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Monday, July 10, 2017

"They would have him dead or alive"

Beechwood today (Vickie Neely)

     One of the facets of Spotsylvania's history that does not always receive the attention it merits is the story of those who remained loyal to the United States during the Civil War. That has certainly been true of this blog, which generally focuses on the lives of people who were native to this area. However, I recently had the good fortune to have been allowed access to the family archive of Spotsylvania resident, Vickie Neely. This collection of papers and photographs pertaining to the Armstrongs, Colemans and related families opened my eyes to their importance in local history. Their experiences during the turbulent Civil War era shed light on what it meant to be a patriotic American among hostile and suspicious neighbors.
     During the 1840s and 1850s, northern families in increasing numbers began to buy farms in Spotsylvania County. They were motivated to do so because of improving agricultural conditions in Virginia, and also because land prices here were significantly cheaper than  in northern states [1]. Among the families that came to Spotsylvania during those years were the Harrises [2] and Couses, who arrived from New Jersey in the 1840s; the Colemans from New York; and the Alrich, Armstrong and Morrison families from New Castle County, Delaware.
     The manner in which these new arrivals accommodated themselves to the mores of their adopted state varied. While I find that only one of these northerners was a slave owner (Moses Morrison owned a 60-year-old woman), a number of them rented slaves from their neighbors: Thomas, James & Moses Morrison; John Roberts Alrich; Peter Couse; and Archibald Armstrong. Robert McCracken Harris employed free blacks to work on his farm. In addition, most of these northerners remained loyal to the Union, but this was not true for all of them. Alrich voluntarily joined the 9th Virginia Cavalry. Three of Robert M. Harris' sons fought for the Confederacy. However, one of them, William, left Virginia and served in the Union army. He returned to Spotsylvania after the war.

Archibald Armstrong (Rich Morrison)

     The first of the Armstrong family to own property in Spotsylvania was Archibald, who in August 1857 bought a 207-acre farm from Parmenus Pritchett near the intersection of Brock and modern Gordon roads. In December of that same year, Archibald's uncle, 53-year-old Benjamin Armstrong, bought "Beechwood" from William H. Hansbrough. This was a 500-acre farm on modern Gordon Road at the Ni River, for which he paid $4,000 [3]. Benjamin's youngest son, Mahlon, came to Spotsylvania first, and began to get things in order for the other Armstrongs, who arrived in 1859. With Benjamin came his wife, the former Ann Mendenhall, and their daughters Anna Maria and Hannah. Mahlon's older brother, William L. Armstrong, brought his wife and two children. Benjamin and William shared the responsibility of operating the farm.

Spotsylvania, 1863 (

     In the Civil War-era map detail shown above, the Armstrong home at Beechwood can be seen at the upper center. Just southeast of the Armstrong farm was "Laurel Hill," the property of the Couses. Spotsylvania County Court House is at lower right.
     The Armstrongs, like the other northern families that came to Spotsylvania before the Civil War, would certainly have been aware of--and sensitive to--the sectional differences that had long divided the country. Before the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, however, few thought that a war between north and south would become a reality. For reasons of his own (perhaps as a way of making friends in his adopted county), Mahlon joined Mercer's Cavalry soon after his arrival [4]. This militia unit was the forerunner of Company E of the 9th Virginia Cavalry. Mahlon joined the militia against the advice of his father. He would have ample opportunity to regret his decision.
     It is not known what sort of reception the northerners received from their neighbors when they first came to Spotsylvania. However, as the nation moved closer to civil war after the 1860 election, the Armstrongs, Colemans, Couses and Morrisons and others faced increasing levels of suspicion and hostility because of their undisguised loyalty to the United States. "It was a crime to be born north of Mason and Dixon's line at that time," Moses Morrison testified after the war [5].
     As secessionist fever gripped Virginia during the spring of 1861, men like Benjamin Armstrong, Peter Couse, Paul Coleman and Moses Morrison and his relations found it necessary to down play their Unionist sentiments. Although southerners often trumpeted their desire for liberty and to be free from northern "tyranny," they were utterly intolerant of anyone who harbored beliefs at odds with their own narrow orthodoxy. Southerners felt highly threatened by those whose loyalties remained with the old Union, and they were quite willing to take whatever action they deemed necessary to defend their cause from such heretics.
     On April 17, 1861, the Virginia Secessionist Convention voted to take the state out of the Union. On April 25, the Mercer Cavalry assembled in Fredericksburg, where its members were mustered by Captain Francis Corbin Beverly into what would become Company E of the 9th Virginia Cavalry. Most of these young men joined willingly, often with great enthusiasm. Twenty-three-year-old Mahlon Armstrong, who shared his father's allegiance to the Union, was "compelled" to join [6].

