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Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Dr. John Samuel Apperson

Dr. John Samuel Apperson (courtesy of Ellen Apperson Brown)

     "February 2, 1859. This morning was one of uncommon interest to me. I arose early and prepared myself to leave, for where, I hardly know" [1]. So begins the diary of 21-year-old John Samuel Apperson, a remarkable document written by a man confident that an adventuresome and successful future lay ahead of him. Future events would justify his optimism.

Malinda and Alfred Apperson (Jack Apperson, Ancestry)

     Born into humble circumstances in Orange County on August 21, 1837, John achieved a great deal in his lifetime. He was a man of many resources, and utilized his native talents to become successful in the fields of both medicine and business. He married twice and was the father of eleven children, some of whom became successful in their own right.
     John was the oldest of six children born to Alfred Apperson and Malinda Jones, who were married in Orange County on September 3, 1836. As a young man, Alfred had worked as an overseer. He later bought a 170-acre farm in Orange just north of the old Turnpike (modern Route 20) near Locust Grove. In the Civil War-era map detail of Orange County shown below, "A. Epperson" can be seen at right above the double red line indicating the Turnpike. Ellwood, the home of Horace Lacy, can be seen at far right. Row's Mill, the home of Elhanon Row and his extended family, lay athwart the Turnpike at far left.

Map detail of Orange County (

     John Apperson's childhood was typical for his time and place. He worked on the family farm doing chores like cutting wood, making rails and plowing with a team of oxen. He attended a school until he was 12 years old, and afterwards supplemented his education by reading whatever books and periodicals might come to his house. By the age of 17 he was working in a country store, but was handicapped by his lack of mathematical knowledge. He remedied this problem by purchasing a copy of "Key to Davies' Arithmethic," from which he taught himself [2].
     On that February morning in 1859, when his journal begins, John packed up his worldly goods--consisting of his his clothes--and placed $12.50 in money and twenty four cents in stamps in his pockets. He took leave of his family, and then walked to his grandfather's house nearby, where he spent the night. The next day, he walked to Orange Court House, where he boarded a train bound for Charlottesville. While changing cars in Gordonsville, he encountered a friend of his, identified as "J. S. R." [3]. John told his friend that he was headed west, perhaps to Mississippi or Alabama [4].
     John arrived in Charlottesville at 2:00 that afternoon. Realizing that he did not have enough money to make the journey he originally intended, he set off on foot from the train station. His goal now was to make it as far as Lynchburg and look for work. While walking down the road, John met local resident John Dudley, who lived in the hills between Charlottesville and Scottsville. The convivial Dudley invited John to his house. John spent a few enjoyable days with his sociable host and his family, which included two comely and friendly daughters. The evenings consisted of drinking, fiddle-playing and dancing. On the morning of February 7, John bade farewell to the Dudleys and struck out for Lynchburg [5].
     John continued walking south down the road (likely the forerunner to modern Route 29) toward Lynchburg. He crossed the Rockfish River by way of a bridge that was being built, and spent the night with an agreeable farmer in Nelson County. By now John was quite footsore, and had developed large blisters on his right heel and instep. His kindly host invited him to stay with him until his feet improved, but John was anxious to reach Lynchburg. On the morning of February 8 he resumed his journey south [6].
     John at last arrived at Lynchburg and took a room at an inn. While looking for work, he met a man from Marion in Smyth County, who suggested that he go to the Seven Mile Ford there and try to get a job on the railroad. John took the train to Marion, arriving with just twenty seven cents in his pocket [7].
     After a short stint at cutting railroad ties, John met Dr. William Faris. Impressed by John's intelligence and obvious potential, Dr. Faris urged John to take up the study of medicine. John did so, and began to read with Dr. Faris and accompanied him while visiting patients. The 1860 census shows that John was living with the Faris family and his occupation was "student of medicine." He continued along this path of endeavor until the outbreak of the Civil War.

Dr. Harvey Black (Virginia Tech Imagebase)

     On April 18, 1861, John Apperson was mustered into what would become Company D of the 4th Virginia Infantry in Marion. Two months later, he was assigned duty as a hospital steward under the direction of Dr. Harvey Black, the regimental surgeon. The two served together for the remainder of the war. Dr. Black became John's lifelong friend, mentor and colleague.
     Harvey Black was born on August 27, 1827 in Blacksburg, a town founded by his family. Like John Apperson, Dr. Black took up the study of medicine as a young man. In 1847 he enlisted as an infantryman to fight in the Mexican War. After three months's service in the ranks, he was appointed hospital steward, at which duty he served until he was mustered out in 1848. He enrolled in the University of Virginia upon his return home, and earned his medical degree in 1849. On September 15, 1852, he married Mary Irby Kent, with whom he had a daughter and three sons [8].
     In the years leading up to the Civil War, Dr. Black and his family lived in Blacksburg, where he practiced medicine. The 1860 census shows that the owned one slave, a 23-year-old woman. He enlisted in the 4th Virginia Infantry on May 4, 1861. He was named regimental surgeon, a post he held until November 20, 1862, when General Thomas J. Jackson appointed him chief surgeon of the Field Hospital, 2nd Corps, Army of Northern Virginia. He brought along with him hospital steward John Apperson.

