The “fire witch”

Posted on October 9, 2010 by


Just 146 years ago yesterday, the episode known as “The Burning” drew to a close in the Shenandoah Valley. Gen. Phil Sheridan had cut a swathe from Augusta County, north into Rockingham, Page, and Shenandoah Counties before coming to a halt around Strasburg, Virginia. No doubt, the devastation to the “breadbasket of the Confederacy” was significant, though seemingly concentrated in some areas, while completely missing others.

Incidentally, today is the 146th anniversary of the defeat of Confederate cavalry at Tom’s Brook. As Sheridan wrapped-up affairs and prepared to retire toward Winchester, Confederate cavalry struck… and the day did not end well for the horsemen in gray. Among those horsemen were at least three of my great-great grandfathers, all in the “Massanutten Rangers” from Co. D, 7th Virginia Cavalry… not to mention a number of other kin in the same unit. Not as if Jubal Early thought much of cavalry to begin with, but this engagement didn’t reflect positively on his men on horse… he eventually adding a sneer about his cavalry’s nom de guerre, “the Laurel Brigade,” calling it “a running vine.” Personally, I don’t think much of Jubal Early… 🙂

I think the story of “The Burning” is known by most who study the war, though some do have a tendency to blend the stories of devastation with those from Georgia and South Carolina, making for one whale of a fish story… albeit dotted with some facts here and there; but we won’t get into that today.

What most probably do not know is how one Union trooper found frustration as he attempted to fire a barn in the Page Valley… and the cause of that frustration.

Martin D. Coffman (a Union man, by the way, who was conscripted and appears on the rolls of the 8th Battalion Virginia Reserves) was one of those, many believed, had been blessed by special powers, a “fire witch” as some said. D. Walter Strickler (1858-1942) remembered:

The subject of the ‘fire witch’ in this article is Martin Coffman who owned the farm where S[taige]H[ite] Modesitt [1864-1950] lived on Mill Creek. The farm, formerly belonged to one Jacob Strickler [1770-1842], a Mennonite preacher in the John Black time, Coffman married the said Strickler’s daughter. Mr. Coffman [49 years-old at the time of “The Burning”] was strongly impregnated in the Mennonite Doctrine and his word could not be questioned. He had become somewhat aged when he related the following to me unsolicited.When Sheridan reached the valley with instructions to burn all barns and mills that contained feed for stock and food for the people he did the job so completely that he wrote back to Washington and said that a crow would have to pack his knapsack to fly over the Shenandoah Valley.


Col. W.H. Powell


They found the Coffman barn full of hay. Mr. Coffman said he being rather a union man begged Sheridan [not likely, though an appeal to Col. William H. Powell might not be out of the question] not to burn his beautiful dovetailed log barn but to no avail. He said one of the Yankees climbed up in the hay mow and he climbed up with him. The Yankee struck a match and set the hay afire. The blaze shot up to the roof and went out. “I stood beside him and put my hand on his shoulder and kept it there. He repeated the act the third time and the fire went out each time. The Yankee cursed me and made me get down. I opened the barn door and ran my wagon out and went to the house not more than fifty yards away. He said he could never have burned my barn if I could have kept my hand on his shoulder. I had hardly gotten to the house when smoke was coming out of the roof.”

Another account tells of how Coffman was ordered out of the barn at the point of a revolver before the Union trooper could find success. As he was forced out, Coffman was said to reply, “I can’t stop you from doing this, but you are going to a bad end.” As he walked out, he turned again to the trooper and proclaimed, I could cause you to burst into flames.” Though he did not demonstrate the threat, the thought must have lingered on the mind of the trooper.

According to legend (perhaps as the story grew over the years), the Federal troopers involved were the same group of men who met a deadly fate on the Hershberger [the home of Henry Pendleton Hershberger] Farm, near Stoney Man… troopers from the 6th Ohio Cavalry. I’ll have to tell that story sometime.

Not only did Coffman have a talent for preventing the ignition of fire, he was also known for taking away the pain inflicted because of fire. J. Walter Huffman called it a gift for “talking out fire.” In fact, Huffman remembered “taking a child who had been badly burned on the arm for Mr. Coffman’s special method of alleviating pain.” Coffman “merely laid his hand on the child’s arm and said a few words in an unknown language and the pain instantly stopped.”

Oh, and Coffman was more than a fire witch. In fact, he was known in the community to have the power to “stop blood when parties came to him.” Strickler later remarked, “I personally knew Mr. Coffman for thirty or forty years and a better man I never know and knowing him as I did I could not question his word as I was a close neighbor and often worked for him and only knew him as a God-loving and fearing man and strictly of the old Mennonite type.”