Following the American Civil War Sesquicentennial with day by day writings of the time, currently 1863.

Diary of a Southern Refugee During the War by Judith White McGuire

September 1. — —— has this day entered on her duties as clerk in the “Surgeon-General’s Department,” which she obtained with very little trouble on her part. We had always objected to her applying for an office, because we were afraid of the effect of sedentary employment on her health; but now it seems necessary to us, as the prices of provisions and house-rent have become so very high. Providence has dealt most mercifully with us from the beginning of the war: at first it seemed to be the pleasure of our friends as well as ourselves that we should be with them; then, when it became evident that the war would continue, Mr. —— obtained an office, which gave us a limited, but independent, support. Then, when prices became high, and we could not live on the salary, the chaplaincy came, with a little better income. As provisions continued to increase in price, and our prospect seemed very poor for the winter, my office was obtained without the least effort on my part, though I had often sought one in the Treasury without success; and now, when difficulties seem to be increasing with the great scarcity of provisions, the way is again made comparatively easy. So it seems that the Lord intends us to work for our daily bread, and to be independent, but not to abound.


31st.—The last day of this exciting, troubled summer of 1864. How many young spirits have fled—how many bleeding, breaking hearts have been left upon earth, from the sanguinary work of this summer! Grant still remains near Petersburg; still by that means is he besieging Richmond. He has been baffled at all points, and yet his indomitable perseverance knows no bounds. Sherman still besieges Atlanta. God help us!

We are again troubled in mind and body about engaging rooms; we find we must give up these by the 1st of October, and have begun the usual refugee occupation of room-hunting.

Letters from our friends in the Valley, describing the horrors now going on there. A relative witnessed the burning of three very large residences on the 20th of August. General Custar was stationed with his brigade of Michigan Cavalry near Berryville. He had thrown out pickets on all the roads, some of which were fired on by Mosby’s men. This so exasperated the Federals, that an order was at once issued that whenever a picket-post was fired on the nearest house should be burned. On the morning of the 20th this dreadful order was put into execution, and three large houses were burnt to the ground, together with barns, wheat-stacks, and outhouses. The house of Mr. —— was near a picket-post, and about midnight on the 19th a messenger arrived with a note announcing the sudden death of Mrs.—— ‘s sister, on a plantation not many miles distant. A lamp was lighted to read the note, and, unfortunately, a little while afterwards the picket-post was fired on and one man wounded. The lighting of the lamp was regarded as a signal to Colonel Mosby. During the same night the pickets near two other large houses were fired on. This being reported at head-quarters, the order was at once issued to burn all three houses. Two companies of the Fifth Michigan Cavalry, commanded by Captain Drake, executed the fearful order. They drew up in front of Mr. ——’s house and asked for him. ” Are you Mr. ——?” demanded the Captain. “I have orders to burn your house.” In vain Mr. —— remonstrated. He begged for one hour, that he might see General Custar and explain the circumstances of the night before; he also pleaded the illness of his son-in-law, then in the house. No reply was vouchsafed to the old gentleman, but with a look of hardened ferocity, he turned to the soldiers, with the order: “Men, to your work, and do it thoroughly!” In an instant the torch was applied to that home of domestic elegance and comfort. One soldier seized the sick son-in-law, who is a surgeon in our service, threatening to carry him to head-quarters, and was with difficulty prevented by the kind interposition of Dr. Sinclair, the surgeon of the regiment. They allowed the family to save as much furniture as they could. but the servants were all gone, and there was no one near to help them. The soldiers at once went to Mr. —— ‘s secretary, containing $40,000 in bonds, destroyed it, and scattered the mutilated papers to the winds. Matches were applied to window and bed curtains; burning coals were sprinkled in the linen-closet, containing every variety of house and table linen. Mrs. ——, the daughter, opened a drawer, and taking her jewelry, embracing an elegant diamond ring and other valuables, was escaping with them to the yard, when she was seized by two ruffians on the stair-steps, held by the arms by one, while the other forcibly took the jewels; they then, as she is a very small woman, lifted her over the banister and let her drop into the passage below; fortunately it was not very far and she was not at all injured. Nothing daunted, she rushed up-stairs, to rescue a box containing her bridal presents of silver, which was concealed in the wall above a closet. She climbed up to the highest shelf of the closet, seized the box, and, with unnatural strength, threw .it through the window into the yard below. While still on the shelf, securing other things from their hiding-place, all unconscious of danger, a soldier set fire to some dresses hanging on the pegs below the shelf on which she stood. The first intimation she had of it was feeling the heat; she then leaped over the flames to the floor; her stockings were scorched, but she was not injured. She next saw a man with the sign of the Cross on his coat; she asked him if he was a chaplain? He replied that he was. She said, “Then in mercy come, and help me to save some of my mother’s things.” They went into her mother’s chamber, and she hurriedly opened the bureau drawer, and began taking out the clothes, the chaplain assisting, but what was her horror to see him putting whatever he fancied into his pocket—among other things a paper of pins. She says she could not help saying, as she turned to him, A minister of Christ stealing pins!!” In a moment the chaplain was gone, but the pins were returned to the bureau. Mrs. —— is the only daughter of Mr. —— , and was the only lady on the spot. Her first care, when she found the house burning, was to secure her baby, which was sleeping in its cradle up-stairs. A guard was at the foot of the steps, and refused to let her pass; she told him that she was going to rescue her child from the flames. “Let the little d——d rebel burn!” was the brutal reply. But his bayonet could not stop her; she ran by, and soon returned, bearing her child to a place of safety. When the house had be come a heap of ruins, the mother returned from the bedside of her dead sister, whither she had gone at daylight that morning, on horseback, (for her harness had been destroyed by the enemy, making her carriage useless.) She was, of course, overwhelmed with grief and with horror at the scene before her. As soon as she dismounted, a soldier leaped on the horse, and rode off with it. Their work of destruction in one place being now over, they left it for another scene of vengeance.

