Tag Archives: Virginia

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.


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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:



Filed under Battles

The Kings of Kernstown – Civil War Art by John Paul Strain

John Paul Strain has once again shown his artistic talent in this beautifully done work on the Second Battle of Kernstown. His artwork is first rate and speaks for itself. Not only that, but it is one of the few pieces of art based in the Shenandoah Valley that does not feature Stonewall Jackson, so it is a unique piece in that regard. I highly recommend it to anyone who collects Civil War art. It is available for purchase at Mr. Strain’s website.

Being art, the usual artistic license appears to have been taken once again. Strain shows Jubal Early, John B. Gordon, John C. Breckinridge and Stephen D. Ramseur coincidentally gathering right in front of the Pritchard house in the wake of the Second Battle of Kernstown.

No where in my research for Shenandoah Summer did I come across any information that would even remotely verify the scene depicted. Ramseur’s division advanced up the Middle Road toward Winchester and Breckinridge’s division headed up the Valley Pike in immediate pursuit of the retreating Union army. Gordon’s division passed directly over the ground of the Pritchard House and his presence near the house is very likely. However, all three generals moved quickly toward Winchester with their divisions where they found a strong rear guard that they engaged near the Southern end of Winchester. As for Jubal Early, he makes no mention of stopping at the Pritchard House nor have I found any accounts placing him there. Most likely, “Old Jube” probably moved up the Valley Pike as he followed the army in the wake of its successful advance.

The artwork also takes liberty with the wounded Union soldiers in front of the wall. It shows Irish Soldiers from of Capt. Peter Fitzgerald’s 23rd Illinois, known as the Irish Brigade, laying wounded in front of the stonewall in front of the house. That position was held by Maj. Henry Withers 10th West Virginia. The Irishmen were in position about 100 yards to the left of that position and Capt. Fitzgerald was very clear that his men were posted behind a rail fence, not a stone wall. Of course the Irish Harps on the soldiers’ knapsacks and hats add another popular element that sells art.

Again, I do not mean to criticize Mr. Strain, this is just my inner historian and auditor sense crying out for accuracy and documentation. Clearly the artistic world is beyond such bounds. However, I would argue that many well documented accounts at the Second Battle of Kernstown would have presented equally compelling scenes. The meeting of future U.S. president R. B. Hayes and the popular Irish-American hero James A. Mulligan meeting on the battlefield for the first time after George Crook ordered them to destruction or Mulligan’s famous last stand with the emerald green banners of the 23rd Illinois with the mortally wounded Mulligan ordering his men to “Lay me down and save the flag.”

This also brings about another phenomena of modern day battlefield interpretation. I have noticed at small battlefield parks that were part of an engagement that covered significantly more ground than the small plots of land that remain undeveloped today. The ground and actions that took place outside of the preserved ground tend to lose the significance that they held when the historic events actually occurred. A visitor to today’s Kernstown Battlefield views the Pritchard house as the dominate feature of the battlefield.

In truth, the decisive actions of the battle occurred near I-81 to the east and the battle was already decided by the time the combat swirled briefly near the Pritchard House. The key drawing point for the generals after the battle would have been along the Valley Turnpike and they would not have gone into their post battle gathering until they reached Winchester as there was more fighting to be conducted at the southern edge of town.

Once gain, the Kings of Kernstown is beautiful work of art, all of my quibbles aside. Mr. Strain is to be commended for adding the 1864 Valley Campaign to his completed works. There are many more opportunities for artists to jump in and take advantage of the many thrilling scenes of the 1864 Valley Campaign. I am still waiting for someone to do a modern rendition of the Union Cavalry charge at Third Winchester or R. B. Hayes plunging into Red Bud Run under fire as he attempted to inspire his men. The battle of Piedmont with Grumble Jones pointing his sword to the attacking Union troops with the Blue Ridge behind them and attempting to rally his broken troops only moments before his death would present a scene fit for some artist to undertake.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized