Although not often emphasized until recent times, the Southern Cause, described by its supporters as a “Noble Cause,” did not have an overwhelming following in the Shenandoah Valley or, for that matter, in the South generally until after 1860. Although six deep-South states seceded by the end of January 1861 a significant number of Virginians had doubts about the wisdom of separating from the Union. In Staunton, the local press coverage was still strongly pro-union. Even as late as April 1, 1861, the majority of Virginians still opposed secession.
These Unionist sentiments were stronger in western Virginia, especially in the Valley counties of Frederick, Page, Rockingham, and Shenandoah. Some of these non-supporters of the “Southern Cause” consisted of people who did not own slaves and were opposed to the practice of slavery. Others believed that the rebellion was a treasonous act. On the other hand, a few believed that the Constitution allowed the states to revoke their membership in the Union by common consent.
The attitudes of the Brethren, Mennonite, and Quaker communities added yet another dimension to the mix of attitudes toward the Southern Cause. They believed that participation in war was forbidden by the Holy Scriptures. Hundreds of these families lived in Rockingham, Augusta, and Shenandoah Counties. Quaker settlements existed in Frederick County near Winchester and at Tenth Legion in Rockingham County. Obviously, those dissenting from the Southern Cause were of different persuasions and backgrounds. Nevertheless, their natural tendency was toward loyalty to the nation that they regarded as legitimate and well founded and that had offered their Germanic ancestors hospitality in Pennsylvania and safety from persecution in Europe.
The first crisis for the Virginia loyalists followed the attack on Fort Sumter in South Carolina. Following Fort Sumter and President Abraham Lincoln’s subsequent call for 75,000 volunteers to quell to rebellion Virginia secession convention voted to sever its bonds with the United States on April 17, 1861, despite the fact that twelve of the Valley’s nineteen delegates voted against secession. The required state-wide referendum on the issue of secession was scheduled for May 23. Meanwhile, much of the press quickly took up the cause and gave strong support to the secession effort.
On the day of the state-wide referendum the clamor had reached a climax and the situation at most polls was potentially riotous. As voters approached the polls in Rockingham and Shenandoah Counties, those recognized as Unionist sympathizers had to pass through groups of unruly partisans who shouted threats of injury, loss of property and even death by gunfire or hanging. Some loyalists coming to vote simply returned home without casting their ballot. Others, hearing of the conditions at the polls, stayed away. Those who did brave the polls were threatened and fearful. At the last moment when they realized their vote would be vocal instead of written and secret, a significant portion though not all, voted in the affirmative.
Brethren minister Samuel H. Myers who lived on rich bottom land along the river near the southern border of Shenandoah County close to New Market, confessed to a Southern Claims Commission Judge after the Civil War that he did not have the moral courage to vote his own sentiments through fear of the consequences.
At Mt. Crawford, a nay voter by the name of Harrison was pursued, captured, beaten, and imprisoned. Similar conditions existed at most polls in Rockingham County and throughout the Valley where loyalists were known to live. Over two thousand votes were cast in Rockingham County with only twenty-two voting against secession. Fifteen hundred voters stayed away from the polls. Numerous claimants testified before the judges of the Southern Claims Commission hearings following the Civil War’s conclusion that they had been coerced into voting for secession by the conditions at the various polls. They found this assertion, however, exceedingly difficult to prove several decades later when they testified before the Southern Claims Commission Judges.
As the war began to take its toll, feelings ran high, and acts of violence against Unionists began to occur. Over a dozen killings took place in Rockingham County alone. In a mountain valley near Elkton, out-of-state soldiers were called in by Port Republic citizens and guided one night to selected homes where they murdered seven men and plundered their possessions. In Fort Valley in Shenandoah County three were ambushed and murdered. Misleading rumors circulated about the causes of some of these deaths. Some deaths, described as suicides, may not have been. Mennonite Joseph Beery was said to have hanged himself in his barn, but the coroner’s report stated that he had died of a gunshot wound.
Property depredation and theft were also common. Vengeance was taken against a loyal Brethren minister, John Flory, who frequently hid and provided aid to deserters and loyalists. His family suffered almost total loss of their property. Confederates came one night to his farm located on Cooks Creek a mile northeast of Bridgewater a few days before Sheridan’s raid in the autumn of 1864. They burned all his buildings including his home. His animal stock was shot and left lying in the fields. Following the conflict he returned to the county and became a well known evangelist and president of the school that was to become Bridgewater College.
