A quest to know more about my Virginia ancestor who spoke out against secession

Posted on April 3, 2011 by


As I mentioned yesterday, after posting a few items focused on anti-secession rhetoric in Virginia (during this time of the year, 150 years ago) this past week, I began thinking again about an ancestor of mine who also spoke out against secession at this same time.

John Shuler (1815-1908) was a well-to-do farmer in Grove Hill, in central Page County. In 1850, he was listed with $4,000 in real estate. In addition to his family living within the household, there was also a teacher – apparently hired for his children – and a 22 year-old female slave (he owned no slaves in 1840). By 1860, his real estate value had increased to $6,375 (while his personal property was valued at $2,625). He was still a farmer at the time, but, for whatever reason, he was no longer a slaveholder. I know scant else about the man, other than that which I was fortunate enough to stumble upon in a Luray newspaper, during some of my research in the mid-2000s.

Sometime in early 1861 (likely March or April), Shuler, along with two others, took an opportunity to speak in the little village of Newport in Page County. In recounting the story in later years, one of Shuler’s sons, Isaac Shuler, remembered that the crowd “yelled” for John Shuler to speak.

“He responded and in his discourse followed along the line of [John] Lionberger, trying to impress upon the minds of his bearers the horror and bloodshed that would follow secession.” During his speech, at least one man in the audience took exception to Shuler’s rhetoric and slipped away from the crowd, went behind the store and grabbed a chair which he planned to smash over Shuler’s head. The store owner, Reuben M. Walton*, “jumped to the counter and prevented the blow.” Despite the ruckus, the crowd yelled for Shuler to again “take up the speech and his remarks said something that was displeasing to some present.” In response, the hecklers yelled back that “if we cannot get our rights in Virginia we will go to South Carolina, if we have to wade in blood up to our knees.” Shuler, knowing these men and “having great respect for them said ‘you need not go to South Carolina when you can get all the fight in Virginia and probably near your home.’”

Regretfully, I know nothing more of Shuler’s Unionist speeches, or how, if at all, he may have proved to be more a conditional Unionist (perhaps) after Lincoln’s call for troops. I do know that, from time to time, he hosted locals who had donned the gray, at his home, but that doesn’t necessarily give us certain answers regarding a possible flip in sentiment (and I say this knowing that neighbor, George Summers, a very outspoken Unionist, did that very same thing). So, naturally, I felt compelled to spend a little time looking into the lives of the other two anti-secession speakers.

Contemporary view of the old Lionberger home (note that the chimneys were removed, sometime in the mid-1900s).

Apart from that which was mentioned above, about John Lionberger’s (1807-1874) speeches, not unlike the anti-secesh speaking of my third great-grandfather, I also know little more about what he said in those trying months leading up to Virginia’s secession… but I do feel that his presence in the trio seems a bit unusual.

In the 1860 census, Lionberger was listed as a “gentleman”, residing in Luray (and in the more wealthy portion of that town… where secession spirit seemed to be strongest) with over $24,500 in real estate. Out of the three men present speaking for Union that day at Newport, Lionberger was the only slaveholder. In fact, from 1850 to 1860, he had more than doubled (from 6 to 14) the number of his slaves.**

Unlike Shuler and Lionberger,  the third speaker, Dr. James Lee Gillespie (1818-1892), had apparently never owned a slave. Still, he was documented as a “strong Southern man” who thought that “secession was wrong and impractical and impolitic”.

Though not a native of Page County, Gillespie was a native Virginian, having been born in Albemarle County. Well-educated and traveled, he had earned degrees (including a M.A. degree) from Randolph Macon and Hampden-Sydney; served for a while as a lieutenant of engineers in the regular U.S. Army, mostly conducting surveys in Louisiana; and attended the medical school at the University of Virginia, later to graduate with honors from Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia. About 1851, Gillespie and his family came to Page County, settling near Columbia Mills (now, Alma… a name given to that place by Gillespie, having closely followed the Crimean War) around 1851. In 1861, incidentally, James’ son, William, was in his senior year at VMI.

So, apart from their distinctively different relationships to the institution of slavery, and their different professions, I don’t think I’m really able to learn much more of Shuler. Yet, what I find interesting is the different paths the three found themselves on in the next four years.