The same ceremony of Captain Drake’s announcing his orders to the mistress of the mansion (the master was a prisoner) being over, the torch was applied. The men had dismounted; the work of pillage was going on merrily; the house was burning in every part, to insure total destruction. The hurried tramp of horses’ feet could not be heard amidst the crackling of flames and falling of rafters, but the sudden shout and cry of “No quarter! no quarter!” from many voices, resounded in the ears of the unsuspecting marauders as a death-knell. A company of Mosby’s men rushed up the hill and charged them furiously; they were aroused by the sound of danger, and fled hither and thither. Terrified and helpless, they were utterly unprepared for resistance. The cry of “No quarter! no quarter!” still continued. They hid behind the burning ruins; they crouched in the corners of fences; they begged for life; but their day of grace was past. The defenceless women, children, and old men of the neighbourhood had borne their tortures too long; something must be done, and all that this one company of braves could do, was done. Thirty were killed on the spot, and others, wounded and bleeding, sought refuge, and asked pity of those whom they were endeavouring to ruin. ——writes: “Two came to us, the most pitiable objects you ever beheld, and we did what we could for them; for, after all, the men are not to blame half so much as the officers. Whether these things have been ordered by Sheridan or Custar, we do not know. These two wounded men, and all who took refuge among Secessionists, were removed that night, contrary to our wishes, for we knew that their tortures in the ambulances would be unbearable; but they were unwilling to trust them, and unable to believe that persons who were suffering so severely from them could return good for evil.

“One man gruffly remarked: ‘If we leave any of them with you all, Mosby will come and kill them over again.’ We have since heard that those two men died that night. The pickets were then drawn in nearer to head quarters. All was quiet for the rest of the day, and as Colonel Mosby had but one company in that section of the country, it had of course retired. That night, two regiments (for they could not trust themselves in smaller numbers) were seen passing along the road; their course was marked by the torches which they carried. They rode to the third devoted house, and burned it to the ground. No one knows whose house will be the next object of revenge. Some fancied wrong may make us all homeless. We keep clothes, house-linen, and every thing compressible, tied up in bundles, so that they can be easily removed.”