Map detail of Spotsylvania County during the Battle of Chancellorsville (

      The events during the Chancellorsville campaign made an indelible impression on John's mind. Here are excerpts from his journal during that momentous week. The first entry was written while the 2nd Corps Hospital was encamped south of Hamilton's Crossing near Fredericksburg:

"Wednesday, April 29, 1863: This morning early the sound of cannon was bursting along the shore of the Rappahannock. A courier soon came back with some orders for Dr. Black. It stated that Dr. Black should be ready to move his hospital near the field. Dr. went to wash preparing to obey orders--another came ordering the ambulance train up. By 2 p. m. the wagons were ready to move...In wandering around we discovered the old Brigade. I saw the 4th and had a cordial meeting with the boys. There was considerable fighting near Fredericksburg, which resulted in some 30 killed and wounded and a company captured from our side.
Thursday, April 30, 1863: Today spent in camp speculating what would be done...The chief opinion is that we will fall back...The enemy is only making a feint here while the main body is crossing at Kelly's and Germanna...
Friday, May 1, 1863: Orders were received this morning from Dr. [Hunter] McGuire to move...At Telegraph Road we turned to the left at Mr. Wyatt's and out to the Plank Road [modern Route 610, now called Old Plank Road] at Tabernacle Church...We moved across the Plank Road and a little up to the right of the road, going west and camped. News at the front is that the enemy is falling back before our skirmishers.
Saturday and Sunday, May 2 and 3, 1863: The troops marched up the Plank Road to "New Store" [the home of John Alrich, at the intersection of modern Old Plank and Catharpin roads]. Here was a great many wounded. The house bore the unmistakable marks of a conflict nearby. Heavy cannonading toward the Old Furnace...The ambulance train took the old Catharpin Road and went up to Todd's Tavern. I was on horseback. There we took the road known as Brock's Road and paralleled it about a mile. The troops came out from the furnace [modern Jackson Trail East], crossed Brock's Road and left it to the right...Dr. Black directed us on a left hand road [modern Jackson Trail West] by William Stephens' and Mr. Triggs'. I began to expect that the fighting would occur at the Wilderness being the best position I knew of in this section of the county...We passed the old schoolhouse where I had studied the manners of spelling and arithmetic in 1845--nearly 18 years go. My feelings were such that I could not discuss them. Dr. Black was ordered forward to establish a hospital and send the ambulances on the field. When we reached the old pike [modern Route 3] the ambulances were sent down and the loaded wagons went to the Wilderness. Our tents were pitched along a gully where I have enjoyed many merry plays at "Gully's Keeper." The wounded commenced coming in and we  went to work. It seemed that Jackson commenced upon them as soon as he came up and the enemy made tracks. Our troops fought almost recklessly. The enemy left his mules. The saddest event of the day is a wound received by Gen. Jackson...he was wounded in the left arm and amputation was necessary. Dr. McGuire operated [Dr. Harvey Black assisted him]. The wounded commenced coming. The enemy's strong works had been stormed and taken principally by Trumble's Division under command of Brig. General Colston...The loss in the 4th Regiment is almost appalling--went in with 365 and lost 162. The "Blue and Gray" lost 50. The brigade charged the enemy's works three times before it was successful. General Paxton was killed; he was a brave man. Capt. Harman in the 4th Regt. was killed. Capt. Fulton lost a leg.
Monday May 4th, 1863: Nothing outside of the usual course of stirring events happened today. I saw some of the Misses Hawkins [9] and thought I knew them. A servant ran along and informed that I was right. I sent them my card and compliments...The fighting has nearly ceased. Our army is about one-half mile in advance of Chancellorsville and the enemy between that and the road. Both armies are intrenching. It was also reported that our force at Fredericksburg has been dislodged and the heights around Marye's House captured.
Tuesay May 5th, 1863: Today we were busy. Dr. Black sent Dr. Hackett and myself over to the barn to assist Dr. Straith...Dr. Straith put me to work on some mutilated hands. I took off a number of fingers and one was taken off in the middle of the metacarpal bone. This was Martin Roan, Co. D 4th Va. Infantry. I extracted a ball from among the tarsus of the foot of a soldier...
Wednesday May 6th 1863: This morning rain began to fall and soon the whole place was one mud puddle. I saw Lt. Col. Dugan and proposed that he go to my father's for a few days, but before he got off new orders came for the wounded to be sent to Guinea's Depot. Dr. Hackett and myself went over to the barn again; nothing much to do. I went home. My father had been down and brought me some things and had gone to the battlefield. He was not at home when I arrived...At home I found nothing new. The yard around the house was beautiful--as green as could be. I sat up late and went to rest with a cheerful good night. Today I met an old servant that had served under my father.
Thursday, May 7th 1863: This morning by 8 I was up and off to my post. Arrived there before some had left their bed...Today I performed my first important operation--took off a Yankee's leg below the knee. Dr. Gilkerson stood by. I felt no embarrassment whatever. Mrs. Jones gave me a full history of Yankee vandalism. It is truly distressing. No people can prosper whose propensities for wanton destruction of property and oppressing defenseless women is so great. How the blood is made to boil at such atrocities and such acts of inhumanity" [10].

     At the conclusion of the war, Dr. Black went home to Blacksburg, and John went back to the Faris home in Marion. John saved his money for a year and then applied to the medical school at the University of Virginia. The professor of surgery at that time was Dr. James Edgar Chancellor, whose family had owned Chancellorsville [11]. John received his medical degree in 1867 and returned to Smyth County, where he made the town of Chilhowie his home. On February 20, 1868, he married Ellen Victoria Hull. They had seven children together.
     Dr. Black resumed his medical practice, and he also took an interest in the Preston and Olin Institute, a Methodist boy's school in Blacksburg. The school became insolvent in 1872, and Dr. Black helped to reorganize it as the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College, the forerunner of today's Virginia Tech. Black served as the first rector of the school's board of visitors. That same year Dr. Black also received the honor of being elected president of the Medical Society of Virginia.
     In 1875, Dr. Black was nominated to become superintendent of the Eastern State Lunatic Asylum. He had not lobbied for the position, and was taken by surprise by the action of the institution's board. However, after mature consideration, Dr. Black decided that he could do some good in that role. He moved his family to Williamsburg, and assumed his new position on January 1, 1876 and served until March 1882. His tenure there was characterized by his humane and compassionate treatment of his patients, and the helpful reforms he instituted [12].
     Soon after his return to Blacksburg, Dr. Black petitioned the state legislature for funding to establish a facility for the insane in southwestern Virginia. Approval was given, and he and Dr. Apperson served on the building committee for the Southwestern Lunatic Asylum, which was built in Marion and opened its doors to patients in 1888. Dr. Black was named as its first superintendent. Dr. Apperson served as assistant physician there.