Capt. Michael Shuler (image taken of his headstone, erected by Isaac Shuler, in the 1930s)

Whether John Shuler’s opinions changed or not, his oldest son, Michael, was among the earliest enlistees in the county, having broken-off from his studies at Roanoke College. Starting off as a junior lieutenant, he would later rise to command the company (in the Stonewall Brigade) in which he enlisted, only to be killed at the Wilderness in May, 1864. Less than eight months later, a younger son – the same Isaac Shuler who related the story above for the local newspaper – attempted to catch up with the Army of Northern Virginia and enlist (perhaps more on a mission of revenge than for cause), but was unable to make it to the army prior to its surrender at Appomattox. Additionally, Shuler’s oldest daughter, Emma (one of my second great-grandmothers) was later the fiance of a Confederate cavalry sergeant, and therefore, involved in a very interesting post-war episode that led to the execution of that sergeant and his company commander… the company commander being a son of a very outspoken Unionist (the same George Summers that I mentioned above) from the very same community in which Shuler lived. So, knowing what I do about the story of George Summers, I’m well-aware of the fact that the paths taken by the children in the war are not necessarily reflective of that selected by the father/parents.***

Moving on, then…

Like Shuler, Lionberger’s son, John Henry Lionberger, was one of the earliest recruits in Page County, serving initially as a lieutenant under Turner Ashby’s 7th Virginia Cavalry, and later as a lieutenant in Co. C, 39th Battalion Virginia Cavalry (a unit noted in the muster rolls as “General Robert E. Lee’s bodyguards and couriers”). Other than that, I am aware of the elder Lionberger’s reaction to George Baylor’s presence (yes, the same Baylor who authored Bull Run to Bull Run) in Luray in the summer of 1862. As commander of the cavalry detachment, Baylor was, apparently to Lionberger, a disappointment. Baylor gathered that Lionberger saw him no more than a “stripling boy, just twenty years of age, weighing one hundred pounds, and not very attractive or warlike in appearance”. After meeting with Baylor, Lionberger returned to his home, where he was hosting one of Baylor’s junior officers, and remarked, “What can you expect to accomplish with that stripling for a leader?” Upon Baylor’s return the following day, from a successful strike into Front Royal, Lionberger’s tone had changed, and appeared most supportive. Baylor noted, “Mr. Lionberger very frankly congratulated me, and was ever after a warm friend and admirer…”. It’s difficult to tell if Lionberger had “flipped” to pro-Confederate in 1861, or perhaps, only after a rather dominating Federal occupation of Luray, earlier that same summer… but it appears he had changed in his views from those held in early 1861.

So, did Shuler, like Lionberger, also change in his views later? I still can’t say for certain. Additionally, it may be that Gillespie’s life in the years after their anti-secession speech days may add even more complications to the overall assessment.

In fact, Gillespie remained quite outspoken regarding Unionist views. He may have even been one of the few in Page County who actually voted against secession in the referendum, later, in May 1861 (understanding, of course, that more than a fair number of folks later mentioned the various efforts to coerce voters… sometimes with physical harm… to vote for secession, in this so-called “democratic process”).

Headstone of Dr. James Lee Gillespie, Oakwood Cemetery, Sistersville, Tyler County, West Virginia.

Gillespie was later arrested, under the charge of treason, and held in the jail at Luray. Interestingly, when the case was taken before the county court, the court could not find him guilty because they felt that they did not have jurisdiction in the matter (the county court had no ability to convict someone of treason against the Confederate States). Gillespie, therefore, was later transferred across the Blue Ridge (perhaps with the intent of taking him to Richmond), where he escaped. His son, in the meantime, who was attempting to secure a position on the staff of Gen. T.J. “Stonewall” Jackson, broke-off from this quest after having learned of his father’s plight. Both father and son ended up joining the Union army and served in West Virginia units. They later resided in a West Virginia county, near the Ohio line, and, despite an appeal by some (I have to wonder if John Shuler was among them) to return to Page to continue service as a doctor, Gillespie refused, not so easily forgetting the treatment he had received in 1861-62. (See more about Gillespie, here, here,… and my hunt for his grave site, here).

In the end, considering the range of details in that little trio from early 1861, I find that I’m left with even more questions about Shuler than I started with. It pretty much keeps in line with my belief that there are far more uncertainties than certainties when it comes to trying to understand people in that war. Yet, it appears to me, out of the three, there may be one more thing worth mentioning. The only one who had the least to lose for continuing down the anti-secession path, was Gillespie. His roots (and perhaps depth in commitment to property… and that “sense of place”) were not nearly as deep in Page County as that of the other two.

Shuler family wedding, November 13, 1900. John Shuler is in the front row, fourth from the right. Emma Jane Shuler Strole (my second great-grandmother), is in the second row, second from the right. Isaac Shuler is in the back row, under the porch, fourth from the left.

More news of anti-secession sentiment to follow in the coming week.

*Walton (1818-1894) was later enrolled in the 8th Battalion Virginia Reserves.

**The Lionberger family has a most interesting story about a visit (and house guest) from a farmer in search of land, in 1859. Apparently, this man, quietly shared information to Lionberger’s slaves about an upcoming uprising. It appears that a slave or two told Lionberger about the news, and Lionberger subsequently kicked the man out of the house. The family was later convinced that the visitor was none other than John Brown.

***For more, see my book, Tragedy in the Shenandoah Valley: The Story of the Summers-Koontz Execution.