Such are some of the horrors that are being enacted in Virginia at this time. These instances, among many, many others, I note in my diary, that my children’s children may know what we suffer during this unnatural war. Sheridan does not mean that Hunter or Butler shall bear the palm of cruelty—-honours will at least be divided. I fear, from appearances, that he will exceed them, before his reign of terror is over. —— says she feels as if she were nightly encircled by fire—camp-fires, picket-fires, with here and there stacks of wheat burning, and a large fire now and then in the distance, denote the destruction of something— it may be a dwelling, or it may be a barn.


22d.—Just been on a shopping expedition for my sister and niece, and spent $1,500 in about an hour. I gave $110 for ladies’ morocco boots; $22 per yard for linen; $5 apiece for spools of cotton; $5 for a paper of pins, etc. It would be utterly absurd, except that it is melancholy, to see our currency depreciating so rapidly.

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20th.—A friend from the Valley has described a successful attack made by Mosby on a Federal wagon-train near Berryville. It was on its way to the army near Strasburg, and Mosby was on the other side of the Shenandoah. He crossed in the night with one cannon and about seventy-five men, and at daylight surprised the drivers and guard as they were beginning to hitch their mules, by a salute from the cannon and seventy-five pistols. There was a general stampede in an instant of all who were unhurt. As quick as thought, 600 mules were turned towards the river, and driven to the command in Loudoun. In the mean time, the wagons were set on fire, and most of them and their contents were consumed before the luckless drivers could return to their charge.

It is said that our new steamer, the “Tallahassee,” has been within sixty miles of the city of New York, very much to the terror of the citizens. It also destroyed six large vessels. I bid it God-speed with all my heart; I want the North to feel the war to its core, and then it will end, and not before.


18th.—For several days our whole time has been occupied nursing the dear little grandchild, whose life was despaired of for two days. We are most thankful for his recovery

The army is now on the north side of James River, and this evening, at this moment, we hear heavy cannonading, and musketry is distinctly heard from the hills around the city. Oh, Heavenly Father! guide our generals and troops, and cause this sanguinary conflict to end by a desirable, an honourable peace!


August 15.—An account from my relatives, of the raid of the 19th of June into the village of Tappahannock, has lately reached me. The village had been frequently visited and pillaged before, and both sides of the beautiful Rappahannock, above and below, had been sadly devastated; but the last visit seems to carry with it more of the spirit of revenge than any before. My aunt writes:

“About daybreak on that peaceful Sabbath morn six gunboats were seen returning down the river. A rumour that Hampton was after them, had driven them from their work of devastation in the country above us to their boats for safety. By six o’clock six hundred negroes and four hundred cavalry and marines were let loose upon the defenceless town. The first visit I received was from six cavalrymen; the pantry-door was unceremoniously broken open, and a search made for wine and plate; but all such things had been removed to a place of safety, and when I called loudly for an officer to be sent for, the ruffians quietly went to their horses and departed. Next came a surgeon from Point Lookout, to search the house, and deliver the key to Dr. R’s store, which he had sent for as soon as he landed— making a great virtue of his not breaking open the door, and of his honesty in only taking a few pills. This dignitary walked through the rooms, talking and murdering the ‘king’s English’ most ludicrously. However, he behaved quite well through the day, and was, under Heaven, the means of protecting us from aggressions by his frequent visits. In a short time every unoccupied house in the village was forcibly entered, and every thing taken from them or destroyed. Dr. R’s house was completely sacked. L. had made all necessary preparations for returning home, but all was swept by the Vandals. Dr. R’s surgical instruments, books, medicines, his own and his sister’s clothes, as well as those of their dead parents, were taken, the officers sharing the plunder with the soldiers. The furniture, such as was not broken up, was carried off in dray-loads to the boats, and these two young people were as destitute of domestic comforts as though a consuming fire had passed over their pleasant residence. My lot was filled with the creatures going in and out at pleasure, unless the cry, ‘The Johnnies are coming,’ sent them running like scared beasts to their rendezvous, and gave us a few moments of quiet. The poor negroes belonging to the town seemed to lose all power over themselves, and to be bereft of reason. Some seemed completely brutalized by the suggestions that were constantly whispered in their ears; others so frightened by the threats made, that reason deserted them; others so stupefied that they lost all power to direct themselves, and gave up to the control of others. It is impossible to describe the madness that possessed them. For myself, I had but one care left—to keep them from polluting my house any farther by keeping them out; and this I was enabled to do after shutting and locking the door in the face of one of them. The most painful event of the day was when a little coloured girl, a great pet with us, was dragged from the house. The aunt of the child was determined to take her with her, but she resisted all her aunt’s efforts, and came to the house for protection. An officer came for her, and after talking with her, and telling her that he would not ‘ trouble her, but she was not old enough to know what was good for her,’ he went off. About night a white man and the most fiendish-looking negro I ever saw came for her in the name of the aunt, and vowed they would have her at all risks.

