his troops sought safety in the far hills of West Virginia.

Even among so much devastation there were some brief periods of humor. On the morning after Hunter’s evacuation from Lynchburg, Carter H. Harrison, a cadet from VMI, wandered into the barn of Hunter’s former headquarters. The barn had served as a field hospital and still housed some 90 badly wounded men. Harrison noticed a man there wearing socks with the embroidered initials “C.H.H.” on them. “Where did you get those socks?” queried Harrison. The man said he had bought them in Lexington. Harrison, knowing that the socks had actually been knitted for him by his grandmother and had been in his trunk at the VMI barracks, demanded that the soldier take them off. The soldier refused. Harrison yelled for an officer and told him the story—and he got his socks back. Another version of the story claims that the wounded man was also wearing one of Harrison’s shirts at the time.

Ultimately Hunter’s campaign was a failure. His command deficiencies were augmented by an underlying vindictiveness that warped his perspective. Compounding matters, Hunter was surrounded by subordinates who either questioned his suitability for command, or were questionable themselves. Crook, Hunter’s best infantry commander, had done good service in the West and earlier in the East. At Lynchburg he really had no opportunity to display outstanding command talent. He later became famous as an Indian fighter, though some contended he was partly to blame for George Custer’s defeat at the Little Bighorn. In his memoirs he complained that he always served under incompetents.

Averell, Hunter’s principal cavalry commander, had been relieved once before by Joe Hooker for a lack of aggressiveness and would be relieved again by Sheridan. His performance at Lynchburg, however, may have been the best of the lot. Hunter’s other cavalry commander, Brig. Gen. Alfred Duffie, was a pseudoprofessional French officer. Claiming he was a St. Cyr graduate and veteran French combat officer—which he was not—he blundered continuously during the campaign.

In essence, Hunter’s campaign was doomed from the start. A more competent officer with a more aggressive set of subordinates likely could have seized Lynchburg. Instead the record reflects a botched campaign marked by a trail of fire and ashes. Ask any Virginian whose ancestors were residents of the Old Dominion in 1864 if they ever heard of David Hunter and prepare for the worst. The bitter memories of that summer linger to this day.


L. VanLoan Naisawald, who writes from Lynchburg, Va., is a graduate of VMI and one of the original contributors to Civil War Times. For additional reading: A Virginia Yankee in the Civil War: The Diaries of David Hunter Strother.

Originally published in the October 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.