Tag Archives: Gen. David Hunter

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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The Battle of Piedmont – Overhauling the U.S. Army of the Shenandoah – May 22, 1864

Franz Sigel bequeathed Maj. Gen. David Hunter an army that the former

Maj. Gen. David Hunter

had run into the ground logistically, militarily and morale wise. Yet Lt.

Gen. U.S. Grant expected Hunter to get the campaign going again right away. There could be no excuses as Grant had a war to win and he had already taken a chance on Sigel and lost. To begin the rejuvenation of the Union army in the Valley, Hunter issued the following order on May 22, 1864 to “jump start” the Army of the Shenandoah for the renewed campaign in the Shenandoah.


Headquarters Department of West Virginia,

In the Field, Near Cedar Creek

May, 22, 1864

General Orders No. 29

It is of the utmost importance that this army be placed in a situation for immediate efficiency. We are contending against an enemy who is in earnest, and, if we expect success, we, too, must be in earnest. We must be willing to make sacrifices, willing to suffer for a short time, that a glorious result may crown our efforts.

The country is expecting every man to do his duty; and this done, an ever kind Providence will certainly grant us complete success.

I. Every tent will be immediately turned in, for transporta­tion to Martinsburg; and all baggage not expressly allowed by this order, will be at once sent to the rear. There will be but one wagon allowed to each Regiment, and this will only be used to transport spare ammunition, camp kettles, tools and mess-pans Every wagon will have eight picket horses, twodrivers, and twosaddles. One wagon and one ambulance will be allowed to Department Headquarters, and the same to Divi­sion and Brigade Headquarters. The other ambulances will be under the immediate order of the Medical Director

II. For the expedition on hand, the clothes each soldier has on his back, with one pair of extra shoes and socks, are amply suf­ficient. Everything else in the shape of clothing will be packed today and shipped to the rear. Each knapsack will contain one hundred rounds ofammunition,carefully packed; four pounds of hard bread to last eight days; ten rations of coffee, sugar and salt, one pair of shoes and socks, and nothing else.

III. Brigade and all other Commanders will be held strictly re­sponsible that their commands are supplied from the country. Cattle, sheep, and hogs, and if necessary, horses and mules must be taken, and slaughtered. These supplies will be seized under the direction of officers duly authorized, and upon a system which will hereafter be regulated. No straggling or pillaging will be allowed. Brigade and other Commanders will be held responsible that there is no waste; and that there is a proper and orderly division amongst their men, of the supplies taken for our use.

IV. Commanders will attend personally to the prompt execu­tion of this order, so that we may move to-morrow morning. They will see that in passing through a country in this way, depending upon it for forage and supplies, great additional vigilance is required on the part of every officer in the com­mand of men, for the enforcement of discipline.

V. The Commanding General expects from every officer and soldier of the army in the field, an earnest and unhesitating support; and relies with confidence upon an ever kind Provi­dence for the resuLieutenant The Lieutenant General commanding the armies of the United States, who is now victoriously pressing back the enemy, upon their last stronghold, expects much from the Army of the Shenandoah; and he must not be disap­pointed.

In conclusion, the Major General commanding, while holding every officer to the strictest responsibility of his posi­tion, and prepared to enforce discipline, with severity, when necessary, will never cease to urge the prompt promotion of all officers, non commissioned officers, and enlisted men, who earn recognition by their gallantry and good conduct.

By command of Major General Hunter

Chas. G. Halpine, Assistant Adjutant General.[i]

The issuance of this order created a stir in the Army of the Shenan­doah and gave the enlisted men a negative first impression of their new commander. This order differed greatly form anything Sigel would have issued. Sigel had commanded the army in a most benevolent fashion and seldom challenged his men. One staff officer noted, “The troops are very much dissatisfied at losing General Sigel.”[ii]


[i] OR, 37:1:517-518.

[ii] Frank S. Reader Diary, West Virginia Regional History Collection, West Virginia University Library. (cited hereafter as WVU)

For more on the Battle of Piedmont and Hunter’s Campaign see:




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The Battle of Piedmont – An After Action Account of the Tragic Sights of the Battlefield

The Battle at Staunton, Va.—The Fifteenth Cavalry in the Reserve.
The following is a copy of a private letter to Hon. R. Woolworth, from his son-in-law, a member of the Fifteenth Cavalry, who is detailed upon Gen. Stahl’s staff.
June 8, 1864.

We came along our route very comfortably and with but little opposition, until we reached Piedmont, about twelve miles north of this, on Sunday last, (5th inst.,) in the morning about seven o’clock. Met the enemy in full force, and they pitched in, expecting another New Market affair. Very soon the ball commenced with artillery, and very soon the whole army on both sides were hard at it; and continued so until 4 o’clock in the afternoon, when the battle was ended by some of the rebels throwing down their arms and others running away, leaving their killed and a portion of their wounded on the field. Among the killed was the rebel Gen. W. E. Jones, a brother-in-law of Dr. Brown, at Saltville. I went to see him, and sure enough, it was him, with a rifle-ball through his head, entering at the corner of his right eye. He is a horrible looking sight. The battle-field I visited, and never wish to visit another, as it was the worst looking place I ever saw. The part occupied by the rebels was literally covered with the dead; officers and privates lying side by side, and not a bit of difference between them then—one as good as another. Their loss was immense, and their killed alone must have been certainly three or four hundred, and possibly more, and their wounded, no one knows how many, as they took with them all they could and left a large number on the field. Every house and barn between the battle-field and Staunton is a hospital.

Our troops entered this place and took possession of it without firing a gun. We captured in the fight about nine hundred rebels, and have them yet (many commissioned officers) in a large yard that they had just prepared (I have been told) with a high fence for the purpose of keeping us in, but we are not there yet. They are a curious looking set of beings, hardly two in the whole lot dressed alike, old and young mixed together, and all in all, they are a miscellaneous looking set.
This town is very finely situated in a valley, and a person can hardly see it until he gets to it, but the majority of the residences are of the first- class and are very tasty, and the grounds, which are large, are laid put with much taste.

The General Hospital of the Confederate States is located here and is a beautiful building, very large and spacious, and the grounds, they say, are magnificent; but I have not visited it, and probably shall not. The railroad and its buildings, bridges, and all the freight stored in them, have been burned by our folks, and all the Government stores here have been destroyed that could not be transported. The cars left here the night before we came, with a large train of supplies, but a very large amount was left behind and is destroyed. They have not been in regular running order for two or three weeks, but occasionally making a trip for stores. They run from here to Lynchburg and then to Richmond, but their direct route is from here to Gordonsville, and then direct by the Virginia Central Railroad, but they do not, I suppose, consider it safe just now.

During the engagement on Sunday, General Stahl was slightly wounded in the shoulder, but is improving rapidly, and soon, I hope, will be able to take his saddle again. You need not think, by any means, that in the fight our men all escaped; but our loss, I do not think, is near as large as the rebels, and in fact I know it is not, but as yet the result is not ascertained.
The 15th Cavalry was not engaged that day, being on duty as rear guard to the train, so they all escaped.

I write this on rebel paper so you can see it, but don’t think that we have no other, as we have a plenty.

Yours, A. W. D

For more on the Battle of Piedmont and Hunter’s Raid on Staunton see:



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