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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.


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