A Father’s Day story with a Sesqui tie-in

Posted on June 15, 2014 by

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It’s ironic, but today is the 150th anniversary of an event that is unique… it’s about fathers… and it happens to fall on Father’s Day. That said, I wish I could say it will leave you with a warm feeling, but…

June 15, 1864 was a Wednesday. Of that day, David Hunter Strother remembered

Early this morning the General (David Hunter) entered my room and said, “We have captured that old vagabond, Colonel Angus McDonald. He had the impudence to ask to see me, but I declined to see him.” He then said he would turn the prisoner over to me that I might work my pleasure with him. I replied to the General, declining the charge, saying that I was not a fit judge in McDonald’s case, that while he behaved in an insolent and inhuman manner to my father, I did not care to use my position in the United States service to avenge a private quarrel or injury.

Just what, exactly, did Strother mean?

The Strother-McDonald story has deep roots. I’ll provide a quick summary…

In the War of 1812, David Hunter Strother’s father, John, was a comrade to Major Angus McDonald. When Angus died in Buffalo, New York, in 1814, John made it a point to personally return the major’s sash and sword to the family. It was a gesture that was very much appreciated by the McDonald family… and most certainly his son… also named Angus… and the very Angus McDonald to which David Hunter Strother mentioned above. So, what happened between 1814 and 1864?

Angus W. McDonald

Angus W. McDonald

In August 1861, an element of the 7th Virginia Cavalry… Col. Angus W. McDonald’s command… entered Morgan County, Virginia (now West Virginia) and arrested John Strother on a charge of treason. McDonald was not with the party that captured Strother, and was surprised to hear about his arrival when the party reached Winchester. Despite what transpired later, this was not an easy event for McDonald.

According to Angus’ wife, Cornelia McDonald, she happened to encounter the party as she was coming from church, one Sunday… and she observed an old man in a carriage guarded by six cavalrymen at her gate. Upon entering her home, she found her husband, crouched over a table in the hallway, greatly distressed with his head in his hands. Angus told her who the old fellow was, and his connection with the family.

Accordingly, Angus sent a request to Richmond to release John Strother, but stuck to his professionalism, holding a local tribunal as opposed to sending him to the Confederate capital. In the meantime, Strother was held in a militia tent before a surgeon finally recommended that this was not in the best interest of Strother’s health. He was then removed to a private home where his daughter could attend him. Soon thereafter, he was tried, acquitted, and released… an ordeal which McDonald recalled was “the most painful duty I have been called upon to perform since the war commenced.”

Despite McDonald’s anguish, David Hunter Strother could only imagine the worst regarding his father’s care…

I was haunted by visions of his feeble form and venerable face, bowed with unwonted privations and shameful indignities… I deeply felt my own helplessness.

Despite all of David’s fears, when his father was released he actually enjoyed good health after returning home. Even so, by January, John Strother contracted pneumonia, which eventually led to his death on January 16, 1862. David, it would seem, suspected his father’s pneumonia to his system being weakened due to the period of captivity. Upon David’s visit to his home a month later, the feelings overwhelmed him.

John Strother's stone, in Martinsburg, West Virginia.

John Strother’s stone, in Norbourne Cemetery, Martinsburg, West Virginia.

Upon the capture of Angus McDonald, these feelings, no doubt, resurfaced with a fury…

I then went downstairs and saw McDonald sitting on the porch. He was thin and grey but looked healthy and was dressed in a gray military suit and cap. I stood in the door and looked at him. He recognized me immediately and saluted me civilly with a “Good morning, Sir.” I made no reply but eyed him sternly. he seemed as if about to accost me again when I said, “Do you know me, Sir?” He replied, “Yes, I know you and you know me very well. And yet, Sir, you do not know me. No, you do not know me.” This was said apologetically as if to open an opportunity to explain his treatment of my father. I could not listen to more, but said quietly but emphatically, “I think I do know you, Sir,” and then turned on my heel and went away.

My blood boiled but I could not insult a prisoner, especially one with grey hair. Yet I remembered my father and bitter tears rolled down my cheeks. After three years the hour had at length come and this tyrannical old brute who had treated my aged father with such wanton indignity was himself a prisoner in my hands and I clothed with authority for life or death. That single look was vengeance enough for me. I could see remorse in his countenance when he recognized me and his aged appearance filled me with pity. If I had followed my impulses at the moment I should have liberated him. But the tongues of so many grievous wrongs cried out against him. Old and young of both parties accused him of so many acts of petty and vindictive tyranny that while my own wrong was forgotten, I considered that I had not right to interfere with the course of public justice, so I determined to leave him to his fate.

There’s a great deal more to the story, but in the end, after being held first in solitary confinement in Cumberland, and later in the military prison at Wheeling, Angus McDonald was released (November 1864)… and in very poor health. Joining his family in Richmond, his health continued to deteriorate until he died on December 1, 1864. His wife, Cornelia, was unable to make it to Richmond before he died.

Major Edward Allen Hitchcock McDonald

Major Edward Allen Hitchcock McDonald

Though Angus’ son, Edward (in a letter to David Hunter Strother, in early July, 1864) charged David “with having been the cause of his father’s detention in the guardhouse and threatening me with the vengeance of nine sons if any evil resulted to his father from it”, it’s clear that Edward’s anger… not to mention, poor understanding of David Hunter Strother’s part in the affairs… mirrored that of Strother’s own anger and misunderstanding over the circumstances that led to John Strother’s death. Even so, before he died, Angus urged his sons not to avenge his suffering. The McDonald sons honored their father’s request.

Indeed, when David Hunter Strother received word of Angus McDonald’s death, he noted in his journal, “Requiescat. That account is closed.”

For additional details about the Strother-McDonald story, I highly encourage folks to read Jonathan M. Berkey’s “Fighting the Devil with Fire David Hunter Strother’s Private Civil War”, in Enemies of the Country New Perspectives on Unionists in the Civil War South (2001).

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