May 31, 1864: Major Joseph Stearns, 1st New York Cav., Defies Hunter’s Order to Burn Newtown (Stephen’s City)

     In the spring of 1864, Confederates from Maj. Harry Gilmor’s 2nd Maryland Cavalry Battalion and Col. John S. Mosby’s Rangers repeatedly waylaid Union wagon trains in the village of Newtown, Hunter warned the townspeople that he would burn the town if they did not see to it that the attacks stopped. When the report of yet another attack on a Union wagon train being attacked in Newtown reached Hunter when his army was at New Market, he became enraged and determined to make good on his promise to burn Newtown.

     “Black Dave” ordered Major Timothy Quinn to detail two hundred men from his 1st New York Lincoln Cavalry and “proceed to Newtown tomorrow morning at 3 o’clock, for the purpose of burning every house, store and out-building in that place, except the churches and houses and out-buildings of those who are known to be loyal citizens of the United States.” Hunter exempted the home of Dr. Owens of Newtown, who had treated wounded U. S. soldiers with compassion after Gilmor’s attack. The Federal commander ordered Quinn not to burn homes belonging to Confederates if such action endangered a loyal citizen’s property.

     Quinn detailed the morbid task to Major Joseph Stearns. The New Yorkers promptly rode out of camp well before dawn on May 31. Only a few officers knew the true purpose of their mission. Most troopers simply speculated on the latest move. Major Stearns’ battalion covered the forty miles between New Market and Newtown in one day and bivouacked for the night on the Stickley farm at Cedar Creek.

      Early the next morning (June 1), Stearns revealed the purpose of the mission to the men. The sullen troopers rode toward Newtown, “more like a funeral procession than a marching army.” Elderly citizens and young children stood in the door-ways of houses “with an expression of mute helplessness on their faces.” The enlisted men of the 1st New York spoke only of not obeying Hunter’s order to burn the town.

     The people of Newtown had been “in great anxiety expecting to be burned out” ever since Gilmor’s attack. Major Stearns and his officers rode into the village and conferred with the leading citizens of Newtown. The townsmen informed the understanding Major that they had no control over the Confederate forces that made the attack. They explained how they had nursed U. S. soldiers wounded in Gilmor’s attack.

     After talking to the men and hearing the mournful prayers of the tearful women, Stearns courageously determined to face Hunters wrath and saved the innocent people of Newtown from “Black Dave’s” fiery vengeance. In return, the townspeople took an oath of allegiance to the United States. The New Yorkers then turned around and marched back to the army. In the end, Hunter verbally lambasted Stearns, but allowed his actions to stand. Stearns’s heroism was a different sort than we commonly think of relating to the Civil War, but he displayed a valor the prevented the ruination of the lives of scores of innocent resident of Newtown, now Stephen’s City, Virginia.

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