Search This Blog

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Letter from Maria Dobyns

Oakley, 1935 (Frances Benjamin Johnston)

Maria Lindsey Dobyns (Wesley Pippenger)

     Oakley is one of the very few antebellum houses in Spotsylvania to survive the Civil War and many years of neglect afterwards. Built almost two hundred years ago, it still stands today as part of a beautiful and thriving farm. It's continued existence is due mainly to the care given it by the family who has owned Oakley since 1926, and to a bit of good fortune it had one day in May 1864. [Please note that all images in my blog may be clicked on for enlarged viewing]
     The land upon which Oakley sits was once part of a 7, 777 acre land grant given to Gawain Corbin by the King of England. In 1816 Samuel Alsop, Jr. bought 849 acres of this tract, and in 1826 he built the house as a wedding present for his daughter Clementina and son in law Thomas C. Chandler [1].
The property was sold to Enoch Gridley in 1839 who in turn sold it to Leroy Dobyns in 1854.

Map detail of western Spotsylvania, 1863

     In the upper center of the map shown above, Greenfield--my family's home for 110 years--is shown as "Mrs. Rowe" (Nancy Estes Row, my great great grandmother). Adjacent to Greenfield to the southeast is Oakley ("Dobyns"), located on Catharpin Road at Corbin's bridge. Shady Grove Church is just to the south, and the intersection of Brock and Catharpin roads is north at the upper right of the image.
     The Row and Dobyns families were close friends and the name of Leroy Dobyns appears in the old ledger books of Greenfield. Leroy was one of the appraisers of the estate of Absalom Row, my great great grandfather who died in 1855. Like Absalom, Leroy Dobyns was a justice of the peace and was serving as such during the Civil War.
     In May 1863 my Row ancestors saw the war up close and personal when Stonewall Jackson led his troops through Greenfield (via modern Jackson Trail West) on their way to his planned ambush of General Hooker's right flank. The following year it became increasingly apparent that Generals Grant and Meade planned to use some of the same river fords to shoot their way into Spotsylvania a second time. The Rows had little appetite for tempting fate again. In addition, Benjamin Cason Rawlings--the brother of Nancy Estes Row's son in law Zachary Rawlings--had written a letter from a federal prison to his mother, warning his family to "fall back" and not to have contact with the Union army during its expected advance through Spotsylvania in the spring of 1864.
     Before the fighting began the Rows buried the family's valuables and the horses were hidden in the woods.  Wagons were loaded with what belongings they could carry with them on their flight south. Nancy Row and her unmarried daughter NanZachary and Bettie Row Rawlings and their infant daughter Estelle and Zachary's parents traveled south to the crossroads village of Hadensville in Goochland County. Accompanying them were the handful of slaves who had not already escaped to freedom inside Union lines. The Row and Rawlings families lived as refugees in Hadensville for much of the last year of the war. In the photograph below, Nancy Estes Row is seated with her daughter Martha Row Williams, and Bettie and Nan stand behind them.

The Rows
     The inevitable collision of the armies of Lee and Grant occurred on May 4, 1864. During the battle of the Wilderness Greenfield--abandoned and desolate--escaped destruction, although Stuart's Horse Artillery parked there overnight. Union forces made their way southeast down Brock Road toward Spotsylvania Court House. Lee's army shadowed them as they moved in the same direction south of Oakley. A sharp little fight occurred at Todd's Tavern, but fortunately for Oakley and its inhabitants a pitched battle on the farm was avoided.

Nan Row

     Six weeks later  twenty four year old Maria, a daughter of Leroy Dobyns, wrote a letter to Nan Row, who was still staying in Hadensville. Although photocopies of the letter exist in several archives, the fate of the original is unknown (unknown to me, at least). It was, of course, in the possession of my family for a long time and may still languish in the dark recesses of someone's attic. A transcription of the letter is presented here in its entirety.

