A Cold-Blooded Set

While our citizens were collecting the bodies of the Confederate dead the Federal Government was engaged in the same work and some three hundred Federal dead in our county were removed to the National Cemetery at Winchester. These men were buried in many places, often in the neglected spots where they had fallen in battle. In a field adjoining my home nine men, killed in a charge, May 30th, 1862, were buried in one grave. A few weeks later a soldier belonging to an Ohio Regiment died in the home of one of our citizens and was buried in this lot. Some days later his friends came and removed his body and left the grave open with the coffin in it. About the same time a negro died in one of the camps and was buried in this open grave. This negro had on an old uniform of a Federal captain. When these bodies were removed to Winchester the body of the negro was marked “Federal captain. Name unknown.” He rests now with the Federal dead in the National Cemetery. What is fame?

The men employed by the Government to remove the dead were a cold-blooded set. I watched them open a number of graves, and when they found anything on the dead that was worth keeping they appropriated it to their own use. They invariably examined the teeth to see if any had gold fillings, and if such fillings were found, the teeth were removed and placed in the men’s pockets. No gold was ever buried with the dead, if these ghouls could help it.

These inhuman practices were the outgrowth of the war. These men,– now employed by the Federal Government to collect the bodies of the men who had lost their lives in service,– were members of the same army that had pillaged and robbed our people during the last two years of the war. As they could no longer rob the living they were robbing the remains of their dead comrades. I saw one of these men take a skull of one of these dead soldiers, and on examining it he found some four or five of the teeth were filled with gold. He took a stone and deliberately knocked out these teeth and put them in his pocket, with the remark, “They are of no use to this dead man, and they are of some value to me.”

A Federal soldier had been buried in a field in front of my home. A depression in the ground marked his grave. I had often passed the place and thought it was a hog wallow. One of my boy associates had seen the man buried and called the attention of the grave-diggers to the spot. I was somewhat shocked at the way they asked for the information. We boys were watching the removal of some of the dead and one of the men, turning to us, asked if we knew where any more of these men were “planted.” It was then that the boy called attention to the grave. I followed the grave-diggers and saw them open the grave. The man had been buried in a shallow grave without a coffin. When the earth was removed one of the diggers discovered a black silk handkerchief and pulled it from under the earth. He then shook off the dirt and held it up for inspection. It was in good condition, so he put it in his pocket. He next examined the teeth for gold fillings, but found none. The bones were collected and thrown into a small box for transportation to Winchester.

— Thomas Almond Ashby, The Valley Campaigns: Being the Reminiscences of a Non-Combatant While Between the Lines in the Shenandoah Valley During the War of the States, New York: The Neale Publishing Co., 1914.

In All Its Beauty

The great Valley of Virginia was before us in all its beauty. Fields of wheat spread far and wide, interspersed with woodlands, bright in their robes of tender green. Wherever appropriate sites existed, quaint old mills, with turning wheels, were busily grinding the previous year’s harvest; and grove and eminence showed comfortable homesteads. The soft vernal influence shed a languid grace over the scene. The theatre of war in this region was from Staunton to the Potomac, one hundred and twenty miles, with an average width of some twenty-five miles; and the Blue Ridge and Alleghanies bounded it east and west. Drained by the Shenandoah with its numerous affluents, the surface was nowhere flat, but a succession of graceful swells, occasionally rising into abrupt hills. Resting on limestone, the soil was productive, especially of wheat, and the underlying rock furnished abundant metal for the construction of roads. Railway communication was limited to the Virginia Central, which entered the Valley by a tunnel east of Staunton and passed westward through that town; to the Manassas Gap, which traversed the Blue Ridge at the pass of that name and ended at Strasburg; and to the Winchester and Harper’s Ferry, thirty miles long. The first extended to Richmond by Charlottesville and Gordonsville, crossing at the former place the line from Washington and Alexandria to Lynchburg; the second connected Strasburg and Front Royal, in the Valley, with the same line at Manassas Junction; and the last united with the Baltimore and Ohio at Harper’s Ferry. Frequent passes or gaps in the mountains, through which wagon roads had been constructed, afforded easy access from east and west; and pikes were excellent, though unmetaled roads became heavy after rains.

But the glory of the Valley is Massanutten. Rising abruptly from the plain near Harrisonburg, twenty-five miles north of Staunton, this lovely mountain extends fifty miles, and as suddenly ends near Strasburg. Parallel with the Blue Ridge, and of equal height, its sharp peaks have a bolder and more picturesque aspect, while the abruptness of its slopes gives the appearance of greater altitude. Midway of Massanutten, a gap with good road affords communication between Newmarket and Luray. The eastern or Luray valley, much narrower than the one west of Massanutten, is drained by the east branch of the Shenandoah, which is joined at Front Royal, near the northern end of the mountain, by its western affluent, whence the united waters flow north, at the base of the Blue Ridge, to meet the Potomac at Harper’s Ferry.

The inhabitants of this favored region were worthy of their inheritance. The north and south were peopled by scions of old colonial families, and the proud names of the “Old Dominion” abounded. In the central counties of Rockingham and Shenandoah were many descendants of German settlers. These were thrifty, substantial farmers, and, like their kinsmen of Pennsylvania, expressed their opulence in huge barns and fat cattle. The devotion of all to the Southern cause was wonderful. Jackson, a Valley man by reason of his residence at Lexington, south of Staunton, was their hero and idol. The women sent husbands, sons, lovers, to battle as cheerfully as to marriage feasts. No oppression, no destitution could abate their zeal. Upon a march I was accosted by two elderly sisters, who told me they had secreted a large quantity of bacon in a well on their estate, hard by. Federals had been in possession of the country, and, fearing the indiscretion of their slaves, they had done the work at night with their own hands, and now desired to give the meat to their people. Wives and daughters of millers, whose husbands and brothers were in arms, worked the mills night and day to furnish flour to their soldiers. To the last, women would go distances to carry the modicum of food between themselves and starvation to a suffering Confederate. Should the sons of Virginia ever commit dishonorable acts, grim indeed will be their reception on the further shores of Styx. They can expect no recognition from the mothers who bore them.

— Lieutenant-General Richard Taylor, Destruction and Reconstruction: Personal Experiences of the Late War, New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1879.