Harvey Black, House of Degates, 1887 (Library of Virginia)

     Despite declining health, Dr. Harvey Black was elected to two terms in the House of Delegates, in 1885 and 1887. Dr. Black suffered from what were called "urinary calculi"--stones in his bladder. In October 1887, Dr. Black traveled to St. Luke's Hospital in Richmond, where Dr. Hunter McGuire performed surgery. The procedure was only moderately successful, and Dr. Black underwent surgery a second time on October 8, 1888. He never recovered from this second intervention. He died in Richmond on October 19, 1888. He lies buried in Westview Cemetery in Blacksburg.

Dr. John Apperson (Virginia Tech Imagebase)

      The decade of the 1880s was also a period of success and tragedy for Dr. John Apperson. He had a thriving medical practice, a position at the new asylum and had been elected vice-president of the Medical Society of Virginia in 1881, 1882 and 1885 [13]. During Dr. Black's medical crisis, death visited the Apperson home twice in 1887. His daughter, 17-year-old Pauline, died on September 2. His wife, Ellen, died on November 14.
     On February 5, 1889, John married Elizabeth "Lizzie" Arabella Black, the only daughter of Dr. Harvey Black. John and Lizzie had four children together.

John and Elizabeth Apperson and family (Virginia Tech Imagebase)

     In addition to his accomplishments as a physician, John also enjoyed success in the business and professional world. He organized the Staley's Creek Manganese and Iron Company. In 1892 he was appointed business executive commissioner of Virginia to the World's Fair held in Chicago in 1893. He was a key executive in the Marion and Rye Railway, and was in charge of its construction. He served on the board of trustees of Emory and Henry College [14]. His home gives evidence of his worldly success and prosperity:

Apperson home in Chilhowie (Anita Epperson, Ancestry)

     Dr. John Samuel Apperson died at home on August 9, 1908. He is buried in the Round Hill Cemetery in Marion.

(Virginia Tech Imagebase)


Two of Dr. Apperson's sons were well known for their public service in their own lifetimes. Harvey Black Apperson (1890-1948) served in the Virginia Senate 1933-1944. He then worked for three years as a member of the Virginia State Corporation Commission.  For the last few months of his life Harvey was Attorney General of Virginia.

John Samuel Apperson, Jr. (1878-1963) worked as an engineer for many years at General Electric. But he is best known and admired for his work as a conservationist in a lifelong effort to protect the Adirondack Forest Preserve and Lake George.

But the son of Dr. Apperson that I feel closest to is his firstborn, Alfred Hull Apperson (1869-1944).  Alfred was an electrical engineer who graduated from the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College in Blacksburg in 1894. He was in charge of the school's electric plant for several years after he graduated. Alfred worked in Richmond for many years as an electrical inspector for the Southeastern Underwriter's Association. In 1905 he married Sallie Duncan Williams of Lynchburg.

Duncan's parents were James Tompkins Williams (1829-1900), a merchant in both Richmond and Lynchburg, and Martha Jane Row (1828-1885), my second great aunt, who was born on our family's plantation in Spotsylvania.


- Repairing the "March of Mars": The Civil War Diaries of John Samuel Apperson, edited by John Herbert Roper. Mercer University Press, Macon, GA: 2001.

- Diary of John Samuel Apperson of Locust Grove

- Transactions of the Thirty Ninth Annual Session of the Medical Society of Virginia, Held in Richmond, Virginia October 20-23, 1908. Capitol Printing Company, Richmond, VA: 1909. Click here for the link

- Annual Reports of Officers, Boards and Institutions of the Commonwealth of Virginia For The Year Ending September 30, 1888. J. H. O'Bannon, Superintendent of Public Printing, Richmond, VA: 1888. Click here for link

- Students of the University of Virginia 1825-1874

- Men of Mark in Virginia: Ideals of American Life. A Collection of Biographies of the Leading Men in the State. Lyon G. Tyler, L. L. P., President of William and Mary College, Editor in Chief. Volume III. Men of Mark Publishing Company, Washington, DC: 1907.  Click here for link

- Culpeper Officer's Diary Tells of Chancellorsville," The Free Lance-Star, May 6, 1963.


[1] Diary of John Samuel Apperson of Locust Grove, 3.

[2] Men of  Mark in Virginia, 6.

[3] Most likely John Sanders Row.

[4] Diary of John Samuel Apperson of Locust Grove, 4.

[5] Ibid., 5-9.

[6] Ibid., 9-12.

[7] Ibid., 1-2.

[8] Annual Reports of Officers, 36.

[9] See my article: "During the war, the girls saw sights"

[10] "Culpeper Officer's Diary Tells of Chancellorsville." Although the title of the article is misleading, the content is correct. This section of John Apperson's diary had been transcribed by Chancellor descendant and historian George Harrison Sanford King while he was a student at Virginia Tech in the 1930s. At that time, the diary was still in the possession of the Apperson family.

[11] See my article: Dr. James Edgar Chancellor

[12] Annual Report of Officers, 37-38.

[13] Transactions of the Thirty Ninth Annual Session, 233.

[14] Men of Mark in Virginia, 8.


Monday, August 14, 2017

"Since the war, I have been fighting them politically"

This is the second in a series about the experience of two families, the Armstrongs and the Colemans, who left their homes in the north and settled in Spotsylvania County before the Civil War. For those of you who may not have already read the first installment, it is available at this link:  "They would have him dead or alive"

Paul Coleman (Vickie Neely)

     On Friday morning, May 26, 1865, the steam ship Wenonah, commanded by Captain Daws and with 90 souls on board, slipped her moorings in Baltimore harbor and made her way south down the Patapsco River toward the Chesapeake Bay. Slowed by heavy weather, Wenonah at last arrived at the Fredericksburg wharf on Sunday, May 28. Among her passengers who disembarked that morning were Paul Coleman and Peter Couse [1]. These men, driven into exile by Confederate authorities and hostile neighbors in 1862, were finally able to come home. Peter returned to his farm, Laurel Hill, near the homestead of Benjamin Armstrong. Paul went to Pea Ridge, his home south of Spotsylvania Court House.