Abraham Miller, a Brethren farmer near Bridgewater frequently hid refugees in his house and was active in the Unionist Underground Railroad, directing escapees to the pilots in the mountains who guided them to West Virginia. There were certain homes and locations on the Unionist Underground Railroad, called “depots” where refugees hid out until the time was suitable for them to be guided by “pilots” to selected safe routes across the numerous ridges and mountains. Their destination was Keyser, W. Va. where they could go by train to the north or west and stay with relatives who had migrated earlier. Most draftees and refugees did not know these special routes across the mountains. Although deeply opposed to slavery and warfare, he was influenced by newspaper statements, as many were, that a strong vote would encourage the government to allow a peaceful separation. He then voted for secession. When drafted, he hired a substitute.
The recruitment of men into the Confederate army was crucial to its success. Eligible men had few options, namely: serve, pay to hire a substitute, go into hiding, or leave the state. Which option was chosen depended on the circumstances of the draftee, many of whom were married and had small children, farms, and livestock to be tended.
The hiring of substitutes for service in the militias had been allowed for decades by men for whom the duty was an undue hardship. Such arrangements did not necessarily offend public opinion. But as the war began, loyalty to the Federal Government was soon redefined in the public mind as disloyalty to the Confederacy and even treason. In Augusta County in 1862, 211 men bought substitutes for a variety of reasons, although only about twenty substitutes actually fought in the war. A similar situation prevailed in Rockingham County. Desertion also weakened the recruitment effort. 108 Augusta County soldiers left their regiments without permission in 1862, many because of the need to plant and care for their farms. Efforts were soon strengthened to restrict the hiring of substitutes and guard against desertions.
These actions further restricted the options open to the non-resistant and anti-slavery loyalists in the peace churches. To make matters worse, in the early months of the war no allowance had been made for exemption on religious grounds. Pressure was increased upon all eligible men to enter military service. Recruiters soon searched out those who had not responded. Those able to do so hid out or fled north and west. Others, however, were captured and taken to Winchester for military training. There a significant number deserted and went into hiding.
David Grove, a Mennonite, was captured at his home. Truly non-resistant, when his captors placed him in the saddle, he repeatedly fell off of his horse. He then was carried away in a wagon. The testimony of Mennonite Gabriel D. Heatwole of the Mole Hill area in Rockingham County reveals a multi-faceted story of attempted escapes, arrests, danger, and hardship along with aiding draftees to escape. His house was one of several depots on the Unionist Underground Railroad, a system of hiding places, guides, and routes arranged to aid deserters and fleeing families. After failing to respond to the draft call, Heatwole was carried to Winchester for military training. Refusing to participate, he told his captors that they could kill him, but they could not make him fight.
In Shenandoah County three soldiers entered the humble home of Unionist John Will and bound him and took him to Mt. Jackson to face a military trial on charges of disloyalty. In being granted a trial he was lucky, for several other men of the county had been dispatched much more summarily. The officer in charge arrogantly disparaged his testimony and decided to imprison him and set the bail at $5,000, thinking rather smugly that this poor man could not raise such a large amount. Col. Levi Rinker, a Southern Officer, was present and sensed the injustice of the proceedings. He then set forth the money. The two returned together to their homes.
Unionist women also asserted themselves during the conflict. Rebecca Wright, a young Quaker teacher in Winchester, although somewhat reluctantly, was persuaded to provide crucial aid to Gen. Philip H. Sheridan about the strength of Gen. Jubal A. Early’s Confederate force in the Valley. Wright’s information, along with information from Sheridan’s scouts that Early had dispersed his command to points in Winchester, Bunker Hill, and Martinsburg, bolstered Sheridan’s confidence and prompted him to attack the Confederates at Winchester on September 19, 1864. Sheridan’s subsequent victory at the Third Battle of Winchester wrested the oftcontested town from Confederate hands permanently and spelled the beginning of the end for Confederate forces in the Valley. Brethren Elder Jacob Thomas of the Beaver Creek Congregation, practicing the Anabaptist doctrine of open hospitality, was one of many who were obedient to the scriptural command to feed the hungry. For giving aid to the “wrong side,” he was arrested and taken to Harrisonburg, tried before a military court and given a stiff sentence. His brother, Daniel Thomas, however, came before the court to explain the doctrines of the Brethren and was able to obtain his release. Under worsening conditions of manpower shortages during the latter part of the war, some of these non-resistant youths again were sought out and forcibly taken into the Confederacy’s service. Many
simply deserted and came home to hide. Others unable to escape participated in training, sometimes carrying arms. When it came to using their weapons against the enemy, however, they would not take aim, often simply refusing to fire their weapons. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, quite aware of the military problem of recruiting unwilling soldiers, stated that these young men can easily be taken into the military, but they are not good soldiers because they refused to shoot at the enemy. He then decided that the better use of them would be to allow them to remain on their farms where they could grow crops and supply food for the Confederate war effort or to grant them non-combatant duty as teamsters.