Mahlon Armstrong, early 1900s (Vickie Neely)

     Company E was sent to Camp Salvington in Stafford to be outfitted and trained, and then they were moved to Camp Potomac in King George County. It was while there that the men of Company E were assembled for the purpose of voting for the articles of secession. In his testimony before the Southern Claims Commission in 1872, Mahlon described what that episode was like: "The company that I was in was drawn up into a line and marched by a ballot box. It was not a ballot box, either. It was a fraud. It was down here on the Potomac River...I was threatened if I didn't [vote for secession] I would be shot [7]."
     Meanwhile, back home at Beechwood, Mahlon's father was contending with his own difficulties. The men of Spotsylvania qualified to vote were scheduled to cast their ballots for secession on May 23, and intense pressure was exerted on known Unionists to get in line and vote the "correct" way. This was not a ballot cast in secret. Each man had to stand before his neighbors and vote affirmatively by voice. Some of the Unionists went along with this charade to avoid immediate confrontation. Benjamin Armstrong, on the other hand, simply chose not to participate in the vote [8]. While he felt free to speak his mind with his family and other loyalists, Benjamin avoided talking with any else about the momentous events of that time. The official tally of Spotsylvania's vote on the question of secession was 1,323 in favor, 0 against [9].
   In late 1861, Mahlon fell ill while in camp, and he was furloughed to go home and convalesce [10]. By this time, Mahlon had given careful thought as to the timing of his planned desertion from the Confederate cavalry. He was fortunate that Company E had spent much of its first year in camp on the Potomac. When he returned to the 9th after recuperating, he still had not fought in any major engagement. On February 1, 1862, Mahlon was reenlisted for an additional two years of service and he received a $50 bounty. With that extra money in hand, Mahlon's chances of escape were much improved. On April 18, 1862, Private Mahlon Armstrong deserted from his regiment [11].
Moses Morrison (Steve Armstrong)

     Mahlon made his way back to Spotsylvania County, where he hid in the pine woods near the farm of Moses Morrison. It appears that Moses had some prior knowledge of Mahlon's plan, or somehow learned where he was hiding. Confederate patrols were prowling about, looking for Mahlon, and "they were determined to have him, dead or alive." One of Moses' brothers, Thomas Love Morrison, also hid in the woods with Mahlon [12]. By now, the Union army encamped in Stafford would soon cross over to Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania. In anticipation of the Federals' invasion, Confederate authorities had already arrested Peter Couse and other loyalists to prevent them from rendering any aid to the Union army. The Morrisons were also being closely watched. Moses came to Thomas and Mahlon's hiding place at night to provide food and other help. On April 25, 1862, Moses and Thomas led Mahlon to the headquarters of Union General Rufus King, thereby ensuring his freedom [13]. Their heroic deed was reported in The New York Times three days later:

The New York Times, 28 April 1862 (Rich Morrison)

