Sunday, April 8, 2007

A Mystery at Shirley, Part I

I recently came across the following passage while reading Fighting Rebels and Redskins by George B. Sanford. Sanford was an officer in the 1st Cavalry during the Civil War, and a career Army officer. The incident that he refers to occurred during the Peninsula campaign in 1862, after McClellan had moved his army’s headquarters to Harrison’s Landing on the James River. The story appealed to me because of the courteous, gentlemanly way the situation was handled. The quotes are somewhat lengthy, but I think them necessary to fully appreciate the situation.

“At that period of the war and more especially in the Potomac Army while under McClellan’s command, it was not the policy of the government to interfere with the citizens of the Southern States when they were not actually aiding the enemy, and while their slaves were not actually forbidden to enter our lines, it was well understood in that army that they were not wanted. The result was that on most of those noble estates, life went on very much as it did before the attack on Fort Sumter, and the opportunity of observing it even superficially was one of which I eagerly availed myself.

“One of the finest of these beautiful places was “Shirley” belonging to the Carters, among the most distinguished of the old Virginia families. It was situated on the James river on the left bank and not far below City Point. It was between our lines and the enemy’s and exposed of course to the depredations of marauders from either army. Mr. Hill Carter the proprietor must have been at that time not far from sixty years of age, a thorough gentleman of the old school, loyal to his state, but quite willing to live at peace with our people provided they would allow him to occupy his property. Gen. McClellan was determined that the rights of property owners should be respected, as long as they remained quiet and obedient to the laws, directed that an officer should be sent up there to examine the condition of affairs and report as to their appearance. I was accordingly ordered up on this duty, and Lieut. Sumner of my regiment --- now Lt. Colonel Sumner of the 8th Cavalry (1893) offered to accompany me.”

After this Sanford continues with descriptions of the house and grounds before describing his encounters with the Carter family that evening.

“Mr. Carter received us with great courtesy and introduced us to the ladies of his family, who were polite but reserved, and I thought seemed singularly anxious. At first I attributed this only to embarrassment at meeting those whom they of course regarded as the enemies of their country, but later I found they had a much more serious cause of disturbance. We were shown over the grounds and a portion of the estate, which extended for miles along the river. Afterwards we were invited to dinner, which was elegantly served, and a most delightful change from the rough comforts of camp life, to which we were accustomed. I ascertained from Mr. Carter that he was occasionally visited by small parties of our soldiers and that as a rule they were civil enough in their manner, and quite willing to pay for any supplies they took. But of course it kept the family in a state of anxiety and he would be glad if Gen. McClellan would furnish him with a small guard for the purpose of protection. He was quite willing to promise that they should be exempt from any molestation by the enemy, and that he would himself live at peace with the Government; but he said nothing about taking the oath of allegiance and indeed did not attempt to conceal the fact that he considered his first duty as due to his State.

“After dinner he excused himself for a few moments, first inviting us to smoke our cigars in a beautiful glass enclosed porch overlooking a noble stretch of grass and woodland bordered by the beautiful waters of the James. Sumner and I were deeply impressed with the beauty of the scene and were commenting on it with enthusiastic admiration when a door opened, and a young man not much older than ourselves, but dressed in the full uniform of an officer of the Confederate army appeared. He looked very pale and weak and was evidently taken by surprise at seeing us. For a moment he seemed about to withdraw, but changing his mind, came forward and apologized for disturbing us, disclaiming any knowledge of our presence. He went on to say that we must pardon him for not attempting to entertain us, as we could see ourselves that he was weak and wounded, and he would leave us to ourselves. Then bowing to us both, he went back as he had come. Sumner and I were struck with astonishment. Here was a situation. Ought we to arrest this man --- evidently an officer of the enemy --- and take him back with us to camp? That would seem the first thing to do; but on the other hand, we were these people’s guests, had been kindly entertained by them, and were to a certain extent prevented by the claims of hospitality. The gentlemen was evidently a son of the family, who had been wounded in one of the recent battles and had returned to his home for the care and treatment which would be given to him there. I for one was entirely determined to let the matter alone, at all events until I could get advice from my Colonel, and Sumner agreed with me. In a few moments Mr. Carter returned, but made no allusion to what happened. Indeed I am satisfied that he had no knowledge of what had occurred. Of course we said nothing, and shortly afterward we bade him good-bye, and returned to our camp. I had no doubt, after thinking it over, that the young officer hearing his father leave the room after dinner, supposed we had accompanied him out into the grounds, and had accordingly gone into the smoking room where he found us, supposing he would be safe from observation. I felt bound to report the matter to my commanding officer, but was very glad that he did not think it necessary to carry the matter farther. Probably the young fellow returned to his command very soon. At all events I never heard anything more of him, though a safe guard was sent to Mr. Carter’s place as he had requested.”

Who was this young Confederate officer? The footnote on that page says that the editor of the book, Professor E.R. Hagemann of my alma mater, University of Louisville, was unable to identify the officer. Since Shirley plantation is nearby and open to the public, Gina and I will venture out there today to see if we can solve this mystery and perhaps report more on the plantation itself.

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