Other religious groups such as Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist Episcopal, and Catholic, of course, did not have prohibitions against military service or going to war. These groups tended to support the military authorities under which they lived. Nevertheless, a significant number of families in these groups also remained loyal to the Federal Government. They shared the despised title of “Unionists.” Many examples of their tenacious loyalty are known from the Southern Claims Documents in the government archives in Washington, D. C. These were families who took great risk upon themselves by refusing Confederate military service and by aiding and sheltering other Unionists in their homes. Their husbands and neighbors often hid out long periods of time in the mountains on either side of the Shenandoah Valley.
William D. Maiden of Port Republic is an example of this class of Unionist sympathizers. He frequently aided other loyalists by hiding them in his house. He, along with others, prepared hiding places in the rugged mountain valleys on the east side of Rockingham County. Along with twenty or so others, he hid out more than a year in an effort to avoid service in the Confederate Army. Numerous mountain hideouts existed, some of which were periodically raided.
At Bridgewater in Rockingham County, the Lindsey brothers, Jacob and Andrew, were actively involved in pro-unionist activities, including hiding and aiding escapees, then guiding them to the mountain hideouts. They relied on two mountain pilots, Kiester and Ruderson, said to have taken as many as 2000 escapees over the mountains west of Bridgewater during the first two years of the war. Catharine Good testified that she and her husband, Daniel P. Good, housed as many as seventy-five or a hundred men in their home until they could be taken by a pilot over the mountains. The home of Mennonite minister, David Hartman, was a heavily used depot. He harbored hundreds of refugees and conscripts during the war. Their food supply was put under severe strain. The use of guides and pilots was essential, and stories of small groups of refugees trying to escape on their own and becoming lost are part of the written and oral records which have been passed down to contemporary times.
Loyal women at considerable risk to themselves also were quite involved in this Unionist Underground Railroad. Mary Guyer Minnick of Broadway, an unmarried woman living with her mother, inflamed the ire of her Southern sympathizing neighbors when she “secreted Union refugees and deserters.” She also sheltered and aided a sick Union soldier. These actions brought a visit from “rebel soldiers” who threatened to burn their house. Occasionally, escaping groups of men subject to the draft would be caught and arrested in the process of their efforts to go north. Participants in some of these attempted escapes tell their stories in The Olive Branch, a book which relates the Civil War experiences of the Valley Brethren and Mennonites. Two of these groups were captured and imprisoned, one of them in Richmond. A third group succeeded in escaping to Keyser, W. Va., where they went west. Unionists suffered not only from fines levied against them but also from angry and jealous neighbors who called them cowards and traitors. This led to the stealing of the stock, farm supplies, and goods from their farms. When told of their Unionist leanings, the forage masters of the Confederate Army often selected their farms for especially severe treatment, scarcely allowing sufficient grain and supplies for their survival. The Scots-Irish family of Amos Scott of Port Republic, an outspoken and active Unionist sympathizer, suffered repeated depredations on his farm from both Confederate sympathizers as soldiers as punishment for his position. Absolutely nothing of value was left on his land.
These examples reveal the existence of a significant pro-unionist segment of the Shenandoah Valley. Their opposition to the Confederate Cause was based on a combination of motivations, ranging from opposition to slavery, loyalty to the national government, and the biblical injunction against all warfare. They suffered not only from the destruction wrought by the conflict but from the fracture created by conflicting appeals for their allegiance. It was painful beyond description. Remnants of these partially healed wounds remain yet today, exposed in the divisive feelings and opinions held among the older residents of the Shenandoah Valley regarding this tragic and fratricidal war.
About the Author:
Emmert F. Bittinger Professor emeritus at Bridgewater College, has been a member of the board of the Valley Brethren-Mennonite Heritage Center since its inception and is a member of the Forum for Religious Studies at Bridgewater College. He is the author of Allegheny Passage and has contributed numerous articles to various periodicals. He and his wife, Esther Landis, reside in Bridgewater.
This article is included in the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation’s booklet, Home Front to Front Line: The Civil War Era in the Shenandoah Valley. Copies of the booklet are available at most visitor centers and many bookstores in the Valley, or in the online bookstore on CivilWarTraveler.com.