Moses and Thomas Morrison were then arrested, and spent several months in a series of Confederate prisons. Mahlon made his way north, and spent the rest of the war in Milwaukee, Wisconsin [14].
     During the spring of 1862, life for Benjamin Armstrong and his extended family became intolerably stressful and dangerous. "It was not safe for any of us [northern men] to say anything in favor of the U. S. Gov't, and the consequence was we had to hold our peace [15]." While Confederate armies were still winning dramatic victories early in the war, the Armstrongs' neighbors would come by to crow about the north's apparently declining prospects. Benjamin received threats from his fellow Spotsylvanians, and beginning in late 1861 he would hide in the woods from time to time to avoid capture and imprisonment. In May 1862, Benjamin fled for his own safety and made his way back to New Castle, Delaware. With the exception of one brief episode, he would not see Beechwood again for three years [16].
     Almost all the other Armstrongs left Spotsylvania about this time. Hannah joined her father. Archibald and William Armstrong and their families also returned to their previous homes. Remaining at Beechwood were Benjamin's wife, Ann, and their eighteen-year-old daughter, Anna Maria. One reason they stayed behind was to protect Benjamin's property interests. Had the Armstrongs abandoned Beechwood altogether, Confederate authorities would have been all to happy to seize the farm. Anna Maria was also threatened with imprisonment. "I was sometimes afraid they would do it," she later testified [17].

Portrait presumed to be that of Paul Coleman (Vickie Neely)

     The example of Paul Coleman (Mahlon Armstrong's future father-in-law) demonstrates why Spotsylvanians were so sensitive to having northern sympathizers in their midst while a huge Union army loomed just across the Rappahannock River. Paul and his family lived on a farm south of the court house. Paul, his wife Esther, their daughter Romelia and three sons came to Spotsylvania from New York in the 1850s. They settled on a 300-farm on the Court House Road. The family called this place "Pea Ridge," a place name that generally referred to the Partow area. Like most of his northern neighbors, Paul remained devoted to the Union. By early spring of 1862, Paul left Spotsylvania and divided his time between New York and Maryland. On April 5, 1863, he wrote this letter to Union General Joseph Hooker. Had his southern neighbors had any idea to what lengths Paul would go to serve the interests of the United States, he would have been in mortal danger.

Letter of Paul Colman to General Joseph Hooker (

"Flat Brook April 5th 1863
"Major General Joseph Hooker
     "My Dear Sir. although personally unknown to you, I thought perhaps I might be of Service to you in case of a forward movement from your present position having lived three years in the centre of Spotsylvania County and being familiar with the three main Routs from Fredericksburgh South for Some forty Miles perhaps I might be of Service as a Guide South by the Plank Court House or Telegraph Roads either of which I am conversant with (and the intervening country) for Some thirty Miles South or I might be of use to an Engineer in getting up a Map of that part of the County.
      "If in the way I have proposed or in any other way I can be of any Service to you or your command you can direct a line to me at the Eutaw House Baltimore Md accompanyed by an order or Recommendation to the Secretary of War or any other properly authorized person at Washington and it will be promptly and cheerfully attended to. with regarding my Loyalty, my Exile from my Home Should be a Sufficient guarantee I can also refer you to General Doubleday or Major Charles E. Livingston Genl Patrick or Genl Burnside. perhaps Genl Doubleday is more acquainted with me than any other Responsible person within your command. Yours Respectfully
"Paul Coleman
"To Major Genl Joseph Hooker Head Quarters Army of the Potomac Va"

