Saturday, August 29, 2020

"Need I now tell you why our boys burnt buildings?" - Robert McAllister and the Stony Creek Raid

This summer, I found myself reading an amazing collection of 637 letters written by Robert McAllister to his family during his wartime service from 1861 to 1865. 47-years-old and living in New Jersey when the war broke out, this former railroad construction engineer had every reason to pass on military service and nevertheless enlisted as a Lieutenant-Colonel in the 1st New Jersey. He had every reason to serve a period of time and come home to the accolades of his neighbors,  and yet remained in service throughout the war with the Army of the Potomac. He received two battlefield wounds, and three promotions during the war. He saw combat in some of the worst places of the Eastern theater - Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Spotsylvania, and Hatcher's Run to just name a few. He is one of many deserving officers of the United States Army who sacrificed a great deal for his country during the Civil War, only to have his own contributions obscured and overshadowed by the glorification and deification of rebel leaders by later historians influenced by the Lost Cause.

Over time, I have discovered that I much prefer contemporaneous wartime accounts - letters, diaries, etc. written in the moment - to the memoirs so many participants published decades after the war. For me, they ring more true to the realities of the war, and provide a far more complete picture of the experiences of soldiers in the ranks, particularly beyond the movements and stratagems of the battlefield.

The details of the events I highlight below come from a letter McAllister wrote to his wife on December 14th, 1864. This letter struck me immediately as a powerful depiction of the war, and described the kind of scenes and expressed the raw emotions that later memoirs and histories often glossed over and submerged from view. Walt Whitman was not wrong when he wrote, "The real war will never get in the books."


On the morning of December 10th, 1864, Brigadier General Robert McAllister and his men in the 3rd brigade, 3rd division, 2nd corps of the Army of the Potomac began to stir amidst a wintry landscape. Encamped within ten miles from the North Carolina border, and some forty miles south of the main U.S. lines outside of Petersburg, McAllister's men had spent the last three days marching and tearing up miles of railroad tracks. Temperatures had plummeted below freezing and rain and sleet fell steadily through the preceding night. "The trees and bushes were loaded with icesecles; the ground was covered with ice," McAllister reported in a letter home a few days later.  He and his men faced a long return march to the safety of U.S. lines through mud, ice and water. Along the way, rebel cavalry and infantry stalked their progress in the hopes of cutting off and destroying the large raiding force of more than 20,000 under the overall command of Major General G.K. Warren. The successful expedition, called by some the Stony Creek Raid, is today a little-known footnote in Civil War history.

After a hot cup of coffee and breakfast, McAllister got his men on to the muddy roads and they began to march. "Our artillery sunk deep in the mud," he recorded. "The ice still hung on the trees, and it continued cold." The column pushed north alongside the remnants of the Weldon Railroad, and then turned northeast on to a road leading toward Sussex Court House. Up ahead in the small unincorporated crossroads of Henry, Virginia, this day would forever alter the world of the many residents of Andrew Jackson Leaville's plantation.

War of the Rebellion Atlas, Volume I, Plate XCIII shows the Leaville plantation, located south of Sussex Court House and east of Jarratt's Depot on the Weldon Railroad.

Leaville was 48 years-old in 1864. He apparently did not serve in the Confederate Army, but rather as a member of the local home guard. He resided here on this plantation with his wife Martha (44) and three children: two daughters Fanny and Helen (both 18), and a son Walter (14). In the 1860 Census, Leaville claimed his property to be worth $13,000, and also estimated his personal property at $41,000. These values tell us that Leaville's plantation was sizeable, and that he enslaved a large number of African Americans. 

McAllister's men marched through a part of Virginia that had escaped the attention of the U.S. army for much of the war, but no longer. Enslaved African Americans made the most of their opportunity to claim freedom as the U.S. army passed. One Pennsylvania soldier wrote "Negroes from all directions left their masters and flocked to the protection of the Union troops, among them old women and little children." McAllister himself wrote of a separate incident on December 8th:

You ought to have seen the poor slaves--old and young, men and women--running out to meet us and hobbling along to the 'land of liberty.' When asked where they were going, they would answer: 'Going with the Union Army!" They know that our flag is the flag of liberty and not oppression. One man and all his family (except one little girl) were fleeing their masters and had reached the road. But the thought of leaving the child behind caused the old man to cry out: "God bless you! God bless you! Oh, get my daughter, my daughter! I will pay you for it! I will do anything! Get her! Get her! God help you!" One of my aides road up to the house, procured the child, and delivered it to the parents. I cannot describe to you the happiness of that family, some nine in number, and a happy group. They stood in the road as our column was passing, with a fair prospect of soon getting to the land of liberty.

As McAllister's troops came into view of Andrew Leaville's plantation, a similar seen was about to play out. Leaville and his 14-year-old son Walter were not at home as the column passed by. Guerilla fighters had plagued Warren's entire expedition, and McAllister assumed that the men of this household had probably hidden out in the woods with arms in their hands. He wrote that only Martha Leaville and one of her daughters remained at home. McAllister's aides, Lieutenants Charles Bowers and William Plimey, approached the house to speak with the residents. They found that soldiers had already visited the comfortably appointed home and turned things upside down looking for liquor. Martha Leaville pleaded with the lieutenants for a military guard, and insisted her missing husband was a "first rate Union man." They declined to offer a guard.