Beechwood, 1940s (The Free Lance-Star)

     Also returning to Spotsylvania that spring after a long absence were Benjamin Armstrong and his 28-year-old son, Mahlon. In 1862, Benjamin had fled from Spotsylvania, leaving his home, Beechwood, in the care of his wife, Ann, and a daughter, Anna Maria. Benjamin spent the last three years of the war at his old farm in New Castle County, Delaware. Mahlon, who had been forcibly conscripted into the Confederate cavalry, successfully deserted in April 1862 and spent the rest of the war in Milwaukee, Wisconsin [2].
     The Spotsylvania County to which these men returned in the spring of 1865 was a far cry from the Confederate-dominated slave culture that had threatened them. There were few farms in the county that had not suffered considerably during the war. The economy was shattered, Confederate currency was worthless and a great number of young men had been crippled or killed. The two main issues for which the south fought--slavery and states' rights--had been decided on the battlefield. For the next four and a half years, Virginia did not exist as a state, but rather as a military district ruled by officers of the United States army. Ex-Confederates who did not take the oath of allegiance were disenfranchised. A new political and economic reality soon took shape, one that benefited new arrivals from the north and marginalized local southerners.
     The Armstrongs and Paul Coleman became part of the new order. On October 18, 1867, The Fredericksburg Ledger reported the names of the registering officers for the county. Paul was one of three appointed for the 1st District. Benjamin and Mahlon, together with Samuel L. Alsop, were appointed for the 4th District.
     By June 1868, Paul and Peter Couse felt comfortable enough to associate their names with a notorious episode which, had they done so during Confederate rule, would have placed their lives in jeopardy. On June 5, 1868, Fredericksburg constable James Taylor went to the house of a Mr. Tibbets, a black man, to collect overdue rent. Tibbets refused to pay, and then he locked and bolted all the windows and doors of the house. Colonel Mallam, the military mayor of the town, then went to Tibbets' residence and informed him that if he did not surrender himself, a posse would be summoned and the house would be torn down around him. With that, Tibbets gave himself up and was taken to jail. While he was incarcerated, a large crowd of both blacks and whites gathered at the jail, where Tibbets gave an incendiary speech through the bars. The substance of Tibbets' tirade was to incite blacks to "strike a blow for their freedom" by opening the jail's doors and setting him free. Fortunately for all concerned, the blacks in his audience ignored his appeals and the peace was maintained. Peter Couse and and Paul Coleman acted as his sureties when he was granted bail [3].
     Paul continued to be active in local Republican politics for years to come. His next reported appointment came in 1869, when he was named registrar for the 14th Military Division, 32nd District of Spotsylvania County [4]. Two weeks later, Paul served on the nominating committee that named Captain Edwin McMahon as a candidate for the state legislature [5].
     Meanwhile, a significant change occurred in the lives of the Armstrong family at Beechwood. It seems that Benjamin was experiencing some stresses that lurked beneath what the written record tells us. In letters written by Mahlon in the 1870s, it is apparent that the members of the Armstrong family were still the objects of resentment and distrust by their neighbors. This unhappy state of affairs was made even more so by the Armstrongs' high-profile participation in Republican politics. In any event, Benjamin left Spotsylvania about 1869 and returned to his old farm in New Castle County, Delaware [6], where he remained for several years. By 1876, 72-year-old Benjamin was living with the family of his son, William, at 604 Orange Street in Wilmington, where he lived for the rest of his life. Meanwhile, his wife, son and daughter continued to live at Beechwood, which was still owned by Benjamin.

William L. Armstrong (Rich Morrison)

     By the late 1860s, a throng of ambitious northern men and their families came to Spotsylvania. Unlike the Armstrongs and the Colemans, these new arrivals were a different breed. They were the carpetbaggers, men seeking to make easy money in the vanquished Confederacy. They took advantage of the opportunities made available by the dominance of the Republican Party in local politics, and they used these political connections to procure patronage jobs for themselves whenever possible. Here is an overview of some of the men who became part of the orbit of the world of the Armstrongs and Colemans:

Business card of Wilcox & Kinsey

     - Thomas C. Westby, born in England in 1819, came to America and settled in Wisconsin. He brought his family to Spotsylvania in the years immediately following the war. In March 1869, General George Stoneman [7], in his capacity as military administrator, appointed Westby as clerk of court of Spotsylvania County, replacing Robert C. Dabney [8]. In 1872, Westby was named secretary of the Republican Party in Spotsylvania [9]. By 1878, Westby was living in Washington, DC, where he died on October 26, 1882.

     - Wyatt Allen Forsyth (1830-1908) was a mechanic in Tompkins County, New York, where he married Lavinia Hile before the Civil War. Forsyth quickly got into business once he came to Spotsylvania. In March 1870, Forsyth--together with Allen Hakes and Albert Wilcox--bought 1/5 acre of land adjacent to Christ Church near the court house. These three men established a spoke factory there. Hakes died the following year, and Edward Wood Kinsey then joined the business. Forsyth took his leave soon thereafter, and by 1875 was living in Washington, making a living in the lumber business. A few years later, he moved to Kanawha, West Virginia, where he continued as a lumberman for the rest of his life.

     -Albert Gallatin Wilcox (1823-1894) also came from Tompkins County, New York. Wilcox entered into a partnership in the spoke factory with Edward Wood Kinsey in 1871. That partnership dissolved a year later. In 1873, Wilcox was appointed postmaster at Spotsylvania Court House. Like Mr. Forsyth, Wilcox moved to Washington, where he was engaged as a lumberman. He later followed Forsyth to Kanawha, where he made his home and continued in the lumber business.

