“It was the time of the burning”: A story from Loudoun County’s Burning Raid

On December 2, 1864, Brigadier-General Wesley Merritt led his 1st Cavalry Division, Army of the Shenandoah westward through Snicker’s Gap.  With that passage, the cavalry concluded a raid, started on November 27, through Loudoun Valley and western parts of Loudoun County.  This was, in a smaller for, the same treatment given portions of the Shenandoah Valley earlier in the fall.  Behind them, Loudoun County burned.  Filing a preliminary report on December 3, Merritt summarized the operation:

I respectfully report that the directions received from army headquarters, in reference to the driving off of stock, burning forage, &c., in Loudoun Valley, were literally complied with in the recent expedition of my division. From 5,000 to 6,000 head of cattle, including from 3,000 to 4,000 head of sheep and nearly 1,000 head of fatted hogs for the rebel Government, were driven off or destroyed. From 500 to 700 horses, including mares and colts, were also brought away. It was found next to impossible to come in contact with any guerrillas, as they avoided even the smallest portions of the command. By stratagem and hard racing between thirty and forty of these men were killed or captured. The above estimates are merely approximate, rather under than over the actual figures. I can furnish no positive report of the number of mills, barns, or quantity of forage destroyed; but the money value of damage done may be estimated by millions. A forage depot of the guerrillas was destroyed, where several hundred tons of hay were stored. The destruction in the valley, and in the mountains bounding it, was most complete.

Earlier I gave mind to working a series of posts detailing the Burning Raid through Loudoun County.  But frankly I’m “Marching through Georgia” right now and can handle only one such campaign at a time.  I will promise at a point beyond the sesquicentennial to offer a turn-by-turn accounting of the raid.

For today, let me reflect on the 150th anniversary of the end of that destructive raid by considering something from the paperwork trail that followed.  Often we see the “burnings”  – be they in Virginia, Tennessee, or Georgia – through the eyes of the white participants.  While not unique to Loudoun, there was a relatively large population of free blacks in the county.  And years after the war, some of them put forward their claims for compensation.

One such claim came from James Fields and Franklin Young.  While Fields submitted claim for property for which he was the sole owner, the two men jointly filed for the loss of a crop of corn which they had jointly worked.  This crop was sewn on land rented from James W. Nichols, near Snickersville.  The agreement was Nichols would receive 2/5ths of the crop while Fields and Young would split the rest. They’d harvested the corn that fall, but had not divided it up. On November 30, a group of Federals arrived.  In the words Young provided for his statements:

The landlord said there was 30 acres in the field – we had cut it and shocked it up and the army that did the big burning came along and the army put a great big drive of cattle in the field and they ate all up – the officer gave us a receipt for our share which the officer said would be 600 bushels – he did not give any paper for the landlord’s share because he was a rebel – and said we must not pay him any money….

The petition filed in March 1872 indicated the Federals seized 600 bushels, valued at $750.  (I’ve put many of the documents from the file up on Flickr if you care to browse through.  They even list the officer who issued the receipt for the corn, but I cannot make out the name.)  After review, the commissioners awarded $600 against the claim.

When reading through the claim, it was not the particulars of the seizure that caught my attention.  Rather it was the statements from the claimants.  As Fields could not write, his testimony was transcribed.  For questions about his background, he responded:

I am about 54 years of age. I am a black man borned free. I live in Loudoun C. and always lived here – I was at home all the time.  I never went away from home….

I never took no oath to the rebs – no time….

I never had anything to do with the rebels any time but once.  When the rebs put up forts at Leesburg, they took me and made me work on the breastworks. It was in 1861 or 1862. I do remember which – I stayed there 31 days – they paid me $6.00 in script for working….

I was not in the army – in any way – I stayed at home all the time after I got back from Leesburg – and done nothing for nobody but myself afterwards.  I minded my own business and let all the white folks attend to things….

I was a union man all the time – black folks could not be anything but for the union well-after what old Marsa Lincoln had done for the colored folks – I never done anything against the union government – no time – for shure for I was for Uncle Sam all the time…..

Young’s statement was similar:

I am 41 years old and live in Loudoun Co.  I was born free and always lived in Loudoun Co. – I worked at farming.

I never done nothing for the rebels except to drive a team. – The rebels took me and made me drive a team for two months and then I ran off and come home and they never got me no more. The time they took to drive a team they took me into the guard house and in about a couple of weeks they put me on the team.  That was in 1861. – I never done anything else for the rebels – I afterwards done some hauling for the Union Govt. but I was not in the army.  I was indeed for the union all the time, for I knew enough to know that was best for us black folks ….

We often hear accounts from the white civilians as the war passed through their lives.  Here we see a glimpse of that same experience from the perspective of a couple of free blacks.  Both men were impressed by the Confederates for labor.  Both were clearly resentful of that experience.  And both were solidly “Union men.”

While the commissioners approved the claim, they only allowed $600.  But that was not paid until much later.  In September 1876, the men sent this note requesting payment:

Page 31

It reads:

To the third auditor of the Treasury, Washington City, D.C.

Dear Sir – Having been informed by Mr. Charles F. Benjamin that Congress at its last session made appropriation to pay the claims allowed by the southern claims commission and as our claim has been allowed and as we are in very bad want of money, we write to beg that you will be kind enough to inform us when we can get our money, and if we can collect it by power of attorney.

Respectfully yours,

Fields & Young (Colored)

The note is somewhat tie between the war and post-war settings in which Fields and Young lived.

(Citations from the claim of Fields and Young; and OR, Series I, Volume 43, Part I, Serial 91, page 730.)

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

2 thoughts on ““It was the time of the burning”: A story from Loudoun County’s Burning Raid

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