“The officers had all gone to the boats, and it was in vain to resist them, and with feelings of anguish we saw the poor child dragged from us. I cannot think of this event without pain. But night now set in, and our apprehensions increased as the light disappeared; we knew not what was before us, or what we should be called on to encounter during the hours of darkness. We only knew that we were surrounded by lawless banditti, from whom we had no reason to expect mercy, much less kindness; but above all, there was an eye that never slumbered, and an arm mighty to defend those who trusted to it, so we made the house as secure as we could, and kept ready a parcel of sharp case-knives (don’t laugh at our weapons) for our defence, if needed, and went up-stairs, determined to keep close vigils all night. Our two faithful servants, Jacob and Anthony, kept watch in the kitchen. Among the many faithless, those two stood as examples of the comfort that good servants can give in time of distress. About nine o’clock we heard the sound of horses’ feet, and Jacob’s voice under the window. Upon demanding to know what was the matter, I was answered by the voice of a gun-boat captain, in broken German, that they were going to fire over my house at the ‘Rebs’ on the hill, and that we had better leave the house, and seek protection in the streets. I quietly told our counsellor that I preferred remaining in my own house, and should go to the basement, where we should be safe. So we hastily snatched up blankets and comforts, and repaired to the basement, where pallets were spread, and G’s little baby laid down to sleep, sweetly unconscious of our fears and troubles. We sent to apprise the Misses G. of the danger, and urge them to come to us. They came, accompanied by an ensign, who had warded off danger, from them several times during the day. He was a grave, middle-aged man, and was very kind. At the request of the ladies, he came into the room with us and remained until twelve o’clock. He was then obliged to return to the gun-boat, but gave us an efficient guard until daybreak. He pronounced Captain Schultz’s communication false, as they had no idea of firing. We knew at once that the object had been to rob the house, as all unoccupied houses were robbed with impunity. This gentleman’s name was Nelson. I can never forget his kindness. During the night our relative, Mrs. B—m, came to us in great agitation; she had attempted to stay at home, though entirely alone, to protect her property. She had been driven from her house at midnight, and chased across several lots to the adjoining one, where she had fallen from exhaustion. Jacob, hearing cries for help, went to her, and brought her to us. Our party now consisted of twelve females of all ages. As soon as the guard left us at daybreak, they came in streams to the hen-yard, and woe to the luckless chicken who thought itself safe from robbers! At one o’clock on Monday the fleet of now eight steamers took its departure. Two of the steamers were filled with the deluded negroes who were leaving their homes. We felt that the incubus which had pressed so heavily upon us for thirty hours had been removed, and we once more breathed freely, but the village was left desolate and destitute.”