    - Edward Wood Kinsey (1842-1927) was born in Chester County, Pennsylvania. He appears to have been the only carpetbagger mentioned here who served in the Union army during the Civil War (Company A, 15th Pennsylvania Cavalry). He came to Spotsylvania soon after having married Sarah Jane "Sallie" Snowden in Philadelphia in 1868. Kinsey remained in the spoke business for several years after acquiring the factory from Wilcox. He ultimately sold out to Thomas A. Eipper. His wife, Sallie, served as postmistress at Spotsylvania Court House 1876-1881. Kinsey served as postmaster there 1882-1883. By 1887, Kinsey was living in Washington, where he was in the furniture and lumber business for many years. He was also a partner in the furniture store of his son, Nathaniel Bacon Kinsey, which was located on Commerce Street in Fredericksburg. Kinsey is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

     -Herbert B. Vincent was born in Pennsylvania in January 1836. In 1873, he was appointed as an election judge in Spotsylvania's Finchville District. In 1874, he sold his farm to James R. Curtis, who sued Vincent for cheating him in that transaction. By then, Vincent was living in upstate New York, where he listed his occupation as "capitalist." He died in Chatauqua in 1905.

     In 1871, Paul Coleman was forced to declare bankruptcy. A check of the historic cases of the Fredericksburg Circuit Court reveals that he owed a considerable amount of money to a variety of merchants and other creditors, including a debt shared by Wyatt Forsyth to Hart, Hayes & Company of Fredericksburg. A levy was placed on Paul's private property, and Spotsylvania attorney William B. Sanford was appointed as receiver.
     Fortunately for Paul, he was able to use his political connections to obtain patronage work in Washington, principally at the Bureau of Public Works. He moved from Pea Ridge, his house in Spotsylvania, and lodged at the boarding house of a Mrs. Holbrook at 717 Fourth Street NW. His wife Esther, his daughter Romelia and one of his sons, George, remained at Pea Ridge.
     Likewise, Mahlon Armstrong also began to spend time in Washington, leaving his mother and sister, Anna Maria, to manage Beechwood with the help of a teen-aged black servant, Fanny Parker. Taking care of Beechwood was a responsibility that the Armstrong women were well-qualified for, as they had managed and defended Beechwood after Benjamin had been obliged to seek refuge in Delaware in 1862. Mahlon was living in Washington for at least part of the time by 1872. Like Paul Coleman, Mahlon had ambitions to find a patronage job in the nation's capital. He was also helping his father with an effort important to the Armstrongs' financial well-being.
     The Southern Claims Commission was an organization of the federal government created by an act of Congress on March 3, 1871. It established a process by which citizens of the southern states who had remained loyal to the Union during the Civil War could seek reimbursement for property taken from them during the war. The two key provisions were that the petitioners had to prove their loyalty (usually accomplished by affidavits or depositions provided by their neighbors), and the property had to have been officially taken, and not merely stolen by Union soldiers.
     Mahlon helped his father prepare his application, which was submitted to the Claims Commission on February 12, 1872. Depositions were taken from witnesses in Washington on May 24, 1872, including those of Mahlon, his cousin Archibald Armstrong, his sister Anna Maria, Moses Morrison and Isaac Silver. In addition, General George Meade, who had stayed for a day at Beechwood during the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, submitted a letter in which he attested to the loyalty of the Armstrongs. Benjamin was ill at home on the day depositions were taken, and he did not make an appearance before the Commission. During his testimony, Mahlon affirmed his loyalty and that of his father: "Our sympathies have always been with the north & against the south, & I have since the war been fighting the rebels politically" [10].

A page from the claim of Benjamin Armstrong (

     Benjamin Armstrong sought reimbursement in the amount of $3,540 for the taking of fencing, timber, livestock and farming utensils, two buildings, and the destruction of growing crops and pasture. As they always do, the bureaucratic wheels turned slowly, and it would take three years before Benjamin received an answer to his petition.
     During the times he stayed in Washington with Paul Coleman, Mahlon attended what he called "Hamlin" Church, today known as the Simpson-Hamline Methodist Episcopal Church. He became friends with the minister there, Reverend Greenleaf G. Baker. On January 16, 1873, in a ceremony held in Washington, Reverend Baker officiated at the wedding of Mahlon and Paul Coleman's only daughter, Romelia.

Marriage certificate of Mahlon and Romelia (Vickie Neely)

     Nine months later, Romelia found a midwife she could rely on, and on October 10, 1873, she gave birth to Mary, the only child she and Mahlon would have. Romelia and Mary continued to live in Spotsylvania at Pea Ridge with her mother and brother, while Mahlon sought work in Washington.
     Even though Mahlon and Paul were dividing their time between Spotsylvania and Washington, they continued to remain active in local politics. In April 1873, Judge John T. Goolrick appointed Mahlon and Paul as judges of election in their respective precincts:

From The Fredericksburg Ledger, April 11, 1873

     In spite of (or perhaps because of) his continued activity in Republican politics, Mahlon remained an unpopular figure in Spotsylvania. The arrival of his daughter, the stress of living among unfriendly neighbors, together with the financial pressures exerted on many Americans by the Financial Panic of 1873, added new impetus to Mahlon's efforts to land a patronage job in Washington. His goal at the time was to leave Spotsylvania and bring Romelia and Mary to the capital to live with him.
     According to letters written by him to Romelia from December 1873 to January 1875, Mahlon spent considerable time and effort searching for a suitable job in Washington, where he stayed in the Fourth Street boarding house with his father-in-law. He sought help from a variety of people, including James Beverly Sener, an attorney and publisher of The Fredericksburg Ledger. Sener represented Fredericksburg in Congress 1873-1875. For reasons that are not known, Sener seemed unwilling to provide help to Mahlon, who wrote in November 1874: "Sener could give me a job, but won't."
     In between his job-hunting efforts, Mahlon sat in on sessions of Congress. In December 1874, he described the state visit of the King of the Sandwich Islands (modern Hawaii), who was received with all the pomp and ceremony the capital could provide. He was the first king to visit the United States since the Revolution.
     Mahlon's efforts to find employment often proved fruitless, but he seemed determined not to go back to Spotsylvania: "I am beginning to despair & when I think of coming back to Va it makes me feel [sick] all over. No church no school for little Mary poor little her & nothing but starvation both for Mind & Body."