     The Battle of Chancellorsville was fought north and west of Beechwood, so it was not until the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House in May 1864 that Ann and Anna Maria would learn for themselves what price they and their family would pay for their loyalty. On May 4, 1864, a large Union army commanded by General George Meade, and accompanied by Lieutenant General Ulysses Grant, left their camps in Culpeper County and crossed the Rapidan River into the Wilderness of Orange and Spotsylvania. During the battles that took place over the next several days, the Confederates were pushed southeast down Brock Road toward Spotsylvania Court House. Beginning May 7, the opposing armies fought a series of pitched battles in the vicinity of the court house.
     On the morning of May 12, General Grant moved his headquarters from the Alsop farm north to Beechwood. In his Memoirs, Grant described his first meeting with Ann Armstrong: "During the day I was passing along the line from wing to wing continuously. About the centre stood a house which proved to be occupied by an old lady and her daughter. She showed such unmistakable signs of being strongly Union that I stopped. She said she had not seen a Union flag for so long a time that it it did her heart good to look upon it again...She was without food, or nearly so, so I ordered rations issued to her [18]."
     Accompanying General Grant were two members of his staff, Horace Porter and Adam Badeau. Porter later gave this eyewitness account of Grant's meeting with Ann Armstrong: "...the general came to a humble-looking farmhouse, which was within range of the enemy's guns, and surrounded by wounded men, sullen-looking prisoners, and terror-stricken stragglers...An old lady and her daughter were standing on the porch. When the mother was told that the officer passing was the commander-in-chief, she ran toward him, and with tears running down her cheeks, threw up her arms and cried, "Thank God! thank God! I again behold the glorious flag of the Union that I have not laid eyes on for three long terrible years [19]."
     Anna Maria asked General Meade if he would mail a letter to her father, who was staying in Wilmington with his son, William. Instead, Meade generously "sent a telegram in which he informed her father (prematurely it turned out) that it was safe to come home. Later in the day Grant, Meade and [General Marsena] Patrick sat down to dinner at the Armstrong house [20]."
     The following day, Grand and Meade moved their headquarters from Beechwood and "the hospitals of the Second and Fifth Corps that had been at the Couse farm arrived. The Union medical corps also moved forty Confederate prisoners to the Armstrong barn from the Landrum house...On May 16 army ambulances and wagons transported all the wounded, including Confederates to Spotsylvania Road and from there to Fredericksburg [21]."
     As it happened, Benjamin Armstrong successfully made the journey from Wilmington to his home in Spotsylvania. But his stay would be brief. As the Union army moved away, Confederate cavalry began to sift in behind them and were soon present at Beechwood. Benjamin managed to get away without being seen, and returned to Delaware.
     Several days later, on May 23, Anna Maria wrote a letter to her sister, Hannah, in which she provided a vivid and emotional account of what she and their mother had just experienced. Her letter was published in the June 2, 1864 edition of the Wilmington Delaware Republican [22]. That article was clipped from the newspaper and saved in a family Bible:

Letter of Anna Maria Armstrong (Rich Morrison)

"The following letter from a young Delaware girl residing near Fredericksburg, Va., dated Beechwood, May 23d, 1864, shows the hardships to which the people of that section have been subjected.
"Dear Sister--Once more I take my pen in hand to let you know we are well and still staying here, but that is all. You dont know how lonesome we are since the U. S. soldiers left. On Thursday night we went to bed completely worn out and slept very soundly. On Friday morning when we got up the pickets were gone. We had just done breakfast when we saw some of the rebels, they came on and one of them shot our dog; mother begged him not to do so, but it was no use. The rebel cavalry came soon after and Ewell's Corps of infantry arrived in the evening and went on about half a mile, where they had a severe fight. They owned they got a complete whipping. They brought about 80 wounded back to our barn--the last one of whom got away to-day, much to our relief. On Friday there was a skirmish line thrown on around our house, and it was really laughable to see the greybacks walking up and throwing down their guns. They say they are starving and will not fight. They were trying to cut off a wagon train, but thank God they did not succeed. If our house had been directly in range you would have seen us before now. They have got the cars running from the creek to Fredericksburg I heard to-day, and I hope you will come home soon, if you think you can be satisfied. Send us word before you come, and we will try to send for you. I tell you it is hard doing without a horse. I hope father got home safe. He just got away from in time. They came and took the horses from the hospital in about half an after he left. Mother begged them to leave them to take care of their own men, but they would not. You dont know what people they are; I wish that the U. S. soldiers would let the rebel wounded stay on the battle field, they deserve nothing better. I could see every one of them shot before my eyes. There were six buried in our lot. I wish Gen. Lee and all his men were in the same condition. There was one buried this morning; I expect if you were here you would be afraid to go to the wagon house after hearing them groan so. I believe one can get used to any thing. Our yard is almost covered with blood, you cannot pick up a piece of wood that is not completely wet with human gore. Do not faint or be afraid to come home when you read this letter. The little pig-pen is almost full of guns, so you see if they should hunt us we can shoot them. I must tell you what we have to pay for things here, flour is selling in town for $800 per barrel, bacon from $8 to $10 a pound; coffee $16, sugar $12, rice $1, and not much at those prices; calicoes $12 per yard. I do not know what muslin is now; I gave 50 cents for 1 pair of shoestrings; I will send you a sample of some dresses we got last summer and gave $8 a yard for them, and got them very cheap. I have got one home spun dress, it was a long time before I would wear it, but I had to come to it. I am afraid we will see no more of the U. S. boys; I wish they would camp on our place until the war is over, which it will soon be. The soldiers are getting dissatisfied and discouraged. I expect to hear of Richmond being taken soon.
"A. M. A."
     The damage done to the Armstrong property during its brief occupation by Union forces was extensive. Six miles of fencing, comprised of some 28,000 rails, was used for firewood. The engineer corps seized a considerable amount of timber that was used in the construction of a corduroy road. Two outbuildings were dismantled to provde wood used to build a bridge. Eight hundred dollars worth of growing crops were either seized for army use or trampled underfoot by horses, wagons and soldiers [23].
     Ann and Anna Maria Armstrong continued to live alone at Beechwood for the remainder of the war. Mahlon and Benjamin returned home in May or June 1865, and the hard work of rebuilding the farm began. It would be many years before Beechwood was restored to some semblance of its pre-war condition.