14th.—Norfolk, poor Norfolk! nothing can exceed its long-suffering, its night of gloom and darkness. Unlike Winchester, it has no bright spots—no oasis in its blank desert of wretchedness. Like Alexandria, it has no relief, but must submit, and drag on its chain of servility, till the final cry of victory bursts its bonds, and makes it free. I have no time to write of all I hear and know of the indignities offered to our countrymen and countrywomen in Alexandria, Norfolk, Portsmouth, and other places which remain incarcerated in the sloughs of Federal tyranny. God help them, and give us strength speedily to break the chain that binds them.


12th.—I am sorry to record a defeat near Moorfield, in Hardy County. These disasters are very distressing to us all, except to the croakers, who find in them so much food for their gloom, that I am afraid they are rather pleased than otherwise. They always, on such occasions, elongate their mournful countenances, prophesy evil, and chew the cud of discontent with a better show of reason than they can generally produce. The signal failure of Grant’s mine to blow up our army, and its recoil upon his own devoted troops, amply repay us for our failure in Hardy. God’s hand was in it, and to Him be the praise.

One of my friends in the office is a victim of Millroy’s reign in Winchester. She wrote to a friend of hers at the North, expressing her feelings rather imprudently. The letter was intercepted, and she was immediately arrested, and brought in an ambulance through the enemy’s lines to our picket-post, where she was deposited by the roadside. She says that she was terribly distressed at leaving her mother and sisters, but when she got into Confederate lines the air seemed wonderfully fresh, pure and free, and she soon found friends. She came to Richmond and entered our office. About the same time a mother and daughters who lived perhaps in the handsomest house in the town, were arrested, for some alleged imprudence of one of the daughters. An ambulance was driven to the door, and the mother was taken from her sick-bed and put into it, together with the daughters. Time was not allowed them to prepare a lunch for the journey. Before Mrs. —— was taken from her house Mrs. Millroy had entered it, the General having taken it for his head-quarters; and before the ambulance had been driven off, one of their own officers was heard to say to Mrs. M., seeing her so entirely at home in the house, “For goodness’ sake, madam, wait until the poor woman gets off.” Is it wonderful, then, that the Winchester ladies welcome our troops with gladness? that they rush out and join the band, singing “The bonnie blue flag” and ” Dixie,” as the troops enter the streets, until their enthusiasm and melody melt all hearts? Was it strange that even the great and glorious, though grave and thoughtful, Stonewall Jackson should, when pursuing Banks through its streets, have been excited until he waved his cap with tears of enthusiasm, as they broke forth in harmonious songs of welcome? Or that the ladies, not being satisfied by saluting them with their voices, waving their handkerchiefs, and shouting for joy, should follow them with more substantial offerings, filling their haversacks with all that their depleted pantries could afford? Or is it wonderful that our soldiers should love Winchester so dearly and fight for it so valiantly? No, it is beautiful to contemplate the long-suffering, the firmness under oppression, the patience, the generosity, the patriotism of Winchester. Other towns, I dare say, have borne their tyranny as well, and when their history is known they will call forth onr admiration as much; but we know of no such instance. The “Valley” throughout shows the same devotion to our cause, and the sufferings of the country people are even greater than those in town.

Some amusing incidents sometimes occur, showing the eagerness of the ladies to serve our troops after a long separation. A lady living near Berryville, but a little remote from the main road, says, that when our troops are passing through .the country, she sometimes feels sick with anxiety to do something for them. She, one morning, stood in her porch, and could see them turn in crowds to neighbouring houses which happened to be on the road, but no one turned out of the way far enough to come to her house. At last one man came along, and finding that he was passing her gate, she ran out with the greatest alacrity to invite him to come in to get his breakfast. He turned to her with an amused expression and replied: “I am much obliged to you, madam; I wish I could breakfast with you, but as I have already eaten four breakfasts to please the ladies, I must beg you to excuse me.”