Letter of Mahlon Armstrong, January 1, 1875 (Vickie Neely)

      Then, briefly, there was a ray of hope. On January 1, 1875, Mahlon wrote to Romelia about his new job, obtained through the intercession of judges Chandler & Morton: "I go to it  tomorrow for the first [time] so do not know what my duties will be." Then, four days later, he had to give Romelia the bad news: "My job proved too much for me, they wanted me to shovel dirt. I politely declined after a week's chase of it. So now I have no prospects & I shall be home Saturday if not sooner unless something else turns up. It is too bad."
     During this period, Paul continued to be employed at the Bureau of Public works. His son, Oscar, who had a patronage job of his own, was dating Amelia Hile, the sister-in-law of Wyatt Forsyth. Paul was an acquaintance of former Union General Benjamin F. Butler, now a member of the House of Representatives. Paul had made arrangements to meet Butler in Washington in October 1873. Butler had written to Paul at Pea Ridge, and Romelia forwarded that letter to her father. But not everything was going well for Paul Coleman. He was still dogged by the ongoing litigation of his bankruptcy, and he was apparently unhappy with his wife. He was also suspicious of what he called "The Court House Circle" in Spotsylvania, and their gossiping, double-dealing ways. In particular, he had some choice words for the Kinseys and Herbert Vincent.
     Before leaving Washington, Mahlon checked on the status of his father's petition pending before the Claims Commission. It is obvious that he does not want word of the successful prosecution of the claim to become public knowledge in Spotsylvania: "I have never written to anyone about the claim except you [Romelia], so far as I know all are in ignorance." For the vast majority of Spotsylvania property owners whose farms had been ransacked during the war, there was no hope of any compensation for their losses. If Mahlon's neighbors learned that the Armstrongs had received money from the federal government for their loss, their unpopularity in the county would only have increased. As it happened, of the 33 Spotsylvania Unionists who applied to the Southern Claims Commission, only nine received any money, and virtually no one got all that they asked for. When their claim was settled in March 1875, the Armstrongs received only $1,540 of the $3,540 that they sought.
     Mahlon returned to Spotsylvania for good in 1875, and Paul some time later. Mahlon, Romelia and Mary moved to Beechwood to live with his mother and Anna Maria. Mahlon's mother, Ann Mendenhall Armstrong, died on April 3, 1879. Ann Armstrong had suffered much during her 20 years in Spotsylvania. Her husband had been driven into exile by the Confederates, she had been considered an outcast by her secessionist neighbors, and her dog was shot by a Confederate cavalryman during the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. Despite her many misfortunes in this land of rebels, the choice of her final resting place was an act of unintended irony; Ann Armstrong was buried in the Confederate Cemetery in Fredericksburg. Anna Maria left Spotsylvania some time after her mother's death and returned north, where she remained unmarried and worked as a domestic. She died in the Penn Widow's Asylum in Philadelphia on August 25, 1920.

Esther Coleman (Vickie Neely)

     Like Benjamin and Ann Armstrong, Paul and Esther Coleman decided to separate, and he moved to Baltimore, where he lived near or with his son, Royal Bunker Coleman. Paul died there on February 26, 1888.

Baltimore Sun, February 27, 1888 (Ancestry, Barbara Spears)

     Benjamin Armstrong spent the last 15 years of his life with his son, William, at 604 Orange Street in Wilmington, Delaware. Two years before his death, he wrote his last will and testament:

Will of Benjamin Armstrong (Ancestry)

Will of Benjamin Armstrong (Ancestry)

     Benjamin died at William's home on May 23, 1891. His funeral was held at his son's home. Benjamin is buried in the Lower Brandywine Presbyterian Church Cemetery in New Castle County.

Wilmington Daily Republican, May 25, 1891

Death certificate of Benjamin Armstrong (Ancestry)

     In his will, Benjamin left Beechwood to his surviving children. In due course, Mahlon bought his siblings' shares in the old Spotsylvania homestead. By 1895, Beechwood belonged to him.

Stay tuned for the final installment of the saga of the Armstrong family, in which the course of Mahlon's life takes some unexpected turns. The Adventists come to Screamersville.


[1] "Arrival of the Pioneer Boat Wenonah," The Fredericksburg Ledger, May 30, 1865, p. 3.

[2] Armstrong, Benjamin. Publication M2094, Southern Claims Commission Approved Claims, 1871-1880, Claim Number 37018. National Archives and Records Administration, p. 4.

[3] "Tibbets in Jail," The Fredericksburg Ledger, June 9, 1868, p. 3.

[4] "Fourteenth Military Division," Richmond Daily Dispatch, Jue 8, 1869.

[5] "Candidate for the Legislature," The Fredericksburg Ledger, June 25, 1869, p. 3.

[6] Armstrong, Benjamin. Southern Claims Commission, pp. 4-5.

[7] Years earlier, while a cadet at West Point, Stoneman's roommate was none other than future Confederate General Thomas Jonathan "Stonewall" Jackson.

[8] "Civil Appointment," Richmond Daily Dispatch, March 9, 1869.

[9] "Republican Convention at Spotsylvania Court House," Daily State Journal, March 8, 1872.

[10] Armstrong, Benjamin. Southern Claims Commission, p. 10.


Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The Story Behind the Portrait

A mother with Lucy Matilda Trigg and Susan "Sudie" Stephens (American Antiquarian Society)

Label on the reverse of the photo above (American Antiquarian Society)

     In April 1866, Dr. Reed Bontecou brought his photographic equipment to Spotsylvania County. Bontecou was a Union surgeon during the Civil War, and is best known for the photographs he took of his surgical patients. His primary aim in Spotsylvania, however, was to document the local battlefield sites. While he was in the vicinity, Dr. Bontecou also made portraits of several Spotsylvania families: Dobyns, Chancellor, Hawkins Stephens and Trigg. I have just recently written about two of those families--here are the links to those articles: "During the war, the girls saw sights" and "The Chancellors Revealed".
     Today, I will discuss the identities of the women in the photo above. First, let me give a little background about the Stephens and Trigg families.

Detail of 1863 map by J. F. Gilmer
     In the map detail above, the homesteads of the Stephens and Trigg families can be seen side-by-side in the upper center of the image. Their farms were located on modern Jackson Trail West near its northern outlet on Brock Road.
     William A. Stephens (1821-1886) married Mary Eleanor Scott (1826-1897) in Washington, DC in June 1843. They settled in Spotsylvania at the location shown above; they called their place Rosemount. Mary came from a well-to-do family. She was a sister of wealthy Robert Scott, whose story I have told in this article: The Enigmatic Mr. Scott. William was a man of business--farmer, slave owner, auctioneer and real estate appraiser, and postmaster at Danielsville. After the completion of the Potomac, Fredericksburg & Piedmont Railroad, one of the stops was "Stephens Station," a small white building on his property.
     William and Mary Stephens were the parents of three children: Sarah (1846-1865), John James (1847-1929) and Susan "Sudie" Ellinor Stephens (1849-1906)
     The Stephens' neighbors were the Triggs, whose farm was called Poplar Neck. Joseph W. Trigg was also a farmer and slave owner, and postmaster at Brockville. He married Amanda Fox in June 1848. They had two children, Lucy Matilda (1849-1927) and John William (1850-1935).
     Amanda Fox Trigg died in June 1860. Just three months later, in September 1860, Joseph married neighbor Huldah Hawkins (1819-1891).
     So, now we know that there was only one young Stephens woman and one young Trigg woman living in that area in 1866. Therefore, I am confident that the two young ladies sitting are Sudie Stephens and Lucy Trigg, although I cannot say which is which.
     Which leaves us with the older woman standing with them. All that can be said with certainty is that it is either Huldah Hawkins Trigg or Mary Scott Stephens.
     Lucy married Alexander Bennett Hawkins in December 1868. Alex was a nephew of Lucy's stepmother, Huldah. Alex and Lucy lived at the Hawkins farm behind Wilderness Church, where they raised eight children.
     Sudie Stephens married Oscar Beadles Todd in January 1869. Oscar's family owned Todd's Tavern before the Civil War. Sudie and Oscar lived on a farm opposite the railroad from Rosemount. They never had children.


Monday, August 7, 2017

The Chancellors Revealed

Melzi Chancellor and family, 1866 (American Antiquarian Society)

     Last week, I discovered two photographs in the collection of the American Antiquarian Society that I believe show Reverend Melzi Chancellor and several of his family members.  One of these pictures, shown above, did not have any identifying information on the back. The other, shown below has written on the back "Chancellor Family Group."

Chancellor Family Group, 1866 (American Antiquarian Society)

Label on the back of the picture above (American Antiquarian Society)

     Note that the woman seated at right in the second photo also appears standing second from left in the first photograph.
     Now take a look at the photograph below. It shows Reverend Melzi Chancellor, seated at left, with his brothers Dr. James Edgar Chancellor, standing, and Lorman Chancellor:

Melzi Chancellor and brothers

     Based on the known likeness of Melzi taken later in life, it is my opinion that he is the same man seated with his family in the first picture above. The two outdoor photographs were taken in Spotsylvania County in April 1866 by Dr. Reed Bontecou, who had come to make a photographic record of the battlefields there. While in Spotsylvania, Dr. Bontecou also took pictures of several families, including the Chancellors.
     Assuming that the photograph labeled "Chancellor Family Group" correctly identifies the subjects, I believe that this photo shows at least two of Melzi's daughters. Since there was no other Chancellor family in Spotsylvania at the time these pictures were made consisting of people of this age, the second picture can only be that of Reverend Melzi Chancellor and his family.
     Melzi Chancellor married Lucy Fox Frazer in 1837. They had ten children together, nine of whom were living in 1866 (a son, 18-year-old Thomas, died in July 1863 from wounds sustained during the Battle of Gettysburg). Those children and their dates of birth are shown below:

Vespasian (1838)
Anna Cora (1840)
George Edwards (1842)
Edmonia (1846)
Bedell (1848)
Lucy Monroe (1852)
Susan Monroe (1853)
Leona (1857)
Melzi, Jr. (1859)

     It is my opinion that the group photo at the beginning of this post shows standing left to right: Lucy Fox Frazer Chancellor, either Anna Cora or Edmonia, Bedell, and either Lucy or Susan. Seated are Reverend Melzi Chancellor and George Edwards. Melzi Jr. is seated at his father's feet.
     It is also my opinion that two of the women in the second picture are Anna Cora and Edmonia. None of these three women seem young enough to be Lucy or Susan.
     If my identification of these photographs is correct, then they are exceedingly rare likenesses of this well-known family.
     Over the years, I have written extensively about the Chancellor family. I invite you to have a look at those articles:

The Chancellors, Part 1

The Chancellors, Part 2

The Chancellors, Part 3

Lorman Chancellor

Reverend Melzi Sanford Chancellor

"O the horror of that day"

Dr. James Edgar Chancellor

Three Who Rode to War

Chancellor & Rawlings


Sunday, August 6, 2017

"During the war, the girls saw sights"

Hawkins sisters, 1866 (American Antiquarian Society)