- Many thanks to Russell Smith,  who kindly gave me permission to quote from his superbly researched  article, "Opening the Gates of Hell:" A Unionist Family on the Spotsylvania Court House Battlefield.

- A special thank you to my friend, Rich Morrison, for the research he undertook on his own initiative, which helped make this article better than it would have been otherwise. And, as always, there are treasures to be found in his family's vast photo archive.

- Thanks also to my friend, Vickie Neely, who shared her ancestors' archive with me, and trusted me to tell part of their story here. Vickie greatly improved the quality of this article by contributing her own research. I am also grateful for her transcription ability and her editing skills, which have made writing this a joy.

There will be future posts about the Armstrongs and the Colemans. Stay tuned.


Armstrong, Benjamin. Publication Number M2094, Southern Claims Commission Approved Claims, 1871-1880, Claim Number 37018. National Archives and Records Administration.

Armstrong, Mahlon. Publication Number M324, Compiled Service Records of Confederate Soldiers who served in Organizations From the State of Virginia. National Archives and Records Administration.

Coleman, Paul. Publication Number M345, Union Provost Marshal's File of Papers Relating to Individual Claims. The National Archives and Records Administration.

Hennessy, John. "Democracy's dark day--the May 1861 secession vote in Fredericksburg, Part 2."

Neely, Vickie. Papers of the Armstrong and Coleman families.

The New York Times, "Department of the Rappahannock, April 28, 1862, p. 8.

Smith, Russell P. "Opening the Gates of Hell:" A Unionist Family on the Spotsylvania Court House Battlefield. Originally published in Fredericksburg History and Biography, Volume 5, Central Virginia Battlefield Trust, 2006. The version I cited for this article is a PDF shared with me by Rich Morrison.


1. Smith, "Opening the Gates of Hell," p. 3.

2. My article on the Harris family can be read here.

3. Armstrong, Benjamin, Southern Claims Commission, p. 5.

4. Ibid., p. 7.

5. Ibid., p. 50.

6. Ibid., p. 6.

7. Ibid., p. 9.

8. Ibid., p. 8.

9. Hennessy, "Democracy's Dark Day."

10. Armstrong, Benjamin, Southern Claims Commission, p. 22.

11. Armstrong, Mahlon, Compiled Service Records of Confederate Soldiers, p. 7.

12. Armstrong, Benjamin, Southern Claims Commission. p. 54.

13. The New York Times, "Department of the Rappahannock."

14. Armstrong, Benjamin, Southern Claims Commission, p. 4.

15. Ibid., p. 23.

16. Ibid., p. 5.

17. Ibid., p. 34.

18. Smith, p. 6.

19. Ibid., pp. 6-7.

20. Ibid., p. 9.

21. Ibid., p. 10.

22. Ibid., p. 1.

23. Armstrong, Benjamin, Southern Claims Commission, p. 2.



  1. Thanks for the great blog! Our family is in the process of purchasing Beechwood and love learning anything we can about the old house. We are thrilled we can do what we can to make sure it stays around for many more years.

    1. Congratulations, Stacey. You are buying a great piece of local history.