August 11.—Sheridan’s and Early’s troops are fighting in the Valley. We suffered a disaster near Martinsburg, and our troops fell back to Strasburg; had a fight on the old battle-ground at Kernstown, and we drove the enemy through Winchester to Martinsburg, which our troops took possession of. Poor Winchester, how checkered its history throughout the war! Abounding with patriotism as it is, what a blessing it must be to have a breath of free air, even though it be for a short time! Their welcome of our soldiers is always so joyous, so bounding, so generous! How they must enjoy the blessed privilege of speaking their own sentiments without having their servants listening and acting as spies in their houses, and of being able to hear from or write to their friends! Oh! I would that there was a prospect of their being disenthralled forever.


July 27.—General Early has returned from Maryland, bringing horses, cattle, etc. While near Washington, the army burned Mr. Montgomery Blair’s house, which I cannot persuade myself to regret, and spared the residence of his father, by order, it is said, of General Breckinridge. I know that General B. was right, but I think it required great forbearance, particularly in the soldiers, who have felt in their own persons and families the horrors of this cruel war of invasion. It seems to our human view that unless the war is severely felt by those in high authority, it will never cease. Hunter has just passed through the upper part of the Valley of Virginia, his pathway marked by fire and sword; and Sheridan has followed Early into Virginia, with no very gentle intent, I fear. I am glad that Maryland was spared as a general thing, particularly as our friends might have suffered with our foes, for it would have been difficult to discriminate; but I cannot avoid thinking that if other places, besides Governor Bradford’s house and the town of Chambersburg, had been burnt, it would shorten the war. Yet God has said, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay;” and I hope that Christian principles will ever be observed by our commanders. There seems to be no touch of pity in the hearts of many of the Federal generals. Women and children are made homeless at midnight, and not allowed to save any thing, even their clothes. When houses are not burned, they are robbed of every thing which a rapacious soldiery may desire. The last barrel of flour, the last ham, is taken from store-rooms; and this is done, not in Virginia only; nor are Hunter, Sheridan, Kilpatrick, or Stoneman the only men who do it; but every State in the Confederacy has felt the heel of the despot. North and South Carolina have suffered on their eastern borders most severely; the same of Georgia and Florida. Alabama has had much to bear. The Mississippi country in Louisiana, Arkansas, and the State of Mississippi, has been ravaged and desolated; Tennessee has perhaps had more to bear than any of them. But poor old Virginia has been furrowed and scarred until her original likeness is gone. From the Potomac to the Roanoke, from the seaboard to the Kentucky boundary, including the downtrodden Eastern Shore, she could scarcely be recognized by her sons. Marked by a hundred battle-fields, and checkered by fortifications, almost every spot is classic ground. From the beginning she has acted her part nobly, and has already covered herself with glory; but when the war is over, where shall we find her old churches, where her noble homesteads, scenes of domestic comfort and generous hospitality? Either laid low by the firebrand, or desecrated and desolated. In the march of the army, or in the rapid evolutions of raiding parties, woe betide the houses which are found deserted! In many cases the men of the family having gone to the war, the women and children dare not stay; then the lawless are allowed to plunder. They seem to take the greatest delight in breaking up the most elegant or the most humble furniture, as the case may be; cut the portraits from the frames, split pianos in pieces, ruin libraries, in any way that suits their fancy; break doors from their hinges, and locks from the doors; cut the windows from the frames, and leave no pane of glass unbroken; carry off house-linen and carpets; the contents of the store-rooms and pantries, sugar, flour, vinegar, molasses, pickles, preserves, which cannot be eaten or carried off, are poured together in one general mass; the horses are of course taken from the stables; cattle and stock of all kinds driven off or shot in the woods and fields. Generally, indeed I believe always when the whole army is moving, inhabited houses are protected. To raiders such as Hunter and Co. is reserved the credit of committing such outrages in the presence of ladies—of taking their watches from their belts, their rings from their fingers, and their ear-rings from their ears; of searching their bureaux and wardrobes, and filling pockets and haversacks in their presence. Is it not then wonderful that soldiers whose families have suffered such things could be restrained when in a hostile country? It seems to me to show a marvellous degree of forbearance in the officers themselves, and of discipline in the troops.