     On May 2, 1863, the Hawkins family had front row seats to the opening act of one of the greatest military successes of the Civil War.
     The patriarch of this large family was James H. Hawkins, born about 1804. James was a farmer and slave owner, and was himself also a child from a large family. On October 2, 1829, he married Frances Pendleton (born about 1807) in a ceremony held in Spotsylvania. They made their home on the north side of the Orange Turnpike, modern Route 3, on a farm just behind Wilderness Church. Their homestead can be seen in the Civil War-era map detail below. The home of Reverend Melzi Sanford Chancellor, pastor at Wilderness Church, can be seen just south east of the Hawkins place, across the turnpike:

Map detail of western Spotsylvania, 1863 (

     During the first 20 years of their marriage, James and Frances Hawkins had 10 children who lived until adulthood. They were:

John Thomas (1830-1918)
Lucy (1832-1897)
Sally (1833-1915)
Martha (1837-1904)
Fannie Garrett (1838-1906)
Elizabeth (1839-1905)
Huldah (1841-1919)
Cordelia (1843-1922)
Alexander Bennett (1844-1923)
Isabella (1849-1939)

     Both Hawkins sons joined the Confederate army during the first year of the war. John enlisted in Company C of the 30th Virginia Infantry on July 7, 1861. He served for the remaining years of the war, attaining the rank of sergeant. John was surrendered at Appomattox by General Lee on April 9, 1865.
     John's brother, 17-year-old Alex, joined Company G of the 47th Virginia Infantry on August 2, 1861. The following spring, Alex was admitted to Chimborazo Hospital No. 2 on Richmond on May 15, 1862. The record does not show if he suffered from illness or wounds, but he was returned to his regiment just three days later. Ultimately, Alex served less than two years, and was discharged due to disability and returned home (RK).
     By May 1, 1863, the elaborately planned Chancellorsville campaign of Union General Joseph Hooker was well underway. Hooker made the Chancellor house east of Wilderness Church his headquarters. His subordinates chose more modest homes nearby for their use. Major General Carl Shurz chose the Hawkins home for his headquarters. Alex, who had traveled toward the Rappahannock earlier in the day to deliver some mail, was captured on his way back, and was made a prisoner in his home. As many as 25 people, both Hawkins family members and neighbors, assembled here for their safety (NH). During the brief time that Union soldiers were encamped near Wilderness Church, Hawkins family lore says that Huldah befriended one of them and actually hid him in the house during the cyclonic violence of the following day. It is said that after the war Huldah and this soldier exchanged letters (RK).
Wilderness Baptist Church, by Robert Knox Sneden (Virginia Historical Society)

     On May 2, Confederate General Thomas Jonathan Jackson spent a long and difficult day leading as many as 30,000 soldiers northwest along modern Jackson Trail and Brock Road. His single minded purpose was to get his troops into a concealed position just west of Wilderness Church, where the Union right flank lay dangerously exposed. By 5 p. m., a sufficient number of Confederates were assembled in formation astride the Orange Turnpike. Buglers sounded the attack, and thousands of southern soldiers stormed out of the tree line and made straight for the astonished Federals, who had been butchering beeves and making ready for a hearty supper. As the gray tide rolled on, it is said that Huldah waved her apron at the Union soldiers nearby and shouted, "Here they come!" Standing in the doorway of the house, Alex saw his old regiment, the 47th Virginia, racing across his garden. "This was too much for me," he later said, "and, picking up a gun, I went off with them down the road, yelling with the rest of them" (NH). A soldier with the 47th remembered seeing "several ladies who were wildly rejoicing." Most of the women and children, however, cowered in the cellar (RK).
     Confederate soldiers lingered at the Hawkins farm for a few days after the flank attack. While camped there, they turned their horses loose in James Hawkins' fields, where they ate up most of his wheat and rye crop and munched the grass in the open meadow. The Confederates also helped themselves to the fencing on the property, always a handy source of firewood. They burned up 20 panels of worm fence, and a further 730 feet of plank fencing. Nine months later, in February 1864, James Hawkins presented Confederate authorities with a claim for this appropriation of his property. Reverend Melzi Chancellor gave a deposition on his behalf. In March 1864, restitution in the amount of $263.50 was made to James. Here is the record of his claim (www.

     In April 1866, Dr. Reed Bontecou came to Spotsylvania with a wagon load of photographic equipment and made a visual record of the local battlefields. While he was there, he also took photographs of several families--the Dobyns, the Chancellors, the Triggs and Stephens, and the Hawkins. The portrait of six of the eight Hawkins sisters, which appears at the beginning of today's post, was taken on the porch of their house. Exactly which sisters appear in the photograph is not known to me. If any of my readers is able to identify these young women, I would appreciate hearing from you. The note on the back of the photograph reads: "Hawkins girls, who lived near the Church, during the War, and saw sights." Indeed they did.
     It is not known when James and Frances Hawkins died. It is assumed that they did not survive the 1860s, as their names do not appear on any subsequent census. Four of their ten children married. Alex married neighbor Lucy Matilda Trigg in 1868. Lucy was the daughter of Joseph W. Trigg, whose second wife was Alex's aunt, Huldah Hawkins. Fannie married John H. Pendleton in 1870. John married Mary Tanner in 1879. Isabella married Thomas Faulkner in 1880.
     Most of the Hawkins family lived together in their house behind the church for the rest of their lives. This page from Noel Harrison's book, Chancellorsville Battlefield Sites, shows two 20th-century views of the old house and its replacement:

My primary sources of information for today's post are the work of two historians with the National Park Service, Noel Harrison and Robert Krick. The parenthetical notations (NH) and (RK) indicate specifically where certain passages come from:

Harrison, Noel G., Chancellorsville Battlefield Sites. H. E. Howard, Inc., Lynchburg, VA:1990.

Krick, Robert K. Civilians in the Midst of Battle. Published in the Free Lance-Star on August 17, 2002.  His article can be read online here.