Meanwhile, outside the home McAllister noted the bountiful fields of the plantation - "hay and grain stalks all around." Those responsible for tending these fields, the Leaville's enslaved labor force, began to join to the army on the march in droves. McAllister wrote:

I beheld a sight which I wish could be seen by every man in the North. Slaves were running off in squads to have the protection of the Union army--old men, young men, old women, young women, even babys--seventeen from this one house.... These slaves, hearing of the Union army coming and seeing our glorious old flag--the emblem of union and liberty--floating to the breezes along their highways, snatched up their little all and came running to the road to join our moving column and to march to the land of freedom. They were all either very thinly or or very poorly clad. The house girls had old threadbare summer clothes and shawls, given to them by their mistress.... At this time we had no wagons with us. They were ahead. On marched the veteran troops, and on pushed these contrabands to keep up, yet buoyed by the hope of liberty and freedom. Barefooted, on they trudged through the mud and ice, with smiling faces at the thought of liberty.

About a mile up the road, the column halted to camp for the night. The soldiers built large fires, put up a tent and delivered rations to the refugees fleeing the Leaville plantation. They found one family worried about a missing daughter:

They told us this story. Some week or more before we passed along, this girl was tied to the whipping post and received 100 lashes from her mistress, after which she fled to the woods and had not returned to the home. Her brother attended to her by carrying her food in the darkness of the night. After seeing the family safe in our hands, the father and brother devoted that night to getting the lost sister, notwithstanding the dangers of the undertaking with the Rebels on our rear. To the joy of this family, before dawn of day the lost and abused one was restored to the contraband household. The night was very stormy, with a greate deal of rain. But it was not so cold as it had been, and morning found them quite comfortable. 

The next morning the column continued its march toward Sussex Court House. Before they had traveled very far, McAllister received word that the bodies of six or seven murdered U.S. soldiers had been found in the woods, not far from the road.

I went to the spot. It was a sad sight. From appearances they had been stripped of all their clothing and, when in the act of kneeling in a circle, they were shot in the head--murdered in cold blood by the would-be 'Chivalry of the South.' Oh what a story for historians to tell! It is a story that will make the blood run cold in the veins of those who read it. It holds up to light the true character of those who are pushing the rebellion to the destruction of our glorious Union. Need I now tell you why our boys burnt buildings? I ordered the men to bury the bodies."

From this point forward, the destruction of private property by U.S. soldiers on the march back toward Petersburg became indiscriminate, enraging the rebel soldiers following close behind. One Pennsylvania soldier reported: "Now, either with or without orders, the men began to burn and destroy every thing within their reach."


On December 10th, 1864, at least seventeen people who called the Leaville plantation home seized their opportunity for freedom as they marched away with the U.S. army. Over the ensuing years of Reconstruction, and then a century of Jim Crow that followed, that so-called freedom contained its own trials and oppression. Sadly, though Robert McAllister's vivid account provides us a window into this dramatic scene at the Leaville plantation, the individuals formerly enslaved by the Leavilles remain anonymous, and I have no way of tracing their story further.

For Andrew Leaville and his family, December 10th likely represented a terrible though temporary blow to their economic prospects; prospects tied directly to their enslavement of other humans. The families that left his plantation on that day represented a significant portion of the $41,000 of personal property he reported in the 1860 Census. Though I could not locate Leaville and his family in the 1870 Census, they appear again in 1880, on the same farm in the same small crossroads community. In this Census many of Leaville's neighbors are black tenant farmers, their occupation listed as farm laborers, likely in the fields of Leaville and the other white landowners that formerly enslaved them.


I first came across this account against the backdrop of the ongoing protests that swept the nation after the murder of George Floyd by a police oficer, and the subsequent debate about Confederate monuments and symbols. We've had this debate already: in 2017 after Charlottesville, in 2015 after Charleston, and countless times before. Go back to the late 19th century and you will find veterans arguing about the propriety of Confederate monuments on the Gettysburg battlefield.

In all of this, I'm reminded of a speech Frederick Douglass gave on Memorial Day in 1877, about the memory of the Civil War:

We must not be asked to say that the South was right in the rebellion, or to say the North was wrong. We must not be asked to put no difference between those who fought for the Union and those who fought against it, or between loyalty and treason…. It was a war of ideas, a battle of principles and ideas which united one section and divided the other; a war between the old and new, slavery and freedom, barbarism and civilization; between a government based upon the broadest and grandest declaration of human rights the world ever heard or read, and another pretended government, based upon an open, bold and shocking denial of all rights, except the right of the strongest.... There was a right side and a wrong side in the late war, which no sentiment ought to cause us to forget, and while today we should have malice toward none, and charity toward all, it is no part of our duty to confound right with wrong, or loyalty with treason. If the observance of this memorial day has any apology, office, or significance, it is derived from the moral character of this war, from the far-reaching, unchangeable and eternal principles in dispute, and for which our sons and brothers encountered hardship, danger, and death.

No comments:

Post a Comment