First page of Maria Dobyns's letter to Nan Row

                                                                                                     June 17, 1864

My dear Friend:
                         A long, long time has elapsed since I heard from you, and no doubt you are anxious to hear from friends in Spotsylvania. Many changes have taken place since you left us, and I really think you should feel that it was an intervention of Providence which caused you leave when you did, for had you remained here no doubt you would be as most of us are now. When Grant first crossed the river, his cavalry force passed here on its way back after having met Gen. Rosser up near Craig's. You have no idea what our feelings were when we first saw them, but they were too much frightened to do much then. However they took William [2] and sent down for Papa. Mama went up just as as Gen. Wilson [3] ordered him on a horse. She begged him not to take Papa, and after a considerable time they concluded to leave him. We had no idea our forces were so near us until they rushed up the hill in front of the house. It was the first time I had ever been so near a fight and of course was frightened, but an all wise Providence saw fit to protect us through it all.
     Our artillery was planted by Aunt Harriet's [4] house and on that hill in front of our yard. We stood and watched the shelling during the evening from our windows and did not feel afraid, but had a shell been thrown from the enemy's guns I imagine we would not have been so composed.
     Two of our loved soldiers are buried in our garden, one only lived about an hour after he was brought here. We also had a Yankee major [5] here who was wounded just by our barn, sister saw him when he fell from his horse. He was moved to Mr. Buchanan's [6] the next day. Three weeks ago Captain Jordan was brought here from the hospital. Poor thing! The ball passed through his arm, completely shattering the arm and then into his side. His arm had been amputated just below the shoulder. I dressed his wounds twice every day and I never in all my life saw one who complained so little. Never did one murmur escape his lips. His suffering was very great and after having been here several days, he concluded to have the ball taken from his side. We sent for the surgeons, who came and took it out. It had become fastened in his rib. Extracting the ball made him very sick indeed. A few days after Dr. Daily came and brought his son, who had been shot through the lung, the ball passing through his body. He is now a little better, but still a great sufferer. Dr. Storry and Harrison are here every day and night with him. I fear he will never recover from his wounds.
     Last Tuesday we were very quiet, nursing the sick, when Mr. Dick Todd [7] called to me and said the yankees were advancing. Before we could get the horses off they came dashing up to the house. Papa fortunately made his escape to the woods. They came, searching the meat house, took all we had, including the flour. I started up to Mr. Buchanan's for a guard, but found it useless to go, as they were not sending out any. They broke open the house and searched it from top to bottom at least fifty times, broke open every door but the parlor, took every grain of corn and left us without one dust of flour. Nearly all of our meat, every fowl we had, both carriages, all of the horses, played destruction generally.
     Our cattle were in the field and I heard them bawling. I asked a yankee who had come of his own accord to try and protect us, to go with us. We started and I was driving the cows to the house when I met a whole regiment. I succeeded in getting them into the yard and I saw a few sheep they had not killed, so I went immediately with the same yankee and while driving them to the house several fired into them, but I knew they did not dare shoot me and I got them up in the dairy and succeeded in keeping them through the night. Several cussed us and in fact I believe they were the worst that ever lived. Dr. Daily who was here at the time says he knew that there was more than one thousand in the house. They got here Tuesday morning and did not leave till twelve o'clock Wednesday. They threatened to take the Captain off, but did not fortunately. He left yesterday. We hated so much to give him up. All became so much attached to him.
     Dr. Storry has been very kind indeed to us, he has provided us with all that we have had to eat since they left. They tore up the Chancellors' clothes, destroyed almost all they had and as far as we can tell nearly all have fared alike. I've not been able to hear from Mrs. Todd, presume she fared as we did. There is nothing before us now but starvation, but I trust a just God will protect us. 
     George [8] was here Wednesday. He was looking very well, his brigade was then at Waller's Tavern. Miss Nancy, when you write or speak to him about religion he seems very much concerned indeed, and from his conversation, I trust he is a converted boy. He gave me a pen knife he captured together with a watch from Gen. Custer's Adj. General.
     The yankees even tore off the plaster of Dr. Pulliam's [9] cellar, thinking something had been hid, took money off Lucie's [10] and his clothes, together with everything else. Lucie is with the Doctor. It is perfectly useless to try and tell what they have done, for we are constantly finding that they have taken things we did not miss at first, and left us only seven towels. Also robbed the servants of their provisions and clothing.
                                                                                                Fondly yours,
                                                                                                Maria Dobyns

Leroy Wonderful Dobyns and family (American Antiquarian Society)

[1] Chandler and his second wife Mary Frazier moved to Fairfield plantation in Caroline County. In 1863 the wounded Stonewall Jackson was brought there to recuperate from the amputation of his left arm. He stayed in the small building used as an office, where he died.
[2] A slave of Leroy Dobyns.
[3] General James H. Wilson, 3rd Cavalry Division.
[4]  A slave of Leroy Dobyns.
[5] Major William B. Darlington of the 18th Pennsylvania Cavalry. He is believed to have been shot by Confederate sharpshooter John Cooper, who was sitting in a cherry tree on Keller's Hill. Darlington's leg was amputated and he was later freed by Sheridan's troopers while still recuperating at the home of William Shelton Buchanan.
[6] The Buchanans lived across Catharpin Road from Oakley.
[7] Richard Todd and his brother Oscar served in the 9th Virginia Cavalry. Their family owned Todd's Tavern.
[8] George Washington Estes Row, my great grandfather. More about his Civil War exploits can be read here. About the time Maria wrote her letter George also captured a memorandum book from a trooper of the 5th New York Cavalry.
[9] Dr. John D. Pulliam, a neighbor who served in the 9th Virginia Cavalry.
[10] Dr. Pulliam's wife.



  1. Exciting material. Yours is one of the most complete histories of Spotsylvanians there is. What a wealth of an archive. You do their memory proud.

  2. Thank you, John. We are fortunate that these ancestors left behind such a tremendous written record.

  3. Great letter and website. Although at this time the Buchanan farm was not owned by William Shelton Buchanan. But, by his father William Buchanan.